[RPG] Is this home-rule for adjusting the DC of being tracked balanced


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?

Best Answer

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.