Thursday, May 23, 2024

Encounter Distance: Am I doing it wrong?

A while back I wrote a bit on the silliness that is the AD&D encounter distance rules. Basically, in case you don't know, when the dice determine that a random encounter happens, you roll to see how far away the randos are. 

I've never bothered to roll this because in every circumstance the distance is  going to be determined by the lay of the land. If you're in a room, the randos are going to come in one of the doors; in a corridor, they'll round a bend or wander into the edge of your torch light, etc. If they're outside, then they're either on the same road or laying in ambush beside the road or walking out of a tavern or what have you. It just seems a lot easier to figure out how far away this encounter should occur than roll the dice and then try to justify how the carrion crawler suddenly spawned 50' behind you. And yet, pretty much every version of Big D has a rule for rolling up encounter distance.

Even my new best friend Shadowdark includes this on page 112:

"If one or more wandering creatures appear, roll 1d6 for their distance from the group"

Here it is, still chugging along in the 50th year of D&D; Roll to see where the encounter takes place. And if you roll a 1, the encounter is "Close" to you (imagine Karen Carpenter singing here--Aaaaa-aahahahaa-Close to you...). How the hell did these randos get within 5' of you without you noticing? But Shadowdark can do no wrong, so clearly it must be me who is in error. 

Do people actually rely on the dice to tell them where the monsters are going to appear?


  1. I rarely roll. But I think I still have the rule in my home brewed GM guide. I should rethink that, or make it clear it's to be used when a judgment is hard to make.

  2. I might have the encounter start a little closer or further away based on a perception check or surprise, but generally I either already have something in mind or I wing it based on the terrain and/or location.

  3. Never used it, I proceed exactly like you do.

  4. I use encounter distance as the distance where each side *might* become aware of the other. Even in a dungeon, PCs and creatures may become aware of each other's footsteps, chatter, light sources, etc., long before they can see each other. What they are doing, and what precautions they have taken against detection, can have an impact on that determination.

    Once one side has detected the other, the question is, what does the detecting party do with that information? Do they try to hide, or set up an ambush, or send a scout, or flee, or parley/trade, or go for reinforcements and come back? The encounter can go in a lot of different directions depending on their choices.

  5. Well, for one thing, I notice you assume outdoor encounters will occur on a road. I don't know the specific lay of the land at a random point within a hex of 30 square miles or however many, so yes, I use dice.

  6. I'm pretty sure it says in part of the DMG that I've never read that all wilderness encounters happen on the road. But you raise a good point, there will be cases where the DM is uncertain of the terrain, and the roll could assist in envisioning the scene. Your wandering through the plains when the dice say that a dinosaur appears 90' away. Ok, there's a knoll over there that's just big enough to conceal an ankylosaurus...

    1. Well, in AD&D anyway, standard rules are to be ingored when they don't make sense. Clearly you will detect a stampeding herd of hundreds of buffalo before they get to the 60-240 yards specified by AD&D "normal encounter distance". But as someone who lives in the prairies I can tell you they aren't always all that flat, many animals have camouflage, grass can conceal a lot from a distance, and tall grass prairie can have *very* tall grass. You can add the height of that grass to the hillock for determining concealment.

      Ankylosaurs are 6-7 feet high, so if the grass is 2 feet high you only need a 4-5 foot rise to conceal them, if that's what you want to do.

      But yeah, at least some of the time on the prairie you should see the monsters from way off. If you're using a hazard die system, you could treat "percept" or "spoor" results as seeing the monster from a great distance. Or you could just do it when you roll a "2" on your ordinary wandering monster check.