Rooms, Planned Encounters, and Random Encounters

Let’s say you’re going to write up a dungeon. Or a mega-dungeon. Regardless, you should consider the following structure for how to describe the dungeon once you’ve drawn the map.

Anything static, not likely to change in a few months, should be written in a room description.

Good: Kitchen. Dirty, a few cobwebs, stone counters along the north and west walls, rough wooden table in the center. Against the south wall is a stone oven with an arched space underneath containing tinder, sticks, and some logs (very dry). There is a stone shelf above that where the fire would burn and a metal plate above that where food is cooked. There is a beaten metal chute built into the stove to vent the smoke from the shelf.

Bad: Kitchen. There are two bandits here arguing with the bandit cook. They want a double meat portion but the cook is having none of that, waving his cleaver around and shouting, red-faced. The cook-fire is lit and some potatoes are sizzling on the stove.

If you want to write a guard room, describe the guard room and then note that one encounter of guards will be here at any time. If you wanted to have a chance that the cook is in the kitchen, include a chance of just the cook, a chance that it’s empty, and a chance that it’s a more complex encounter.

Better: Kitchen. (Described as in Good). Roll 1d10. (1) Just assistant, (2) Cook, (3-5) Cook and assistant, (6) One lone bandit scrounging for leftovers, (7) Two bandits, cook, assistant, (8-10) Empty.


Kitchen. (Described as in Good). The cook works from 8-10 AM and from 2-6 PM. The assistant works from 6-10 AM and from 1-6 PM. There is a 1 in 6 chance that a bandit is here harassing the cook for food or just poking around. The assistant is often sent out on short errands (fetch water, more fuel, food from the larder, etc) and will be out for a few minutes on a roll of 1 in 8.

Anything that moves around or that you plan should be written in an encounter description. Encounters can happen anywhere within reason. Place encounters where you feel appropriate, or use one instead of a random encounter when you roll one.

It’s important that not every room be an encounter space. In fact you can get away with not detailing many rooms. Especially in a megadungeon, if you key a cool encounter to a specific room, the PCs may never find it. You can place planned encounters in rooms they pass through even though the room is blank and without description on your map.

Good: Six orc scouts. Equipped and stats as an orc in leather armor, using a short bow, hand axe, and knife. They get into a fight only if they have surprise and a 2:1 advantage. Otherwise they follow to figure out where the intruder is going and report back. They stay together. They’re currently wandering the countryside looking for an escaped Halfling prisoner.

Bad: There is a stone face in the wall with grotesquely carved ears. Anyone passing by who wears metal armor or who is not trying to be quiet will activate the face. It starts yammering and crying for help, spitting and biting anyone who gets too close. It quiets down if nobody is around it for three minutes.

The face should really be a room description – it doesn’t move at all. If you want to use these all over the place, define the alarm face with a map symbol. Keep a list of these “copy and paste” room descriptions separately.

Random Encounters
Some DMs don’t like random encounters. They seem arbitrary and a waste of time. But that’s the point! In earlier versions of D&D, you’d get some XP for slaying monsters but especially at high level you got most of your XP from acquiring treasure. Wandering monsters didn’t carry treasure, but they had treasure in their lairs. So it was beneficial to avoid wandering monsters, get to their lairs to steal the treasure, and get out. Fighting a wandering monster just sapped your resources and wasted your time.

Looked at this way, wandering monsters are essential to a well-functioning D&D game. If you don’t use them, players will waste time, rest constantly to regain just one spell or a couple Hit Points, and sit around making noise at intersections figuring out where to go next. A lack of these habits is a mark of an experienced player.

Your random encounters don’t need to be very complex. If you start to describe anything more than number and type of creature, it’s probably a planned encounter. And that’s fine – if you want to go through that much effort you can have nothing but wandering, randomly-rolled encounters from your planned encounter list.

Simple wandering monsters follow the form “2d6 Orcs” and are mainly to spur the players on and punish a waste of time, excess noise, setting off alarms, etc. As such you don’t need to make them interesting. They are the plain mortar filling in between the stones of your prepared material.

But there’s a problem with wandering monsters. Where do they come from? Some DMs don’t care about dungeon ecology, but you can have a little fun with it. Here’s what I do.

A Little Bit of Process
First, in your dungeon define where the lairs are. Define exactly how many monsters are in each lair. Now you can figure out how much treasure should be there. The lair should hold only half the total number of inhabitants at any one time. Make the lair population about six times the maximum from any wandering encounter.

Say you have lairs for Giant Rats, Zombies, Stirges, and vicious Gnomes. Now you populate your wandering monster chart based on that. Assume the monsters can wander just about anywhere in the level.

When the PCs kill some wandering Giant Rats, remove those numbers from the lair on this level. Eventually they will clear out the nest. You may want a chance that the lair has some leftover creatures anyway: roll the random encounter chance when they find the lair, even if it’s empty, and add in the 1d6 Giant Rats or whatever if an encounter comes up. There will of course be noncombatants there too: women, children, the weak, sick, and old.

In your wandering monster table, include an entry for a non-combat (scary noises, a draft, weird smells, etc), one for a monster from one level above, and one for a monster from one level below. In our previous example, the dungeon could look like this:

Level 1 Random Encounter Table (1 in 1d12, once per hour or per loud incident)
Roll 1d10
1 ) Roll on the table for the wilderness hex aboveground
2 ) 1d6 Giant Rats
3 ) 1d4-1 Zombies (Partial zombie crawling along if zero)
4 ) 1d8 Stirges
5 ) 1d2+4 Gnomes
6 ) Mobile, but harmless, moss or slime
7 ) Overpowering smell of mold
8 ) Sounds of splashing in water or footsteps
9 ) A few normal rats or spiders
10 ) Roll on the table for Level 2

101: The lair of the Giant Rats. (Population 36)
The door to this room has been damaged by water at the bottom and gnawed away by the rats. It’s full of crates that have also been gnawed at and filled with debris. There are sticks, papers, leaves, bones, bits and pieces covering the floor and mounded up around the crates. If any crate is disturbed any rats present will pour out and attack. The following round the rats from the other crates swarm out. The crates (A-F) each hold 1d4 Giant Rats.

One rat in Crate B will not come out. He has a silver armband around his midsection which he wriggled into when he was smaller. He cannot fight back unless you attack him unarmed. The armband is shaped like a coiled snake and is worth 8 GP. Each crate holds 3d6 SP and 6d4 CP.

102: The lair of the Zombies. (Population 18)
This was a prison, then used to just dump bodies into. Most of the room is taken up by a cubic pit 30′ across. Inside there are many bodies, and 1d6+6 zombies trying to claw their way out. A zombie will sometimes return to the room, totter at the edge inexplicably, and fall back in. He then gets up and struggles to the front to get out again for another jaunt.

There is some overlooked treasure, things that were once hidden in a hollow boot heel and the like. But to find it the PCs must search through mounds of rotting corpses, covered in flies and maggots and worse things. Anyone who searches has a 3% chance to contract a skin disease per turn. Every turn of searching there is a 1 in 6 chance of finding a treasure. The treasures include:

A set of lockpicks (30 GP), a silver and gold hip flask (9 GP), a skull with several gold teeth (1 GP total), and a wrought iron holy symbol to the Death God (15 GP).

103: The lair of the Stirges. (Population 48)
A rivulet of fresh water streams down from a crack in the ceiling and leaves the floor around here wet. Roots and vines hang down but no sunlight can be seen. The winding cave leads to the outside and the entire length is the home to a flock of stirges. If anything comes near the entrances above or below the entire flock swarms out at a rate of 1d6+1 per round.

The room also contains the bones and shriveled corpses of a few Giant Rats. In the twisting cave are the bones of a Gnome spelunker. His armor and weapons are horribly rusted out by the water but he has a sparkling gold medallion shaped like an Egyptian Eye of Horus. This is the artifact that the Gnomes are here searching for.

104: The lair of the Gnomes. (Population 12 plus Ephesus)
The upper gallery of this room is accessible by climbing or through the secret door hiding the steep and narrow steps. The Gnomes live up here with makeshift beds and their gear strewn about. They’re priests led by Ephesus Stonefield, a mystic. Ephesus was tasked by his king to find an artifact called the Eye of Argon, stolen by the king’s son. Ephesus used divinations to find this dungeon but hasn’t been able to find exactly where the artifact is.

The Gnomes are priests in a religious sense, but can’t cast spells. Ephesus casts spells as a 4th level Cleric. They’re all priests of the Harvest God. Their lack of combat training, combined with the danger of the dungeon, has led them to send out small patrols in the hopes they can avoid monsters. So far it’s worked alright, but they haven’t gotten much searching done. Ephesus cannot return to his king without the Eye, and he won’t find it for a long time with his current methods.

There will always be a minimum of 6 Gnomes plus Ephesus here. Only two patrols will be out at any time. Even if one doesn’t return, Ephesus will keep 6 Gnomes here. If he somehow gets below 6 Gnomes, he will pack up and leave, choosing exile over death in this dungeon.

Each gnome possesses scalemail, helmet, shield, hammer, dagger, a food ration, wineskin, a bronze holy symbol, flint and steel, a tinderbox, and 1d4 torches. They don’t need torches to see in the dark. Each also has 2d4 SP and 2d4 CP. One Gnome in the lair has a small ruby that he found and hid from Ephesus, worth 50 GP.

Ephesus has chainmail, helmet, shield, a silver hammer, dagger, a food ration, windeskin, a ring that creates small flames (a magical lighter), 2 torches, and a silver holy symbol. He has some treasure, but he hides it from the others in the secret compartment in Area 102b.

The lair contains 60 rations of food, two barrels of fresh water (30 gallons each), a cook pot and some cooking tools, two empty wooden tubs, a small tin bathtub, three buckets, two shovels, a pickaxe, a 10′ pole, a net, some plates and flatware, and some junk from the dungeon that seemed like treasure but turned out to be worthless.

In the wall of the upper gallery there is a stone face with a thrust-out lower jaw and lip. In the open mouth there is a flame that burns metal – the Gnomes feed it scrap metal and broken items. One coin weight lets it burn for several hours. It doesn’t consume air nor release smoke. If magical metal is placed within it will douse the flame, and the secret door behind it will swing open revealing the stairs down to area 104a. The Gnomes have not discovered this.

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One Response to “Rooms, Planned Encounters, and Random Encounters”

  1. Jack Colby Says:

    Great write up with lots of good advice. And thanks for including a complete example to illustrate it all. I hope a lot of DMs find their way here and have a chance to read this, because more people need to be exposed to this style and these concepts.

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