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


  1. Personally I try to reduce the daily super nova effect by making sure the encounters vary. Healing surge management is the key to 4e and it can be a challenge to keep things buzzing.

    Same applies in any setting really. All you can do is minimise the chances to rest up by making it dangerous or difficult to do so.

  2. AD&D had from 2 (mountains) to 6 (forest, marsh) encounter checks per day, with a chance ranging from 1 in 10 (uninhabited/wilderness) to 1 in 20 (relatively dense population), on a little chart that gave when each encounter check should be made during the day (morning, noon, evening, night, midnight, and pre-dawn).

    Just make sure to check when the party is camping, so that they haven't yet had a chance to renew their "daily" or memorized Vancian abilities.

  3. Beedo.

    1. I hope this is what you were looking for.

  4. I always check for a wandering monster after any fight of 4 or more rounds (or a really loud one)or when the party camps within sight of a pile of monsters they just killed. do you unload all your goodies on a band of kobolds when yuo know the booms could attract a dragon?

    1. I try to do a combination of this suggestion by JD (although not round based) and the occasional "split" encounter - those 81 hobgoblins are the advanced party, the goblins have 4d6 flank guards out who'll return 10 minutes after the fight to shoot you while you're bandaging, the dragon's friend is also out hunting and always flies to the sound of the fireballs, etc.

      Plus some plain-old single encounters they can unload on.

      In a dungeon I do 9 or less on 3d for a random encounter of some kind, up to +3 for lack of stealth, up to +3 for noise. So a big noisy fight done at maximum volume can attract more response. Even if the monsters don't pile in, they might come and watch, and learn and be ready . . .

  5. -C: Your post puts you firmly in the camp of extreme variability in the difficulty level, which you get using those 1E tables BTB. I think that's the best default position, as some of those encounters are massive. The "anything goes" approach shifts the problem from only winning combats to strategy based survival and thinking in other dimensions (hide, parley, flee, ambush, etc).

    JD: I've seen that option called "blood in the water" when one of the guys was bemoaning a similar issue with marine encounters.

    I tend to agree with -C that "anything goes" in terms of wilderness difficulty is interesting/challenging, and is superior approach to balanced combat encounters. My investigation will shift over to the survey of probabilities and frequencies across rules sets and see how they shake out.

  6. Good post.

    Encounter tables in OD&D game you monsters in the tens or hundreds indicating a settlement. Encountering some outliers/hunters/whatever and going nova could perhaps alert the rest of them.

    Then chance of several encounters per day also works. :)

  7. I have no real issues with the 15-minute wilderness day, because wilderness exploration is about a different set of resource management. Rations, water and time become exponentially more important in the wilderness than do spells and hp (unless you want to add the wrinkle of wilderness hexes being able to do various amounts of damage due to hardship over the course of a day of exploration). Clerics can ease this via some of their utility spells, but those are slots not usable during combat.

    Encounters, then, become about delaying progress and parties having to defend their resources (why do think a group of animals attacks a well armed party if not to get to their food?). Sure, the combat day may only be 15 minutes, but the first time one of their mules carrying the food and water dies while they are lost in the desert makes those 15 minutes into a HUGE problem.

    One of the most tense-filled sessions I ever ran was a party trying to find a dungeon entrance in the desert. Getting there and back was, in many ways, a lot more stressful for the party than the dungeon itself because they were running low on food and water — not hp or spells.

  8. FrDave said much of what I was going to say.

    Add to this that the players should never know whether another encounter is in the offing. If the party hunkers down after each encounter to renew its spells, then it takes that much longer to pass through the wilderness, using that much more of its resources. If the party presses on, they increase the chance of additional encounters.

    Or, think of it this way, the set wilderness encounters of a module like S4 are not necessarily the only encounters the party will meet up with. They could well encounter additional wandering monsters. And, even when this is not the case, and the GM knows no other encounters will occur, the players should not be aware of this! From the players' point of view, being able to survive one more encounter should always be important, because the players' knowledge of the scenario is imperfect.

  9. You guys in the states always get your books first! My copy of ACKS was shipped on the 13th and it's not here yet.

  10. I sorta posted about this on my blog the other day:


  11. Check out my CoZ submission in FO! 12. The addition I make to the OD&D rules there is reversing the % on the evasion chart to = a chance of encounter each hex.

    Otherwise, as in OD&D enconters are checked at night when traveling or twice a day when resting for most terrain types.

    Each encounter includes a chance (% in lair) that the adventurers have tumbled on a dungeon or castle or some other lair complex containing an extremely high number or deadly enimies.

    Otherwise, they will encounter a subset of the hexs inhabitants. Arneson gives the rules for this in the FFC.

    In short, a hex crawl is a blind journey into unknown territory where a party may encounter anything from a cakewalk to something that could squash them with a sneeze.

    In addition, all rules regarding food and water and environmental hazard apply as do the rules for getting lost. A lost party wandering about the wilderness had better not be wasteful with thier resources. ;)

  12. Agree with FrDave that the 15 min wilderness day is generally ok and DHBoggs about getting lost. Long, long ago we got lost in the mountains. It was a royal pain and I thought something of a frustration at the time. In retrospect, it was extremely memorable gaming. Caused some fear amongst us players.

  13. Here's how I do it:


  14. You've missed something really obvious: if the players throw everything they've got at a wilderness encounter, immediately rest to do the same to the next one, have them attacked during the night with another one. This means that the very thing they are trying to avoid (the next wilderness encounter with less resources) their strategy hasn't prevented. You need eight hours of continuous rest to get your powers and spells back anyway.

  15. I treat random encounters are a resource management tool and an indicator of environmental hazard. Areas considered having high levels of danger are that way because they have more frequent encounters. Characters need to know that the 'spooky forest' has a different encounters and higher probability of an encounter than the well patrolled 'north road'. Then if they take the spooky forest instead of the north road they better be ready for this. Encounters happen despite players being ready for them so there is no 15 minute day. If they are resting after a big fight they better make a stout camp because them ghosts aren't going to wait.

    1. Err - to be more clear, encounters need to be variable based on area. The spooky forest is more dangerous than the north road or the peaceful valley because of the encounter table - not just because some old bartender said it was.

  16. Lots of good replies - thanks for everyone's thoughts. The job threw me a curve ball, so I've been away from the intertubes for a day dealing with the real world - but I'm taking a look at wilderness procedures (encounters, movement, and becoming lost) to see how they've morphed through the editions, and will be back with some additional thoughts. Thanks for getting it started with the OD&D notes, DH.

    I appreciate the idea of making the wilderness as much about managing food and water as it is evading encounters.