I've been recently involved in a discussion about random encounters and how having encounters that are not "level appropriate" really is okay and is not unfair to players unless they never have any choice but to fight in every encounter they have. In the discussion I pointed out that random wilderness encounters could have even a party of first level characters encounter a dragon and that do to reaction rolls and the like the encounter need not lead to combat.
Another person in the discussion then said that there was no way the party could come out of the situation alive unless the GM just "softballed" the encounter to allow the party to live. The assumption here seemed to be that encounter means automatic combat -- combat that the dragon probably could not lose even with a string of bad rolls.
After some discussion back and forth it came down to this:
Why would the GM assume that the dragon isn't hungry? Why is the dragon traveling around if he isn't hungry?
Why assume the dragon isn't hungry? Perhaps because the party did not attack the dragon on sight and the GM did not roll "hostile -- immediately attacks" as the dragon's reaction roll? Reaction rolls are this wonderful thing (IMHO) in TSR editions of D&D that make it possible for PCs to encounter lots of intelligent monsters without every encounter automatically turning into a battle. Unfortunately, I don't think either edition of WOTC D&D included reaction rolls -- although like many of the things WOTC dropped from prior versions of D&D, droppong reactions rolls changed the game in ways they did not expect (at least I hope they did not expect). Personally, I would not run any version of D&D without using reaction rolls.
Here's how the system works... Assuming there is no in-game reason for the encountered monster to automatically attack or automatically be friendly, the GM rolls 2d6 (and possibly adds the charisma bonus of the party leader/spokesman or some situational modifiers) on a table like this one (this example is from the B/X edition of D&D, other TSR editions had slightly different versions of this table.):
3-5....Hostile, possible attack
9-11...No attack, monster leaves or considers offers
Only a roll of two would necessarily mean the dragon is hungry and just attacks with no chance at all of talking/bargaining or otherwise avoiding combat. The GM would use the table again to judge the monster's reaction to any offers/counteroffers/etc. with a GM determined modifier based on previous rolls and the actual proposal on the table until some type of agreement is reached or one side or the other decides to attack.
Reaction rolls are a great system that help ensure that there is a variety of encounters beyond "monsters sees party and attacks." The fact that monsters do not always attack on sight means that everything a group of adventurers encounter does not need to be level appropriate as they do not necessarily need to handle the encounter with combat.
Why would a dragon be traveling if he isn't hungry? D&D Dragons are generally quite intelligent -- as intelligent as humans (or even more so in some cases). So this is like asking why do people travel around if they aren't hungry (or aren't looking for a fight). There are lots of reasons a dragon might be out and about when he's not hungry. A few examples:
* Visiting friends/returning from such a visit
* Returning home from a meal
* Looking for treasure/Bring treasure back to his lair
* Surveying his territory for other dragons/problems moving in.
* Just out flying around for exercise or because he likes to fly around
* Flying over villages because its fun to see all the people run away screaming in terror
Even if a dragon meets a group of people while out and about, unless he is very hungry or they attack, he might not want to kill them (as that puts himself at risk of damage and/or makes it more likely that even bigger heroes will come after him), he might want to take some or all of their treasure as a toll, get them to go do a task that he needs done but can't easily be done by a large and terrifying dragon, talk to them to find out what's going on if he just awakened from a long sleep, etc. Powerful human/demi-human lords usually do not kill everyone they encounter, so it seems dumb to expect that powerful/intelligent monsters would.
Also, not all dragon encounters are going to be with adult dragons. Young dragons are at far greater risk of death or severe damage from humans and are therefore even less likely to attack if they don't need to.
I'll be honest, I don't know why some people assume that every encounter is going to be (or worse -- IMHO -- should be) resolved by combat. If I just wanted to fight everything my character meets, I would not bother playing a tabletop RPG. I'd just play a computer RPG where combat is often the only option because a computer program, unlike a human GM, is limited what it can react to to what the programmer's coded into the program. Also, if I only want to fight, a computer RPG handles the mechanics of combat so much better than even a good players and a good GM can because it never forgets about modifiers, statuses, rules, etc. Not to mention that detailed combat goes much faster in a computer RPG.
I don't know when things changed from monsters as interesting parts of the world with their own motivations and goals changed to monsters exist to fight the PCs on sight. Did it come because reaction rolls were apparently dropped from WOTC editions of D&D? Did it come when the monster write-ups were changed from informative articles about the monster both in and out of combat to combat-only info for 4e? Did it come when more people came to tabletop RPGs with experience in combat-dominated computer RPGs and so were used encountering monsters almost always leading to combat? Or was it something else I haven't even thought of or some combination of different reasons. I honestly do not know. All I really know is that for many styles of play, assuming that an encounter need not always result in combat improves the game considerably.
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