Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Trust The Random Encounter table

When one cracks open the hoary spine of the “Underworld and Wilderness Adventures” (well not spine, they are zine like pamphlets, stapled together) one almost immediately finds a set of dungeon encounter tables.  They look 'normal' at first, table 1 contains low hit dice dungeon vermin (giant rats, centipedes, spiders) and sniveling humanoids like kobolds.  Table 2 starts to get some real opposition on it: hobgoblins, gnolls, berserkers and ghouls.  By the time you’re on table three and four there are the sort of monsters that can really spell danger to a low level party, such as wights, wraiths and giant animals.  This might seem reasonable, even conservative if these tables were broken down by dungeon level, but they are explicitly not by dungeon level.  On the first level of the dungeon there is a 1 in 6 chance of encountering one of the horrors off of table four, and this includes ogres (which are reasonable enough) but also wraiths and gargoyles.  I focus here on gargoyles because they are utterly immune to normal weapon damage in most versions of the rules, including silver weapons.

Characters fresh from generation, at best armed with a silver dagger (which won’t hurt a gargoyle) or two and maybe a magic missile (which won’t kill a gargoyle, but can injure it), have a chance of running into a gargoyle or a of group of them as soon as they enter the mythic underworld to seek treasures and glory. Now this might appear at first to be absurd, cruel and an arbitrary way to massacre player characters.  That sort of fear is what’s made the idea of ‘challenge rating’ for monsters popular and perhaps ultimately led to the kind of fretting that leads to campaign railroads as opposed to open worlds. This isn’t to say that there aren’t places for worrying about balance in tabletop games, but those places are games where tactical challenges and solutions in combat are heavily ruled and mechanically complex. In many video games this sort of staging and challenge level is the basis of all combat – a 1 st level character should only fight 1st (and maybe 2nd level) monsters or the math will destroy them. 

There is no need to apply that to tabletop games, the math of OD&D is very simple, there are few skills, cooldowns and such to keep track of but the players’ combat options are limited only by their imaginations which can radically change the way combat is managed.  Classic combat frequently involves the use of nets, greased steps, bags of marbles, trip wires and false or real retreats, meaning a party of clever players can kill, bypass or defeat creatures that they have no chance against in a straight fight much of the time.  In other words, there is nothing wrong with including a gargoyle as an enemy for a first level party. Furthermore, doing so emphasizes non-combat elements, a practice that started to fall by the wayside in the post Dragonlance era when Dungeon and Dragon’s switched its focus from the treasure hunting scoundrels of Swords and Sorcery to heroes battling against evil and chaos.  This change towards preferring combat is dramatic in the modules of the era, with notes on many encounters that the creatures immediately attack and an increased dependence on Experience Points from combat.

In early editions of D&D rules mitigate the need for combat, and emphasize that fighting fantastic creatures is rarely an optimal solution.  The danger of the 1st level wandering monster chart emphasizes this – there are some encounters (say kobolds) where combat is not an especially bad option (though even kobolds can do in 2nd or 3rd level characters if they get lucky), and others (gargoyles, wraiths, ogres) where it’s a terrible one.  Yet even in the easy encounters, bypassing them is almost always a better option than combat - a band of kobolds willing to trade/hire on as scouts/provide information is better asset then a pile of dead kobolds. Furthermore wandering monsters don’t guard significant treasure, and random encounters ideally exist to both give the flavor of the dungeon (factions, other invaders from the surface, specific kinds of vermin) and most importantly as the primary limiting factor for careful dungeon explorers.   

TIMEKEEPING - The random encounter table exists to put time pressure on exploration and caution.  A thoughtful group of players is a fine, thing - probing with spears and poles, checking for traps, listening at every door. This is also boring, and ideally there should be some risk associated with extreme caution. This risk is the chance of a random encounter, and for this risk to have meaning it's best if it's occasionally more than the mere inconvenience of a giant rat.  If the player's know (best provided by rumors, prior encounters, and even clues [I give clues of nearby monster inhabitants on a '2' on the encounter die]) that there are dangerous, even deadly creatures roaming about the decision to search for secret doors becomes a meaningful balancing, not simply a rote activity, and builds tension not boredom.  Likewise smashing open doors, listening and other typical dungeoneer safety precautions. furthermore, it's important that the hyper dangerous monsters for the level are random, and not placed, because they cannot create permanent obstacles and are much less likely to force the characters into an unwinnable fight, being themselves transient and largely uninvolved in dungeon level factions.

XP for GP – This is the biggest factor making the dangerous random encounter reasonable.  When XP is given only for gold recovered, combat is almost always the less favored option. This also has the nice side effect of discouraging psychotic bloodthirsty player behavior (if one cares about such things), at least when it’s not based on an in-game rationale, because there’s nothing to be gained from fighting if treasure can be obtained in another way. Without the expectation that combat is the method to achieve success in the game, players are more likely to recognize that there are encounters they should avoid.

REACTION ROLLS/LANGUAGE SKILLS – Reaction Rolls with every random encounter mean that many encounters won’t result in combat.  The 2D6 reaction roll doesn’t have a high chance of resulting in a friendly reaction, but it doesn’t result in an immediate attack that often either. The reaction roll usually ends up at about a 6 or 7 – resulting in the monster being “uncertain”.  Now admittedly this is said to only apply to monsters that are intelligent and outmatched, but I like using it for all monsters, most wild creatures don’t attack immediately, unless they’re hunting.  I’ve backed away from a last mountain lion on a sunny rock in real life, and it thankfully didn’t look like it want to attack. This is of course a place for ‘GM Fait’.  I always roll reaction checks for every encounter, but I bend them to my conception of the specific monster’s psychology.  This isn’t hard – wild beasts are hunting most the time, but when they know they’ve been spotted they usually will make an aggressive display before attacking as they don’t want to fight, they want to ambush something.  On a friendly roll it means they don’t see the party as either prey or a threat, but they certainly don’t want the characters around will be annoyed if they don’t leave quickly. Intelligent monsters are easier, a positive roll encounter roll means that they have a deal for the party – of course it’s not often a deal the party really wants to make, and making friends with to many monsters limits the chance of treasure recovery.  I also tend to assume on a successful surprise roll (2 in 6) that the monsters are ambushing the party. Still this provides an additional chance that many encounters that aren’t going to end in parlay.

SIMPLE COMBAT – The simple nature of OD&D combat means that almost any action other than an attack with a weapon requires either a house rule or an ad hoc ruling.  Yet this is a tabletop game, so players are limited only by their imaginations, and there are several mechanics that can easily be adapted to various combat situations (stat checks, saving throws, force checks etc.) meaning that the players and the GM always have a palette of options to deal creatively with monsters they cannot/do not want to fight in regular combat.  Understanding this it’s important for the GM to willingly allow novel solutions and tricks, rather than force everything into a set system.
Recently I’ve had the opportunity to test this idea a couple times in my Apollyon game, introducing a chance of encountering 1D4 re-skinned gargoyles in the form of diabolic scouts for the Golden Teeth faction of devils. Two bands of adventurers have encountered the re-skinned gargoyles, and one managed to physically combat one.  The other encounter ended with retreat and the sacrifice of a henchmen (which will have some pretty negative consequences next time those PCs look for henchmen).   

Groob the Steamfitter (Fighter), The Masked Scholar Nelson (MU), Peepers the Flying Monkey Scoundrel(Halfling) and Aristocratic Mario(Elf) had finally prevailed.  They’d taken three trips to the abandoned black iron customs station two hundred feet down into the Fetid Pit, and it’s secrets were finally revealing themselves.  The sad guardian golem that still stalked the halls had recognized the scavengers as militia and believed they were defending the bastion from invasion, the fungal zombies of ancient guards had all been destroyed in an inferno of firebombs that cost the life of the Gladiator Briney and every foor of the station was mapped and explored.  Only environmental hazards remained, and it was these same hazards (toxic mold, dripping acidic slime and other remnants of ancient demonic corruption) had provided protection for the stations goods.  

As the scavengers were hunkering under their vulcanized cloaks with water soaked scraps as facemasks and using Mario’s crystalline familiar to drag ancient crates of trade goods from a spore filled storage room a sudden scrabbling clatter came from the corrugated metal roof above.  Some flying creature had landed, perhaps drawn by the flickering light of the scavenger’s lamps, barely visible through the station’s steel shuttered embrasures. Whatever it was walked and scurried above, and soon strange gurgling cries were added to the sounds of its movements.  Groob peeked from the door and saw the creature, a dream horror of some sort, a man-sized infant with ragged black wings, twisted above it’s ruddy fat flesh.  The horror clung to the wall head down with all four pudgy limbs, peering through one of the narrow windows into the storeroom , it’s fat digits seeming to dig into the tough black iron of the fortress.  As Groob saw the thing, it saw him, a round head with giant oil black eyes twitching with insectile precision to stare at the armored engineer.  As Mr. Groob backed away and the unnatural beast, he drew his holdout pistol, a cheap smoothbore muzzle loading flintlock, dependent on the size of its ball and the startling amount of smoke it produced rather than accuracy or power.  In response the baby-thing simply cooed, and smiled to reveal rows of serrated golden teeth that curled in shark-like ranks behind its pink gums.

Groob backed away, panic and disgust rising as the otherworldy abomination crept down the wall, he fired his pistol as soon as he was sure the creature was close enough for even a poorly cast ball to hit, and for once the poorly made gun worked perfectly, and the ball splatted directly between the wide staring eyes of the scurry monster.  Splatted and sparked, leaving a vague smear of lead, and raising a hissing giggle of rage from the devil baby.  Groob stumbled back babbling about the creature to his companions, who had barely enough time to ready their weapons before it burst through the unlocked door.  Peeper’s crossbow snapped into the unnatural creature’s shoulder and the short steel bolt fractured into shards against soft looking pink flesh. 

As the cooing monster advanced gnashing it’s deadly golden smile and it began to dawn on the scavengers that not only were they trapped in a between a room of toxic spores and a diabolic opponent, but that none of their weapons would harm the creature.  Nelson shouted ‘run’ and leaped towards the monster’s head, trying to wrestle it into the ground.  Fury and terror drove the slight academic and he managed to grasp the creature firmly by one arm, restraining it’s movement.  Mario’s familiar also leaped forward, only to be bitten nearly in two by a serpent quick slash of the creature’s teeth.   The wizard and his companions wrestled with the infernal baby, it’s teeth slashing and gnawing right and left, but with the band of adventurers piling on they were able to restrain the horror.  Just as the tightening loops of climbing rope finally restrained the monster it leaned in towards Nelson, and in a moment of distraction bit deep into the flesh of his face and neck, the rows of gold teeth parting his steel mask like paper.  The remaining adventurers were able to struggle with the laughing least devil, and shove it into an empty metal crate removed from the storeroom.  Dragging the crate and monster up thirty feet of stairs proved difficult, but anger and fear lent the party strength and with a mighty heave, infernal infant and storage case went over the side of the stairs and plummeted into the inky bioluminescent lit depths of the pit.

This was a fight with a single gargoyle, and from the GM’s side it looked like this (using the Apollyon house ruled OD&D):

A. Random encounter die indicates monster(1 in 6 per turn).  An 8 indicates 1-4 Gold Teeth Least Devils (gargoyle), and lack of surprise. Luckily there's only one.  Since the parties are indoors and the thing is flying, I figure it’s heard the noise they are making, and come to scout out the situation.
B. The reaction roll comes up a ‘12’, which is a universally positive reaction.  The Devil is an actual diabolic outsider that collects mortal souls to improve its lot, so that' snot going to be especially positive no matter what - it's also a stupid one.  Yet, devils are creatures of order the thing would rather trick people into giving up their souls in exchange for promises of wealth and power - it wants to parley and trade souls for bad promises.
C. One of the party members decides to attack the thing because it’s creepy rather then parley.  Hits it dead on as well, and does no damage.  The gargoyle decides to barrel in after it’s prey, knowing it’s immune to weapons and suffers a reactive crossbow shot that doesn’t phase it.  Most of the party wins initiative and realizes they can’t actually do anything to harm the devil with their weapons. 
D. The party wizard shouts out to grapple the thing and using the grapple rules it gets a reactive attack against the first person charging it (the elemental) and manages to reduce the elemental to 0HP.  Three other party members grapple the creature, but it’s really strong. 
E. I decide that three successful grapples can restrain the creature, this is complicated because the gargoyle has a bite attack, which is a close weapon, meaning it automatically hits in grapple.  So the gargoyle gets to bite one grappler per round.
F. It takes three rounds to successfully tie up the creature, in these three rounds in mauls the party fighter and bites off the wizard’s face. After it’s restrained the party realizes that their rope won’t hold a screaming laughing devil with an unnatural strength very long. They stuff it in a box and drop it over the side of the pit.   


  1. Love the title! Still reading it but sure it is one of your best so far...and you have a lot of great posts.

  2. "... combat is always the less favored option."

    Well, this assumes a player derives most of their reward from gaming for their character advancing in level, or at least that they view it as the "win" condition. I'm not sure either of those things is true for a lot of players.

    That aside, I agree that basing XP it on treasure has useful unintended (perhaps) consequences.

    1. You are likely correct Trey, my own OD&D characters have become obsessed with vengeance occasionally - but then there's that line from Moby Dick " How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? it will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market."

      I really do think if there is no direct reward for combat then it becomes a far less attractive solution (especially when damage is swingy, AC capped and HP low)

  3. How do you determine what type of wandering monster appears in the Apollyon?
    * LBB style? (roll of X indicates a monster from table Y)
    * does each area have its own specific monster table?
    * some other process i haven't thought of?
    I want to see your process; i freaking love the Apollyon!

    1. I write an encounter table for each locale - usually D6 or D8. I also write a "sign" or "hint" for each monster.

      More specifically I use an encounter die every turn or two, a D6. 1-Monster Encounter (roll for surprise and reaction), 2-Sign/hint, 3-Torch or Candle burns out, 4- Lantern burns down (has two pips per oil flask), 5- Spell exhaustion (longer lasting spells have a number of pips - usually 1 or 2), 6 - Player Exhaustion (after 3 must rest, eat or suffer penalties).

  4. I'm lurking on your very inspiring blog since two weeks now ... Great stuff.
    I wonder. How do you introduce your gaming style (regarding danger and lethality) to new players (or players used to "I don't kill your PC" DM)? And do they adapt themselves easily.

    1. Generally the people I play with have experienced playing earlier editions of D&D before. I've written a bit about the who character death and fairness thing. Here's the most recent:
      Some older thoughts on it:

      Two types of setting where character death is baked into player expectations - Miserycrawl and Gonzo



    2. Thank you. I'd already read two of them. Will do for the others.

  5. After more reading... Gus, your blog is a gold mine. I stopped to play RPG about 15 years ago and only discovered all the OSR stuff some weeks ago. I just convinced a bunch of old chums to restart our D&D games. Working on a sandbox now. Thanks to you and other talented and interesting bloggers. Merci.