Thursday, August 11, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Wandering Monster Tables

I am not a big fan of Challenge Levels/Ratings or whatever you want to call them. There is an implication that every encounter ought to be balanced so that the party should be able to handle it, etc. This, of course, runs counter to my own old-school upbringing where I expect there to be encounters well beyond the ability of a party of adventurers because running away is not only an option, but sound strategy.

Nevertheless, in describing how to create a Wandering Monster Table, Holmes strongly implies something akin to Challenge Levels/Ratings:

First level adventurers encountering monsters typically found on the first level of a dungeon should be faced with roughly equal numbers, i.e. a party of three would encounter 2-6 orcs, 3-12 giant rats, etc. However, if the party were second level, or the first level monsters were encountered on the second level of the dungeon, the number of wandering monsters encountered should be doubled. In a like manner, the number of monsters should be tripled for third level adventures or in the third level of the dungeon if the monsters appearing are first level.

This is not quite the modern conception of a Challenge Level/Rating, because the strength of the encounter is tied as much to location as it is to the strength of the party. Even so, in order to deconstruct the example Wandering Monster Tables found in Holmes and Cook, I need some way to quantify a monster's strength. Of course, this can be done roughly by means of HD, but a 2HD creature with four attacks per round and an AC of 0 can be a lot more dangerous than a 4HD creature with one attack and an AC of 7.

Enter Peter Regan's Oubliette Magazine. In Issue number 5, where Don Turnbull's Monster Mark System (originally published in White Dwarf Magazine in 1978/79) is updated for use with Labyrinth Lord, a couple of tables are provided with all the math necessary to come up with a rating system for most monsters. I say most because the math is based on HD, AC and attack damage. Thus, special abilities are not taken into account which makes rating monsters such as a Wight (which does no damage but does have a level drain) difficult, if not impossible to rate. However, given that LL closely emulates Cook's Expert and that the Monster Mark System is useful for rating most monsters I decided to use it as a means to examine the Wandering Monster Tables of Holmes and Cook.

I won't bore you with the math, but here are the approximate average Monster Mark Ratings of each encounter found in the Wandering Monster Tables:

  • Level 1 = 5
  • Level 2 = 15
  • Level 3 = 35
  • Level 4-5 = 95
  • Level 6-7 = 175
  • Level 8 = 635

In order to make this math cleave closer to Holmes' advice (where there ought be be more of a differentiation between levels 4 and 5 as well as levels 6 and 7), it is possible to extrapolate the following:

  • Level 1 = 5
  • Level 2 = 10
  • Level 3 = 20
  • Level 4 = 40
  • Level 5 = 80
  • Level 6 = 160
  • Level 7 = 320
  • Level 8 = 640

There are two interesting things about these tables. Firstly, the relative challenge of level progression is (roughly) exponential. Though this may simply be a quirk of the math involved, it is still fascinating. The other feature isn't immediately obvious in any of the numbers seen above. In each table, at every level there are always outliers whose Monster Mark Rating is much higher than the average. For example:

  • Level 1 = 10
  • Level 2 = 23
  • Level 3 = 61
  • Level 4-5 = 150
  • Level 6-7 = 418
  • Level 8 = 3410 (!)

Thus, there is a built-in expectation that every level of a dungeon will have an encounter that at face value is beyond the ability of a party to be able to deal with/survive. This expectation is reinforced by the fact that Homles allows for 1st Level Wandering Monster rolls to be made on the 2nd level table 25% of the time and on the 3rd level 8% of the time.

This paints the picture of a living, breathing environment that is in constant flux, where creatures from different levels are, if not constantly interacting with each other, moving through each other's territory on a regular basis.


  1. I like the interactivity. On another directional note, it reminds me of the faction thinking Justin Alexander did here.

    I think if the characters think nothing "activates" until they arrive, it feels too much like a videogame.

  2. @JB
    Thanks...this post is kinds up your alley isn't it?

    Thanks for the link. Yes, having factions within a dungeon complex makes the whole process of prepping and restocking much more entertaining for all around (especially the Ref). I love how these Wandering Monster Tables imply that such a situation exists — giving players all the tools they need to develop said living, breathing environment.

  3. Nice to see the Monstermark System being put to good use. I used it for putting together some Level 1-3 random encounter tables in Oubliette 6. I'll pop back and have another read of this before I do levels 4-6 in the next issue.

  4. @Oublieditor
    Yes! Thanks for all the work, it has proved very useful and I look forward to seeing your next issue!