Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fall Out!

If a party were to have it's way, this is the formation it would be in no matter where or how far it travelled:

And that's very understandable.  The moment something jumps up from the bushes, its best if the fighter is right there and if the mage is far away and out of danger.  It's even better if everyone can take an attack on the first round, killing it quickly.

However ... people do, occasionally, have to go to the bathroom.  People get distracted as they journey along a road, they lose sight of the potential danger when mile after mile has to be trekked.  Petty disputes arise between people, with sore feelings and a strong desire not to walk within fifty feet of each other.  People have to stop and retie their packs, or sort through for some food.  Mounts get stubborn and upset, and burrs have to be pulled out from under their saddles.  There are a hundred ways in which a party gets split apart - in the real world, that is.

Take a hike with five or ten other people sometime, in the Rocky Mountains say (which are right by me).  Warn them about bears and cougars, about watching their footing and about not wandering off the path ... and then set out through some dense bush for ten miles.  See how long it takes for the group to drift apart.

I remember being nine, and being on just such a hike with one hundred other boys, as we walked down from the cub camp where we'd been, to the parking lot where the cars were.  The whole walk was, I think, four miles.  I can remember, at one point, being all by myself, with others behind me and others far ahead, too far away to be heard.  I remember relishing that walk, all by myself, amid the mountains and the sounds of the forest.

But suggest to a party that they're too far apart to hear one another as they strike out in the wilderness, and they will soundly protest.  I've had players protest against their characters going off to be alone behind a bush so they could pee.  "I'm not shy," they'll say.  "Manners were less important," they'll say.  "Nobody cared about people shitting in front of them," they'll say.

It's that marvellous picture of the public toilets in Ostia, Rome, that is always used to prove the point.  "If the Romans weren't shy, why would we be?"  Well, how can you argue with that?

I have a rather funny image of player characters marching to the side of the road and standing in a circle while one has a really, really bad movement - protected, of course, in case anything attacks.  Of course, depending on the quality of the last inn, it might be a really wide circle ...

If a party expects to stop as a group every time one member gets a stone in their shoe, or stops to remove snags from their sword scabbard, or thinks to dip their hand into the little stream dribbling from the nearby rocks, the party is going to move awfully slowly.  What normally happens is that the point sets the pace, with others stopping, dealing with their particular issue and then running to catch up again.  If, on the other hand, everyone stops, then there's no need to catch up to the pace, is there?

As far as the party refusing to walk together, on account of that tiff I mentioned earlier, well ... every party knows they never have arguments, right?  No, they get along perfectly happily, never wanting to be more than five feet away from their good friends, practically clutching one another as they march down the road together.

There's no desire for most DMs to challenge that.  By  the principles the game is played by, we're not allowed to point at two of the party members and say, "You and you, you're angry at each other right now."  There's no privilege for it.  I might be able to make a point that when the thief and the monk have a moderate dispute at the table, their characters separate for a time - but frankly, I'm usually looking up things at that point and I've learned to tune out table disputes.  If they go on past my needing to get ready, its a good opportunity to leave the room and pee.  And no, not everyone comes with me ... but my residence isn't the wilderness, is it?

Whatever the reason, and whatever the argument, it is patently ridiculous for the party to think it can remain in the pictured formation above every minute of the day.  The chance of them all being within 5' of each other at any given moment is pretty nigh zero.  It is a point that will be disputed violently by players - until they understand it's normal - but a point worth the DM fighting for.  Here's why:

It makes an ambush by the enemy effective.  It makes the wilderness truly dangerous.  It forces players to rely on their own abilities, and not on those of their companions.  It provides opportunities for personal bravery.  It creates greater moments of drama, as the players hear a scream, and then silence, from behind the rock where Bunkle the Dwarf went to shake his fig.  The battles are fought more haphazardly, with the party not being able to rely on the same, boring tactics repeated over and over again.  Depending on the environment, they have to improvise.  Particularly when it's the thief, the mage and the bard trying to decide what to do about the fighter who just went around the corner ahead, and is now gone ...

Do not let your players push you around.  The game is more than the world surrounding their 'perfect' order ... dismantle their order and watch your game get better.


  1. Great article. Let's say the players accept that without to much fuss, but expecting some trouble on the nxt wilderness jaunt do make a point of keeping said formation. How would you hande it, assuming you allow for this premise. Half the party's movement rate and double the possible encounters?

  2. Yes. Half the party's movement rate for certain. And an increase in surprise, on the basis that instead of being separate and able to hear around them, the breathing, trudging and rustling of said friend's backpack and clothes drowns out the ambient noise ...

  3. Devious. I love it.

  4. I've made a point of noting in my current campaign that my wizard is very curious. So far he's been ambushed from behind three times in one sitting. Unfortunately due to his nature he's yet to figure out why...

    For the record, those were the three best encounters that day. Maybe I'm biased because I had a 'starring' role.

  5. Let's say that the party is marching along, drifting apart and and what not. How do you decide when the party is split? Do you simply say, "Wizard, you have to pee really badly. What do you do about it?" Or do you have a circumstance die that you roll? Or just assume the party is always spread thin?

  6. We were being ambushed just prior to dawn and the thief on late watch stole the clerics mead, got drunk and passed out.

    I'll never forget when my DM said, "Your Paladin did not sleep in his full plate".

    To which I responded, "How long will it take for me to get my armor back on?"

    There was much laughter.

  7. The core observation is one I agree with, although I think your observation about how walkers naturally drift apart makes much more sense in our world than in most people's D&D worlds. If the odds of running into a potentially hostile and dangerous creature (like a bear) are as low as they are in real life, then people will absolutely tend to spread out.

    If, OTOH, the encounter rate is more than one every couple of weeks or months, travelers on foot would logically and reliably stay closer together.

    If I knew I was in Goblin territory and might encounter an armed band of hostiles at any point, you're darn tootin' that the only time we'd be separated would be bathroom breaks. And even then there'd be at least one person within 5-10yds to listen for trouble.

  8. I enjoyed reading this post and I am a new reader to your blog. Nice to meet you. I'm Ivy.

    Happy Gaming :-)

    PS: I can't poop in front of others. So I guess, I'd be left behind.

  9. I handle this in a somewhat abstract way - I use Survival or Luck rolls to see who specifically triggers a random encounter or other hazard on a journey, and people are closer to or farther from the action depending on their checks.

    For example, I had a party in 2e traveling through the Underdark for days on end. They each had an underdark survuval NWP they had learned from some svirfneblin. Each day, everyone made a check, and bad failures were faced with hazards (saving throw to not fall down a crevice and break a leg, for example) or triggering wandering monster encounters (you went to take a dump behind a roper, it's angry).

    Sometimes specific players would indicate that they were going to make it a habit to stick close to a more accident-prone member of the group, which was certainly fine.

  10. I wouldn't have parties be drastically out of sight or scattered long distances from one another; even if someone is doing it behind a stump, you can usually see the top of their head or a part of their leg. 10 yards is an excellent distance, as it still means six hexes away (two rounds to join fight). If people are each straggled out five yards apart, so that the first round or two is a single person, then two people, then three ... that's the sort of dynamic I see.

  11. That definitely sounds like a reasonable and appropriate dynamic for a group not expecting to encounter hostile creatures, or one which has been trekking for a couple of weeks with no sign of dangerous creatures.

    If they are expecting possible hostile creatures, strung out at 5yd intervals is a bit far for pre-gunpowder days. Maybe rangers armed with bows would string out like that too.

    Or maybe I'm guilty of seeing successful (surviving and wary) adventurers as being too closely akin to a military unit.

  12. I really did consider writing a post about your last statement, about how even military units didn't behave in 'military' fashion until the l8th century, when Frederick the Great started training his Prussians in tactics. Most battles prior to that time might have certain units on the field that were somewhat organized, but those units were small and were certainly not the norm.

    I don't know where the idea comes from that a thief, a mage or a druid have any conception whatsoever of military discipline, except in the mindsets of players who are very used to small unit tactics in the other tabletop wargames they play. Naturally, they want to apply those tactics to D&D characters, however out of character that might be. I am guilty of that myself, when it comes to it, particularly in the playing I have done lately in my daughter's world.

    But the default position for characters MUST be in line with their actual training: weapons, horseback riding and melee for fighters, but NOT small unit tactics vis a vis the Prussian army. Even the advanced training manuals the Dutch developed in the 16th century (which the Swedes used) were based on weapons' use, NOT tactics. And most worlds are not set as late as the 1590s. (Mine is, but just after the 30 Years War, which was a brawling mess).

    I'm glad, though, that I decided not to write the post.

  13. Thanks for the response, Alexis. I definitely agree that falling by default into tactics suited to a wargame is a common failing of proper characterization. There's certainly no good justification for my journeyman thief to behave like he's memorized the standing orders for Rogers' Rangers.

    That said, one might expect characters to get in a habit of walking closely together after a couple of ambushes have hit them while spread out. Which was what I was getting at with that "surviving and wary" parenthetical aside. Do you adjust your figures based on level of experience, or other factors relating to the characters' past experience?

  14. Alexis, how do you determine who is where when the party is spread out and an encounter does happen?


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact alexiss1@telus.net with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.