Kareem pulled himself over the ridge, rolling to his feet to take in the valley. Waterfalls crashed over cliff faces before disappearing into verdant mangroves thousands of feet below. Lush green canopies carpeted the valley floor, stretching to the horizon in a sea of green. Framing it all, granite peaks rose toward the sky, a crown of grey rock illuminated by the arcane auroras coruscating between them.
“Worth the climb, I hope?” said Yara. The gnoll was perched comfortably on a nearby rock.
“Every step,” he replied.
Wilderness exploration has always been integral to the game. Even in its earliest forms, Outdoor Survival was considered an important addition while campaign structures like hex crawls and the West Marches setting have kept that tradition alive. In a genre dedicated to diving into the new and unknown, this is no surprise. The wilderness is home to some of the greatest wonders of the world, sights and experiences that inspire people to just head into the wild for weeks at a time. In fantasy, the wilderness is home to impossible sights and unparalleled beauty found possibly nowhere else.
However, often enough the wilderness is treated not as a setting but as a medium for getting somewhere else. A type of terrain, a modifier to speed, and a random encounter table to spice things up with some fights. This article series will expand on how you use the wilderness and provide tools for treating it as a setting in its own right, or to more closely tie it to the rest of your campaign.
The problem is twofold. The mechanics that interact with wilderness exploration actively encourage treating it as a road between other locations. Random encounter tables, rationing food, and travel rules interact to encourage players to get through the wild before their resources run out. Abilities that interact with wilderness exploration, notably the ranger’s Natural Explorer, largely serve to simplify it and reduce interaction with its mechanics.
Meanwhile, many tables simply play in ways that don’t obviously interact with the wilderness. A campaign revolving around political intrigue and dungeons doesn’t obviously have a clear hook to head into the wilds. Similarly, many players and GMs don’t see opportunities for the parts of the game they enjoy in a trip into the woods.
The solutions to these problems are manifold and varied, but they all start with a single step: present interesting choices.
A trip into the wilderness shouldn’t just be a check as to what resources you brought and if you can punch through whatever comes up on the encounter table. It should bring up choices and opportunities you wouldn’t have in a developed area. Presenting these choices helps define areas of the wilderness as discrete locations and helps to invest characters in the areas they’re moving through. It also provides mechanical and story hooks to integrate wilderness exploration into your campaign.
The form of those choices is going to vary based on the nature of your campaign. Hex crawls want fundamentally different things out of a vibrant, interactive wilderness than story-driven epics and more casual games. A decision based on rationing and per-day movement speed could be gripping in a hex crawl but probably won’t be of interest in a more narrative game. Similarly, a choice based on long-term plot consequences is going to be far more compelling in a narrative game than a hex crawl. The following are some broad categories and the sort of games they might work with.
Morton’s Fork. Provide two routes to reach a destination, each of which go through different areas. One should have unpleasant long-term consequences while the other will be a more difficult journey. For example, taking a short cut through rough terrain that isn’t favored by the party ranger versus risking a villain’s plot initiating before the party arrives on the scene in exchange for a safer journey. This often works best in narrative campaigns where those long-term consequences likely affect NPCs or plot elements that characters are invested in.
A Choice of Opportunities. Distract a party from their intended destination with a tempting but unknown distraction. The trail of a fabulous treasure heads into enchanting new terrain, but the party has planned and equipped themselves for a different sort of adventure entirely. The choice is two-part, does the party go for the distraction, and if they do, do they tax their resources and push their luck by trying to hit their original target afterward. This works best in mechanically intensive games where taxed resources and pre-planning are most important but can work in almost any campaign.
Forced Improvisation. A storm, collapsed road, or similar disaster has made the characters’ route impassable. There are other ways forward, but the characters must pick one with relatively limited information. In narrative games, this can come off as delaying the plot rather than a meaningful choice. However, it works well in hex crawls where a choice of new, fascinating things to explore is a choice of good options rather than damage control. It’s also a good way to push characters toward cool, naturalistic set pieces.
Providing an interesting choice and then following up with a few survival checks and a random encounter doesn’t make the wilderness an engaging location. You still need engaging content that gives areas their own identity and convinces everyone at the table that they are something worth exploring. To accomplish this, the next articles in this series are going to be about revamping random encounters and characterizing the wilderness.