Wandering Monsters Aren’t Delivery Loot

by mshrm

This past session, we added a new character with a new player: Posy, the paranoid cat-folk scout. One thing that stood out, to me, was that I could see her noticing when I started rolling lots of wandering monster rolls. I’ve been rolling them all along, and even publicly mentioned doing so, but it’s only been in the last few sessions that I’ve noticed the players noticing.

It’s true, I roll for random encounters. I’ll roll occasionally when the party is creeping along in “exploration” mode. I would roll less often, but even their version of stealth is pretty loud and obvious. Half the time, seems like, when the party approaches the entrance to the dungeon, TKotBO goes banging on his shield and shouting out that dinner’s served. He figures it’s best if the monsters just come to him.

When they start doing loud, obnoxious stuff, like fighting battles or getting into heated discussions in the middle of the hallway, I start rolling more often. When they settle down to do some long-term loud stuff, like knocking in a door inch by inch or digging a new hallway, I start rolling pretty frequently.

But… so what?  Isn’t that the name of the game, after all — fighting monsters for loot and experience points? Why not have the bad guys come to you?  What’s to fear in wandering monsters? Well, here’s how I see it, in this campaign.

Wandering monsters aren’t going to be carrying their treasure, if they’ve got any in the first place. One big possibility, when a wandering monster check comes up, is “Local monster yells at adventurers to get off his lawn”. Take the time that the party fought the ogre. TKotBO raised a ruckus, and the ogre came out of his lair to see what was disturbing his rest. As he was coming up, he was careful to lock his door behind him, lest some crowd of sleazy goblins come in and mess the place up. Unless his plan was bribery, he’s not going to bring out whatever chest full of treasure he’s got. The name of the game isn’t “fight monsters”, it’s really “take monster’s loot”, with a big steaming side of “probably by killing them”. I don’t care how much of a meat grinder the party turns into, if they come out of the dungeon without enough profit to cover their bar tabs, they’ve lost that round.

And missed that experience point, which brings us to the next thing.  When the wandering monster isn’t a local, it’s likely to be some kind of vermin or scavenger, like the rust monsters or the thing like a carrion crawler that TKotBO fought blind. They aren’t much of a fight, unless they manage to pull off some unexpected opening move.  (If those rust monsters had gotten closer before being detected, for instance.) Experience points get awarded for real fights, not massacres of a handful of bugs. Bugs and scavengers don’t usually have much in the way of wealth, so nobody’s getting rich off the fight. There’s little to no reward here, but the fight still burns through resources.

Not the least of which is Fatigue. Pretty much any fight is going to cost a little something, even for the lightly encumbered. If anybody puts forth Extra Effort or casts a spell, it’s just that much more Fatigue down the hole. Even if you get through the fight without using up expendables like potions, healing, and ammunition, every fight is taking a little bit out of the party. Everybody’s getting tired. Eventually, everybody gets so tired they slow down or have to hunker down and rest… and then they’re a sitting target, if anything wants to take a shot. For example, in session #3, a bunch of goblins tried to set a trap for our heroes to encounter when they emerged from their hiding place.

When you’re tired, and slow, and weighed down by treasure, and keep moving rather than rest… that’s when those wimpy bugs and backstabbers and ankle-biters and other scavengers suddenly become a threat. It would be terrible sad to defeat the dragon, only to be eaten by a nest of giant rats.

Well, terrible sad for someone.  Me?  I would get to take another victory lap around the gaming table. 😉

Wandering monsters aren’t there to be light snacks for the party. They’re there to keep things moving. If the party dawdles, or gets into loud arguments, or draws attention, they’ll bump into lots of wandering monsters, to little or no profit. Their ability to project force will be blunted. Resources will be wasted on targets of little value. Parties who take chances, who don’t keep adequate watch, will suffer for it. Wandering monsters encourage a party to have a plan, to move efficiently in the execution of that plan, and to work together for the safety and success of the team.