Monday, September 29, 2014

Setting Forth

Following up on last Friday's post, let's assume that the party has worked out their differences and decided to enter into the forest to see what's what.  We know as the DM that the goblins are a village of about 30, with 4 dire wolves, about five miles into the wilderness.  At this time, I've been generally assuming that the wilderness will be trees - because this was originally supposed to be a scene in eastern Transylvania I was going to run for one of my offline parties two weeks ago - but the running was cancelled on account of illness.  No matter, I'll come up with something else for the party.

From my perspective, that is what I do where it comes to choosing what happens to the party.  I 'come up with things.'  Initially, it won't be anything more than what we've done so far - scene, dialogue and the expectation that the party will make a decision.  Describing the scene and waiting for the party to approach will typically take about 15 minutes.  The dialogue - mixed with the party talking among themselves, about another half hour.  The decision to enter the wood or move on - well, that can take anything from two minutes up to an hour.  I don't see the time as 'wasted.'  The party will discuss the matter, strategies, take stock of their equipment and so on - about the same actual amount of time one might expect a party to spend if it really were preparing itself to head off-road into an unsure situation.

I'm not bored while this is happening because I'm listening to the party, taking stock myself, answering questions and keeping the tension level up by keeping information to a minimum.  The party will ask all sorts of questions that are designed to make me 'show my hand.'  They'll come up with some idea and one will ask me, "Does that sound good?"

To this I will answer, "How would I know?" - while both player and I know damned well that I do know exactly whether it will work.  The player's goal isn't to get an answer, its to get the facial expression they're hoping for, the reveal in the poker face that tells them they're good.  I disappoint them, however.  The practice itself develops from playing DMs who wear too much of their game on their sleeve - and I don't.  It is what I meant when I spoke on Friday about indifference being a tool.

What, then, is in the forest?  Have I spent hours carefully detailing the goblins?  Have I sketched out a map of the forest?  Do I have the entire adventure planned?  The answer to that is yes and no.

On one level, I am improvising.  I am not, however, 'winging it.'  That would suggest that I've made no preparations and that's patently false.  I have carefully designed an extensive series of maps.  I have detailed information about the topography and what sort of forest this is.  My understanding of the domain (or region) is thorough and precise - and I am operating on certain principles that I have operated on time and time again.

The goblins do not live in a cave.  The forest is set among a bunch of low, gentle hills in an empty hex near the cobbled road, and as the hills are made of granite there are few significant caves.  Food is easier to raise in the outdoors, and these are only 30 goblins.  Set 5 miles from the road, they might just as well be on another so far as they concern the local authorities.  Everyone knows those hills are wild; they have no significant economic value, so no one cares if a group of goblins take up residence.  Goblins, human cotters, what the hell difference does it make to the lords of the domain?

As we drive around in cars most of the time, we have a piss-poor understanding of how far five miles is.  If you set out right now, walking on paved sidewalks laid out in a straight line, you'd manage five miles in about an hour and a quarter - presuming you were in good enough shape to keep up a strong pace.  If I replace the sidewalks with a well-cut pathway, wide enough for two or three to walk abreast, where logs have been laid down on soft places and across banked streams, figure about two hours - perhaps more, as the path won't be straight, adding distance to your walk.  Now make the path two feet wide, with roots, without any logs and through the slopes created by even moderate hills.  Better call that three hours now - with a needed rest, probably around three and a half.  If you're not in good shape (and the mages won't be), your feet will hurt, your back too from the pack, you'll be sweating and somewhat grimy from the march.  But at least you'll feel confident you're getting there.

But are you?  We tend to think of the 'wilderness' as a place where we drive out to the mountains, unload at the parking lot and take the trail along Boom Creek, through the Black Rock Mountain or on to Walcott Lake with the understanding that we know where we're going and approximately how long it will take to get there.  Here, however, we're walking into a thick forest with no idea whatsoever!  We don't know how deep in the goblins are.  How far do you walk in before you quit?  A mile?  Two?  Ten?

Now get rid of the trail.  Why would there be a trail?  What, the goblins cut a trail to take them specifically to this place in the road, so they can hit people as they ride through what, once every 12 days?  There's no way there's a trail!  Maybe there is deep in the forest, back a mile from the road, but which direction?  You and your party could wander two to five miles in the wrong direction (veering off by 20 degrees would be enough) and go right past the goblin trail, the goblin village and right out of the hills on the other side three days later.

Even if you find a trail, how do you know its the right one?  How will you know which direction to walk?  You could lose hours taking the trail until it up and dies some several hundred yards from a completely different human village, way off road.  Or to a hunting blind, used by - how would you know?

Well, the answer is always the 'ranger,' isn't it?  So let's presume you have a ranger, and you're tracking the goblins through the forest with no path.  Naturally, this is easy, because the goblins pack close together in tight formation, destroying the undergrowth as they go . . .

Except they don't.  I've walked through some very empty wilderness with no specific pathway and from experience, I can tell you that an untrained party tends to drift apart.  Four or five people will break up as they cross deadfalls, seek what they think is the easiest path and generally scout their way forward.  This is actually better, if you don't know precisely where the creek is and there's no path to get there.  The best fishing places on Boom Creek, which I linked above, sit about 2000 yards below the trail following the north ridge.  At some point, early afternoon, if you want to fish those places, you turn off the trail and drop into the wood.  There's no path because most who take the trail are merely heading up to Boom Lake for the sake of the hike.  The fishermen turn off the trail depending on where they personally like to fish.

As you drop off, the slope is about 30-degrees, with a pine-needle floor that kills undergrowth and makes it easy to keep your fellows in sight - but the forest is ancient and protected and there's a dead tree about every 15 feet.  It's a bitch to get down those 2000 yards - but at the bottom you find this:

Not my picture, found it on line - but I have fished
this exact bend.
It's a pretty meadow, with grass and soft moss.  In some places the creek is slow and five feet deep, so clear you can see the trout sitting on the bottom ignoring the spoon hook you've patiently dropped two inches in front of its nose.  Mostly its brown and rainbow trout, one to two pounds, good fighters. 'Tis one of my favorite places, though I haven't been up there in years.

A ranger is going to have a lot of trouble following one goblin's track in a forest of deadfalls and pine-needles, but let's say he's done it - and let's be Hollywood and say that the ranger can tell a human's foot is being dragged over the ground.  Let's say further that the ranger actually finds a trail and that it's one made and used by goblins (the ranger can tell).  Goblin tracks go both ways, but our ranger can somehow tell that the more recent tracks, or perhaps the greatest number of tracks, head in a certain direction.  The trail is narrow, designed for 50 lb. creatures, but the party gamely starts along it.

As I say, however, that doesn't mean they get there in the next five minutes.

If I started running at 7:00, the party started arguing about entering the forest around quarter to eight; they started in an average of let's say 8:15.  I describe the forest, the problems of the forest, and that takes us to around 8:30 - 8:45.  We can't say nothing has happened, can we?  The party is adventuring, they're blood is up, they're worried about what they'll find and every once in awhile I describe Mazonn's anguish at wanting to find his wife.

It's too soon to find the village - that would suggest it was easy.  I suggest that the party is tired and thirsty, and that they should take a break and eat something.  They discuss what to eat, share it around and realize all of the sudden they don't have that much food.

I've been running now for nearly two hours, creating almost continuously (and people wonder what I get out of it) - and now its a good time to call a break for the party so they can get up, eat themselves, stretch, use the bathroom and chatter away.  Meanwhile, I turn off the screen that shows the party what's on my desktop and I begin working on an upcoming encounter.  Now is a good time for one.


Speaking of erstwhile expeditions into the wilderness, linked here is an extreme example, the 1962 Canadian short film Nahanni.


  1. Watched Nahanni - holy cow. One week for that waterfall. The sheer amount of Canadian wilderness is always so astounding; and yet, it is irrevocably destroyed so easily.

    More on topic, the DMG has a mixture of rules for lost parties. Do you mostly stick to them, or have you expanded the concept? Seems like it would be a good - if evil - opportunity to warn players about the dangers of heading into the wilderness with little supplies.

    Not to mention, it really kicks the hero out of you when you're ready to help save the day and you realize there's almost no way you can survive long enough to accomplish it.

  2. "the party started arguing about entering the forest around quarter to eight; they started in an average of let's say 8:15. I describe the forest, the problems of the forest, and that takes us to around 8:30 - 8:45."

    I doubt that my description of my forests, and the problems faced by the tracking party within them would last 15 minutes, let alone 30 minutes. I am envious of your knowledge of topography that allows you to transpose such texture and grit into your settings. I have been thinking that my forests have been a little flat, and too easy to navigate lately.

    I am enjoying reading these posts about creating tension. They are helping me solve questions I have about my sandbox campaign.

    Since reading How to Run, I have been wondering about preparing adventures. How much and what to prepare, should I prepare at all beyond concepts, because my players might pass over them? (which they do a lot. I am wondering now if its the way I describe or set up the hooks). If I prepare adventures am I even really running a sandbox campaign? But, I need to prepare, because my "winging it" doesn't always cut it for my campaign. I don't know why this is all so confusing to me either. My only solace is that the questions all stop when I pick up the pencil to write for my campaign.

    Now, I think you are saying is that adventure hooks need to be carefully crafted to get the players interested. Once the players are hooked (hooked and not bribed or coerced), the adventure is then steered by the players' choices and ability (in this example, steered by the adeptness of ranger). Sounds like a slam dunk outline to me.

  3. Barrow,

    Think of it this way. If an ordinary street prostitute mugs you and forces you into an alley, that's a 'railroad.'

    If a staggeringly beautiful, educated call girl has her breasts augmented, then wears the most impressive corset you have ever seen in your life, to the point where you find it impossible to say no to whatever she asks, that's a 'sandbox.'

    That help?


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