7 Tips For Roleplaying Encounter Locations

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0220

A Brief Word From Johnn

Paranoia Is A Fun Game

I played Paranoia (2nd Ed.) for the first time today. What a great game! It’s definitely oriented towards one-shots and not campaign play, so it makes an ideal ice-breaker for a new group or a make-up game if your regular one can’t be played.

I burned through 5 clones and got in on two mutant commie kills. Because I was the new guy and didn’t know what I was doing, I was designated the party leader. And things went downhill from there. ?

A recommended experience for any gamer.

Have a game-full week!


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

7 Tips For Roleplaying Encounter Locations

Treat your encounter locations like NPCs and you just might get more interesting and entertaining results at the game table. In Issue #219 I made a call-out for roleplaying encounter location ideas. That wonderful list follows as the last tip below. The physical location is just one part of the formula to great roleplaying encounter settings, though.

Encounters are like NPCs. And a good roleplaying NPC has multiple dimensions. In addition to designing his statistics, he would benefit from having a personality, a motive or goal, a secret, and a quirk or two, among other things. Treating encounter locations the same way, as a multi-dimensional game element, should give them more personality and life and please your players more.

The tips below assume you’ll be using the location for a roleplaying type encounter. The tips could easily apply to other types of encounters, such as combat and puzzle, though for those types I’d do things a bit differently. Maybe that would make a good future article?

Give The Location An Attitude

You’re either in design mode before the game or winging-it mode during the game and you’ve picked your spot for an encounter. It might be on a pier, in an empty church, or in the furnace room of a hospital. What now?It’s important to try and make every encounter location distinct and interesting. The players will be more attentive to the game and their PCs’ surroundings. You’ll be helping them envision the setting and get into character better.

While detailing a location’s contents and inhabitants well is important (see tips below), they don’t always help make a setting unique. What happens if the PCs visit the same place multiple times? The same old objects and NPCs will probably be there and each encounter in that place will seem less distinct and unique.

The solution is to add some attitude. Before the encounter begins, decide on a mood, disposition, or bias for the setting, and make it different each time an encounter takes place in the same location. This way, even if the location is the same, it will have a different feel to it and the players’ perceptions of it will change.

Example encounter location attitudes:

  • Friendly
  • Hostile
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Miserable
  • Malicious
  • Lucky
  • Mischievous
  • Romantic
  • Merry
  • Weary
  • Fearful
  • Casual

Once you’ve picked an attitude, slant the encounter’s various elements to suit the mood. This is where your creativity and joy of design comes into play. It’s a puzzle. For example, how could you make your next encounter location sad?

Some ideas:

  • Someone has recently died and the NPCs in the area are wearing black arm bands and are sad themselves
  • The sky is overcast
  • The air is stale and still
  • It’s quiet
  • Anything that’s moving is doing so slowly, without purpose or urgency
  • The location is cast in shadow
  • Flowers and other plants seem wilted
  • Buildings seem in disrepair
  • Sad music is being played somewhere nearby
  • A dog is yelping and crying nearby

The PCs return in a couple of days and you decide the location now has a merry attitude:

  • The period of mourning has ended, the black arm bands are off
  • A small street party is taking place
  • Laughter and cheer can be heard from a tavern
  • Children and pets are running around, playing games
  • The sun is bright and warm
  • Plants are perky
  • The buildings seem taller and straighter
  • Merry music from a small band has people dancing in the street

It’s important that the NPCs in your roleplaying encounter react to the attitude you’ve created. This acknowledges the difference and draws the players’ attention to the attitude. It will also queue the players to roleplay and react to the attitude as well, which is one of the main points of the exercise.

Adding attitude not only makes encounter locations different and interesting, but makes encounter types different and interesting as well. Imagine a hostage negotiation in the scenarios above. Each roleplaying encounter would feel, and possibly play, differently because of the changed mood of the location.

In many cases, you’re dealing with a change of perception and a bit of poetic license. Today, the cracks in the walls seem discoloured and ugly; yesterday, they looked like they formed a happy face. As long as you don’t mislead the PCs, they’ll appreciate the special touches that adding attitude brings.

Add A Secret

Add a mysterious or unknown element to each encounter location. The secret doesn’t need to come into play or even be directly observed by the PCs. It just needs to be there as subtext and used as an interesting encounter element that subtly flavours your roleplaying.As with NPCs and plot secrets, location secrets can help you in other ways, such as by spawning side-plots, acting as hooks, or adding a wow factor to a future session when the secret is revealed to the players.

Examples of location secrets:

  • The area is used by the underworld as a base for illegal activities
  • A very important NPC lives nearby
  • It’s the secret base of a villain yet to be encountered
  • A crime is being committed nearby
  • Something important is buried right beneath the PCs’ feet
  • The residents worship an evil god
  • The residents are loyal to a crime boss
  • A serial killer is terrorizing the area
  • An evil mage has a lab nearby
  • Fugitives are hiding nearby

Make The Encounter Chime With The Location

Look for opportunities to make the location you’ve picked synergize with what’s happening in the encounter. For example, if the PCs are investigating some stolen jewelry and they’re interrogating a petty thief in an alley, you might take up the theme of “theft” and flavour the setting with it. A young hooligan might steal an apple across the street and a cheeky flight from the merchant ensues. Perhaps a dark cloud passes overhead, stealing the light and darkening the shadows of the alley.

Perhaps some kids are playing piggy-in-the-middle in the street.If you know what kind of roleplaying will take place and you still have the opportunity to pick the location, choose a setting that matches the anticipated mood or nature of the encounter.

If it’s going to be a clash of wits, for example, you might set the encounter in a library:

As the PCs try to verbally outmanoeuvre their foe, the NPC draws out various scrolls and books from the shelves to accentuate his points.

“As the bold, yet misguided, philosopher, Armedes, wrote [taps book in his hand in a condescending manner], just because something could have happened, might have happened, probably have happened, that doesn’t mean it *did* happen. [Sigh.]

In fact, there is often little relationship between the potential of an event happening, such as the crime you are accusing me of, and the actual occurrence of said event!

Good old Armedes [puts book back on shelf]. It’s too bad he was hung for making false accusations against the King.”

This tip works well in conjunction with giving locations attitude. You can set-up a double-whammy of location type and attitude adjustment to lend the place great mood, symbolic props, and poignant atmosphere.

Add Objects To The Scene & Interact With Them

If nature abhors a vacuum, so do encounters. Flesh out a location by filling it up with objects. The added details that objects provide help bring encounters to life. The objects themselves also make great props to help you and your players roleplay.Adding stuff is where many GMs get stuck, especially if they’re winging it. It can also be a time-consuming design task.

When fleshing out your next location, try these techniques:

Mentally Envision The Area

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s often poorly done, and therefore yields poor results. What happens is that we get stuck in left-brain, analytical mode. You are presented with a location and you logically try to brainstorm a list of possible contents.Instead, if you graphically try to imagine what the area or place looks like, all sorts of details can come to mind that a brainstorm list might not get. Start with picturing the structure or boundaries of the area. Then fill in the lighting. Then entrances and exits.

The think of what the purpose of the area is and what kinds of things would be around that would serve this purpose. Picture furniture, tools, machinery, decoration, and storage.One of the big benefits of envisioning a location instead of just listing its contents is that you can usually instantly summon the picture during a session and describe it to the players with greater speed and ease than finding and reciting off of a list.This is also an activity you can perform while driving, standing in line, etc.

During a session, while winging-it, it often just takes a few moments to conjure up an image before you start the encounter.

Find a Picture

Use magazines, books, or the internet to find a visual of your location. Then note the scene’s contents and make a an inventory from there. If the genre and details are close, you can simply use the picture during the session. Just be prepared to answer all the “what’s this?” questions you’ll get!

Have a Player Describe The Scene

Players usually have less going on than you will and can spare a few brain cycles to ponder what contents the location would have. Once the player in done her description, you add in any other important items as required.It’s often effective to give the player a couple minutes’ advance notice so they can properly ponder what the location holds.

When the encounter starts, you might say, “Ok, I’m going to take a couple minute pause to get my notes in order. Bob, I’m going to ask you to describe the scene for us, including some details about what’s lying around and what furniture and other things are present.”

Once you’ve filled the area up with stuff, be sure to interact with it. Don’t have the NPCs stay rooted to their starting positions as they parley with the PCs. Have them pour themselves a drink, peer out a window, summon the shoe shine boy, or pick up the fire poker and wave it around. This will encourage the players to do the same and will bring the location to life.

Feel free to have the props act upon the NPCs and PCs too! Have something fall (not dangerously though), something operate, something move or make a noise. Have something break, spill, or work exceptionally well.

Add NPCs To The Scene & Interact With Them

We know it’s going to be a roleplaying encounter, so there’s going to be at least one NPC, be it a person, intelligent magic item, smart beast, or what have you. However, when possible, add more NPCs to your locations. Encounters hate being lonely!The purpose is to flesh out the encounter with things to interact with or talk about.

Non-essential NPCs are great fuel for adding flavour and enhancing the roleplaying. Often, their mere presence helps the players feel like there’s a vibrant world out there. It’s ironic, but quite often dungeon encounters have more people and creatures in them than roleplaying ones do. ?

Example background NPCs:

  • Servants
  • Guests
  • Agents
  • Visitors
  • Family
  • Passersby
  • Customers
  • Spies
  • Attendants
  • Girl/boyfriends
  • Curiosity seekers
  • Eavesdroppers
  • Contractors
  • Assistants
  • Employees
  • Slaves
  • Employers
  • Managers
  • Friends

If your genre allows it, think of some unusual NPCs to spice things up–just beware of their distraction potential though.

  • Smart pets
  • Aliens
  • Ambassador
  • Familiar or charmed animal
  • Intelligent magic item
  • Animated furniture
  • Avatar
  • Automated machinery
  • Magical presence (i.e. wizard eye)
  • Holographic presence

Adding NPCs also creates more witnesses. You can use this as a defensive or offensive GMing tactic. For example, it would be harder to for the barbarian commit a spontaneous attack/murder in a stadium full of sports fans than it would if the encounter took place beneath a bridge. To be on the offensive, and to create greater challenge, prying eyes and straining ears can make some types of roleplaying encounters more interesting for the PCs. Witnesses, and “filler” NPCs in general, are a great GM tool, so use them generously.

Think Z-Axis

Don’t forget to think in three dimensions when considering the encounter location. Think left, right, up, and down. Believe it or not, your roleplaying encounters could suffer from the same toe-to-toe syndrome that your combat encounters might!Instead of the PCs and NPC(s) always standing or sitting close together and chatting, separate them and place them in all three dimensions. Put the NPC up on a ladder as he’s painting a room or looking for a book. Place the non-player character in the tiny cellar or up in the loft.

Have the PCs straining their necks as they stand speaking with the mounted guard.In your next encounter, try to add stairs, ladders, elevators, a dais, a pit, a cellar, a platform, and so on. Have the NPC(s) move around during the encounter so that they move through the location’s varied space to further drive home the impression of dimension.Add in some range and suddenly you have many more options and opportunities for bringing roleplaying encounters to life. Think waaaay up, and deeeep down.

Think what’s a few dozen yards to the north, east, west, and south. What’s happening in the area around the ground zero point of the encounter?

For example:

  • What events are occurring nearby?
  • Have NPCs “go for a walk” so that the encounter takes place on the move, further adding dimension to the location.
  • What sounds and sights from nearby might impinge upon the encounter location?

Try to avoid adding too many distractions to a location, but it wouldn’t hurt for every third encounter or so to have motion or be impacted by something else nearby in mid- roleplay.

Huge List Of Roleplaying Locations

Following is a nice, long list of location ideas for your upcoming roleplaying encounters. These should act as kernels to which you add attitude, secrets, objects, NPCs, and dimension. Thanks to everyone again for their submissions!

  1. A dog (or fantasy creature) pound
  2. Abandoned mine
  3. Abandoned Victorian hospital
  4. Abandoned/active distillery
  5. Aboard a ship
  6. Aboard an airship
  7. Airport
  8. Alternate plane or dimension
  9. Amphitheatre
  10. Amusement park
  11. An AA Meeting
  12. Ancient caves beneath the sewer systems
  13. Animal fight
  14. Anniversary party
  15. Antique wine-cellar
  16. Anywhere where the power is cut
  17. Apothecary shop
  18. Archery contest
  19. Army Camp
  20. Around the office water-cooler
  21. Art gallery
  22. Atomic test observation bunker
  23. Attic
  24. Auction block square
  25. Auction house
  26. Awards ceremony
  27. Back room in a carpet salesman’s shop
  28. Back stairs
  29. Backstage at a play or opera
  30. Balcony
  31. Bar
  32. Base of an active volcano
  33. Base of an ancient triumphal arch
  34. Basement
  35. Bathhouse
  36. Bathysphere
  37. Beach
  38. Behind a hedge along the side of the road
  39. Behind the barn
  40. Behind the smithy
  41. Bell tower
  42. Below a bridge
  43. Below gallows
  44. Beside a statue
  45. Beside jugglers
  46. Birthday party
  47. Birthing
  48. Blind Man’s House
  49. Boiler Room
  50. Box seats at the theatre or opera
  51. Boxing match
  52. Branches of a giant tree
  53. Brewery
  54. Bridge
  55. Bridge deck of the ship
  56. Bridge pylon at water level
  57. Bridge service platform
  58. Brothel
  59. Burned tower
  60. Burning windmill at night
  61. Bustling bazaar
  62. Cabin in the woods
  63. Canal
  64. Candy factory
  65. Car chop shop
  66. Car race
  67. Cargo hold of a starship while in orbit
  68. Carriage
  69. Casino
  70. Castle laundry
  71. Cave while the ship sits off shore
  72. Caverns under an iceberg
  73. Cellar
  74. Cemetery
  75. Children’s Playground
  76. Church
  77. Church/shrine
  78. Circus Wagon
  79. City’s abandoned mines
  80. City baths
  81. City battlements
  82. City gates
  83. City or castle wall
  84. Classy penthouse
  85. Cliff overlooking a canyon
  86. Cliff overlooking a great waterfall
  87. Cloister of a monastery where the monks are sworn to silence
  88. Cloister of a nunnery where you are not a nun or even a woman
  89. Cockpit
  90. Coffee house
  91. College campus
  92. Coliseum
  93. Common table in a crowded inn
  94. Company board meeting
  95. Confessional at a church
  96. Construction site
  97. Corn fields just before harvest
  98. Coronation
  99. Courtroom
  100. Covered wagon
  101. Creepy, deserted windmill at night
  102. Crime lord’s furnished house
  103. Crossroads
  104. Crossroads in farmland
  105. Crossroads in wilderness
  106. Dark corner of the tavern
  107. Death-house
  108. Demolition derby
  109. Deserted island
  110. Deserted space station
  111. Dining car on a train
  112. Dining room of a well-to-do merchant by invitation
  113. Doctor’s office
  114. Dog kennel
  115. Dog race
  116. Dojo
  117. Dormant volcano
  118. Dressing room (or prop room)
  119. During a public speech
  120. During a royal hunt
  121. Edge of a waterfall
  122. Elegant salon
  123. Embassy
  124. Fairgrounds
  125. Famous monument
  126. Farmer’s field
  127. Ferry boat
  128. Ferry dock
  129. Fireworks factory
  130. Fish pond
  131. Floating inner tubes
  132. Flooded town
  133. Flying buttress of a cathedral
  134. Foggy graveyard
  135. Foggy street corner
  136. Food vendor’s cart
  137. Football stadium at night
  138. Ford
  139. Fountain
  140. Foxhole
  141. Funeral
  142. Furniture shop
  143. Gallows
  144. Gallows tree
  145. Garden
  146. Garden of hot springs
  147. Gentleman’s drawing room
  148. Ghost town
  149. Girlfriend’s boudoir
  150. Go-carts
  151. Grain silo
  152. Graveyard at night
  153. Harem
  154. Haunted house
  155. Haunted woods
  156. Hayloft
  157. Hedge maze
  158. Hen coop
  159. High-rise building being wired for demolition
  160. Hobbit/halfling hole
  161. Hollow trunk of large tree
  162. Horse race
  163. Hot air balloon
  164. House built among the roots under an old tree
  165. House of mirrors
  166. In a dinghy
  167. In the box seating at an opera, musical, or ballet
  168. In the midst of a procession through town
  169. Inactive volcano
  170. Initiation rite
  171. Inside a clock tower
  172. Inside of a stone circle
  173. Internet cafe
  174. Island from whence none have returned
  175. Island in a river
  176. Isolated cave
  177. Isolated lodge
  178. Jail
  179. Jewellery shop
  180. Jousting tourney
  181. King’s bed chambers
  182. Kitchen
  183. Lady’s garden
  184. Lady’s parlor
  185. Land-mine riddled former battlefield
  186. Levitating together
  187. Library
  188. Lighthouse
  189. Limousine
  190. Lingerie modeling session
  191. Lion cage
  192. Livery stable
  193. Magic carpet
  194. Market square
  195. Market/bazaar
  196. Mayday (spring) festival
  197. Meadow
  198. Middle of a ring of flames
  199. Military training facility
  200. Mill
  201. Miser’s House
  202. Missile test range
  203. Monastery/family burial crypt
  204. Moor
  205. Mountain top
  206. Movie/TV show production set
  207. Museum
  208. Night club
  209. Noble’s personal well room
  210. Noble’s quarters lit only by a few candles and a crackling fire
  211. Nuclear power facility
  212. Old battlefield
  213. Old burned-out church
  214. Old castle ruins
  215. Old marooned ship
  216. Only inhabited house in a ghost town
  217. Orphanage
  218. Outdoor festival/carnival
  219. Pantry
  220. Parent’s House
  221. Park
  222. Pavilion or gazebo
  223. Peak of ghost hill
  224. Pier
  225. Pig wallow
  226. Pirate cave while pirates are away
  227. Place of worship
  228. Playhouse, backstage
  229. Playhouse, in the audience
  230. Pocket dimension
  231. Police interrogation room
  232. Political or religious rally
  233. Pony express station
  234. Prison
  235. Private gardens
  236. Private meeting hall inside an inn or tavern
  237. Privy/jakes/bathroom
  238. Public baths
  239. Public park
  240. Public square
  241. Puppet show
  242. Quarry
  243. Queen’s bed chambers
  244. Quicksand pool
  245. Racetrack
  246. Radio sound booth
  247. Rafters of a great hall
  248. Rented coach/wagon
  249. Restaurant with violinist playing at the table
  250. Rich party
  251. Rickety bridge over a deep ravine
  252. Rifle range
  253. Ring of monolithic stones whose centre is a mirror-like pool
  254. River bank
  255. River/ocean dock
  256. Roadhouse outside town
  257. Roadside shrine
  258. Roller coaster
  259. Rooftop
  260. Royal garden party
  261. Ruined farmhouse
  262. Sauna/bathhouse
  263. Scribe’s shop
  264. Secluded clearing in the woods
  265. Secret society dressing room
  266. Sedan
  267. Seedy hotel room
  268. Sewer tunnel
  269. Shaman Hut
  270. Ship’s bilge
  271. Ship’s crows nest
  272. Shipwreck
  273. Shuttle launch platform just before launch
  274. Side of the road just outside of town
  275. Skeleton of an extinct great beast
  276. Slave market
  277. Sleazy back alley
  278. Small desert island
  279. Small, secluded island just off the coast of a major city
  280. Smuggler’s cove
  281. Snowed-in cabin
  282. Soundproof booth
  283. Spa
  284. Space station
  285. Space walk
  286. Sport team dressing room
  287. Sporting arena
  288. Stable
  289. Stock exchange
  290. Storm cellar
  291. Street corner
  292. Street festival
  293. Surprise party
  294. Swimming pool
  295. Tea house
  296. Temple
  297. Theatre, empty
  298. Theatre, full
  299. Theme park ride
  300. Tidal pool
  301. Tightrope
  302. Tobacco drying barn
  303. Top of a desert butte
  304. Top of a tower that has just been hit by a catapult/cannon
  305. Torture chamber
  306. Tower
  307. Town well
  308. Tree house
  309. Tribal mound
  310. Truck pull rally
  311. UN chambers
  312. Under a bridge
  313. Under the bleachers
  314. Underwater cave
  315. Upper floor of skyscraper under construction
  316. Vault of a bank
  317. Video game, anime, or comic book convention
  318. Village square
  319. Warehouse
  320. Water park with an adjoining go-kart track
  321. Waterfall
  322. Well
  323. Windmill
  324. Wine cellar
  325. World’s fair
  326. Wrestling Ring
  327. XXX theatre
  328. Zoo


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

NPC Moods

From Rick Friedman

When most GMs create NPCs they assign them certain characteristics, such as extrovert/introvert, etc. We all know these.

I’ve had many times where I’m staring at this and am scratching my head thinking…ok, what now?

I figured if I could get deeper into what that NPC has been going through in his personal life, it might reflect in the way he interacts with the PCs. I’ve tried to keep it simple, but you can see how easily you can add modifiers, or other areas of influence.

Basic areas of influence:

  • Money
  • Love
  • Luck
  • Health

By rolling a die (10, 20, or 00, personal preference) you can see if they’re having a good or bad day in that part of their life (or week, month, year).

High rolls mean the NPC is doing well in that area, low not so good. It’s hopefully straightforward and you can see where it may even lead to some fun side-quests.

  1. Hey, the innkeeper got some money (+Money) in from his new marriage (+Love), but is sick (-Health) and is willing to pay the PCs to travel to the next town and bring it back.
  2. A lot of NPCs are in bad health. Is there a plague in the works?
  3. A lot of good fortune: organized crime paying people to be quiet. A lot of bad fortune: extorting protection money.
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RPG Sound Mixer (PC)

From Bluemagician

The Sorcererre: RPT#219 – I Like The Way You Move

I’ve been reading your ezine for quite a while. As I find in almost every issue a worthwhile tip, I always wanted to return the favor one day. So, when I read the Reader’s Tip about Winamp-Playlists I finally had my own tip. For there is a program out there for exactly that purpose: managing your music and sounds for roleplaying sessions. It’s called RPG Soundmixer and a free demo can be found here:


It’s a great and powerful program, and although the original program and website is German, most of it has been translated to English.

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Dealing With Spotlight Requests

From Garry Stah

l Personally, I don’t set up encounters with the characters in mind–unless the foe has the characters in mind. I simply construct the situation and let the characters bring what they have to bear against it.

I used to get the complaint (always from the same people) “there is nothing for my character to do.” Eventually, I had the epiphany that this was code for, “I’m not constantly the center of attention.” I sat my group down and explained that it was not my responsibility to play their characters. They were responsible for applying their skills and ideas to the circumstances of my creation. That has been my functional doctrine since. Create the scenario and let the players decide how to apply the characters’ abilities to solve it.

The only thing I avoid is the one-solution problem unless the tools are right in front of the party. i.e. The one key will be around the bad guy’s neck. It is up to them to get the tools, but the tools are presented and obtainable.

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Metric Movement Rates

From Paul Simmonsre

RPT#119 – 19 Tips For Gming Powerful Characters

These are great. I will definitely be using this for my games.

Here are some metric conversions:

Creature Or Vehicle - Base Distance Moved Per 6 Seconds
Insect, small flying (i.e. bumble bee) - 12 m.
Insect, small walking (i.e. beetle) - 0.9 m.
Insect, large flying (i.e. locust, giant bee) - 36 m.
Insect, large walking - 1 m.
Dog, small - 12 m.
Dog, large - 12 m.
Horse - 12 m.
Human, small (i.e. gnome, dwarf, goblin) - 6 m.
Human - 9 m.
Tiger - 12 m.
Elephant - 12 m.
Tyrannosaurus Rex - 12 m.
Bird, small (raven) - 12 m.
Bird, medium (hawk) - 18m.
Bird, large (osprey) - 18m.
Bird, humongous (roc) - 24 m.
Skateboard - 18 m.
Rollerblades - 18 m.
Bicycle - 24 m.
Cart or wagon - 6 m.
Rowboat - 4.5 m.
Galley - 12 m.
Schooner - 6 m.

The Formula

Metres per minute: Base Distance x 10

Kilometres per hour: Base Distance x 3/5 or 0.6

Kilometres per day: Base Distance x 2 2/15 or 2.13333*
* this could be rounded to a simple 2.1 or 2.2