The wilderness adventures section (DMG pp. 86-95) lists spotting distances for wilderness encounters. I.e.

the maximum distance at which a Spot check for detecting the nearby presence of others can succeed

But what are these Spot checks opposed by?

The Spot skill description reads:

The Spot skill is used primarily to detect characters or creatures who are hiding. Typically, your Spot check is opposed by the Hide check of the creature trying not to be seen.

But what if the monsters, the NPCs or the PCs are not actively hiding? They may not want to, additionally, they need cover or concealment, which may not be available in plains. Is noticing them automatic in this case? Or is the spot check opposed by a DC instead? Then what is the DC? The Spot skill description does not list any DCs for spotting creatures. The only hint I’ve managed to find was in PHB page 64 table 4-3: Difficulty Class Examples.

Difficulty (DC) Example (Skill Used) Very easy (0) Notice something large in plain sight (Spot)

So is it DC 0 +1 per 10 ft distance? What if the creature is not large? How would the DC change?

The question is are there any explicit guidelines for Spot checks to notice enemies in the wilderness?

Homerules are acceptable but official or other published sources prefered.


1 Answer 1


The Player's Handbook on Spot says

The Dungeon Master may call for Spot checks to determine the distance at which an encounter begins. A penalty applies on such checks, depending on the distance between the two individuals or groups, and an additional penalty may apply if the character making the Spot check is distracted (not concentrating on being observant).

CONDITION                PENALTY
Per 10 feet of distance     –1
Spotter distracted          –5

Thus the Player's Handbook says the DM may be skipping all this encounter distance jazz and may have encounters just start when he says they start.

But the Dungeon Master's Guide says the DM either makes up the distance between the groups (22-3) or uses the guidelines provided by each terrain's stealth and detection entry (86-93).

While the DMG isn't as explicit as it should be in defining the Listen and Spot skill check DCs necessary for one creature to notice another creature in the wilderness, when I DM those Listen and Spot skill check DCs are 0 but the skill check's result is modified for range, terrain, and other circumstance.

For example, Stealth and Detection in a Forest says

In a sparse forest, the maximum distance at which a Spot check for detecting the nearby presence of others can succeed is 3d6×10 feet. In a medium forest, this distance is 2d8×10 feet, and in a dense forest it is 2d6×10 feet.

Because any square with undergrowth provides concealment, it’s usually easy for a creature to use the Hide skill in the forest. Logs and massive trees provide cover, which also makes hiding possible.

The background noise in the forest makes Listen checks more difficult, increasing the DC of the check by 2 per 10 feet, not 1 (but note that Move Silently is also more difficult in undergrowth). (87)

Hence, when I DM, the Listen and Spot skill check DCs necessary to successfully notice, for example, a creature 110 ft. in a sparse forest are 0, but the creature trying to do so suffers a −22 penalty on its Listen skill check and a −11 penalty on its Spot skill check. (It's also reasonable to adjust the Spot check's result based on the creature's size modifier.)

Technically, I think once encounter distance is established, both sides continue making new Listen and Spot skill checks each round. This is tedious, and when I DM if neither side is aware of the other and either side is moving away from the other I allow the encounter to end, often the PCs and players none the wiser. However, if neither side is aware of each other and either side is moving toward the other, I have all involved make checks each round.

Later supplements expand the DMG's terrains (for example, Stormwrack includes terrains from ice floes to a ship's deck (14-21)).

Note Dungeons and Dragons, Third Edition encounter distances were fairly stable with simple but easily adjudicated variations. The Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 revision makes encounter distances more complicated and eliminates, for example, random dungeon and urban encounter distances, relying instead on the DM to fairly generate those distances on the fly. (For more on Dungeons and Dragons, Third Edition encounter distances, see this answer.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer, personally when I dm I use a variation on the Let it Ride rule to keep the game flowing. It also means players remain oblivious if they fail their spot/listen rolls once per hour of in game time. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 16, 2016 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Hey I Can Chan It is what I was looking for. Just hoped it was summarized somewhere. I was also thinking about a method for not rolling spot checks each round until they notice each other. You can roll it at the maximum distance and if it is not a success, determine the maximum distance at which this roll is a success. And rule that they notice the other group at that distance if no conditions change before they come close enough. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ols
    Commented May 16, 2016 at 15:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ols Encounter distance is one of the things that, honestly, Dungeons and Dragons, Third Edition does better, built by those versed in AD&D2E's stronger wargaming foundation. Despite its detail and devotion to a semi-simulationist playstyle, the wilderness detection rules lack details necessary for easy playability. Anyway, it's probably easier to just rule everyone's taking 5 on Listen and Spot checks as if distracted if moving more than half speed. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 16, 2016 at 15:55

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