Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Random Encounter Motivations

Monsters serve as the default antagonists in Dungeons & Dragons and its derivatives (primarily many games developed in the spirit of the Old School Renaissance or OSR). They’re the focal point of the entire hack-and-slash mentality: kill the monsters and take their stuff. The character advancement structure of these games encourages this kind of play. Fighting and killing monsters not only earns experience points for the deed but points based on the value of treasure plundered from dead monsters (an aspect of the game’s design I’ve examined before). Certainly elements like the “Monster Reactions Table” can mitigate these presumptions. Yet a creature’s own motivations might affect how they react when encountering adventurers just as much as the adventurers’ openly displayed intent. This becomes particularly important for randomly determined creatures – as “wandering monsters” or in randomly generated dungeons – who don’t always have motivational cues based on a particular location. For instance, in a published scenario, four orcs in an evil wizard’s guard room have an assumed role to keep adventurers out, sound the alarm, and try to kill or capture intruders; but four orcs encountered as wandering monsters don’t have such clear cues regarding their motivation and hence their reaction to meeting adventurers. What if – before rolling on the “Monster Reactions Table” – we consulted a “Creature Motivation Table” to determine their intent when they stumble upon adventurers?

This flows from a few issues floating around in my head. Certainly the default “kill all the monsters” mentality in many D&D/OSR games forms the basis for this concern. (This isn’t to say there aren’t gamers who buck this trend...but as I mentioned before, the Basic/Expert and Advanced D&D rules in particular promote this play style.) Thinking deeper than that, at a plot and setting level, I wonder what more intriguing stories we might play out if “combat” wasn’t the default reaction to encountering monsters. Even the term “monster” implies a threat one must waste with their crossbow or hit with their axe; I’ve been trying to veer more toward the neutral “creature” in my own language, even using the the term“chance encounters” rather than “wandering monsters.” In my solitaire delvings into Kabuki Kaiser’s Ruins of the Undercity and exploring “wandering monster” encounters I’ve often wondered what these randomly determined creatures are actually doing in the catacombs; beyond the monster reaction table it seems easiest in solitaire play to default to hack-and-slash mode.

So I jotted down a list of motivations for creatures randomly encountered as part of a published adventure’s parameters (“Roll for wandering monsters every hour...”) or as elements of a randomly determined dungeon. I’ve left them fairly vague so they can apply equally well to intelligent creatures like humanoids and those of animal-level intelligence. Some creatures by their very nature (as defined by D&D/OSR sources) do not enjoy such variations in motivation: the mindless undead often pursue the living with relentless determination; slimes, scavengers and insects driven primarily by unwavering instinct; various humanoids with their steadfast hatred of different demi-humans (such as goblins always attacking dwarves); and other logical exceptions.
These creature motivations – tempered by results from the “Monster Reactions Table” and other situational factors – leave plenty of room for subjective interpretation. It’s an attempt to infuse the game with more opportunities for character and story development beyond simple hack-and-slash combat encounters.

“But if I can’t kill the monster and take its treasure, how does my character gain experience?” one might ask. Here I turn to the same source that insists “Experience points...are given for non-magical treasure and for defeating monsters.” The Moldvay-edition of Basic D&D also says (on page B22), “Experience points are also given for monsters killed or overcome by magic, fighting or wits” (emphasis mine). While killing monsters remains the core assumption, this description also covers dealing with them through other non-combat means: the infamous “distracting the monster with food” method, casting a sleep spell, or otherwise resolving the encounter, quite possibly by aiding the creature’s immediate motivation. Why slay that bear when it’s far more interesting to earn 75 XP by helping it find its lost cubs? Wouldn’t it seem more interesting (and possibly lead to an engaging side adventure) to earn the ogre’s trust by helping it out of the labyrinth and find its way home? Should we just let those goblins run off and find out what really scared them?

The “Creature Motivations” table is a small tool, a random table adding some broadly described depth to what otherwise might turn into a hack-and-slash adventure. Certainly some gamers enjoy that aspect of play; others, however, sometimes or constantly seek a different facet of the game beyond its default, combat-focused setting. Small adjustments like this can help veer one’s game back on a course that emphasizes character and story depth over combat.