Wandering monsters are an essential component of any dungeon larger than a couple of rooms. Their presence adds verisimilitude, depth and an interesting element of randomness and unpredictability to proceedings.
However, to avoid boring and bland wandering monster encounters that make no real sense you need to think about a couple of things. Principally, beyond determining what kind of monsters the party encounters, you should consider:
Beyond wandering, what are the wandering monsters actually doing?
That’s a pretty important question. The answer has a huge influence on the encounter set-up. For example—obviously—a gelatinous cube is unlikely to be setting up camp for the night. Other wanderers, however, have more complex motivations and reasons for their actions. In a troglodyte tribal den, for example, wandering troglodytes might be:
- fetching water
- carrying away rubbish
- watching for intruders
- doing anything else troglodytes do in their lairs
Whatever the troglodytes are doing, they are unlikely to be hanging around doing nothing (except those darn lazy teenage troglodytes, that is).
There are three basic types of wandering monster. Each type gets up to different things in the dungeon. Use the lists below, to determine what a randomly encountered monster is doing. Remember, some results may make no sense when paired with the wanderers in question; modify the results as appropriate.
Organised Dungeon Denizens
These wanderers belong to the group controlling the dungeon (or this part of the dungeon). When encountered, the dungeon denizens are:
- Patrolling their lair
- Shirking their duties (drinking, gambling, sleeping etc.)
- Carrying water
- Disposing of rubbish
- Escorting a prisoner
- Watching for intruders
- Chasing an escaped slave or prisoner
- Repairing something such as a door, piece of furniture etc.
- Moving foodstuffs or other heavy items about the lair
- Decorating something with graffiti
- Baiting a prisoner or small animal
- Paling to watch for intruders (they could be asleep, drunk etc.)
- Preparing to go on a scouting mission
- Brawling with each other
- Plotting against their chieftain or leader
- Nefariously sneaking about
- Making a lot of noise—perhaps shouting or singing
As well as the dungeon’s denizens, the party might instead encounter their slaves or an escaped prisoner. Such encounters will likely result in role-playing rather than combat and could even serve as a useful source of intelligence.
The PCs encounter another adventuring group or members of a group working against the dungeon’s denizens. The other party could be friendly (or not). When encountered, the explorers or interlopers are:
- Sneaking towards their enemies
- Returning from a raid with a prisoner
- Setting up camp
- Breaking camp
- Setting a trap
- Waiting to spring an ambush
- Wandering about lost
- Spying on their enemies
- Searching for something hidden (a secret door, trap or treasure niche)
Some monsters are nothing more than mindless or near-mindless scavengers, driven by their base, atavistic influences. Rats, giant spiders and gelatinous cubes all fall into this category. The other dungeon denizens may tolerate, fear or hunt these scavengers. Scavengers rarely deliberately carry treasure with them. When encountered, the scavengers are:
- Waiting to pounce
- Creating a new nest or lair
- Dragging or carrying something (probably prey) back to their lair
- Chasing prey
The Final Word
The above lists are by no means all-encompassing. However, they should serve as a useful starting point to spark your imagination. When designing a random encounter on the fly, remember randomly encountered monsters:
- are doing something when encountered; they are rarely just hanging around waiting to be killed
- are not always aware of the PCs before the PCs become aware of them
- don’t always want to fight
- might want to ally themselves with the PCs
Practically, from a GM’s point of view, wandering monsters can be:
- a great way of slowing down or diverting the party
- a good way of “topping up” the party’s XP
- a way to provide the party with vital resources—such as a scroll or other magic item—they currently lack
Thank you to Chris Nielsen for making me ponder this subject.
What Do You Think?
Do you love or hate wandering monsters? Let me know, in the comments below.