Choosing a defensible camp site for your D&D party

General Sir William Heneker, whose writings contain practical advice for soldiers and gamers alike. Image courtesy

What follows was initially part of the Athenaeum’s recent post on bringing wandering monsters into the fourth-edition (4e) Dungeons & Dragons game; the discussion of choosing, preparing and defending a campsite to defend against overnight random encounters quickly became large enough to warrant its own posting, published below.

Heroes in the D&D game spend a great deal of time traveling through dangerous regions, and battles during such journeys are common. Most published fourth edition (4e) products have such battles taking place in broad daylight, when the heroes are rested with full equipment; players naturally prefer (and most 4e designers seem to be willing to provide) such circumstances, as they maximize their characters’ offensive and defensive capacities. But would all enemies choose to engage a powerful band of heroes in this fashion?

Excepting villains who abide by a code of honor requiring them to avoid attacking from advantage, most villains would answer no to that question. Would it not be more effective, and far less risky, to follow a group of heroes until they stop traveling and camp for the night? At that time, the heroes are literally stripped of much of their protection, as it is impossible to have any rejuvenating rest while wearing armor; most of them will likely be asleep; and villainous forces can ambush the comparably vulnerable heroes from cover of darkness.

Thinking players usually recognize this risk – whether it comes from a planned encounter or a wandering nocturnal predator – and assign watch shifts to help mitigate the danger. But simply saying “one of us is on watch” leaves plenty of room for a dungeon master to wreak havoc on a poorly prepared party.

Fortunately, there are numerous precautions a party could routinely take when choosing, preparing and defending a campsite that will greatly enhance survivability of attacks on their camp. Many of these precautions can be extrapolated from the writings of 19th Century Canadian military theorist General Sir William C.G. Heneker, whose treatise, Bush Warfare (based largely upon his experience with Canadian forces in southern Africa at the turn of the last century), impacted how small-scale wars, insurgencies and counter-insurgencies should be conducted, particularly in terrain with dense vegetation.

Choosing the site

Heneker states:

In choosing the site for a camp, the best one is a flat tabletop, with ground sloping away in all directions towards the enemy. The sentries should be posted hidden, so as just to see over the edge. With this arrangement, should the enemy possess arms of precision and small guns, it is difficult for him to fire into camp, for he must aim to clear the edge of the table-land, and then the shot goes high.

While a D&D party may not be able to find such terrain during their journeys, Heneker’s point is clear enough: heroes need to select a site offering them the greatest number of military advantages, such as high ground, concealment, limited routes for ingress or egress, and other factors that could be force multipliers. Since the party is at its most vulnerable when at rest, every possible advantage must be seized when deciding where to take that rest.

A balancing concept for this idea not mentioned by Heneker appears among Murphy’s Combat Laws: make it too tough for the enemy to get in, and you won’t be able to get out. Imagine a party of heroes selecting a large cave with a single entrance for overnight rest, and imagine how the party would feel to learn that a large predator is blocking the cave entrance; in such a situation, the monster has the party cornered, and the only option is for them to fight at a disadvantage. It is possible to make a camp site too secure.

Concealing the site

Heneker’s recommendations for infantry camping in the bush included:

Fires should be shaded, so as not to show a light towards the enemy.

Sentries and groups should make screens, behind which they should hide, but keep a sharp look out.

In order for a 4e party to reap the benefits of an extended rest (or for legacy edition parties to have sufficient rest to regain spells), that rest must be uninterrupted. As a result, minimizing the chance of a party’s campsite being detected maximizes the chances of its being fully rested for the next day.

A large campfire is a telltale sign to monsters, which can be seen from as far as a couple of miles away in clear weather and appropriate terrain, yet most adventurers build such fires. It may be more prudent to have enough fuel for a large fire if needed, but to make a fire just large enough to cook a meal, then keep the coals burning during the night. This way, heroes can quickly pile on fuel if they need light or to drive off natural predators, but they don’t advertise their position to passing monsters.

Taking steps to actually camouflage the campsite or those points at which heroes on watch post may not be worth the effort (although D&D’s second edition did offer camouflage as a ranger’s non-weapon proficiency), but giving thought to where those on watch should stand is worthwhile. It is wise to account for how well the sentry can see approaching enemies, and how well sentries can be concealed, since the sentries are typically the only heroes that remain fully equipped during a night attack on a heroic camp. The worst possible scenario is for the party’s only sentry (and only fully equipped member) to be detected and neutralized during a surprise round; no one is left to defend but the unarmored, the unarmed, and the sleeping!

Defending the site

Perhaps the most important aspect of a campsite is the ease with which it can be defended. There are numerous precautions a party can take to fortify their position, if time and willingness permit. If a party plans to use the same camp as a base of operations, more of these steps may be taken as the heroes continually improve their camp. They can include:

  • Various forms of excavations and/or simple traps, such as snares, trip wire alarms, or Punji Sticks;
  • For more permanent camps, construction of primitive barriers such as a zareba (a barrier constructed from stakes and interwoven brush and thorn bushes cleared from the camp site), or deliberate placement of barriers like rocks, fallen trees or logs;
  • Methods of making approach more difficult by spreading caltrops or bear traps;
  • Paying special attention to where sentries post to keep watch; after all, it is likely that any attack on the camp will begin with the sentry in that position in camp, so that position should be well-stocked with ammunition, light sources, and a small flame for greek fire and other incendiaries; and
  • Taking a page from Heneker’s playbook about sentry placement, to wit:

The sentry line is generally made the line of resistance in case of attack, and by thus dividing up the perimeter of the camp equally amongst the sections, confusion and the mixing up of sections is less likely to ensue, than by adopting any other method.

While a camp occupied by a half-dozen heroes is far too small to have a sentry line as a line of resistance, Heneker’s advice still applies: place sentries in positions where they will most likely be between camp and invaders, so that those being roused from sleep during an attack will know where to rally.

A corollary to this idea is having a plan for what to do in case the camp is attacked. If everyone knows that the goal is to force enemies to give ground until they are backed into the punji sticks, or to force enemies to cluster so the wizard can more effectively roast them with a fireball, an attack on the camp will be less dangerous than one in which some people are forcing enemies to the sticks, others didn’t know there were sticks, and still others are trying to make enemies cluster.

Do you have any suggestions about how a party might better choose, conceal or defend a camp site? If so, please consider sharing them in a comment to this post.


4 comments on “Choosing a defensible camp site for your D&D party

  1. Philo Pharynx says:

    We have considerations and resources that Heneker would not have referred to.
    Vision – the midwatches should be manned by characters with low-light vision or darkvision if possible. Characters with insufficient night vision (i.e. Humans) should take watches closer to twilight or dawn.
    Spells or rituals – There are lots of spells and rituals that help create a secure campsite. Many of these rituals are very effective when used by higher level parties and at high levels, the costs are often minuscule compared to the party’s wealth.
    Create Campsite (lvl 1) – in addition to being convenient, the caster’s nature check is the DC to find the campsite.
    Explorer’s Fire (lvl 1) – you can have a full fire and not have it be visible at a distance. Unexpectedly entering a lighted area may cause difficulties for animal or light-sensitive foes.
    Eye of Alarm (lvl 2) – more sentries is always better. With a good roll, you get more sensors and they get better senses.
    Snare (lvl 4) – this can help limit access to your campsite.
    Eavesdropper’s Foil (lvl 4) – people will find it harder to hear anything in your camp. Useful if the dwarf snores.
    Excavation/Earthen Ramparts (lvl 6) – by changing the terrain, you can make it harder to approach from different directions. Since this is permanent, it’s good to set up a campsite you will be returning to over time.
    Rope Trick (lvl 12) – expensive, but one of the better ways to prevent being seen.
    Fantastic Recuperation (lvl 16) – why camp for the night when you can recover in just an hour?

    Of course once you hit mid-paragon level, you can get an Exodus Knife and camp out in an extradimensional space. It’s similar to rope trick, but without the high component cost.

  2. This is great stuff. I also loved the post on bringing wandering monsters and random encounters back into 4e. Thanks so much, Alric and The RPG Athenaeum! Setting camp is a major part of some games and it’s great to see such an in-depth article covering it.

    Also, the spells courtesy of Philo Pharynx are awesome! Kudos.

    Keep up the good work guys!

    All the Best,

    David L. Dostaler
    Author, Challenger RPG (free)

  3. ClefJ says:

    No suggestions at the moment, sir. But I’d like to say it’s been a while since I’ve stopped by and I’m very happy you’re still around with sound and very useful RPG advice!

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