Saturday, March 16, 2019

Core Mechanics of Lighthouse at the Threshold

Fiction First

Lighthouse on the Threshold is a game about two things. First, creating an immersive world for players to explore and interact with, and second, challenging players to use their own wit and skill to overcome challenges presented to the from the world. Both of these objectives can be accomplished without players understanding anything about how the mechanics of this game actually work. This is why, when you play or run this game, you should first make sure players understand the fiction that surrounds their characters, and the puzzles that they face. The mechanics of the game are used for only one small portion of the actual game-play, and if they ever get in the way of the fiction, they should be ignored.

Core Game Loop

The core game loop of Lighthouse on the Threshold is this:
1. The GM describes the scene.
2. Players ask questions and make decisions
3. The GM determines what happens.
4. Repeat.

This, in its simplest form, is what you and your friends will be doing at the table. The players and the GM having a conversation about what is happening in the fiction of the game. When you are unsure what to do next in the game, refer back to these steps.

1. The GM describes the Scene

The adventures in this book or the GM’s imagination will take care of step one. The GM should either find or prepare a rich, detailed adventure with a world, situations, and characters that the characters can explore and interact with. Your job as the GM will be to convey each scene to the players in evocative detail. It’s not easy, and there is a lot of nuance to it. Don’t worry though, you can do it, and I’m going to help you do it!

2. Players ask questions and make decisions

Next players ask questions and decide their next course of action. Players who ask good questions and make good decisions will excel at this game. Players who rush into situations without having conversations with the game master will lead their characters to an early end. Lighthouse on the Threshold has an ending; a solution, but it will only be reached through expert role-playing; and expert role players ask great questions and make good decisions.

Game play and the GM’s decisions should always be laser focused on the quality of the players questions and decisions. If the players ask precise probing questions, the DM should answer with truthful information whenever possible. When the players make good decisions they should be rewarded with success in their plans. The whims of fate (dice rolls) only apply to players who haven’t created a fool-proof plan.

3. The GM determines what happens.

The mechanical rules of the game are mainly concerned with the 3rd step, determining what happens, but most of the time, you shouldn’t need to refer to the rules. The GM should always try to determine what logically follows from the players actions to determine what happens. Only when the GM determines that outcome of some course of action is uncertain, do you need to refer to the rules to simulate an outcome.

The core game mechanics listed below are the main ways to determine uncertain outcomes.

Skill Rolls

Normal: 2d6 + Ability Modifier
Advantage: 3d6 keep 2 + Ability Modifier

When a player is attempting anything and the outcome is uncertain, you can ask for a skill roll. First determine which Ability score is applicable (Body, Awareness, or Ego), then the player rolls 2d6 and add’s that ability score modifier.

Use the body score to determine physical skill checks; awareness for skill checks that rely on reflexes or perception. and ego for checks that require intelligence or charisma.

Players can gain advantage on a skill roll in 3 ways.
1. Spend one ability point of the ability associated with the check.
2. If the player has a skill that is applicable to the situation, they gain advantage on the check.
3. If the player is in a situation where they would logically have an overwhelming advantage.

Skill rolls are always compared against the following chart.

Failure & Complication.

Failure & Complications
If the player fails, the player does not accomplish what he set out to do, often times with terrible consequences that follow on. DM’s are encouraged to come up with complications that follow from failure. Character harm, losing resources, complicating another characters turn are all valid choices. Never add complications that don’t follow logically from the players action or the situation.

If the player succeeds, the player accomplishes what he set out to do, and may even have other benefits that logically follow on from his success. Conserving resources, setting up an ally for success, and more.

A mixed result can have a variety of outcomes, all of which should flow naturally from the fiction of the game. The DM will choose a result that makes sense considering what the player is attempting, and what the context is.

1. The player succeeds at their task, but with some cost. The cost must always make sense according to what the player has actually done.  Some examples include…
* An item is destroyed or degraded.
* The character is injured.
* An opponnet gains an advantage.
* The character loses ego, awareness, or body points.
2. Partial success. The player only accomplishes part of what they were attempting. This result should only be used if a partial result will help the player along in their goals, but also provide a logical, yet entertaining complication.
3. Failure, with a twist! The player doesn’t accomplish what they were attempting, but succeeds spectacularly at accomplishing something else unexepected. This result should be more rare, but sometimes the fiction of the situation will allow for it. Only use this if the players failure is a complication, but their unexpected result is a new opportunity the party can take advantage of.

Attack Rolls

Normal: 1d20 + Attack Bonus + Ability Modifier
Advantage: 2d20 keep 1 + Attack Bonus + Ability Modifier

Combat is inherently unpredictable, and so a roll is always called for when characters clash in deadly battles. Whenever you attack something in combat, you roll 1d20 and add your attack bonus and the relevant ability modifier, trying to meet or beat the Armor Class value of the target you are attacking.

Different kinds of attacks use different ability modifiers.

Melee attacks: Body Modifier
Ranged attacks: Awareness Modifier
Magic attacks: Ego Modifier

Attack bonuses are gained through training, magic items, completing quests, being blessed by a fairy queen, or many other things that can happen in the game.

Players can gain advantage on Attack rolls in 3 ways.

1. Spend one ability point of the ability associated with the check.
2. If the player has a special ability that grants him advantage.
3. If, in the fiction of the game, it makes logical sense that the player would have an advantage on his attack.

A Note on ‘Saving Throws’

Lighthouse at the Threshold doesn’t have traditional saving throws. In other old-school games, when the player makes a mistake, their character can sometimes be saved through the use of a saving throw. In LatT, saving throws are often a choice given to the player a choice that amounts to, how do you react to this threat? For example, when a armored knight walks into the path of a hidden flame jet trap. In other old school games, they would get a reflex save, or a save against breath weapons to mitigate this. In Lighthouse at the threshold, all the damage is rolled for the trap, and the player is given a choice. They can choose between expending their hit points, or their awareness points; awareness points representing using their reflexes to dodge out of the way.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Ability Scores in Lighthouse at the Threshold

Lighthouse at the Threshold is a game about normal folks who travel to a dangerous and fantastical world to have adventures. To read more about the project, see this post. Striking the balance between heroism and reality is important to me. I want the players to be able to do awesome stuff, but they need to be vulnerable.

Lighthouse at the Threshold uses a simplified set of ability scores almost identical to those found in Chris McDowells’s Into the Odd, but they are utilized in a slightly different way.

Loner by AnDary

Ability Scores are a Resource

All of your ability scores are expendable pools of resources. During character creation you roll 3d6 to determine you maximum in that score, but you also have a place to record your current score. You can spend your ability score points for various in game benefits.


Body represents your physical strength and endurance.

Spend body points to: 

  • Avoid death
  • Survive disease 
  • Perform feats of strength or endurance
  • Gain advantage on melee attack rolls

When reduced to 0:
You are on deaths door. Roll a d20 under your max body score. Failure is instant death. Success means you take a permanent injury and are unconscious.

Body points are literally your hit points, but they are also used for a number of other things. Players start with 3d6 body points, which makes them quite hardy for a starting character, but since you can spend them for combat advantages and feats of strength, you’ll need to carefully manage them. Spending them liberally allows you to cut through swathes of enemies with ease, running out puts you on deaths door.

Death in Lighthouse at the Threshold

The death rules for LatT are a bit different in that humans from our world cannot die in the world of Threshold. When a human dies in Threshold, they are returned to the portal from which they entered and are banished; they may never again enter the world. The town of Marqwood has its fair share of banished adventurers.


The passive part of your mind. Consciousness & automatic reflexes.

Spend Awareness points to:

  • Avoid detection.
  • Dodge things.
  • Read a social situation.
  • Find hidden things.
  • Anticipate your enemies.

Awareness points are highly valuable in exploration and in combat. First, they are spent in exploration to avoid detection. Monsters or guards with different levels of alertness will require different expenditures of awareness points in order to avoid detection. Everyone has a pool of 3d6 making it easy for all players to skulk around in the shadows undetected for awhile. Awareness points are also a resource you spend to avoid traps and detect other things that are expertly hidden.

There are no perception checks in LatT. Players should find things through good old fashioned exploration, but the DM can save a players bacon using awareness points. “Dock 4 awareness or the bucket of acid falls on your head”.  Players can also choose how

There is no initiative in LatT (more on that in a later post). All combat actions taken happen simultaneously and resolve immediately. That means you can’t take down the ogre this round before he has a chance to try to bash you into the flagstones. You can, however, spend awareness points to ‘take the initiative’. This lets you resolve your turn before anyone else who hasn’t taken the initiative.


The active part of your mind. Your thoughts, intellect, and sense of self.

Spend Ego points to:

  • Avoid mental status effects (fear, confusion, charm)
  • Recall lore.
  • Avoid conflict with negotiation.
  • Disarm traps
  • Repair items.
  • Improve the effect of spells.

LatT takes the ‘combat as a fail state’ edict of the OSR fairly literally. Not only is combat deadly, the ‘win’ state of most encounters is actually making friends and forming bonds with the folks you encounter in both Threshold and Marqwood. Ego points are the fuel that drives you to building these important bonds.

Increasing your bond with certain NPCs is the main way to advance as a character. LatT doesn’t have levels or experience points. All advancement is done through questing and learning secrets from the world and NPCs. High bond with a mentor in Threshold means they will reveal their secrets to you.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Lighthouse at the Threshold

I have been working on a new project. In anticipation for a break point in our current long-running D&D 5e campaign, I’ve been thinking about what game to play next. I’ve also been considering writing something for possible eventual publication. I’ve landed on this.

The Pitch

The sleepy vacation town of Marqwood Michigan hides a secret in the old lighthouse. The lighthouse is a portal to the dangerous and fantastic world of Threshold, and you have managed to stumble into this world of adventure. In The Lighthouse at the Threshold you play townsfolk, vacationers, or fantasy creatures who inhabit the dual settings of Threshold, and Marqwood. Travel back and forth between the worlds to explore this mysterious world and its connection with ours.

The Lighthouse at the Threshold is a table top role playing game, campaign setting, and adventure module all in one. Players play regular humans in the town of Marqwood who have stumbled upon the fantasy realm of Threshold. There, they go on strange adventures, befriend otherworldly creatures, and learn exotic new abilities. In Marqwood, they try to solve the mystery of the town, and discover the connections between our world and the world beyond.

A custom game system?

When I first started reading about the OSR, I was most intrigued by the DIY ethos of the whole thing. It seemed like no DM was running any specific ruleset. Every DM’s game was a ‘hack’ of this, or a ‘remix’ of that. A lot of this mindset came from the earliest days of the game, where Gary and his friends went on their adventures and made up the rules as they went.

I have been running a 5e game for a year, and while I’ve thrown a few of my own hacks at it that have stuck, I still wanted to build something, at my table, with my friends that we could call our own. Something we wouldn’t have to be precious about or worry about balance or compatibility because every rule we changed, we could change back in the middle of the game.

The ruleset for The Lighthouse at the Threshold is going to be that game. It’s a few base systems and ideas that I want to forge into a well oiled machine with my friends at the table. It represents an aspirational game design that runs adventures the way I think about adventures.

Northern Michigan?

I’ve been writing furiously for D&D stuff for the past year or so, but have yet to publish anything. I write thousands of words per week to be used in my own D&D campaign or just for my own enjoyment. I knew I wanted to write something for publication at some point, but I wanted the project to be a personal, and a story I knew I could tell.

I have lived in Michigan all my life, and almost every year of my life, I have vacationed in beautiful Northern Michigan along one or another of the Great Lakes. So many of my happy childhood memories come from these summer camping trips. Over the years since my childhood, I’ve watched these bustling vacation destinations become run-down as the Michigan economy dried up. A generation of middle class shop workers who could afford to own summer homes on the shores of Lake Huron have disappeared. The bustling shops of a hundred summer destination towns have shut down.

This is a story I’ve lived, and a story I know I can tell. A decrepit town past its prime discovers its connection to a world of wonder, hope, and imminent danger. What’s going to happen? I’m going to play to find out.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

GLOG Class - The Witch

I'm working on a hack of GLOG, Blackhack, and a dozen other home-brew rules and systems that I've gathered from around the internet. I'll explain some of the differences as we go, but I think this is mostly compatible with any GLOG-like system you may be using.

The Witch

How to Gain XP: You bring great misfortune on an enemy and great fortune on a friend.
Skills Proficient: Medicine, Survival
Weapons and Armor: Simple Farm Implements
Starting Equipment: A Broom (1d6 bludgeoning damage), Ud6 herbs and spell components, Ud6 repair kit.

Explanation: Like The GLOG, multi classing is highly encouraged. In order to gain a level in a class though, you need to do something in the game that is in line with how that class solves problems. 

Skills in this game are all 2d6 plus modifiers, with Expert level meaning you roll 3d6 keep 2. Skill in this game are a little more tied into the mechanical systems of the game, so there is a definitive 'skill list'.

# Of levels
Additional HP
Attack Bonus

+2 Magic Dice, Witch spells +3, Hex
+2 Magic Dice, Witch spells +3, Heal

+2 Magic Dice, Medicine (Expert), Survival (Expert), Witch spells +3
+2 Magic Dice

Explanation: Like GLOG there is a base adventurer class, but that class gets 1d4 HD per level with every class adding a static modifier to HP. I use the GLOG magic system pretty much whole-cloth though, except the classes are much more generous with magic dice. For your own games, just make it 1 Magic Dice per level.

Description of Abilities

Witch Spells - You gain 3 witch spells each level from the witch spells listed below.

Hex - 1/month - Someone you have emnity (a negative bond level) with suffers a horrific curse. The curse cannot kill them, but can inflict pain, distress, and economic ruination on them. Much like a wish spell, you must speak out loud what the intentions of your curse are, but the DM is encouraged to interpret the effects of the curse in a way that is both in accordance with your wishes, but also a huge pain in your ass. 

Heal - 1/month - Someone you have a bond with is restored. You cure all diseases, restore all hit points, and restore all ability damage to someone you have a bond with.

Witch Spells

Cure Wounds - Heal one creature for [sum] damage

Dreamless Sleep - put one creature to sleep for [sum] minutes.

Control Weather - Spend MD to cause the following effects. Effects are cumulative. Changing the weather takes 1d4+2 rounds. Weather effects can’t go beyond realistic regional extremes. 
- 1MD - Change the temperature to a seasonal extreme.
- 2MD - Change the temperature to an unseasonal extreme.
- 1MD - Change the wind speed by 10 mph
- 1MD - Add, remove, or intesify precipitiation
- 1MD - Heavy clouds, fog, mists, etc.
- 1MD - Lightning
- 3MD - Magical storm (raining frogs, blood, etc)

Blink - You disappear for up to one minute, and reappear up to [dice] * 50 feet away at will.

Blight - One creature makes a CON save or suffers [sum] * 2 damage. Plants get no save. Can destroy [dice] * 100ft radius of foliage or a small copse of trees.

Call Lightning - [Hold x] each round do [sum/2] damage in a 20ft radius. DEX save for half. If there is currently a lightning storm +2d6 damage.

Kindle Flame - Start a fire that covers a [dice x] * 5ft diameter space. It lasts [dice y + 1] rounds without fuel.

Diagnose - You know a way to cure a disease, a curse, a spiritual affliction, or a poison.

Hypnotize - [Hold 1] as long as you maintain eye contact with a target, they are charmed by you, getting a CHA save every round. If they fail 3 saves you can plant a suggestion in their mind that works like a geas.

Augury - Recieve an omen about a specific course of action you plan to take. 

Bewitch - On a failed CHA save, increase the reaction of a creature by [dice] steps for [sum] minutes. You have advantage on all Negotiation checks you make with them.

Lucky Charm - Use a rare root (5gp) to make a charm. You imbue [dice, max Witch Level] charges into the charm. Anyone with the charm can expend one charge to gain +1d6 to any roll.
Create Potion - TBD

Explanation: There are a couple of differences with how GLOG spells work here. 

Hold - Spells that require concentration or prolonged magical effects may have you 'hold' the dice instead of spending them right away. You roll them at the end of their effect as normal to see if they are spent.

Variables - some spells list [dice x] and [dice y]. This means there are multiple costs for multiple effects in the spell. In the 'Kindle Flame' spell here, you can increase the diameter and duration of the flame separately by spending more magic dice.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Strange Encounters: The Ghost Cave

I'll be posting snippets of my DM notes from various campaigns past and present that I think will be useful for anyone to copy and paste into their campaign for their players to explore.

The Ghost Cave

Water seeps down through countless layers of minerals, gathering up a nutrient rich slurry and depositing itself into the ghost cave. There it feeds strange subterranean grasses, and attracts some of the strangest and most deadly creatures of the underdark.

The Ghost Cave is 4 miles long, between 8 and 80 feet wide at parts. It has dozens of entrances and exits.

πŸ‘ Green Liquid rivulets drip down the cave wall.
πŸ‘ A stream, running with glowing algea.
πŸ‘ƒπŸ» Round-up, Miracle Grow, Manure.
πŸ‘‚πŸ»White noise of babbling brook and its echoes
πŸ‘ *A field of glowing, translucent grass in greens and purples. *
πŸ–πŸ» It shrinks to your touch, darkening a trail in the cave.
πŸ• Regrows after 20 minutes.
🎲 After 1d4-1 miles of travel - dark trails in the glowing grass.
     ➡️ Roll on the encounter table - The creature will leave a dark trail through the growing grass.

Notable Exits
1/2 way through the cave - A tunnel with a bright light, and a light breeze -  The Hag’s Lair 
Almost to the end - The stream runs out of a cave into a waterfall -  The Falls 

1d4 - Creature Encounter Table
1- Banderhob 
2 - Flail Snail 
3 - Catoblepas 
4 - Vargouile

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

GLOG Fighter variant

I have been working on a home-brew D&D ruleset that is a hack of the systems and subsystems of 10 other retro clones.  The main thing I am stealing for characters is the GLOG's awesome character classes and multi classing rules. Right now I’m working toward having enough of a manuscript to get my players through character creation and understand the basics of the rules.

Even though there are some major differences between my hack and the Arnold K. / Goblin Punch and the Skerples / Coins and Scrolls hack of the whole GLOG system, I figured this variant on the fighter class might be worthwhile to throw up here for public consumption.


Gain XP: Defeat an enemy 2 HD above your level.
Skills: Move (Proficient)
Weapons & Armor: Fighters can use any weapon or armor.
Starting Equipment: Chain Mail, Any 1 weapon from the weapon list. 1d6 trail rations, a token of your first vanquished opponent.

# Of levels
Additional HP
Attack Bonus
Weapon Specialization, Sunder shields & weapons, Shake it off
Additional Attack
Weapon Specialization, Move (Expert)
Additional Attack

Description of Abilities

Weapon Specialization - Whenever you gain weapon specialization you increase the damage die by one step on the dice chain and increase the crit range by one of that weapon while you are using it.

Sunder Shields & Weapons - When a fighter would take damage, he may instead choose to sunder his sheild and prevent all damage from that source this turn. When a fighter would deal damage, he may choose to sunder his weapon and deal max damage.

Additional Attack - Every combat round the fighter gains an additional attack.

Shake it off - Once, as an action during a combat encounter, the fighter can heal 1d6 damage for each level of fighter he has as an action.

Move (Expert) - Your move skill goes to expert level, meaning you gain advantage on all move checks.

There are a few differences here that are worth noting that are specific to my system...

XP and Levelling

First, the XP system in my hack is milestone based with caveats. First, the GM should allow the party to level after every 'adventure' however he deems that. Optionally you can use literally any other method (gold for xp, etc) that you want, but the one thing this system asks is that you keep track of specific leveling requirements for the classes you possess. Each time you want to gain a level in a specific class, you have to accomplish their specific XP goal. If you have a check-mark in that box when the DM says you can gain a level, you can gain a level in that class specifically. 

Each class that is available to the players has a different XP mechanic. To level as the thief you need to steal something valuable without getting caught. To level as the witch you need to place a curse on someone, and provide healing to someone else. To level as the wizard you need to uncover some ancient arcane secret.


This game does use a skill system that is borrowed heavily from the Stars without Number rules. Skill rolls are 2d6 + modifier. Proficiency means you don't incur a -1 penalty to the roll. Expertise gives you 'advantage' on the roll (roll 3d6 keep 2).

Item Quantities

I stole item quantities from The Black Hack. It's an elegant and fun way of making equipment and inventory management more abstract and simple. If you aren't familiar with it, the way it works is by utilizing the dice chain. The dice chain is the sequence of dice in descending order from a d20 down to a d4. If you have 1d6 trail rations, whenever you use that item, you roll the quantity die. If you roll a 1, the quantity die goes down one step on the dice chain; so in this example, you would have 1d4 trail rations remaining.


I plan on posting some more classes and details of the game as I build it out. I hope to play test this monstrosity some time soon as well. I fully expect it to go well since I'm just using well worked pieces from already great games, but the best laid plans...

Friday, June 8, 2018

Books are OP

Books are awesome. I love a good book. I love carrying books around in my bag, and thumbing through them on an airplane or on the couch with a cup of tea. Books are magical and should be included as an awesome item in my favorite game… So here we go.

Fantasy Library by mobiusu14
Books in Dungeons and Dragons

For any book you have read and you have in your possession, you may reference it to find useful information.

Book Level :  Cost - Weight
0: 25gp - 5lbs
1: 50gp - 6lbs
2: 100gp - 7lbs
3:  500gp - 8lbs
4: 1000gp - 9lbs

Books can be used for various in game benefits. The trade off is that carrying a book with you into a dungeon can take up a lot of space and weight in your pack, and thumbing through books in a dungeon requires time and a source of light. I don’t recommend DM’s use these book rules unless they are also taking strict records of weight, encumbrance, light and time.

Reading a book : 2d6 days per level of the book. Subtract your Int modifier to a minimum of 1. You can only read a book during uninterrupted downtime, when you would otherwise be able to take a long rest. 

Using a book to find specific information:
If the dungeon master rules that the book you have would definitely contain the information you are searching for somewhere in it’s pages, spend 2d6 minutes minus your Int modifier (minimum 0) to find that specific passage. The DM will give you that information. If you have read the book 3 or more times, it only takes you 1 minute to find the information.

Using a book to gain bonuses on skill checks: 
If the subject of the book pertains to the current situation where information in a book would be helpful, and the DM reasons that the written word could be informative and helpful for the task at hand, you may thumb through the book looking for information. It takes 2d6  minutes minus your Int modifier (minimum 0, I opened right to it!) to find a relevant passage in the book.

After you have found the passage, roll 2d6 to determine the benefit you gain.

Make a DC 10 + This book’s level Intelligence Save. On success, you don’t find the information. If you fail, the rest of this book is just too complex for you to grok. You can no longer roll on this chart for this book until you read it again. 
The information is spread through multiple sections in the book. Gathering the information will take another 2d6 - Int minutes. Roll again on this table.
The page you are looking for has been damaged, but you are able to make out some of the information. Roll 1d6, on a 4-6 gain your book level to the check you are making.
The author really rambles here… And who is responsible for this typography? At least the information is still there. Add your book level to the check you are making.
The passage you were looking for is accompanied by a previous owners insightful notes. Add your book level plus one on your skill roll.
10 - 11
There is a full page spread with a detailed illustration of the concept you were looking for. Add your book level and gain advantage on your skill roll.
You found the passage you were looking for and also an informative, but unrelated anecdote by the author on a completely different topic. Gain advantage and +1 per book level on the skill check you are attempting, and also gain an Inspiration.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Braving the Wilds : Part 2

Braving the Wilds : Part 2 - Player Actions

See Part 1 for just how we got here.

I wanted to create a system that provided a menu of options for wilderness exploration that provide difficult choices and would thematically replicate the iconic fantasy journey… but for this to work, we need two things. A wilderness to explore, and a set of actions the players can use to explore it. 

On Adventure Paths

Often exploration happens in-between the adventure hook and the goal. The players hear of a dungeon full of treasure and resolutions to their plot hooks. They travel to the dungeon to forward their goals, and they come back to town to see the resolution of those goals. The wilderness in between is a hinderance at best. 

If you are running this ‘adventure path’ style of gameplay then this is more than sufficient. Maybe you add some flavorful description to give the players some feeling of what they wilderness is traveling through is like, but you certainly don’t want to waste the players time with fighting random monsters from a random table. It does nothing to forward the game play in this kind of campaign.

On Exploration

However, there are a few more models of D&D game play where the in-between spaces between destinations are critical. Hex crawls, west marches style gameplay, sandboxes, all different names for games with the same kind of focus: Exploration.

In these types of games, there are two game structures used to represent the explorable wilderness. There is the static graph of locations (a hex map, or a point crawl graph structure) and then there is the dynamic overlay that represents the pieces that move on the board.

Giving players choices when navigating the static locations of a map is straightforward. You describe their environment, describe what they see in each direction, let them know a few rumors about what lies in the wilderness and all of a sudden players are navigating the static map, and have full control of the outcome of this exploration. They are wandering around the map looking for the lost ruins of an ancient civilization.

The players in these classic systems almost never get to navigate the dynamic portion of this equation however. The dynamic overlay is usually just a random table of monsters that the players will encounter. The players almost never have any agency in what they encounter while they are wandering through the wilds. This leads to encounters that have little bearing on the narrative that the players actually care about and only serve to reinforce verisimilitude and sap the players of valuable resources.

So the trick with creating a GOOD wilderness exploration system is twofold.

  1. Create dynamic encounters that the players will care about.
  2. Give them a system to navigate and gain choices around these dynamic encounters.

Let’s start with the system, because without this, it’s hard to see why you would want to put time and effort into a wandering monster table.

Player activities

For each day of travel, players will choose their speed. Then they choose from the following options what their character will be doing for that 8 hour day of travel. After that they will try to find a place to camp away from the dangers of travel. 

1. Choose speed & destination

First the party will choose where they are going and whether to travel at a fast, regular or slow pace. The party can try to navigate to a specific location, follow a natural feature of the land like a coast, river or tree line, or just head off in any of the cardinal directions.

Speed Activities Special
Fast 4mph, 30 miles per day Only Navigation Disadvantage on Navigation checks. -5 on Wisdom (Perception) checks
Regular 3mph, 24 miles per day All but stealth
Slow 2mph, 18 miles per day All Character who is navigating can choose an additional activity. 

2. Choose activities

Next, if the party is traveling at a normal or slow speed, each of them may choose an activity to engage in during travel. 

Travel Action - Skill(s) - Effect - Notes

Navigate - Survival - Find your way to a location with a navigation DC

A new concept is introduced here called the ‘Navigation DC’. This was stolen whole cloth from the Unearthed Arcana article ‘Into the Wilds’. The jist is that some places are hard to find and some areas are hard to navigate. There is a navigation DC set by the DM for specific destinations that determines this. If the Navigator fails the roll, the party is lost.

A region may also have a minimum Navigation DC. This is used in areas where it is easy to get lost. Maybe areas that are somewhat labyrinthine or where vision is obscured and directions are hard to deduce.

Look for Tracks - Survival or Investigation - Find the tracks of various creatures throughout the day of travel.

This action is the first that lets us start to explore the random encounter table. The player has two options when they choose to look for tracks. First is to just generally search for signs of life. When this option is chosen the DM will roll 1-3 random encounters (based on the result rolled) and let the players know what the tracks they found are. The party does not encounter these creatures, but they now know the existence of these creatures. For the next day of travel, players can now use these results to track down those specific creatures. Set a new Navigation DC for these creatures and let the party track them down!

The other option with this action is that the player can name a specific creature they are looking for, and the DM can tell them whether or not they find signs of that creature. The DC should be lowered for this check because of the specificity of the players request.

Forage - Survival - Find food according to the region’s forage DC and food roll.

Each region will have a general forage DC which defines how hard it is to find food in that region. It will also have a food roll which determines exactly how much food is found on a successful foraging check.

Take Watch - Perception - Cannot be surprised by an encounter. Also has a chance to find hidden things in an area.

Monsters getting a surprise round on the characters is always bad, but is especially bad when the players are trekking through the wilderness where rest and relaxation are hard to find.

The other thing of note with this action is that it comes with an implicit requirement that the DM hide things on the map. The way I make hexes for a hex crawl has this built in. I stole this system from the module “Hot Springs Island”, where each hex has 3 locations in it. One that the players will find automatically and 2 that require searching. This action will uncover one such location. Optionally the DM can let the take watch action find signs of a hidden thing in that hex, which would then give the location a Navigation DC. I recommend you just show the PC’s the hidden thing without hiding it further but this option can be good for when you want something to potentially stay hidden. 

Help - None - Give any other adventurer a re-roll on their activity check. 

This set of actions is weighted heavily to favor survival, perception, stealth and nature checks. This is intentional. Not every class is equally good at wilderness survival. But I wanted to have a catch all for other party members to contribute. 

Scout - Stealth, Survival, or Perception - On a successful check, once per day, when the DM rolls to find out whether a random encounter occurs, you may choose the result of that roll (eg: if an encounter happens, you may choose not to have the encounter or if there isn’t one you may choose to have one). If you have an encounter, you may re-roll the results of the encounter roll after the DM tells you the result of the first roll. 

Another key action in giving player agency to the random encounter table. The scout can avoid or seek out encounters. They can also reject specific encounters. This result should be roll played as if the scout spotted the creature in question from afar and they can choose to avoid them or not. 

Draw a Map - Intelligence check plus proficiency if proficient with cartography tools. - successfully create a map to a location if you succeed at over 1/2 of your map checks on the way to the destination.  If you are lost you automatically fail that days map check. 

Once you have successfully created a map to a location you reduce the navigation DC to zero making return trips trivial. I also allow players to sell maps to various trade guilds for good money. 

Cook - No Skill - Restore 1/2 Hit dice. 

In RAW, a full rest only restores 1/2 of your hit dice. Getting a long rest is harder in the wilderness. Cooking can be essential to staying alive if all you get is short rests because you can’t find an adequate place to sleep.

Sneak - Stealth (Whole Party) - Slow speed only - hide from persuers and random encounters. 

If the party makes a successful group stealth check, and moves at a slow speed for the day, they can evade anyone chasing them and avoid all random encounters. This action takes the actions of the whole party but in situations where you are being persued by a dangerous enemy, it can be the difference between life and death. 

3. Making Camp

One player must look for a safe place to camp for the night with another Survival check. This does not count as that players activity for the day. This DC is determined by the DM based on how dangerous he the area is.

On a failure, the players may forced march (per RAW) for an hour and try again.  If they do not find a safe place to camp, they cannot gain the benefit of a long rest for that day. They must still sleep to stave off exhaustion, but they won’t recover hit dice, hit points or spells. 

On success the party finds a reasonably hidden, defensible, and comfortable place to camp for the night. 

Taking Watch - Perception - A character takes watch while the other players in the party sleep. A watch is 4 hours so 2 party members must be elected to take watch for a full nights sleep. Any player may take watch, but if their character engaged in any activity during the day other than just traveling, this character cannot gain the benefits of a full rest. 

If a safe place to sleep in the woods was found, the chances of a random encounter at night drops significantly. 

Creating Dynamic Encounters the players will care about

The goal here is to create a random encounter table that contains things that the players want, or even need to encounter to accomplish their goals. 

Give the characters a quest to steal the breath of the Gorgon, then put a Gorgon on your random encounter table. Tell your players that there is a ranger in the woods you must track down who can guide you to the entrance of the forgotten temple, and let them try to find the ranger. 

Players will also be running into these wandering encounters randomly, and we still want them to be engaging encounters that they will care about. Try to avoid entries in the table that are just a group of monsters. Tie each entry to the region in some way either mechanically or thematically. 

A great example of dynamic and engaging encounter tables can be found in the “Out of the Abyss” campaign module by Wizards of the Coast. OotA provides keyed entries for each entry on the table which gives more detail for the encounter. It also has a random terrain table which provides terrain based complications for the underdark which I find very interesting. 

On rolling for encounters, and complications

How often you roll for encounters, and what method you do it is up to you. It can be tailored for how active the area is, or just to your taste. My default is that I roll 1d6 every 4 hours that the players have not made camp. When they have made a safe camp, I roll only once for the entire time they stay in that camp per day. An encounter occurs on a result of 1, and a complication occurs on a result of 2.

Complications are just little things that come up during the course of travel. I tie them directly to the region right now, but I am working on a more general list that will apply to all regions. Examples include raccoons stealing all your food, players contracting diseases, armor and weapons rusting, flooding, and other extreme weather effects.

Other information for a Region.

Beyond just a random encounter table and complications, there are a few statistics we need to know for the region. 

Cover - Base DC’s for stealth or perception rolls for unopposed checks in the activities.
Terrain Difficulty - Including minimum Navigation check DC, movement speeds, and the DC to find a safe place to make camp.
Foraging DC - DC’s for finding food and water.
Food Abundance - When found, how much food and/or water do you find?
Special Locations & Navigation DC’s - A list of all of the special locations you can find, and the Navigation DC needed to find them, assuming the PC’s know of their existence.

I have included an example region I will be using in a game this week (Players, don’t look!).

In the next post, I’ll discuss more on just how to run this from a DM’s perspective.

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