Friday, August 1, 2014

Rereading the Moldvay Basic Set - Part 4: The Encounter

Time to get back on track and post another entry from my Moldvay rereading project.  Section 6 covers the encounter and combat phases of the game.  At first I was going to discuss both but before I knew it the entry started getting too long.  As a result, I will cover the first section dealing with the encounter on this post and actual combat on the next.

A word of warning before I begin.  I strongly dislike blogs with too much text.  In my opinion, blogs should be fun and light reading with plenty of photography, art, and illustrations.  Unfortunately the Moldvay manual skimped in the art department for this section.  As a result, my output mostly resembles the very type of blog I do not like to read.  Hopefully the information will keep the reader entertained and hooked long enough to finish the post.  I did throw in a few pics here and there to break up the blocks of text but they really have nothing to do with Moldvay.  My apologies in advance.

The chapter is basically broken down into two sections.  The first part deals with the non-combat portion of an encounter while the second details the steps necessary if the encounter evolves into fighting.  I'm sure I didn't DM this way back then (at least until I matured to a certain degree), but I think it's important to note that the first part does not always have to lead to the second part.  In other words, magic, missile fire, and melee are not the ways to solve every encounter.  It took me a while to learn that but once I did, D&D become something more than just a game.  It became a living novel that the young me loved to immerse himself in.

The first section begins by reminding the reader about time.  Ten minutes of in-game time equals one turn.  Therefore six turns equals an hour.  Timekeeping changes dramatically during an encounter however.  Moldvay writes that it's best to envision this period of play as taking place in "slow motion."  Players and the DM represent this slowing of the action by switching from turns to rounds.  Unlike turns where a character can do many things, rounds are usually represented by a character performing only one or two quick actions.

Rounds are ten seconds long each.   It takes six rounds to equal just one minute of in-game play.  A turn then is comprised of sixty rounds.  I don't know about you, but I have never been in combat for that long at once.  That would be a marathon hack and slash session indeed.  Moldvay advises the DM to keep things simple since 99.9% of encounters do not last that long.  The leftover rounds that would equal a new turn can be assumed to take place while the characters catch their breath, bind their wounds, clean blood from weapons, etc..

What I love about this simple yet elegant system is the implied chaos that happens in a short amount of time.  Many encounters are over in six to ten rounds, so if one were to speed up the "slow motion" view, it would become obvious that combat is a vicious chaotic event.  Arrows are launched, magic unleashed, wounds received and monsters and characters fight and die all within a very short amount of time.  Some players criticize the system as unrealistic but I would argue the opposite.  It's the long drawn out fights on TV that are the problem.  Historical references seem to support the short, dirty, brutal fight as the norm.  Moldvay provides us just that sort of combat.  We simply have to remember that we are watching it in slow motion.

Curiously, after describing the differences in time and emphasizing the shorter round, Moldvay goes back to the non-combat encounter and describes the Order of Events in One Game Turn.  This is the list of actions the DM should follow when a party encounters a possible obstacle.  During my upcoming Metzer Basic rereading project it will be interesting to see if the section was laid out a bit more logically than in Moldvay.

Order of Events:

1) Roll for wandering monsters.
     I hated wandering monsters.  As a player I would cringe every time I heard the d6 bounce around on the hardwood table behind the DM screen.  I felt like the DM was out to get us.  We just survived a close fight and were licking our wounds when out of nowhere another monster with a chip on the shoulder arrived.  Damn, there was no rest for the weary back then.
     When I first started DMing, I did away with wandering monsters.  I guess I was influenced by my hatred of them as a player.  But the more I played and the older/more mature I got the more I realized that there is a place in the game for those wandering brutes.  Without wandering monsters the world is no longer a living breathing entity.  It's nothing more than episodic encounters....a story board if you will.  The chance of encountering random beings in the wild or in the dungeon enlivened the situation and brought the game to life.  But....and this is a big but, a good DM doesn't completely rely on random tables.  The creature encountered should have a reason for being there.  For example, if a party is in a dungeon complex that is home to a tribe of goblins, then encountering a monster that is completely out of place can ruin the feeling of immersion that the wandering monster rule tries to create.  Where did those skeletons come from?  Shouldn't the goblins have been aware of that gelatinous cube wandering around their home?

2)  Movement, searches, etc...
     This is self explanatory.  The party describes their intensions for the turn and the DM narrates the outcome of each described action.  A wise party will cover the important tasks first like searching for traps or listening at doors before searching for loot.  If they do not then it's not a question of if, but when ill fortune will strike.

3)  The turn ends if monsters are not encountered.  Every other turn the DM returns to step one and rolls for wandering monsters.  Otherwise he repeats step two.  If monsters are encountered then the DM should determine the number appearing.
     I will get more into number appearing when I go through the monster section of the manual.  For now it's important to note that the roll is not always necessary.  Moldvay reminds us that the design of the dungeon will often dictate how many foes the party is to face.  Also I think it's important to use the same common sense I mentioned in the wandering monster section.  Don't rely completely on the dice to determine the game.  The encounter should make sense in the grand scheme of the adventure. Otherwise the game loses its immersive feeling.

4)  Check for monster distance
     This roll is only necessary if the distance between the party and the potential encounter is unknown.  The very shape of the dungeon determines the distance on most occasions.  The surrounding landscape often plays the same role in wilderness adventures.  When the distance isn't specified or obvious then the DM can roll 2d6 to determine the number of feet separating the party from their potential foes.
     I didn't do it back then but I would certainly take into account the effect of light sources on the encounter distance.  One party may be aware of the other long before by watching the approach of light given off from a burning torch or a lantern.  This should definitely be a factor when determining encounter distances.  I think light sources should also influence the surprise roll.  When I start DMing again I can't wait to try out this mechanic.

5a)  Check for surprise
     The DM should check for surprise for both the party and the monsters.  A roll of a 1 or a 2 on a d6 indicates that one or both sides is surprised.  If both are surprised the mechanic cancels out and events proceed as normal.  The side which suffers a surprise cannot move or act during that round.  Again, a good DM will not rely completely on the dice to determine surprise.  Sometimes the situation will tell the story.  Loud noises, light sources, combat, etc... can alert nearby monsters to a party's presence.  Rolling the dice in such cases makes no sense and removes the consequences of a party's actions. Along the same lines, monsters should be given similar consideration by the DM.

5b)  Roll for initiative
     The die is cast and the side with the highest result goes first.  That means that if the players win initiative then they all get to act before their opponents do.  Unfortunately that also means that if the players lose then they must endure multiple actions before acting.  At lower levels, losing initiative can be a deadly occurrence.
     At first glance, the initiative roll separates Moldvay Basic (and other early sets) apart from later editions.  Rolling a d6 for the entire party probably seems foreign to many modern D&D players.  But upon further reading, Moldvay provides an additional option for initiative that looks very similar to today's system.  The Pair Combat optional rule allows individual initiative to be rolled by each participant rather than by side.  The rule also allows characters to apply their dexterity bonus (if any) to the d6 roll to determine the order of action.  The Moldvay optional system looks almost exactly like modern initiative rules in this instance.  
     One interesting note about initiative in Moldvay:  unless I'm reading it wrong, initiative does differ drastically from modern versions in that initiative covers more than just combat.  Remember that in this post we are discussing only the encounter, and not combat itself (though the system works the same between the two).  The two sides are rolling for initiative for the right to go first in the turn, not the combat round (that will come later).  I find this interesting and wonder a) where the mechanic came from and b) why did it not survive in later versions.
     To be honest, I never realized this fact until my rereading of the text.  Back when I played, the encounter was not structured as Moldvay is suggesting.  It was just played fluidly and story-like.  There wasn't a strict ordering of events until if and when (usually when ha!) combat ensued.  I will have to experiment a bit when I start DMing again to see if it affects the game in any noticeable manner.

6)  Party Action and/or Monster Reaction roll (I have combined steps 6 and 7 on page B23)
     Remember that before combat ever takes place, initiative is rolled to see which side acts first.  The party can obviously decide for themselves what action to take without the need of a die roll.  If it were me nearly thirty years ago the question would not even have to be asked.  Of course I will attack [XYZ] monster with my +[pick a number] [fill in the blank with weapon of choice].  If asked today I could chose to do any number of things such as (gasp!) try to speak to the monsters or even run away.  Obviously if the party goes first and decides to attack then the action switches to the combat round.  If the party does not attack or if the monsters win initiative then the DM should roll for monster reaction.  Yes....another random table.  Once again, a good DM will not rely completely on the roll of the die to determine a reaction.  If the party has been wreaking havoc throughout the goblin's lair then they will probably not offer to form an enthusiastic friendship with the slayers of their kin and family.    But for those times when randomness is desired there is a table on page B24 that should be consulted after rolling 2d6 to determine monster reaction.  The options range anywhere from immediate attack to "let me give you my treasure and show you the secret door."

7)  End of the turn
     At the end of the turn, ten minutes of in-game time will have passed.  At this point Moldvay encourages the DM to check on current party/environmental conditions and perform some record keeping.  Is it time for a rest (one in six turns should be spent resting to avoid penalties), are characters hurt, where is everybody standing/walking, etc...

The encounter section closes with a few rules that are out of place.  I don't have the Metzer rulebook in front of me right now but it will be interesting to see if and how the revision rearranged these items.

Encounter Movement
     We are reminded of the quickness of time when the game switches from turns to rounds.  We are told that the quicker than normal movement cannot be kept up for longer than ten minutes (60 rounds).  Character movement rates during rounds was covered on page B19 but here Moldvay tells the DM how to find monster movement rates.  Dividing the base movement rate (given in turns) by three will yield the encounter movement rate (given in rounds).  Thus a character or monster that has a movement rate 30'/turn could move 10' each round.  I like the simple conversion system and the rates sound about right.  In the limited time I have been playing since returning to the game I have not found an instance where the numbers did not work or seem unrealistic.

     Running did not seem to happen all that often in my groups back in the day.  If we encountered a monster then we fought it until either the monster or our characters died.  Running away was simply not an option.  Lately I have found that running is a great way to survive and at low levels, is almost certainly a necessity at some point.
     Running speed is determined by multiplying the normal movement rate per round by three.  The resulting number is actually quite fast.  Using the encounter movement example above, that character could move at 90' in a single round (ten seconds).  That same character would tire pretty quickly however.  In the Moldvay rules running can only occur for 30 rounds (half a turn or five minutes).  At that point the character must rest for three complete turns (yes, that's thirty minutes) or suffer -2 on their to hit and damage rolls.  To make matters worse, due to the extreme fatigue, opponents would get a +2 on any to hit roles until the full rest period is completed.  Ouch!  Maybe I was smart for not running away back then.

     As long as combat has not yet started, characters that wish to avoid an encounter may try to evade.  It's a simple mechanic.  If they are faster than the opponent they wish to evade then it is automatically successful.  If they are slower then the DM has to decide.  Once again 'ye olde random table' is suggested but I would argue that the situation would warrant an intelligent decision on the part of the DM most of the time.  If the decision is truly up in the air then the monster reaction table on B24 can be used.

     If either side wants to chase after the other then the action switches from turns to rounds.  The running mechanic comes into play at this point.  Fortunately, Moldvay states that monsters will chase characters only for as long as they are in sight.  Hopefully the dreaded rest period will be avoided if a quick escape can be accomplished.  To help influence the outcome, characters can try to drop food or items to get their pursuers to lose interest.
     I think the lesson learned here is that if the party is going to run then they had better be able to outdistance their foes pretty quick or else they will still find themselves in a battle but saddled with some crippling penalties.  Unfortunately at low levels, unless evasion is a sure bet, it's almost better to stand and fight.  This is one mechanic in Moldvay that I really dislike now that I'm playing again.  A low level fleeing party should be somehow rewarded for having the foresight to avoid combat with a superior foe or when outnumbered.  Otherwise certain death may be swift to follow.  Looking through the speeds of random monsters, an encumbered character is not likely to get away from too many pursuing enemies.  Sure, one could make the argument that perhaps the character should not be too encumbered and thereby have a high speed value but then that character probably isn't well protected and will suffer from a poor armor class.  This is a sticky wicket indeed.

I'll move on to the heart of the system and cover combat in the next post.  Until then I'd like to close up with a few questions:

1) As a player, what are your thoughts on wandering monsters?  What about as a DM?

2) What do you think of using initiative not only in combat but during the encounter sequence as well?  Were you aware of this mechanic?  Do you know the origins of the system?  Finally, if you do use initiative during the encounter phase, does it affect the game in any significant manner?

3)  How often do you, as a DM, use random tables?

4)  What are your thoughts on running, pursuit, and resting?  Do the rules seem slightly stacked against those that choose to run if they are partially encumbered?

5)  Am I the only one who dislikes text heavy blogs?

I'm looking forward to your answers and comments.  Thanks for your participation.  I've learned so much from interacting with my readers.  And even if you do not post a comment, thanks for just stopping by and reading!


  1. 1) I don't think much of them. I think having a couple of "wandering" encounters prepared just in case you need to liven things up a bit is a good idea, so long as it's not "monster shows up looking for a fight." I put one in the First Floor of Azimuth House for more or less that purpose.

    2) I know that there are other RPG's that handle initiative differently, but I'm not familiar with them. D&D initiative seems like the best bad option. It's an okay mechanic for game. It's a bad mechanic in so far as Role-playing.

    3) Only if I want a really random result and to scare the players.

    4) It seems more like a Role-playing mechanic rather than a game mechanic. If the party or an important NPC villain wants to run, let them take a couple of shots, then get away.

    5) How about text-heavy comments? Text-heavy is bad if it's not broken up into little paragraphs. Big text blocks are hard to read on a screen.

    1. I love your quote "the best bad option." That's a great way of putting it.

      Thanks for the links! Good reading!

      And thanks again for your comments.

  2. 1) Wandering monsters? Wandering monsters are a critical dynamic to the game, as important as AC or spell casting. Here's why:

    In the older editions that we love, most xp comes from treasure, so the dungeon crawl is less about killing stuff & more about a high-stakes gamble to pull as much loot as possible from the deadly dungeon before retreating back to the surface. In fact, in modules like B2, the DM is given guidance for repopulating cleared areas -- it's never possible "clear" the Caves of Chaos. Wandering monsters generally won't be carrying loot, so they represent risk with very little reward.

    Wandering monster rules also assert something existential about the nature of the dungeon. The darkness *exudes* creatures. It can never be safe down there. The harsh reality of wandering monster checks are the consequence that makes the party's choices meaningful. Every decision to stop and search incurs a risk of something finding you. This fits nicely with another assumption about the dungeon milieu that Moldvay makes: deeper levels have nastier monsters and richer treasures.

    Remember too, not all wandering monsters will be hostile! The reaction roll can balance things a great deal here.

    That being said, there are always time for the DM to exercise judgement. Sometimes the results of a roll just don't make sense (skeletons roaming the goblin halls) and I've always followed the model of those earliest modules by customizing my wandering monster chart to the dungeon being explored. I will point out, however, that *sometimes* the non sequiturs created by a counter-intuitive result can create a mystery or puzzle, deepening the game ... "Why don't the skeletons kill the goblins?" Maybe there is a small, apparently worthless charm each goblin carries that causes the dead to ignore them ... perhaps a tooth taken from the skull of the long-dead plains shaman whose burial mound they accidentally burrowed into. If the adventurers work out the connection and each carry a tooth themselves, the skeletons will ignore them as well!

    1. Great RPG wisdom from you once again Jarrett. You have a great way of looking at each topic I throw out for discussion. I look forward to all of your comments.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for participating!

  3. 1) exploration style games require "wandering monsters" to provide the "risk" for searching, going slow, exploring. Otoh random encounters have no place in story games aka (derisively) railroads. E.g. Dragonlance modules,

    3) all the time, during creation, during prep, during play.

    4) running: (modern) players don't do it enough. Pursuit: I haven't found a system I like, I usually wing it. Resting: I never remember to impose turn after combat, one turn every five.

    5) No. (And no offence) but I only skimmed the wall of text that was above the first picture. A whole big extra paragraph of text just to say you don't like too much text. Gah!

    1. Thanks for your comments Norman. No offense taken by the way. I'm open to criticism just as much as praise. Ha!

      I agree with you. Through my limited exposure to the newer versions of D&D over the years, it does seem like running away from an encounter is not an option. That's a shame. Knowing that some encounters are simply beyond the capabilities of a party makes the game that much more suspenseful to me. That being said, I'm still not happy with the Moldvay mechanic. Once I become reacquainted and more comfortable with the overall rules, I plan to work on a house rule to replace evasion and pursuit.

      Thanks so much for your comments. Thanks also for reading my blog!

    2. Re: Running, have you looked at the OD&D pursuit rules from the Little Brown Books? It maybe my best bad solution. It's kind of a flowchart (but just in a table) to determine if monsters starts/continue pursuit. only on a 1-2 if party goes up stairs, through door, arround corner, dropped food is 90% likely to distract non-intelligent but only 10% for intelligent. Dropped treasure is the inverse.

      I do think running / pursuit is one of the few points encumbrance should come into play. The old adage applies, "don't have to outrun the owlbear, only have to outrun the short-legged dwarf in plate".

  4. 2) Initiative during the encounter sequence? We just free-form things.

    3) How often do you, as a DM, use random tables? Though I once used them extensively, I seldom use tables any more, not because they aren't valuable, but because I've kind of internalized the process. Instead I rely on questions and randomizers. Example: a PC wizard opens a magical portal. He doesn't know where it goes and since I didn't know he was about to do it, neither do I. I silently ask myself a few questions: "On a scale of 1-20, how far away does this portal open? On a scale of 1-20, how hostile to terrestrial life is the environment on the far side of the portal?"

    4) What are your thoughts on running? While it may not look like a good option at first, it actually works well as written. Because of reaction rolls, many monsters won't be hostile ... in fact, unless the scenario / DM determine otherwise, monsters are hostile only about 28% of the time ... allowing time for withdrawal.

    Unencumbered thieves scout well in advance of the armored fighting line, ready to run at a moment's notice (a good time to use Dex modifiers to initiative).

    Finally, glance at the pursuit rules on page B24 again ... Moldvay makes a couple really important statements there. "Monsters will chase evading characters only as long as the characters are in sight." Now, common sense and DM judgment come into play of course, but if we take as a default position that we just need to get out of the critter's LoS before we can stop and make a plan, well that's pretty significant! Darting back through a door and spiking it shut begins to make a whole world of sense.

    Don't miss this either: You mentioned that, "Evading characters may be able to slow pursuit by dropping things," but did you see that the guideline is that food will arrest pursuit from unintelligent monsters a full 50% of the time!? Treasure will do the same for intelligent creatures. Moldvay goes on to say that flaming oil will "usually" work to slow or stop pursuit. That means your standard dungeon-survival gear should always include some standard rations, unspent starting money, oil, and a torch ... they make up the core of every thief's monster escape kit!

    So yeah, if less than 28% of monsters chase you, and you can get half of those to stop by dropping goods, 86% is looking like pretty good odds for evasion :)

    5) Am I the only one who dislikes text heavy blogs?

    As a writer of a text-heavy blog myself, [ ] I really feel your pain ... but sometimes the words ... the words just won't stop coming! And you know what? It's okay to be passionate about the stuff you love and it's cool to see that there are other humans out there equally jazzed about some of the funky stuff I like.

    So write on, man. I'll be eagerly reading every single word!

    1. Thanks for your additional comments Jarrett. Good stuff as always!

      I still have to disagree on the running portion though. Some of the things you bring up just don't seem very realistic to me. Yes I know it's a fantasy game but to me, without some real world logic, the fantasy world breaks down and it becomes more difficult for me to suspend disbelief. I just killed half of the kobold tribe in the last two rooms but running around a corner or behind a door will pacify their outrage and anger. It just doesn't work for me. We are all different in our desire for fantastical reality though so what works for some will not necessarily work for others.

      I feel your pain about word hemorrhaging. Ha! All of my posts end up becoming much longer than anticipated. But as you mentioned, it is okay to be passionate about it. I enjoy visiting your blog (and G+ posts). I'm glad you choose to visit mine!

    2. Oh, after hostilities have commenced I'd have the little biters run the party down too, make no mistake! But I suspect that what Moldvay had in mind here was the party that dashes out of sight to flee a critter that outclasses them and is hostile on its initial reaction roll.

      What's funny of course is that in B2 Gygax basically ignores the many opportunities for reaction rolls, instead scripting automatic hostility for almost all of the denizens of the Caves of Chaos and cementing the hack-and-slash approach to play for vast legions of new DMs and players alike.

  5. I have to start by saying that I finally got the PDF of the Moldvay rules so I can finally read along at my own pace.

    1) As a player, I hate wandering monsters. As a DM, I love them in the right circumstances. Others have already made some really good points, which I won't repeat, but having monsters up and about really can make a dungeon live and breathe. The things to remember are: Judgement, common sense and free will. The DM runs the adventure, not the other way around.

    2) I've only ever used initiative in the combat round. I have always been pretty loose and informal in the general encounter (pre-combat). I prefer to keep things more narrative, flexible and under my control rather than being too rigid.

    3) As tables; all the time! I do prefer to pick and choose based on my own judgment, so I can't really call them very random.

    4) As a DM, I'm (again) not to rigid about running away and pursuit. For example, if the party is beat to hell and they recognize that they are in over their collective heads, I usually let them get away. That doesn't mean I won't give them a good scare though.

    5) Text is only bad if it's uninteresting. It's funny, I'm normally a pretty quiet individual but once I get typing, it's hard to keep me from prattling on (and on and on). That's probably obvious!

    I am in the process of starting to play again with my best friend, his 2 boys (14 & 12) and possibly some other adults. He is going to DM and we should have at least 3 players most of the time. Everyone's comments (especially Jarrett's) have given my a lot to chew on.