Wednesday, 12 August 2020

The Problem with Random Encounters; or, Waxwings versus Giant Slugs

The wilderness is all random encounters.

Very occasionally, in my part of the world, one will encounter a flock of waxwings. Only during the autumn or winter, usually only where there are rowan berries, and most often in the morning. They appear as if from magic at dawn one day before heading off to somewhere new, and indeed to ancient people it probably wouldn't have been far-fetched to have attributed their comings and goings to some supernatural force - like a sign of a coming storm, or an omen of death, or a symbol that the baby in one's belly would be a boy, and so on. 

We now know that waxwings live in northern Europe and, when berries are in short supply over there, they pop over the North Sea to gorge on them here instead. How the waxwings know to do this, and what triggers it, are anybody's guess. The point is, as you go about your business here, particularly if you live in the countryside or have a big garden, now and again you'll see a flock of waxwings between October and March. It happens. 

All wilderness encounters are, of course, like this. All of a sudden your path crosses that of an animal. Why? Well, because there are animals purposively going about their lives and occasionally they happen to be doing what they're doing near you, while you're doing what you're doing.

There is, in other words, nothing unusual about suddenly being confronted with the appearance of another living thing, apparently 'at random', when out of doors.

In the artificial and enclosed 'dungeon' environment, though, I've always thought that something stinks about random encounters. Unless the encounter is with a being that already exists within the dungeon key, and is assumed to be moving around (that is, if the encounter is with a being that is extraneous to what is already plotted), then one is forced to simply put out of one's mind the question of where it came from. Why is this giant slug, which the random encounter table just threw up, suddenly here? Where was it before? And why is it that it it does not appear to have had a material effect on its dungeon surroundings prior to this point? You will all be familiar with having to avoid this sort of uncomfortable question: how is it that this monster has suddenly come along, given that we know that the doors in the W and E exits of this room are locked, and the one in the N conceals a den of ogres, and we've just come from the S? Well, it was following you! So, can we follow its trail? And where does that lead? Er...

The only reasonable answer as to where randomly-encountered monsters in the dungeon come from is: from outside, or from further down. In other words, there is a strong argument for suggesting that the only principled and coherent way to approach the creation of random dungeon encounter tables is that the encounter table for each level should only comprise monsters that could have come from outside and whose trail will lead back outside somehow (whether through cracks to 'other caves' or to the surface), monsters from the dungeon key who are moving about, and monsters that could have come from the levels below. Either that, or go the whole hog on the 'mythic underworld' motif and assume an abyss or hell that permanently generates fresh monsters. 

39 comments:

  1. I really have no problem with dungeon as mythic underworld or haunted house. Not every abandoned space or cave complex needs to be a dungeon, of course, but for my taste treating every place as a perfectly naturalistic ecosystem is too constraining.

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    1. I don't have a problem with it either as long as everybody is clear that's what it is.

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  2. I tend to stock dungeon random encounter tables with creatures endemic to the level. "Where did these goblins come from?" Probably the goblin barracks you found an hour ago. If it doesn't make sense for a creature to suddenly appear, why roll for one?

    Though perhaps I am playing on easy mode by avoiding sprawling megadungeons, where inexplicable perambulation must be more common.

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    1. Yeah - I am the same. I generally prefer smallish dungeon sites with 30 rooms or fewer.

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    2. Man, everytime dungeon size comes up, I'm reminded of how small my dungeons are. My dungeoncrawl """megadungeon""" is currently only 30-50 rooms. Probably will get larger but it's still a little weird that such a size is "smallish"

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  3. I think your conclusion(s) about wandering monsters in dungeons is accurate. It's where I am at the moment in my dungeon design. My "enclosed" dungeons draw their wandering monsters from creatures that make their lair there or could be reasonably assumed to visit (for example, local cult members visiting a temple). My "mega" dungeon draws monsters from deeper, unplumbed depths.

    Re Wilderness encounters:

    The numbers given in the various rule books seems to promote a "wilderness" that is excessively populated with hostile creatures. Most animals would shy away (I assume) from large groups of humans/humanoids tramping through the wilderness, and I would assume that would hold true for magical beasts and indigenous humanoids as well. How many times do hikers get jumped by the equivalent of D6 yeti? When was the last time you encountered a pack of eight giant weasels in a woodland setting?

    I've been rereading the Lord of the Rings books recently, and stuck me just how infrequently anything is "randomly" encountered in Tolkien's books. Of course it is a literary work, but D&D is based on the tropes of such works. Look at Howard's Conan stories: the protagonist wanders hither and yon with hardly any strange wilderness encounters...and when something IS encountered, that's generally the start of the adventure (and the reason for the story)!

    These days I am far less inclined to do wandering wilderness encounters unless there is some sort of nearby lair, castle, or community (in which case, the encounter would be something from the site in question).

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    1. I totally agree. My wandering wilderness encounters are primarily only with intelligent humanoids (hunters), bandits, and so on, where I can rationalise them as being just coincidences or mistakes.

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  4. A few other methods I've used:

    Dimensional instability / unhallowed ground: demons or elementals can pop in.

    Flesh vat / avatar of Shub-Niggurath: spits out bio-horrors at a convenient rate.

    Undead / eldritch guardians: can never really get rid of them without serious effort to lay them to rest, so they keep reforming.

    Sunless Sea: handy variation on "from below" with a built in reason why the party can't easily explore in that direction, but aquatic creatures can emerge from it.

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    1. I really like these, but especially the Sunless Sea one. Great idea.

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    2. dimensional instability is a really fun idea. It also fits pretty well into a system with spoors built into the encounters. Only, of course, instead of finding evidence that a monster was already here, you notice influence of a monster about to be here (shimmering air, ozone/sulfur smell, etc). Also you could have it effect magic, so hellish auras buff the warlock or lightning elementals buff lightning bolt

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    3. Nice idea - and, of course, you need another random table for the signs of a creature slipping through the gap...

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  5. My 117-level megadungeon is chock-a-block full of monsters (roughly 80% of the rooms have monsters in them). It would simply not make any sense to also have wandering monsters, for they would be in constant combat with all the monsters lairing in the dungeons.

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    1. Will this one day be published so we can all see what a 117 level megadungeon looks like?

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    2. It is published now. Go to drivethrurpg.com. The first 78 levels are published under the title "Mike's Dungeons", and levels 79-117 are published under the title "Mike's Dungeon's: The Deep Levels". :)

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    3. Geoffrey published this as Mike’s Dungeon on drivethrurpg.

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    4. Looks like I was slow. I’m starting a b/x Keep on the Borderlands game with some 5e players. I hope they find Mike’s Dungeon quickly.

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    5. Oh yeah, and kudos to Geoffrey for putting up a full preview. It looks like it would be a lot of fun to run.

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  6. Your breakdown is pretty much how I handle wandering monster encounters. I've even used those tables in published adventures to adjust some bits - if there's a wandering gelatinous cube, then the creatures in the rooms are actively avoiding it, etc.

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    1. Yeah, a gelatinous cube is the classic example of a monster which would surely have a significant impact on a big section of a dungeon level.

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  7. How I run wandering monsters in my own campaign is much like that. A mix of:

    - nearby monsters that are alerted (I wrote a post that came to that idea a while back.)
    - things that could have come down to that level
    - things that could have come up from the level below
    - things that could have spawned there

    For monsters, anyway. I also have random "events" that aren't monsters but might be obstacles, sounds, smells, battle remnants, etc.

    It all makes it hang together better when the first level now has rats, puddings, etc., but the level a few levels down has orc patrols from the upper levels, weird beings that stumbled across gates there, and puddings and oozes from the nooks and crannies of the level. Much better than rolling up something I have to jump through hoops to explain.

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    1. Yeah, it makes the whole thing seem richer and more interactive as well.

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  8. The 13th Age RPG has living dungeons that move around, shift layout, and spontaneously spawn monsters. Their Eyes of the Stone Thief campaign is dungeon as Moby Dick. Interesting ideas but I prefer Gygaxian naturalism.

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    1. It's a tough one. I like the idea of mythic, expressionistic fantasy but in the nuts and bolts of play I find I lean very strongly towards Gygaxian naturalism more often than not.

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  9. Random encounters in dungeons have always bugged me, for exactly this reason.

    Also, having just worked on a series of tables for random bird sightings in the wilderness, it was a joy to read about your waxwings. I for one am hoping to encourage more birdwatching-PCs

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    1. I've often wanted to run a campaign that is about birdwatchers or animal watchers in general - where you get XP for spotting rare things and giving an account of them.

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  10. I think this and the responses gets at the basic problem: people want surprises (at random) but they want things to make sense (not chaotic). Everybody has to find a way to strike a balance. My first experience actually using wandering monsters, which I just wrote about, was mixed. DM David also just wrote about living dungeons, which came up here in the comments.

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  11. Only just recently really getting back into D&D, so am in the process of thinking about designing a dungeon. I don’t know when I first came across the more supernatural mythic underworld explanation, but it is something that can affect the whole tone of the campaign. I’ve been looking at having more naturalistic encounters as a baseline, with the odder encounters that don’t really fit or make sense being a bit of foreshadowing of things to come: that is, something(s) are upsetting the natural order of the world. So this post and the comments have been really useful for getting my thoughts sorted about this. I particularly like @Kalyptein’s suggestions for explaining the supernatural, less naturalistic bits. The other source I was contemplating was more along the lines of The Nightmares Underneath, but I think it would be nice to have several distinctly different origins...of super/un - natural creatures.

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    1. Yeah, I like the supernatural as being rare and discomforting rather than the standard?

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  12. You could go the other way with it. An incongruent monster needs some sort of explanation so therefore a new area, sub-level or whatever is now part of the dungeon. This wouldn't be a case of spontaneous generation but the dice helping discover a part of the complex you didn't realize existed when you planned it in the first place.

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    1. I wonder if this is something that could be incorporated into the dungeon design phase, or done between sessions, rather than through wandering monsters. So in other words before even drawing anything you could just start with a vague idea of the contents of the level, and then draw up a wandering monster table. Then roll on it a handful of times to determine the major factions, then draw up the map, and then continually re-roll on the table when stocking.

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  13. I use Roll20, which lets me put things on the map without revealing them to the players, and have been experimenting with "pre-populating" the dungeon with monster tokens at the very beginning and then moving them according to their nature.

    I'm still working out the kinks of this system, but a few sessions ago the party made a *really* big noise and attracted literally half the zombies on their floor, which led to another full session of "We are stuck behind this door with dozens of zombies on the other side, what are we going to do?"

    Everybody liked it quite a lot.

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    1. That's a great idea and one of the few advantages online play has over offline.

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  14. Reading posts like this is weird to me, because this:

    "The only reasonable answer as to where randomly-encountered monsters in the dungeon come from is: from outside, or from further down. In other words, there is a strong argument for suggesting that the only principled and coherent way to approach the creation of random dungeon encounter tables is that the encounter table for each level should only comprise monsters that could have come from outside and whose trail will lead back outside somehow (whether through cracks to 'other caves' or to the surface), monsters from the dungeon key who are moving about, and monsters that could have come from the levels below."

    Is what I've been doing for the last 35 or so years and I've just always sort of assumed everybody (outside of kids playing for the first time) did it that way. It's the same reaction I get when I hear mention of things like monsters placed in rooms they don't fit in, or rooms they can't get into or out of and other sorts of arbitrary random stuff that defies logic. Do people (who aren't 10 years old) actually play that way? I always just assumed that kind of stuff was a lazy strawman by snobby D&D-haters, but am I wrong? Are there significant numbers of adults (or even teens) playing the game who just apply random rolls without any attempt to make something reasonable out of them (other than in very specific circumstances where the lack of reason itself has been reasoned out - i.e. the once novel but now overused Mythic Underworld trope)?

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    1. Well, in the rules as written, wandering monster tables in dungeons should be level-appropriate monsters, right? So lots of people do it that way by default, I think.

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    2. I suppose you're right (and I realize now that my post above might have come off a little "Kenty," for which I apologize). In some respect my perspective might come from having "learned" adventure design more from modules, that tend to have bespoke wandering monster charts based on the inhabitants of that particular dungeon level (if they have wandering monsters at all) rather than from the charts in the rulebooks. I almost never rolled wandering monsters out of the actual book charts (in either BX or AD&D); I just used those to inform the bespoke charts I created fr each dungeon/level and, like I said, I assumed that's what everybody else did as well. However, this seems to be yet another case where my personal experience doesn't map to universal experience as closely as I had assumed. Live and learn...

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    3. I was never interested in modules and never ran them. For me, I rather unthinkingly just used the wandering monster tables from the rulebooks, and then later just made up my own, but always on the basis that "this is dungeon level 1 so it should be 1 HD monsters..." etc.

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    4. The comment about 10 year old D&D players reminded me of the time, as a 10 year old DM, when I had an NPC lose a foot to green slime so he intentionally fed his *other* foot to the slime so he could walk on the stumps (otherwise his feet wouldn’t be ‘even’, right?) So I assume there are indeed 10 year old DMs out there running these horribly nonsensical dungeons

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  15. A 'wandering monster' table can also make sense as a table of monsters that are native to this level, but don't have any fixed abode whatsoever, so are only found wandering around. In this case, they should perhaps be creatures that avoid inhabited areas, or creatures the inhabitants avoid, so that it makes sense why they aren't in the inhabited rooms.

    I always liked the 'roster' idea of a dungeon level, where the monsters encountered randomly were deducted (if killed) from those inhabiting the environs. That way you might have 12 goblins, but encounter them in ones and twos, or maybe all at once if you made a ruckus.

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    1. Yes, I like the roster idea too. I have a feeling the 2nd edition AD&D DMG may even have recommended that, but I'm not completely sure.

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