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Wandering Monsters
By James Wyatt

T his morning I asked my family what I should write about for Wandering Monsters this week. Flippantly, they suggested that I write about wandering monsters. And I thought, "Hey, that's not a bad idea . . ."

Encounter as Story

One of the things that has been stressed at various times and in various places in the history of D&D is that encounters within an adventure should have a purpose—they should advance the story of the adventure in some way. Sometimes, for better or for worse, that purpose ends up being "to get the adventurers more XP and treasure." But in a really well-crafted adventure, every encounter has a reason for being, even if it's not immediately obvious to the players.

At the very least, as described in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide II, "Viewed as part of a larger story, a great encounter has three key ingredients."

History . It builds on what the characters have learned in past encounters and previous game sessions.

Clear Objective . The characters must try to accomplish a specific task.

Significant Outcome . The characters might easily accomplish the objective, barely succeed, or fail entirely. However the encounter resolves, the outcome matters and relates to later encounters.

To take an example entirely at random, because the original Ravenloft adventure has been on my mind lately, let's look at Lief Lipsiege, Strahd's accountant.

Dusty scrolls and tomes line the walls of this room and are scattered across the floor. In the center of all this clutter stands a huge accountant's desk. A figure crouches atop a tall stool, scratching a seemingly endless scroll of paper with a dry quill pen. A rope hangs next to the creature from a hole in the ceiling.

K30. Office of the King's Accountant

The figure is Lief Lipsiege, an accountant. He is chained to the desk and has no interest in the PCs or their concerns. Under no circumstances will he voluntarily leave this room. Lief will pull the rope whenever he feels threatened.

Lief was pressed into service by Strahd ages ago. Lief keeps all the books for Strahd, recording his riches and conquests. Lief has been here longer than he can remember. He is grumpy because the Count does not allow him to know about all of the treasures. Still, Lief found out where one of the treasures lies. Lief will, if treated with kindness, tell the PCs the exact location of the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. Lipsiege will draw a crude map of how to get to the symbol. His map should be geographically accurate, but must not avoid any of the traps or other dangers that may lie in the way. Lief will not necessarily know the most direct route to the symbol.

If the rope is pulled, a tremendously loud gong sounds. Within 1–10 minutes, a monster from Table 6 appears and attacks the PCs. Treat the monster as a normal random encounter.

Scattered about the room under the papers are 20,000 cp; 1000 gp; 500 pp; and 100 reference books on accounting procedures worth 10 gp each.

How does this encounter fit into the overall story of the adventure? There's actually a lot packed in here.

History . By this point, the adventurers should know that the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind will help them defeat Strahd (thanks to Madam Eva's fortune-telling early on).

Clear Objective . The adventurers might not immediately realize that an accountant is the ideal person to ask about this treasure, but if they give it some thought it makes sense.

Significant Outcome . If they can persuade Lipsiege to draw them a map, they've achieved two significant victories: learning the location of the symbol and getting a sketched map of part of the castle, which can be hard to navigate.

But there's more packed in here than immediately meets the eye. First, notice that it's intended as an interaction encounter but could easily turn into a combat encounter. There's some ambiguity in the read-aloud text, because Lipsiege is described simply as "a figure" and "the creature." But there are also clues that maybe talking to this unknown creature is better than attacking it: the pull rope beside it suggests that it can call for help, which the adventurers should know is not desirable in Strahd's home. And if they look more closely, they'll see that Lipsiege is chained to the desk, which is a pretty clear signal that he's not exactly a willing servant of Strahd and might be persuaded to help the adventurers.

There's also an opportunity here for the adventurers to learn more about Strahd—notice that Lipsiege "record[s] his riches and conquests." The DM is left to his or her own devices if the characters ask him more about Strahd, aided by the information in the rest of the adventure, but it's also an opportunity for the DM to drop hints that the adventurers might really need.

Finally, and not to be underestimated, this encounter offers a bit of comic relief in what can be a truly terrifying adventure. The vampire lord's accountant chained to a desk—I suspect that echoes the feelings of many accountants (Facebook status updates from one accountant I know suggest that's true), but for the rest of us it's a comic image. The grumpy Lipsiege is a welcome respite from deadly monsters and the ever-present threat of Strahd.

And then at the end: If Lipsiege is threatened and pulls on the rope, a wandering monster shows up.

Random Threats

Lief Lipsiege's loud gong summons whatever monster roaming the halls happens to be nearest to his room at the time, as determined by rolling on the random encounter table for the castle:

d12 Encounter
1–2 10–100 bats
3 2–12 wraiths
4 1–10 Strahd zombies
5 1–8 giant spiders
6 1–4 angry villagers
7 2–16 gargoyles
8 10–100 bats
9 1–8 gypsies
10 2–16 wights
11–12 Special encounter—use Table 7

That special encounter might be 1–4 vampires, a groaning spirit, 1–6 spectres, a helpful spirit, Strahd himself, or . . . 1–2 dreaded rust monsters!

When Lipsiege summons help, this "random" encounter has a clear purpose: to punish the adventurers for resorting to force instead of communication. Depending on how the encounter goes, defeating the monsters might actually give them another chance to talk to Lipsiege and get the information they need out of him.

But what about when the adventurers are just roaming the castle? What good are these random encounters then? In this context, wandering monsters have three purposes:

  1. They create a sense of urgency. Adventurers don't dawdle as much with the threat of wandering monsters (12 wraiths!) hanging over their heads, and they'll think twice about holing up somewhere to rest.
  2. 2. They help establish the atmosphere and flavor of the place. An encounter table filled with bats, wraiths, giant spiders, more bats, and zombies establishes Castle Ravenloft as a place of horror haunted by the undead. It's a very different feel than a table populated with regimented hobgoblin patrols, imp spies, trained guard drakes, bugbear thugs, and goblin ambushers.
  3. 3. They wear the adventurers down. This is related to number 1—the longer the characters take finding Strahd, the weaker they'll be when they find him, because they will have exhausted some of their limited resources fighting off these random encounters (12 wraiths‼).
  4. 4. A couple of the results might actually help the adventurers instead of adding to the challenge. The helpful spirit that appears on the Special Encounters table will answer one question the adventurers ask it. The foolhardy villagers might provide some combat assistance to the adventurers, even if it's only by serving as meat shields. Of course, on the flip side, they make so much noise that they increase the chances of finding more wandering monsters.

Wilderness Flavor

Random encounters in the wilderness serve a slightly different function than those in dungeons. There's not as much a sense of urgency—there's usually not much that the adventurers can do to hasten their pace and reach their destination any sooner. Basically, they enliven the journey, making the process of getting from point A to point B a little more interesting.

Like random dungeon encounters, random wilderness encounters do a lot to establish the flavor of a wilderness area. A forest filled with ettercaps, goblins, and harpies feels very different than one filled with pixies, unicorns, and dryads—though the latter might be no less dangerous.

That's the reason behind an interesting and important shift that happened early on in the history of D&D. The 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide included twenty pages of tables to generate random monster encounters, including tables with names like "Monster Level V," "Underwater Encounters in Fresh Water," and "Temperate and Sub-Tropical Conditions: Inhabited And/Or Patrolled Areas." Each table basically listed every monster in the Monster Manual that would likely be found in the appropriate terrain on a giant table requiring a roll of percentile dice.

Four years later, the Monster Manual II introduced a new approach to encounter tables. Rather than rolling on a percentile table, the DM was urged to roll 1d8 + 1d12 and consult a 2–20 table. Lief Lipsiege would have loved these tables: Thanks to the splendors of statistics, the tables reflected an interesting curve of probability. When you roll 2d6, the numbers 10 and 11 are equally likely to show up, and everything else gets less common from there. On these tables, though, that plateau of maximum probability is spread out over the 9–13 range, giving you five spots on the table to put the most common monsters in a particular region.

Now, most of the encounter tables in the Monster Manual II are just as dry and generic as the ones in the DMG, representing different kinds of terrain in different climate bands. But then the book tells you how to make these 2–12 tables and populate them based on the frequency of the monster (as listed in every monster's stat block back then). Very rare monsters go at 2, 3, 19, and 20. The 4 and 18 slots are very rare or rare monsters. Rare monsters go at 5, 6, 16, and 17; uncommon ones at 7, 8, 14, and 15. And common monsters fill that 9–13 range.

And then come two examples, both "drawn from the temperate, wild, forested areas":

In Example 1, the forest is the sylvan home of elves, plagued by gnoll raiders. In example 2, the forest is a dark woods inhabited by spiders and other foul beasts. DMs are encouraged to tailor their encounters to their own worlds in a similar fashion.

Suddenly, a random encounter table is telling a story. As the adventurers roam the sylvan woods, their random encounters can reveal the nature of the place—three different types of elves live here, and they're beset by gnoll raiders. There's certainly an interesting story to be told about the relations among the wild elves, wood elves, and grey elves that all appear on the table.

What Do You Think?

Do you use random encounters and wandering monsters in your campaigns? Are we on the same page?

Previous Poll Results

How well do the sphinxes described here match with your sense of the iconic D&D creature?
How you think this is a sphinx is a mystery to me. 69 5%
The high school drama was better than this. 67 5%
Reasonably sphinx-like. 207 16%
Yeah, I recognize them as sphinxes. 467 35%
The perfect enigma. 503 38%
Total 1313 100%

How likely are you to use a sphinx like this in your campaign?
Very unlikely. 77 6%
Pretty unlikely. 88 7%
Jury’s out. 251 19%
Pretty likely. 679 51%
I already know exactly how I’m going to do it. 214 15%
Total 1309 100%

How have you used sphinxes in your campaign before? Choose all that apply.
As riddling guardians, pretty much as you describe. 735
As glorified hippogriffs, hunting out in the wastelands. 107
As mounts for powerful NPCs. 25
As perverse mysteries, total enigmas to the PCs. 281
As allies to the PCs on their adventures. 109
As patrons, sending the PCs on quests. 192
As manipulators, using the PCs against other sphinxes. 101
Other. (Comments!) 156

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
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wandering monsters are just one of the dumbest things about dnd
theyre one of the things that make the game seem so rediculus to mundanes
Posted By: MacLar (12/5/2013 6:59:49 PM)


Love random encounters (used in the proper dose). They make the adventure feel more organic, so that not even I, as the DM, knows exactly what will happen. And it gives the adventureres a greater sense of risk as they know that the entire adventure has been carefully planed to ensure success.

I hope they decide to include guidence on how to build random tables similar to what they mentioned in this article, with help on setting up a table that reflects chances of encountering common vs rare monsters, and guidance on how to make the tables reflect the area or theme of the adventure (listing what kind of terran monsters can be found in in the MM will help). Also, of course, the tables should work with the exploration rules, which I hope go a bit more deep than what we saw in the play test. It is that tricky balance between simple rules that are easy to use (and modify), but still full of substance.

Sounds like this game is shaping up to be super great!
Posted By: moes1980 (11/16/2013 7:54:49 PM)


I tend to mentally visualize my adventure area as a sea of randomness with "islands" of planned encounters. I like random encounter tables because they help the story fly on the spot. Of course, I create the tables with SOME rational in mind (as above). Also, I usually use d% with low numbers being bad (01 is something especially bad), a band of "bland" in the very middle, and a few helpful encounters at the top (the players know 00 is usually something really nice). Just to add to the fun, I let the players roll the d% and number appearing (if any). That way, they blame the dice-roller (instead of the DM) for a particularly nasty encounter.
Posted By: TheWilds (11/15/2013 11:40:13 PM)


Not long ago, I ran a wilderness "hex crawl" adventure with my group, which they ended up really enjoying. They did all the rolling, knowing only the broad outlines above. It saved me the trouble of planning ahead of time what was in every hex. Sometimes it was nothing remarkable "mundane animals", sometimes helpful (a resource, such as a freshwater spring, stand of fruit-bearing trees, abandoned trade goods, etc.), and of course, sometimes hostile or simply mysterious. (One of the encounters was a party of adventurers who'd been turned to stone. The players were paranoid about medusae for several hexes. I left the tale of the petrified adventurers unresolved - and it was awesome.)
Posted By: TheWilds (11/15/2013 11:45:18 PM)


Great article James!
Posted By: Pyrate_Jib (11/15/2013 11:28:20 AM)


I never used the random encounter tables, prefering imagine the type of monsters or enemies for each ambient and after creating my own table.
Of course, level encounter monsters list is fundamental.
Even in the cases of deadly encounters, always give my players a hint to understand the strenght of the enemy and the chance to flee from battle or to distract them.
Random encounters unbinded to story is good to give the sense of a living world indipendent to players actions, especially when they travel the wilderness or the underdark.
Posted By: Eilistraecomeback (11/13/2013 6:49:42 PM)


I think it may tell a story to the DM but I didnt think player's saw the random encounters table, so it would really reflect anything unless they ran into a lot of random encounters.

I always felt random encounters were there for the DM to have a little excitement as well, a non-scheduled reward for running the game and for the DM to improve a bit with the adventure.
Posted By: kevinmelstrom (11/13/2013 2:41:02 PM)


This format is awful wizards, please stop rushing changes that no one cared to have made, you're not google.

Posted By: OskarOisinson (11/13/2013 2:40:45 PM)


I can't reply to others, and I can't make my own comment because of something with the formatting, even though I took out all the things this stupid format thinks are html.
Posted By: OskarOisinson (11/13/2013 2:41:57 PM)


It's the &amper;amper;sand. Probably. Try sayin' 'n or something to get around them.
Posted By: RadperT (11/15/2013 6:44:23 PM)


Sorry I threw out my HTML book. I think you can go ampersand am;, or was it ampersand amp;? &am; &
Posted By: RadperT (11/15/2013 6:48:43 PM)


@seti (For some reason I can't reply to your post--hate this new format, it's way too finicky)

Just realize that for many groups, we don't want a level appropriate customized table, or even one customized to the particular locale. Yes, I'll adjust the "forest" or "temperate forest" table for the Forbidden Forest if I have time, but if we fall through a portal and pop up in the Jungle of Dread, I need there to be a generic "jungle" encounter table to use right there, right then.

I hate feeling that I *have* to design my own random encounter tables because they haven't provided me sufficiently generic ones that aren't tied to party level.
Posted By: Sword_of_Spirit (11/13/2013 2:08:38 PM)


I wouldn't mind an updated version of the random encounter tables in the MM or DMG.

Just write them up realizing that all random encounters shouldn't have to lead to combat. Rolling a windfall of some sort or a neutral encounter should be possible too. Make it clear to people reading this for the first time that it's more of a guide than a rule...Just because you rolled a 12, and some table says to send 2-8 werewolves at your level 1 party doesn't even mean you have to (or should) do it.

In 4e I use them as skill challenge failures sometimes as well. I'll use them to move the game along if we hit a slow or boring patch, too. I also have positive random wilderness encounters that could come up. Like pleasant NPCs, found items, sacred or arcane shrines, etc. But a die roll on a table is never something you must do to the PCs...You have to use judgement.

I just make a 1d6 (1-4 probably hostile or neutral monsters, 5 neutral or helpful NPC, 6 found an item... (see all)
Posted By: seti (11/13/2013 9:53:53 AM)


I like the idea that random wandering monsters highlight the fact that the world is not always about the PCs and whatever it is they are doing. Questing to destroy The Sinister Flumph Lords and their flumphy minions? While you're doing that, surprise, you encounter a band of owlbear cultists who don't give a damn about the Flumph Lords.
Posted By: Luke-Lightning (11/13/2013 9:21:08 AM)


Well put.
Posted By: Sword_of_Spirit (11/13/2013 2:03:34 PM)


Random encounter tables have never had another purpose as making the beasties match the environment and 'establish athmosphere'. No need to sell that as something new. IDOnt get me wrong, I think random encounters are great, but they're often just not feasible in the long run.

One problem with random encounters is, if you want to use them more frequently, PCs ramp up scores and scores of XP way too quick. There should be rule that random encounters yield only 1/5 of the XP compared to a (challenge-level-wise) similar encounter, that contributes to the story.

Another issue is that, if you hit a rare, and possibly powerful monster on your random table, PCs might be too low level to defeat it, or even get away from it, and you have a randomly generated TPK.
Posted By: Schmieth (11/13/2013 7:33:32 AM)


As the DM you can still use your initiative. If the party is obviously running low and you roll "2-4 Hill Giants" you can still ignore the encounter or have the PC's stumble on a recently abandoned camp trampled by giant foot prints. You still create a sense of urgency and add a little color to the trip. I use random tables for inspiration, but I never feel bound to use the results.

I like random encounter tables and usually make my own, but I'll use 'em whether they are part of the official rules or not.
Posted By: quindia (11/13/2013 8:11:44 AM)


That's good advice.
Posted By: RadperT (11/15/2013 6:39:34 PM)


What's wrong with players getting the XP they earned? I think it's terrible to artificially reduce the XP from an encounter because you think they're earning it too quickly. I mean, after all, YOU gave them the encounter. Now you're going to punish them for expending their precious resources? Using random encounters does NOT mean that you toss all good DM judgement out of the window because the dice told you to do something.
Posted By: Ramzour (11/13/2013 8:51:05 AM)


I haven't used random encounters in most RPGs for a long time, now, but for 4E DnD I do something kind-of similar. I use "wandering" encounters as penalties for failing (or just getting failures while doing) skill challenges. For navigation or sneaking type challenges this works particularly well.
Posted By: Balesir (11/13/2013 5:14:00 AM)


I detest DM-driven storylines.

For me, the adventure is how the players interact with the world. “Story” comes out of the actions they perform, not some scripted encounters I might have for them. If you’re a DM and you push your players through a script, what’s really the point? To push them through some predetermined path? You don’t need players for that, just go ahead and write a novel.

The very purpose of Random Encounters is to add randomness, variety and challenge for the players, adding to the story of players’ actions (not the story of a DM’s preconceived plot). That’s why Gygax put them in the game in the first place. He never would have included them if he thought DMs were going to be running “Hamlet.”
Posted By: VividAntivirus (11/13/2013 5:06:03 AM)


Choosing planned encounters over random encounters is NOT the same as force-feeding your players the DM's script. A planned encounter is usually tied to a location or event. But it only occurs IF the players visit that location or trigger that event. You are confusing Railroading with Storycrafting.
Posted By: Ramzour (11/13/2013 5:15:46 AM)


Agreed. I never really used the random encounter tables randomly back in the day anyway. I just used them for inspiration. Now in 4E I generally create 3-4 terrain appropriate encounters and use them as I see fit. As Balesir stated, "I use "wandering" encounters as penalties for failing (or just getting failures while doing) skill challenges. For navigation or sneaking type challenges this works particularly well." This is a far cry from a "pusin(ing) your players through a script..."
Posted By: Clansmansix (11/13/2013 5:50:38 AM)


I can craft a story with depth and purpose, where every character has a history, and every encounter is scripted.

However, I also *love* random wilderness encounters. As a DM it gives *me* a sense of excitement knowing that I don't know when, what, or if the PCs will run into when travelling cross-country. I *really* need those random pre-made, generic "temperate forest" type of tables. I need them to come with instructions for customizing (well, technically I can improvise that--but such information should be included), but more importantly, I want generic tables. I really felt the lack of them in 3e.

The Monstrous Compendiums from 2e are exactly the kind of pattern I'd like to see, although I wouldn't complain if it needed to be updated. Just make it work in a similar way with the same degree of utility.

I want a living world that can surprise me with whatever happens to wander by...
Posted By: Sword_of_Spirit (11/13/2013 4:00:29 AM)


Alot of the time when we play it's quick short one shots made up as we go. In those adventures we use random encounters and then use them to build the story as we go. This usually goes along with shifting which of us is DMing every hour or so. Had some really interesting results from that whether it be the half jani weeping over her pet giant sand worm we killed or the jackle headed guy we made friends with in the cave because the driders we killed previously had been trapping him there or the normal every day camel that the party assumed must be fiendish or monstrous in some way and spent way too much time cautiously messing with. An obvious monster? Kill it. A normal camel? Careful boys we have no idea what this thing really is or how dangerous it could be.
Player: I make a knowledge religion check to try and determine the creatures alignment.
Me: What? Really?
Player: Yes, nat 20.
Me: Its true neutral
Player: (sighs of relief) Ok with my nat 20 can I ide... (see all)
Posted By: TCCoffey (11/13/2013 1:33:37 AM)


But when there is a chance to play a campaign and planned adventures are used every encounter is set up with a purpose to the plot and what ones you avoid and what ones you kill and what ones you befriend or trick or what ever has a big impact on how things go and what options become available.
Posted By: TCCoffey (11/13/2013 1:35:42 AM)


Sounds like your group suffers from the Gazebo Syndrome
Posted By: Ramzour (11/13/2013 5:10:01 AM)


More just the one player, and when we found the article with the gazebo he refused to accept that he was the one in the group that does that. Of course we also had to take a half hour break during the same session to argue over my use of spam in a fantasy setting. He refused to accept that there could be canned food of any kind unless magic was used...because you know in real life theres no way to preserve food for months or years with out magic right?
Posted By: TCCoffey (11/15/2013 4:23:12 AM)


Didn't they attack the gazebo? Anyway, I admire that you're allowing aspects of your world to create itself organically with some input from the players. The DM doesn't have to control everything, and any one that does is deluding themselves.
Posted By: RadperT (11/15/2013 6:35:29 PM)


Lol, genius!
Posted By: chintu1 (11/14/2013 3:51:13 PM)



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