Members of the Adventure Cartography Society seek to deepen their understanding of imagined events in RPGs by mapping and measuring similar phenomena in the real world. A few weeks ago I interacted with some animals while hiking along Norway’s Naerøyfjord, and in support of the Society’s mission I recorded data on the encounters. Here I report these findings and see how well they correspond with the guidelines for wilderness encounters in the Adventurer Conqueror King System (and, likely, B/X D&D which I don’t have handy).
Encounter: The path was passing through a forested area on the slope of the mountain above the fjord. I heard a noise, likely from a fallen rock – there was lots of scree on the slope. I looked around and didn’t see anything, but a moment later an ewe strolled onto the path and stopped to regard me. Two lambs hot on her heels rushed in to suckle as soon as she stopped moving. I started pacing the distance between my position and the point where we’d sighted one another, and about halfway there – nine out of eighteen paces – she trotted away, with the lambs still trying to get in there for some more milk.
In ACKS terms: This would be an encounter in which neither side achieved surprise and the reaction roll was “neutral”. ACKS notes that “wilderness encounters can take place in a variety of terrain types with greatly varying line of sight.” The actual encounter distance in this case – about 15 yards – is roughly average for the 5d4 that ACKS specifies for “Forest, Heavy or Jungle.” It’s also within the lower end of the range of 5d8 for “Forest, Light,” which might be more appopriate given that I was walking along a clear five-foot-wide trail and only spotted the sheep once they crossed this path. We might well expect me to achieve a below-average spotting distance, since a blogger on a solo hike is likely less alert to wildlife than an adventurer who tends to travel in groups and can expect spotting other creatures to be a matter of life or death.
However, my 15 yard encounter distance was well outside the possible results for the 4d6 x 10 yards ACKS specifies for mountain terrain. This is problematic because if I was making a hex map of the region I’d definitely enter Naerøyfjord as a string of mountain hexes. Here’s a picture SF author Rudy Rucker took on a similar trip in 2009:
Seen from the perspective of a real-world visitor rather than a hex map, of course, many wilderness areas are a mix of terrain types which can alternate quite quickly. Rudy writes: “In most spots the fjord walls are at least partially wooded. Up above them is an undulating highland of gray-brown mountains, patchy with snow even now in midsummer. It’s like Norway has only two elevations: sea level and 1 km high, with a labyrinth of steep cliffs connecting the two.”
Suggested House Rule: The Judge should consider the micro-scale terrain an encounter will take place in and use that, rather than the macro-scale contents of the hex, to guide the determination of spotting distance. When I roll a random encounter, sometimes the kind of monster tells me right away what kind of landscape it’ll be in, especially since I know the details of how the party is traveling. In the White Sandbox, a mounted contingent of the Grey Company once encountered giant weasels while traveling through a plain hex; I immediately decided that the weasels had dug tunnels in an area of low hills and sandy soil, with the attendant risk of a horse’s leg breaking when it steps into one of the tunnels.
The choice of local terrain may be guided by considerations of what would make for an interesting combat encounter – if it had been giant apes, I might have had the party riding through a rock formation and used the mountain spotting distance as the apes rose up from among the boulders. Since reaction rolls and player choice mean many wilderness encounters won’t actually be combat, scenery chewing is another important consideration. If a low-level party encounters a roc while traveling through a forest, I am likely to decide that they spot it while cresting a ridge or entering a large clearing – in part so that the spotting distance won’t put them abruptly face-to-face with such a fearsome beast, and in part so that I can describe more of the majesty of the landscape as long as the possibility of death has focussed the player’s attention.
In terms of prep rather than improv, Judges who prepare random encounters ahead of time (e.g. ACKS’ dynamic lairs) will likely want to specify the local terrain and use its spotting distance, rather than that of the hex in which this terrain/encounter package might appear. In preparing a wilderness map, it might also make sense to draw up a chart of sub-terrains within each grouping of hexes. The Dark Woods and the Barrens might both be made up of forest hexes, but the d6 chart for the dark woods might be 1-5 heavy forest, 6 light forest, while the Barrens might be 1-2 heavy forest, 3-4 light forest, 5 hills, 6 plains. Adventuring in the Dark Woods will thus be more like a horror movie with creatures almost always popping out of the thick bushes right in your face; travel through the Barrens will tend to be more suspenseful, as the scragglier trees allow foes to be seen and evaded or approached at greater distances.