Posts Tagged ‘Adventure Cartography Society


Watch Out for that Fjord: More on Wilderness Encounters and Spotting

Yesterday I talked about wilderness encounters I had while hiking along the Naerøyfjord during a recent trip to Norway, and how the experience matched up with the rules for spotting distance and terrain in the Adventurer Conqueror King System. Today I’ll continue this investigation and look at how creature size affects when creatures become aware of each other.

My second wilderness encounter came maybe ten minutes after the previous wandering monster (three sheep). The local terrain changed as the trail emerged onto one of the infrequent areas of flat land – in most places the ground rises sharply up from the water of the fjord. Here’s Rudy’s picture of a similar area:

As I walked out into this expanse, the cry of a bird alerted me to its presence; looking up I saw it already taking wing. ACKS would say that the bird achieved surprise on me, made an “unfriendly” reaction roll, and used the advantage of surprise to flee. I paced the distance to the rock on which the bird had been perching: seventy paces or about 60 yards, a plausible result for the 4d6 x 10 yards specified for mountain terrain – especially if we imagine that the bird’s more adventurer-like spotting abilities had me pegged some time before its decision to flee gave me a clue that it was there. In my defense, I’ll note that I am man-size but the bird was not.

ACKS notes that “Larger creatures can spot and be spotted at greater distances”; rules are given for increasing the spotting distances for larger than man-sized creatures. Judges could easily reverse these rules to account for the difficulty I experienced in sighting a smaller creature. (ACKS also points out that having a higher vantage increases spotting distance, such that adventurers in a tower can see farther than those on the ground. In clear terrain, a giant’s ability to see above obstructions in the landscape, further over the horizon, etc. will counteract the fact that its height will also make it easier to be seen, increasing encounter distance bilaterally. Rough terrain which gives concealment to smaller observers might enable them to spot the giant’s head standing out of the landscape well before it was able to see them in return.)

A deeper issue is that it seemed to me that the bird reacted first not merely because it was more alert (as a city dweller I likely suffer a penalty on wilderness surprise rolls) but also because I was easier to spot. In ACKS, the determination of surprise and spotting distance are separate and unrelated procedures. Especially in cases where one party is larger (bigger, taller, or more numerous), it might make more sense to roll modified spotting distances for each side separately. The group that achieves the greater distance would then effectively have surprise, which would last until the other party closes to the spotting distance rolled for their side – so long as nothing changes like the first party hiding, making noise, etc.

Using this rule would cause surprise to happen more often – since ties for spotting distance will be infrequent, it’d basically mean that almost all wilderness encounters start with only one side aware of the other. I think it’d be wise to roll the usual surprise checks. This would make characters’ modifiers to those checks meaningful, and allow for the possibility that both sides are distracted and bump into each other at the standard spotting distance rolled once, rather than once for each side. If neither side achieves surprise, instead of going to initiative, have each roll for spotting distance. The group with the larger distance will act first, with the other side still unaware of their presence.

I think that having disparities of awareness (like you normally get from unilateral surprise rolls) happen more often in wilderness encounters is beneficial. Setting the distance at whichever of two rolls is greater would mean that most wilderness encounters will happen much further away than in the dungeon. I’d rule that most things that could be done to take advantage of first awareness – closing with the foe, casting spells – would make enough noise to potentially alert the other party, going back to the regular initiative procedure.

In old-school D&D, wilderness encounters can be famously lethal, and ACKS is no exception. Unlike the dungeon encounter tables, which are scaled to the depth at which the encounter occurs, the possible results in the wilderness are all over the map. Having the small adventurers spot a large dragon before it sees them can generate suspense and (perhaps) avoid a TPK. Contrariwise, a wandering monster that is too puny to hope to challenge a large and well-prepared party can, if it can spot them first, avoid combat; this is both sensible and avoids wasting time at the table (since the Judge can quickly resolve the monster’s attempt to bugger off unseen, without invoking initiative and all the other standard encounter procedures).

And in new-school D&D, wilderness encounters are infamously hard to stage as a combat sporting event. The ability to set up an interesting battlefield full of the sorts of hazards and opportunities that make detailed-resolution combat fun is limited by the randomness of the encounter, and the wilderness situation makes it susceptible to the party “going nova” and firing off all their resources, confident that they’ll have time to rest before the next encounter. Making unilateral awareness more likely can help with this situation. If the party spots the monsters at a greater distance, they can plan their approach, making the encounter a more satisfying example of “combat as war”. If the monsters become aware of the party, they can retreat to a fortified position and send out a few of their number to lure the party into an ambush, while the others go for reinforcements. The result can be a encounter with the kind of tactical depth and multiple waves of enemies that you normally don’t get from a wilderness wandering monster.


Wilderness Encounters with the Adventure Cartography Society

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:

Does Google also give you Rudy’s blog as the top search result for Naerøyfjord, or does it somehow know he officiated at my wedding in 2001 and thus directs me to his site?

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.

Past Adventures of the Mule

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