Friday, December 18, 2015

Wilderness Grit

Dungeons are easy to describe.  They are built of straight lines, defined pathways, ceilings that are such and such a height and features that are substantially made.  Even natural caves have a 'constructed' feel, in that they are hollowed out of rock by a clear, understandable force.  When setting out to draw a map of a dungeon, those dark black lines defining the walls are reassuring, easily limited sets of choices for the players to make.

Compare this to the map of a forest.  It is easy enough to fill in a large hexagonal field with trees - but what does that really define, where player movement is concerned?  In dungeons, the players move in a straight line.  Dungeons are broken up by doors that require decisions.  Things differ from one room to the next.  But the forest is just . . . a forest.  Tree followed by repeated, dull, never-ending tree.

It is this lack of boundaries that makes the wilderness harder to run than the dungeon.  What does one do with the players?  We can't just describe the trees.  If the party finds a brook or an outcropping of rock, so what?  How can stumbling across a large, dead log compare to stumbling into an underground shrine or treasure vault?  We can describe the forest, fill it with descriptions of dry, ponderosa pine trees, their branches thin and scrawny for lack of rain.  We can describe a forest floor with wild blueberries, roses and hazelnut bushes.  We can describe the leaves as sounding like walking on cornflakes.  We can describe a carpet of pine needles a foot thick or an undergrowth that confounds movement like a choking mass.  We can make the players feel like they're in a forest - but that alone doesn't make for adventure.

That is why many DMs resort to reducing the wilderness to a point-crawl, in effect reducing the wilderness to a dungeon.  See, dungeons are simple to understand.  Dungeons are theatrical; all the action can take place on a defined stage, where all the players are contained in a very small space and are thus immediately accessible to one another - and to the events of the performance.  The space between dungeon rooms is immediate, explicit, limited in scope.  If a point-crawl can reduce the scattered, difficult to manage spread of the wilderness to something that can be shrunk to the size of an arena, then excellent, nyet?

Yet, for those who have tried this tactic arises the question: why not just run dungeons?  Why not reduce the wilderness one more degree to where it is a measurement of time between town and the dungeon's front door?

I have struggled against this option from the beginning of my gaming.  I feel intrinsically that the wilderness should be different - and I have written in that regard many times.

Recently, however, I've been working on this series of posts regarding primitive clans and that has highlighted the problem.  Perhaps the point-crawl - if there has to be one - could be more 'gritty.'  By getting a firm handle on what should be in that wilderness (more than just the features and the vegetation but the ground-level adjustments put there by humanoids as improvements, the business of wilderness travel could have a bit more guts to it than just finding things.

Part of what makes a dungeon so interesting is that features are clues that lead to puzzling out a mystery of what the dungeon represents and who (or what) is at the heart of it.  The wilderness has to include that same reasoning, making it possible for players to wonder who camps at this campsite, what these images mean on the walls of the cave and where does this trail go.

I feel I am onto something - and perhaps it will reveal itself a bit more when I move into the technical qualities associated with tech-6.


  1. Hi Alexis,
    I like your direction for this. The wilderness should be a substancially different subgame structure from the dungeon rather than just reskinning it. Online it seems that the dungeon crawl structure has been reused for social adventures, mystery solving, point crawl.

    How the wilderness is interesting and difficult depends on what the PCs want from it.

    Would the gameplay be defined specifically by player goals? A Dungeon crawl is usually explore & room clearance with simple goals of treasure search and monster/trap neutralising/avoiding. What would it be for wilderness?

    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 posible. To acclimatise 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.

    Each of these seem to require a really different structure and approach.
    Looking forward to see how you tackle this.

  2. "I feel intrinsically that the wilderness should be different..."

    It should feel different, but only insofar as keeping the dungeon special, right? Overland travel only differs in how far out those thick, comforting black lines are, doesn't it? The travelling sphere for a party seems infinite in overland travel, but even if the party can see miles across a valley, it's still just a room with stuff in it, described and interacted with to varying degrees depending on the DM's and the party's interest at the exact time they all intersect. There's a reason that dungeon play happened first, and happens first, generally: everyone has to prove to themselves that they can handle a limited amount of material within the lines before they're made to vanish past the horizon.

    "...a mystery of what the dungeon represents and who (or what) is at the heart of it. The wilderness has to include that same reasoning"

    I think this exact statement supports my point that the overland is just a very large, (hopefully) detailed set of rooms. To get to your point, though, there would be a degree of universality to signs of game and signs of game trails, allowing for Sage abilities or whatnot for tracking, but the details (camp sigils meaning 'big brutes that way', etc) might be obscured or revealed by cultural factors ("All the desert folk seem to use this symbol for 'trading post'", etc).


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