Edible wandering monsters
Posted Friday October 10, 2008 at 04:23 PM
In a recent comment, Jonathan linked to his collection of articles on Gygaxian Naturalism. Reading ravyn's Ecology for World-Builders from that list, I suddenly understood why the first edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide has so many rolls for random encounters in wilderness forest: prey animals.
I always thought that the number of encounter checks listed for forest travel on page 47 of the DMG was excessive—six times per day-night cycle—especially during long overland treks. However, these present an opportunity for the conscientious world-builder. The typically low-interaction encounters that result when normal animals are the "wandering monster" allows the DM to inject colour and setting information without unduly slowing the pace of the game.
A well-designed, naturalistic random encounter table isn't just full of monsters. Non-aggressive creatures—prey animals—filling many of the Common table slots adds verisimilitude to a game world. Having the party stumble upon a Shambling Mound makes a forbiddingly-described forest more concretely dangerous in the players' minds. In the same way, spotting deer bounding in flight away from the party establishes the game world as a living place with minimal effort.
Encounter a prey animal such a deer can immediately establish a number of assumptions for the players: there is foraging here; something eats the deer; we can hunt if our supplies run low; monsters we fight are the dangerous exception; we can seek deer paths to move more quickly; we are not alone out here. Giving some though to the local predator-prey relationships and reflecting this in an area's random encounter tables can make this effect nearly effortless during the game. Including prey animal encounters, whether random or scripted, also helps set the tone of a game in which players are expected to resolve events in ways other than combat.
Obviously these effects are not limited to systems like D&D that include random encounters. These same principles can be applied to narrative and scene-based systems to good effect, but I suspect that using mundane details to invoke associations and convey colour is somewhat more obvious to GMs and players familiar with the modes of play that those systems thrive on.
Saturday October 11, 2008 at 09:35 AM
When I read "Edible wandering monsters", my immediate association was "Oh, it's a post about Nethack."
This is both good and bad; on the one hand, you get verisimilitude for short trips, but on the other, you get dozens of rolls for a week-long trip, most of which boil down to "You see a rabbit." "OK, we keep going."
Saturday October 11, 2008 at 04:49 PM
I think the DM's discretion has to be leveraged on those long trips. If a rabbit is rolled, it's more interesting to present a situation involving a rabbit than just "you see a rabbit".
Something colour-setting would be "The path emerges from beneath the forest canopy for a few hundred yards. A field of tall grass and wildflowers fills the treeless space, and you spot furtively-moving rabbits grazing on the greenery."
That would let the players interact with the scene if they so choose, and if not, then the progression of the landscape and a sense of travel has been established. The most important effect of the random encounter roll is that it can inspire the DM. If it's taken as a strict "the PCs meet a creature" and that's it, then its usefulness as a tool is diminished.
Sunday October 12, 2008 at 11:56 PM
I quite agree! But I think you miss my point, which is that the "rolling for random encounters six times a day" thing is increasingly untenable over long distances, particularly since most of them will just make the players go "Huh." and move on. A few scene-setting encounters like you describe above are nice every once in a while, but the rules as strictly applied make for terrible pacing.
Monday October 13, 2008 at 10:24 PM
I'm not so sure. On the one hand I do intuitively think six possible encounters a day is too much. However, that's unlikely since even in wilderness the canonical chance is 1 in 10, so it's more likely one per two days of travel.
Still, it feels like a lot to check for. But, the assumption built in to talk about pacing is that the story needs to move at the right pace to unfold. In Naturalist-based gaming there is more focus on story-less, player-driven exploration and choice. Moving around and doing what they like, and running into interesting things in the process, is the source of enjoyment. A set story that needs to be paced is anathema to pure-Naturalism.
That said, most games aren't purely Gygaxian Naturalist, so pacing is still a consideration. I think that so long as the group is engaged, a GM doesn't need to worry about whether the game is running "slow". After all, all that happened in our last session was some ass-buying, travel, and a Crab Battle. It was fun, and I think focusing on "getting there" too much would have made it less engaging.
Thursday October 16, 2008 at 08:21 PM
Another possibility is that you have benign encounters along the way. I've seen more of these other places as well. They're great in that they may have nothing to do with the game, but they offer some flavor. Sometimes, players will take some of the results them to heart and want to explore them or make them the basis for new adventures.
Thursday October 16, 2008 at 09:49 PM
Absolutely! Benign encounters would add even more colour and opportunities for player-driven exploration. Thanks for the link. The list of odd and interesting encounters there is great. I love #120, the forgotten dagger stuck in a tree.
I often find that I can paint an overall picture of what a region is like to travel through while I struggle to think of those sorts of small details. I've always loved lists of mundane details for that reason, whether it's wilderness features or 100 unique treasures.