"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Monday, April 5, 2010

But I rolled it!

From page X59:
"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 scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure." (Emphasis mine.)

Okay, I am guilty as charged. I love die rolls and randomness. Not simply for randomness' sake but instead for the creative muse they provide. Trying to figure out why there are ghouls in the elven forest is part of the fun.

I also found the emphasized portion of the quote interesting. My impression is that one of the cornerstones of the OSR is that encounters should not be scaled to the strength of the party. I also rarely worry about scaling encounter difficulty relative to party strength.

However, I do try to scale difficulty relative to depth (for dungeons) or distance (for wilderness). That way players can make logical decisions and their actions have meaningful effects.


  1. You said it - this is one of the big reasons I've recently switched 'back' to B/XD&D. Trying to run a 'balanced' game in 4e was simply too much of a headache for this poor DM.

  2. Early D&D advice is rife with contradictions like this. What's the point in using a random table if you are going to ignore the results?

    I agree that the DM needs to use their good judgement. But even an appropriately-scaled encounter can go horribly wrong for a party, if they make bad rolls while the DM makes great ones.

  3. The trouble with not "trusting" random rolls is that all the responsibility then falls on your shoulders as DM. So, if you throw out the troll and replace it with a pack of stirge and it results in a TPK anyway, ughh. So then the next time you just send some kobolds at them. And pretty soon they never encounter anything that will challenge them or cause them to run. I don't want to have to be responsible for weighing, not just the relative power of my party, but their alertness each particular session, every time a wandering monster is rolled.

    But it's true, players need a sense of how dangerous the area they're in is or they can't really make decisions.

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  5. I suspect “old school” DMs are likely to do it less frequency and by lesser degrees, but that doesn’t mean that they never do it. That doesn’t mean that the “old school” forbids it.

    For what it’s worth: When questioned about the Greyhawk Dungeons, Gary once said that he and Rob would sometimes adjust the number of monsters encountered to the party no matter what their key originally listed for a room.

    On the wilderness: The way I do it, the wilderness encounter tables are used when the players stray from civilization and/or the road. Follow an established route to the dungeon, and you’re very unlikely to run into something you can’t handle. Go off the beaten track, however, and all bets are off.

    (Though I’d like to take the time to create more graded wilderness tables in order to have more than just “safe” and “random danger”.)

  6. @Vincent - I don't disagree that the wilderness encounter tables could be scaled as you describe. However, there isn't any such guidance in the Expert rulebook. And the B/X rulebooks are very precise when it comes to encounter procedures.

    From a "gameist" viewpoint I like that fact that players can choose the strength-appropriate encounters by deciding how deep into a dungeon they go or how far in the wilderness they explore.

    And I loathe the new-school D&D idea of a level-appropriate bubble surrounding and travelling along with the party.

    I am also a big believer that if you roll the dice, the result will stand. I roll nearly all dice in the open, and usually describe each mechanic prior to rolling the dice and describing what a high or low roll will mean.

  7. I think Wilderness encounters don't need to be nearly as 'balanced' as dungeon encounters.

    In the Wilderness, initial encounter distance is often greater, and evasion or hiding and letting the monster(s) pass is often easier.

    PCs tend to be easier to spot and track in dungeons.

  8. I have been a Basic and 1st edition DM for almost 30 years, and my philosophy has always been to make the challenges just strong enough to kill the characters if they aren't both a little smart and a little lucky (or very smart or very lucky) and then let the dice fall where they may. With that idea in mind, I've never had a TPK in any version of D&D - although I have come pretty close a couple of times - and players seem to appreciate that they're up against real challenges with real stakes even if some of them don't make it.