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Braving the Wilds : Part 1

I have been in search of the perfect set of rules for surviving and traveling in the wilderness for 5th edition since I started running the Out of the Abyss campaign late last year. I’ve scoured the internet reading every DM’s home-brew ruleset. I’ve tried many different iterations of my own home-brew rules, and I’ve finally created something I am excited to share… but before I do, lets talk about why you would want a custom system for surviving in the wilderness?
Oberon Plain and Glacier by Michael Boettler

Play the Fiction

I believe that every game, RPG or not, mainly needs to do two things well…

1. Present the players with difficult choices.
2. Integrate the theme with the mechanics.

I’ll go into point 1 a little bit more in the next post, but here I want to talk about the importance of the overlap of theme and mechanics in Dungeons and Dragons.

D&D 5e has many systems and subsystems for adjudicating combat. Most of the rules text in D&D is dedicated to supporting the combat subsystem of the game. This gives you a good hint that the type of fiction D&D 5e is trying to represent is a very action-oriented flavor of fantasy. This is a game that tells its story through conflict. Great 5e games will use this strength of the system to weave the combat into the narrative and make the fiction and the rules overlay perfectly.

This, however, is not the type of fantasy story I always want to play. Fantasy fiction comes in many different flavors. Epic adventures can happen in more ways than just through merely sword fighting and spell slinging. Think about the struggle of the Fellowship of the Ring to cross vast swaths of Middle Earth, eking out survival. Think about the Crows trek north of The Wall, and how they had to be cunning and work together to survive. This part of the fiction, the epic journey and survival, is a key part of the fiction of many fantasy stories. I think there has been a real desire in the D&D community for a system to represent this part of the fiction, and give the players choices in how to do it.

Rules as Written

When I set out to solve this problem, I didn’t want to run afoul of any of the current ‘Rules as Written’. That said, there isn’t much to go on in the current ruleset. There are a lot of suggestions for what a DM might do to adjudicate a survival situation, but there aren’t a lot of hard fast rules.

The main set of rules that apply are listed in the Players Handbook, Chapter 8: Adventuring. For any system that I was going to be happy with, I wanted to stick as closely to the Players Handbook as possible, and only veer from the text when absolutely necessary.

Travel Pace

Chapter 8 gives us the basis for our rules, the travel pace. We’ll take these whole cloth. The ‘distance per day’ miles are all multiples of 6, which is useful for us in designing our maps later.



Food and Water

Later we have the rules for how much food and water characters need to survive. These rules seem perfectly reasonable, and we’ll use these unchanged as well.

Food

“A character needs one pound of food per day and can make food last longer by subsisting on half rations. Eating half a pound of food in a day counts as half a day without food.
A character can go without food for a number of days equal to 3 + his or her Constitution modifier (minimum 1). At the end of each day beyond that limit, a character automatically suffers one level of  exhaustion .
A normal day of eating resets the count of days without food to zero.”

Water

“A character needs one gallon of water per day, or two gallons per day if the weather is hot. A character who drinks only half that much water must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or suffer one level of  exhaustion  at the end of the day. A character with access to even less water automatically suffers one level of  exhaustion  at the end of the day.
If the character already has one or more levels of  exhaustion , the character takes two levels in either case.”

The main takeaway from this that is interesting is the use of the ‘exhaustion’ system. If, as a DM, you haven’t looked into this system, I highly recommend it. Hit points are a great abstraction for showing damage during combat, but because you regain your hit points every night, it does nothing to represent a character wearing themselves out slowly over time. Exhaustion is a good system for this, and we’ll try to use this more as a resource for our wilderness survival rules.

Activity While Traveling

Here is where the players handbook gets vague about how to adjudicate what players actually do while they are traveling, and here is where we can fit a lot of our design.  The text does talk about how to figure out determine random encounters and surprise, and then it launches into various other things players can do while they are traveling.

The activities listed are as follows.

Navigate. The character can try to prevent the group from becoming lost, making a Wisdom ( Survival ) check when the DM calls for it. (The Dungeon Master’s Guide has rules to determine whether the group gets lost.)
Draw a Map. The character can draw a map that records the group’s progress and helps the characters get back on course if they get lost. No ability check is required.
Track. A character can follow the tracks of another creature, making a Wisdom ( Survival ) check when the DM calls for it. (The Dungeon Master’s Guide has rules for tracking.)
Forage. The character can keep an eye out for ready sources of food and water, making a Wisdom ( Survival ) check when the DM calls for it. (The Dungeon Master’s Guide has rules for foraging.)”


This is all very cool, but it is fairly vague. It leaves all of the power in the hands of the GM. It certainly isn’t as fleshed out as the combat rules.

More rules equal more freedom.

These rules for adventuring and survival specifically say that the DM should decide when to call for these checks. This is in stark contrast to how most of the combat rules work. In combat, the players and DM are expected to ALL know the system. The players are supposed to know their options, and the DM is highly discouraged from arbitrating the rules of combat in an ad-hoc manner. This means that the DM has fewer options for being biased one way or another during combat scenarios. He is more of a passive referee than an omnipotent being.

The DM is not supposed to ‘cheat’ in combat, but in any other context, he can bend the rules to his will without worry. I see this as a problem for two reasons.


  1. When players know there are systematized rules, they have a menu of options for their characters, and they know their actions will have a concrete effect on the game state regardless of what the DM does.
  2. When there is a system for handling a situation, the DM doesn’t have to do the hard work of deciding what happens. He can play the games WITH the players to find out what is going on. He can be a fan of the players and play to find out what happens (see Dungeon World for more on this)


While these menu options exist in the players handbook that guide the players in what their potential next steps are, they aren’t clearly handled by a system. This leaves all the power in the hands of the DM to adjudicate. This in turn opens the possibility of bias in a DM’s arbitration of the rules, and puts more work on the DM to determine by fiat what actually is happening. To summarize, its not as fun for the DM, and its confusing for players.

Next time!

Next time we’ll go over the menu of player options, and how we can make players decisions difficult. We’ll also talk about how to make random encounter tables something your players will love!

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