Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cross-country Cutting

In writing about filling hexes on Sunday, I recalled an incident that happened to me some years ago when I used to hunt upland game.  I was carrying a 12-guage shotgun, and making my way along the edge of a coolie - which is a sort of sloped ravine, typically 10 to 15 metres deep and 40-60 metres wide.  The slope was covered in buffalo brush - a sort of tight scrub that grows where there's a lot of water, nine feet high and so thick that even when there are no leaves on the branches you can't see past a couple of metres.  But the branches are very thin and you can push through it if you're willing to work hard.

I was.  I had decided for some reason that I would walk along the bottom of the coolie for a half mile or so, and see if I couldn't scare up game down there.  So pointing the shotgun into the air, with the safety on (naturally), I plunged into the buffalo brush and fought my way to the bottom.

There I found a little brook, not moving very fast, with a hardened cattle run on either side, where the clay had been pounded down to the hardness of concrete.  I also found myself about five metres from a bull, whose set of horns was about, say, that wide (picture me holding my hands apart wider than my shoulders).  And it was looking right at me.

I want to say at this point that I did not feel at all comforted that I had in my hand a fully loaded shotgun.  I did not think it would be much help.

I have had, in my years as a Canadian, the opportunity of walking cross-country through the western prairie, the Canadian shield and through parts of the Rocky Mountains, and there are certain truths to be considered.  Now when I say 'cross-country,' I mean up to and including areas where there are no fireroads, no trails, no paths of any kind.  I mean taking a trajectory through the bush at a given point and striking out for whatever might be on the other side.

It is never as convenient as it appears in film.  The back country is loaded with fallen trees, overgrown vegetation, sloppy bogs, soggy bottomlands, roots, stones and boulders, creeks and rivers.  A traveller in this environment is going to get scratched up, is going to get wet, and will from time to time find themselves in a compromising position at exactly the moment when one does not want to be - such as, with both legs straddling a mossy, soaking dead tree and one foot caught between other dead trees in the same pile.  Very often the river courses will not have convenient stepping stones, or will be six to eight feet deep immediately next to the bank without any means across except to swim.  The countryside will be full of blind corners, or wide open exposed places where there is nowhere to hide, where a party would need to either scurry across in plain sight or blunder through the area in blindness, the way I did with that bull.

Of course, one can be 'prissy' when walking through the wilderness.  They can refuse to climb over fallen trees, or cross rivers except where there are fords, or cut down the brush as they move through, or circumvent the thickest growths.  They can argue that they won't be 'caught' with their pants down defecating next to some tree, and are prepared to wait for a 'proper' facility - such are the principles of many people that I have unfortunately been hiking with.

But something that needs to be understood is that, in some of the wilder places that we know about, 'going around' is a fruitless option if any sort of travel is to be managed.  Depending on the thickness of the brush, the general terrain and the recent weather, yes, it can take four hours or more to travel only one mile through a given area.  And this includes getting one's feet wet and a load of other discomforts.  The action of candy-stepping through the wilderness only increases the time variable by 'n' to the point of zero gain.  Worse, going around obstacles with fervent insistence virtually ensures that one will become disoriented and lost, and in very little time.

The reason why I bring any of this up is to suggest to the DM that the party will be caught with its pants down on occasion after occasion, because the terrain makes it so.  It is all well and good to argue that they are a couple of feet from one another while travelling along a road, but rough terrain will break up a party into fragments, easily hundreds of metres apart, as one member of the party (the tallest and strongest) forages ahead, while others drag along after.  Arguments that the party would 'stick together' again reduces the overall travel speed immensely, and ignores the reality that the fastest moving and most agile members of a party can save the straggling members much time by striking out ahead and finding what routes are most practical.  Human beings are not made to walk through such country as though they were tethered together ... they naturally become impatient with slower companions, who in turn tend to select their actual routes through the wild according to their own tastes.  This is to say, simply because the ranger will leap over that four foot trunk with the greatest of ease will not mean that the dwarf won't notice an easier place to cross ten or twelve metres to the left.  It is natural for each person to think for themselves in just such a matter - for the ranger to not think about the dwarf when his or her eye is upon the crest of the mountain two miles away and not measuring the height of the obstacle he or she has just crossed.

So I sometimes find myself in an argument with a party when I patiently try to explain that, no, they can't all strike at the owlbear this round - in fact, it will take six or ten rounds for some of the party to get within striking distance.  Yes, sometimes when it comes to killing that giant centipede, the illusionist is on their own.  Too bad, so sad, that's life in the wild.

Oh, yes, I did sort of leave the gentle reader hanging with regards to the bull.  I would like to report with a very glad heart that the bull was, initially, completely disinterested in me.  Moving very slowly, I lightfooted it across the brook - it was less than a metre wide - and decided that as long as the bull wasn't going to bother me, I wasn't going to bother it.  So I began making as wide a circle around it as the bottom of the coolie allowed, not taking my eyes off it for a second.

At this point, apparently, my father - who was on the top of the coolie on the side opposite to where I had been - could see me making my little route around the bull ... who stood there bored and chewing its cud as though a man with a shotgun was the most natural thing in the world.  My father could see everything, as the buffalo brush only covered the one slope of the coolie - which is typical.

I got on the other side of the bull and had reached to base of my father's slope, when the bull dropped its head and took a step in my direction.  I can remember to this moment the thud the bull's hoof made as it fell on the ground.  That one step was enough - at once I was five meters up the slope, bounding my way up rather than running.  I heard my father explode with laughter, and in chagrin I stopped, and looked back.  That bull hadn't moved at all.

It sure scared the shit out of me.


R said...

My campaigns have long since shifted from dungeon crawls to wilderness expeditions, but I personally have very limited firsthand experience - so any and all of these anecdotes and musings are vastly helpful.

JDJarvis said...

The wilds can be deceiving and tricky to maneuver. My family had a favorite site we camped at for years. We scoured the woods and knew tiny hard to get to spots well. One day we discovered an old farmhouse foundation just a couple hundred yards from our favorite spot. We'd missed it for years, it was surprising to discover something "new" that close to a place we frequented and knew well.

Dan said...

I've been thinking about how to convey this "sense of place" that wilderness can have. It can be very hard to communicate the almost visceral feel of a fallen moss-covered tree, or a glade of bracken - especially if the recipients spend most of their time in a city.

It can be hard too to remember the infinite variety to be found in countryside if it has been a while myself.

Landscape photos help me a lot here. They act as reminders for interesting features and atmosphere.