Wilderness adventures

Yora

Should be playing D&D instead
So here is a totally simply and non-controversial question: How do you make good wilderness adventures?

There seems to be more or less a consensus that the vast majority of wilderness adventures are not doing a good job. (Though then, that seems to be the case with all adventures in general.)

Why are wilderness adventures so difficult?
 

Two orcs

Officially better than you, according to PoN
My guess is because few people have experience hiking in unmapped wilderness and don't understand the sort of gameable choices you do make. Modern people can easily imagine nagivating an unfamiliar building made of rooms, stairs and halls because we do that all the time.

In wilderness adventures you see choices like "take the short cut over the mountain hex or the longer route around?" or "light a fire to scare off wolves or don't to not alert sentient monsters?" or in an extreme case "eat unfamiliar food because you ran out?". As someone who loves getting lost in the wilderness or even civilized but unfamiliar terrain these don't map well onoto the actual challenges you face that stick with you afterwards. Though I've never crafted an explicit wilderness adventure I'll gather my thoughts and post what I think would be good challenges as I faced them in real life.
 

DangerousPuhson

So ... slow work day? Every day?
Wilderness exploration is just overland travel without a fixed destination, and overland travel is just dungeon exploration without walls, ceilings and floors - your "rooms" become "sites", your "hallways" become "trails", your "doors" become "obstacles".

If you were to take a generic dungeon map and label the hallways with stuff like "Old Hunting Trail" or "The Dragon Highway", label the rooms with stuff like "Village of Fish-dogs" or "Cairn of the Dust Men", and label each door as "angry bridge troll" or "guards who won't let you through without paperwork", you've basically got yourself a wilderness adventure.

Here's some of my thoughts about improving overland travel, if it helps (not trying to promote anything, just easier to communicate verbally):

The rest of it is fleshed out with basically encounter tables thematic to the campaign and locale (forest shit for forest exploration, dwarven shit for the Mountains of Clan Rockbreaker, etc.)
 
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The1True

My my my, we just loooove to hear ourselves don't we?
Why are wilderness adventures so difficult?
Is the question; why are they difficult to design or why are they difficult to run?
I ask because I've been working on a hexcrawl for a while and I have to say it's pretty easy to draw and flesh out a fairly localized wilderness. What's had me bogged down for a while now is the actual play; like the movement/exploration mini-game aspect. There are a lot of cool systems out there (I particularly like the one laid out by the Alexandrian) but I'm still finding them cumbersome and rules heavy. A lot to keep track of on the fly. I'd like to be able to see at a glance the stats for a hex the characters are entering and immediately know how long it will take them to move through it depending on their chosen activities/modes of travel for the adventuring day. I'd also like the system to be gameable i.e. that the players can know these simplified rules of movement and exploration and get involved and be engaged in the hexcrawling metagame the DM is playing behind the screen.

Also. There are some great wilderness adventures out there. I've run "UK5 Eye of the Serpent" as an introductory adventure about a billion times. The actual Hill portion of "B5 Horror on the Hill" is pure gold. And, the point crawls in "Slumbering Ursine Dunes" and "Misty Isles of the Eld" are super-streamlined as well. I guess what all of these scenarios share is a greatly simplified and semi-limited outdoors.
 

Yora

Should be playing D&D instead
I think it's the combination of both. You first need to have a system of procedures around which you can design a scenario, which you can then run according to the procedures.
My perception is that I am not failing at running the adventure as written or as I have prepared it. Instead it's more that the prepared material is insufficient to run fun wilderness activities.
 

Malrex

So ... slow work day? Every day?
The hard part for me with wilderness adventures is where/when to stop when designing them. Dungeons are easy...you give the party some choices on where they want to go, but there are walls and rooms to 'contain' them. Wilderness adventures you are a bit more limited on that...you can throw up some impassable mountains, but then the characters might fly, etc.

But when I run wilderness adventures, I find myself hand waving some of the travel--basically doing quick descriptions about their travel, rolling wandering encounters and getting to the keyed encounters if they are near to them. With my group, the game component missing is the mapping part because they hardly map the wilderness areas, only dungeons. When mapping, that usually breaks up the exploring and encounters found in dungeons, but wilderness things happen more quickly feels like?

In both design and play, I always like to throw in some mini-dungeons in my wilderness adventures--little caves, ruins, or even just cool little areas--big waterfalls with a deep pool, or huge stump--something to give more options. I feel this gives the exploration part more depth, and it breaks up the constant wilderness adventuring with a more 'contained' environment, which adds in the mapping component (at least for my group).

The third aspect that you guys touched on above is the 'environment rules'. Again, I usually hand wave some of them. Once in awhile Ill throw in a rain storm or something which may give characters a choice on what to do (seek shelter or press on). But I don't hand wave too much with extreme environments (snow, desert, oceans, underwater) and like to use some of the rules for that--because the environment can be just like a 'monster' in that it challenges the party and uses up resources.
 

Yora

Should be playing D&D instead
The last part is probably critical.

Whatever the players are doing while crossing the wilderness, something needs to change because of it. If an encounter or obstacle ends and everything is still the same as it was before, the whole thing does feel kind of pointless and like padding. Something needs to be gained or lost as a result of how the players handled things.
Maybe the gain could simply be not taking a several day long detour that consumes food supplies and risks a number of random encounters. It still means the player have a choice between risking a dangerous crossing or taking a detour to find an easier ford.
When you have random encounters that include a small lair for the creature, there should be some gain from clearing it. If most lairs only hold some monsters but no reward, players won't feel like there is a meaningful choice between taking the risk or passing on the reward.
 

Malrex

So ... slow work day? Every day?
The last part is probably critical.

Whatever the players are doing while crossing the wilderness, something needs to change because of it. If an encounter or obstacle ends and everything is still the same as it was before, the whole thing does feel kind of pointless and like padding. Something needs to be gained or lost as a result of how the players handled things.
Maybe the gain could simply be not taking a several day long detour that consumes food supplies and risks a number of random encounters. It still means the player have a choice between risking a dangerous crossing or taking a detour to find an easier ford.
When you have random encounters that include a small lair for the creature, there should be some gain from clearing it. If most lairs only hold some monsters but no reward, players won't feel like there is a meaningful choice between taking the risk or passing on the reward.
Ya, I agree (bolded part). That gives more weight to the player's decisions. I remember hearing from one of my players talking to another--"I wonder what would of happened if we went the other way..." and that felt very satisfying as a DM because I knew...that they knew...that their decisions mattered, which makes the game more interesting.

Rewards---sometimes my wandering encounters have a magic item on it (usually a potion or something small)...otherwise my players would just run away from all wandering encounters knowing there may not be much of a reward and just a tool to strain resources. However, sometimes the reward CAN be the little cave if in an extreme environment situation with freezing winds and blizzard conditions. Suddenly that cave becomes pretty darn valuable.
 

Slick

*eyeroll*
I try to establish certain features ahead of time, usually while the party is staying in some town overnight, or even just asking for directions of talking to passersby on the roads. Most people from rural villages generally wouldn't be very familiar with anything past their immediate surroundings, but the parts of the terrain they were familiar with they would hold a deep, intimate knowledge of. Every creek, every hill, every copse of trees, etc. would likely have some sort of rumor or urban legend about it. Even at the 1-mile scale no hex should be truly empty.

Ideally you get a moment where the party isn't just trudging along and cresting the top of a big hill, they're cresting the top of Harrowed Hill, and they say to each other, "Isn't this the place where those farmers said a flock of white crows appears at midnight? It's getting dark maybe we should camp here tonight and check it out"
Naming significant monsters has a similar effect. Let the players make the connection between the troll lair they stumbled upon and the Beast of Yucca Flats that's been stealing all the livestock.
 
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bryce0lynch

i fucking hate writing ...
Staff member
This thread got me thinking, which is a good thing.

This then makes me turn to the other example we have, the hex crawl, but most hex crawl resources are focused on the mechanics of running it, not the content.

This leads me to thinking of The Wilderness in three different ways:
1. The wilderness as only some place in between you and the dungeon.
2. The wilderness as only some place in between you and your goal (Demon Wolf/sandbox region?)[should this is 1.1 instead of 2?]
3. The wilderness as hex crawl, where the journey is the destination. [Maybe also clearing land/carving out a kingdom?]

1&2 [& Malrex commentary?] are clearly resource game related? That leaves #3, the hex crawl, in relation to Yora's question. And I still don't know the answer to that.

Slick's point is relevant to every in all play styles ever for every game, are the general Yora/Malrex appeal to RPG's being about players making choices. [Even story games? Which is why STORYTELLER games stink so much and Story games and OSR games have a related property?]

Zarathustra's Follow-ups:
1. Are there other types/goals of wilderness adventures?
2. What the fuck is a good hex crawl doing? What are the goals and therefore what should the encounters generally be trying to do?
 

The1True

My my my, we just loooove to hear ourselves don't we?
In response to the question 'What are the goals' which I think also goes to the question of Meaningful Choices running through this thread; I think I got sidetracked from my glorious Megadungeon project (as one does) by my wilderness. I was thinking of all these sandbox CRPG's I had played and the joy I experienced just clearing away the black. I took a trip down memory lane and ran my friends through filling in the blanks on X1 and we had a blast! It's fun to find micro-dungeon/lairs and pick up the odd rando, generic treasure. It's even more fun to occasionally discover a little, out of the way mini-dungeon, even if it maybe eats into the party's planned resources or sets your campaign back a day or two. Best of all though is to uncover an Easter Egg; the true fruit of off the beaten path exploration, a non-critical but still game-changing Artifact or NPC, or previously unavailable character option, or a useful campaign hook; the keys to the hidden side door of the big dungeon or the secret weakness of the BBG.
And if you don't want the PC's wandering all over hell's half acre, set up a point crawl or draw your wilderness with paths and clearings like a dungeon. Players will generally take the easiest route. And when they don't, let them. Make it hard, but don't be a dick about it. They accepted that they wanted to take the road less traveled when they started hacking their way through the prickly ash or broke out the ropes to scale the looming cliffs, so make it hard and throw some hardship and extra encounters at them, but ultimately, unless their wandering off the map, they should succeed. And if they do wander off the map, just level with them. "You're wandering off the map. We can do this. We can explore brand new lands together, but I'm going to be rolling up procedurally generated D&D until I get a break to design something new." Most people will go back unless they hate you or the current adventure.
 

DangerousPuhson

So ... slow work day? Every day?
As you say Bryce, the wilderness as a hex crawl and therefore the journey IS the destination... I think with that in mind, you could say the purpose is "exploration". So ask "why explore?"... I'll tell you why: because there's an expectation that there is something interesting to be found.

Therefore, by the magic of transitive properties, the reason for hex crawls is because there is something worth exploring, and hex crawls are simply the best mechanical option for navigating/exploring larger areas worthy of exploration (hex maps are just compass-friendly grid maps, after all).

Now there's always something interesting to be found in an exploration game ... sites and whatnot. This is not unique to hex crawls, true. Anyone could get that type of exploration using any system. No, the real reason for exploring is because there's an expected cohesion in your world - that you, as the GM, have created a legit interesting environment that's all tied together into a visionary "big picture", and that the only way to see the "big picture" is to eat it bite by bite (or explore it hex by hex, if you're into the whole "accurate communication" thing).

If Middle Earth were described as "Moria is in the mountains, Weathertop is near Bree, the Shire is in the West", people wouldn't give a shit. It's the whole story of Middle Earth that is interesting - all the people, the history, the events - THOSE are what people want to know about, and you can't get a good picture of that by simply visiting a few major sites of interest. You've got to see the forest that Saruman cut down to build the goblin spawning pits, complete with pissed-off ents, flooded tower, and funeral pyre. You've got to see the shattered walls at Minas Tirith, with mangled orcs, dead men and elves side by side, and the splattering of Gondor's steward. You've got to visit the spot where Frodo dropped the ring into Mount Doom, beyond the black gates of Mordor, past the caves of Shelob, under the eye of Sauron.

People don't explore Isle of the Unknown because they want to see a specific interesting tree or monster cave or whatever - they do it because there is a bigger picture to understand... a story to tell... a mystery to reveal. What is this "Island of the Unknown"? How can we make it known? Explore the fuck out of it, hex by hex if need be. THAT'S why hexcrawls are a thing. THAT'S the purpose of them.

Resource management, meaningful choices, strange encounters... it's all just pieces of the greater puzzle. Things to keep the exploration moving. The real treasure was inside us all along finally understanding the place you're exploring.
 
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The1True

My my my, we just loooove to hear ourselves don't we?
Sorry, that got long. I've been thinking about this subject for a while! So this goes back to what I was saying about notation. Exploration is fun, but sometimes you just want to get to where your going. I'm looking for a form of notation that allows me to scan the text and know how long it will take the PC's to pass through each hex on their way and know which features in the hex are obvious enough that I can mention them to the PC's as they pass by. So you can quickly offer options. "There's a couple of paths to the Tower o' Doom: The shortcut through the swamp. The deer trail through the forest. And, the old road around the hills." Now there's choices and I can quickly build a narrative from each one. "It takes 2 days through the forest. On the way you spotted some mysteeeerious standing stones in a barren clearing". Put a bookmark in it. Skip the random encounters unless you like flavour encounters. The PC's are on a mission. Save the random hassle for when they come back to look at those stones.
I'm getting off track here. The point is. I want to be able to read each hex's notation very quickly and be able to do the necessary travel math with as little Advanced Accountants and Actuaries as possible. I'm thinking whatever edition you play, there's four speeds: Ranger/Regular/Dwarf/Encumbered Dwarf, so just post their travel time at the top of the text block. Like, 'this hex takes .75/1/1.5/2 hrs to travel'
...
Ech. Even that seams too much, but if I go the other way and say 'this is a 1 hr hex' then I'm off applying mods to figure out travel times for slower or faster parties, for cautious travel, for systematic exploration, for cautious exploration, for forced marches etc. I really want these numbers at my finger tips. I don't want to have to dig through the rules manual or the map key for what effects a hilly woods with a road through it has on the various modes of travel.
 

Yora

Should be playing D&D instead
Isn't that indicated by the colors of the hexes? Plains hexes count as x miles, forest and hills hexes count as 2x miles, swamps and mountains hexes count as 3x miles. I think that's the reason hexes exist in the first place.
However, this works best when you have all numbers be a multiple of the same base number. Like 6. Normal human speed is 24 miles per day, that's 4 hexes. Forest hexes count double, so you can move through one plains, one forest (2x), and one plains hex during one day. Problem is that D&D never did this, unless I am mistaken.

I was fiddling around with that but then just dropped hexes entirely and switched to pointcrawl.
I tried to put something together that works quick and painlessly while being fully compatible with the distances and speeds listed in 5th Edition, but eventually decided to throw all of that out and whip up something entirely new from scratch. Those are all make believe numbers anyway and the maps I use are scribbled sketches with no consistent scale or precision.

- Terrain comes either in easy (plains) or in difficult (forest, swamp, mountains). Difficult terrain means movement progress is half as fast.
- The path between any two points get divided into segments, each segment being roughly in the range of 6 miles for easy terrrain, and roughly 3 miles in difficult terrain. (More granularity or precision is not needed.)
- A party that moves without encumbrance can travel 5 segements in a day, an encumbred party 4 segements, and a heavily encumbred party 3 segments. (Different walking speeds for larger or smaller creatures are ignored. Handwave it as stamina or whatever.)
- If the party wishes to move in a hurry, they can get one additional segment covered on that day, but it means they have -5 to passive Perception for the entire journey on that day. (That's a 5th ed. thing.)
- If the party wants to be careful and avoid detection, they can use Stealth while moving but will move one segment less on that day. (Another 5th ed. thing.)
- If the party want to keep moving into the night, they can move additional segments, but for each additional segment all characters have to make a Constitution save of DC 10 + 2 per additional segment or become exhausted.

This is simple. On your GM map you can draw in the likely paths connecting the points on the map and mark the segments with dots or bars in advance. Then, when the party wants to move anywhere, you just check if their movement is 5, 4, or 3 segments per day, check if they want to hurry (+1) or be sneaky (-1) on that day, and count the number of bars on the path on the map to see where they will be at nightfall.
 

Slick

*eyeroll*
1. Are there other types/goals of wilderness adventures?
I could see a hex crawl campaign being built around trying to catch something. Some kind of shifty villain or elusive beast that must be chased around a sandbox using clues and footprints left around.

Alternatively, flip that and run a campaign where the players are on the run from the authorities, constantly being hounded from one hex to the next, establishing safe-houses and secret contacts willing to board them Underground Railroad style.

2. What the fuck is a good hex crawl doing? What are the goals and therefore what should the encounters generally be trying to do?
A good hex crawl is like a good dungeon: it is an area that feels real and alive because the entities within are acting according to their own agendas (regardless of player intervention) and a place where actions have logical consequences.

Encounters in a hex crawl should serve to give more context to the world and therefore enrich the immersive vision the players have in their minds. To this end, they should make sense in their environmental context (they may appear not to make sense upon first contact if that context is not yet known) and most importantly react to player choices on a larger scale than the individual encounter. If a band of orcs inhabits the region, for example, I preestablish what their territory is, including the main lair, any outposts, and their total population. The players should feel tangible effects from winning skirmishes in the wild (e.g. the population dwindles and encounters with them become less frequent) and taking out orcish outposts (human settlements moving in, orcs launching counteroffensives or sending assassins after the party).
 

The1True

My my my, we just loooove to hear ourselves don't we?
This hybrid system over at Detect Magic is pretty on point, but got kind of hand-wavy at the end. I'm back to my problem of notation though. I'm obsessed with moving this theoretical hex/point/path crawling information to a more concrete, succinct, publishable format.
 

Yora

Should be playing D&D instead
You know how it is in these parts. Do it yourself.
Then share it with us.

I never understood the idea or goal behind hexcrawling. I've come across the statement "Exploration is not fun. Discovery is fun." Hexcrawls seem to be mostly empty maps with perhaps every tenth hex you move to having something in it. Which might not be very interesting and dealt with in half an hour. When you discover a dungeon, stronghold, or large lair, I can totally see it being fun. But the aimless roaming sounds not fun in any way.
If you don't roam aimlessly and have a destination and know to path to get there, then it seems there is no reason to use a hexmap.
 

Two orcs

Officially better than you, according to PoN
I have a game design theory that satisfying versimilitude can be reached by starting with real life then putting real life through similar abstraction we use for out own thoughts and memories. This way only the juicy decision points remain.

When travelling overland you don't think in terms of discrete areas like hexes, your position in space is relative to landmarks and exact position is only achieved by unmistakable and unique landmarks (this is the village called X) or an intersection between two large but known landmarks, like a certain fork in the river, where a trail passes a mountain ridge, the sight line from a lake to a certain mountain peak. Navigation becomes an exercise in getting "caught" on landmarks, such as "let's head east till we meet this river". Trouble shooting starts when you should have seen it by now and don't which either means you've attacked at a steeper angle than you intended and should push on or missed it completely and should change course. Course correction can easily overshoot or worsen your angle causing you do go in a circle and waste lots of time.

When exploring completely unknown territory the identification and landmarks and their intersection is how you should fill out your map. A distinct mountain peak is exciting because it means you actually have a chance to find this place again.

The availability of suitable camp sites varies a lot by terrain and weather. Deciding to stop early when you've found an ideal resting place or risk pushing on and having to do with a bad one is reality both in settled and unsettled terrain. Rough fantasy rogues should not be impeded by having to sleep in an incline or by noisy train tracks but the fantastic gives us more exotic options for what rough camping implies, from fire belching gas pockets to evil spirits or ration eating slimes. Finding good campsites should be the equalent of finding a good shortcut or healing fountain in a dungeon, if the surrounding landscape is inhospitable.

The disposition of the local inhabitants and the wildlife. Even in western Europe there are locations where the locals will chase you with bats and there is no quarantee that each village has someone who speaks Common. Reaction rolls are a real thing and even in settled and civilized terrain a stranger can be met with indifference, threats or incredible displays of hospitality that cause delays because of important feasts and their hangovers. Wildlife also has a local disposition, the same species can be aggressive or shy and this varies with season too.

Here is what I do running wilderness adventures in practice:

1. Get a map of a real place, a screenshot from google maps works well.
2. Identify useful landmarks mainly lakes, rivers, mountain Ridges, valleys, settlements. Draw these on a separate layer in gimp.
3. Add fantasy content and unique landmarks such as cairns, dungeons, toppled statues etc.
4. Figure out max visibility distance depending on height.
5. Run the game. Players describe their navigation relative to landmarks or compass directions. Depending on the accuracy of what they navigate with I change their angle of travel a random amount. Terrain modifies speed though this is easy as most places in real life only have a single terrain type for many miles. Make sure that each random encounter has at least something going on to avoid flat situations like "you meet 3 owlbears but your horses easily outrun them".
 

bryce0lynch

i fucking hate writing ...
Staff member
I never understood the idea or goal behind hexcrawling. I've come across the statement "Exploration is not fun. Discovery is fun." Hexcrawls seem to be mostly empty maps with perhaps every tenth hex you move to having something in it. Which might not be very interesting and dealt with in half an hour. When you discover a dungeon, stronghold, or large lair, I can totally see it being fun. But the aimless roaming sounds not fun in any way. If you don't roam aimlessly and have a destination and know to path to get there, then it seems there is no reason to use a hexmap.
There's an element of Fallout (4?) in this. At night, I saw a glowing red light in the distance and headed that way. This means that the vision/distance/landmark stuff is important in a hexcrawl, as are staying in areas that let you let out/down. Same as the dungeon, get the most stuff with the least danger? And as the DM you (might) be riffing off of random elements to stitch together in to something coherent that the players will then exploit?

EDIT: this seems to be somewhat similar to what 2orcs just posted as I typed this.



Also, I've got another section on here where I'm trying to collect hexcrawl resources as research for forming a coherent theory/use behind them, as an FYI.
 

Two orcs

Officially better than you, according to PoN
I've never run a wilderness adventure that was simply "here is the wilderness, go nuts". There is always a goal such as finding a hidden city and the players know the rough location of it or at least a couple of geographical features that are supposed to be near it. By using maps from the real world intuition about terrain gained through experience can be applied (rivers run from the mountains to the sea or a lake, mountains usually hide more mountains, people settle valleys or plains over forests and mountains etc.

Edit: I might add to your resource thread if I formalize my procedure, what I use is mainly the equation for visibility distance: http://www.ringbell.co.uk/info/hdist.htm
Run it once for each landmark and but the number next to it. An 800 foot hill is visible 34.7 miles away if you're lying on the ground. When the players ask to survey use their height and add it to that of the landmarks and compare their distance. If they're on another 800 foot hill they would see hill #1 69.4 miles away.
 
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