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Friday, May 15, 2020

Moldvay Musings XVIII: Encounter Distance

Greetings! It's been a little while, but  I will try to be a little more consistent with my postings.

What with COVID-19, the end of the world, and everything, I have actually been playing D&D fairly regularly via Discord and Roll20. I started a very basic Keep on the Borderlands run for my group using Labyrinth Lord/AEC rules. Nothing exceptional to report, but it's been fun dusting of a classic like that.

Now, one of the little quirks of BX (as well as some other editions) is that distances and ranges (not Areas of Effect) are converted to yards in the wilderness (as opposed to feet indoors). More on that in a bit.

After a couple of wilderness encounters (some lizard folk and a random run-in with some giant boars), it got me thinking about the encounter sequence, specifically distances. In BX -and by extension LL- when there is a random encounter, the DM is supposed to roll to determine how far apart the party and the monster(s) are when they notice one another (assuming the terrain/floorplan doesn't dictate otherwise). In the dungeon, this roll is (2d6) x 10 feet. In the wilderness, it is (4d6) x 10 yards.

The changeover mostly makes sense. In a typical dungeon, the party is not moving very fast. They usually have very limited light, in unfamiliar territory, often tight quarters, etc. Ranged weapons are limited by low ceilings and crowded conditions. Outside, you can arc a shot much farther. [Though since taking up archery, I can say that the ranges in D&D for targeting a single, mobile target are ridiculous (e.g. bowhunting). Extreme long range with a modern compound bow in those circumstances is 70-80 yards, and that would be with severe penalties. But I digress.]

One of the pitfalls of encounter distance is that it can lead to an encounter getting stalled before it starts. In the case of the boars, the party's ranger spotted the boars over 200 yards away. This gave the party ample time to pepper them with spells and missiles as the pigs closed the distance. The party's druid slapped an Entangle spell on two of them and things ended fairly quick after that.

Now, I know that if this had been a straight BX game (no druids) and the random distance had been closer, things could have gone very differently. So I am not faulting the party or the rules. That's just how the dice go sometimes. In fact, I think the players were very wise to minimize their risk. It was a random encounter with creatures that typically carry no treasure. The risk/reward ratio was not in their favor here.

The DM may want to take a moment when setting up such an encounter to think about a few distance-related factors, especially in the wilderness. 1) Does the range that was rolled make sense? Maybe there are terrain features that make is unreasonable (tree cover, uneven ground, etc.)  2) Will these features affect things like movement rates, line of sight for spells, cover from missiles, etc.? 3) Remember that the implication is that, unless one side is surprised, both groups become aware of each other at the start of the encounter. If either side is surprised, the distance is reduced to a maximum of 40 yards (X23), so surprising an orc patrol 100 yards away is a no-go.

Because of things like this, I highly recommend going through all the steps "behind the screen" first and figure out the logical way to set things up before beginning to describe the situation to the players. The encounter in general will flow much more smoothly.


  1. Hello. Nice to see you posting back here again. I think that if the terrain lends itself you could have forewarning of an encounter but no idea of what it actually is.

    In your boar case if it were in woods then the party might hear a snuffling and snorting but have no clear idea about what it is and whether it were hostile.

    Similarly in a sandy desert or dusty plains, a dust cloud could obscure exactly what the encounter was with. I'm thinking of the scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly here where it turns out that it's the Union Army not the Confederate one who is coming to their aid.

    1. LOL! I just re(re-re-re...) watched that movie 2 nights ago.

  2. Glad to see you're back! Your posts are always interesting and thought-provoking.