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.
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.
- Create dynamic encounters that the players will care about.
- 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.
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.
|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.