On the Dispersion During Travel

There is an excellent post here, on The Tao of D&D which resonated very strongly with me. The general sense of the post is that when people travel, they don't do it in rigid formation - especially  in formations where each person is standing right next to each other. (i.e. if they were to reach their arms out towards each other, they would overlap).

I've been in the military, and even when running in formation, there is pretty substantial give and take in just a two mile run. By 'pretty substantial give and take' I mean at no time was I consistently within 5' of the person who was supposed to be right next to me. On average I could have been anywhere between 5'-15' from them, and there were several points during the runs where it could have been even further than that - and this is not to begin to address the random variances in the distances of the people ahead or behind me which were much greater.  People get spread out and separated, and this is with a group of people who's job it is to specifically travel in a group, and live, eat, shower, and drill together to work as a unit.

The most recent time I (and other people at my table) traveled in the wilderness went on an 8 hour float and we often weren't in sight of each other then. And let me tell you, there was no small amount of risk on that float. It's just the nature of outdoor travel.

When this suggestion was brought up at the table, everyone was amiable to giving it a try. When they saw the effects of the result, an uproar was raised! This is unpossible! they said. I respectfully disagree, and this is why.

If you have a group of people who's individuality is literally drilled out of them so they can respond to orders without thinking and engage in all activities as a unit, march less than an hour and have distances between any one person and the group be over 100' at times, why is it realistic to assume in a game which models fantasy heroes (Elric, Fahard and the Grey Mouser, Cudgel, Conan, Gandalf) that they would stay in some formation when traversing the wilderness? Especially at a distance that's already incredibly close when standing still?

Now there were several arguments made:
One was "There is some chance that I would still be in 'formation'." I explained my multi-part response to this at the table. First, if you stay in formation and everyone else moves, what advantage is there to having stayed in formation? A chance of being on the square you started on in no way alters the final result. Now, I agree that having the random fluctuation without the starting square being a landing point is valid. It's a byproduct of using the grenade scatter rules without a to hit roll. (This actually gives me an idea.)

Second, this method (roll grenade scatter dice) of scattering the party does not objectively model your formation! It isn't at all related to any specific action you take to stay 'in formation' any more then a roll to hit in 1st edition D&D models any individual sword thrust, or hit points model physical health, or saving throws model how you avoid the damage. It is random, and the explanations for why things were that way come after the result is discovered. (Discussed . . . uh, apparently I only wrote that post in my head. Expect it to actually be written soon.)

Another argument that was presented is "It reduces the effectiveness of the player characters!"
Ok, first - well duh, that's the point! Second, if you take a gnome, put him in heavy armor, and then complain that it takes him forever to get into combat if he's not standing right next to the people he's supposed to heal, the solution to that is to accept the consequence of gnome+heavy armor, not say it's unfair when you are unable to engineer the situation 100% of the time so that it doesn't become a factor.

Another argument was "But the wilderness is filled with dangerous creatures! We'd never let our guard down." Again, this is provable false, as evidenced by the behavior of men in war zones. When the threat of death is constant, it's only a matter of time till it becomes normalized or you crack. When the first shot is fired, there isn't a fire team alive that's in perfect position, and they are just going on patrol, not marching 20+ miles a day.

Now, clearly when exploring a dungeon, or other small, confined, indoor, or exceptionally dangerous place I'm not interesting in screwing around with their formation much - the time and space scale are both smaller. But this is days of travel outside! The vast majority of encounters are with animals or other tribes. All of the bad things to date that have happened in the wilderness have occurred when we A) weren't using this system, and B) when the players were specifically aggressive against neutral forest animals (who happened to be able to spit acid, but what can you do? Neutral not in regards to alignment, but reaction.) It certainly isn't like they are constantly being attacked by dragons - it's more like they spent 10 hours walking and only saw one or two animal groups interesting or hostile enough to be of note.

One thing that I could have done, is make it more clear that yes, they could indeed cut their daily travel down to 1/5 of what it was and have a greater chance of traveling in "formation". I'm not entirely sure that this improves the situation however. The way we play, this would give them 5 wandering monster checks per 2 miles of travel (three of which are at night), instead of 13 checks for 10 miles of travel (three of which are at night). Making them cover 10 miles in five days with 25 checks instead of in one day with 13. (These numbers are a little off of the average D&D travel numbers, but they are internally consistent for our game).

This comes down to the fact that it authentically makes wilderness travel dangerous in a creative way. It makes sense why they would protest - it's dangerous! So is life and travel. From the original post - with which I agree 100%.

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. 
 I'm not sure that the language is strong enough there. Absurd perhaps.

 The reason that the suggestion resonates most strongly for me is that it improves play in every way. It forces the players to be more creative, it increases the risk in encounters making them more exciting, and it's more interesting then the same unrealistic formation the party is in when they travel.


  1. From someone who was at the gameDecember 17, 2010 at 9:51 AM

    I have to say, as someone who was actually at the table for this (and other) discussions, I'm getting a little tired of seeing any disagreements we have twisted around into straw man arguments and propped up here for bashing.

    I'm not going to try and go through every point in a comment, but I do want to point out one in particular, the bit about a "gnome and heavy armor." In Hackmaster 4 out of the 10 races have a base 6 movement (Dwarf, Halfling, Gnome, and Gnomeling), giving them at most a movement of 3 if they are wearing medium armor or carrying more than a light load. Two of the major classes (Fighter and Cleric) typically wear heavy armor, which will reduce even one of the faster moving races to a movement of 4.

    The argument wasn't that it was unfair to "Reduce the effectiveness of the player characters!" the point being made was that because the random movement was so large (potentially separating characters by 20+ steps) it was often enough to put anyone wearing heavy armor or a slower race out of combat for the entire duration of the fight.

    I can't speak for everyone else at the table, but I felt like it was a little ridiculous to basically tell anyone that wanted to play a slower character they would now have to sit out half the combat encounters with nothing to do because we were going to start using a house-rule based on an argument for realism ("Real formations don't move this way!") in a game that you have repeatedly noted is mostly about abstraction.

    What we were then arguing for as an alternative was simply a smaller random deviation (so that at least when someone gets pushed way out of the way they have time to get back into the fight before combat is over) and a chance that at least some members of the party (1/3 or 1/2) remain close to their original formation (so that there is actually some point to choosing a formation in the first place).

    Neither of which seems particularly unreasonable (again, to me at least) when it's not distorted into an insulting straw man.

  2. Well, as we've discussed before, it's a personal blog. It's not intended as bashing, as much as a formal outlining of my position, as well of my experiences for sharing with others participating in old school play. Also: I believe you're familiar with my penchant for inflammatory rhodomentade.

    The post is light on specifics, and I believe we both agreed that a d10 for dispersion was too large, as well as the oddness for not being able to be in your starting square.

    As far as "sitting out the whole combat", that's precipitated on the assumption that your dispersion will remove you from the conflict, which may in fact be the opposite of what occurs.

    I also thing there is a valid tactical space for formations that don't involve everyone 5' from each other - but rather ones that spread the party out a bit, which is a bit more likely in an actual wilderness scenario.

    I found some actual data!

    It says the average distance between units marching on a road in a column is between 5' and 25'. Of course this is for trained soldiers, and what not.

    If the original article on The Tao of D&D is read, I find it interesting that his expected response to this change is indeed the response generated. I stand by my points.

  3. Also: There's a misunderstanding of the armor bulk rules I think.

    If you would not be hampered by armor, and your armor is fairly bulky it reduces your movement by 3/4 (i.e. 4.5" for a move of 6" or 9" for a move of 12") and if it is bulky it reduces your movement by 2/3 (i.e. 3.5" for 6" or 7" for 12") so not as bad as thought.

    The real issue for the gnome in question is his strength, iirc.

  4. Someone from the gameDecember 18, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    I know how we resolved the whole d10 issue at the table, my annoyance wasn't (mostly) that you were being unreasonable as a DM, my annoyance was in the way you chose to present things here (in particular the way you kind of put words in our mouths by distorting the positions we had taken.)

    Good to know the armor bulk rules (which, as far as I know, are not found in the Hackmaster PHB, just in the DMG, so that's all new info to me.) When it had come up at the table you just said it was "equivalent to moderate or heavy encumbrance." (Which would be 1/2 or 1/4 normal speed, as opposed to 3/4 or 2/3.)

    One last point, you said our response being the same as that suggested in the Tao of D&D article, but having read the article it only vaguely resembles what the article talks about, and only if you accept your very distorted version of what we were saying.

    The two points mentioned in the article ("We're never going to leave each others side, not even for a second to use the bathroom" and "We're always going to wait for anyone that slows down to catch up, no matter how slowly we move") were never anything we brought up, though you keep trying to frame it in that manner.

    Our main arguments were that the scale of the random scatter was excessive and that it was unrealistic for everyone to be scattered every time instead of having some chance for a portion of the party to remain in formation.

  5. Someone from the gameDecember 18, 2010 at 1:50 PM

    *you said our response was the same.

    Apologies for the sentence editing failure.

  6. I only just came across this, from the link posted on Zak's blog.

    My only comment is in regards to the apparent democratic insistence that everyone in the party somehow has an inalienable right to be at every combat. Too bad that you've found yourself so far out of the formation that this one is going to be fought without you. Obviously, the next combat might begin with you as the center, and others not being able to be part of that ... in which case your heavy armor will serve you well.

    C made this point obliquely, but I thought I should make it more clear.

  7. I think it is an inaccurate claim that a small group of people traveling together cross-country are unable to keep a reasonably close spacing to one another. As an example, on a multi-day hike I was on with two other friends, the average spacing for our _entire_ group was about thirty feet - that is, there was roughly 10' on average between any two people. We were close enough to hold branches out of the way for each other, steady each other after a slip or stumble, etc.

    If a bunch of amateur hikers can hold their pee until group breaks, keep close enough to talk and engage with each other during the hike, and still make 6+ miles a day, I see no reason why a highly trained and motivated group of people couldn't do the same.

    Now, as a counter, I have been on larger group hikes with the group split over an hour apart, but I think that was due more to the differing motivations of the group (ie, the leaders were experienced hikers looking to make time, there was a large group of first-time hikers, some were sight-seeing, etc.) I would except a group of adventurers who risk their lives together to have rather more cohesive travel motivations.

  8. There is a large difference between a three person group and one with eight or more people.

    What's more - that 10' average you mentioned is the distance talked about above. That thirty feet is six squares distant, which is exactly the type of random dispersion mentioned in this post.

    Also: If you're familiar with the source of picaresque adventurers D&D represents, you would know that these are not highly trained and motivated military men - they are individual looters who's jobs basically involve killing people and taking their stuff. What's more, having been in the military, people marching in formation have an even greater variance in distances described above during a forced march - and yes that is through wartime territory, where an enemy is actively seeking to kill them.

    Frankly, the matter has little to do with realism. It is more dangerous for there to be a random element in the setup - one which provides actual consequences for the drawbacks selected during character creation.

    A players expectation that everything should always break their way, or that they should participate in every single combat is selfish and petty, not to mention unrealistic. The longer I've had to think about this, the more specious the arguments become.

  9. I read a book about the SAS in Malaya. Given the creeping about the jungle there, the constant issue was not being spread out, it was bunching up and thus being vulnerable to a burst of automatic weapons fire. These were elite troops doing precisely what they had been trained for, and it was still a problem for them at times.

    There was an incident in the invasion of Panama where a number of Navy SEALs were shot by one guy with an AK-47 as they ran across a runway bunched together. Again, elite troops in an actual combat operation, and they used a bad formation and paid for it.

  10. On a wilderness trek along a road or track, I wouldn't spread the PCs out more than 10' between them at the start of combat, unless they had actually requested to be further apart. And unless the group is surprised, I typically assume that they can and do bunch up into close formation before the init roll, so eg last Monday the PCs were on horses on a road, when they spotted a suspicious temple and heard a scream. I had them bunched up to 10' (using 10'x10' 'horse' counters) in a formation two riders across and three or four deep (with pony mounted dwarf fighter lagging behind at the back!) >:), before we went into combat mode with the initiative rolls.


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