Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Workshop: No Sense Makes Sense

Going back to when I was starting the game, I was particularly fascinated with the dungeon random monster tables that were included as part of the dungeon generation in the original DM's Guide.  I recognize this won't have much value for a lot of you ~ hell, I don't know if most readers have ever actually seen the DM's Guide.  But I'm going to talk about this because these tables were formulative to my thinking processes today.

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.

Myst is an awful game.  It provides passive interest for a single user who has all the time in the world to wander with vague purpose inside an enclosed, static, finite space.  For those with the tenacity to keep at it, there is an innate knowledge that eventually, all the clues and pieces and puzzles will be sorted and overcome, and the game completed, which will give a small dopamine rush, most of which will be the knowledge that now it is done, the player can play a new game.

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.

That's enough.

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]


Drain said...

You are, truly, a guy that gets it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you. Honestly, most of the time, I don't know if I'm changing minds or no.

Ozymandias said...

You are, though it's a process for some of us.

I think I get what you're driving at but I struggle to understand what it would look like in practice.

Should we use nested tables? Where the results on all tables are affected by the situation or by results from previous tables?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Deal with the direct questions first. How many monsters SHOULD it take for a 1st level party to reach 2nd level?

Discord said...

Sometimes it's quiet after you post something like that because we're digesting it. I know that's the case for me.

I'm going for a shot in the dark to say that each party member should face 10 monsters to advance from first level to second level. To me, that seems like an appropriate number. For a party of five, clearing out an encampment of 50 orc feels like it should advance them in power and skill.

Based on the table you posted, the monster-only XP doesn't level them, but the XP from treasure might.

Treasure from XP is a concept that I've never played with at the table as a player or a DM. In most of the later editions, it's buried way back in the DMG as an optional rule. To make up for that, players need less XP to reach the next level. (Sometimes to an extra amount; In 5e, it only takes 300 XP to reach 2nd level. That's almost assured to be reached in a single session.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

300? Jeez.

Stealth said...

Chiming in to say you are getting through, at least to me and a handful of others. I've been using "gold earned+returned to town" and in some games, "gold spent" to grant 1:1 EXP. I haven't really "planned" my player's advancement. I just make sure there's plenty of moneymaking opportunities. Having started using money as a method to advance in character levels, I have no interest in returning to "exp only for combat". Though I'm still unprepared for my players to take up being full time merchants instead of poking about castle ruins and hunting monstrous humanoids.

My group of players tends to accumulate a sizeable amount of treasure after three or four three hour game sessions. (perhaps 3-4 combats per session across 8 to 10 rooms per session, when dungeons are involved.) Usually enough for at least one person to level up. That is slowing down now that they're hitting level 3-5, as the exp required to advance keeps doubling.

I've been making custom encounter tables for areas in my game for about a year now. There are indeed encounters where a 1st level party would not stand a chance(such as against 25 goblins, including higher hit dice leaders). I used to be nervous about running such things.

But without a failure state, how is anyone going to stay invested in a game? Who wants to watch a "you win" screen all day? I got tired of being the DM who tried to please players based on what they ask for. It was a losing, mentally draining game. Turns out players just keep asking. I realized eventually that they were looking to me for boundaries and challenges. For push/pull. For where the challenge would be, so they could maybe overcome it, then maybe get the thing they wanted, whether it be money, fame, or magical loot. So there has to be struggle, and for the odds to be sometimes in the player's favor, there should be other times where the only sane option is to flee, seek advantageous terrain, find more allies, etc.

The ups and downs of Hit Points, fame, and fortunes is what keeps a game alive. I believe Alexis has spoken on the subject of players seeking conflicts before. And conflict sometimes leads to feelings of defeat, or triumph. It's been awhile since I've actually given "How to Run" a detailed read through.

The overall question of what rate of level advancement is appropriate is still up in the air, I'd say. Players should be advancing in level and power often enough that they remain engaged, assuming they're succeeding and overcoming challenges of some sort. Thoughts from anyone else on the subject?

Discord said...

Orcs are 100 XP each, so it's 15 orcs for a party of 5 to hit level 2 in 5e. That's much lower than the 77 orcs it would require based on your example.

(By the way, if you ever get tired of me mentioning 5e, just let me know. I'm familiar with several different editions of D&D and AD&D, but my current campaign is 5e, so that's what I've got to bring to the table rules-wise.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh no, Discord, I need to be educated.

It is only that the new was something of the equivalent of spending three years in the Amazon Rainforest, only to return to civilization and finding out they'd shortened the distance between major league bases to 50 feet.

Since I measure my experience points by damage, a single orc with 1 h.p. that does not damage in a fight would be worth 10 x.p. But if that same orc hits three times with a short sword for a total of 11 damage, it would be worth 450 x.p. My characters would have to face a total of 23.88 orcs like that to acquire the 10,750 x.p., which would mean they'd have to take a total of 263 damage. Obviously, that's more than the party has (74) ... in fact, 3.55 times more. But the party also has an additional 45 h.p. in negative hit points they can spend, though that often kills them.

In all, two really dangerous encounters, or four middle dangerous encounters, with the party taking about 131 damage, supported by something like 1,000 g.p./x.p. each in gems, coins, jewelry and occasionally magic items (a healing potion is worth 250 x.p.). If a party plays safe, doesn't mix it up, only kills easy things that don't seriously fight back, it can take ten encounters for a party to succeed in levelling. I don't always like it, because a cautious party really, really slows down a game (and I dropped the Senex Campaign on the blog because after seven years of running I got tired of their endless caution), but it's technically up to the party.

Danielle Osterman said...

This blew me away the first time I read it. I'm still working my way through it. It productively upends a lot of how I have been thinking about dungeons and adventures more generally. I need to sit and rethink a lot of how I've been structuring my runnings.

Discord said...

I have not seen the XP for damage taken/received anywhere else, and I feel that it really sets your system apart. It leads to such interesting choices for the player, as when they are deciding whether or not to play it safe. It makes hit points more of a resource for players to manage, which other editions lack.

In 3.5, the system was easily broken and a low-level spell from one of the splatbooks could pretty much heal the entire party as long as they had a minute or two out of combat. 5e is even worse in that regard; 8 hours of rest will completely heal ALL of the parties wounds, get their spells back, get extra uses of abilities back, etc.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, but you understand Discord that all those benefits in 5e are only there so the DM doesn't have to fudge quite so much.

Vlad malkav said...

Ok, I'm seeing the advantage of randomness for tension - as long as the players know it is a random dungeon.
But how would randomness compare to a logical dungeon ? One built for a reason (like a subterraean monastery), with logical room placement (storage, wastes, guard, etc.), eventually resettled (by the orc raiders menacing the local trade route), and without a "puzzle" to solve, but a structure, like how many orcs, what they do, how they act, to make the place alive and coherent.
Or how would it compare to your Juvenis campaign dungeon ?

Granted, many coherent places lack interest as dungeons ...

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sorry, Vlad, but you're still thinking in terms of room and groups of monsters. Is that what your role is as a DM?

Your goal is to put experience in front of the party. You can argue the probable logical arrangement of the dungeon ... but that's like saying there's going to be grass on a soccer field. Of course there's going to be grass. Is the game about grass?

Vlad malkav said...

Well, I think I get what you told about our role, and it build perfectly on a lot of things you said before about the role of the DM.

I was more specifically talking about the tension aspect of the random dungeon, which doesn't seem immediately linked to the XP aspect - although I could be wrong, and glad to be corrected.

In fact, I probably do not get the whole of your idea here. Maybe I should wait for the next post or comments. Is there an example of this somewhere ?

Matt said...

I feel like this is a kinda wishy-washy, noncommital reply, but a party needs enough monsters/traps/encounters between levels to learn how to use the abilities they currently have.

This is a big problem in 5e. The accelerated leveling is nice for veteran players that just want to get to the 'good' stuff. But in my experience, new players, and players not super familiar with 5e, gain abilities, spells, feats, and so on far quicker than they can really learn how to use.

Sebastian DM said...

Blogger ate the comment that I spent 40 min typing on my phone, so it took a while to get time and patience to type it up again. I really have to remember not to use that "notify" button as it deletes everything when I am redirected from it.

Amazing post. I was really looking forward to some feedback from you on the entries for room 2. I thought the feedback you posted before the vote for the first room was very enlightening and felt a bit left in the dark before the vote this time. I had hoped for some feedback and maybe some evaluation in the comments of the seconded entries before the final vote as we did for the first room.

You do change minds. At least mine. At the end of every workshop I really think I get it, until you reveal another facet that I had not thought about. I do really learn a lot from these workshops.

One question for this post though: Are you saying that we want to avoid mysteries for the current dungeon altogether or is it mainly the mystery as the main continuity in the dungeon that becomes the problem?

I am a little confused as to whether your questions are rhetorical or if this is an active part of the workshop. But I think the advancement of the party needs to keep a fine balance. For my last game at least, I know it was too slow. They got to level 2 after 6 sessions (although they did die, which only makes it even harder). The upper level for the patience of that party was 2nd level in 4 sessions I would say. So I would guess a preferred rate of advancement until 2nd level would be something like 2 to 4 sessions, which is something like 6 to 12 encounters for that group.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I suppose I can be more forthcoming. By "random dungeon," I don't recommend rolling a dungeon like I've been doing with the workshop. As a DM, this will not serve your needs; you need to control that experience distribution to your players.

But the imaginary beings inside the dungeon, the creatures living there, DO behave in a "random fashion," in that they're not actively trying to "create a puzzle," as most DM's would imagine a dungeon to be. They're simply alive. Their presence isn't deliberately to make sense for a party, but rather just to rebuild their living space to suit themselves. Look around the space where you live, or the space where you work. Even if you are excessively organized and clean, objects are still often placed where they fit, or where they might be convenient for YOU, but possibly or probably not for others. YOUR agenda for your living space makes sense to you ... but to another person, it likely makes no sense at all. For a group of interlopers, they would probably find many of the things you own quite puzzling or even cringe-worthy.

It should be no different for a party in a dungeon. Why on earth would the orcs dig out this wall? What were they thinking? And why is this room so big? The party can't know that maybe there were more orcs there once, or that there was a plan to build another room that went awry. This is why I'm saying that "no sense" is, in fact, sensible.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I didn't find it committal. But it is one more brick in the wall demonstrating that 5e is a broken, execrable system. Seriously? The experience between level-jumping is so diminuative that a DM has to actively find ways to deny experience so the players can "use their abilities more"?

Wouldn't the more logical solution be to give LESS x.p. for orcs or return the amount of x.p. needed to go up a level to rational, Old School levels?

If I go back to my analogy of reducing the distance between bases in baseball to 45 ft., is the logical answer to ask the players to, "Please run slower," so the game will be better?

Alexis Smolensk said...


To focus on your question in relation to the comment I just gave Vlad. Denizens of a home do not live in a puzzle. If a puzzle had ever existed, they would have solved it, destroyed it, possibly left elements of it, the way that bits and pieces of old Coney Island still persist, though the park is long gone. The "mystery" format hinges upon the presence of a "creator," which then encourages the party to view the dungeon as a set-piece and not an adventure. Remove the mystery, you remove the creator, and the party can no longer be sure that there's an end-point or a purpose in anything they see or do.

I'm not sure which questions you're referring to, as regards rhetorical. Some have been, yes. But I'll detail whatever you ask for.

On the whole, I'd say three to four runnings to get a party from 1st to 2nd is a good number. And about the same number of runnings for the next two or three levels. But I can say that after 4th, a party will usually be seated in a number of ongoing adventure "spheres," big picture and small picture, which will usually subvert the greater need for level. But again, I speak of experience as gained in other systems, not 5e.

Sebastian DM said...

My apologies. I was referring to the questions you raised in the post itself. The ones that begin with:

"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? ..."

I took them all as rhetorical but then people began answering them in the comments.

Thanks for the clarification. It was just what I needed. It really makes sense.

Also, I hope you will read some more 5e soon. Seeing your response to the 300xp reminded me how entertaining that post series was!

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ah, those questions were not rhetorical. When I asked Vlad, "Is that what your role is as a DM," that was rhetorical.

Vlad malkav said...


Thank you for being more forthcoming, it clarify things further for me, I think I understand what you mean now.
Will you continue this workshop again ? There is insight to gain here.