Jovial Priest tells me that he wants his players to feel that "they are masters of their own destiny," and I assume he is anxious about it since he made the point more than once. I, personally, don't believe in destiny ... and if there were a destiny, I certainly don't think anyone would be in control of it. Either way, I can't think of anything more anathema to the drama of a campaign than in leading the players to think they are the masters of all they survey, just because they ARE players. At least three quarters of the tension I build up in a single campaign is in emphasizing to my players that the world is a damn scary place, and that it will rip them a new one given half a chance. Of that remaining quarter, a good 3/16ths comes from dicking my players around making them think the big scary world is going to rip, and right now, only to produce a feeling of relief when it turns out things aren't as bad as they looked.
That leaves 1/16th of the game spent in player comfort. They have to rest sometime.
My perception that a world - any world - is not something one has authority over probably comes from my being Canadian. There is a fundamental difference between Canadians and Americans - of which, as it happens, both groups tend not to be aware. I learned it myself in my second year of university, when my eyes were forced open with Harold Innis and Northrop Frye. And while it may seem strange for the nationality of the DM to influence the way in which a game is played, the game is based upon the personality of the players, and personality is influenced by environment. Allow me to explain.
It is an American motif that the wilderness is something that was meant to be conquered. American history, with which I am very familiar, revolves around wars perpetrated against the previous inhabitants of the land comprising the nation as it exists now, and wars perpetrated against others wanting that same land. In other words, the land was seized. There is nothing more American than the ideal of the individual American settler battling against all odds to force the land to produce wealth. The land, it must be said, has always been treated as something that is controlled. The perception is deeply held in the American pysche, and for good reason. The land was controlled. It was reworked, reshaped, and brought into line with the desires of the American people.
When an American moves off into the tamed wilderness, there is a sense that this is one's domain, the backyard of one's owned property. There is even a tendency to believe that the wilderness wouldn't dare harm those who deign to walk within it. Of course, that occasionally proves to be wrong ... but only occasionally. There was a recent case in the news where a Canadian couple, following a GPS tracker, managed to lose themselves in the back country of Nevada. The woman was found after 48 days. As far as I know the man is still missing.
I want to make the point about how strange it is when this happens to Canadians ... and how Canadian's feel when they hear about it. My American friends are pissed at the GPS tracker, how it shouldn't have led them astray and how the company ought to be sued. My Canadian friends feel, generally, that the couple deserved what happened to them. Idiots.
The reason for that is that Canadians do not trust their wilderness. They don't believe it can be tamed, or controlled, or made to serve its masters. This is wholly because our wilderness, as opposed to the American wilderness, is a much nastier, colder, more deadly place. It has driven Canadians into what Northrop Frye called a 'garrison mentality.' In his words (emphasis added by me),
"Small and isolated communities surrounded with a physical or psychological ‘frontier,’ separated from one another and from their American and British [Canadian] cultural sources: communities that provide all that their members have in the way of distinctively human values, and that are compelled to feel a great respect for the law and order that holds them together, yet confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting - such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality....In such a society the terror is not for the common enemy....The real terror comes when the individual feels himself becoming an individual, pulling away from the group, losing the sense of driving power that the group gives him, aware of a conflict within himself far subtler than the struggle of morality against evil."
The greatest fear, then, is being alone, and that community is security. And within the D&D campaign, not just the community made up by the party, but the community of the town, the village, the protective influence of the manor structure and even that implied by the existence of a road, which suggests maintenance and authority - even if only on a very small scale.
I believe the Medieval mentality is closer to that of Canada than of the United States, particularly in those northern parts of Europe like Scandinavia, or parts more isolated, like Poland or the highlands of southern France. Canada is a wide, untamed country, even in this day and age, and it is likely to continue to be one for some time. The land here is not so easy to build roads across as in the States; the weather is not so moderate; and the opportunities for crop growing and land exploitation are not nearly so rich. The wilderness will simply kill you ... even if you are prepared for it.
We were discussing last week of how persons of low level or hit points could expect to enter the wilderness for a day or two and survive. I'd like to point out here that, though that might be true, ordinary persons did not travel into the wilderness at all, for any reason. Most persons never had any reason to leave their small plots of land, the nearby meadow, the well-tended copses where they foraged their pigs or the edges of the local creek. Most persons were born, lived and died within 7 miles of the place where they were born, never going anywhere. And when they did go elsewhere, such as with the Crusades, a War, they tended to suffer Death from Famine and Pestilence in large numbers. Beyond one's little world rode the four horsemen ... and there wasn't any question about it.
I wonder sometimes if most people who play D&D really have any idea of just how menacing the wilderness can be. At present, I'm reading this marvelous book which has been on my shelf for at least a decade, and which I have never seriously picked up. It is Arthur Swinson's description of Kohima, the battle fought in 1944 in Assam in the eastern part of India. I am finding I could write a post about virtually any paragraph ... but i want now to post something that describes the wilderness over which the British fought the Japanese:
“The Naga Hills form the northern sector of the great mountain barrier between Burma and India, which runs down from the Himalayas to the sea. To the south lie the Lushai hills and below them the Chin Hills. From end to end the barrier is some six hundred miles long and up to two hundred across; it is a very inhospitable region indeed. The ridges, and therefore the valleys and rivers between them, run from north to south, making any lateral movement extremely hazardous and difficult, even in fine weather. But Assam is wet and includes Charapunge, the wettest place on earth where eight hundred inches of rain have been recorded in a single year. In the monsoon, which lasts from mid-May till early September, the jungle paths sink deep in the mud, and the smallest streams swell quickly into great rivers and cascade towards the south. There is no comfort for man or beast in ‘those hellish jungle mountains’ as General Slim called them; and the insects are an endless torment. There are sand flies, ticks, mosquitoes and leeches. The latter crawl up your legs during the night and suck your blood till they become swollen to [the] bursting point. The mosquitoes must be the largest and most persistent in the world; some strains, such as those around Mao, bringing up great septic sores, and anyone whose face has been attacked might well be in the terminal stages of smallpox. Where insects abound there is always disease; and in Assam one is prey to dengue, scrub typhus, malaria, cholera, scabies, yaws, sprue and every known form of dysentery. There is also the Naga sore, caused by pulling off leeches and leaving their heads beneath the flesh. After four to five days a small blister appears which grows steadily till it is five or six inches across, and destroys not only skin but flesh, and even muscles. The stink from this putrefaction is foul in the extreme, and, unless adequate medical care is available, the victim may die. The correct course (as the troops soon learned) is to let the leech have its fill of blood and drop off, or burn it with a cigarette end.”
That's a long quote. But it needed to be posted in its entirety. Every detail richly describes how characters travelling through such a region would be likely to die regardless of enemies. They would suffer damage, considerable damage, and not in some silly manner that left them one magical hit point at the end of a week. Human beings did enter that forest in 1944, they did die of all those things described above, and they did it with relatively modern equipment and medicine, and with care and concern for the participants. Even a powerful cleric or a mage would be hard pressed to eradicate every bug, cure every disease, administer to every ill, and to do so for a party of more than six to eight persons.
The Naga Hills of Burma and India go Canada one better ... but I would imagine a DM from that region would have a strong sense that the dangers of a campaign are not limited to things that go bump in the night. The NIGHT itself is a legitimate enemy. It's presence and it's influence over the party are very much in the main stream.
This was very much in my mind when I perked at the sound of Zzarchov's damage for wilderness travel in the first place.