1 of this series, I admitted to having fear and misunderstood Wandering
Monsters in D&D for years, and resolved to find a way to make the system
2, I proposed some methods, tested both in Into
the Living Library and City
of Eternal Rain, for tying procedural content generation into the
overall narrative of your story.
Now, I’ll talk about one of the benefits of
wandering monsters—the end of the 15-minute adventuring day, and with it,
“CoDzilla” is a 3.5-era bit of D&D
slang that, for the uninitiated, means “Cleric or Druid-zilla.”
Clerics and Druids, even without much in the way of optimization, could be
enormously powerful. Close competitors were Wizards, Sorcerers, and various non-core
full casters. Starting from very low levels, these classes, through use of
spellcasting, were able to single-handedly—often single-turnedly—win major encounters. Clerics and Druids were especially
notorious, as in addition to a full complement of spells, they were no slouch
at mundane fighting, had a host of miscellaneous abilities, and, in the case of
the Druid, got the infamously-powerful Wild Shape ability and a pet grizzly bear. In contrast, a Fighter (who is maybe 25-50%
better than the bear the Druid gets as icing) gets marginally better at hitting
enemies with swords every level.
By 5th edition, the power
imbalances between classes have been substantially narrowed, with non-casting
classes getting various per-short-rest and per-day abilities that let them have
some time in the spotlight. In my current 5th-edition campaign, I’m
playing a Paladin, and, at 7th-level, don’t feel particularly behind
the party’s Wizard and Cleric. Back in 3.x, I’d be lucky if I even got a turn
in combat, and, with few skills or utility abilities, would pretty much fall
asleep outside of battle. So to a certain extent, this fix is beating a dead
horse, as changes to the rules have reduced the necessity for such a fix.
Still, anecdotal accounts have suggested to me that the caster-warrior
imbalance problem still lurks, especially at higher levels.
Solving this problem is where Wandering
Monsters come in. Those of you playing Pathfinder and 3.x D&D should pay
extra heed to this, but it’s applicable to 5e as well.
Wandering Monsters Vs.
Encounters with Wandering Monsters have
substantially lower stakes than pre-planned, climactic and narratively-key
ones. Typically, the foes are easier and the tension is lower as victory is
all-but assured. This means that characters have to choose between ‘wasting’ limited
per-day abilities to seek a quick victory, or suffer additional damage by dragging
out the fight by sticking with cantrips and regular attacks. The longer the
battle, the more opportunities the monster has to get in a few hits before
The devil with this decision is that,
either way, casters lose and warriors win. A Paladin’s basic attack is more accurate,
reliable, and powerful than a wizard’s cantrip, so if spellcasters withhold
their 'special’ attacks, non-casters take the spotlight. If the casters obliterate
Wandering Monsters with high-level spells, then by the time they reach the
'real’ fight (those being the pre-planned encounters, typically in dungeon
rooms rather than hallways), they’ll be relegated to cantrips while the fighters
open up with their modest per-day abilities and their more efficient
Martial classes do have some limited-use abilities, especially half-casters like
Paladins, so they are pushed into a similar dilemma (“do I use Smite on the
owlbear or save it for the true foe?”) but the stakes are much lower, as
their abilities are weaker and their conventional attacks more powerful than a
true caster’s. This means that even if the Paladins and other half-casters make
the 'wrong’ decision, they can typically make do regardless.
Now, the obvious flaw with this plan is that
at any point the party can just fall back, rest, and come back in with a full
complement of spells, right? This means that wearing the casters down through attrition
is doomed from the start, because they can conveniently heal up to 100% with a
single night’s sleep. This is why adding Wandering Monsters all by itself isn’t
enough—we have to start enforcing other rules as well, such as…
No Long Rests in Dungeons
There’s a secret to the long/short rest
split of 5th edition D&D, and that’s that not all classes
benefit equally. Far and away, a short rest is more meaningful to a martial
class than a spellcasting class, and vice-versa for long rests.
Most martial classes have powerful
abilities that recover every short rest starting at level 2 or 3. For example,
Fighters get Action Surge, Paladins get Channel Divinity, and Monks get Ki.
Barbarians are a rare exception, as their key ability (Rage) is actually tied
to long rests. Rangers have no useful abilities worth noting that recharge on
short rests, long rests, or honestly at all, so there’s no helping them.
Spellcasters’ main ability—spellcasting—universally require long rests to
recover in full. Some casting classes, such as the Wizard and Druid, have
abilities that let them recover some spell slots on a short rest—but these
abilities themselves can only be used once
per long rest, so at the end of the day, are still long-rest dependent.
Additionally, martial classes, due to their larger hit dice, tend to recover
more hit points on a short rest than spellcasting classes do. But, because
casters get minor benefits from taking short rests, their players won’t be
frustrated by the need for taking them.
If you, as GM, provide many opportunities
for a short rest (which is about an hour), but keep long rests few and far
between, then martial classes can keep going while spellcasters are run ragged.
In the context of a dungeon, you can, for instance, let them take short rests
in cleared rooms as long as they put a modicum of effort into securing the room
(blocking or locking the doors, for instance), but stress that long rests are impossible.
There is simply no way to have eight relaxing, uninterrupted hours in a
dungeon; Wandering Monsters will
attack, spoiling the rest. What’s more, the constant threat of attack from the
unknown makes true relaxation unachievable. You can be upfront about this;
don’t assume the players know what you mean when you coyly say “well, you could try that, but you might be
attacked in the night.”
If the party wants to take a long rest,
they have to leave the dungeon, set up camp, and come back—which will involve
fighting their way through the Wandering Monsters that have moved into
previously-cleared areas, thus wearing the party down again and defeating the
purpose. Conveniently, all of this is simulated by the Wandering Monster
table—the GM doesn’t have to worry about actually moving monsters from room to
Wandering Monster tables are at their heart a computer-free technological aid,
the random die rolls on the table simulates all of the movement of a real
ecosystem, much the same way that a character’s hit points simulate their
overall health, but remove a lot of the headache of doing so.
For very large dungeons, such as Paul
Jacquay’s famous Caverns of Thracia, it
at first appears simply impossible for any party, no matter how stringent they
are with spells and potions, to complete in a single long rest. In part, this
is mitigated by numerous hidden entrances into the dungeon that, once
discovered, can be used to bypass previously-cleared sections. There are also
numerous shortcuts, such as teleport pads and elevators, that can be used in a
similar manner. Still, all of that might not be quite enough, and when
designing very large dungeons, occasional points of safety can be placed that
are free of Wandering Monsters. They might have particularly secure doors, be
protected by magic, or some kind of friendly NPC or monster. Think of these as
a video game mid-dungeon save point, both in terms of how powerful an effect it
will have, and how rare it should be.
Into the Living Library relies
heavily on Wandering Monsters because they play well with the adventure’s time
crunch: each time the party faces such a monster, their consumable resources
(spells, potions, HP) are slightly depleted, and they must choose whether to
press on in their weakened state or return to campus to rest, which means
sacrificing one of their precious few days.
Wandering Monsters, tied with any kind of
external time pressure, pack more work into a single adventuring day, and with
that, the expenditure of more spells. Spellcasters’ 'basic’ attacks (cantrips
and crossbows) tend to be much less powerful than those of a Fighter, Barbarian,
or Paladin. If high-level spells and per-day abilities have to be carefully
rationed out over the course of many encounters, rather than just one or two, then
casters are brought down to the level of non-casters.
Not every adventure should include a time
pressure element, as the players will start to feel rushed and possibly even railroaded,
as the constant time demands may keep them from feeling able to pursue their
own goals. Beware Fallout 4’s Preston
Garvey, who continually dispenses timed quests that pull the player away from
doing what they want to do.
Keep the Battles
As a GM, I often forget that my toolbox
includes more than perfectly-balanced encounters. It may sound like an
oxymoron, but there is a time and a place for a poorly-balanced battle, which
brings us back to the original post. Oblivion, my least-favourite Elder Scrolls
game, has highly restrictive game rules in place in an attempt to keep every
battle, whether it be against a necromancer lord or a random bandit, balanced
on a knife’s edge. Enemies and equipment level up closely in step with the
player, meaning that as the player gains power, so too does the world. The
drawback is that there are few if any “oh, crap!” moments where the
player gets in over their head. Likewise, there are very few moments where the
player simply obliterates the enemies in front of them, and, by doing so, feels
like a badass.
By all means, strive for perfect balance
and interesting terrain in your pre-made set-piece battles (such as what might
be found in a dungeon’s room, for example), but for Wandering Monsters, imbalance
is a feature, not a bug. Battles that are 'too easy’ will be resolved quickly
(saving precious game time), and battles that are 'too hard’ won’t be fought at
all—the party will turn tail and run (convincing the party to run rather than
fight a losing battle is a good subject for a later post). Battles that are
close to balanced will be drawn-out slugfests, forcing the party to draw upon
every available resource. They will take ages, and burn through per-day
abilities much faster than you intend, which in turn forces the party to leave
the dungeon, thus contributing to the 15-minute adventuring day. Remember that
easy battles will still drain the party’s resources somewhat, as even the
weakest monsters in 5e have a pretty good chance of getting one or two hits on
any character, and players will be constantly tempted to blow the trash
monsters away with their limited-use abilities, like spells and smites.
Another rarely-mentioned feature of
unbalanced encounters is that they let you use a greater percentage of the
Monster Manual when designing your dungeons, thus increasing the variety of
creatures the party can meet. Using only level-appropriate encounters limits
you to an ever-decreasing handful of creatures as the party levels up, and can
push you into placing monsters in unthematic areas just to reduce the monotony
a little. It also means that, in a few levels, when the party actually can fight the same type of high-level
monster they’ve been running from, victory will feel all the sweeter.