Monday, January 9, 2012

Wandering Monsters and GNS

So, Fr. Dave's startlingly acute insight into the role of the Wandering Monster Table got me to thinking (an aside: this is at least the second post that comes from thinking about something that worthy said).  Basically, what FD did was take a mental step to the side and look at the concept of the Wandering Monster from a new light.  In the comments, I noted that his particular shift of POV made me think of yet  another.  As I walked around on my afternoon constitutional, I thought more about this and it occurred to me that here is a place where the GNS Theory (which I never hear discussed anymore) might be useful.

I have always had a troubled relationship with Wandering Monsters in Ye Auld Game.  I honestly didn't even understand the idea when I started playing and ignored it.  Later, I began to understand the idea, but seldom used it because something about it bugged me.  I didn't have the conceptual tools to understand why it bothered me; it just did.  It is clearer now to me that my problem has something to do with how one answers the question, "Why are these 2d6 Skeletons wandering around here?"

When you look at early dungeons, it is pretty clear that the answer to the above questions is something like, "Because that's a decent encounter for this level of the dungeon."  It is an implicitly Gamist concept, in which monster Hit Dice are related to Dungeon Level, and the whole thing has to do discouraging dawdling and noisy war-bands.  That's not to say that one could not provide some in-game rationale, but any such rationale would be an ex post facto invention on the part of the Referee and not the intent of the encounter.

That's what truly irritated me about Wandering Monsters because I was, in the GNS Model, a determined Simulationist, trying hard to play in a world that felt "real".  I wanted to know why it was skeletons, why it was 2d6 of them, and why they were on this particular level and not another (you couldn't even appeal to idea that monsters stick to levels where they won't get eaten by something tougher, because skeletons don't really have any sense of self-preservation).  I wanted a Table that was specifically designed for each locale instead of the endless supply of Giant Rats and Hobgoblins.  But trying to put those together was so much work that I usually just gave up entirely.

Now, what strikes me a so damn clever about Fr. Dave's idea is the way it promotes a Narrativist agenda for the Wandering Monster Table.  And, yes, I wrote that precisely - it makes the Table itself a player in the game, with agency, and a say in the unfolding narrative.  This point-of-view makes it explicit that there is a non-Gamist answer to my question, but still requires the Referee to flesh it out.  These might be the only 2d6 Skeletons in the dungeon, or in the world, and if they are destroyed, there aren't any more.  Unless, that is, they come up again on the Table, at which point some intriguing narrative is surely unfolding: are the skeletons unkillable, rising up again a few hours after being destroyed?  Is there an enthusiastic necromancer just ahead of the party, practicing his art to keep them delayed?  Are the skeletons the unquiet remnants of living monsters killed by the party, chasing them for revenge?

I don't know, but suddenly the whole enterprise seems so much more interesting to me.


  1. Wandering Monsters could be seen like Fumble tables, just more random obstacles.

    But they were also a weird entertainment for the DM in his story. They were a mini-game within the game to force the DM to be surprised and to improvise as if he were a player.

  2. One of the things that 2E implemented, was that they're a starting point--you were intended to create ones suitable for the environment/dungeon you were inside.

    You theme the adventure with them. Of course my Random Encounter Table was more than monsters, it included all the fun stuff I wanted. Strange things, wondrous things, weather, sounds.

    I had a haunted grave yard that's wandering encounter was:

    A gate creaks
    A howling can be heard.
    A ghost rises from a grave and passes the characters, ignoring them completely.
    A skeleton is digging up a body, it will turn and attack if characters linger to long.
    A hand reaches up and grabs a character's ankle.

    Spiced in with the planned events these random encounters gave flavor to the haunted graveyard, without it all being combat/combat/combat.

  3. Wandering monsters served a very important purpose: Keeping the characters moving. If you think about it, in AD&D they were part and parcel to tracking turns and torches -- they gave a sense of urgency. As in, "we can't rest here because we're going to die!"

  4. Too damned funny. I look up Wheel of Samsara to make sure my reference is appropriate (too many years since Zen Philosophy class), and I find a nearby friend. Hello Matt! While your blog doesn't particularly suit the nature of my search, it is rather fun to find you out here in the google wilderness, proving, perhaps, ...well proving something about worlds and smallness and so on. Even on the internet.

    --Emeline's dad

  5. Hah! The turnings of the Wheel are mysterious indeed.

  6. rationale would be an ex post factor invention on the part of the Referee and not the intent of the encounter.

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