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The Dungeon Master's Guide (pp. 86-92) states the maximum spot distance for each terrain type. In the Player's Handbook under the Spot skill entry (p. 83) it states the the DM may call for a Spot check to determine encounter distance.

I have read differing opinions on how exactly this is supposed to work... Do you assume that the parties are moving directly towards one another, or does travel direction not play any part under RAW? In other words, once you have reached the max distance from the DMG, how does a spot and/or listen check determine distance?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Don't add raw tag if you are willing to accept house rules, please. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Jul 25 '17 at 22:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Molot I edited my post, house rules were only an after-thought. \$\endgroup\$ – Randy Jul 25 '17 at 22:37
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Starting an encounter is never spelled out explicitly nor are there any concrete examples I'm aware of. However, you can piece together rules on Hide/Spot, Move Silently/Listen, Stealth and Detection in a [environment], Surprise and How Combat Works to come up with a method something like:

First, determine if anyone is hiding. If no one is hiding, you can skip to step 3 of How Combat Works when line of sight is obtained.

Determine if Spot or Listen is possible and if so at what distance based on environment. Walls or obstructions may prevent Spot and hinder Listen, while the absence of cover or concealment prevents Hide.

Roll Hide/Spot Move/Listen for everyone involved and add modifiers for distance. Technically, you could roll this over and over until someone is aware or you could just modify the distance until at least someone is aware based on one set of rolls, provided at least one side is closing.

If at least one creature is aware from each side, and at least one creature is unaware, a surprise round ensues. Until then, aware creatures can act freely, or start the surprise round by attacking.

Freely, with the caveat that anything that alerts the other side is going to change the underlying premise; that only one side is aware, thus a surprise round ensues. If you roll initiative while only one side is aware, that's OK, but you're going to have the possibility of multiple surprise rounds, which may be awkward.

The three previous paragraphs are implicitly mentioned in step 2 of how combat works.

How Combat Works Combat is cyclical; everybody acts in turn in a regular cycle of rounds. Combat follows this sequence:

  1. Each combatant starts out flat-footed. Once a combatant acts, he or she is no longer flat-footed.
    1. Determine which characters are aware of their opponents at the start of the battle. If some but not all of the combatants are aware of their opponents, a surprise round happens before regular rounds of combat begin. The combatants who are aware of the opponents can act in the surprise round, so they roll for initiative. In initiative order (highest to lowest), combatants who started the battle aware of their opponents each take one action (either a standard action or a move action) during the surprise round. Combatants who were unaware do not get to act in the surprise round. If no one or everyone starts the battle aware, there is no surprise round.
    2. Combatants who have not yet rolled initiative do so. All combatants are now ready to begin their first regular round of combat.
    3. Combatants act in initiative order (highest to lowest).
    4. When everyone has had a turn, the combatant with the highest initiative acts again, and steps 4 and 5 repeat until combat ends.

If the environment is a dungeon, due to additional Listen modifiers from walls and doors and the inability to Spot due to lack of line of sight, encounter distances are typically closer than outdoors and generally creatures will hear before they see enemies. Outdoors, encounters can start much further, depending on the terrain. If there is no cover or concealment, or no one hears anyone else, then once line of sight is obtained, you can just skip to step 3.

Do you assume that the parties are moving directly towards one another, or does travel direction not play any part under RAW rules?

The direction the party is moving is up to the party, and the direction of the enemy up to the DM (you).

In other words, once you have reached the max distance from the DMG, how does a spot and/or listen check determine distance?

Spot and Listen does not determine distance, rather, a roll based on environment (or better, your judgement based on terrain features or lack thereof) determines the maximum distance at which two opposing groups have a chance of spotting a hidden opponent (Spot/Hide). Beyond this, the groups can't see each other. If neither group see each other at the maximum distance and at least one group is closing distance, the distance modifiers will change as they move and eventually someone will see an enemy.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ technically, no: the "aware" side can, with notice, do "stuff" before combat starts; regardless, they get a surprise round when combat starts. As I read it, basically anything that would break invisibility would also start combat, so the "aware way ahead" side could buff and signal reinforcements and such to their hearts' content, but the first arrow fired starts combat and their side's surprise round. (per d20srd.org/srd/combat/initiative.htm : "If some but not all of the combatants are aware of their opponents, a surprise round happens before regular rounds begin.") \$\endgroup\$ – minnmass Jul 31 '17 at 21:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Right: only one side A is aware, so they get ready to fire on the Oblivious side O; A gets a surprise round before O can respond. That surprise round (in which all-and-only members of A can act) starts combat. But, before they start combat (read: start the surprise round), they can do other stuff (like buffing themselves). On the other hand, if (as is quite common), neither side is aware of the other (eg., after kicking in the door), no one on either side is aware of the other, so there is no surprise round. Ambushes hurt. \$\endgroup\$ – minnmass Jul 31 '17 at 21:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @minnmass is correct. The game really wants initiative rolled, like, all the time. See Starting an Encounter on One Side Aware First, specifically the paragraph beginning, "Other times, the aware side has a few rounds to prepare" (Dungeon Master's Guide 22). \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 31 '17 at 21:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair enough; I can see how the edit was not entirely clear, and the current wording is better. \$\endgroup\$ – minnmass Aug 1 '17 at 14:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @minnmass - Thanks! Clearly it needed updating! \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Aug 1 '17 at 17:15

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