Saturday, December 19, 2015

Using the Wilderness

In the dim hours of the morning, kimbo left a comment on yesterday's wilderness point-crawl post, one that has me thinking - specifically about this part:

"To find water, shelter, food for survival. Find a place (a path for an army to advance or bandit stronghold) or a thing (resources for exploitation), find someone or hide/escape. To get through it as fast, discreetly, safely as possible. To acclimatize or learn how to live in that environment. To hunt/trap to earn cash. To establish contact/trust with a group for trade, information or alliance."

I found this prescient, as I had just been working on road development for culture connected with tech-6 in which Wikipedia used the phrase, "communications, trade and governance . . ."  This is not so much coincidence as a firm grip on the principal issues involved.

I'd like to try and discuss kimbo's points one by one, as he's helped clarify some of my thinking on this.

Passing Through

As fast, discreetly, safely as possible.  I think this lends credence to that bugbear that's been hanging over me since 2011, what I've called wilderness damage.  This is a concept that I've smacked my head against on several occasions (last month in fact) only to find myself overwhelmed by the various elements of trying to track the proper amount of damage suffered by individual party members due to terrain, weather, habit, personal equipment carried and so on.  It is the last that proves the most difficult, as in truth each character has to be tracked separately based upon their decisions and level of response to the wilderness.  In structure this gets to be more and more like the problem of managing encumbrance, something very logical but which no player wants to deal with because of the bookkeeping involved.

My players told me frankly last session that they'd be happy to include encumbrance as part of the campaign experience IF it meant no bookkeeping.  They don't mind being slowed down or having a limit to how much they can carry - they DO mind having to track it from moment to moment.  But if I want to make an automated system that will track it for them, they're good with it.

Unfortunately for me, I have more than 1500 items that can be purchased and carried by players - and while I could limit the measured items to just a few (so that the odder stuff counts as 'no weight'), I'm a purist and that makes no sense to me.  The same thing is true with wilderness damage.  I keep thinking that if I don't take into account ALL the possibilities, then I can count on my players finding ways to circumvent any system I build.

I know the answer is to sit down with excel for a month or so and painstaking program a system for either wilderness damage or encumbrance (it could be done!), but I feel a sense of ennui every time I think of it.

I don't know how that die got in there;
they're just laying all over the place.
Still, the wilderness is dangerous - and not just when monsters are around.  If I ask the reader to limit equipment to what would be available for a post-Medieval culture and then send them off into a wild part of Oregon or the Black Forest without any expectation of meeting people/finding services at all, expecting that a good distance is covered, then it will take about a day to get injured to the point where something is bleeding, something is bruised or something is sprained or fractured.  There are dozens of ways in which the wilderness lies in wait to get us - and I know this because books about survival in the wilderness are page heavy and dense in content about all the ways we can die.  The book on the right only covers mountaineering.  There are countless other books that will describe our possible deaths from skiing and snowboarding, scuba diving, surfing, caving or ever being stupid enough to set foot on a boat.  Let's face it - the wilderness is dangerous.

Here's the first point, then: the wilderness is like a huge, natural trap.  It helps to think of a day's journey as walking along a dungeon hallway containing a trap: someone is going to get injured and take damage, possibly everyone.  We should accept that - so that when we think of going off road and into the wilderness, we should also be thinking, "How much damage can we afford to take today?"

Meaning that every other activity in the wilderness is obtained by spending hit points.  That's a little different from a dungeon, where a thief has a chance to see the trap coming.  In the wild, while the ranger might see said trap, chances are the mage, the cleric or the bard won't.  And since the wilderness isn't built out of comfortable, defined and stone-built lines, it's really easy for a character to think, "Oh, I'll just go the other way around this tree."


To hunt/trap to earn cash.  This is generally overlooked, as the wilderness is seen or presented as just a big pile of nothing.  But this isn't true - players just don't think of all that wood standing around in the forest as being valuable because cutting it down and dragging it to market doesn't produce experience points.  Yet players will conscientiously skin a ferret-monster if it will yield 60 g.p. while standing amidst a million g.p. of untouched, uncrowned virgin forest beyond the Keep on the Borderlands with nary a thought.

Because players don't think in those terms; having to cut down all those trees and make coin out of it seems less like adventure and more like their day jobs.  It is sort of funny, however, that the resistance many of us feel towards being self-employed (gawd, I have to organize everything?) keeps the players from doing the same in game when all they have to do is speak the words and write down a few notes.

So putting aside traditional pursuits to gain wealth in the wilderness (starting a mine, running herds over rich green meadows, gathering fish in nets, etcetera), suppose we simply deal with the one 'earn cash' method that does appeal to players: finding the dungeon.

It's always assumed that the dungeon, when it is out there, is easy to find.  I'm as guilty as anyone as I too have grown up on concepts like The Caves of Chaos where obviously every resident of the keep knows where the caves are: "Here, let's go up onto the north wall, I'll point them out to you."  We treat the various dungeons of the game like Disneyland; it's surprising the local town doesn't have a brochure or a local shop where curios from the Caves can be bought cheap.  "Ah, this is a nice piece; a paladin brought this back after a fighter in his party had his head cleaved off by an ogre's axe - see, you can see the tear in the leather armor where the axe hit."  And so on.

Having to actually stumble around in the wilderness for days, even weeks, to find something that doesn't have a tour guide telling you about the place before you get there seems grossly unfair.  Find a dungeon on your own?  One the town doesn't know about?  Nonsense!

Yet it seems to me that players ought to accept a bad week of stumbling over tree roots, slipping off ledges and being carried down raging torrents before lucking out and finding a hole about four feet in diameter under a bush that leads them into an underground wonder.  This is just me.


Hide/escape.  I must confess, I've never had anyone in my world propose rushing into the wilderness in order to escape pursuit.  But then, I haven't chased anyone out of town in a very long time.  Either the locals decide someone needs to die - and then in a very un-Hollywood way fail to give warning that it's about to happen by having hundreds of people stand in the street and give speeches - in which case the character is ordering a beer and gets a knife in the back instead; or the player characters are asked politely to leave.  In which case, they use the road.

My players tend to figure out almost immediately that they've done something wrong - just from knowing the difference between right and wrong.  Thus they usually think, "Wow, we just killed that guy without knowing who he is; maybe we should leave now."  Rarely are my players all, "Why, what did we do?" where it comes to having committed some atrocity that is likely to get them vilified by the locals.  I used to have players like that - but this isn't high school any more.

I think it might be fun to have the players escape into a desert or a forest.  Knowing what my players know, however, they'd have to be really desperate.

Finding Things

This is much more likely.

To find water, shelter, food for survival. Find a place (a path for an army to advance or bandit stronghold) or a thing (resources for exploitation), find someone.  This is much more likely.  I've already mentioned finding dungeons - but this is more of a McGuffin idea, where the one guy has to be located so that the next part of the campaign arc can be attempted.  About a year ago my players decided to slaughter a kobald village, just 'cause.  No problem.  They'd stumbled across the village on the way to the dungeon so they knew where it was.

I spent some of last night organizing the Scouting ability set for rangers - leaving some of the work undone because I find I'm spending too much time trying to hammer down every last detail.  I'm beginning to think the sage process needs some streamlining if I'm ever to finish it - meaning that some of the actual rules will need to be devised in game, where I can apply to the players for aid in deciding what the details should be.  Remember, always ask for help.

I'm hoping that sage abilities like scouting can enable players to survive in a very dangerous wilderness or locate water, shelter and food in a logical, in-game/setting driven manner without my needing to be in the loop as a DM.  I always prefer a random die roll based on a logical probability for deciding these things than by simply declaring that yes, there's a water hole or no, there isn't.  Then if the players have to find something or somebody, the actual distance is established by that thing or person being in a place that is obvious enough that the players can look at a map and decide the probabilities for themselves: "Ah, this hex between two highlands would probably be the best route for a clan or tribe in pursuing game, I bet if we venture towards it we'll find a trail that will lead us to a sizeable camp."

I know that most games have zero concept of this sort of thinking.  Most games absolutely need a Zeke to stand at the entrance, greet the players, go through the tourist schtick and wrap it up by reminding the players that keepsakes can be found at the gift shop.  As a DM I'm fairly tired of that method.  I use it occasionally, I always hate it and I always love it when the players circumvent me by getting their own ideas about things - which they will do only if they're encouraged to have ideas.

Yes, this will mean making mistakes and going to the wrong hex and then having to figure out they're in the wrong hex, spending an extra running climbing up the side of a mountain that leads to nothing except perhaps the view of another similarly possible mountain that might also be the mountain they're not looking for.  Yet this is how adventuring actually plays out.

Lewis & Clark never, ever had to back track.  Zeke told
them the way.

Getting Used to It

To acclimatize or learn how to live in that environment.  This is only possible if a party stays in the same place.  Abilities like scouting can help with generally living in a type of environment, of course, but to acclimatize to a particular wild the adventurers have to actually get to know the place through repeated journeying through the countryside until the rocks, creeks, hollows and heights become familiar.  As long as the players insist on adventuring somewhere new, they forsake the potential for calling a particular hinterland 'home.'

This is fine for most campaigns.  Unfortunately for me, though my players do tend to roost eventually (they're rewarded for it), they never think about learning to live in the hinterland.  Once they own their land their characters share the urban-mindset that the players have, since everyone I run has grown up in a big city.  Sure, the country is out there, it is good for camping . . . but even if they learn where the hollows and heights are, what are they going to do with that knowledge?  They just don't know.

Lack of imagination, I suppose.  They could use that back country the way Robin did, running into it and hiding while the Normans take wilderness damage until they have to retreat before finding themselves weakened to where a group of green-dressed peasants can take them.  However, players never seem to want to be Robin Hood in my campaigns, sitting out in the woods and the rain.  They'd rather be the Sheriff of Snotengaham . . . er, Nottingham.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alexis,
    Bit of a tangent to your post but it may be of interest in concept.
    The one ring rpg has an interesting journey subgame. During a journey the party has to allocate four roles; scout, guide, hunter, lookout. During the journey the individual of each role makes a number of skill checks. The mileage of the journey, the types of terrain and season determine the number of and difficulty of the checks. Degree of success and failure determine how much fatigue the party suffers or other effects.... hunting failure maybe no food tonight, guide fail getting lost or having to walk further, scout fail cant find dry shelter, lookout fail you get ambushed or some such. A bad failure may result in an impromptu encounter depending which role failed. An interesting part of this is that responsibility and risk is spread.... only one person can only do one role at a time, ie the party cant rely on the ranger to do everything and maybe someone has to do a role that they are crap at.

    This sort of approach might mesh well with your sage abilities.... it would be nice to see the pcs want to develop some wilderness skills so they dont suck in their journey roles.


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