Archive for September, 2015

Battle Masters: First Unit and Box Failure

Progress continues very slowly on my mini Battle Masters game.  As I’ve said before, I’m in no rush with this one, so I’m not afraid to scrap anything that I decide isn’t good enough.  But first, some good news, the first unit is complete:

Men-at-Arms of Altdorf

Men-at-Arms of Altdorf

I’m pretty happy with the final result here.  As you can see, I’ve decided on a red and yellow theme for the Imperial army.  This model was assembled and based then painted as a whole.  I’m still not convinced I want to do it this way — the other option being to paint the models individually, then mount and base them.  Though that has its own problems.  This one worked fairly well, so I’ll probably stick with this method until it becomes an issue, then swear at myself for mounting models that are impossible to reach with a brush.

The flag was made by simply printing it out on my inkjet printer, then glueing it in place to the metal rod used for a pole.  The flag was then given several coats of gloss to shine it up and give it some stiffness.  My sole reason for including a flag was to have the number of dice on the unit somewhere, and I figured the unit icon that is used for placement in the rulebook would be nice to include.

IMG_20150919_220529And now on to the less good news.  I completed the interior of my first unit box, which you can see here with all the imperial units placed, plus some dice and a few cardboard hexes from my copy of Battle Lore as stand-ins for cannon tokens (actual cannon tokens I expect to be much smaller).  It may not be obvious from the picture, but the right column of cubbies is narrower than the rest.  This was done intentionally, as the box was not wide enough to admit three columns of forward facing units.  I figured I could place the right-most column side facing since the box is so deep.  Unfortunately, I failed to allow for the thickness of the felt, and thus the units in the left two columns also don’t fit forward facing.  This works OK for the imperial units as you can see here, but simply won’t due for the chaos army, which numbers 15 total units.  There are simply not enough cubbies.  My plan had been that since many would be forward facing, I could make an insert to use up the depth of the box and thus have a few cubbies that were essentially storing two units each.  Obviously, this will not work.

So it’s back to the drawing board.  Ultimately I think my problem here is the boxes I chose.  The interior of these boxes are very deep, much deeper than I require, but don’t have enough surface area.  I need wider, flatter boxes.  So back to Michael’s I went, and discovered the box I wanted was not there.  So I bought all the kinds of boxes they had, and then ordered the box I wanted on Amazon.  Here are some images of all the boxes collected together.  The current box is the left-most on first picture, and on the bottom of the stack in the second:

IMG_20150925_070247 IMG_20150925_070315

Newly acquired from Michael’s we have the box with rounded sides, and the box that is in the shape of a book.  The latter is cute and ultimately the largest of all the boxes.  Plenty of room in this one, but I’m not terribly fond of its closure, which is a pretty weak magnet.  I imagine that going pretty quickly, and models spilling about inside the main box and getting all banged up, so it’s right out.

The box with the rounded edges isn’t bad.  It’s shorter, but wider than the original.  The interior of the original was 7.875″ x 4.75″, while the interior of the rounded-edge box is about 6.125″ x 6.25″.  It will work, but will require using the side-facing method I used above to fit all the units of the chaos army, with very little space left over for other stuff.  Keep in mind that the chaos army box must also contain the ogre cards, while the imperial army box must include the cannon markers, and if possible I’d love to include a set of dice in each box.

So that leaves the classic cigar box, the one that was missing from Michael’s collection and I had to order online.  It’s in the middle bottom in picture 1, and second from the top of the stack in picture 2.  It has a very generous 8.125″ square interior, plenty of space to put all my models forward facing.  The depth is very shallow though, and thus there is not room for the chaos army’s ogre cards to fit in a vertical stack.  Still, it’s my favorite of the group — I’d really prefer the presentation of all the models facing out of the box when it’s first opened up.  Perhaps I can mount a pocket of some kind into the lid for storing the ogre cards of the chaos box.

This means for the boxes it’s back to square 1 – cutting out new dividers, felting them, and gluing it all together.  I also did a little research online about felt.  The craft felt is OK, but it’s shedding a bit more than I hoped.  I understand pool tables use a much higher quality wool cloth, which still has some fuzziness to it.  Perhaps I can buy scraps of that somewhere?  Or maybe it’s worth a trip to a fabric store to see what other options I can find.  Of course, the main purpose of the felt is to offer a little extra padding for the models when the box is moved about, so I may be willing to deal with the shedding of the craft felt if nothing else is available that offers the same amount of cushion.

Hybrid Games

Recently for one reason or another I found myself contemplating the old board game Dark Tower.  For those that don’t remember it, this was a board game that featured a large electronic device in the center (the titular dark tower) that did some random number generation and supplied sound effects and other minor visuals.  Here’s the original commercial (starring Orsen Wells!) and a more recent video playthrough.  This game has still has a pretty sizable cult following, and due to the unreliable nature of the circa 1981 electronics, it’s pretty collectible.  I never had or even played this game as a kid, but I was certainly aware of it, and eventually Delta introduced me to a pretty good simulator online.

Anyway, I was pondering the game for unknown reasons, and thinking about the process of finding and repairing parts to put together a working physical version.  Not that I have any such plan to do so, but I was just curious about the electronics and the repair hobby, in the same way that I’m fascinated by guys who collect and repair pinball machines, but would never really want to get into it myself.  Anyway, I happened upon an android app called Droid Tower, which is both a full simulator and just a tower simulator – the purpose of the latter being that maybe you own a copy of the game but your tower no longer works: now you can play again using your smart phone instead.

This idea of replacing the tower with an app tickled me.  Then I started wondering, why aren’t there more hybrid games that have both physical and virtual components?  The only other example I can think of is the way I play Space Alert.  The original game comes with a CD of audio tracks that actually drive the gameplay, and eventually I replaced that with mp3’s on my phone, and then later the Space Alert Mission Generator app, which actually generates random missions by assembling different audio elements.  That last bit is what I think makes it cross the line into actual software that affects the game.

Also, I wonder what other existing games could benefit by having some element replaced by software?  The first idea that came to my mind is Hero Quest.  This game includes a GM type player that must lay out the contents of the dungeon the other players are exploring.  It includes a booklet of adventures, in a sequence that presents a sort of story line, for the GM to follow.  The later iteration of this game, Warhammer Quest, eliminates the GM in favor of random dungeon generation and algorithmic movement of enemies.  I wonder though if one could preserve the pre-authored feel of the adventures by simply having a piece of software present it to the players.  It could speak out where to place the elements as the players reach them.  I’m not sure exactly how to achieve this, maybe some kind of recognition of the board and pieces via the phone’s camera?  I suppose you could replace the board entirely with an interactive surface, but I think this breaks some of the feel I’m after here.  I want to play the original game, just with a computer playing the GM role instead of a real person.

What else?  Anyone aware of any existing physical games that augment gameplay with software?  Anyone got a really good idea they’d like to share for such?

Battle Masters: Army Boxes

With my model base size fixed at 1″ x 1.5″, from there I can determine that an individual hex should be about 2″ wide, and thus the full board will be about 2′ x 2′.  This is small enough to fit nicely on a table top, but it’s still big enough that storage becomes a tricky question.  At minimum, I think I’m going to have to build it as a bi-fold board monopoly style and then find a box large enough to fit it in.  Or perhaps I will build a custom box with the board built into it, sort of like a chess box where you open it up and flip it over to make the board.

IMG_20150913_131929So last weekend I went over to Michael’s to see if they had anything that might serve as box for my game.  They did not.  They did have some nice unfinished boxes like the one pictured here, all of which were far too small to fit the contents of my game.  But as I mentally pictured a 1′ x 2′ box large enough to fit the board, I realized the units would be swimming in all that space.  What could I do to contain them inside the larger box?  So, I bought a couple of these smaller unfinished boxes to use as army boxes.  I’ll make one for the empire army and one for the chaos army, each just large enough to contain all the unit models, plus maybe some extras like the ogre cards, cannon markers, and maybe some dice.  I like the idea of each player picking his side and taking the appropriate box.  Maybe I could even fit a copy of the rulebook in each box.
IMG_20150913_123617Alongside the boxes I bought some pieces of basswood to build dividers.  I used my trusty scroll saw to cut up some pieces wine-box style to make little cubbies inside the box for each unit.  Man, I forgot how much I like working with that scroll saw.  What a neat tool.

Actually, before the cutting began I did a lot of measuring.  The interiors of those boxes are somewhat awkward size, and it took some effort to figure out how to divide it up to fit all the units.
IMG_20150913_131914I managed to make something that will work just fine for the empire army, but the chaos army is a bit larger (14 units over the empire’s 11), which is causing me some difficulty.  Especially as I have yet to even figure out what models to use for all the units.  I’m sure I can make it work, but it may require some kind of layering technique, where a tray of some kind such that I can take advantage of the depth of the box.  Or maybe I’ll just take another trip back to Michael’s and see if I can find a wider but shallower box.  I’m committed to taking my time with this project, so I’m not against scrapping any part of it along the way.


Here’s the finished interior with all the empire units placed inside.  Most of those units are temporary, just fun-tacked unpainted models onto a bit of foam core so I could experiment.  As you can see I had to turn the left-column sideways to fit all the units.  It’s pretty tight but everything fits, and the slot at the top could be used for the cannon markers and dice.  I also kind of want to felt line the whole thing to minimize damage of shifting models.  I’ve started some experiments along that line, I’ll have more pictures to post of that when it gets further along.

I’m thinking for the exterior of the box I’d like to put a nice large graphic of the army’s symbol on the front.  The chaos symbol is pretty easy to find, it appears people like that as a tattoo design, but the empire symbol is more difficult.  I’ve found a couple but the resolution is all pretty low, and I’d like something I can print out at a good 6″ square to decoupage onto the top of the box.  If anyone has anything that might be appropriate, please do let me know.

Ultimately I really should start painting the models, but that feels like the easy part, so I’m holding off for now.  I think once I have a plan for the various pieces I can take my time enjoying the construction of each, but the first phase really has to be experimentation on how exactly to build each part.

The board itself, and the box to hold the entire thing, is still quite an open question.

Books and Movies

Dungeons & Dragons 2: Electric Bugaloo

Dungeons & Dragons 2: Electric Boogaloo

Jenn and I recently watched the second Dungeons & Dragons movie.    We didn’t see it when it came out because, let’s be honest, the first one was truly awful.  Poor Jeremy Irons, how did they make him do that?  But anyway, I was re-reading my copy of Cheers Gary and someone asked his opinion of the movie and he was generally favorable towards it.  More importantly though, he ragged on the first one, enough that made me think that just maybe if Gary didn’t think the second was awful that it might not be so bad.

That was the general response I remember of it: it wasn’t as bad as the first.  And honestly, that’s what I came away with too.  That’s a pretty low bar, so let me be more specific.  The FX are pretty bad, the overall production value is not great, and the actors are not fantastic.  The script is mediocre, but as a D&D nerd, I can say at least they got the general feel correct.  Specifically I rather liked how much they beat the crap out of the characters.  Out of the five members of the party, only two made it back whole.  With a permanent death and a limb loss, it did rather feel like one of my games.

Critical Failures

Coincidentally, Audible recently recommended Critical Failures by Robert Brevan, and as I like to have something to listen to on my commute I picked it up.  It’s really quite good.  The humor can sometimes border on the puerile, but I think this is more a reflection on the characters he’s lampooning.  They read just like tons of gamers I’ve met in the past, and it makes it that much easier to delight in their misfortune.

The trope of gamers getting magically sucked into the world they play in is well trodden, and ultimately I think Joel Rosenberg did it best in his Guardians of the Flame series, but I think Bevan provides a pretty fresh take on it.  It’s a light book and sadly doesn’t really resolve, or not so sadly if you like it enough to purchase the numerous sequels and spin-offs there appear to be.  Definitely worth a read.

End of the Road

A couple days ago I got the following message submitted to the blog:

Did you run into legal problems with barbarian prince?  If so that’s very unfortunate. Is there any future hope for road of kings?

For those who have not noticed, Road of Kings was indeed pulled from iTunes and Google Play at the end of last December.  Likewise the Dancing Sorcerer website has been taken down.  It was a tough choice for us, but we decided by the end of the year that it was time to pull the plug on the project and wrap things up.  The timing was chosen specifically to avoid any tax implications for the following year.

No, we did not encounter any legal issues.  I had a very nice e-mail exchange with Richard Hendrick, the original designer of the Barbarian Prince board game.  He was very supportive.  I never heard anything out of Reaper, the current holder of the Barbarian Prince license.  Barbarian Prince did have a strong inspirational influence on our game, but so did our D&D hex crawl adventures, which I expect was also the original inspiration for Barbarian Prince itself.  All 30,000+ words of content in Road of Kings were written by us, and the mechanics while inspired by Barbarian Prince, were modified and added to by us based on our play testing and to better fit the mobile video game platform.  I believe Road of Kings was quite sufficiently its own beast such that there never an issue of claims arising from any quarter.

So what happened?  Ultimately, the game was taken down entirely for financial reasons.  It had reached that tipping point where it was going to cost us money simply to keep it up there, so we made the difficult decision to take it down.  This problem was further compounded when one of our three members moved across the country making collaboration a bit more difficult.  The terms that bound Dancing Sorcerer together were an all or nothing deal, so if one of us was out, we were all out, and so the group dissolved.  There are no hard feelings on any side here, we all agreed that the best choice was to call it quits.  The game had a small but dedicated fan base, and I’m sorry to all who enjoyed the game that we couldn’t develop it more.

Road of Kings was a great learning experience for us all.  When I first started the project, I knew nothing about smart phone game development.  I’d been in the video game industry for ten years, and knew PC development pretty well, and even spent some time making games for the old dumb phones, but that has little bearing on the current technology.  Furthermore, the market shifted as we created the game.  Premium titles were making money when we started, and by the time we shipped it was already a dying model.

Of course, all those lessons would be wasted if there wasn’t another project on the horizon.  I have been talking with the remaining member of the group about starting something new.  It will still be table top gaming inspired, though we’re now inventing from whole cloth with the current mobile market firmly in view.  We’re still spare-time hobbyists here, so we’re trying to keep that in mind and keep the scale small enough such that we’ll hopefully get something out before the entire market changes under us.

There will be more info about the new project here in the future, but I thought for now I really should make some kind of public statement regarding Road of Kings to all our fans.  I really am sorry that Road of Kings didn’t have longer legs than it did, and I hope the next project does better, and that you all are willing to come along for the ride with me once more.

Battle Masters: Assembling the Forces

Scaling my custom Battle Masters game started from the bottom up.  I knew I wanted to use my 10 mm Pendraken miniatures, which I’ve been obsessed with ever since I purchased my first set several years ago.  I had plenty of left-over medieval men miniatures, and only had to order a few extras and a special cannon model to complete the imperial forces.  I ordered two different cannons, as they are cheap and hard to tell what they will really look like until they’re in your hands.  I purchased the mid-medieval bombard and the renaissance heavy gun, the latter of which is really perfect, even including the crew models.

units_mountedI’m doing more planning with this project than any similar one I’ve done in the past, and really taking my time making choices about how I’ll put stuff together.  So once I had the models, the next step was to figure out basing.  First I used foam core just to figure out what size I wanted the bases, testing cavalry, infantry, and artillery models to fit.  I ended with a 1″ x 1.5″ base being just about right.  Next I played with materials: balsa wood, bass wood backed with sheet magnet, and MDF.  As much as I like the magnet one for having a smooth rubbery bottom and the added benefit that if the container is ferrous the model can be better immobilized during storage (something I do with a lot of my 28 mm figs), the MDF had the best feel.  The thickness and weight really felt the best for moving the unit around on the board.  On the right you can see my imperial lord knights on the original foam core test base, a unit of crossbowmen on MDF, and finally a unit of men-at-arms based on MDF which was then textured and primed.  I’ve also added a pole for a flag, which I want to use for displaying the unit’s symbol and dice value.  The next step for this unit will be to paint it and find out if it was a mistake to base them prior to painting.  I’m hoping I’ll be able to reach them all fine and paint the entire unit in one pass, but I’m reserving judgement until I’ve done the first test unit.

The chaos army presents some more problems in filling in the models.  I have plenty of orcs and goblins, though to my eye the orcs look like goblins and the goblins like orcs.  I ordered some beastmen which look great.  I also purchased some wolf riders, but again to my backwards eye the riders look like orcs instead of goblins.  I’m not sure if I should care about that or not, but it slightly bothers me.  I have some goblin archers which I think with a little putty mohawk will be fine for chaos archers.  The chaos warriors and knights have been a problem, as there’s nothing in Pendraken’s like that’s quite right.  I just discovered this indiegogo project for 10mm “Evil Men” which are really perfect, but sadly I’ve missed the boat on that.  I’ve sent the organizer an email to see if there’s any way I can purchase some models.

ogresAnd that leaves the ogre.  I have a few ideas here, but none are perfect.  In the line on the right you can see the right-most model is the original Battle Masters ogre.  To his left is an original Battle Masters man-at-arms for scale.  To the left of him is a very interesting model, which I will speak about in a bit.  Continuing to the left is Pendraken’s giant model that game with my original dungeon set, and then finally my unit of men-at-arms for the final scale.

Even Pendraken’s giant seems a bit too large relative to the men.  The orignal man-at-arms comes up to the original ogre’s chest.  These guys barely hit the giant’s waste.  And it’s even worse for the model in the middle.  What the heck is that model?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Remember how I described back in ’92 attending GenCon where this game was first released, and they were handing out free copies of the rule book?  Well, they were handing something else out at the booth at that time – two little plastic figures, a knight and an ogre.  I have no idea what the point of these hand-outs where.  Their scale was oddly small, a bit too small for standard 28 mm stuff, like what’s included in Battle Masters.  Maybe they were just proof of concept for these plastic some-assembly-required models?  (Note, the ogre there comes in five pieces: body front, body back, head, and two arms.)

I long ago lost the knight, he was kind of crappy anyway (a two-part model, his sword and shield were one solid piece that plugged into the front of the main body).  This ogre though has stuck around in my collection, and I’ve never had a use for him.  For a long time he was just a kind of silly mascot model in my Battle Masters box, left there perhaps to remind me of his origin.

I cant’ deny there’s a certain feeling of kismet to using that model in my custom reduced-scale version of the game.  Still, sadly, he’s way too big.  He’s clearly more in the giant range than the ogre range.  I’m thinking of maybe ordering some of Pendraken’s trolls, as they look like they might be the right scale.  Perhaps though I’ll wait and see how the rest of the units come together.  Maybe if I have to order some stuff from Pendraken to hack together some chaos knights, I’ll toss some trolls into the order just to make the comparison.

Battle Masters

In the early 90’s, Games Workshop teamed up with Milton Bradley to create a couple games using GW’s IP but stripping it of their branding and making the whole thing a bit more approachable to the novice.  The results were the hugely popular Hero Quest and Battle Masters, the former a dungeon crawl style board game and the latter a simplified version of a classic tabletop miniatures wargame.  Hugely popular is perhaps a bit subjective, I have no data to back that up, other than the fact that everyone I talk to has heard of these games, and they seem to continue to have cult followings on the internet.

I remember attending the GenCon when Battle Masters was released.  I don’t remember at all who ran the booth demoing it, whether it was branded GW or MB, but I do remember the three huge tables set up such that anyone could stop by and play a game (but maybe had to wait their turn depending on the time of day).  I know having demo tables like this is a common place practice at GenCon these days, but back then it was kind of unique, and I think remains so in the fact that it was pretty much unguided.  The tables were there, and if you felt like playing, you had to figure it out.

This was made easier by the fact that at the booth itself someone was handing out free copies of the instruction booklet to anyone that came by.  This combo strikes me as brilliant marketing.  I took a booklet back to my room, read it over, and by the next morning was at the tables waiting my turn to play.  I was so taken by the game that I actually bought a copy and brought it home with me.  This was no small feat given that A) I was pretty young at the time, and probably didn’t have a huge amount of spending money to blow on games, and B) I had come via plane and had to bring this enormous thing home with me.  It contains over 100 30 mm plastic models and a 5′ square vinyl mat instead of a board.  The box itself is the second largest game box in my closet to this day, beat out only by the Kickstarter edition of Ogre.

IMG_20150907_093711So not too long ago Jenn informed me of an estate sale someone had told her about where there were a bunch of games.  We went, and sure enough there were some really pristine copies of both Hero Quest and Battle Masters there.  Now, I already own both these games, and even though the collector in me marveled at their condition, I held back and instead bought a couple of old Avalon Hill games I didn’t own.  I’m a game player first and a collector second, but sometimes I have to fight the demons within to enforce that mentality.

And then wouldn’t you know it, those two games went unsold, and through the friend of a friend channels I was asked if I would like them both at half price.  Sigh.  Of course I bought them.  On the left here you can see my original 1992 copy at the bottom, thoroughly well played and beaten, and above it my new estate sale copy.  Yes, I admit it, I’m an addict.

The problem with this game is also one of its big attention grabbing selling points — it’s really huge.  I mean, I’ve never owned a table big enough for this game, and have thus always played it on the floor.  It’s fun, but it’s kind of a pain in the ass to drag out and set up.  So now I have two copies sitting in the closet with little chance of ever being casually brought out and played.  What’s the answer to this?  Why, a third copy of course.

As I was standing in my gaming / crafting room thinking what a shame it is that I haven’t down any miniature painting or other such stuff in over 2 years, the idea struck me to build a custom shrunk down copy of this game I love so much.  I have a ton of 10 mm fantasy miniatures that were my latest painting passion.  It seems counter-intuitive, but I find them easier to paint than the larger 30 mm models, simply because there’s really not very much detail you can even bother with.  So what if I rebuilt the units using 10 mm guys on little hand-made stands about 1.5″ x 1″, and expand from there, how big would the board be?  The answer is about 2′ square, certainly small enough to fit on my dining room table.

I still have a lot of details to figure out (how will I create the board, what about a box to hold everything, etc), but I’ve started in on the project.  I have no idea how long it will take me, and honestly I don’t much care.  Far too often with projects like this I have my eye so fixed on the end result that I don’t really get to enjoy the process of creating it.  This time, I’m trying to reverse that.  I mean, once the thing is done, what have I really gained?  A third copy of a game I rarely get to play.

So, expect to see more posts in the future as I start to put this thing together.  The units are the easy part, I’ve already got models laid out and have started cutting up some MDF to make bases.  I have a couple ideas on the board itself, but I’m not committed to anything yet, and I’m waiting on some materials to arrive to do some experiments.  Now, to go paint some minis!


Well, it looks like Origins is definitely a go for 2016!  I’ve been posting around various forums to try and get some insights into what to expect both in terms of playing and DMing.  I’ll cross-post my questions here and maybe collate responses as I hear.  If anyone reading has any advice to give, please comment below!

1. What if any old school D&D stuff should I keep my eye out for there? Any recurring events I should try to find? Any regular vendors booths I should make sure to visit?

2. I’ll probably run at least an event or two, got any advice on that score? Are there specific times that are really good or poor choices to run stuff? Is there any old school or OSR group I should try to hook up with and ask about running under their banner?

Wandering Monsters

My favorite Order of the Stick cartoon, back when I enjoyed that strip, concerned the number of random encounters the party should expect while traveling overland to a dungeon.  Here’s the link, but I will summarize: the joke is that despite different travel times, all parties should expect exactly one random encounter when traveling, as “no matter how long the journey, you only have one random encounter before everyone gets bored and moves on to the main plot.”

It struck me as especially funny because it’s exactly what I’ve found myself doing on numerous occasions.  It speaks to the battle between keep the main thing the main thing and the oracular power of dice.  And unfortunately, there’s no real general purpose rule for handling this balance.

I have certainly run plenty of dungeons where the dungeon itself dictates the rate at which one rolls for random encounters.  I have on occasion ignored those roles simply because cool stuff was already happening, and I know that I along with the players would all be irritated if the flow was interrupted by a random monster happening along.  On the other hand, when the party decides to lock themselves in a room and camp for two days, or is simply being slow, loud, and clumsy at moving through the dungeon, those rates of wandering monster rolls are exactly the mechanic I feel justified in applying to balance things out.  Without a tangible downside to slow progress, who wouldn’t spend a full turn carefully searching every 10′ increment of the dungeon for traps, secret doors, etc?

This is exacerbated when traveling in the wilderness.  My preferred campaign setting is a large world littered with small dungeons.  I’ve tried the whole mega-dungeon thing, and while I still find it enticing, for extended campaign play I prefer short and sweet dungeons punctuated by travel to differing towns and some random encounters between, be they monsters or civilized folk.  Still, that means a lot of random rolling when the players start moving around the map, and some times this can really bog down play.  Sometimes the dice just refuse to let up, and after the third or fourth random encounter along the road, it becomes tedious and boring to everyone at the table, the DM included.

On the other hand, our last session was entirely composed of this.  The players were simply trying to travel around the perimeter of a mountain — should be easy, right?  Well there’s no road, and the south side of the mountain borders a place known as “the Gloomwood”, a heavily wooded region rife with lycanthropes and similar such deadly creatures.

So I turned to my random charts.  Here’s the rules from the Expert book I use as my starting point:

When travelling, a party can become lost.  A party following a road, trail, or river, or led by a reliable guide, will not become lost.  Otherwise, the DM checks each day, rolling a six-sided die (1d6) before the party begins movement .

Expert Book, p. X56

While travelling in the wilderness, there is a chance the characters will encounter creatures just as they would in a dungeon.  The DM should decide how often encounter checks are made.  Encounters are usually checked for once per day, but the DM may include planned encounters, or may make additional checks if appropriate.  No more than 3 or 4 encounter checks should be made per day.

Expert Book, p. X57

Charts are then given based on terrain type to show the chances in 6 for each event.  Usually it’s 1 or 2 in 6 for getting lost, likewise for encounters though in some rougher terrains it goes up to 3 in 6.  For well travelled areas I usually skip the lost check and limit the encounter check to once per day.  Sometimes I’ll even increase the die size to further lessen the chance of encounters.  In worst case situations, like say trying to circle around a mountain and avoid the Gloomwood, I will roll 3 checks per day, usually by designating three different colored dice as “morning”, “afternoon”, and “night” and rolling them all together.

So in our last session the party was attempting to circle round the mountain to find an old cave they knew contained a magical scrying pool (similar effect to a crystal ball) which they wished to use to their advantage.  Right off the bat they both got lost and hit an encounter.  I ruled this as them drifting too far south and accidentally entering the Gloomwood, where they were set upon by werewolves.  The next day the same result, lost and one encounter.  This time they overshot the mountain and ended up in the Dead Hills, a place where many ancient battles were once held that is now quite haunted.  The encounter came at night, so the party managed to witness a battle between two forces of undead which they cleverly avoided, though at the cost of losing all the benefits of a good night’s rest (no healing, no spells regained).  On the third day they climbed the mountain where they were set upon by Caecilia (giant gray worms) in a set encounter I had placed there before we even started playing.  They managed to get into the cave, use the scrying pool, and get out in time to make camp just at the tree line below the cave.  Wouldn’t you know it, another random encounter roll released two fire salamanders on them in the middle of the night (did I mention the cave is on the side of a  volcano?)  The party managed to fight them off, and the next day returned to their camp at the base of the mountain, which had been overtaken by an entire tribe of orcs (yup, another random encounter).  Being fairly high level, they managed to kill off the orcs and charm the chieftain, and so ended a full night of adventuring.

And honestly, I think we were all having a great time.  The wandering monster and lost rolls all made sense.  I did re-roll a couple times for the specific monster type when I got stuff that was just crazy, but I never fudged the chances of it happening.  I did not randomize the lost rolls because in both cases the monster type pushed me in a specific direction.  Werewolves?  They must have gone too far south and entered the Gloomwood.  Undead?  Clearly they’ve accidentally entered the Dead Hills.

So, clearly random encounter rolls can actually build some really exciting play.  Unfortunately, sometimes it also leads to tedious play, especially when it’s getting in the way of something exciting that everyone is looking forward to.  Any consistent rule here is simply too rigid to be followed dogmatically.  The DM simply must keep his thumb on the pulse of the table, and adjust the pacing as he sees fit.  While I fight the urge to fudge dice, and actually roll all my combat rolls in front of the screen to avoid the temptation, in the case of wandering monster checks I think it’s imperative that the DM feel a strong latitude to roll or ignore the rolls as he sees fit.

This, I think, is what Gygax was getting at when he described his own DMing style as “free-wheeling.”