Wednesday 17 April 2019

[BLOG] Shallow and deep wilderness sandboxes

Difficulties concerning this area of play notwithstanding, most of us manage to create and run rewarding wilderness adventures. The OD&D and AD&D rulebooks offer workable procedures to run an outdoors expedition, and there are multiple approaches to build a wilderness sandbox, from fixed, linear journeys along roads and rivers, to more free-ranging pointcrawls and hexcrawls. Only three ingredients are required:
  1. An underlying approach to turn the imaginary world into a game space (hexes or squares, connecting lines, visible landmarks) that can be described by the GM and navigated by the players.
  2. Procedures for outdoors expeditions: movement, exploration, encounters, food and other resources, and so forth.
  3. Points of interest which give a reason for visiting the wilderness at all, and differentiate going one way from going another way.
All three of these points can be satisfied in very different ways, usually with a mix-and-match approach. With a little preparation – or prodigious bullshitting – it is not hard to assemble and run a miniature setting.

However, there is an often unaddressed issue which makes a strong difference in how actual wilderness-based campaigns pan out. This is the issue of depth. The concept of deep and shallow settings is familiar. As the idea goes, you can generally sketch out a wide campaign setting in broad strokes, or select a more narrow area, and give it an in-depth treatment where every little corner has something. Doing both is theoretically possible (Tolkien, Greg Stafford and M.A.R. Barker did it, and so did the rather less reputable Ed Greenwood), but the resulting setting may become inaccessible for players, and burdensome or at least very hard to manage for the GM. The question of depth also poses questions for campaigns with a strong wilderness component: this is the subject matter of this post, which highlights the differences between shallow and deep wildernesses.

A shallow wilderness: single-layered structure

A shallow wilderness stretches far and wide, and its points of interest tend to be individually small and often unassuming – proverbial “grains of sand”. The Lord of Crows maintains a castle in hex 1212; 1214 is the lair of 26 gnolls living in a hilltop encampment surrounded by a palisade; and 1313 is a mysterious obelisk where wise old crows read glyphs only known to their kind. These are mostly encounter-level descriptions; they may be free-standing (like the gnolls) or interrelated (what about the crow motif?), smaller and larger, but they are about as complex as your usual dungeon room. There is a single "layer" of adventuring: the wilderness itself. That does not mean there are no cities or villages - but they mostly exist on the encounter level, without going into deeper detail. Wilderlands of High Fantasy is of course the main model of this approach, while The Sea of Vipers – which has partly inspired this post – is a more recent one.

The implications for play point towards lots of travel across a large number of hexes. Travel-related procedures such as random wilderness monsters, getting lost, managing food, and so on become an important aspect of play. Some character resources are going to be less of a going concern (spells and hit points can be replenished through rest), while issues like movement rates and daily random encounter frequency can become a bigger deal. All in all, the wilderness is most of the adventure, at least for a number of sessions: our large 3.0 Wilderlands campaign was mostly one long trek from one dungeon (Necromancer’s Rappan Athuk) to another dungeon (JG’s Dark Tower, although sadly, the campaign ended right before we got there). There were diversions and stops along the way, but the game was largely about wandering through the coastal areas of two enormous campaign maps, and wrecking stuff.

A deep wilderness: multi-layered structure

A deep wilderness is perhaps better connected to the common D&D experience: here, the wilderness expedition part is the connecting tissue between other kinds of adventures, which are substantial on their own. The resulting games may perhaps be better thought of as multi-layered: there are layers of declining size and increasing complexity as you drill down from the “overland map” to the individual hex, and below. To borrow an example from an intermittent campaign I am running,
  1. You have a general setting map (the fallen Roman-inspired empire of Kassadia and its early Renaissance successor city states)…
  2. …but some areas, like “The Forest of Gornate” in the embedded picture, are described in more detail; in my case, as a pointcrawl…
  3. …and some points on this maps are themselves detailed locations (the town of Mur) or separate dungeons (the Great Cleft; the Villa of Lucretia Vinalli; the Hanging Gardens of Marabundus, etc.). In our case, the Great Cleft has Keep on the Borderlands-style mini-dungeons of its own!
Obviously, only selected areas of the broad setting are described in this detail, since it would be extremely time-consuming, not to mention wasteful to extend this treatment to the whole.

A deep wilderness setting places somewhat less emphasis on prolonged travel and its associated procedures. In fact, it tends to anchor players in a smaller area; by drawing them to local adventure areas and getting them involved in local conflicts. Once you start getting entangled in the affairs of local nobles, or drawn deeper into the mysteries of the forest, it makes less sense to just cut ties and travel to Frabotia, let alone Thrygia or the borderlands beyond the northern edge of the map. You could play an entire mini-campaign in a limited area – and we had done so in various corners of the Wilderlands (around Tegel village, on the Wormshead peninsula, in the wastelands and island realms around Zothay).

The game can develop a complexity which does not happen as much on a long itinerary (which tends to encourage episodic play), and the same locations can be reused to an extent where they become familiar, while they can still reveal new challenges and threats. Finding out that the hideout of the beast-cultist was in the Hills of Ligonia all along, or arriving back in Mur to uncover an insurrection plot involving former friends, is an experience. However, you lose the magic of long-range travel: there is something liberating about wide, shallow settings where you can truly head for the horizons to see what is there.

At this point, I don’t know if our campaign in Kassadia will evolve in either direction – this is going to be the result of its natural trajectory – but I see potential in both routes. I would like my players to see red-walled Viaskar and its places of pilgrimage, and go toe-to-toe with the savage Harepsi and their rolling fortresses. Yet I would also like to get them involved in complex local schemes and let them discover interconnections and hidden details. And here is the dilemma: time and the natural lifespan of a campaign will limit how much we can grasp; and depth will have a decisive effect on where our adventures will take us.


  1. ====1. An underlying approach to turn the imaginary world into a game space (hexes or squares, connecting lines, visible landmarks) that can be described by the GM and navigated by the players.

    This I can't accept. When it comes to wilderness exploration or travel there is an experience-altering difference between gaming with a DM who creates his own material - he reads books and retains a massive amount of information in his head - and third party material which requires everything to be spelled out in advance and demands gaming conventions like hexes and other rubbish.

    Gaming contrivances stink. Read books about exploration and the environment becomes infinitely malleable and there is no need for boardgame tat.

    You are always emphasising the importance of actual play but the really important distinction is between the infinite field of original DM material created for his own group and the necessarily itty bitty unrealistic gamey material written down for others to use.

    It is dishonest to blur that distinction and focus on itty bitty gamey theory.

    1. I think you misunderstand how the "boardgame tat" is actually used at the table, how it is a layer of rules just like combat - and although the combat rules don't spell out that we have to describe what actually happens in the fight other than to resolve the actions mechanically, we tend to fill in those gaps.

    2. Exactly. Combat rules establish a common framework to communicate intent and decisions, and resolve declared actions. It does not replicate the experience of the battlefield; it does not even describe the possible range of actions one might take. Yet without that "layer of rules" - a good term - it is all cowboys and Indians - "Bang, you are dead", "No I am not", "Yes you are", etc. It dissolves into narrative muck.

      Wilderness navigation and exploration rules do just that - they establish a common understanding of the game world. Such as...
      1) "We travel southeast" (hex-crawl)
      2) "We proceed southeast along the forest trail" (pointcrawl)
      3) "We strike for the ruined tower on the riverside we saw from the top of the ridge".
      This can all be elaborated and integrated into a naturalistic understanding of the game world, but that is a different concern - describing the game world in a colourful yet effective fashion, communicating mood, and giving the players a mind's eye vision of the locale. That is also important (the Forest of Gornate managed to spook my players pretty well this Sunday), but not the subject of this post.

  2. There is another option, only a bit more laborious, that allows to move in the continuum of space instead of the discretized versions of a point or a hexcrawl. What you basically need to do is actually map a region, say a hex at a hiking map scale. Once my players finish their current exploration of the Lightless Hills, I will share how it is done pragmatically.

    1. I will be interested to read about it. The Alexandrian ran a long series on wilderness adventures a few years ago, but it struck me as too much of a good thing - realism at the price of playability.

  3. Amazing article, as usual. Now we eagerly await the Thief PC Game to Tabletop RPG lessons!

    (I'll be in Budapest in June btw)

    Zulgyan, Santiago

    1. Let me know when - would be happy to meet you if we can find a time. My e-mail is gabor dot lux at gmail.