Thursday, April 8, 2021

Return to Wilderness Level

Once upon a time, I thought about having wilderness difficulty scale up and down sort of like dungeon difficulty.  I think that proposal had several problems, but I think maybe I see a better way to do it now.

I've been thinking about how one would/could do low-level wilderness adventures in OSR games.  The monsters in wilderness encounters are just so numerous that any encounter is likely to wipe out a low-level party that gets a poor reaction roll and fails to evade, and none of your "win buttons" work - if you cast sleep on the goblins, you drop a quarter of the warband, and the rest will still get you.

Some OSR systems already sort of have a method to adjust encounter difficulty based on dungeon level.  It's possible it was in AD&D and I just haven't seen the original source.  In OSRIC,

Lesser monsters encountered on a lower dungeon level
should have their numbers increased by the same amount
for each dungeon level lower than their monster level. For
example, the sub-table # column lists 2d10 for goblins (1st-lvl)
encountered on the first level of the dungeon. If encountered
on the third level of the dungeon, they would be three times
as numerous (6d10).

ACKS has a similar rule, with a different constant:

Roll the appropriate number encountered for the creature to determine how many are present. Increase or decrease this roll by one-half for each step of difference between the dungeon level and the Random Monster table used (round down).

OSE, surprisingly, does not seem to have such a rule, which is part of why I think it might be an AD&Dism.

But if we accept that the number of monsters appearing scales up with dungeon level, then we can argue that the wilderness is something like the 7th level of a dungeon, on the basis that a wilderness encounter of goblins is seven times (on average) the size of a dungeon encounter of goblins.  Taking ogres instead, we get something more like a 4th-level dungeon, since ogres appear on the 3rd level of dungeons and an encounter with them in the wilderness is only twice as large as a dungeon encounter.  We could probably go through and figure out the average "effective dungeon level" of wilderness from all of the monsters that appear on the "random monsters by dungeon level" table.

Just looking at the table and a few entries instead of doing that analysis, I think something around dungeon level 5 is probably pretty close.  Possibly with an extra adjustment for ~1HD creatures that causes them to scale up faster.

If we characterize generic wilderness in this way, as a multiplier on encounter size, then we can alter that characteristic for different wildernesses, just as we do for dungeon levels.  This provides another way to create difficulty gradients in pure wilderness like we already have in dungeons - and a much finer-grained one than ACKS' borderlands-vs-wilderness distinction!  If you meet goblins in the Sunny Meadow, effective dungeon level 2, you only encounter two gangs, and sleep can still save the day.  If you encounter goblins in the Ash Wastes, effective dungeon level 7, you get your usual 2d6 gangs and sleep will not save you.

Characterizing biomes with effective dungeon level also provides a way to figure the size of unguarded treasures (or trapped treasures)  in the "wilderness as dungeon" model.

It might also be useful as a starting point for the effective level of the first level of dungeons located in those biomes.  If you're in the Ash Wastes and you find a dungeon entrance, the first level is not going to be as easy as the first level of a dungeon in the Sunny Meadow!


  1. I like this a lot. I would probably stat the 'effective level' of a generic wilderness hex as: 5 or its distance from a settlement in hexes, whichever is lower. That way, nearby hexes are safer as many of the monsters have already been killed or taken care of, and low-level parties have a reasonable chance of survival in them, while the further away you get, the more likely you are to come upon something pretty nasty. Then, special areas of danger like your Ash Wastes get bumped beyond 5 to 7 or whatever's appropriate.

    1. I like this. I’d consider perhaps increasing the radius by 1 for a larger settlement. So perhaps a large town adds 1, a city adds 2. Something easily tweaked to match your idea of how wild and nasty your game world is outside of settlements.

    2. I think I agree with Alistair that that would be a fairly steep danger gradient (going from distance 1 to distance 2 *doubles* encounter sizes), and I might go for something a bit more forgiving, but I think if one were thinking in hexes rather than groups of hexes, it would be a pretty decent starting point.

  2. I was musing on this issue back in December, here's my thoughts on using distance from civilization to approximate levels.

  3. AD&D does have such a rule, located in the DMG Appendix C, under the MONSTER ENCOUNTERED ADJUSTMENT FOR RELATIVE DUNGEON LEVEL sub-heading.
    "Lesser monsters on lower levels have their numbers augmented by a like number of the same sort of creatures for each level of the dungeon beneath that of the assigned level of the monster type...There are two exceptions to this rule:
    Characters are increased by level of experience rather than by numbers encountered...
    Ninth and tenth level monsters are typically given attendant monsters rather than greater numbers."