Most of my systems and posts are about adding interesting, meaningful choices to TTRPG procedures that tickle the players’ sense of risk and reward. This particular system was originally written for ships at sea, but can be repurposed just as well for on-foot encounters in the wilderness – or spaceships venturing into parts unknown.
This system can be used to:
- Safely travel the roads of the Empire
- Be wary of Orc warbands in the wilderness
- Find ships ripe for the taking on the high seas
- Approach derelict spaceships in the Horsehead Nebula.
Table of contents:
What This System Tries To Do
The party ventures forth in to the next hex, and the DM rolls for a random encounter. 2d6 Orcs – great! The DM smiles and says “5 Orcs pop up and draw their weapons. Roll initiative!”A pretty severe example of a situation that can be improved upon
The above example might work perfectly fine for an overgrown jungle or swamp with tall reeds, but what about the other situations – where the players are traveling along the road, and can clearly see a threat coming? Or when the crow’s nest of the players’ ship is manned, and someone spots sails? Or when the onboard radar starts beeping because another starship has been detected?
The party ventures forth in to the next hex, and the DM rolls for a random encounter. 2d6 Orcs – great! The DM determines (or rolls for) their disposition: they are guarding their territory, and are likely to approach anyone they spot.
The DM calls for the routine Perception check from the lookout, and rolls one in secret for the Orcs. Both sides succeed – they have spotted each other!
“Player A, you halt for a moment to make sure your eyes don’t deceive you. Yes, now you’re sure of it: a group of 5 humanoids on the road ahead of you. You can’t quite make out whether you are gaining on them, or whether they are approaching you. Party, what would you like to do?”An example of this system in play
First, we’re going to set a few abstract distance brackets. Note that the actual physical distance can vary on the situation and context. Also note that on foot, in real life, it would be really hard to make out the described details at range – but that’s why the ranges are abstract (and why it’s a game!).
The Horizon is the very edge of your possible perceptive range. I’d roughly define it as “the range at which another group of travelers is barely perceptible – and if either side decides to run, there’d be no way to track them”.
The question at this range is simply, can we see them, and have they seen us.
- On foot, this means merely making out shapes at all – and identifying humanoids or beasts.
- On a ship, this means identifying sails on the horizon.
- On a spaceship, this would be sensor range – there’s something out there.
At sea, the Horizon will be the literal horizon (~4 km on an Earth-like planet, I believe). In space, it might be hundreds or thousands of kilometers, on land it might be slightly less than 4 km, depending on terrain.
More details become visible. Once again, the actual physical distance depends on the terrain and movement speeds of those involved.
The question at this range is, what type of travelers are they?
- On foot, this might mean vaguely spotting the colors they’re wearing (Red uniforms? Blue banners?) and weaponry (Speartips? Big shields?)
- On a ship, this means looking at the flag being flown (Merchants? Pirates?)
- On a spaceship, this means signal range (An IFF ping? What type of signal are they broadcasting?)
At sea or on foot, the distance might be a kilometer or more.
To be at Closing range means that you’re about to be in weapon range, but not quite. Even more, details become visible, and the final choice as to approach or flee must be made now!
The question at this range is, are they what they appear to be?
- On foot, this might mean looking at the stance and mannerisms of the other group (Wait, if they are dressed like merchants, why do they have weapons drawn?)
- On a ship, this means looking at the passengers of the ship, to see if they match the flag flown (These “merchants” have their ballistas primed! This “navy patrol” is looking awfully scruffy!)
- On a spaceship, this means scan range (Why are their weapon systems online?)
Being at this range means we leave abstract distance ranges and move into regular encounter/combat range. As a rule of thumb, if either side has weapons that can reach the other party, you are now within range.
- On foot, this might be within longbow range – or within “I dash over and stab you” range.
- On a ship, this means being in cannon- or ballista range.
- On a spaceship, this means being within weapons range.
If the enemy is hostile (or was pretending not to be), this will be the range in which they attack. This is the range at which individual actions become relevant: which target do you pick, what do you do?
Procedure of Play
This system puts a lot of emphasis on the party’s Lookout. They get to make the relevant Perception checks. Otherwise, the group moves as one.
There are two types of checks made within this procedure: Perception and Movement.
Old School Revival Rules
These rules work just as well for OSR-style games: Replace Movement Checks with STR checks, and don’t roll for perception – simply use the x-in-6 odds.
Perception checks reveal more and more information as the parties get closer to each other.
- The Lookout makes a routine DC 15 Perception Check at the same intervals at which the DM rolls for encounters (for instance, when entering a new hex).
- If the Lookout succeeds, they will know about groups at the Horizon. If they fail, they have a 5-in-6 chance of not spotting the other group.
- When the other party is Distant, the Lookout can make another DC 15 Perception Check.
- If the Lookout succeeds, they will get a broad sense as to the intention of the approaching party: Armed? Merchant? Military? Bandit? If they fail, they have a 3-in-6 chance of being wrong.
- When the other party is Closing, the Lookout can make another DC 15 Perception Check.
- If the Lookout succeeds, they will get a broad sense if their first impression was correct. Are these pilgrims posing as soldiers, bandits posing as merchants? If they fail, they have a 2-in-6 chance of being wrong.
- When within range, no further checks are made – this is the part where the cards are put on the table, and we get to see whether the Lookout was correct!
Note that failing a check allows you to reroll the check at DC 10 at a closer bracket: If you failed to confirm a Distant party as friend-or-foe, you can retry when Closing in on them, at DC 10.
The moment a party becomes aware of the other party, they must decide what to do. An unaware party is likely to approach, as they are not aware of any reason to halt or disengage.
You can pick between Approach, Halt or Disengage. This decision is made again each bracket (and as the Lookout reveals more information).
|Approach||Move one bracket closer.||Move one bracket closer.||Make a movement check to get one bracket further.|
|Halt||Move one bracket closer.||Time passes, and nothing happens.||Move one bracket further.|
|Disengage||Make a movement check to get one bracket closer.||Move one bracket further.||Move one bracket further.|
Note that only if one side approaches and the other one disengages, a check must be made.
Everyone in the party makes a DC 15 Athletics Check. If not everyone succeeds, the party can choose to stay together, or split up: the lagging members might catch up later, or arrive late to a possible fight. On a ship or starship, roll for a Piloting or Sailing Check.
- The Lookout rolls regular Perception checks as part of the travel procedure.
- The DM rolls for encounters, and rolls for their Perception, and whether they intend to approach or disengage.
- For each Distance bracket, the Lookout makes another Perception check, granting new information to the party.
- For each Distance bracket, both sides determine whether they want to approach it or not.
- This procedure ends with parties being within range (and switching to concrete distances and possibly combat) or with parties passing over the Horizon.
- This system works both ways: with the party avoiding enemies, or with the party hunting for encounters. It allows the party to be or avoid pirates, for example.
- If the other party moves at an angle compared to the players, it can still be abstracted to the distance ranges; they’ll always be moving roughly towards or away from the players, or perhaps first roughly towards and then away.
- This system can be used as a rough chase mechanic after an encounter as well.
- Obviously, feel free to adjust DCs based on terrain and environmental factors.