Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Too Many Monsters

One of the things that might have become apparent in reading my Dwimmermount posts is that, in any given session, there are comparatively few combats and indeed many sessions have no combats in them whatsoever. This isn't because I dislike combat or think that combat is somehow antithetical to playing D&D. Rather, it's a necessary consequence of Volume 3 of OD&D's monster distribution rules, which I've used when creating the dungeon. According to those rules, on average two-thirds of all dungeon rooms will be empty of any kind of monsters. Now, those "empty" rooms may contain treasure, tricks, traps, puzzles, or clues, but they won't (generally) have anything the characters can fight.

Over the last year and a half, I've found that this approach has had several salutary effects on the campaign. First, with fewer monsters to fight, there is less XP to be distributed, and thus character advancement is slow. As my players will tell you, it's not uncommon to go several sessions over which the characters gain no experience points. They may gain knowledge and insights, however, which is often far more valuable. Second, the focus of adventuring shifts to exploration, with combat being the spice that keeps such exploration interesting. Finally, the dungeon feels more "mysterious" -- more like an abandoned ruin than a shopping mall, which is exactly the kind of feeling I wish to evoke.

When I was younger, I don't think I ever paid much attention to the dungeon stocking rules in Moldvay, as I already "knew" how to stock a dungeon by looking to published modules as guides. The problem, unfortunately, is that a lot of published modules have more monsters than they ought to by OD&D standards. That's not to say there aren't occasions when having more than one-third of a complex's rooms be occupied isn't warranted -- a fortress, for example -- but dungeons, in the sense of being a "huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses," ought to have far fewer monsters than empty rooms, at least that's the conclusion to which I've come after creating and using Dwimmermount all this time.

(And FWIW, I have issues with Moldvay's dungeon stocking rules anyway but that's a topic for another post)

40 comments:

  1. Given the slower rate of advancement, what is the actual leveling rate in, say, game sessions per character level or average XP per game session?

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  2. I found that I had to level out the XP gain for story based awards almost as much as the monster killing awards. In this way the PCs felt rewarded for solving problems or running around town doing stuff and things and didn't want to look for something to hack so they could get XP.

    Lots of modules these days are starting to put in RP XP rewards for jobs complete in order to keep the PCs interested in the plot/scenario and roleplay their way through the game.

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  3. (And FWIW, I have issues with Moldvay's dungeon stocking rules anyway but that's a topic for another post)

    That's a post I'm looking forward to!

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  4. Story-based EP awards have been a round for a while: they appeared in WFRP in 1986, and I'm sure some games did them before that.

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  5. My only problem with Moldvay is one I think was purely logistical. In OD&D you rolled on a second chart to see which level's monster chart to consult, meaning that 1st level of the dungeon has monsters from levels 1-3, and so on. But implementing this would've required the Basic book to have monster charts going up to level 5, which wouldn't have worked out.

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  6. Are you checking for random encounters as often as you should? This can make a big difference, and I think is connected with density of room encounters.

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  7. "huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses,"

    One thing I've always loved about that quote is that it seems to come much closer to describing Maure Castle than either Greyhawk or Blackmoor...

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  8. Given the slower rate of advancement, what is the actual leveling rate in, say, game sessions per character level or average XP per game session?

    There have been 48 sessions to date and the most-played PCs are hovering around 50,000 XP, so I suppose it evens out to about 1000 XP per session from monsters and treasure.

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  9. Lots of modules these days are starting to put in RP XP rewards for jobs complete in order to keep the PCs interested in the plot/scenario and roleplay their way through the game.

    Old school modules? Which ones?

    I don't do "story awards" in my D&D games and never have so far as I can recall.

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  10. Are you checking for random encounters as often as you should? This can make a big difference, and I think is connected with density of room encounters.

    I guess it depends on what you mean by "as often as you should." I check once every three turns, as per Holmes, rather than OD&D's standard. That does result in fewer wandering monsters overall, but I also find that it's a more reasonable pacing mechanism for the kind of sessions I like to run.

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  11. @James:

    This reminds me of a question I've sometimes had: how do you know X amount of time has passed, such as the interval for a wandering monster check? Number of feet moved? A rough guess based on activities undertaken? The latter was my way, but sometimes I've had the impression other GMs were more precise about it.

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  12. B2 had a lot of monsters. Compare that to B1, which was weighted towards tricks and traps.

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  13. James: with checking for wandering monsters only once per three turns (it's one of the in-game "clocks" that D&D thrives on and every referee should pace it exactly as he or she likes), I'm curious if you remove an entry from the list once it's defeated - I think this creates an interesting slow-down effect on OD&D's 1/turn checks but might slow it too much for Holmes's 1/3 turns.

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  14. This reminds me of a question I've sometimes had: how do you know X amount of time has passed, such as the interval for a wandering monster check? Number of feet moved? A rough guess based on activities undertaken?

    I fall in between the two poles on this. I do keep track of how far the characters move in a rough way, as well as how much time they spend searching, etc. and then make a mental calculation for when I need to roll. It's inexact and I'm sure some will balk at it, but I've found it's the best approach for me.

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  15. B2 had a lot of monsters. Compare that to B1, which was weighted towards tricks and traps.

    Yep and B1 has long been my mental "ideal dungeon" in terms of the balance of emptiness, monsters, and tricks/traps. Dwimmermount is much closer to B1 than to B2.

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  16. I'm curious if you remove an entry from the list once it's defeated - I think this creates an interesting slow-down effect on OD&D's 1/turn checks but might slow it too much for Holmes's 1/3 turns.

    No, I don't do that and never have. Is it actually a rule in OD&D that I've somehow missed all these years?

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  17. James - no, it's not a rule, it's just how I've always run it. Since my wandering monster charts are always custom built to the dungeon level (and refreshed on every visit), I cross off an entry if the PCs kill the monster listed. If I roll that same monster again I ignore the result. This also creates interesting effects when they flee from an encounter, since it's the same specific monsters who could come up on the chart.

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  18. Agreed, both on the intuitive checking for wanderers and the relative spareness of monsters.

    Something I found out in playing and writing about text adventure games many years ago, is that discovery is its own intrinsic reward - both in terms of opening new areas, and understanding the history and rationale of an existing area.

    About the only reason I don't use straight session-based advancement is the xp bonuses in certain rule sets including my own. Even that, in hindsight, can be handled with a chunkier xp system - for example, setting 10 "mega" xp to advance, where 2 are gained from a good session and 1 from a "meh" session, but characters with a good prime score need only 9 to advance.

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  19. Roger: This is why XP totals from D&D only make sense when you use the rule 1 GP = 1 XP. You need 2000 points to get to level 2 as a fighter not because you need to kill a couple hundred goblins in single combat, but because you should have by this time accumulated approximately 2000 GP.

    If you aren't giving GP for XP (and a lot of referees pooh-poohed the concept back in 1975), the D&D experience charts are merciless.

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  20. If you aren't giving GP for XP (and a lot of referees pooh-poohed the concept back in 1975), the D&D experience charts are merciless.

    Doubly so if you're using the revised Supplement I charts rather than those in the LBBs. That said, the larger point stands that the advancement charts in OD&D assume gold for XP as a major part of any character's XP haul. Without it, the perceived need for "story awards" and other such additions becomes much greater.

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  21. I've always felt that D&D should be more about exploration and story progression than about how many monsters the party can kill at a given time. Sure combat's important, but if your players are more interested in slaying than exploring then they should be playing 4th edition or some other miniature based game...which is a problem I've run into or more than one instance. I've even had player's who have stopped playing in my games because I wasn't using an overabundance of maps and miniatures.

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  22. For me, the Vol-3 distribution is indeed too sparse. I've shifted to Gygax's later suggestion in the Dungeon Geomorphs for 1/3 empty, 1/3 monsters, 1/6 tricks/traps, and 1/6 special design. That feels about right on my palate. (I guess that was carried forward into Moldvay/RC?).

    The distribution difference between published modules and OD&D can again be racked up to the difference between tournament (most publications) and megadungeon (classic home game) adventures.

    The "cross off monsters from encounter lists" method is indicated in a very few modules, like L1 or parts of B3.

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  23. I'm not sure I get what the problem is, here. James, do you think the PC rate of advancement is simply too slow, or are you commenting on something you've noticed but toward which you are not opposed?

    Regarding non-combat, non-GP-related XP rewards: Do you feel story/role-play/puzzle-solving rewards don't fit the "old school" spirit, aren't in any of the books, or is it simply personal preference?

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  24. For me, the Vol-3 distribution is indeed too sparse.

    I thought it would be too, when I first started using it, but I've found it works very well in practice. I guess I just prefer my huge ruined piles to be more empty than later editions of the game would imply.

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  25. James, do you think the PC rate of advancement is simply too slow, or are you commenting on something you've noticed but toward which you are not opposed?

    My only real point in making the post was that I felt that sparseness of monster encounters generated by OD&D random dungeon stocking rules worked well in practice, providing my campaign with a good pace of advancement and evoking a "mysterious," "exploratory" feel that I like a lot.

    Regarding non-combat, non-GP-related XP rewards: Do you feel story/role-play/puzzle-solving rewards don't fit the "old school" spirit, aren't in any of the books, or is it simply personal preference?

    All of the above. I know that Arneson gave out XP for "good roleplaying" and I am sure other can cite additional examples from the early days, but, to me, that approach feels much too subjective and prone to abuse, so I prefer to stick with XP only for monsters overcome (though not necessarily slain) and treasure.

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  26. Being of a logical bent, I always doled out monsters in a place of mystery based on some simple rules.. what is this thing living on besides occasional adventurers? What kind of hunting range does it need? How is it going to coexist with the other large predators in the complex?

    Working this way led to fewer fights, but more logical dungeons.. in one adventure, the PCs were trying to locate the stronghold of an orc warband that had been raiding trade caravans. The party were at first puzzled by a string of empty rooms, until they realized that this was an area cleared by the orcs, and avoided by the surviving monsters.

    When it comes to experience, I tend to give it for actual in-game accomplishments with a bonus for excellent role-play or descriptions. Face it, combat is more about die-rolling than anything the players actually do, so rewarding them for elevating the level of play seems right to me.

    Of course, I'm also a big fan of Luck points and Whimsy Cards.

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  27. James said
    “According to those rules, on average two-thirds of all dungeon rooms will be empty of any kind of monsters. Now, those "empty" rooms may contain treasure, tricks, traps, puzzles, or clues”

    Delta said
    “For me, the Vol-3 distribution is indeed too sparse. I've shifted to Gygax's later suggestion in the Dungeon Geomorphs for 1/3 empty, 1/3 monsters, 1/6 tricks/traps, and 1/6 special design.”

    I don't see how those are different, am I missing something? Delta are you saying the suggested Vol 3 distribution was more empty of monsters than the 2/3 “empty” you advocating, or are you assuming Vol 3 wanted less than 1/3 tricks, traps, puzzles, clues, special?

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  28. For me, the Vol-3 distribution is indeed too sparse. I've shifted to Gygax's later suggestion in the Dungeon Geomorphs for 1/3 empty, 1/3 monsters, 1/6 tricks/traps, and 1/6 special design. That feels about right on my palate. (I guess that was carried forward into Moldvay/RC?).

    I'm guessing that you're looking at the combined/1981 version of the Geomorphs? Because the original 1976-77 versions have a different suggested distribution, which is actually even sparser than what Vol. 3 suggests:

    "Approximately 25% of the rooms and large spaces should contain monsters, treasures, and other notable items. For every five such rooms there should be approximately one trap. Slanting passages, teleportation areas, slides, and the like should be added sparingly thereafter -- one or to such items per level is a fair guideline."

    Note that this works out to about the same distribution obtained from the Random Dungeon Generation charts in TSR #1 (reprinted in BoTDv1 and the AD&D DMG) where on 1d20 1-12 = empty, 13-14 = monster only, 15-17 = monster w/ treasure, 18 = unguarded treasure, 19 = trick or trap, 20 = "special."

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  29. Note also, the 25% occupancy rate makes a whole lot more sense if you've got a dense map with lots of small (10x10, 10x20, 20x20, etc.) rooms and chambers and 100+ rooms per level (as seen in the sample level in OD&D vol. 3, in the Geomorphs sets, and not much anyplace else) than if you have the smaller and more spread-out sorts of levels seen in modules, the sample levels in Holmes and the AD&D DMG, etc. It probably makes more sense to think in terms of total encounters per dungeon level -- with 20 or so being considered close to ideal, and the question being how many rooms do you want the party to explore in order to find those 20 encounters -- 25 (something like B2)? 40-50 (something like B1)? or 80 (like the Geomorphs and vol. 3 sample level)? I've come in recent years to prefer the latter, but I realize not everyone feels that way...

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  30. @Michael: The algorithm in Vol-3 is this (p. 6-8). Initially, DM places "the most important treasures" and any guardians by hand, then rolls randomly for the rest. (1) Monster: 1-2 on d6 yes, 3-6 no. (2) Treasure: Yes 3-in-6 with monster, or 1-in-6 unoccupied. "Unguarded Treasures should be invisible, hidden", etc. There's no random indication for tricks/traps (aside from possibly DM hand-additions to boxes of unguarded treasure).

    In summary: Vol-3 has 5/9 empty, 1/3 monsters (half with treasure), 1/9 with unguarded treasure, and no tricks/traps (all aside from special designs).

    As a thought experiment, let's consider the hypothesis that Vol-3 has a hidden assumption of 1/3 of the rooms being split between hand-placed "special" areas and tricks/traps (i.e., 2/3 random determination). Then you'd have 10/27 empty, 2/9 monsters, 2/27 unguarded treasure, 1/6 tricks/traps, and 1/6 special design. So -- still not the same, and also double the hand-placement work for the DM.

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  31. @T. Foster: "I'm guessing that you're looking at the combined/1981 version of the Geomorphs?..."

    Good observations. Yes, I have a digital copy of the 1981 product, so maybe it's incorrect to say that Gygax wrote those guidelines. And we can go even sparser than 25% -- the 1980 Monster & Treasure Assortment suggests just 20% of rooms with monsters (80-90% of these with treasure, possibly trapped; no comment on unoccupied rooms). Is that the same as the earlier product?

    I can imagine that the density of rooms affects the texture of this. Once you get to a somewhat later Gygax design with more "dark space" (anything after Geomorphs "Basic Dungeon" style), I find that too many empty rooms feels like wasted paper. Likewise, the Random Dungeon Generation charts themselves create quite a large amount of "dark space" (it's negligibly probable to generate tiled rooms like the Geomorphs, or even B1).

    I'm glad you pointed out the suggestion to restrict slanting passages, et. al. to one per level -- I've got a post in the bin on that specific subject. And you'll have to tell me what BOTD is?

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  32. @T. Foster: "100+ rooms per level (as seen in the sample level in OD&D vol. 3..."

    Oh, and I think you have a really early edition of OD&D with a different sample level, right? My copy is the "Original Collector's Edition" set -- the sample level is like 80% dark space, maybe 46 identifiable rooms by my count.

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  33. And you're right, I do in fact modify the random dungeon generation Room Contents table to the later proportions, which I feel better fit the dungeon layouts that actually result.

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  34. I want to toss my coppers in with David for seeing this Moldvay/dungeon-stocking post in the near future.

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  35. @Delta: The recommendation of 20% monsters, 80-90% w/ treasure is the same from the 1977-78 to 1980 M&TA.

    My experience with using the Random Dungeon tables is that you get lots of long hallways to nowhere, but once you get a Room you're likely to get a whole nest of rooms because room exits are all doors, and behind 75% of doors is another room (though I note that the DMG version of the tables reduced this a bit, to 60%, which may account for some of the difference you're seeing). My assumption about the "dark space" areas created by the former is that in a "real" (i.e. designed, not randomly-rolled) dungeon most of those areas would be filled with other "nests" of rooms that just don't happen to open onto those particular corridors (or perhaps only do by way of one-way or secret doors).

    BOTD = Best of The Dragon, vol. I (1980)

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  36. @Delta: Oh, and I think you have a really early edition of OD&D with a different sample level, right? My copy is the "Original Collector's Edition" set -- the sample level is like 80% dark space, maybe 46 identifiable rooms by my count.

    Yeah, the early (4th & prior) printings have a different map -- well, it's the same map, but drawn in a different style that makes it appear (at least to me) that what in the later version are solid black areas are filled more rooms and corridors at about the same density level that are just "grayed out" and obscured because they're not important -- so for instance you can sort of tell that most of the dark space surrounding that long winding hallway leading from area 3 to area 8 is actually filled with other rooms and corridors that just aren't being shown. (or maybe I'm just imagining it...)

    This style of mapping (long hallways interspersed with "nests" of mostly small rooms) is very similar to what's also seen in Gygax's c. 1973 Greyhawk Castle level 1 map as first glimpsed from a player's map drawn by the ENWorld moderators at GenCon 2007 and again in a blurry snapshot that surfaced earlier this year and was exhaustively (obsessive-compulsively) dissected in a thread @ Knights & Knaves:

    http://knights-n-knaves.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=28&t=6981

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  37. @T. Foster: Cool, thanks for that.

    (1) Interestingly, in DMG Appendix A my doors only have 40% rooms behind them, because I've always interpreted the Table-IIB 1-4 result strictly (i.e., giving a parallel passage as you exit a room).

    (2) I found the K&K map discussion fascinating when Allan Grohe pointed it at me the other week, as I had a couple posts on the Geomorphs & Appendix A then. Also showed me this which looks like a later evolution and more like an Appendix A result: http://images.boardgamegeek.com/images/pic598078.jpg

    (3) Does that BOTD volume cite what issue the Random Dungeons were originally in? I went searching my CD archive the other week and couldn't find anything.

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  38. (3) Does that BOTD volume cite what issue the Random Dungeons were originally in? I went searching my CD archive the other week and couldn't find anything.

    They originally appeared in Vol. I, issue 1 of The Strategic Review (Winter 1975) and are thus (along with the mind flayer monster description that appeared in that same issue) the very earliest "officially" published D&D expansion.

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  39. @T. Foster: Thanks, I see it now. A few interesting variations from DMG Appendix A.

    I even like the version of the mind flayer that doesn't require a whole larger body of psionics rules.

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  40. Hi James, I don't know if it was mentioned earlier in the comments, but it seems that Gary didn't follow his own advice, according to the modules he designed. I've been looking at B2 because my group is going to be exploring the Caverns of Chaos, and I'm going to have to remodel it to fit the exploratory nature, its just way too combat heavy. Would you say that this holds true for most of his modules?

    PS I'm purchased the 0one blueprint of the choas caverns, and it looks like it could be easily worked to give a B1 exploration feel to it.

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