This question inspired by this rather grognardian post over on the Tao of D&D.

Functionally, the post asserts:

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 that they're characters would go off to be alone behind a bush so they could pee.

Issues that this question should address:

  • Calculation of speed penalties
  • Starting positions as a function of speed penalty chosen
  • Ways to get player buy-in
  • Consequences of the same behaviour on monsters.

The question is: what is an interesting and fun way to handle the natural spread of adventurers while travelling from a 4th edition perspective?

I just am trying to figure out how to map "naturalistic hiking" and spreading tendencies to the typical "we move as a 2x3 block of death for the next 10 hours" 4e travel.

  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ Before you you make a sub-system for calculating their overland travel rates you need to remember to make time matter. If they don't have a deadline, the players can frolic through the hills at whatever pace suits them. When you tell them they need to be in the capital in three days, they'll cut the slack. Tell them they need to be in the capital in three days but they're five away and they're powergame up a way to be there in two. \$\endgroup\$
    – valadil
    Commented Dec 8, 2010 at 14:32

8 Answers 8


From a 4th Edition perspective, none of this is interesting.

You're talking about stuff that happens between the encounters, where the rules are largely silent. Role-play, have fun, whatever -- but don't get stuck on how to handle it with rules.

4th Edition PCs are heroes. They don't have to worry about where to pee. They don't have to worry about how far to space themselves while traveling overland.

If you're suggesting ways to separate the party so that some of its members don't get to participate in a combat encounter, this is particularly not interesting--especially to the players who watch helplessly from the sidelines.

Let them travel how they like and get them to the next encounter quickly.

Wilderness Experience

My personal hiking experience suggests that you can be hundreds of feet from one another and still have line of sight, hear them, or at least have a good idea where they are. This depends on tree density, brush density, and terrain.

Old forest can be surprisingly sparse under the trees, where the upper leaves block light and kill ground cover. Dried leaves and twigs produce an unmistakable crunching sound that gives you away for surprising distances. Young forest has more small trees and bushes.

Some of the densest wilderness I've been in was wet scrub, with six-foot-high bushes and grasses. The ground is soft but not necessarily mucky and the grasses camouflage you well. You could easily lose your friends in that.

People who know far better than I

Take a look at some of these links, which deal with squad tactics for modern soldiers. Some of these formations separate groups of soldiers by 10-50 meters.

If PCs are traveling overland and not expecting constant contact with the enemy, then they will probably spread out to around 10 meters between PCs (or about 5 squares), as visibility permits. In jungle or other extremely difficult terrain, PCs might have to go single file, but you'd still put reasonable distance between them.

Make it a Skill Challenge

4E already has a way to handle the stuff between encounters: skill challenges. Don't create a new subsystem; use the one the game already has.

I assume there's a reason they want to stick together. Determine if they manage to get where they need to go and maintain group cohesion via the skill challenge rules. If they fail, they get separated. Anyone who fails a roll in the skill challenge can end up separated from the group by N squares during the vital encounter.

The skill challenge probably has Nature and Stealth as primary skills. A player might make a good case for using Perception, Athletics, and Endurance as secondary skills. Insight or Diplomacy might help draw players back to the group fold.

All this leads into a wilderness encounter of some sort. Success at the skill challenge means getting to place characters in a reasonable place on the map. Failure means one or more characters are separated from the group, possibly to their great disadvantage. Perhaps they get ambushed and overwhelmed. Perhaps it takes them one or more rounds to catch up to the rest of the group.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the reason he's worrying about it is for encounters that occur during the journey. In other words, he doesn't want every wilderness encounter to occur with all the PCs clumped together in a six by three square. \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Commented Dec 8, 2010 at 14:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see. I wouldn't worry about this, really. Put the map down and tell the players to set up on one end of it. If they clump together all the time, hit them with a fireball or other area attack. \$\endgroup\$
    – Adam Dray
    Commented Dec 8, 2010 at 14:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AdamDray then go answer a question you do find interesting. It's bad form to answer people's questions with "you don't want to do that." You may play 4e a specific way, but obviously the question is asking how to incorporate a particular bit of simulation, not whether it's a good idea. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Dec 8, 2010 at 19:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ I did, 35 minutes before your comment. I answered in the context of his question, which specifically said, "The question is: what is an interesting and fun way to handle the natural spread of adventurers while travelling from a 4th edition perspective?" When I first answered, I thought that rejecting the frame of the question was the best answer. From a 4E perspective, you hand-wave the stuff in between the encounters, unless you're engaging with the skill challenge system, but simulationist minutiae is not part of "the 4E perspective." \$\endgroup\$
    – Adam Dray
    Commented Dec 8, 2010 at 20:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @peter 4E as written avoids simulationism; it's extremely gamist, chock full of rules minutiae, but not detailed simulation. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented Aug 13, 2011 at 16:06

The tendency of hikers to spread (or lack thereof) has a lot to do with WHY they are hiking.

Modern recreational hikers tend to spread because they can do so safely, and part of the enjoyment for many is being out of sight of other people; the earshot rule is a matter of safety, but very lax, and in most places people hike, large predators are long since past endangered, and most have been selected for fear of people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But modern recreational hikers are not a good representation of adventuring parties in hostile wilderness.

Most hunting parties, on the other hand, stick close together, at least until the prey is spotted. This is to reduce the risks from the prey, from one another's weapons, and from other predators. Generally, such a group stays within a couple yards of each other, staying clearly within one another's sight ranges. Many use hand signals once prey is spotted, reinforcing the need for short ranges.

A military unit moves much the same, maintaining similar paces by long hours together, and by having it drilled repeatedly into them. Patrols don't tend to bunch up, but also tend to stay between single and double interval (2.5-5 feet; roughly 0.75-1.5m) in a single file until encounter, and then bunch up for instructions if time, or spread to line abreast if no time, but again, tending to stay single to triple interval (2.5-7.5').

In 4E terms, this means, essentially, a patrol type formation is going to be about 1 square apart, in a column, maybe a double column.

One doesn't even normally break LOS to engage in bladder and bowel relief; one simply finds a spot where one can still be seen, but has lower body privacy.

Looking at 4E, the majority of characters look to be more hunter types than military, but one can't rule them out. What can be ruled out is the casual hiker. D&D wilderness is absolutely viciously infested with monsters. It's scary, dark, and dangerous, and people who go out alone often don't come back. Therefore, expect all but the most foolish characters to stay pretty close, not more than 10' between each, and either in a cluster or line.


Resurrecting a dead question. Yay for necromancy!

Broadly speaking, I agree with aramis. The wilderness is scary and will eat you, so people travel in groups and don't tend to spread out. Adventurers, while foolish (they go looking for trouble), are not completely stupid. They probably aren't going to randomly spread out beyond sight and hearing via Brownian motion. People might be drawn away temporarily by curiosity, the call of nature, etc., but that doesn't seem to be the question at hand, and those scenarios arguably should be explicitly handled anyway (even if it's as simple as "Bob, your character needs to take a leak; what does he do?")

All that said, adventurers aren't (typically) regular military. Many of them aren't even hunters. As a result, their marching discipline is going to be questionable at best. Marching in a 2x3 block of death for an hour isn't realistic for most of them; 10 hours is pretty well out of the question. If they really want to try, Wisdom checks for everyone, every hour, with a penalty for each subsequent hour, would probably be reasonable. Regular military have had this drilled into them, so they could be exempt from the check. With sufficient practice, other PCs might gain similar practice and be exempt as well.

Most people walk at about 3 miles per hour, which is a fine starting point. You could apply a speed penalty to groups trying to march in formation without having drilled. From a practical standpoint, it's a question of whether you want there to be a disadvantage to making the attempt.

The location of anyone who failed their check (or who didn't care to try to stay in formation) could be determined using a scatter roll with modified distance, and with the restriction that they wouldn't end up somewhere blatantly lethal. This could represent the characters wandering around to talk to each-other, poke at suspicious-looking rocks and bushes, try to get a better view of this or that in the distance, etc. The GM and/or the players can come up with reasons why the characters are where they are. And of course there's the possibility of out-of-position PCs literally stumbling over hidden ambushers. :)

You could apply similar rules to NPCs fairly easily, though it may not be necessary. As GM, you can define whatever behaviors are most appropriate and fun for the particular NPCs.

Of course, all of this is predicated on tracking and managing this actually being a good idea.


Ask for marching order, tell them how far apart they naturally end up marching in this terrain, and then let them accept that or make a special effort to march differently.

Then move on to more interesting things. (Such as having a jaguar drop on the head of the last one in line.)


Perhaps not an answer per se, but comments are length limited:

If your boyscouts are spreading out on the trail, then have them reverse their order. With the slow one in the front they'll be forced to stay together. But, that doesn't apply when you're talking about a small group of experienced fighters. Experience would tell them that they stay together for protection, moving as a group, without respect to their movement speed. The consequence of everyone slowing down to the speed of the slowest person is simply more travel time, so there are more opportunities to roll a random encounter. If they can redistribute the weight for faster movement, then that would avoid the extra rolls.

Or you could spend 100gp on a horse and tack.

As for peeing behind a bush, isn't the rule to increase the DC on perception (hearing) by 1 for every five feet? If I'm worried about an ambush, then I'm peeing about 15' away with eyes up, my back to the camp site, and I'm chatting with the others the whole time so we all know if something bad happens.

Hey, there was an answer in there after all.


I don't play 4e, so I'll answer this from a somewhat generic D&D perspective. Sounds like that may be more helpful than some of the "don't do that, simulation has been abandoned and we like it that way" answers from the stock 4e perspective.

I handle this in a somewhat abstract way - I use Survival or Luck rolls or whatever the edition has to support such things 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 survival 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). Basically, worst roll was the one who took the brunt of it, and I SWAGged that other characters were about 5' away from them per 1 point of difference on the checks (so if roper guy rolled a 5, and the closest party member rolled a 9, they were 20' away). I'd expand that to greater distances outdoors, 1 point would be 10 feet or even 10 yards.

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, and that would trump the random roll - if you want a rigorous rule for such "buddies," make it 1 increment away per 5 points of difference on the rolls. In specific caving or mountaineering situations, people might be roped together, in which case obviously it's less abstract.

I generally didn't consider anyone to be so totally far away from the action that they were insensible to it unless they specifically said they wanted to (scouting ahead so that the more tarded members of your party don't spike your Stealth check is a popular reason). Adventurers are more military in their outlook and though they may not all stick in formation, they certainly are reasonable to say "I don't let them all get out of sight..."

  • \$\begingroup\$ This should port pretty easily to 4E. The only real change needed (other than tweaking the numbers a bit) is that Survival/Luck becomes Dungeoneering/Nature/Religion/Arcana (depending on the terrain being walked through). \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Commented Dec 8, 2010 at 20:27

reminds me of a scene in the Culpepper Cattle Company - the young guy goes down to the river to take a dump, trousers round ankles, looks up an there's 2 hillbilly types with shotguns looking at him saying 'keep quiet, and we'll only take your stuff'.

So let your players go for it... they'll find out the hard way why herd animals and military units stick together; and also why groups of teen cheerleaders split up to find the exit from the haunted house.


Trick them a few times when they are climbing into ambush or time limited event OMG magic at X where climbing isnt fastest route. Also many of your players shouldnt need to worry about climbing with magic items skills, and help from players, unless story warrants it (there is a cave) skip it.


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