Recently I’ve been sort of absentmindedly thinking about a Dungeons & Dragons world—and not for the first time, either. I have notebooks full of D&D worlds, a few of which even saw some play time. But what inspired this post today is the collision between worldbuilding and D&D. And the game itself does often collide with the efforts of the worldbuilder.

You know I love monsters, and monsters have always been my favorite part of D&D in general. I want a world full of monsters—every monster in every version of the Monster Manual and all the elbow room I want to create creatures of my own…

But then, as with all good worldbuilding, logic eventually intrudes.

Now, when I say “D&D,” I tend to mean Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, aka “First Edition,” and that’s because I firmly believe that the best edition of D&D is…

…the one you first played.

And I started with AD&D, back in 1979.

A scan of my own copy—an original first printing from 1979.

And in the original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide are page after page of random encounter tables, which everyone I ever played D&D with used at least from time to time. Though there is a distinction made between “Uninhabited/Wilderness Areas” and “Inhabited and Patrolled Areas,” you still have a 2% chance (each), in the plains (where farms would be located), of encountering as many as six ankhegs or up to eighteen werewolves, and a 1% chance each of encountering a bullette, up to ten hill giants, a groaning spirit, as many as half a dozen weretigers, up to four manticores, or from one to four vampires. Even leaving out the other more mundane but still dangerous encounters like somewhere between twenty and two hundred bandits or at least two and maybe twenty wolves, that means, assuming you’re unlucky enough to have a random wilderness encounter in the inhabited or patrolled plains, you have a 10% chance of encountering a significantly powerful monster, or a 1% chance of running into a hostile army. Great fun for a high level party, sure, but what about the 0-level farmer with maybe two hit points trundling along from a farming village to the city with a cartload of apples? One in ten of these guys is lunch. Adding back in wolves and bandits and other hostiles it might be as much as 25%.

Would you go to work every day knowing there’s a 25% chance—even a 10% chance—that you’re not going to make it to work alive? I’d say, probably not.

So then, how does this economy work? How do you feed a city the size of, say, Waterdeep or Greyhawk or Tarantis? If you use these wilderness encounter tables… you don’t.

So then even if you’re thinking, Okay, Phil, I get it, but my D&D party aren’t 0-level farmers—let’s assume, say, these bigger monsters are only attracted to higher level characters, not farmers… Well, that makes no sense, but sure… D&D is a game and should be fun before it’s logical.

The next question, though: Can you get away with this if it’s a world you’re building not for a game you’re playing with friends but that you want to release into the wild in any form—even as an RPG setting but much less as a novel?

This goes to a question I covered to some extent in Writing Monsters: How monster-rich is your world? If it goes by the AD&D random encounter tables, probably it’ll end up as some kind of dystopian hellscape in which the bigger cities have long sense fallen to ruin due to starvation or been long been overrun by marauding gangs of hobgoblins and anyway the first ancient, huge red dragon that flies by. That, by the way, would be a fascinating world for both a game or a novel, so I’m not dismissing it.

But what if you want your RPG or fiction characters to have a city they can go to to sell all the gems they found fighting umber hulks and gelatinous cubes in a remote dungeon where they belong? Then you’re going to have to at least start to think about how to feed a city of tens of thousands of people, maybe, and using medieval technology. That means a lot of the area around that city has to be patrolled, essentially completely monster free—10% loss will not do it—and able to provide food for the city dwellers.

And think, too, about what those city dwellers eat.

There’s an interesting article by Annie Ewbank about food in fantasy novels that includes a warning against the ubiquitous stew:

As I doggedly read through the fantasy canon, I realized that the marvelous butter-pie was an outlier. Instead, heroes and heroines often ate familiar fare, even as they cast spells and rode dragons. For pages and pages, lucky characters feast on cakes and ale. Other characters only get stew, which is oddly omnipresent. In her satirical travel guide to fantasy literature, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, (Diana Wynne) Jones jokes that stew “is the staple food in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing for omelets, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming.”

Is this beef stew? If so, you need acre after acre after acre of grazing land, free of wolves, much less ankhegs, to make that affordable for the stew-loving masses. And those cattle herds are going to attract predators. A pain in the butt when those predators are wolves or coyotes, but dragons…? Omelets and baked beans would be easier, in any case!

And what of your city is on the coast, as most cities are? Then they eat seafood, right? Well, your AD&D city fishermen have a 2% chance of having to fend off a dinosaur or an ixitxachitl… actually, basically everything on the ocean encounter list will kill you, including large carnivorous whales and giant crabs. Deadliest Catch indeed!


—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. jasperak says:

    Ankheg and Goblin Stew Duh. Don’t forget to clean off the Cream of Leprechaun before you go exploring either.

  2. Jaq says:

    I never did like stew, until recent years. The problem with goblins making stew is it might have anything in it!

  3. mythwrights says:

    I never had much of a taste for the random encounter tables. I was struck by the same concept: that this much danger just from walking down the road had to be anathema to an actual civilization. I chose to keep the more bizarre and dangerous creatures relatively isolated.

  4. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writers Links | No Wasted Ink

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