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I have been looking into setting up an adventure in the wilderness for our table, where there is an element of being chased and the party is purposely trying to outrun and outsmart their chasers.

Background: The party is travelling north to a distant town through the wilderness. The party is lucky enough to bump into a friendly NPC who lets them know that a large band of Orcs have been on the move and they are tracking the party - they are about 2 days behind. The party does not know that the band or Orcs has a Half-Orc Ranger/Rogue in their midst whose favoured enemies are various humanoids and who has expertise in Survival.

The idea is that the band of Orcs will eventually find the party: if the party are caught out in the wilderness, they will have a tougher battle to handle; whereas, if they make it to within 5 miles of the town, they will have help either from a small group of local hunters or the town guards.

So far, I can use the information on Tracking (DMG, p. 244) to set a DC for the Band of Orcs, or more specifically the Half-Orc tracker. The terrain is a mixuture of woodland and grassland. I used the guideline in the DMG for tracking over "dirt or grass": DC 15 Wisdom (Survival). The band of Orcs are 2 days behind so that is +10 difficulty (+5 for each day). This is a total of DC 25.

Now, the only thing I'm struggling with is how to determine a fair penalty (or bonus) to the check according to the party's actions and their own survival skills.

By RAW, what I can see is that the awareness of being tracked and any subsequent actions the party takes do not realy matter. So the tracker's dice roll is the only thing that matters. But, this makes for a very boring track, chase and capture (or escape) adventure.

My thoughts are that, if the party are well aware that they are being hunted, they will keep up the pace and avoid leaving tracks where possible. I will ask the party to describe what actions they are taking to avoid being tracked, e.g. walking up a stream for an hour, not lighting open fires, not leaving traces of food, etc.

I think it is fair that the party has the option of making a Wisdom (Survival) check to avoid being tracked.

I intend to set the DC according the terrain table (DMG, p.244) but in reverse to show the difficult in covering their tracks:

  • DC 20 - soft surface such as snow
  • DC 15 - dirt or grass
  • DC 10 - bare stone

So, in this case I have set a DC 15 check as it is woodland and grassland - however, it may snow overnight at one point and then I might use a DC 20 instead.

I am going to use the Group Checks rules (PHB, p.175) so that once per day they whole party rolls for a Survival check.

The adjustments I intend to use for the Half-Orc tracker's Wisdom (Survival) check are as follows:

  • If more than half the party succeed with an average of 5 above the DC, then I will add +5
  • If half, or more than half the party succeed, then I will add +2
  • If more than half fail, then I will take away -2
  • If more than half the party fails with an average of 5 below the DC, then I will take away -5

I am looking for an answer that addresses the idea of a balanced bonus or penalty for the check from DMs with lived experience in adjudicating this type of scenario; or, even better, any rules from the 5e official published adventures where there is a section where the party is being tracked.

I found this related topic from 3.5: Are there rules as written for counter tracking?

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    \$\begingroup\$ nitpick ‐ what if Exactly Hal isf successful and other half fail? \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    May 15 at 21:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot Good point - thanks for pointing this out. Normally if the result meets a check or is higher it succeeds, so I've amended this to reflect that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    May 16 at 9:12
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It's too complicated and probably unnecessary

Stacking +2/-2 bonuses was a prominent thing in previous versions of the game. The fifth edition tends to simplify all the math, replacing bonuses with Advantage/Disadvantage mechanics, which are not used here. But that isn't the main problem.

I think it is fair that the party has the option of making a Wisdom (Survival) check to avoid being tracked.

This might be a frame challenge, but I have to say it — a DM doesn't need house rules in order to allow options which are not described in the source books.

In 5e party is not supposed to choose actions from a particular list, like in a computer game. Especially in out-of-combat situations. That's how the 3.x paradigm works, but it is no longer the case in 5e. Instead, the rules explicitly expect making rulings from the DM. Players describe what they want to do, and the DM narrates the results.

So let's say your party is going through the wilderness. They are aware of the fact they are being hunted.

The dialog with the DM might go like this:

— The orcs are after us. Can we hide out traces?
— You can certainly try. How exactly do you do that?
— Well, we could hide the most obvious ones. Cover up tracks, don't leave food leftovers... We should also go through a stream of water on occasion.
— That might work, but it will slow your down a bit. The success is also not guaranteed — I'll ask for a group Wisdom (Survival) check with the DC of 15.
— Sounds fine. Let's do that!

This is called a ruling, which are preferable over rules in 5e. Compare this to:

— The orcs are after us. Can we hide out traces?
— No, because the books has no rules for that.
— But we could cover up tracks or go through water...
— You could, but according to the rules, this doesn't change the DC for the orcs. Therefore, your actions will change nothing.

This is a less preferable style of DMing, because player agency is usually a good thing.

Don't roll off-screen, let the players roll instead

I suggest not to roll off-screen too much. The whole "roll for the orcs" approach can be probably replaced with more player-oriented mechanics. In other words, let the players roll for themselves instead of DM rolling for monsters off-screen.

Let's take the example above — if players succeed the check, they see proper results of their actions and the orcs don't get the advantage. But if they failed, the DM describes wasted time and poor results, and the most logical outcome happens — the orcs catches up the party the next day. Both results are direct consequences of the players' choice.

On the contrary, let's say we want to be "as much RAW as possible" and treat all NPC with the same rules as the players. So the party have to roll for covering up tracks (and if we don't make a ruling for some reason, then firstly we have to introduce a house rule for that). Then orcs roll for tracking, so for one particular outcome we have two rolls instead of one. Moreover, the second roll is hidden, the player don't see it so they can't visibly appraise the impact of their actions. As the result, we spend a lot of time for doing things which make the game more boring, albeit (arguably) more "realistic" from the simulationist perspective.

The exact check may vary

Now, the interesting thing is — asking for a particular group check isn't the only option. The party's course of action defines the choice of game mechanics, not vice versa. That's why rulings are preferable. A party Druid could remember all the rivers in this forest, big and little, and roll for Intelligence to find one. Or a Ranger player could state "I'm proficient in tracking, so I presumably know how to double back. I lead you the way they won't find us" and roll Wisdom (Survival) for the whole party. Or there can be no dice roll at all — there is a river on the map, the party was supposed to go across a bridge, but they decided to ford the river and confuse the orcs.

See DMG "The Role of Dice" for RAW

DMG actually suggest not using dice at all in out-of-combat situations:

One approach is to use dice as rarely as possible. Some DMs use them only during combat, and determine success or failure as they like in other situations.

With this approach, the DM decides whether an action or a plan succeeds or fails based on how well the players make their case, how thorough or creative they are, or other factors.

DMG p. 236 The Role of Dice

Covering up tracks seems like a good candidate for the criteria described: "how well the players make their case, how thorough or creative they are".

Basically you present your players with a choice — spend more time but cover their tracks, or be in time but attract the orcs. The players just decide what do they want, no dice roll required.

So the players could trade time for their own safety. This might be a tough choice because time should matter in TRPG, but this is a different story.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In other words, the system is basically "to do a thing that isn't specifically listed in the handbook, agree on which skill the thing counts as, how difficult it is, and what would logically be the results of succeeding, then roll accordingly and if you win you successfully do the thing and get the results." Those ARE the rules-as-written, so you don't even need to call this a house rule. \$\endgroup\$
    – A. B.
    May 16 at 2:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks @enkryptor - good points. I guess it's not that I need a house-rule for but I would like one. Saying that, maybe I'm trying to be too "mathematical" or rigid about this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    May 16 at 9:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ I admit I might force my own playstyle here. That wasn't my intent. There is nothing inherently wrong with applying additional bonuses or making more dice rolls. If this doesn't impede your games, if this makes games more fun, it's absolutely fine. What I am trying to say is that people overvalue game balance. They think all the rules are infused with it like with a superpower, and if they follow the described mechanics as strictly as possible, the game magically becomes more fun. But that's not the case. Mechanics don't make games fun, DMs do. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    May 16 at 10:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's also worth pointing out that there are things that the players can do that make it impossible for them to be tracked, like the spell "Pass without Trace". If they have access to this spell, they can have periods of 1+ hours (depending on how many times they cast the spell) of magically hidden and untrackable passage \$\endgroup\$
    – illustro
    May 17 at 0:47
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The thing you are describing is a normal group Survival check

Your question mentions the "Group Checks rules", but let me quote the relevant rules:

When a number of individuals are trying to accomplish something as a group, the GM might ask for a group ability check. In such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren’t. To make a group ability check, everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds.

In your situation, I recommend not rolling for the orc tracker. Instead, use his passive survival skill. From the same link as above:

A passive check is a special kind of ability check that doesn’t involve any die rolls. Such a check can represent the average result for a task done repeatedly, such as searching for secret doors over and over again, or can be used when the GM wants to secretly determine whether the characters succeed at something without rolling dice, such as noticing a hidden monster. Here’s how to determine a character’s total for a passive check: 10 + all modifiers that normally apply to the check

In 5e, we're very used to the "passive perception" score, and there's also a box on the character sheet for "passive investigation". But any skill can be a passive skill. In this case, because the orc tracker is so far away, and because the player characters will never even see the tracking roll, the orc's tracking is best modeled as a passive score.

It's good that you're using the Group Checks rules, but then you list a bunch of homebrew modifiers, and you're planning to call for a new roll every day. I agree with enkryptor that this is too complicated. Just figure out the DC for the group's check (based on the orc's passive tracking skill) and have everyone roll once. If at least half the group succeeds then they get the bonus from being close to the town; otherwise they don't.

Think about other things the group might do

You've told us that you want to call for a group Survival check to conceal their tracks, but keep in mind that "try to conceal their tracks" isn't the only thing the group might do. It would be bad to focus so much on this one approach that you railroad the group into doing it.

If I told a group that they were being tracked by orcs, I'd expect them to immediately tell me that the druid or ranger casts pass without trace, which makes them completely impossible to track for an hour. They could potentially use several slots to cast this, making them untrackable for their entire journey. You should think about what you'll do if that happens. Do the orcs figure out their destination based on their general direction and head to the town to intercept them? Or do the orcs just leave, and the group skips that battle?

Another good response to being tracked by orcs might be: "okay, we're going to force-march to the town, going as fast as we can. The orcs are two days behind us and there's no way they can make up that much time on us before we get to the town." Think about what you will do if that happens. Clearly a group Survival check would be inappropriate. Would you ask for a group Endurance check for force marching? Perhaps some Fatigue levels, for both them and the orcs? Or would you just concede that the orcs don't catch them (and perhaps they lie in wait for when the group leaves the town later)?

I've run games in the past where I told the group that something was hunting them, and they responded: "we're going to look for a fortified location, like a cave or a chokepoint, and we're going to do the fight with a terrain advantage." When they do that, I generally ask for a Survival check to find a good defensive spot, and depending on the check result I let them narrate more or fewer features of their chosen battleground. (Occasionally someone gets a very good result and I just hand them the marker and say "okay, draw the whole map".) This works well and my players seem to like it.

Be willing to adapt to what the group does

You've told us: "The idea is that the band of Orcs will eventually find the party". I find this worrisome because it sounds like you're planning to force this encounter to happen even if the players take an approach that should avoid it.

If the group finds a way to avoid the encounter -- perhaps pass without trace, perhaps the forced march, perhaps some other approach -- you should be prepared to skip or postpone the orc battle and move to the next challenge on your list. Your players will like you more if you do this.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for pointing out passive skills. I often consider this for Perception - because it comes up quite often in adventures, but hadn't thought about it with regards to Survival. \$\endgroup\$
    – Senmurv
    May 16 at 9:16
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You have made the situation overly complicated by inverting it. Instead of the protagonists, you have the Half-orc Tracker take the agentic role in the situation, while his opposition and situation provide him a DC for his roll.

These are precisely the rules of D&D, for the most part - but the players are the protagonists, not your NPC! So, they should be the one making the Survival rolls to avoid the negative outcome, which is the unassisted fight. In this new way of thinking about it, the half-orc's efforts provide the DC to the protagonists, who are rolling. Protags should generally be the ones taking risks and rolling dice (and thereby understanding consequence and feeling it fair!), and NPCs' efforts should generally be represented by DCs.

You can also choose to represent the contest as an opposed roll between the party and the half-orc. This is a good way to handle the situation, as well, because it still keeps the players involved and feeling like their efforts and ideas matter (because they do!).

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The PHB gives options for travelling in the "activity while travelling" section. On top of the "marching order" the additional option is "stealth". Stealth is slipping away without being noticed.

While travelling at a slow pace, the characters can move stealthily. As long as they’re not in the open, they can try to surprise or sneak by other creatures they encounter.

Slow pace is 2/3 so the orcs will catch up (for your encounter) but the party will have advantage on the tracker survival rolls vs stealth. No need for so many DCs, this is 5e so simplistic, you will have a stealth vs survival roll, they have a tracker, your party is aware and covering tracks - a straight contest.

It is an adventure though, the party could do all sorts of things, play it out, let them set a trap, let them escape if they want to (if the encounter has a macguffin for the adventure then have the orcs set a rearguard, who falls asleep etc therefore rewarding the players and letting you get the macguffin in the game)

Sometimes it is the spoken word that is best rather than a DC15+ advantage vs DC10 with disadvantage (with the party forgetting their human platemail "stealth is for sneaky hobbits" character etc).

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Bounded Accuracy makes this a bad idea

Fifth edition largely replaces flat bonuses/penalties with Advantage/Disadvantage to prevent the numerical inflation present in earlier editions. With the many ways of gaining Advantage, flat bonuses for the party (penalties to the tracker) could be gamed with relatively little effort

Make it a Skill Challenge

While squarely in the land of homebrew and house rules, I've done 5e skill challenges as both player and DM in situations such as this.

In your scenario, certain options are at odds with each other: how do you move more quickly and more stealthily at the same time? Some characters might be able to do both (eg, Barbarian-Rogue multiclass, Wizard with Fly and Invisibility), but characters optimized for different purposes will not only be left out, they'll slow down the group as a whole.

Instead, allow players' strengths to complement each other, and encourage them to get creative.

  • Barbarian Bob makes an Athletics check to carry Halfling Hugh, whose little legs can't keep up with the rest of the party
  • Druid Dan judiciously uses Create Water to wash away footprints, giving Ranger Rick advantage on his Survival checks to conceal the trail they leave behind

Ultimately, the number of successes vs. failures determine the consequences: in this case, at what point the orcs catch up with them.

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