D&D Expert set - dice shenanigans?

For the first time ever, I'm reading the expert booklet in both its Moldvay and Mentzer incarnations, instead of through clones.
And I saw something quite disturbing. It's under "the art of DMing" in Moldvay and under "Overusing Dice" in Mentzer.

It says, well, it's quite shocking is what it is!! It says to do things that I have been taught through all of my contact with the OSR to be cheating, things that I have learned from experience how awesome it is to never ever do.

I have a hard time reconciling this discovery with the OSR style.
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Comments

  • I feel like this goes to support the impression I have that people are less prone to remember, take seriously and/or apply in the game anything stated as "good advice" in the rulebook. It's like, "good advice" found in a book has always less wight than "good advice" given by whoever taught you the game.

    It's as if spoken advice tends to become an unwritten rule easier than written good advice. I mean, I was surprised too when everyone was badmouthing VtM for having an umbalanced dice mechanics and JD brought to light that there's a whole chapter of good advice in the book explaining how you shouldn't be rolling dice and rely instead on comparing stats and only roll the dice when it's harder to decide what makes sense in the current situation.

    I often see lots of important procedures and things that are relly important to achieve a nice gameplay getting lost in a good play advice chapter that nobody takes seriously, instead of actually make those things part of the rules, because the designer thinks they sound silly as rules, because they feel like everyone knows better how to handle things at their table and it will come out as an impolite imposition.

    A couple of other things helped me change my mind on the subject. One is the rules for the Dragonball boardgame, which a friend of mine translated from japanese. They explicitly say as one of the first rules that "players shouldn't get angry when playing the game and refrain from violent outbursts while playing it"

    It was something along those lines and though yes, we thought the translation sounded silly, when we played the game we came to understand why: there are moments where the game and player moves become so unfair that it quite easy to forget it's just a game. Bringing that up in the rules then made up much more sense.

    Another thing that changed my mind was some of the first part of the Tenra Bansho corebook, where players are reminded of the game objectives: having fun and helping others have fun. The whole game is built up around this philosophy and you will find out that if you try and play it like D&D or fiasco the thing just won't click. For Tenra Bansho it makes more sense to let the party split and for players to have scenes by themselves, at lest from the start and then let the rest of the players incorporate to the current scene if they want so.

    So, if the original concept around D&D was for players to play single characters in stories about exploration, adventure and survival, what part there makes sense to have random things ruin immersion and call it part of the fun? It makes a lot more of sense to think that people just watched the random tables, wanted to use them as they were because they thought it would be fun and forget to read the advice that these were there for inspiration and not as something you should be using always.

    But it's not like I had noticed this before you posted this, it's too easy to follow everyone's advice instead of reading by yourself and realizing everyone has been playing the game the wrong way.
  • The opposite of a brilliant idea is not necessarily a stupid idea; sometimes it's a brilliant idea too.
  • It's just… it's just that this almost kills the interest I had in the game.
    I've referred to the sort of gameplay that this section recommends as a "curated experience". There's so many other parts of the game that become completely invalidated. It feels less like a real world to me :(
  • I don't think I've read Moldvay in any detail myself, but I've worked with Mentzer a fair bit. The part Sandra refers to is in the expert rules DM section p. 25:

    A common error while Dungeon Mastering is the use of random dice rolls to determine everything. An entire evening can be spoiled if (for example) an unplanned wilderness encounter on the way to the dungeon goes bad for the party. The DM must use good judgment in addition to random tables. Encounters should be scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure.

    The DM may choose a number within the given die range rather than roll for the amount of damage, number appearing, etc. This may be necessary to allow for a more enjoyable game; heavy damage early in the game may spoil some of the fun.


    That's not kosher, I agree. However, I also think that it's an imposed interpretation context (that is, you're arbitrarily setting outside standards for what the text should be) to expect a text like Mentzer to be self-consistent and faithful to an understanding of the game that was not as current and clarified at the time as it is now. Rather, Mentzer should, I think, generally be read as a haphazard mixture of challengeful and auteuristic ideas about conducting a game; this is very natural, as it is a set of texts that emerged specifically in the era when these competing ideas about the nature of roleplaying were experiencing a sea-change. Mentzer has plenty of good advice for conducting a neutrally refereed, challenge-oriented game, but it also has ideas that are loathsome in hindsight (for these purposes, that is).

    In general I find Mentzer to be pretty well in accord with my own understanding of methodical purity, there are many places in the rules where the text is extremely explicit about the fundamental nature of old wargame-like D&D. This is of course mostly true for the basic red box text; later parts in the series are increasingly limp-wristed about the whole idea, being as how they depict heights of leveling that are generally only achieved by groups that play for "fun" instead of fair challenge. Expert set, for example, is already depicting a context where character survival is a matter of course, the player character roster is essentially permanent, and everybody's in it "for the long haul"; the DM has become a complicit pawn of PC aggrandizement and so on.

    As an example of what I mean, check out the "Most Important Rule" from the Mentzer red box, the first text in the series:

    A Dungeon Master must not take sides. You will play the roles of the creatures encountered, but do so fairly, without favoring the monsters or the characters. Play the monsters as they would actually behave, at least as you imagine them.

    The players are not fighting the DM! The characters may be fighting the monsters, but everyone is playing the game to have fun. The players have fun exploring and earning more powerful characters, and the DM has fun playing the monsters and entertaining the players.

    For example, it is not fair to change the rules unless everyone agrees to the change. When you add optional rules, apply them evenly to everyone, players and monsters. Do not make exceptions; stick to the rules, and be fair.


    See? There's two facets to it, although I wouldn't characterize the basic text alone as too schizophrenic. While the actual point of this text is to emphasize the clear social contract of wargame-like D&D (fair refereeing on the basis of mutually agreed-upon rules), already in this text we can see a crude characterization of the game's pay-off: Mentzer is describing "earning more powerful characters" as a key facet of the game's fun value. It's just a throw-away at this point, and nowhere in the red box does he really develop the theme, but it does exist from the start.

    Thus, in summation: Mentzer is easy and profitable to play in a methodologically pure fashion, but it has bits of rules and advice that go against this strain of play. The earlier rules lean more towards pure wargaming D&D, while the later material presumes a broken method with the DM coaching the party to "success". Expecting it to be otherwise would not be realistic, as Mentzer's overriding concern in writing these texts was importing the ideas and culture of gaming to his readers; he was not trying to impart a pure method, but rather simply what he saw and experienced around him. Naturally, at a time when this contradiction in the DM's role was strongly present in the actual living tradition, it would also make its way into a descriptive text like this.
  • Remember that Mentzer was working from Moldvay which has pretty much the same non-kosher text with the same examples.
    Thus, in summation: Mentzer is easy and profitable to play in a methodologically pure fashion, but it has bits of rules and advice that go against this strain of play. The earlier rules lean more towards pure wargaming D&D, while the later material presumes a broken method with the DM coaching the party to "success". Expecting it to be otherwise would not be realistic, as Mentzer's overriding concern in writing these texts was importing the ideas and culture of gaming to his readers; he was not trying to impart a pure method, but rather simply what he saw and experienced around him. Naturally, at a time when this contradiction in the DM's role was strongly present in the actual living tradition, it would also make its way into a descriptive text like this.
    OMG how vindicating and satisfying it is to see this method described as "broken", "impure", "non-kosher", and "contradictory", and our proper method described as "pure" and "easy" and "profitable" (I'm suspecting this last one should be "productive"). It's a guilty pleasure but... my mind is riddled with the hobgoblin of consistency.
  • The alternate viewpoint would be to see that other strain of development in rpg philosophy as a more modern, advanced one, capable of actualizing greater heights of artistic expression. If one reads rpg discourse from the era (we're talking early '80s here, particularly), there is a strong sense of excitement involved in the birth of what we've come to know as the "traditional" style of play: GMs all over were stepping forward from what D&D (and wargaming in general) prescribed as the agenda and method of play, and reinvented the artform. The future of roleplaying would be about storytelling, drama and passion, it would be a vehicle for the imagination - the GM's imagination - to entertain and educate. No longer wargaming, but rather something more.

    To achieve this, one has to get rid of certain elements of the game's history; in hindsight it's pretty obvious how the doctrine of cheating (that the GM is responsible for the outcomes of play, and thus has the duty to cheat on the dice, that is) is an attempt at achieving the new vision via a backdoor route, without having to engage the play group as a whole in reinventing the hobby. Bad idea, but the zeitgeist was what it was: roleplaying (and D&D in particular!) is an unitary single hobby (corollary: there is a single right way to play), and the GM is the supreme authority of his own vision (corollary: he does not need active cooperation from his constituency). These two stupid ideas (it is easy to say in hindsight), once internalized, make it very sensible to play a duplicitous game where the GM changes his refereeing process and method without making any overt changes to the player-facing rules procedures. The game changes, yet remains the same.

    I don't personally quite get over the stupidity involved in not just designing a new, exciting game developed from the ground up to suit a vision like say Dragonlance, but given that this was evidently not an option, I can sort of understand the creative excitement that was present in pushing the higher ideals of plot and theme wherever it was possible. The technical outcome is a maddening muddle that people still struggle with (e.g. Pathfinder makes no more sense than AD&D or that particular section of Mentzer in this regard), but I think it's evident that there was genuine creative desire underlying the hamfisted effort.

    (Alternate history hypothesis: What If Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was delayed for say four years more, Gygax got sidelined from its development, and what would finally come out in the mid-'80s would be an unholy spawn of D&D and Saga System, intended to become the flagship game of the new story-oriented gaming era, distinct from the wargame-like Basic D&D? Would it be possible to run two different D&D lines with explicitly different creative agendas, considering how this already became a bit of a practical reality in our timeline? Would the name of the game still be "Advanced", or would it be preferable to call it "Legends of Dungeons & Dragons" or something like that? Which would be more popular, the storygame or the wargame?)
  • I have a theory that the DMs that originally started doing the "curated experience" were considered good and popular for a while, and then they started teaching their experience so the original mode, which they were building on, fell away. That's why many the 90:s RPG were such messes.

    I've spoke earlier how Drakar och Demoner 1991 edition removes all the world building help (random tables and such) from the earlier editions but instead put in things like "make it a roller coaster", "don't use the rules", "make it feel like a movie" etc. And I'm like... make what feel like a movie? You've removed all normal game mastering. The "popular" method for a few months there in the late 70:s/early 80:s was system + a dash of illusion/fudging/curation/quantum ogres and stuff. (A dash that I think you and I agree can spoil the whole broth, but that's a very strict position to suit our systematic, in my case definitely ASD-influenced, dispositions.)

    But what happened was that the system part fell away and it became illusion all the way down. People pretending to play a game that they weren't playing. It's absurd.
    It's like when a little kid plays pretend at the chess board and just put the pieces down haphazardly and goes like "Oh this is check mate! I win, mommy!"

    And if you want to make up stories, that's great and there are many amazing games for you these days that are based on that assumption.
    We now have the story games movement producing games that can sometimes make amazing, good experiences. (There's a lot of cargo cult games that are just meh, but Sturgeon's law applies and there are some great experience to be had here!) And we have the OSR trying to figure out ways RPGs can sing in a completely different way. It's the best of times, with these two fruitful strains.

    It's just that... for a while, we were settled with these awful games like the aforementioned DoD91.
    On the player side, super complex Runequest ripoff with character build points, weird custom fighting techniques sub systems, hit points per body part, flow charts for combat, a long table to reference when resolving skills etc.
    On the DM side, illusionism, "don't bother learning any of the rules", just describe things in an engaging and clear way, make up what happens, make fake die rolls, think action and epicness...
    The game as a whole, the core goings-on of RPGs very poorly explained or understood. How are you talking around the table, when are dice rolls made, what are the consequences of the rolls etc.
  • So given that, I would actually kinda prefer a "Legends of Dungeons & Dragons" that looked something like Microscope or Dungeon World or whatever, to what we got which was one of the most difficult-to-railroad games ever (Pathfinder with all its detailed rules and resolutions) used most popularly for just that, railroads. It's such an mismatch.
    Then again, I've said before that one of the very core tenets of Gnusto is "throw the other playstyles a bone" and people can suffer through the railroady session if it means they get to spend the rest of the month working on their build.
  • A common error while Dungeon Mastering is the use of random dice rolls to determine everything. An entire evening can be spoiled if (for example) an unplanned wilderness encounter on the way to the dungeon goes bad for the party. The DM must use good judgment in addition to random tables. Encounters should be scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure.

    The DM may choose a number within the given die range rather than roll for the amount of damage, number appearing, etc. This may be necessary to allow for a more enjoyable game; heavy damage early in the game may spoil some of the fun.

    Having played a fair amount of wilderness-heavy D&D (with the DM using primarily 1e AD&D rules, but with B/X stat mods and 3d6-in-order), I can understand completely why someone would write those words into a rulebook. I would even say those words understate things. The wilderness rules can match up PCs with monster encounters of such level disparity that they have almost no chance of survival, moreso if a few (un)lucky rolls throw multiple, un-escapable encounters at a group in the same day. If you've grown used to the tactical survival options available to, say, 3rd and 4th level characters as opposed to level 1s in the dungeon, and then those poor level 1 odds get reintroduced, it can leave a pretty bad taste in your mouth. Especially when the character you've been playing for the previous 6 months gets 1-shotted by some meaningless rando.

    The problem lies more in the random generation system producing uninteresting results, from the perspective of player engagement, and the DM having to exercise a fair amount of oversight. Well, not a problem to a DM already used to doing that with the rules, but y'all know what I mean.
  • Suddenly I'm feeling the urge of making a game called Munchkins & Railroads, where players get the most unbroken fix of a complex system to play with and on the GM side everything is mirrors and smoke, except that the real game is defined as a wrestle between the GM and the players for the control of the fiction, where the players win on different conditions they choose: they can choose to derrail the railroad, enforce it, amass the highest amount of gold or XP, do the highest damage, etc etc. The more metagaming, the better.

    But then, I guess nobody would want to play it at all.
  • Well said, Sandra, on the historical trends.

    I know what you mean, John, about the wilderness rules being punitive. I play that part of the game straight (well, not by any of the written texts, but spiritually it's the same), and for me the idea of meaningless death in the back of beyond works just fine, and the better if we're killing off a liked character. It's the salt of the thing, one might say even the entire point of the exercise, to celebrate our willingness to kill off even the most beloved characters when the game tells us to. Sort of hypnotic, the relationship between the game procedure and the players, as we witness in fascinated horror as all the well-made plans and cherished fictive bits (PCs, henchmen, pets, families, castles, countries, gods) get ravaged by the randomness.

    Reminds me of when our campaign did its very first cross-dimensional journey, and epic quest for a few unlikely heroes to save a world from peril. I'd prepped a massive amount of material for it, easily sufficient for a hundred sessions of play if it came to that. First thing, before even reaching a human settlement in the new world, the party encountered one of those "1-100" orc patrol encounters the monster manual advocates. Needless to say, no party of any reasonable level will survive an encounter with 87 orcs :D

    So yeah, it's thoroughly a matter of taste, of purpose - what we are even doing here, playing the game. I completely endorse the idea that if you're stuck with the D&D rules chassis, yet nevertheless don't want meaningless death, it makes sense to get into this weird muddle of situational cheating and fudging and background orchestration. Moldvay and Mentzer are not being stupid with this advice, they're just not very organized about explaining the different ways and reasons to play the game. Had they explained that there are two ways to play D&D, depending on whether you value fair play or planned plots more, and then proceeded to give situational advice, I wouldn't really have much to complain about with something like this.

    ***

    I got to wondering, and maybe somebody with the Moldvay rules text can tell me: did Mentzer just lift that piece about cheating on the dice from the Moldvay text, or do the two texts clearly have origins in separate experiences? This came to me because of the way Mentzer worked at the time, with the earlier texts at hand, and his imprimatur to write a cleaner new edition of the game. I would not be surprised at all if that particular piece of advice went straight from Moldvay to Mentzer with no critical thought in between, simply as a matter of copying and pasting stuff from the old Expert rules to the new. After all, good DMing is good DMing, right, so of course the advice would be the same for both...

    Not that the text in question is somehow antithetical to Mentzer the man himself; I understand that he pulls his punches as a DM, exactly in the way he advocates in the text: because it would be sad for a cherished character to die, let's not go there unless we have a good reason, as decided by me the DM. (This is, I understand, why he can simultaneously advocate both fair play and cheating, in case that wasn't clear from the rules text: you let the dice fall as they may as long as the PCs are low-level and not particularly interesting, but once somebody commits real emotion to something, you start treating it special, in the interest of everybody enjoying themselves.)

  • Having played a fair amount of wilderness-heavy D&D (with the DM using primarily 1e AD&D rules, but with B/X stat mods and 3d6-in-order), I can understand completely why someone would write those words into a rulebook. I would even say those words understate things. The wilderness rules can match up PCs with monster encounters of such level disparity that they have almost no chance of survival, moreso if a few (un)lucky rolls throw multiple, un-escapable encounters at a group in the same day. If you've grown used to the tactical survival options available to, say, 3rd and 4th level characters as opposed to level 1s in the dungeon, and then those poor level 1 odds get reintroduced, it can leave a pretty bad taste in your mouth. Especially when the character you've been playing for the previous 6 months gets 1-shotted by some meaningless rando.

    The problem lies more in the random generation system producing uninteresting results, from the perspective of player engagement, and the DM having to exercise a fair amount of oversight. Well, not a problem to a DM already used to doing that with the rules, but y'all know what I mean.
    Today my idea of random encounters considers that it makes more sense to be able to find anything in a sand-box game, but that you should never encounter it directly. Like, rolling the random encounter table, then having the scout or all the players roll perception and inmediatly next having everyone roll initiative is for me the worst approach ever and the only one that justifies using balanced encounters.

    Fiction-wise it makes sense that players find what makes sense for the setting most of the time. Sure, you might find a group of 3 goblins at fist level, but there's also the chance to find a dragon at the same level. The thing is that players should never have to confront things directly without previous signals.

    Like, you rolled goblins on the random table? Then the first encounter means you find the traces of those goblins. Either a totem made up from corpses marking their territory or rests of a burnt wagon that still has small arrows sticking on it, it can be a survivor from the attack or plain tracks in the mud that reveal their presence in the area. It doesn't mean the goblins can't set an ambush, but it does mean that players can still choose to take another path to avoid risking a next encounter with them.

    It's the same for the dragon; 5e monster manual even lists a lot of signs of the presence of a dragon lair in the zone. You could definitely spot the dragon flying at some point if you remain in the area for too long. So now that you know what kind of things you can encounter there, it's up to you to risk a TPK or wait a few levels before facing this challenge. As long as the GM is clear enough about the level of the threat ahead (mostly, if the PCs could handle or not) players will often take the hints and play safe (as long as you have agreed before the game how things will work and give them more than a single hint before the encounter.

    On top of that all this helps to build expectative, so it doesn't matter if the players roll a couple criticals and wipe out a threat, you've already put them into suspense.
  • edited June 2016
    "But I rolled it!" A common mistake most DMs make is to rely too much on random die rolls. An entire evening can be spoiled if an unplanned wilderness encounter on the way to the dungeon goes badly for the party. The DM must use good judgment in addition to random tables. Encounters should be
    I don't want to type out the rest of the sentence :( :(
    scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure.
    It ends there, Mentzer (or the editing team at TSR) added the extra sentence about choosing a number in the range.

    Anyway, I've heard lots of folks suggest that that 87 orcs result is that the players can spot an orc encampment in the distance. I'd love to turn that into mechanics, to have mechanics for how far away you spot the encounter, whether it sees you etc etc.
  • What I want for my own game is something like this... you know how in Zelda the mountains are more dangerous than the forest? (Or whatever, it's different for the different entries in the series.)
    I want not just one equally difficult wilderness, I'd rather want it to be wilder and wilder at different places. Many video games do this (Guadia Quest, Dragon Quest also).
    Players can feel their way to a good place for them to do good, to make a difference in the world and practice their skills without dying.
    I don't want the wilderness to automatically scale with the party's capabilities.
  • edited June 2016
    This is a story I'm never gonna stop telling and I'm never going to quit complaining about DoD91 because it was the game that was going to teach me and my family how to play RPGs and it didn't do that. It was the very first RPG I bought. I banged my head against it and against its even worse peers for several years, then got taught a very different way from a combination of Everway, SLUG and my own no-myth-ideas (I wasn't calling it no myth but the same ideas were later called "no myth" on the Forge). I played productively with this no myth / no rules impro for a few years but there were some pitfalls so I wanted to learn "real" roleplaying so I went back to banging my head against the 90:s games until finally I read the old D&D and I was like... "OH!! So this is what I was looking so desperately for all this time!" There are things in Basic that the 90:s games just take for granted that you know (and they riff against that, change it, fudge it, quantum ogre it, but they start from it, and that was the part that I didn't get). And now LMoP has brought this simple truth back into print, yay!
  • Suddenly I'm feeling the urge of making a game called Munchkins & Railroads, where players get the most unbroken fix of a complex system to play with and on the GM side everything is mirrors and smoke
    Some people play GURPS that way already.

  • edited June 2016
    Anyway, I've heard lots of folks suggest that that 87 orcs result is that the players can spot an orc encampment in the distance. I'd love to turn that into mechanics, to have mechanics for how far away you spot the encounter, whether it sees you etc etc.
    Well, there's a roll for encounter distance on p. 41 in Mentzer Expert, and evasion rules on p. 42, although they're pretty bare-bones. And normal surprise rules work for who spots who, even though it's pretty random.
    Needless to say, no party of any reasonable level will survive an encounter with 87 orcs :D
    I have a character that can kill 87 orcs all on his own.

    (4th level Elf with a magic short bow +1 that has twice normal range and can be fired while moving and a magical quiver of +1 arrows that never run out. If he uses a potion of flying or casts Levitate, he can stay just out of the enemy's missile range and fire arrows ad infinitum. If he gets to Level 5 and learns Fly, he won't need the potions.)

    This same character tries to fight a hill giant, he goes down in one hit (and those giants can actually hit AC 1, too). There's a reason Steading of the Hill Giant Chief says it's for Levels 8-12. Characters of Level 1-4 really only have two choices: die fast or don't play.

    I'm totally fine with meaningless death, but I'm not talking about meaning. When a random encounter roll and a terrible reaction roll can essentially just kill the entire party, even if that's super rare, that's not D&D, it's Candyland, so yeah, of course they're going to say "make sure your game doesn't end up turning into Candyland." From my perspective, it looks a lot more like "don't fuck up your game because of slavish devotion to random encounter tables" kind of advice rather than "build a railroad." Like, when you write your own encounter tables, you wouldn't have one entry be "rocks fall, everyone dies," right?

    I mean, I totally get what you guys are saying about wanting realistic wilderness and varying monster levels, but I don't think these book are saying "Level 1 characters must always fight 1 HD monsters." I think they're saying "don't ambush a party of Level 4 characters with a group of 12 HD monsters." Because that's basically the same as "rocks fall, everyone dies."
  • edited June 2016
    If I'm writing my own encounter table I'll put in like "1d100 orcs but they're in a camp 800 feet away" or something, I think that's a good idea.

    I have some "rocks fall, everyone dies" type entries on my lists and have rolled with them too. For example, "3d6 wolves" I've used and yes, it did kill party members. And then it came up again and they died again. That came straight out of the module, though.

    Not feeling great about that especially in the context of these Moldvay & Mentzer quotes. Man, this is why I wanted rules in the first place, to add danger but not make it so that I, the DM, was the killer. Now Moldvay and Mentzer want to put all that responsibility back on my shoulders and I hate it.
  • To a certain extent, playing D&D or any game with a GM who is capable of establishing the capacity of the opposition, is consenting to the GM being ultimately responsible for the premeditated murder of your character. In other words, players playing this game were supposed to be down for exactly what you don't want to happen - they might be disappointed but would trust in your judgment, you being real cool and all, and if you killed the character, they might be grouchy at losing their character, but they would say "yep, 2097 handled it right, good game everyone."

    I think the overwhelming success of D&D somewhat undermined this assumption (at least in America), though. A lot of times players were not okay with this, and there were often no other realistic options given D&D's absolute dominance and the lack of technologies that let players seek out other groups engaging other options.
  • I'm with Johnstone. Dumb encounter tables are dumb, and there's no need to feel bound to them. "Rocks fall, everybody dies" on the encounter chart has zero to do with challenge.

    Now, contextually, those 12 HD monsters might not be "rocks fall, everybody dies" -- depends on if there were any clues that might be coming, any way to avoid the encounter, etc. It really depends on how the DM interprets the 'encounter' result, as the last few posts have worked at. But I've certainly seen it played where tough random encounters were just basically "rocks fall," and clearly some folks not only are fine with it but think that anything else is weak sauce.

    Frankly, I think this whole issue speaks to the stupidity of those encounter charts more than anything else. I started ignoring them before I was even out of junior high. Clearly the module authors weren't rolling 10d10 for every encounter with orcs -- why would I? I mean, there wouldn't be any wilderness encounters appropriate for a first level party.

    It's really a shame that there weren't better encounter charts in the early books.
  • Actually the encounter charts are sort of an interesting anomaly when you think about them in the context of the rest of the line. Overwhelmingly, D&D works pretty hard in its corebooks to really not present much of a core world at all. Almost every DMG is about how to build a world yourself. Wouldn't it make more sense for the encounter charts to be limited to either established campaign worlds ("Buy this book if you wanna know what's up in this area of Greyhawk!" or whatever) or in the context of modules where they could be pitched more squarely at a level range? Yet along with a list of deities, almost every DMG I can remember has had a random encounter list...
  • A wilderness that's wilder in different places is how Western Marches style games do it.

    When I ran a game in that vein (D&D 3.5e E6) on this map:

    image

    I made a separate encounter table for each wilderness area. The areas right around the town in the lower lefthand corner were average level 1-2; things went up as you got further away from the town, until you were hitting random encounters meant for level 6+ parties at the furthest fringes.

    Just old school dungeons have a "danger gradient" that increases as you go downwards, Blueberry Bay has a gradient that gets scarier as you travel further afield... and a reward gradient that increases in the same direction. This lets the players choose their level of risk and reward.

    (We used a cool experience point system for that game... the party split an amount of EXP determined by the most distant, dangerous area that they explored. They then got 10% bonuses for a handful of things, like bringing back wondrous treasure, making new allies and enemies, surviving a hard battle, learning about the history of the region, or exploring a new location.)
  • Man, this is why I wanted rules in the first place, to add danger but not make it so that I, the DM, was the killer. Now Moldvay and Mentzer want to put all that responsibility back on my shoulders and I hate it.
    Right? I want random tables to either a) produce interesting encounters, whether that's from an aesthetic or tactical perspective, or b) describe a setting that feels real and alive but is also somewhere the players want to explore. And a key part of both of those is setting the dangerousness of the encounter and the area as part of the game, and not as a GM decision. Which also requires, I think, communicating the level of danger to the players before they dive head first into it.

    Like, the West Marches setup is absolutely preferrable, when you can identify which areas are more dangerous and make calculated decisions about how much risk you want to take on. If the only way you can determine the dangerousness of an area is with a 50 percent risk of a TPK, that's not real interesting if you're running characters you've got a lot of investment in. For dudes you just rolled up 5 minutes ago? Sure, that's fine. But if you have to start every new character at Level 1, wilderness encounters run exactly by the rules kind of suck. And maybe that's the point of splitting up the books, I guess? If you're going to play a wilderness-centric game, you should start PCs at Level 4, because Levels 1-3 in the Basic book are for dungeoncrawling only? I dunno.

    Personally, I like the first 5 levels the best. When you get 50+ hp monsters, things tend to slow down, but if you speed it up with things that increase damage output, it just makes lower-level characters functionally useless. And then you end up with that WotC thing where the difference between Level 1, 10, and 20 is mostly aesthetic, because the difficulty of everything has been scaled up accordingly, and you only really notice the disparity when you match up things of wildly different levels. I don't find that particularly compelling either.
  • edited June 2016
    Another +1 for Johnstone.

    The great thing about West Marches-esque, is that it relies on skilled play for the players to make the determination of what the danger level is. It's not something you give to them on a platter, it's something they can observe if they pay attention.

    OTOH, I totally understand the desire for workable encounter charts to take the work off the GM.

    --

    The encounters that amount to "rocks fall, everybody dies" are really more of an aesthetic preference. Neither way is right or wrong, but it has nothing to do with challenge.

    I mean 3-18 wolves for a low-level party? You can't even escape that. Unless the GM knows the behavior patterns of real wolves, in which case it isn't a threat to any organized party at all.

  • I love that map of Blueberry Bay!
    But also find myself in a bit of a defensive and grumpy mood so want to clarify things:

    • Lots of people joining the thread chiming in giving me advice on how good gradient difficulty regions are. But I was the one who brought them up? I'm already a fan of them.
    • DM should know the behavior of real wolves -- I actually almost knew it too well, so much that I at first almost forgot what the encounter table in the module actually said: these aren't real wolves, use stats as wolves but can't be charmed or frightened.
    • I make a lot of decisions together with the group, like "How far away is it reasonable to start from them here in the woods?" (that part I want to give over to mechanics the next time I write an encounter table) and "They'll probably kill you… I want you to be able to get away somehow? Their movement speed is 40, is it possible?" And they were like "No, that sounds unreasonable to us, let's fight it out."
    • One player jokingly said "I want to retcon so that I took a long rest before we left Vallaki" and I looked at him and said with a serious face: "Sure, I can let you do that" and then he decided to not do it after all.

  • One thing you might be able to do for wilderness encounters is make random tables of terrain features, for different parts of your game (I dunno offhand where you could look those up, but presumably it's not too hard to find a few interesting things). Or if the terrain is more fantastical, just invent things.

    Then when an encounter occurs, draw a quick map of the PCs' location and throw dice down on it, with the number indicating a specific terrain feature existing where the die has landed. Then roll for encounter distance and place the wandering monsters in a reasonable location based on distance and terrain features. Maybe roll for direction if you want, too. You can use those features to help determine what the situation with the wandering monster is, and the PCs can try to use them for advantage (climb the big tree, shoot a few arrows at the wolf-things, wait for them to leave or get chased off by a bear, etc).
  • Yeah, that's a great idea; I play verbal-only so instead of a map, I'd put in some "aspects" like "Big trees are here" etc.
  • I was thinking about this idea, so I wrote up some quick tables for my own use. Figured I may as well post them.

    Desert, Plains, and Wasteland Features
    1 Arroyo.
    2 Bones.
    3 Caves.
    4-5 Dead tree.
    6 Desert pavement.
    7-8 Exposed bedrock.
    9 Fertile soil.
    10 Grassland.
    11 Harsh wind.
    12 Mesa or plateau.
    13 Oasis.
    14 Ravine.
    15 River.
    16 Road or trail.
    17 Salt flats.
    18 Sand dunes.
    19 Succulents.
    20 Watchtower.

    Forest, Jungle, and Overgrown Area Features
    1 Ancient ruins.
    2 Animal carcass.
    3 Bluff.
    4 Broken hills.
    5 Cairn of stones.
    6 Cave mouth.
    7 Clearing.
    8 Flood plain.
    9-10 Flowing water.
    11 Fort.
    12 Grove of trees.
    13 Lake or pond.
    14 Large tree.
    15 Monolith.
    16 Road.
    17 Swamp.
    18-19 Thick underbrush.
    20 Valley.

    Weird or Anomalous Wilderness Features
    1 Beach.
    2 Belltower.
    3 Buried city.
    4 Castle.
    5 Empty farmhouse.
    6 Fire.
    7 Garden.
    8 Glacier.
    9 Grave hill.
    10 Heath or moors.
    11 Island.
    12-13 Monument.
    14 Oil.
    15 Peat bog.
    16 Petrified forest.
    17-18 Shrine or tomb.
    19 Sink hole.
    20 Swamp gas.
  • edited June 2016
    Very useful and good! I was thinking more in in terms of "what's in the immediate vicinity", things that impact the fight directly (big trees, you can climb them).
    I need to learn to create some actionable things like the old lists in Feng Shui 1.

    Hmm, maybe... for the basics, I can think of categories and work from there:
    • Things that give cover? (Trees and cliffs to be behind)
    • This that divide the location into several locations (trees and cliffs to climb)
    • Alternate movement routes (rope ladders, sturdy chandeliers)
    • Improvised weapons (chairs, planks, bubbling cauldrons)
    • Dangers to fall/push into (cliff edges, fires, rusty nails)

    The categories themselves aren't important, they're just a prompt to start coming up with things. The best things are those that aren't really any of those categories, like a big magnet at the bottom of the cave pool. Things that lead to open-ended actions rather than the big obvious action.
  • Things that give cover: fence, foxhole, pit, ridge, bushes, copse of trees, tree stump, haystack, cow, big stone boulder, broken wall. Some of these can also be good for dividing areas.
    Is it just something you can stand behind? Is it stationary? Do you need to move into a constrained position to make use of the cover (in a hole)? The better the cover, the more hemmed in you are, probably. Does it obscure your presence too, or is it like a glass wall?

    Things that divide areas but don't give cover: rivers, creeks, patches of sand or cracked ground, desert pavement vs. dunes, a field of grasses or flowers, stinging nettle bushes, cactuses, gravel or lots of tiny little rocks that suck to walk on, swampy wet areas and bogs.
    Mostly this seems like a category of either markings that don't do anything, or a situation of bad ground vs. good ground.

    Movement: tree trunk over a gorge, paved road vs. muddy ground, a hill you can slide down, a zip line, a frozen lake.
    Is it there to overcome an obstacle? Is it unintentional? Does it require parkour?

    Weird stuff: roaming fires, magic mouth in the ground, grasping arms that stick out of the ground, quicksand, geysers of steam and boiling water (or fire and acid), a vortex, a magic portal, a mirror that reflects magical attacks, a monolith that absorbs magic effects.

    I think I work best with a weird image in mind first, then I come up with an effect for it after. If I start with an effect, sometimes I'll think up stuff that doesn't fit the scene (I can still save them for later, though).

    For thinking up improvised weapons and other items lying around (including treasure) I find it useful to write out different professions and list what their tools are like, what sort of stuff they would have. Like, barber-surgeons have bandages, combs, files, flint and tinder, glass cups, oil, ointment, pliers, scalpels, scissors, and towels, and that's just stuff they might carry around. Also good for when players want to buy tool kits.
  • We went into a bit of a flop last Friday when they were fighting a vampire using the many long splinters and shards of wood that they've found, I was like, yes, this is awesome, continue, yes! And then when they did the killing blow I looked it up in the MM and... 1d4 damage!?!??! So puny!!! It's only when the vampire is sleeping that it's an insta-kill!?!?

    Johnstone, that's an awesome list for sure!!
    Here is it rephrased (and order randomized) as a start of a table:
    • swampy wet areas
    • a zip line
    • haystack
    • desert pavement vs. dunes
    • creeks
    • fence
    • grasping arms that stick out of the ground
    • broken wall
    • gravel or lots of tiny little rocks that suck to walk on
    • a hill you can slide down
    • copse of trees
    • foxhole
    • a magic portal
    • big stone boulder
    • a frozen lake
    • paved road vs. muddy ground
    • bogs
    • a mirror that reflects magical attacks
    • roaming fires
    • quicksand
    • glass wall
    • patches of sand
    • ridge
    • a monolith that absorbs magic effects.
    • a field of flowers
    • cow
    • bushes
    • a field of grasses
    • cactuses
    • patches of cracked ground
    • geysers of steam and boiling water (or fire and acid)
    • tree trunk over a gorge
    • tree stump
    • rivers
    • a vortex
    • pit
    • stinging nettle bushes
    • magic mouth in the ground
  • And then when they did the killing blow I looked it up in the MM and... 1d4 damage!?!??! So puny!!! It's only when the vampire is sleeping that it's an insta-kill!?!?
    What? Lame! I feel like part of the point of vampires is they don't even use hit points? The things they take damage from just kill them (or maybe drive them away wounded, but defeat is basically all-or-nothing). Although my idea of how horror-themed D&D works is: PCs meet monster, PCs run away from monster, PCs research monster and solve the mystery of its weakness, PCs kill monster.
  • Yeah, it was garbage!


  • Today my idea of random encounters considers that it makes more sense to be able to find anything in a sand-box game, but that you should never encounter it directly.

    Man, that's awesome and obvious now that you said it! ;)

    What if each dangerous encounter on a table came with an Apocalypse-World-style countdown clock. Each time you rolled that element on the table, it advances the clock. (And nothing about this prevents the PCs from just wandering into the lair on their own, still.)
  • But the third time that dragon was rolled the party is ashes
  • We had something similar today in our game. One result was rolled three times in a row in close proximity (and how GLAD I was that I roll openly and the players know the meaning of most rolls I make). We treated it as a larger posse that was just spread out. More and more of them came down the stairs to where the party was camping.
  • edited June 2016
    No, rolling in a random table in this fashion should mean that less-likely possibilities should be discarded in favor of a re-roll. Like, ok, you roll once for the dragon, the party gets some foresight, perhaps they see the dragon flying west. So unless the players still head west after that, they shouldn't find the same dragon. Re-roll and keep going. Of course, I'm thinking on a setting where dragons don't live in clusters and instead have their dens far away from each other.

    If players see a dragon flying west, they can easily choose to take a detour or go east to avoid the dragon lair, and no random roll should take that away from them without giving them a good excuse. If they head east and roll another dragon, the GM should either ask for a re-roll or introduce another dragon heading east, or perhaps introduce something else related to the dragon. Perhaps it's going back to it's lair after attacking the town that players get to find on their way to the east on their second dragon roll.

    However you interpretate that roll, If it was me I'd keep immersion and common sense in first place, and sensibility towards player's frustation second. As a GM I'll consider my work a complete failure if such a random encounter would mean me telling the players to roll for new characters. I'm okay if bad stuff happens because the dice say so, but as a GM it's my duty to make even bad stuff interesting and amusing. Totally blocking the players intentions and not giving them any other choice than creating new characters to continue the game isn't only unfair, it's plain boring.

    So, besides framing random encounters like traces the players need to follow to turn them into actual encounters, I could also change the nature of the encounter. Rolling a dragon could mean many different interesting things. Why can't it be a good dragon? What if the dragon is up for a fight but prefers to fight more experienced adventurers? what if it tries terrorizing them and asking for a bribe just for fun? what if it prefers an intellectual challenge instead of a fight? how about giving them a quest to advance it's personal agenda?

    Well, I dunno, random tables are great, but it bores the heck out of me to just roll on them and thrown whatever comes up at the players when they are on their way to another scene. Specially when something unfair happens. No result of any random table should be used as an excuse to bring boring/frustrating things into the game. If that never happens when you roll on a random table, you're doing it fine.
  • Regarding Eero's early post in this thread, I wonder if any text has made it explicit that a GM's job is to "coach" players to success?

    I'd never thought about it in those terms, but damn if that doesn't describe a fair bit of actual play culture for many rpgs.
  • I've heard lots of folks suggest that that 87 orcs result is that the players can spot an orc encampment in the distance. I'd love to turn that into mechanics, to have mechanics for how far away you spot the encounter, whether it sees you etc etc.
    But exactly how far down this rabbit hole do we want to go, because eventually the GM will have to make a ruling about something.

    The only important thing is that players have a choice in whether to engage or not. It doesn't matter how far away the orcs are, only that the players know they're there and have a chance to avoid them. So an encounter is more like a perception check than an unavoidable event.

    Because it's not the monster that's dangerous, but the situation.
    this is why I wanted rules in the first place, to add danger but not make it so that I, the DM, was the killer. Now Moldvay and Mentzer want to put all that responsibility back on my shoulders and I hate it.
    And a key part of both of those is setting the dangerousness of the encounter and the area as part of the game, and not as a GM decision. Which also requires, I think, communicating the level of danger to the players before they dive head first into it.
    So why not cut this problem off at the pass and let the players decide the level of danger?

    After decades of experience I'm convinced this is the only solution. GM set 'difficulties' undermine player autonomy and communicating the level of danger is all but impossible without using exact numbers.
    DM should know the behavior of real wolves
    Um, no?

    Even people who lived in wolf territories often didn't know the behavior of real wolves, which is why we have all those astoundingly incorrect stereotypes.
    We went into a bit of a flop last Friday when they were fighting a vampire using the many long splinters and shards of wood that they've found, I was like, yes, this is awesome, continue, yes! And then when they did the killing blow I looked it up in the MM and... 1d4 damage!?!??! So puny!!! It's only when the vampire is sleeping that it's an insta-kill!?!?
    So did they kill the vampire or just do 1d4 damage?
  • - players set difficulty; that's how we do it now and we run into Czege principle issues. Of course we as group has to make rulings but this seems like something that's pretty low hanging fruit to encode and something where our table rulings have been particularly unsatisfying

    - wolf behavior: I was replying to someone else!

    - they killed the vampire in another way later. This was a ruling we discussed and made together. But, well, it would've been cool and "Buffy" if it had worked
  • So why not cut this problem off at the pass and let the players decide the level of danger?
    Because the point of old school D&D is for the players to explore an area that has already been created, with fixed encounters and random encounter tables both. An environment that the DM is adjudicating, but not one the DM, or the players, or both together, is/are creating on the fly. If those things are peripheral, fine, but as part of "the dungeon?" I can play Dungeon World instead, and I'm totally cool with that.

    I'm also fine with writing my own random encounter tables, although it's easier when someone else does the work and I can just use theirs.
  • I think the "West Marches" approach does a good job of allowing the players to "set the level of danger" in a logical way which doesn't break suspension of disbelief. With proper tables and clever GMing, you can introduce a good deal of variety, as well. If I'm running this kind of game and I've decided (or rolled) that a certain area is extremely dangerous, I'll do my best to think up some signs or consequences which the players could discover. Maybe they're obvious (skeletons litter the landscape!) or maybe they require some research to uncover (local myths and legends?), but, either way, it can serve that game goal pretty well, I think.

    To those who are interested in the (I believe, excellent-) idea that random encounters should not necessarily lead to a direct confrontation, I would encourage that you look into two different things:

    1. I believe most D&D manuals (although maybe not all) list "disposition" and Morale for monsters encountered. I seem to remember that a lot of these were relatively friendly, not overtly hostile, and a Reaction roll would further affect the outcome. Befriending or negotiating with monsters encountered was, in my conception of the game, at least, a common outcome. I have a feeling people sometimes ignore this kind of thing and try to jump straight to a fight!

    2. We had some good discussion (and many examples) of designing two-stage encounter tables in order to deal with this kind of thing back in this thread:

    OSR Hexcrawl Sandbox Procedures

    I've since then developed a variety of random encounter tables I rather prefer to the "standard" approach. It allows a group to explore an area and decide what they will tackle - or make a desperate attempt to avoid danger, as they wish.

    I recommend it!
  • players set difficulty; that's how we do it now and we run into Czege principle issues.
    Makes sense, but I'm talking about danger and risk, not difficulty. And what I've found is giving players greater control over risks makes them more likely to take them. For example, the X Card tends to make people more comfortable and likely to engage in the elements they find difficult than they otherwise would. It's also been shown that people find self inflicted pain less painful.
    Because the point of old school D&D is for the players to explore an area that has already been created, with fixed encounters and random encounter tables both. An environment that the DM is adjudicating, but not one the DM, or the players, or both together, is/are creating on the fly.
    The old school aesthetic also doesn't concern itself with clearly communicating the level of danger to the players, and this still doesn't answer my question beyond 'that's just how it's done'.
  • It's a part of the experience that doesn't work great at the moment so I'm going to, in line with much of what Johnstone, Paul and others are saying, think about it when I write the next encounter tables.
    For example, put in there: 3d6 wolves at 120 feet.
    Or. 1d12 blood-apes, they ambush you. Roll for surprise.
    Or. Signs of an orc nest in the distance.

    That way this question is already answered unlike how we do it now, which is "It says 3d6 wolves... but it doesn't say a distance, what do you guys think make sense?" and come to some consensus and then they die.

    As far as the X card goes my experiences with it has been very bad. It has rather been used as a tool for people to be very transgressive with the thinking that "If they minded, they would X-card".
  • edited June 2016
    That said, that's a good link to some good practices with the X card. I think my philosophy is more "The X-card is not enough" rather than the X card does more harm than good. It does do a lot of harm but it also does do a lot of good. The text also explicitly says "Don't use the X-Card as an excuse to push boundaries. It's not a Safe Word."
  • ...the point of old school D&D is for the players to explore an area that has already been created, ...not one the DM, or the players, or both together, is/are creating on the fly.
    I can't tell if this is a nit-pick or a central consideration, but I played a lot of D&D in the early 80s where the land itself was being created, as we explored, out of random tables. And this seemed like common enough practice at the time, that I'm questioning the above-proposed "point" of the game.
  • As thread starter, I agree with Johnstone that that's the point of the sort of old school I want to play right now. Other styles exist and were perhaps historically even more common.
  • As thread starter, I agree with Johnstone that that's the point of the sort of old school I want to play right now. Other styles exist and were perhaps historically even more common.
    Can we just stop calling it "old school" please? The term is useless to the point of being misleading. I was part of what some people clearly consider "old school" D&D (Mentzer Basic set was my starting point) and we never played that way.

    That said, I'm not a big fan of the encounter table idea; I think how the encounter starts should be dependent on the fiction. 3d6 wolves at 120' in dense forest is nonsense - the party won't even be aware of them at that point, whereas 3d6 wolves at 120' on the plains is a case of "WTF, why didn't we notice them when they were further away?" That's okay, you say, I'll write different encounter tables for the woods and the plains. So what happens if it rains? What if it's dark? I think a lot of these results will necessarily lead to "roll a perception check" for how bad the situation is going to be, and no, there aren't hard guidelines for that either, but if you're gonna be all "old school", you need to stop trying to disclaim responsibility, because that is incompatible with "rulings, not rules."
  • edited June 2016
    Sure, I'm not married to the name old school. I was trying to stick to the part that Weeks quoted from Johnstone.

    I pretty much one second ago said that that other styles were historically more common!

    It's more important to me to disclaim responsibility than to stick to any particular old school meme. Making decisions well in advance is one technique that helps me.

    Responsibility is and always is going to be a question of degree in any subjectively refereed game. And I'm variously comfortable with it in various areas.
    So what happens if it rains? What if it's dark?
    What does happen? There's plenty of stuff I think work well to decide during the game but this is one part that so far hasn't worked so well in practice at the table and I want to find something that does work well.

    I'm talking about my actual game experience here in the year 2016. What works well, what works not so well, so far.

    And us having some sorta discussion about how far away they are, that isn't working too hot. Me making a call on the spot about what I think is reasonable, that was 10 times worse.

    I'm into finding or making clear mechanics and then using them. When we leverage mechanics and interesting things happen as we turn that crank, I love that.
    I think how the encounter starts should be dependent on the fiction.
    You often see me arguing strongly in favor of fiction first. But here is an area where that hasn't worked out, because I don't really have an intuitive feel for inches and feet and miles (being non-American), because I don't really have an intuitive feel for visibility and audibility in the wilderness, and because it's an area where it's very very directly connected to life and death for the party.

    Instead, if we have mechanics driving the fiction in this particular area, we'll learn how to engage with the game gradually as we play it. "Oh, better be careful in the forest because this or that."
    (I mean, the skills we acquire will be useless because they will only apply to the game, but I'm OK with that.)

    Actually I also want to know how setting up camp in the wilderness works [in the game, I'm not planning on going camping for real]:
    What equipment do the party need? (Bedrolls? Even tents?) How much time does it take? What benefits and drawbacks are there to making a fire? Does it attract or scare away enemies and animals?
    Ideally I want to dwell on this for the first few nights, be a stickler for a short while just so we all can get on the same page about the character's routines, and then after a while they can say "OK, we set up camp as usual".
  • edited June 2016
    So what happens if it rains? What if it's dark?
    What does happen? There's plenty of stuff I think work well to decide during the game but this is one part that so far hasn't worked so well in practice at the table and I want to find something that does work well.
    Maybe you just need practice? I feel like I read a lot of your posts and your first instinct always seems to be to change something to compensate for your perceived shortcomings instead of trying to overcome them. You can't avoid making life-or-death decisions as the GM. It's not a thing you can do. So it may be in your best interests to try to come to grips with that, instead of trying to avoid it whenever possible.

    And us having some sorta discussion about how far away they are, that isn't working too hot. Me making a call on the spot about what I think is reasonable, that was 10 times worse.

    I'm into finding or making clear mechanics and then using them. When we leverage mechanics and interesting things happen as we turn that crank, I love that.
    Yes, you've been quite clear about this. What I am saying is that I believe it is functionally impossible to do this everywhere, and that this is an area where I feel it's not a good idea to try. If it were possible to do this everywhere, we wouldn't need GMs. The whole reason we have a GM is that sometimes decisions - even "life or death for the PCs" kind of decisions - need to be made in a non-programmatical way. Rulings, not rules, etc, etc.

    You often see me arguing strongly in favor of fiction first. But here is an area where that hasn't worked out, because I don't really have an intuitive feel for inches and feet and miles (being non-American),
    Is the implication that you'd be better at centimeters, meters and kilometers? I think most people suck at distances, but that probably also includes your players, so they probably notice less than you think.

    because I don't really have an intuitive feel for visibility and audibility in the wilderness, and because it's an area where it's very very directly connected to life and death for the party.
    Again; It is impossible to avoid making decisions that are very very directly connected to life and death for the party. You don't roll randomly to see who monsters attack, do you?

    Actually I also want to know how setting up camp in the wilderness works [in the game, I'm not planning on going camping for real]:
    What equipment do the party need? (Bedrolls? Even tents?) How much time does it take? What benefits and drawbacks are there to making a fire? Does it attract or scare away enemies and animals?
    Ideally I want to dwell on this for the first few nights, be a stickler for a short while just so we all can get on the same page about the character's routines, and then after a while they can say "OK, we set up camp as usual".
    I'm not entirely clear what this has to do with everything in this discussion, but I think this is another place where trying to mechanize isn't going to work out. A fire might deter some types of enemies (wolves) while attracting others (Giant moths? Bandits?) How long does it take? How rocky is the ground? Did it rain yesterday? How warm or cold is it?

    This strikes me as a place where it is best NOT to engage at all, because the party is made up of experienced adventurers who know how to make a camp (or maybe not, but...) and how to stay warm in the wilderness, whereas your table is probably not made up of people with these skills. So much like you not trying to figure out how the paladin gets into his full plate every morning, you are probably best off going with an intent-and-results style model here and not getting bogged down in the details since you don't know the consequences of those details anyway.
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