So yesterday we had a great game session where the characters ventured out into the wilderness in the pursuit of various adventure hooks, some campaign-specific and some plainly mercenary. There were forgotten ruins, great stone heads vomiting poisonous snakes, a griffin attack on the party’s lone horse thwarted by a very fortunate gust of wind spell, mountain lakes with magical ice, a mud pit full of giant leeches a PC just walked into, and mysterious stone circles with runic messages. A good time was had by all. The evening before yesterday, I was panicking over a blank piece of paper and The Tome of Adventure Design, trying to make a few feeble sparks of creativity catch on fire while the clock was ticking away. That happens every time I write a wilderness adventure, and no matter the practice and the fact that I’m quite good at running them, it doesn’t get much better. Writing wilderness adventures is surprisingly hard if we don’t fall back on a few overused concepts (which I’ll discuss below).
There is a good reason so many D&D adventures take place in dungeons, and that’s not just because descending into a mysterious underworld full of danger and riches is such a compelling idea. Dungeons are one of the most successful game structures, balancing ease of use with a lot of potential for complexity and depth. And of course, a lot of the rules (including spell descriptions) apply to dungeons, or are formulated in the context of dungeons. Dungeons gave us the original language for location-based adventures, and this legacy shows up in most game materials, even those that don’t describe dungeons per se, but look and feel like them anyway. “Dungeon-likes” may be the most common form of RPG scenario next to mission-based ones.
|Scorpion Swamp: the original pointcrawl
Sadly, the OD&D booklets never developed a comparably powerful engine for adventuring above ground. There are a lot of fascinating ideas scattered in the text of The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures which outline some kind of implied setting, but I am not sure Gary & Co. ever used them that cohesively or comprehensively. Whatever its virtues, it didn’t catch the popular imagination and was pretty much forgotten until interest was rekindled in OD&D in the 2000s. Pretty much the same happened to Judges Guild’s simple and amazingly functional campaign hexagon system – there are a lot of hex maps in 1980s and 1990s game products, but they are vestigial, used only to measure distances, and not to structure and run game space. On the other side of the coin, the wilderness exploration guidelines in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide don’t form a complete system: they are disconnected ideas which relate to running a wilderness, but don’t present clear procedures you should follow in play. In the end, more space in the DMG is dedicated to aerial combat than designing a wilderness. The Fighting Fantasy gamebook series had the great Scorpion Swamp by Steve Jackson (the American one), which mapped a swamp on a square grid consisting of “clearings”, each with some kind of encounter in it. This was perhaps the best model for a non-linear wilderness game, but it didn’t really cross-pollinate tabletop games.
We know a lot about the megadungeon (“the mythic underworld”), but we don’t even have an approximately developed idea about the... megawilderness (Moorcock called it “the exotic landscape” in Wizardry and Wild Romance). The wilderness as a place of fantastic dangers, natural wonders, monstrous adversaries and lost history has even more precedents in fantasy literature than big dungeons, and wilderness maps are a very big thing in fantasy fandom, but it has not been distilled into a coherent package of rules, guidelines and building blocks. The closest is the hex-crawl, which gives you large-scale travel based on day-to-day movements on a hex map, features of interest to explore, and random encounter charts to complicate things. It is the best way I know to run grand expeditions. But even the mighty Judges Guild stumbled when it came to packaging a smaller piece of wilderness into an adventure. Hexes fail when they are applied to finer terrain (there is both too many and not enough of them), and that doesn’t even cover filling the wilderness with interesting encounters.
The consequences have been with us ever since. Where running a place consisting of connected rooms and passages has established standards and a lot of helpful techniques and idea generators, the same does not apply to running an open landscape. In the absence of translating the idea of traversing fantastic landscapes and discovering danger and riches therein into a gameable thing, we have a tendency to reach for crutches and substitutes.
|Eriador, land of poor road planning
One of the big ones is roads. Roads connect big hubs of activity like cities and dungeons, and they can have interesting stops (inns, encounters, things to see and roadside lairs to explore), which makes for an exciting journey. Roads can be concrete or figurative (rivers, valleys, etc.). Roads are the easiest, but they are also lazy and they make players lazy. Like the overly linear dungeon, they cultivate bad habits and lack the true feeling of discovery. For all the care I invest in my wilderness maps, my players still have an annoying habit of staying on the roads, and missing out on several points of interest. I either have to point them directly at the vicinity, or yank the rug from underneath their feet to prod them into expedition mode. This is a big reason why my settings increasingly lack developed road networks, and occasional trails taper off after a few hexes. (Seas and large bodies of water also encourage a sort of open exploration approach.)
Another substitute for deep wilderness action is to populate the wilderness with dungeons instead of treating it as one. This is the classic case of falling back on familiar modes of play to avoid getting tangled up in a less defined one. Mini-dungeons are easy to develop on a tight time budget, and they give a good bang for the buck. But the moment you are entering a mini-dungeon is also the moment you are exiting the wilderness. You can even see it in Wilderlands of High Fantasy, whose wilderness is populated with “Citadels & Castles”, “Ruins & Relics”, “Idyllic Islands” and “Lurid Lairs”. They are very much about non-wildernessy things you find in the wilderness.
The third substitute is to use monster encounters, and lots of them. This is largely logical – you stock a dungeon with dungeon monsters, and you stock a wilderness with wilderness monsters. The monsters have lairs and they can also be found roaming at random and maybe having conflicts and interactions with each other. But just like a dungeon filled with monster closets feels one-note, so does a wilderness filled with monster closets.
Perhaps we are still missing the forest for the trees?
So then what about true wilderness play? There is no big solution in this post, and some of it feels a bit obvious to restate – but here it goes. It should be something analogous to a developed dungeon, but use the fantastic game logic of the exotic landscape instead of the fantastic game logic of the mythic underworld. It should be intuitively understandable and easy to replicate in preparation and play. Here are just a few things which I think deserve thought and attention.
There should be a robust movement system to help players navigate. This can be a combination of the point-crawl (a system of lines connecting encounters in an interesting way, like a dungeon’s corridors and rooms), landmark-based navigation (approaching, avoiding, or leaving behind natural and man-made landmarks and distinct terrain features), and compass-based movement (move in any of the eight cardinal and ordinal directions). This system should be gamey, but flexible, with broad applicability. No need to figure movement points or cross-reference encumbrance with terrain types, but there should be a way to let both the GM and the players describe the party’s movement through the wilds in simple terms.
It is useful to have good, simple procedures for exploration. Dungeoneering procedures tell you how to get across a chasm, keep an expedition’s progress lit, batter down a door and so on. Likewise, wilderness procedures should tell us about foraging for food, keeping watch at night, navigating a treacherous mountain trail, taking care of pack animals, and spotting important landmarks from a distance. None of these should be more complicated than a few routine player decisions and a few dice rolls – after all, the emphasis is on dangerous and fantastic things, and the exploration procedures serve to ground them in a sense of reality.
Connected to the previous point, there is perhaps some need to reconsider game rules from the wilderness perspective. This is not a new thing, since things worked differently in OD&D’s dungeons and wilderness sections, but it has been only inadequately explored. If, say, spells were written with the dungeon in mind, how do they work in a forest? In the mountains? Can I lift a fallen tree from our path with an open doors check?
|Mapping a wilderness
But above all, we should reconsider what makes a good wilderness encounter. Beyond monster encounters, dungeons have flavour (dungeon dressing), traps, tricks and enigmas. What are the equivalents out on a wilderness site? This is the main question. Of course, a lot of dungeon accoutrements have a place in the wilderness. Mysterious statues, glittering pools, or deep chasms with something interesting down on the bottom feel as much at home in an enchanted forest as in the underworld. Mechanical traps and secret doors are harder to find counterparts for. Treacherous ground? Malevolent vegetation? Something hidden in the roots of a massive tree? These should be encounters where the characters can observe, experiment, and come up with unorthodox ideas to cut Gordian knots. How do we get across a raging river? Do we take the slippery-looking and altogether too convenient bridge, or do we create our own rope bridge? How do we investigate a seemingly abandoned hut? These open questions make for memorable adventures full of improvisation and ‘Eureka!’ moments.
The greatest potential lies in putting ideas from adventure novels, movies, mythology and fantasy into the context of a magical, gamified landscape, and mashing them up until they are their own thing. These are the equivalents of the true dungeon trick/enigma, like the enchanted field, the tree laden with different kinds of magical fruits, the burial grove where the long dead rise to consult the living, and many such ideas. They are not about the literal translation of original concepts, but creating something new through the power of dream logic and loose association. It is somewhere in these foundations that we will find the true idea of the megawilderness, and give it a form we can bottle and distribute to other gamers.