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I left D&D in 1982 due to the Satanic Panic and didn’t return until 2005, so my recollection of 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) isn’t precise. When I returned during the days of 3rd Edition D&D (“3e”), rolling for wandering monsters wasn’t a common mechanic (though I occasionally saw it in published mods). Without appreciating why it was used in 1e, I simply thought that the use of wandering monsters was stupid. If you have a cool monster on hand, use it. Otherwise, it’s a waste of a perfectly good encounter. On the other hand, if your wandering monster is the same creature that the PCs are facing from time to time in the planned encounters, then they add nothing to the game, so don’t waste time on them. That could make the game tedious. Now that I’ve reacquainted myself with 1e, I realize their point: They’re designed to discourage dawdling.
Searching for secret doors, examining magic items, counting your loot, and sleeping are time-consuming activities. DMs are expected to keep track of time so that, when a given interval of time has passed, they know to roll for wandering monsters. These random encounters often didn’t result in any treasure and drained valuable resources from the party, so they weren’t something that the PCs wanted. However, they didn’t make the game tedious because 1e combats were quick. So, the concern I mentioned above that they may not add anything to the game isn’t a serious one. Their primary effect was to drain resources, which, as I’ll discuss in the next section, serves a couple of connected purposes.
This isn’t something that goes over well with modern gamers. Modern gamers (and legacy gamers that have moved on) tend to explore every single room and grab every single piece of treasure they can. Anything less than complete is seen as a failure. I’ll give you a specific example. When discussing playing experiences with Lost Mines of Phandelver, the adventure from the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set for 5th Edition D&D (“5e”), players that failed to obtain the Staff of Defense would always be frustrated when others discussed it. Several of them that I knew would play the mod again with a character specifically designed to make use of that staff. Players would also take note in that adventure (and others) of forks in the road (so to speak), always promising to double back so that they covered the entire complex. Because of this mentality (I’ve been guilty of it myself), the D&D Adventurers League living campaign changed its rules such that every player could take a magic item found in the game even if there was only one. Everyone wants everything, so that’s what’s given despite how little sense it makes.
But Why Shouldn’t You Dawdle?
If this is what makes you happy, that’s fine, but my problem with this approach to the game is that it discourages immersion in the game world and can’t possibly work unless the risk of character death drops so low as to be negligible. As to the first point (which is a tangent from my main thesis), the logic of the game world becomes inconsistent. I can suspend my disbelief and accept a dragon that breathes a cone of cold, but I can’t accept the notion of a Rod of Cancellation spontaneously generating multiple copies of itself because multiple characters want it. The latter just doesn’t make sense, and no attempt is made to make sense of it. There’s no drain of resources to make it happen. There’s no need to visit the local archmage to make copies of it. It just happens.
As to the second point (now we’re back on track), a game where I know the DM will never kill me bores me. A game where I’ll get killed if I don’t think things through logically is far more fun. Sure enough, I’ve rarely seen character death in 5e. In fact, I saw far more character death in 4th Edition D&D (“4e“), and 1st-level 4e characters are intentionally durable. The more gamers become unwilling to suffer even the smallest of setbacks, the less we see them, which is why I stopped playing. There’s none of that in 1e. Can your characters survive? Sure, especially if you send the henchmen and hirelings in first. As I’ve been told, PCs can survive an entire campaign even despite the save or die mechanic (which I still don’t like). However, if you truly immerse yourself in the game, you’ll see that some actions are downright stupid and should get your characters killed. Game mechanics like wandering monsters discourage such stupidity, and as a consequence reward true immersion in the game world.
Your mission is to save the noble, not to grab an extra 5 copper pieces. Once you’ve got the noble, get the hell out of there. If this were a scenario in the real world, and you went for the coppers, your friends at your funeral would be discussing whether to submit your story to the Darwin Awards committee.
Be smart. Get in; get out.
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