To catch you up. The tables were standard encounter tables, with the monsters selected according to their experience points as determined in the DMG. 1st level monsters, according to the book, are those with "up to 20 x.p." Monster levels range from 1 to 10. The first three columns of the table on the right repeat the DMG's table. I've added the X.P. value (base rate for hit dice + x.p./h.p.) and the total average X.P. to be expected per encounter.
First, a little errata. The DMG disagrees with itself in several places. The experience table on p.85 clearly states that rot grub and ear seekers should get 5+1 x.p. as shown, but the monster index at the back of the DMG shows both getting "nil" h.p. The index gives no totals for dwarf, elf, gnome, halfling or human, but I've calculated this out for the table above. The shrieker has 3 HD, so it should have a base total of 35+3/h.p., but the monster doesn't attack at all so I have used the number given in the DMG index, p. 211. I know this stuff drives people crazy about AD&D, but this is what happens when a bunch of publishing amateurs produce a book by committee. It got no better when the modules then completely failed to maintain any consistency with the books.
The experience per encounter swings wildly from creature to creature. It is plainly heaviest with the humanoids, who were also liable to provide the most treasure. Potentially the most dangerous creature on the list is the manes, as they're the only ones that need a magic weapon to hit; encounter four of these right out of the gate with a brand new party and the only option is to run. But the total value of an encounter with them averages only 56, with four of them giving only 90.
Halfling are heavily skewed because the average number appearing is the highest on the list; and elves, with 1+1 hit dice, get 10 more X.P. per individual than do dwarves, who have 1 hit die. We have only 2-8 hobgoblins appearing, but 3-11 elves (which can only be generated by 2d5+1). I always assumed the absurd numbers of dwarves, elves, gnomes and halflings took into account that these were not "evil" and therefore more likely to parley with/trade/help the party rather than try to kill it. Humans only had 1-6 h.p. in AD&D, which makes them slightly less dangerous than goblins, thus the comparably lesser total. Orcs, on the other hand, are more dangerous than goblins; but we gave a lot more goblins than orcs, making the goblin the most dangerous aggressive race on this chart.
Okay, what does any of this have to do with anything? Who even uses this table any more?
Once upon a time, I did. A lot. I ran five or six NPCs through a totally random dungeon, as generated by this system, and completely ignored reason. All I wanted was to set up battles between my people and the generated numbers here, basically using them to play chess with myself. At 16 and 17 years of age, I played two or three hundred hours at this, not realizing I was giving myself an education about how to master the memory-work needed to remember weapon damage, hitting, spells, monster ACs ... and most important of all, can five characters really fight 5-15 goblins in an standing battle and win?
If we stick to the monster manual's armor class of 6 for goblins, and all the goblins have 1-7 h.p. (no special leaders), and we don't worry about rules relating to how much space a weapon needs in a narrow corridor, and the goblins don't use missile weapons, and the players don't skimp on taking heavier weapons that do 1d8 or more damage, as opposed to 1d6, then yes, most of the time the parties will win. This doesn't allow for a second encounter, as the win is usually very close, particularly if the number of goblins is 12 or more ... but the benefit is that the players are almost always facing the goblins in narrow corridors, where the numbers are even for most of the fight, until the goblins are worn down.
I did these fights without my stun rules, using the standard combat initiative system; and I fought them on maps drawn on large white sheets of paper with a ruler and without squares or hexes, using basic Tractics Rules for movement. I had played a lot of Tractics in the late 70s and I was comfortable with the idea. People play it with complex terrains that they build, but we used to play it in my parent's rumpus room, a space about 18 feet by 25.
Apart from the range of experience, and the numbers of the combatants, the real table breaker is that 50% of the results are humanoids. And more than half the results that aren't humanoids are either giant rats or shriekers. Basically, 3 out of 4 encounters are three basic creature types ... and one of those is just a gimmick that will call humanoids or rats. I would endlessly muck around with the table, trying to produce better results ... but of course, if you remove humanoid results, what remains gives very little X.P. At the time, I couldn't figure out how to fix it. The answer, of course, was a better experience system.
I learned a lot from these tables. In the end, I came to the conclusion that these tables are garbage, at least in the sense of, "here is chance of individual monster." With just two rooms generated in the workshop, we've already eliminated the logic of most of these. If there were giant rats, we should see droppings everywhere. If there were shriekers, how did they get through the door? If orcs, why haven't they cleaned up this place. And if not orcs, if something intelligent, how come they haven't posted guards, spiked doors, set up alarms or otherwise sought to protect themselves?
Of course, they could be a wandering troop of goblins, that just happen to be here at the exact same time as the players. That's pretty unlikely. It could be the guard posts, alarms, etcetera, are just past the door, particularly if one door leads to a hall, a stair, another hall and then a room with goblins.
It paints a pretty solid picture that a dungeon has to have some sort of logical continuity ... which I know is not at all news to anyone here. But, I would argue that the continuity that most before this workshop would suggest would be as logical as the random table above. The tendency is to create some huge unifying theme for the whole dungeon, something along the lines of there being 12 special rooms which each have a particular special clue inside that gives the final solution to the 13th room, yada yada yada.
Oh my gawd, stop. Who made this dungeon, Disneyland? I'm firmly of the belief that a huge amount of dungeon-design thinking ~ and adventure thinking to ~ has been polluted by the principles underlying Myst and adventures like it.
It is the passivity of puzzle video games that is the killer where interactive table-top gaming is concerned. The knowing that the puzzle is meant to be solved ~ and if we sit back mentally and go through the steps, all will eventually be revealed. We can argue that it's not technically "railroading" ... but the assuredness of success, plus the knowledge that if we all die, well, that's the DM's fault or the die's fault, certainly not ours, since we got into this ride in the first place, kills tension. "Look," say the player at the end. "We went through all the rooms and opened all the doors and we did our part, now come across with the compensation."
This sounds like a job. Ech. As DMs, we would do better with a completely irrational dungeon rolled with an irrational die, since we would absolutely never know IF we should keep going, or IF there was an end result, or IF there was even treasure before all the dead ends stopped. And those ifs create a pit in the stomach that makes people struggle between hope and despair ... which is what we want players to struggle with.
There's no despair in a dungeon that is so perfectly arranged that every door creates a specific purpose for more doors. There's just the plodding certainty that the doors will end eventually and we will finish this thing. Which we knew going in. So the only real rush at the end is yay, we get to start a new dungeon.
These last two weeks, I've not been trying to create a random dungeon. I've been trying to crack this thinking that randomness is always a sin, and that planning is always a virtue. D&D is a game. Video games are not really games, they're planned exercises that teach you all the intricacies of a particular space, which are then barely of value when the space is complete. Unless you take that experience and apply it to another, similar game, it's useless. But then you're playing another similar game, and another, and another, and jeez, all we ever play is this one damn game.
Because D&D, and role-playing, doesn't require the knowledge of code or the endless months necessary to write code, we can blow the doors off contained spaces and make plans for randomness that video games can only dream of. Encounter tables that specify specific monsters are faulty and useless. But this doesn't mean that random encounters are wrong. They're only wrong the way they've been presented.
We know, given the two rooms we've seen, that there is something behind one of those two doors. Something alive and dangerous. No matter what it is, no matter what we might roll on any table, if we wanted we could make a justification for it. So the actual logic of the thing doesn't matter.
Sorry. It matters that there's logic, yes. But which logic doesn't matter. Get it?
Getting this across is brutally difficult. The players want to feel ... scared. Anticipation. Tense. The motivation to step through the next door is the process the players have of making something happen. They want to be attacked. They can't progress if they don't get treasure and they can't get treasure if they don't fight.
[though I know, much of this pure, brilliant game structure was gutted and hamstrung by morons who minimized the importance of level and removed experience for treasure ... which removed the player's agency and ... but that's another post]
Make the dungeon into a format where the players have to open the next door, knowing they'll be led inexorably to the final combat, and coddled until then, obliterates that player privilege of not knowing whether or not the next door will contain a bunch of monsters they can't fight, or beat. It transforms an active game into a passive one.
Recently, I watched Moneyball. It is a terrible film, full of dead air, and contrived conflict, and dull filmography, with a whole side story to the main character and his family that adds nothing whatsoever, but it focuses on about 25 minutes of mindblowing economics that shatters baseball history ... that should have been the whole film. In that vein, I'm arguing for the underlying arguments of D&D.
Puzzle-solving is a passive activity. Shelby described the dungeon so far as a "contemplative" experience ... which, for all the satisfaction that provides if we sit by the side of a river and listen to the burbling water, is something that's passive. Is that what we're trying to provide here? To paraphrase Moneyball, there is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening. And this leads people who run dungeons and design dungeons to misjudge their players and mismanage their games. People who make dungeons think in terms of rooms and groups of monsters. But your goal shouldn't be to make rooms, your goal should be to award experience. And in order to award experience, you need to create violence and rewards. When I see game dungeons, I see an imperfect understanding of where player success comes from. D&D thinking is medieval. They're asking all the wrong questions. And if I say it to anybody, I'm ostracized. I'm a leper.
Look at a first level party, the one I've given: cleric, fighter, monk, mage and druid. Together, they need 10,750 experience to level. How many rooms are we going to make them walk through in order to get that? How many times are they going to have to swing their weapons? What's the distribution between numbers of times they will have to retreat from the dungeon to rest and come back, determining how many total spells the players will have to use against monsters? What's your treasure to monster ratio, if you're going to require the players hack through, say, six rooms of encounters to obtain a sufficient amount of experience to reach another level? Ten rooms? Twenty rooms?
The spaces between those rooms are a break in the action. The spaces between those rooms are carefully planned rest stops for the party to gather strength, emotionally restore themselves, change their tactics, decide upon retreat vs. advance ... and generally, for the party to run the game. If we can go back to video games for a moment, we all hate it when we can feel the hand of the game designer forcing us to fit some preconception about what the game is. Your players feel this from you all the time. But they put up with it, the way we do with video games, because of those time when you let them run the table. That's why the players are in your world. To run. Not to follow. Not to wait. Not to be passive. To be active.
The more sense you add to your structure, the less sense you add to your structure if your goal is to empower your players and make them level. In pure mathematical terms, they have to hit a certain number of times, regardless of what they're hitting, to produce a certain number of deaths, while failing to lose a certain number of hit points that would mean their own deaths. EVERYTHING else is the tactics and techniques used by the players to produce enemy deaths while conserving friendly lives. Food, equipment, wealth, number of spells, types of weapons, all those other resources they can expend and preserve are only managed in order to give themselves the capacity to kill enemies and preserve their own lives. And what paint you throw on the walls and what contemplative art you put on top of the paint is meaningless if it doesn't also clearly contribute to the game the players are playing ... which is not, evidently, the game the DM's are playing with the sort of game designs I'm seeing.
The second room. It's a guard room, empty. There are fresh crumbs of bread on a table, the fresh odor of tobacco in the air, footprints in dirt on the floor with clear lines, a cup with a half-inch of ale in the bottom.
Consider the difference in the reaction of the party from what I suggest, and what the reader suggests.
This is NOT to downplay. But if we're going to learn how to DM, we've got to see the game for what it is. This isn't Myst, a game designed for a single, bored person to play in between moments of working and sleeping, over several days or several weeks, when they are at the bottom of their interest cycle. This is D&D. We have four hours once every two weeks to make shit happen, now, so the players will advance, now, and not when some distant moment comes around after the solving of a puzzle.
Let's not waste it with an art exhibit.
[my sincerest apologies to all readers for my language and my blunt rhetoric]