Saturday, August 2, 2008

About Encounters

Here is what I have to say about encounter tables. They don’t fucking work. You can spend weeks sorting out the monsters according to the climatic, vegetative or demographic region you want; you can assign them frequencies and number appearing; you can carefully construct the tables so you can roll a hundred sided or a thousand sided dice…but when you start rolling on that table because a party is stumbling through some forest, you can bet your ass that “wolf” is going to come up the dice every fucking time.

Fact is, you won’t like the results, they won’t fit into the campaign that day and you’ll find yourself rolling again and again on your carefully constructed table until you toss the piece-of-shit table out and just pick the monster you like.

This frustrates me endlessly. It has done so for the past thirty years. Whereas my world is intended to be a self-acting system, it just doesn’t work out that way when it comes to monsters and to this day I haven’t been able to fix it.

And oh, I’d like to.

I know that a great part of the problem is the relative number of monsters. There just aren’t enough. And there aren’t any new ones.

Oh, yes, I know, there are hundreds of “new” monsters in all the books that have been printed. So I am told. Except that they don’t seem very “new” to me.

I don’t need any new dogs, cats, golems, demons, dragons, jinxkins, humanoids (christ in a sidecar, tieflings?), jellies or plants that capture things with tentacles. These are not new monsters, these are the same old monsters with marginally different characteristics. They don’t add anything to the existing three-dimensional environment because most of them are too silly to a) be taken seriously; b) to be anything other than kill-the-party drones; or c) include any graspable dramatic quality not already present in the original tomes. Books like Monster Manual III are just long complicated descriptions of what are, effectively, “flail snails.”

I have read over them several times and I can’t see how their inclusion will help “fill up” the empty places in my world.

But perhaps you don’t understand what I mean by that (I haven’t really explained my problem yet).

When I take the profoundly usable original AD&D monster manual (where every monster actually makes sense) and add to it the Fiend Folio (about 50% useful) and a scattering of other monsters from other books, I get a total of about 800 useful, original monster types. Dividing this into vegetation (desert vs forest vs prairie), and further dividing this into climate (dry-hot from cold-rainy from cool arid and so on), then finally by season (winter vs. summer), I typically get from 5 to 60 monsters per region. Jungles and forests have the most types (with the exception of subterranean), but arctic/tundra regions have very, very few.

Thus, “wolf.”

I have, for the past year, given up on the idea of a die roll to randomly determine the appearance of any monster. I have been trying to think outside of the box, and this has led me to rethink monsters in many different ways. I have come up with a few conclusions, mostly about frequency and number appearing.

Any 20-mile hex, being about 313 sq.m. in area, would have to have a healthy number of every kind of monster present. In a wilderness forested area, there would have to be dozens of bears and hundreds of deer. Those would be earth numbers. To what degree would they be supplemented or replaced by the massive herbivores and carnivores that supposedly exist? If a hill giant is 8 times as massive as a human being, would 20 hill giants be more or less easy to locate than 160 people?

These are questions that I have been as yet unable to answer. If I set some total of hit dice as the base upon which I should gauge the population of a hex, then we’re looking at a hex allowing thousands of hit dice.

How is that?

Well, 150 acres of arable land will support 75 cattle, which, as every knows, have 1-4 HD (let’s call it 2 HD, for simplicity of use). There are 640 acres in a square mile, and 313 square miles in a 20 mile hex…that’s 640 / 150 * 313 * 75 * 2 (for hit dice) = 200,320 HD per hex.

Ah, but most land is NOT arable. And forests are very not arable, at least as far as humans go. But what about treants? What do they eat? If dead leaves, then a forest could feed an awful lot of treants. Still, we ought to limit the above number somehow…lets say that 5% of the land in a forest is practical for the feeding of the monsters therein. That leaves us with 10,016 HD per hex.

If we distribute this equally throughout a given encounter table, say the temperate table of the DMG (p. 186-7), where there is a 1% chance of encountering a hill giant, then we find we have 100 HD distributed towards the hill giant population—resulting in a total population of some 12 to 13 hill giants…in every hex.

Hm. Seems a little high for me. Perhaps you could adjust the “arability” of the land downwards some…to the point where every hex would have it’s prerequisite hill giant. That would be a total of 801 HD per hex…or approximately 0.4% of the forest actually being arable.

Which seems…low. Especially for somewhere that has such a reputation for being thick with growing things.

All right, so we lower the frequency of hill giants. To what, exactly? Because to be honest, I have no idea. And it wouldn’t matter anyway, because the problem is that a hill giant encounter is going to be a LOT more interesting than a wolf encounter, though wolves are clearly going to be more common in their occurrence (thus there is an 8% chance of encountering them on the DMG table referenced). But I know of no party who would be interested in going through 8 wolf encounters (a total of 32 wolves) before encountering one hill giant.

So, clearly, there’s nothing to be gained by following any system of logic. A useful system would have to be designed on the encounter’s “interest” quotient.

Which is where I’m stuck. I’ve thought about intelligence as a guideline, on the argument that the greater the intelligence the more desirous the monster would be in bugging or attacking the party…but I’m still waiting for the scales to fall from my eyes.


Carl said...

I've made encounter tables for the areas that my adventurers are likely to walk to in two weeks. I limited the maximum hit dice of the creatures in the areas because of their proximity to civilization and because I don't want the characters to find a dragon just yet. I figured that the higher hit die, more dangerous creatures were hunted down or chased further into the wilderness as the characters are in a particularly civilized area controlled by a group of powerful and benificient giants. The further the move from the center of that, the more dangerous the world becomes.

At present, I'm doing a lot of hand-waving over the ecology of the world. I don't know how much creatures need to eat before they start ranging, and there's also the question of a magical creature's diet -- what would an earth elemental eat, for example, and how often does it get hungry? I suppose I'll research some kind of potential calories per square mile figure for the various land and climate types.

I think I'm going to use the system I've derived from your posts on economics. It will be more-or-less the same as the one I've been using to track the land, labor and capital of the world. I know which monsters and animals I'm going to use. For the animals, I'll reference geographically similar Earth locations to place them. I'm already doing this with the livestock. For the monsters, I'll establish a total population of say, Manticores, and then assign references to zones in the world. Placing them where I think it would be interesting.

If I were using Earth, I could reference mythology and place the critters in those zones according their 'traditional' homes. Coatl live in Brazil, for example. Determing population numbers for magical creatures will be an exercise in imagination, but you could choose a corollary between particularly exotic creatures and some rare real-world species.

Since I'm using a fantasy world, I can put them where I think my players and I will find them most interesting. I've been dividing the world into zones for 'wildlife' and again, my rule is the further from civilization, the higher the potential hit dice of the creatures encountered.

I've divided the non-humanoids into Animals, Monsters and Specials categories. Animals are as they are and include Dire Animals as a nod to the recent Paleolithic era. Monsters are a bit more complex, ranging from mythical beasts who are generally of animal intelligence, up to low-level organization creatures like goblins and ogres and some undead. Pretty much anything that would operate in a pack when grouped together and isn't a real animal is a Monster.

Specials are usually the very intelligent monsters although the really high hit die, unthinking engines of destruction are Specials, too. Golems, elementals, roc, ghosts, dragons, demons, devils and so forth are on this list.

I'll probably keep my proportions to 1 Special to 2 Monsters to 4 Animals. I can use survey data from areas similar to Earth to establish the appropriate Animal population, which I've done for a few zones already, and then place Monsters references according to the proportion of animal references and so on.

Eventually, I'll achieve a system where I just know which animals and monsters live in the forest where the characters are tromping around looking for that fort they read about in the old book.

For now though, I'll use my best-guess tables and roll.

mhensley said...

Did your site get hacked or something? There were some very "weird" posts here this morning.

JohnS said...

I've had the same problem. I now just make a list of native monsters for an area and pick from the list when a "wandering" monster shows up.

Alex Schroeder said...

I feel like just skipping the boring encounters. I'll just skip it all the animal encounters and only stop if the party does in fact meet a hill giant.

Example overland travel:

An alternative would be to prepare a handful of interesting wilderness encounters, and just pull one of them out of your hat when you feel like. Instead of worrying about verisimilitude I'd focus on cinematic flow of the story.

Michael said...

I have been going through your archives, so I don't know if you have revisited this issue yet.

Perhaps rather than "Intelligence" as an additional metric it should be something like "Aggression". After all, an intelligent weak creature is not going to attack a party of level 7 adventurers, but an Aggressive one might. (The level may not be immediately discernible, but some other metric of their fighting capability might be.)

Wolves do not generally attack human(oid)s in general, especially adults, armed humans, or a group of humans. All of these things are true for an adventurer party. If a Hill Giant is 4 times as aggressive as wolves are then instead of eight wolf encounters for each hill giant you have two.

The aggression could be modified on the fly; say a drought or over-hunting triples the aggression of wolves or something.

The downside is that unlike Intelligence, these monsters don't already have an "Aggression" stat, you'd have to come up with your own numbers for your 800 monsters, and they would even change with number maybe. A pack of 8 wolves would be much more daring than a pack of 4.

Alexis said...

It's not a bad idea, but I think a cohesive principal for all animals would be problematic.

I've been working irregularly on an encounter table meant to solve some of these problems, but as yet I haven't emphasized its creation in my overall efforts. I hope to get to it this winter once I've got some of my trade issues worked out.

Arduin said...

This post is stupidly ancient, and I have to apologize for even posting a comment here in 2013 (not that I haven't done this before), but in fiddling with these numbers and concepts, I'd like to fish out the following.

You mentioned the issue with there being 11-12 Hill Giants per hex, and that this is stupid high. We also, naturally, don't want to mess with numbers that can fit for actual wildlife.

So, what if the Hit Dice for "monsters" or rather, any creature that is living by hunting/foraging rather than agriculture of some kind, were multiplied by intelligence, plus one to mitigate the number of "zero" creatures?

I.E. the Wolf, with 2(+1) INT and 2+2HD (I rounded up in such cases, to 3HD) would be valued at 9 Hit Dice per wolf.

Taking then the Deer, Stag we get 1+1 INT times 3 HD for a value of 6 HD in encounter space per deer.

This would cut the number of large, intelligent fighters down significantly, perhaps even spreading them to singular digits over a few hexes.

More importantly, it makes unintelligent herbivores more frequent than the creatures that are likely to hunt them.

I'm sure you've worked out your own system by now (worse, I'm certain there are mathematical holes in this idea that I can't spot), but I thought it might jog the subject interestingly at least.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The main problem would be, I think, is that it doesn't apply to humans, right? More intelligence = lower density doesn't actually follow. In fact, the higher the intelligence, the more likely it should be for them to live together in relative peace, while non-intelligent creatures are constantly destroying and eating one another.

I haven't worked out a system. This is one of those pesky problems, and I appreciate your weighing in on it.