Earlier today I was reading the Angry GM’s most recent article about traps. It was an excellent article, as usual, and I agree with pretty much everything in it. However, also as usual, it got me thinking of a lot about issues related to encounter design.
There is a point in the article that, in order to discourage pixel-bitching, there needs to be a consequence to taking the step of looking for traps. And before he even said it, I was already thinking about wandering monsters. Because how and when to use wandering monsters has been very much on my mind lately.
In the old days, pretty much every dungeon included a table for wandering monsters, and the DM would check periodically (generally every turn, or 10 minutes) for the appearance of a random creature which may or may not have some relationship with the dungeon ecology (or lack thereof).
It was time-based mechanic, and because it was a time-based mechanic, it does not work well in the 4e system without adaptation, because 4e treats time very differently than 1e did.
Everything in AD&D took a lot longer. In general, exploration (travel) took about 10 times longer (in-game), and exploration (searching) took 30-40 times longer (also in-game). Combat is about the same, but only if you include 4e’s short (5 minute) rest as part of the combat duration. (Read the AD&D DMG and the 4e Rules Compendium if you want details; summarizing in this way allowed me to cut six long paragraphs of analysis that I doubt anyone wanted to read.)
The long and the short of it is, both because of changes in the system and changes in the way I want to structure my games, time is no longer an appropriate mechanic for organizing random encounters. What I want to do instead is link random encounters to the choices that players make. That is, I want the chance of a resource wasting encounter to be the consequence of players choosing to take an action rather than forego it.
Take searching for traps. In game, this slows down character movement through the dungeon and increases the likelihood of some creature stumbling upon the party before they get to the next room. Out of game, it breaks the narrative. Both as a DM and as a player, you only want the party to be looking for traps when there is a reasonable chance that traps might be present; you don’t want them checking for pits every 5 feet, for example.
So, if the party checks for traps, perhaps you should check for a wandering monster. This makes the decision to look for traps a wise one if the party has reason to believe that there might be a trap present, and a foolish one if there is no indication that a trap might be present. A corollary of this is that the presence of traps should be telegraphed in some way; look at Angry’s article if you want clever ideas as to how to do this.
The same logic applies to searching for secret doors, so let’s turn instead to opening locks. Opening locks is a bit different because it can be perceived as not being a real choice; however, this is only true if (a) there are no other options available for exploration in the dungeon (you have explored every open or unlocked room on this side of the door); and (b) the door is too strong to force.
If the door is not too strong to force, then you have the option of attempting to force it. If you fail on the first attempt, you have made a bunch of noise and alerted any creatures on the other side of the door. If you succeed, you surprise any monsters on the other side, but you still make a bunch of noise and may alert other monsters in the area.
If you attempt to pick the lock instead, you have a much reduced risk of alerting whatever is on the other side in the event of a failure. This means that if there are no other options for exploration on this side of the door, choosing to pick the lock rather than force the door becomes the default choice unless there are also consequences associated with the choice to pick the lock.
This is where wandering monster checks come into play, because when the PC chooses to pick a lock, there is a risk of a random encounter. Moreover, if they fail to pick the lock, and have to try again, they run that risk a second time.
Random encounter checks are therefore linked to the decision to take an action rather than the time it takes to complete that action. This is not as much of a departure as you might think, since time in D&D was always an abstraction, and since most of the significant out-of-combat actions in AD&D took ten minutes anyway (for example, a cursory search of a 20’ x 20’ room, or searching a 10’ x 10’ area for the trigger to open a secret door), which was generally enough to trigger a random encounter check.
Now let’s look at short (5 minute) rests. A short rest is the default action to take after a combat, in order to recharge encounter powers and regain lost hit points. As they are generally used, there are no meaningful choices associated with the decision to take a short rest. Even if one introduced a random encounter mechanic, the risk of proceeding without regaining hit points or encounter powers would far outweigh the relatively small chance of a random encounter.
But what about the decision to take a second short rest? Suppose the party healer is a sixth level bard. If she uses her song of rest, then for each healing surge a party member expends, he gains additional hit points equal to the bard’s charisma. But if the bard instead takes a short rest and uses Majestic Word, for each healing surge spent the party member gains additional hit points equal to the bard’s charisma plus 1d6 hit points. Without some sort of time pressure, the optimal choice to make is to take several short rests in a row, and spam Majestic Words.
So perhaps the first short rest is free, but additional ones trigger a random encounter check.
I would like to play with that a little. But first, let’s talk about one of the things I do with encounter design. When I have a number of rooms, not too far apart, with allied creatures, and the PCs encounter the creatures in one of them, I assume that team monster will send for reinforcements as soon as they realize they are in trouble (generally partway through round 2). If the PCs fail to prevent monsters from escaping and summoning reinforcements, they could find themselves fighting a series of encounters with no short rest in between.
As a result, I tend to design connected areas as though they were a single encounter, fought in waves, and I set the difficulty for the entire area at the extreme edge of what the PCs can handle – usually double the XP budget for an at-level encounter. Now, they only face this if they fail to shut down the call for reinforcements, so if they play their cards right, they could instead be facing a series of easy encounters, and take very little damage from each of them.
As it stands, despite easily overpowering the easy encounters and taking little damage, there is little incentive to skip the short rest and press on to the next encounter. And on the one hand, good for them if they have managed the encounters well.
But on the other hand, from a narrative perspective it makes sense if allied creatures check in on each other from time to time. And maybe the party should make decisions about setting up defences while it is resting. And maybe there should be a real choice between pressing on with surprise, or risking discovery during a rest. So maybe there should be a chance of random encounters – or rather, a random chance of an encounter, since the creatures involved in the encounter are likely to be the allies of the creatures that were just killed. So maybe the first short rest shouldn’t be a freebie.
I still am not sure what I am going to do with this. For now, I think I will consider employing it on a case by case basis.