Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 15 Minute Wilderness Day

I'll be upfront in this post - I don't have the answers today, just pointing out what I've experienced as issues, and hoping to get a sense from experienced DM's if they see the same thing as a problem, what they do about it, and so on.

Here's the problem statement:  The infrequency of wilderness encounters means that a party can unload all or most of their expendable resources against each encounter; it turns every wilderness encounter into a 15 minute adventuring day.

I really saw this problem when we dabbled in 4E, because there were these uber "daily powers" and players would dump their dailies against wilderness encounters while traveling.  I didn't play a ton of 3E, but I know 3E moved away from random encounters.  In our current 1E game, the group is mid-level (levels 6-7) and the magic users and clerics have serious firepower.  They can brute force most encounters, knowing that hit points will quickly be restored through magical healing, and the mages can dump magic missiles and lightning bolts with little risk.

The referee has a couple of levers and dials to adjust the pace of wilderness adventuring:

  • The frequency of wilderness encounter checks
  • The probability of wilderness encounter checks
  • The difficulty of the encounters

Let me cite a recent example of failure - the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.  The wilderness trek could be an exciting part of that adventure, but the encounters are a) staggered to each occur a few days apart, and b) set around the same challenge level of the party.  The result is that a group can go "super nova" on each encounter, and the encounters are basically speed bumps and time killers.  S4 Tsojcanth was originally a tournament adventure, so perhaps that's why the wilderness piece is crappy - either it was bolted on later, just for publication, or the wilderness encounters were just meant to delay groups before reaching the main structure.

Coming up with an effective approach to managing encounters in the hex crawl is a fundamental requirement.  Wilderness encounter tables are "implied setting" - they should not be overlooked.  It seems terribly important to me to get them right.  Tosjcanth is a fail.

Anyway, this is what I'm thinking about right now in the D&D space.   I don't know that anyone has done a survey on how the frequency and probability of encounters has changed over time, but it's an interesting subject to me.  Default classic had a 1d6 check per day, with a 4-6 indicating an encounter when out in the barren wilds; there were lower chances in settled areas.  The Rules Cyclopedia added a 1d12 check while camped or overnight.  ACKS has a random encounter check occur for each new 6 mile hex.

Think of the variability in the types of encounters, too - there's a big difference between tables that include mundane encounters (like peasants) versus only monstrous encounters.  Consider also the variability in difficulty; running into a weak group of goblins in one encounter, and then fleeing a wandering giant the next encounter, creates a much different experience than having most encounters in the same difficulty range.

I'm going to shift around the books and do some research.  I have a high opinion of the ACKS effort, their conclusions have seemed rational so far, so I'm curious to see how their approach to wilderness checks compares to the editions.  The ACKS hardcover just arrived, and I can research in a brand spanking new hardcover.  Behold the glory:

New books make for a happy Monday

I love me some shark-headed giant centipedes