2d8 Zombies

I had not realised that an entire week had gone by with not new posts to the blog!

This blog is inspired by Hurin’s experience with 5e.

So right now Randomisers are really popular. I have blogged recently about one of mine with the catchy name of Normal People, JDale is developing his Random NPC script. Egdcltd is looking at creating random generators as apps. Incidentally I have created all the core functionality of my first android app this weekend and I am now just writing the fluff like instructions and help.

There is an entire MeWe group dedicated to RPG randomisers from random dungeons to encounters to towns and cities.

The oldest randomiser of them all is the wandering monster. It is random at the top level as we roll every x hours to see if a random encounter occurs. We then roll on a table to see what the encounter should be and then there is the No enc., number, the dreaded 2d8 zombies.

I have been thinking a lot about random encounters. In a recent adventure I published rather than specifying who or what was in each location I used a 1d6 table. This is the table from one location:

Random Location Events

Location 1

  1. An Idiyva archer is instructing young warriors in caring for their bows.
  2. A pair of lookouts are suddenly alert, they think they have seen something unusual outside.
  3. A female Idiyva arrives hauling a great bundle of firewood. She replenishes the stock of kindling before moving on.
  4. An Idiyva lookout on duty is being replaced by a change of guard.
  5. An Idiyva guard has a shoulder basket of arrows. He visits each guard and offers them replacement arrows. He visits each guard in turn then moves on.
  6. Two Idiyva guards are playing a game of dice rather than paying attention to their watch post. The game is good natured at the moment.

The intention is that the random events should tell the GM what is happening. I actually never explicitly say roll a d6 and you could just as easily have most of them happen sequentially or in parallel.

At no point do I ever state how many are encountered in terms of a die roll. It is simply natural that two guards would play a game to pass the time. Beyond that these are really just ones and twos.

Some of the encounters are intentionally repeated, the female with the kindling turns up repeatedly as she is walking the entire settlement restocking firewood.

The adventure this is from is not intended to be a hackfest, but rather one where the characters are either lead through as guests or are sneaking through as thieves in the night. In both of these cases having guards and civilians moving around make planning an incursion or trying to avoid guards much more challenging. That is the point of course, avoiding a fight and increasing the tension makes for good roleplaying. Sometimes you want a challenge that does not involve putting everyone to the sword.

Brian posted some themed Shadow World encounters and in that situation I think random encounters can really reinforce the setting and bring the world to life.

The only think I don’t like about wandering encounters is the number encountered. This is doubly true in Rolemaster where it is not necessarily the creature that is the deciding factor in how dangerous an encounter is but the number encountered. Lets take the cliche of 2d8 Zombies.

For most heroes or party’s 2 Zombies is not really a challenge. They are slow and not exactly the greatest of tacticians. On the other hand 16 zombies is a potential death sentence for most party’s who would be facing two, three or even four against one and everyone would be outflanked, they could not parry everyone and still attack effectively. In my world magical armour is not common, in fact no PC has any kind of DB boosting magic or superior quality items at all and they are now 6th level. The point is that the Zombies can and will hit them and can and will deliver criticals even without open ended rolls. If you are taking criticals then you WILL get stunned at some point. Once you are stunned, outnumbered and surrounded you will die!

The problem is that we have a habit of slavishly following the number encountered die roll.

For the past few years I have eschewed random encounters. The thought process I went through was to ask myself “What purpose does this encounter serve?” If it was just to grind the party down or to use up party resources then was a random encounter the best mechanism to achieve that?

My solution to that question or dilemma was to start being more fuzzy with my numbers encountered in my scripted encounters. By this I mean if I wanted the characters to fight, defeat or outwit the guards in the barracks then I would have an idea of how many guards I needed. If the fight was going too easily for the characters then I would do something like have a fresh guard rush into the barracks from the latrines still doing up his britches. Despite his comic entrance he is still a fresh combatant that could look at where he was most needed and join the fight. I could introduce a few more guards from here or there as needed to increase the threat level as long as I did not over power the encounter from the start.

This approach made encounters more fluid. They were not railroaded. I never hinged the plot on a fight being lost and the characters captured. If they won the fight then fair play to players. On the other hand I could put the party under more pressure especially their resource management including power points.

To me this doesn’t feel like ‘fudging’. If there is a castle full of guards then it is entirely consistent that someone should at some point be in the latrines or had been sent from the barracks to deliver a message and is now returning. Castle guards are not rooted to the spot, they should move around so I can have as many as I want. The same is true of orcs in an orc hold or lizardmen in a swamp. Once I introduce a guard then it is all above board and legitimate and he fights are full ability.

That was then, this is now.

I have swung back the other way and I am more a fan of random encounters but I am making them much more hand crafted and their function is the colour in the setting, not just at a world level but at a very local level.

In that Idiyva settlement I wanted to make a coherent settlement and by observing the Idiyva going about their daily business you could figure out how they lived, worked, and how the family unit operated. The random encounters were each a little window into their world, or that was the thinking behind them.

Does this create more work? Yes it certainly needs more prep to hand craft random encounter tables. It does mean that I could create a near infinite settlement and populate it with threats and challenges as a backdrop to the characters mission and the whole thing would be coherent and cohesive.

I keep coming back to the thought that the only thing that is bad about random encounters is the number appearing. That is the challenge in building these ‘wandering monster’ type tables. That is the thing that needs fixing.

14 Replies to “2d8 Zombies”

  1. The problem is the static random encounter chart doesn’t know how many or what level the party is. It cannot change so it has to be generic. If someone were to write up an app for it, the GM could input the number and level of the party members. If one wanted to be really in depth, the app could ask for professions and magical weapon information. Barring that really cool app being created, the GM has to tailor the results to the party. It’s just like a multiple crits result. The GM has to be a little creative. “Strike to foe’s thigh pierces artery. Foe’s nose is sliced off. He’s horribly disfigured.”

    I mentioned this in the original post; I don’t roll for random encounters once gameplay has started. I roll for the encounters during campaign prep, or I just create the random encounters and see if they take place during actual game time. I look at all of the charts as suggestions, not set-in-stone rules. The party encounters 2D8 Zombies. If it’s a party of one level 1 Mage, he’s screwed. Even if it’s a part of eight level 3 mages, they’re all screwed if there are more than 5 zombies. Three rounds to cast a spell… 16 zombies getting 3 attacks each?

    I’ll roll on the encounter table and tailor the result. I may even give the dice a roll to see how many zombies there are. Maybe I do send 16 zombies, but I’ll let the party roll some sort of skill to detect them first. Barring a fumble, they should be able to decide to go around the zombies or maybe all of the zombies don’t attack at once. Perhaps some of them are preoccupied eating their latest quarry.

    Often times, I’ll plan some random encounters that are fitting to the situation. If the party is crossing a savannah, they may encounter lions. I’ll roll up the stats then roll each night or a few times during the day to see if the party is being stalked. If the party is approaching a burial site, there may be some undead, maybe a will-o-wisp or a corpse candle. If they are near enchanted woods, maybe an annoying pysk or fairy is harassing them at night.

    I love the random tables as they give me food for thought and really add a spark to the imagination. “The party encounters a zephyr hound” Hmmm… how did the hound get there? Who summoned it? Did the party wander into an underground conclave of mages looking to attack the city? Is the summoner dead and it got away? Is the summoner tracking it and desperate for help to bring it down before it does damage? I’ve had entire stories and campaigns spring up from a random encounter table.

    1. You have sparked a really interesting idea with the idea of the app. I have been rereading the original issues of White Dwarf magazine. I used to read it when I was at school and I found some PDFs of early issues. The first thing they introduced was the Monster Mark system. It was not dissimilar to the modern CR rating in 5e.

      It should be possible to calculate some kind of index number, maybe based upon average damage output per round divided by total DB or something like that. The idea being that the app asks for a few figures such as the number of party members, the highest OB, the lowest DB, total powerpoints in the party. Then from that it sort of generates a party index that could be used to balancing encounters. Don’t take my list of parameters too seriously it is a top of my head list, but I think how many people there are is a major factor and if even the weakest (lowest DB) member can fend off an enemy for long enough then the main fighter can finish them off. All magic should be relatively equal in that the players should be taking the lists that fit the game style of the GM and choosing the professions to fit that game style as well. So be in healing magic or blasting magic it all helps win fights.

      Then all that would be needed would be a similar index for creatures and encounters. Finally, a nice little slider for lethality so you can nudge it to the left for a simple/easy fight and drag it all the way to the right for a TPK if your players have upset you.

  2. The discussion we had on the RM forums was quite productive for me; thanks for all the suggestions there guys! In the course of it, I’ve decided a couple of things:

    –Firstly, I’m going to continue to run this 5e module to the end, using the unbalanced 5e rules (e.g. really actually rolling 2d8 zombies). Some people still swear by this system because it teaches the players that they can’t just straight-up fight everyone. So I’m going to continue the experiment to the end of the campaign, and then have a conversation with my players to see what we all think of it.

    (By the way, I just had the crazy fire cultists burn all the unconscious players’ items, including their clothes, and brand their foreheads with the mark of the fire cult. So next session, all the players will wake up naked, disoriented, and with an unwanted tattoo… it will be kind of like their undergraduate days all over again).

    –In my RM games, though, I am going to adopt some of the suggestions you all have given me. I will most likely roll the random encounters beforehand, so that I can set them at an appropriate level, work out a rationale for why that Zephyr hound is there (and maybe even work it into the story of the campaign or use it for exposition), and figure out the treasure beforehand (to speed up play).

    In regards to a randomizer program, one good thing about RMU is that it is attempting to achieve better game balance by tying creature and player stats more closely to levels. This should mean that a level 10 creature in RMU is closer in power level to other level 10 creatures than they were in previous editions (no more Tyrannosaurus Rex’s as level 8 creatures with 200 OB!). So building a randomizer should actually be easier: the level will be a better guide to the creature’s actual power and stats than in previous editions.

  3. Oh, and I also really liked Peter’s suggestion of expressing random encounters as algebraic equations: H+1 is I assume Heroes +1, meaning the number of creatures encountered is number of players in the party +1. When I write my own adventures, that is probably the way I will do it.

    1. Not today.

      This week I am working on Android Apps. Frustratingly, it took me about 6hrs to code my first app and it has taken me 3 days to set up my Google Play Console account and get the app published. It is far from intuitive. I got the app uploaded and live and then discovered a bug in it. Since them I have been in a horrible cycle of trying to upload a new package and google rejecting my security keys and then trying to reset them.

  4. I love random generators as idea generators. They come up with ideas I never would have had, and add depth to the game. Especially for world-building! But never forget it is your story. The dice aren’t holy and the random table is not law. If the outcome doesn’t work, change it or roll again.

    That said, the idea of H+1 foes, or otherwise scaling random encounters to the party, sort of works if your goal is always to provide “a good fight”, but not so well if your goal is to present a world, or give the players the idea their characters have grown. If an encounter’s scale is set by what is appropriate for the area, a low level party will have to deal with it by evasion, trickery, or negotiation; a middle level party will try for strategy and surprise; and a high level party will breeze through it on the strength of power or intimidation. The feel of the campaign shifts in a way that reflects character growth. The GM, or course, has to make sure that evasion, trickery, negotiation, or strategy are available as options when they are needed, but again, it’s your story, you can create the circumstances. (This goes the other way too: a weak random foe can still be a problem if they use trickery or negotiation rather than simply attacking; a powerful foe may be satisfied to get what they want by intimidation. Variable power encounters force the foes to change up their tactics, too, which likewise makes the game more interesting.)

    Of course what qualifies as low, middle, and high level parties depends on the situation too. You may reach the level where all the kobolds in kobold land fear and flee from you and your mightiness, but this next mission is to troll land and you may need to adjust how you do things. A party that feels mighty may need to remember their tricks. That’s good too.

    1. The H2 or H+1 notation does not change the power level, just the actual number encountered.

      If your party could breeze through 2d8 kobolds then they would also breeze through H+1 kobolds.

      It doesn’t change kobolds into trolls or trolls into dragons.

      1. As you’ve just said in the blog, a party that breezes through 2 zombies will be murdered by 16 of them. Numbers do matter quite a bit. H+1 removes that variation. You’re right that it isn’t the only source of variation in the strength of your random foes, but it’s definitely part.

        What seems strange to me is that, as the party gets stronger, the zombies (or kobolds or whatever) know to travel in larger and larger packs.

        1. They don’t,

          4 1st level characters would meet 5 (H+1) zombies, 4 10th level characters would meet 5 (H+1) zombies. The H stands of the actual number of characters, not their level.
          1/2H would be 4
          H+1 would be 5
          2H would be 8 and so on.

          The advantage is that my RMC game has 5 regular players so H=5 but last month one could not come so for that session we did a one shot adventure, not part of the campaign because the regular campaign was at a key moment and I didn’t want to NPC that character for such a key scene. So for that session H=4. The numbers encountered automatically adjust for the size of the party so a small party isn’t overwhelmed or a large party under challenged. H is simply a placeholder symbol.

          1. Peter, I think you mean 1/2H would = 2, not 4, right?

            Anyway, I do like the way this notation makes it less likely that a random encounter is too weak or too strong. 5 Kobolds is not going to be as much of a challenge to a party of level 10 characters as it is to a party of level 5 characters of course, but I guess that so long as you ensure that the monsters are around the level of the party members, you can be reasonably sure that the encounter is balanced. Actually, you could quite closely balance the encounter by paying attention to the level of the creatures.

            1. Yes, you are right about the 1/2H.

              To be honest if 10th level characters storm a Kobold cave, the kobolds are in trouble.

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