Adventure Design

An archive of my adventure design notes.
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Adventure Design - Wandering Monsters

Bryce Lynch
United States
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Welcome to the PLEASUREDOME
Wandering Monster Table
1. Centipedes, giant (1d4+1)
2. Centipedes, giant (1d4+1)
3. Kobolds (2d4)
4. Bugbear (1)
5. Skeletons (1d6)
6. Rats, giant (1d8)
7. Green Slime (1)
8. Albino Ape (1)
9. Crab Spider (1)
10. Gelatinous Cube (1)

The above wandering monster table, in one form or another, is present in the vast majority of adventures. Sometimes monster stats are listed, sometimes they are not. And it sucks. A wandering monster in the dungeon is a tax; you need to move your ass because the longer you screw around the greater the likelihood the wanderers are going to get you. And yet they generally suck. The vast majority of them are just wasting space in the adventure that could be used for something else. The above example is illustrative. What value does it add that is not already provided in the DMG? There’s surely a wandering monster table there, why not use it instead and use the freed space for additional content? The examples are more extreme when the wandering monster charts are expansive, with stat-blocks over the majority of a page, or even two. Everything in the adventure needs to inspire or get cut, and that wandering monster table doesn’t inspire shit. The designer must inspire the DM. That's the purpose for the adventure. If it doesn't inspire then it need improvement.

What the chart is missing is action. Any time you meet something, in a room or wandering, they should be doing something. It’s this extra bit that inspires. The brown bear that shows up in the chart should be eating a deer, or getting goaded by a couple of goblins, or has treed a couple of goblins. Almost any activity would do. I say almost because there is one activity that I almost never like to see: “waiting to attack.” That’s stupid. It conjures up images of those old sucky adventures in which an orc stands on either side of a side, eternally waiting for someone to open it so they can attack. Get your creatures doing something.

I think the principal is so important that I have one entire page of my DM screen devoted to it. You can find examples from Sham, or 1d8, or several other sources. Other good examples can be found in Jungle Ruins of Madoro-Shanti. In it you can encounter a deer on a hill chanting “Beware Cho-odo! Beware cho-odo!” before it falls over dead. Examination reveals it’s been dead for several days. Not only is this an action encounter but it also is directly related to what’s going on in the adventure and helps build dread. Another good example is in Dzeegbagd. In this the animals act like animals, not psychotic rapid dogs. The other creatures will talk to you. That one gets a little long-winded, but the general principal of adding a bit more is followed. “Looking for a straggler to pick off” or some such gives the DM something to riff off of. Sometimes you have to narrow things down in order get the old brain juices going. Give your creatures a reason to wander about or have them engaged in something.

There’s a line here between a good bit of extra detail and a bad bit. Dungeon Magazine #24 has an adventure called “A Hitch in Time” which includes a wandering monster table for the wilderness between town and the tomb. It has eight monster entires, with stats, and each has a little description. The description for the Shambling Mound says something like “It resides in a stream or marsh and attacks only at night. It’s lair may be found blah blah blah.” What’s lacking here is action. Another entry has a flesh golem wandering the forest. It attacks anything it encounters. “This monster was created by a wizard who subsequently lost control of the golem. It has been wandering the wilderness in a confused state for many weeks, and it attacks anything it encounters that it perceives as being animate. The monster may be met day or night. It cannot communicate with the PC’s, nor will it obey any wizards attempt to control it. It may be mistaken for the golem rumored to be guarding [quest guys] tomb, if the PC’s heard that rumor in the village.” That adds nothing to the adventure. It adds nothing to the encounter. What were looking for is something that is actionable. Maybe something like the flesh golem is clearing the forest of trees, and it may mistake the PC’s for one. Or it is mindlessly stacking objects in a pyramid state, including dead forest animals, etc. It may intake the party for one. These are things the party can interact with and the creature is engaged in some activity. Maybe the shambling mound is lecturing some giant beavers, or tearing down a beaver dam, or damming a stream, or engaged in a commune with a dryad, or worshiping a fairy circle, or marking his territory with deer heads. All of that is better than what’s given.

You don’t have to write a book for each one, you just need more than a single monster entry and have a verb associated with it. (With ‘hunting’ and ‘attacking’ used VERY infrequently.) Something like “Brown Bear” is lame. A paragraph on the brown bear is better, but probably too much. “Brown bear being baited by 2d12 goblins” or “Brown bear family eating an owl bear corpse” gives the DM enough to riff on while still being terse.

Some examples to riff:
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