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5e: Wandering Monsters and Random Encounters

Written by Ethan

Ethan is a storyteller, GM, and all-around nerd. He spends his time introducing all of his friends to D&D and creating hard magic systems for upcoming novels.

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It’s D&D night, and the party had just finished a tough fight. The exit had caved in, supplies and spell slots are low, and there was no clear place that was safe to hole up for a rest. The party decides to take the risk of resting in an unsafe environment. Everything was fine—until the party was attacked by a band of bugbears! If this sounds familiar, then you’ve been the victim of Wandering Monsters. Let’s take a look at what that means:

Wandering Monsters are creatures that move in a location as time passes. The normal rate is 1 check per hour; roll a d6—1 triggers an event. Monsters can sap resources, increase pace and stakes, and give aid. They are mostly found in large dungeons, caverns, and wilderness.

But there’s more to using them than just that. Let’s dig deeper, shall we?

Random Encounters

In 5e, wandering monsters are also known as Random Encounters.

In the Dungeon Master’s Guide  (DMG, pg 85), random encounters are introduced to have a few purposes. They are:

  • Create urgency
  • Establish atmosphere
  • Drain character resources
  • Provide assistance
  • Add interest
  • Reinforce campaign themes

We’ll look at what each of these means and what they can add to your game. First, let’s look at what exactly a wandering monster is.

What is a Wandering Monster?

A wandering monster is any creature that moving around a given environment. Have you ever played a video game in which you enter a new area and, for a moment, the enemies are just standing around? It’s almost like they’re just waiting for you to arrive. How polite of them! And how unrealistic. 

Video games are programmed to load in sections, but D&D worlds can be living, breathing places full of creatures that have their own needs and goals.

A wandering monster can be any monster from the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, or more. 

As a DM, consider why they are wandering about. They could be walking around looking for their next meal, investigating the noise they heard coming from the next room, or they could be a designated patrol circling through the dungeon. 

The nature of the monsters will determine how they act. If a hungry monster comes upon the party, it will try to eat them, often by snagging one and dragging them away—no need for a “kill everything” approach to battle. If a patrol discovers intruders, they might retreat and alert their boss to gather reinforcements and arm traps.


Frighten Your Players

In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.

Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.

Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.

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Why Should I Use Wandering Monsters?

Let’s break down the list that the DMG gives us.

Create Urgency

In our original example, the party was worn down and needed a rest. Parties will want to rest whenever they can to regain their abilities.

However, the prospect that something will find them if they wait too long will make them reconsider how often they rest. How would they act if they knew that every time they took a break, they were in danger of being surprised?

Establish Atmosphere

There are many ways to build the environment’s atmosphere: music, pacing, and descriptions. Lurking monsters also help to establish the atmosphere and hint at what might await the heroes.

For example, Darkmantles, giant spiders, and zombies wandering about establish a sense of horror. Players will prepare themselves to encounter powerful undead, like liches or vampires.

Drain Character Resources

Managing resources is a large part of playing D&D. Being discovered by monsters means that not only do your players fail to rest, they must also use even more of their abilities, spells slots, and HP.

This adds tension and a greater sense of vulnerability to your players, who now wonder how they will get by. Sometimes this will cause them to make desperate mistakes.

Provide Assistance

Wandering monsters aren’t always hostile. Perhaps there is a traitorous goblin who heard fighting and is willing to make a deal to sell out the rest of the goblins for his own gain.

Perhaps an NPC escaped from their captors, found the party, and has useful information to share. This is an especially useful tool if your players are getting off track and need to be pointed in the right direction.

Add Interest

The nature of your wandering monsters can create intrigue for what lies ahead. For instance, if all of the monsters the party encounters seem to recoil from any source of fire, this can foreshadow that fire is a weakness of the general area and upcoming boss.

Reinforce Campaign Themes

These monsters help to remind your players of the overarching themes of your campaign. If the players are in a city that promotes slavery, the wandering “monsters” could be slavers looking to capture people or slaves being forced to fight through coercive means.

Adding these encounters to your game allows you to remind your players of themes as often as you choose.


Discover Ancient Treasure

The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.

The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.

Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.

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How do I Use Wandering Monsters?

Environment

Implementing wandering monsters in your game is quite straightforward. Firstly, you’ll need to think about the environment.

Are they in the midst of a classic, dark dungeon? Are they cutting their way through a dense jungle? The monsters that you use will need to fit the terrain since they live there. 

If your players are attacked by a frost giant in the middle of the desert, they will have legit questions as to how that happened. Of course, you could do this on purpose and have a good reason why it was there. Otherwise, stick to the monsters typically found in that environment.

Pages 302-305 of the DMG list monsters according to their environment. Alternatively, an easy tool for searching for different monsters can be found here.

Challenge Rating (CR)

Compile several situation- and CR-appropriate encounters for the party and list them. Every time the players decide to take a rest, investigate, or otherwise fritter away an hour—roll a d6 to determine if a monster finds them. On rolling a 1, you can choose which encounter to spring on them, or you can randomize it by assigning numbers and rolling for it.

You can adjust this accordingly if the party has decided to be stealthy or has taken measures to protect themselves, such as standing guard, building barricades, or casting spells (like Tiny Hut). 

Conversely, if the party is being loud in a dangerous area, the likelihood of a monster finding them might be 100%. Hit them hard as you like—they’re practically begging for it.

You can also create an encounter table that blends different environments together to create the atmosphere that you want. As with most things for random tables or generation, DonJon’s is where it’s at. Check this out for a random encounter generator.

Randomness

Note: while you can narratively tie these monsters in, you can use wandering monsters that otherwise would not exist in your campaign. In other words, you have an unlimited amount of monsters and encounters without regard to the things you’d already pre-planned for this setting.

If they keep resting after every encounter, feel free to load them down with more and more encounters. If they complain, you can shrug and say, “I guess this cave is just full of hungry creatures.”

Don’t worry that the monsters weren’t already inside the dungeon, but that is also an option. Keeping track of patrolling monsters can be a pain; randomly spawning them is an option.


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Alternatives for Wandering Monsters

There are times when wandering monsters are not a great option. If you’re DMing for a large party, combat can take a long time. Introducing the potential for even more combat can seem like overkill, slowing the game to a glacial pace.

If you’re using wandering monsters to increase the danger levels of the environment, there are other ways to accomplish this. Perhaps the environment is full of toxic gas, and staying a prolonged amount of time will drive someone mad or kill them. 

The goblins are casting a ritual spell, or perhaps they have prisoners that they are hurting (or both). If the party waits too long, a powerful undead creature will be summoned, and even more innocent lives will be lost.

Or, my favorite option: if you’re using wandering monsters to make the world seem realistic, you can always introduce the prospect without actually initiating combat. Roll a die behind the screen like you would when determining a random encounter, describe the trees rustling as something jumps between them and a howling in the distance. Then move on. 

You could build this into your rolling system, where rolling a 5-6 on a d6 would drop a hint that something was lurking, but a 1 is still engaging the fight. Perhaps an echoing howl, rattling chains, or a slamming door in the distance.

If you describe it well, the party will feel like they just avoided something and will cautiously consider where and when they rest. Of course, if they catch on that nothing ever actually finds them, you’ll need to adapt and make the threat very real. Random reinforcement is a powerful thing.

Summary

Wandering monsters are creatures that roam around an environment in D&D. They could be looking for food, defending against threats, patrolling their bases, or anything else.

A DM will fill their environment with wandering monsters for any of the following reasons:

As a DM, there are times when wandering monsters are not the most efficient way to achieve these goals. Sometimes, wandering monsters can bog down the game with extra encounters and make the game feel slow. It’s important to know why you are using them and consider how else you might achieve the above goals.

As a player, it’s important to understand that D&D works differently from video games, and the world is an alive and dangerous place.

The world is much bigger than you, and goblins aren’t going to wait for you to wake up before they ambush you. 

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