Friday, March 27, 2015

What Players Will Accept

Some years ago, a discussion about something called 'wilderness damage' made the rounds of several blogs.  I never implemented it into my campaign (for all it's slashing brilliance), largely because it was bound to be unpopular with my players.  Like many new ideas, it would increase the player's record keeping requirements while at the same time actually making the campaign more strenuous and therefore less pleasant.  Therefore, after several private attempts to play with the idea, I shelved it.

Once digging into the matter, I expected that the most difficult thing to manage would be the weather or the choice of route - those things that appear on the original table I proposed back in 2011.  Instead, the real trouble arises as we consider what individual conditions for each player serve to exascerbate those effects.  Listed below are some of those conditions:

  • wearing armor; types of armor vs. clothing
  • clothing itself; wool vs. cotton vs. linen vs. silk in various climates
  • footwear; hard boots vs. soft boots or sandles
  • shelter; tents vs. 'sleeping under the stars' or choosing to pay money for an inn.
  • constitution; who fares best where it comes to poor weather?
  • dexterity; who is most likely to fall in rough places, the thief or the clumsy cleric?
  • intelligence & wisdom (see above)
  • characters who keep watch vs. those who sleep all night
  • cleaniness vs. filth
  • food that is eaten
  • riding vs. walking
  • rangers & druids vs. other characters
  • elves, gnomes & halflings vs. other characters

It is these individual differences that make it hard for some characters to comfortably make their way through the outback as opposed to others.  Take any expedition where survival became a critical factor:  the Greeley Expedition, the Shackleton Voyage, the Donner Party, Edmund Kennedy's third expedition in Australia, violence that occurs among Canadian surveyors described in Pierre Berton's National Dream, even the 1996 Everest disaster, and the reader cannot help but understand that there are differences in each person's ability to endure.  What is always weird in these cases is that some live, not because they're special or able or strong, but simply because they have a greater will to survive than others.

No system that sets forth to describe the wilderness in terms of damage can be applied equally to all persons.  Some will live.  Some will die.  It is useless to pretend that a system like this can be universal.

The players understand this.  That is why, if said system were put in place, a DM could absolutely count on players producing arguments like, "If I keep my shoes in repair, will I suffer less damage?  What if I carry a lighter weapon?  What if I take a swim in the pond in the middle of a hot day?  Do I take the same amount of damage if I drink more water?"  And so on.

Here is the problem.  Now the solution.

Embrace the chaos.  Why?  Because it is worth all the chaos, all the individual arguments, all the trouble of having to assign point values to every tiny change or infringement on the character's welfare, however long it takes to finally assign (and possibly to program) each aspect into a calculation system that keeps this character going and makes this one take a day of rest.  It is worth it because finally, finally, it would be nice if a journey taken by players actually felt like a journey.  It is worth it if players would only view a distance of 700 miles with doubt and indecision, knowing that its very possible someone will die along the way.  It is worth it if travel isn't just a math problem of dividing the distance between the number of kilometers travelled in a day, producing the number of wandering monster rolls that must be made before the party gets where they're going.

As yet, I have not introduced the rules I conceived with these two posts on climate, here and here.  However, my players' embrace of the ideas has confirmed for me that the 'feel' of my campaigns are changing.  They are steadily moving towards maturity, towards a desire for the kind of problem solving that challenges the norms, that demands a higher approach to overcoming hazards.  I feel that, more than ever, my players are beginning to program themselves towards agreeing that yes, wilderness travel should not be a walk in the park.  It should feel like travel.  The world should be more than fighting in 19th century mobile theatre devices (presented on computer, in my case).

So I am returning to this idea . . . but I have a new twist on it.  Something that I think will massively change the way that parties - particularly young, low-level parties - approach adventure.

Experience for damage taken.  Somehow, in 2011, I was somewhat leery of this idea.  Just now, I can't think of why.  It seems reasonable to me that players, faced with taking damage along a journey from exhaustion or from minor incidents while hunting up wood for a fire, tripping over stones, losing their balance under a heavy pack and so on, would grow stronger and more durable through the simple process of covering the distance between here and yonder.  How many monsters did Lewis and Clark fight?  If you were going to assign 'bonus xp' to their journeys, how much would you give?  Now give me a total for Nikolai Przhevalsky.  For Alexander Gordon Laing.  For Jacob Le Maire.  For Martin Frobisher.  Distance in miles just isn't going to cut it.  Some of these went through deserts, some of these went by ship, some of these hacked their way through jungles.  What measurement are we going to use?

Because surely all these explorers went up levels.  Surely they grew more handy with their knives and weapons, their hands grew calloused, their wits sharper, their minds more ready for the unknown and unexpected.  Don't tell me that because they never had to fight monsters, they're not worthy of being in the upper levels!

Players will do the record keeping if it gets them closer to another level.  We all know that is true.


  1. Brilliant. Slashing genius.

    Now I need to get back to working a random weather generator and I'll be set.

  2. I wish I could show and talk about the work I'm doing with a weather generator right now, Ozymandias. It's too big and unwieldy and not working to talk about yet.

  3. Huh. I completely missed this discussion first time around (probably because in May of 2011 I was dealing with a three month old baby). I certainly would have taken a pass at the concept if I'd seen it.

    While I'm inclined to go more abstract than you (simply considering a character's hit points and level as a measure of their "will to survive"), I do think the "experience for damage taken" is a great idea. It would sure go a ways towards making it more palatable to the players.

    Would you be awarding the same XP you do for damage sustained in combat? Or is "exploration damage" valued on a different scale?

    You'd think the thing would be linked to familiarity with the area, though, yeah? A mountain man who's traversed the same peaks for decades wouldn't be subject to the same damage as PCs experiencing it the first time...and would get a lot less XP for covering the same terrain.

  4. "Familiarity." That's another idea that needed to be included in bullet points. I did say, JB, that the characters would keep coming up with new things.

    That's why a total abstract system won't work - because the players would never be happy with it. They will want to innovate their way around the damage the wilderness does just as they like to innovate around the damage monsters do.

    I was thinking with keeping my standard XP system: 20 x.p. per point of damage taken. I was planning, however, not to include the bonus x.p. that's divided by the party in this case; I feel that a fight against nature is much more individual/personal that fights against monsters. The cuts that someone else in the party gets from climbing over a deadfall seems like less of a reason to award experience than watching them get hacked by an orc.

  5. You've got elves, gnomes, halflings...

    Wouldn't that be more of a 'native to the region'?

    Or would a tropic wood elf get the same benefits in the frigid mountains?

  6. Well, I don't have tropic wood elves in my world, but I get your point.

    It's usually taken for granted (from actual, pre-roleplaying literature) that elves and gnomes were creatures with tremendous woodland skills. I'm merely making reference to that. Individual races, whatever the specific rules for a specific world, would likely have certain benefits over other races. Dwarves, reasonably, would be more adept at jumping from rock to rock in the mountains than elves would.

    So, yes, 'native to the region' would be the call sign. Though perhaps native to the topography might be a better measure (if I can leap frog the high mountains in Norway, I'm probably going to do all right with the high mountains in Colorado).


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.