Purposeful Wandering Monsters

As I was writing about the keyed monster list, I had cause to generate a random dungeon as an example using the generator over at donjon. The example that popped out was fine . . . but I did notice that nearly all of the fun threats in that particular output were from random encounters – the Wandering Monster table was far more interesting challenge-wise than the encounters that were in place.

Perhaps that makes sense in some cases, but it got me thinking about the why of wandering monsters. Why might monsters wander, and what kinds of wandering are more likely to provoke violent encounters?

I wonder why I wander

Brainstorming a bit:

  • Travel from place to place – migration, resettlement
  • Hunting for food
  • Patrolling territory that has already been established
  • Scouting new territory for home, food, mates, or resources
  • Scouting new territory for fun
  • Looking for an encounter for a specific purpose – rite of passage, hunting for sport rather than food
  • War party, genocidal or punitive expedition
  • Investigating strange goings on (loud noises, sounds of a struggle, cries of a wounded creature)

I’m sure there are others.

One interesting divide here is that some of these are more appropriate for sapient beings than sentient ones.

A tiger will set up a territory. It will patrol that territory on very regular intervals. It will hunt for food within that territory, and within reason, it will defend the territory from incursion. It uses spray, urine, feces, and scratch markings to not only signal the territory, but to purposefully signal its patrol pattern. So it’s likely to share territory at the borders, so long as other animals don’t encroach during patrol hours, so to speak.

A band of traditional orcs, who are aggressive, warlike, and sapient, may be wandering from place to place, and if they are migrating, they will do it in very large numbers – a clan or tribe (thinking on it, regular migrations will frequently be in force). They may engage in many of the listed activities, and can be counted on doing so with (relatively speaking) great creativity. Their patrols may be more random and less signaled. They may hunt for sport as well as for food.

In a dungeon environment, or any sort of encounter really, it may help the GM or encounter designer pondering a wandering monster or chance encounter table to consider the kinds of encounters that might be had.

Sentient but not Sapient

Basically, encounters with animals.

At the simplest form, animals are interested in survival requirements first and foremost, because they are each in charge of providing for themselves each day. They will need to eat, drink, sleep in a safe place, mate, and then produce and protect their offspring.

Grazing or non-predatory animals will be moving from place to place to do this – such as moving in a herd or a small group. They will be skittish, typically, though this can vary quite a bit – African buffalo are incredibly dangerous, unpredictable, and engage in both reactive and pre-emptive attacks on potential threats to the herd.

A herd of buffalo aren’t terribly likely to be wandering through an underground lair, of course.

Actually, that’s an interesting point, in that prey animals are probably not terribly likely to be cavorting around inside a cave complex inhabited by any sort of apex predator unless they are really native to the environment and the predator doesn’t leave obvious markings and traces saying “here there be death.”

On the other hand, if you had a cave-mole-rat-crawler-thing that ate cave or dungeon fungus, and then predators that snacked on those, well, that’s all good.

On the more dangerous end, predatory animals will set up a home or nest, or simply occupy a territory. They will hunt, likely at set periods in each cycle, and they may well patrol on a set schedule. They may well investigate loud noises, but only of certain types. The clash of spear and shield will most probably cause creatures to flee from the racket. The cries of the wounded will draw carnivores looking for a meal.

Hunting behavior is most frequently ambush behavior. I have heard it said (though I wouldn’t trust my life to it) that if you see a shark, you’re safe – it’s the one you don’t see that will get you.

But if you roll up a wandering monster encounter with a hunting predator – check the local terrain. Don’t assume that a cave lion pops out in the middle of a corridor. If such a beast comes up on the table, it either means the lion has already gotten into position to launch an ambush, or it is attempting to do so. The wandering monster encounter should probably mean that one is available for an encounter, not that it starts right then.

And make no mistake – monsters and animals and monstrous animals (monstrosities, especially) are attuned to their environment, and may well also be attuned to their magical environment. Which means that just like a real-life predator might try and pick off the young, small, and straggling, there’s no reason to assume that an eagle-bear or badger-lion, hybrid chimeras only possible by magical tampering, can’t sense the spellcasters and make them a primary target for an ambush pounce.

One exception to the stalk-and-avoid or stalk-and-pounce rule will be outright defense of the young or territorial displays or protection. A party of adventurers stumbling upon – or inside – a lair, especially where young are being raised, are likely to experience a ferocious preemptive strike. Maybe preceded by a threat display, depending on the animal. A quiet retreat might diffuse the encounter, but might not.

Sapients – Dangerous Game

Creatures capable of reason, logic, and planning are basically NPCs. They will engage in all of the behavior that a party of PCs would, with scouting, devices set up for traps, combined arms (including the strategic and tactical use of magic), and random patrols.

They also get lazy, drunk, and noisy . . . just like PCs do.

They may also set up regular armed patrols and excursion looking for violence. If they have constructed an underground (or above-ground) lair, dungeon, or fortification, they will treat it as such. Outer doors will be locked. Patrols will try and stage far enough away from “home” to identify, if not confront, threats not on their home turf. The truism that a proper soldier is either marching, digging, or sleeping should hold true: Do your PCs make a fortified camp each night, and set a watch?

Well, if they want to stay alive, yes. And sapient creatures with an eye for attack and defense will do likewise.

If setting up a layered challenge with different types of perhaps-hostile creatures coexisting in a common space, like the classic Caves of Chaos, each territory border will likely be guarded and fortified. And the basic question “why live with a hungry minotaur, owlbear, or swarm of kobolds as a next-door neighbor?” should be asked from the gnolls’ point of view as well. If the answer is “a source of deep evil found deep beneath the caves draws all sorts of creatures to occupy them!” then great – it’s a hard life for those monsters, but at least you have a good reason.

Back to wandering, though. These creatures are more likely looking for a fight, and looking for a slaughter. They may be hunting for food, and the PCs are a delicacy. They may usually hunt herbivores, but come across the PCs who are also hunting the herbivores, and you get a fun game of “stalk the stalkers.”

You may also get stuff like a band of orc barbarians showing up – clearly outnumbering the PCs – and pushing a youth forward to take on a suitable foe in hand-to-hand combat as a rite of passage. That would be an interesting, and tense, encounter.

In any case, the key here is to think smart – or at least as smart as your foes allow. In D&D and GURPS terms an INT or IQ of 8 might be a bit dim (more so in GURPS, which means default use of an average skill will succeed only 0.5% of the time; in D&D games, IQ 8 is only a -5% chance to succeed, usually, perhaps -10% on a straight stat roll) but they will have plenty of opportunity to understand cover, concealment, concentration of force, and pack tactics.

Of course, working as a team is hard, which is why trained soldiers do rather better than untrained militia or conscripts – or a gang.

Chaotic Evil and Aberrations

One notable exception to the rules are critters that may be essentially animals or have animal-level intelligence but are not of this earth, or even not of the multiverse. Such creatures – demons and aberrations in the D&D sense – may simply wander around looking for creatures to kill and devour, kill and discard, or as Zoe would say, “they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”

That is, perhaps, the more typical wandering monster encounter, or at least how those I’ve been involved with (mostly in dim history) have played out. But that should be the exception, rather than the rule.

Thank You Captain Obvious

This stuff is pretty basic, and so is probably pretty banal. Still, it might be of use for coming up with variations on keeping the wandering monster table interesting, and can inform decisions on how to stage and execute overland encounters.

Such encounters are products of their environment – what creatures are where, how they conduct their business, as well as fight-or-flight behavior. An encounter with a stalking predator may well be something the PCs never notice . . . but because they’re keeping tight discipline, never leaving a straggler, and not acting like prey, the encounter is never noticed!

Or, it might play out like this:

“Your stopping to check out every random root, berry, tree, and shrub to see if it might be useful for magical components has allowed the rest of the group to drift about sixty or seventy feet ahead. Out of nowhere, a cave lion darts in from concealment, headed directly at Master Ignitius the wizard. Ignitius, roll for mental stun for surprise.”

“But my perception checks . . .”

“. . . were failed; the lion beat your passive perception. Roll or be eaten!”

“AARGH! I failed!”

“ooo. Too bad. It pounces on you, attacking to grapple and knock you prone…”

After that, things are likely to go poorly for Ignitius for a turn or to. At least, they should. A party of well armed and prepared adventurers will doubtless drive off the predatory beast – and such creatures are not looking to fight, they’re looking to eat, so a few blows exchanged will probably lead the creature to retreat.

Although lions are known for hunting in packs . . .

In closing: wonder why your wandering monsters wander, and then skew and arrange the encounter accordingly.

5 thoughts on “Purposeful Wandering Monsters

  1. Two notes:

    1) It helps to have a home base for the major random encounters. Say, “1d6 orcs from room #32” or “Bikyoonet the dragon from hex #1122.” It gives them something of a why right there, and somewhere to flee if things go south for them.
    2) Why assume a violent encounter? Go old school and make a reaction roll.

    1. 1. Agreed.

      2. Baseline is violence in every game ever in this milieu. If the players want to make it non-violent, or the game encourages non-violence, or supports it, great. But since most of my examples for animals were “and they want to eat you,” they’re not going to be doing so peacefully. The reaction roll would be a good one for determining how intimidating a party of adventureres is as potential prey, though.

      1. I’m not disputing the violence inherent in the system. However, having every animal “want to eat you” makes the game more predictable. By all means, they should often want to eat you! (D&D is inherently post-apoc, when you get down to it. Prey is likely scarce.) However, there are other options, and having some apex predators just wandering about makes the ones who do want to eat you more surprising, and also makes the were-beasts stick out more, too.

  2. Capstick’s famous book “Death In The Long Grass” is highly instructive on the matter of encountering dangerous animals on their own turf. Every serious DM should read it.

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