1e to 4e: Bringing wandering monsters back into D&D

Random monster encounters played an important role in character advancement in early editions of D&D and in many video RPGs, as this assortment of random monsters for Nintendo’s Dragon Warrior game illustrates. Image copyright strategywiki.org.

While perusing some old .pdfs of legacy edition Dungeons & Dragons modules, I was struck by how common random monster encounter tables were in the old adventures, and was reminded of the prominence of random encounters in the rules themselves. The first edition (1e) Dungeon Master’s Guide had an entire appendix devoted to such encounters, and the 1e Monster Manual II included an index that grouped creatures from three monster volumes by terrain and encounter frequency, to make generating one’s own encounter tables easier.

I was also struck by how such tables are absent in every fourth edition (4e) product I’ve thus far seen.

What those encounters were

For those readers too young to remember, these tables were a simple lists of encounters of creatures or characters the adventuring party may or may not encounter while traveling to or from areas presented in greater detail. Not all of them were dangerous; common entries for road travel included merchants and pilgrims.

In some cases, random encounters formed a sizeable portion of an adventure’s combat. In the 1e classic module The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, for example, most of the play time involved exploring an extensive range of rocky hills, in an attempt to locate the temple in the first place; apart from some specifically keyed wilderness areas and the temple itself, almost all of the encounters the party faced were generated by random rolls on such tables.

What those encounters brought to the game

By necessity, these encounters were typically less dangerous than the combats detailed in the modules themselves; after all, nobody wanted to lose a character in a fight that may or may not have happened if the dice fell against the party. They served several purposes:

  • They provided a sense of realism. The idea of telling players, “you journey into the hills for three days and arrive at the dungeon” was soooo Red Box Basic at the time. The idea was that, as the heroes crossed expanses of terrain, they may, or may not, meet creatures indigenous to or passing through the area. Thus, when a caravan master told heroes he’s employed as guards that gnoll bandits may be found in Charwoode, but there is a chance that the group may be lucky and pass through undetected, he was telling the truth.
  • They injected a random element that both players and dungeon masters found appealing. Since encounters were far less detailed in those days, it was possible to easily run a fight without miniatures, a battle mat, or huge stat blocks, so a wide range of monsters could be encountered and fought with virtually no setup time. For DMs who created their own tables by terrain, climate and frequency, especially low or high rolls could lead to the appearance of very rare creatures that characters would talk about in taverns and players would talk about outside the game. Some DMs took this idea even farther, using percentile tables (for the youngsters: by rolling 2d10 and reading one die as the ‘tens’ digit and one die as the ‘ones’ digit, you can get a random number between 1 and 100) to allow a one percent chance of a dragon or demon lord showing up, which can really make players nervous.
  • They brought random treasure generation into the game. These creatures usually had individual treasure types, so it was common for a DM to roll dice to see how many coins of which denominations the monsters were carrying. In some cases, a monster may have a randomly rolled potion, scroll or minor magic item, which, if the DM chose to let the dice fall where they may, could result in items that no one may have really wanted, but were useful in different ways. During one of our 1e campaigns, the party magic-user (wizard) randomly received a Scroll of Protection from Fire and five flasks of Greek fire in two different random encounters, which he decided to use simultaneously during his next battle. He stripped down as close to nude as the DM allowed, then used the scroll to protect himself, doused himself with greek fire and charged into a crowd of enemies. Nobody saw that one coming. Especially not those orcs escaping the encounter, who had the unenviable duty of informing their chieftain that a naked human on fire killed half of their patrol.

How to bring those encounters into a 4e campaign

The experience point budgeting system and the advent of treasure parcels made random encounters largely impractical. Every combat was designed from the map upward, and every gold coin was accounted for with the treasure parcels to be awarded each level. Adding random fights that may or may not happen throws off the mathematics, so the whole concept has largely vanished from play in 4e products.

It is possible, though, to re-introduce those tables into a 4e game, within the experience point and treasure parcel system. Assuming that the DM plans to employ the suggested 10 encounters for a party to earn a level, a DM could set aside, say, two encounters worth of experience and two parcels of treasure to be used by random encounters.

Working from those totals, the DM could create a brief list of eight encounters that could happen, each taking about half the experience of a full encounter of the party’s level. From there, assign a probability of these random encounters occurring, perhaps checking twice per day with a chance of 1 in 10 of an encounter happening. On a roll of 1, roll 1d8 and run that encounter number from the list.

If the players approach the end of a level without going through enough random encounters, the DM can choose to make them not-so-random and run them as regular encounters, or add the unused experience and treasure into the final, planned encounters for a given experience level.

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7 comments on “1e to 4e: Bringing wandering monsters back into D&D

  1. vbwyrde says:

    By completely random coincidence I was just working, for the first time in ages, on a Wandering Encounters system for my world when I thought “I’ll take a break” and went to check my email – find your article! Wow! Talk about Serendipity. Thanks!

    As for how I’m doing mine, I have Races and Places. Each Race-Place pair has an EncounterChance, and one place can not be filled up with more than 100% between all the Races associated to it (and in fact should probably not be greater than 50%, and on average should total 25% for wilderness, and maybe 40% for dungeons/caverns). There is an Encounter Config table that indicates how many of the Race are encountered (nd6), and the Treasure Type. Not too complicated, but serves the purpose. I fill in the blanks where necessary.

    As for 4E… I don’t play it much, though I have a few times. Seems to me that the whole focus on balancing rewards per adventure makes the thing more fair, but also more cut & dry. Not quite satisfying for me personally, but everyone has their own tastes in gaming, of course.

    Anyway thanks for a great article, and timely one! It actually reminded me to include Treasure Type! Thanks! :)

    • Alric says:

      I’d second the more uniform, but more cut and dry aspect of 4e – I view that as one of 4e’s warts. I like the race-place idea, and may incorporate it into my next game. Thanks for the input!

  2. Black Vulmea says:

    “By necessity, these encounters were typically less dangerous than the combats detailed in the modules themselves; after all, nobody wanted to lose a character in a fight that may or may not have happened if the dice fell against the party.”

    Yet these encounters could be deadly, and were understood as such, such as if an encounter occurred when the party was weakened and retreating, or when the party was surprised.

    Random encounters are one of the reasons that some old school gamers find the idea that player characters should only die in ‘meaningful’ encounters to be against the spirit of the game they play. Death can come for your character at any time, not just in a ‘set piece.’

    • Alric says:

      Indeed, they could be deadly, especially in the circumstances you describe, although they seldom played out that way, at least in our experience. I think that D&D started moving away from random encounters and toward set pieces during the 2e days with the Ravenloft boxed set – for those gothic adventures, designers seemed to have thought that every encounter should directly move the adventure plot forward; by 4e, the whole random encounter concept had gone.

      And you’re right about the more extreme elements of the Old Guard – those guys took losing characters during a random quirk to be part of fate; but it did stink to lose characters under those circumstances. I’m advocating for something in the middle.

  3. [...] wandering monsters are in the DNA of D&D. I both loved them and dreaded them back in the day. Alric @ The RPG Athenaeum has some tips on how to bring the magic of those 1E random tables into your 4E campaign. Beware players – [...]

  4. [...] 1e to 4e: Bringing wandering monsters back into D&D [...]

  5. [...] follows was initially part of the Athenaeum’s recent post on bringing wandering monsters into the fourth-edition (4e) Dungeons & Dragons game; the discussion of choosing, preparing and defending a campsite to defend against overnight random [...]

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