D&D 5E Wandering Monsters 10/30/2013: Trick or Treat?


Of course it's okay for a DM to prefer to do this.

This (part of the) discussion sprang from Derren saying that it was not okay to do the reverse (which is obviously his preference), by arguing that random dungeon features and the like are wrong and shouldn't be done because they appear out of thin air. We're just arguing that it's okay to use random encounter tables if that is your preference.

Ah. Indeed, that would of course be okay. But then, hopefully you don't need me to say that! :)

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I finally get around to my rambling response.

[sblock]What is it that makes stories so desirable? Maybe it's that those symbol sets strung together in words and sentences are assumed to have actual reference or meaning for ourselves as well as an inner continuity. Great stories are often considered so because they have a pay off. This could be the pure pleasure of reading, intellectual stimulation, emotional mirroring, thrills, suspense, fresh ideas, challenging the reader to a new understanding, poignant reflection, or even schadenfreude. There is no list covering everything they can deliver as there is little as all-encompassing as narrative. Perhaps the best answer is stories are journeys taken by readers, yet laid out by authors.

However D&D is a game, not a story. And in that it requires the personal actions and abilities of its players to be of paramount importance, not the desires of its creators. Game designers set a bar just so high and offer their design to players. These players don't need to succeed in jumping over this bar to be following the rules and playing the game, but those who aren't taking the proverbial vertical leap are not considered to be even be trying.

Tricks in D&D is an old way of referencing player challenges in modules which are not natural environments or creatures, yet are created by creatures using their environment. An orc lying to you isn't a trick and neither is a rockfall blocking your path back through a chasm. If the rockfall was set off by orcs after you passed into the chasm, than you are engaged in strategic combat. However, if the rockfall was rigged to go off by your passing, then you are dealing with a trick. Moreover, if the rockfall was rigged to fall on you, than you are the victim of a trap.

Tricks are designs which defy expectation, but in a game they can in part be discerned prior to their results and learned. It's why the dungeon is called a maze, it tests player memory and ingenuity. When the stone wall block shifts altering the layout of the corridors players who mapped or remember can use their knowledge to quickly navigate back the way they came, if there are still open tunnels.

But how do the players learn through play to not be tricked? Well they can create tricks of their own and learn from those. And they can learn from the tricks NPCs know and use, even if long dead tomb designers. The real requirement is the inner continuity or meaning in games so desirable in stories. As game designers we create patterns, a static or repeating measure for players to challenge themselves to master. D&D uses game design principles from mathematics to do so. Rocks, falling, chasm, hit point damage, weight, and so on are not smurf terms, but actual references to a game's designs within its field of play.

When it comes to how the environment operates we are talking about D&D's magic system. When it comes to creature cultures altering that environment we're in the realm of religion. When used to attack other creatures, then we're talking about combat. As strategy games go they don't get bigger than D&D. A castle can have tricks in its rooms, have tricks in its layout, and be a trick in itself. They for any game is not to drop continuity. If you play a game, quit it, and then start another one without any consequences of the previous affecting the latter, then you are playing two separate games. The same goes in D&D. Act - Scene design is very popular for follow the path adventure design. But tricks don't work in that design. Act & Scene construction treat each situation as separate and only later add a sequence or multi-path structure to them.

D&D is a game of tricks and traps, where the very creatures are traps or "monsters", the strategies they use in combat, how they build their cities and dungeons, how they communicate with you, and what they know. The world itself is a maze, a cipher of magical arcane laws and design. The rules support the design of these game structures like they support scenario designs for the game Advanced Squad Leader. XP rewards set learned game objectives and therefore game values on game pieces, abilties, and even board layouts. There are tricks common to D&D like secret doors and secret rooms. The difficulty in finding these isn't in the die rolls, which represents time spent looking, but in their actual location on the DMs map. Their worth is dependent on their design, things like shape, size, volume, location, with possible contents and inhabitants added later.

If Wizards instead uses scene-based encounter design with the typing presented, it presumes a pre-determined behavior by players with their PCs. Every Creature is a potential "Combat Encounter", "Interaction Encounter", and "Exploration Encounter". And that's every single time they meet anyone. It situation depends upon what the players do, not how the adventure script is written. That's one of the more dificult aspects to design for, that the players in large part bring the mood to the situaton as well as any typing, which is done after the fact. I understand there is a desire for a uniform format to define the brand and heed customer expectations. Yet keeping this open allows for the ingenuity of 40 years of DMing to be displayed, at least in 3rd party products.

Lastly, random encounters shouldn't be meaningless. These are Wandering Encounters of creatures with purposes and a past in the game world. These table simply represent the activities of mass populations when out of their lairs. The bandits ambushing easy prey on a road are limited in number. They don't respawn. They live somewhere. They have their own lair/hideout. They go into towns and recruit new bandits. They respond to those who deplete their forces and, yes, that might just be running away to somewhere else on the map. These guys have their own goals and objectives and as NPC, just like PCs, will encounter and gain relationships per alignment rules with other creatures. These who might convince the bandits to use their strength for more overarching ends.

It's true simple-minded creatures like animals tend to be less meaningfully connected or perhaps complex in their interconnections, but even they have all the connections outlined above if only just with other, let's say kangaroos. Add in Druids, poachers, and kangeroo herders and even these animals have something more than meets the eye to them. Remember, only creatures or creature groups at least a level 1 party challenge can be in a Territory's wandering monster encounter table.[/sblock]


Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)

Though I would also take issue with one thing Mistwell said:

Surely, the players' perspective isn't the only one that counts? And if the DM feels more comfortable with everything pre-plotted on his fixed map, then that's a valid preference?

We were not talking about DM preference and comfort (that's a different topic). We're talking about what he perceives to be landmarks in the setting. They're landmarks whether they are pre-plotted or spontaneous. I was just saying it's OK to have spontaneous landmarks in your setting if you so choose to do so. They don't become non-landmarks because you thought them up on the spot rather than put them together well in advance of a session. Your players don't even know.


I do not know how you ran your campaigns but in mine I had a map and knew what is where and didn't just place things on them in order to challenge the PCs. Doing some completely invalidates the "Exploration pillar" as there is nothing to explore, just to encounter.

If the contract between players and DM is that everything is created ahead of time and the PCs are interacting with a pre-populated world (not one that the DM changes/fudges in response to player actions) than I think this is a fine approach.

Personally, I prefer to respond to player preferences in real time, but some players may find the hard line "the world is what it is" to be more appealing and challenging.

As long as everyone's aware of the various different ways to play and focused on finding the right approach within each group, I don't mind that others are doing things differently!


Just as there are people who like to play with random encounter tables and ones who don't, I can see there are people who might like a random table for landmarks and such things.
On the Classic Traveller encounter encounter tables these are called events.


Thanks for posting in the thread. I thought of your dungeon when I read the column, as it is the most recent example of that sort of thing that I have looked at!

I also found your comments on mapping interesting. How do you resolve the possibility of chalk marks being erased by wandering monsters?

I wouldn't have monsters erase the chalk out of nowhere. But if the players thought that they would and laced it with contact poison or something I would give them some XP for dead monsters.

I am an adherent to the principle of being 51% in favour of the players--player creativity in itself should be rewarded, at least a little bit, separate from the consideration of whether the idea is a good one or not. Taking the initiative should make you lucky, at least in a novel situation. If using chalk becomes routine then you could problematize it. But not the first time.
I think this is worth teasing out because it's something Wyatt seems to have an issue wrapping his head around, too. The idea seems to be that this "dead end" is a point where the gameplay just stops and everyone stares at each other and they kind of shrug and say, "Well, I guess you get the widget, because otherwise we don't have an adventure for tonight, that was a silly thing to roll for."

This seems to be the essence of the "trying to find the dungeon entrance" criticism, too.

I thought the essence of his criticism there was that it's not fun to wait while the DM rolls to see if the dungeon entrance is found, because the players aren't doing anything, which is a valid criticism. But that's why the players should be searching for the dungeon entrance rather than just rolling some perception checks. Perception checks are lame, almost all of the time.
An in a more general view, imo exploration implies that something is already there and you have to discover it features. Having things appear just to challenge the PCs is the antithesis of exploration.

I think this is what most people think of when they hear the word exploration, which is why Wyatt and Mearls need to get together and rework their vocabulary for 5e adventure design.

A D&D adventure should have a goodly helping of three things:
evocative atmosphere (awesome-sauce)
NPC interaction (I want to say intrigue)
tricks & traps (player skill focused)

I am unsure about the usefulness of the idea that each encounter should only do one of these things.

I'm A Banana

Libramarian said:
thought the essence of his criticism there was that it's not fun to wait while the DM rolls to see if the dungeon entrance is found, because the players aren't doing anything, which is a valid criticism. But that's why the players should be searching for the dungeon entrance rather than just rolling some perception checks. Perception checks are lame, almost all of the time.

Well, if the players are spending something and risking something, then they are involved, even if it's at the level of "you don't find the dungeon today. You hear the rumblings of some orcs off in the distance, but they don't approach your camp. Try again tomorrow?"

But I actually totally agree with the fact that Perception checks are kind of bunk. I've been thinking for a while about the role they play in gameplay and how to make it things like surprise a little more intentional and significant than a skill check, but I haven't landed on something I like. I don't prefer the old school method of "tell me exactly what you do," I like the level of abstraction and strategy that goes into making it a mechanic rather than just table engagement, but there's gotta be a better way to handle that mechanic than one all-powerful skill.

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