Monday, May 14, 2012

The Unbearable Dullness of DnD Wilderness


The road runs crooked here, the braying radio long since turned off. My mind has retreated to that long contemplative place, a slower mode that is all about absorbing details of the countryside. Though the two tons of steel and fiberglass molding are hurtling through time/space at body-smashing velocity internally it feels slow and leisurely.

Old stoned piled fence set off against the gentle curve of a live-oak and cedar covered rise. Great leafy canopies of pecans and elms as the road drops alongside the white limestone banks of a muddy, engorged branch river. Riots of wildflowers bordering old barb-wired posts...and wait is that a herd of alpacas?

It's Conan Country too, this long Hill Country backroad runs 15-20 miles parallel with another that will take you to Cross Plains and Cimmeria. That strong sense of place in fantasy —my own that just has to happen to share part of Robert E. Howard's by the accident of birth—washes over me and, of course, I am thinking of things DnD.

Why is wilderness travel so damn dull in-game?

Maybe dull is over-strong. Why is it so consumed with what punctuates the traveling? The throw of a one and the sudden switch in mode to encounter. Or the mysterious appearance of a site of interest, the burned out, ivy-choked shell of a tower and the like. Granted these can be exciting, the stuff of great sessions.

But why is the land itself left so faceless? It's “forest” full stop, perhaps grudgingly modified by being evergreens or light/heavy? It's the brown dull little triangles of “mountains” arranged in hexagonally-bordered bands. The wildly-varying and satisfyingly-creepy real world spread of wetlands is rendered “swamp”.

I look at the posts of my blogging friends and wilderness is almost inevitably handled as an exercise of game mechanics, the nerdy little debates (granted that I often love overly-much too) about how many beancounting checks for encounters per day over how many beancounting hexes.

Over the years I have managed to both play and run in a score or more of different wilds in a campaign—on a rare occasion recently with people who literally in this game from the first play group—and I've yet to ever feel that you had a strong sense of the Land you traveled.

The terrain has no face, little nuance and rarely itself also becomes the adventure. It lacks adversity. It's tangles and mysteries become obscured by a simple “lost” check. A horse never dies exhausted of it. A party rarely finds a spot that “they can't get there from here.” Occasionally you'll get charts for rockfalls and other impediments, but there seems to achingly little of it.

I can understand why the stick got bent this way. Nothing bores a group of players more than waxing into purple prose for more than five minutes without allowing them to hear the sound of their own voices. To be sure, it's a game. We fidget impatiently at the person who spends an eternity agonizing over whether they build three houses or a hotel on Baltic Avenue. They are hogging the play experience after all.

Of course I exaggerate for polemical effect. Everyday we also have examples of Gms breathing life into that aspect of the game. Why here today is my friend, Michael, giving some evocative twists to trekking through Grot. So here's my opportunity to turn it back to the positive (crap, it's only Monday, I can grouse later).

How are you sexing up that wilderness crawl? Can you impart a feeling of something unique about that land without achieving eye glazing? How do you make the wilderness itself the adventure? What's your trick?

41 comments:

  1. Well, the harshness of the terrain, and the risk of serious injury and death to even high level characters means people choose how they move along with care, with risk and worry.

    And I make the encounter tables (my d8/d6/d4 tables) not just about what monsters you run into, but also the challenges the terrain alone can make you. Hell, sometimes they are false challenges, you simply don't know.

    (ie, your path goes through a perfect ambush location, do you move forward or backtrack and lose time simply to avoid the risk of an ambush that may or may not exist?)


    Example Encounters:

    http://zzarchov.blogspot.ca/2012/01/deep-mountains-lightly-forested.html

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    1. Yes! This is exactly what I was getting on about.

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  2. I've been thinking about this lately, especially after having to do some long drives. At this point it's all theoretical, but I'm thinking of really slowing down the rate the party can travel, in terms of game time. Smaller moves (whether literal hexes or not), more encounter/event/obstacle checks (trying to emphasize things other than just combat), etc...

    I've played in too many games where the party just hopped around the campaign map like they were taking commuter flights. People in the old world didn't travel far for a reason, and doing so was SLOWWWWW. We really need to recapture that.

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    1. Travel times in-game do seem way quicker than I suspect travel times were historically (I'm too lazy today to try and "prove" that comparing it to the historical record, but my gut thinks it's right.)

      They seem to at least assume optimum conditions and herculean endurance. I mean c'mon how many 30 mile-a-day hikes can you endure? Especially lugging even a light assortment of armor, weapons and the rest of the gear.

      I tried to reduce distances myself in the HC campaign. In fact it's pretty small scale, most sites being within 10 miles of each other and the map boundaries have remained pretty modest (I mean it all could fit into 6 hexes on one of the old World of Greyhawk maps).

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    2. I'm too lazy today to try and "prove" that

      Let this http://orbis.stanford.edu/# do it for you.

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    3. THAT. IS. AWESOME.

      Thank you so much for sharing that.

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    4. The DMG gives an unencumbered human 24 miles per day over good terrain. As it happens, I've done a bit of long distance walking and 24 miles is a good figure for "unencumbered", I'm not a fitness freak by any means but I was able to do that sort of distance by the third day of a walk and could sustain it for a few more days before needing to take a break for blisters. Once my feet had toughened up I think it would be doable on a fairly long-term basis.

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    5. I don't what you are looking at, the first ed. DMG gives it pretty clearly as 30 miles in normal terrain with a light burden. Dunno I am no slouch and I find the thought of walking 4 more miles than a marathon day in and day out quite daunting.

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    6. Quite right. It's the PHB (p102) which gives unencumbered movement as 1 mile per inch of move rate per half day, which is more reasonable than the table on DMG p58, which I think suffers from bad rounding to fit 30 mile hexes. I've ignored it so long I'd forgotten about it.

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    7. Coming VERY late to this conversation, but speaking as an old, retired "grunt," we used to pull 20-24 miles a day with full field gear and equipment (about 60lbs in the Alice gear, and an additional 20-30 lbs in weapons, helmet, personal ammunition, water, team ammunition, and assorted parts of heavy weapons (butt plates for the mortar, etc.) and let me tell you that no matter how "toughened" you are, at the end of a week of that, you feel like you were beaten with sticks -- and that's WITHOUT any combat. Frankly, it's why they invented wagons (trucks) in the first place, in my opinion; who want's to carry all that if you can throw it in the back of the truck and just carry your weapons and ammo (and canteens, of course)? And back in my day, we didn't even have personal body armor (as a regular thing) to worry about like the kids these days do! It's why veterans strip more and more of that stuff out of their packs the longer the war goes on -- by the end of it, your carrying the spork and knife and the fire starting stuff, while your pup-tent partner is carrying the mess tin you both are going to share. If you have a spare pair of socks you probably are carrying the left one while he carries the right one! ;-)

      In short, I'm here to tell you, even 20 miles a day with a load is a heck of a long hike, especially if you have to set up camp (and dig in -- which we did every single time we stopped for more than half an hour). Doing it day in and day out with periodic breaks for terror and massive physical exertion (combat) is even harder. So yeah, I'd say the rules for marching with a load in the DMG were clearly written by someone who never had to do it, and had only read about it...

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  3. You've seen my map. Wilderness travel isn't boring in my game. It's filled with the sense of exploration.

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    1. A good detailed map with nuanced terrain features helps immensely. But even still the devil is with the details in how you run it.

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    2. I run it like the dungeon.

      "You are standing here, you see x. Which direction do you go?"

      I cover the parts of the map that are not visible.

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    3. And this is the map (or the one I am familiar with): http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2011/09/on-requested-map-of-dreams.html

      Note the nice terrain variation, very Raisz-like.

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    4. Beautiful. I'm trying to nail down a style for the terrain textures for my map. I'm going to be hexing (lol) a digital heightfield terrain (swiss style relief shading), using a 3d game engine. This is an excellent example of the oldschool feel I want to capture.

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  4. Yeah, I likewise use my own wilderness encounter charts with more of an emphasis on discovery and obstacles than monsters. Ruins, cliffs, covers, magic pools, etc. litter my worlds, which I makes wilderness exploration more bearable.

    The key is to give the players something to interact with. If there's no point of interest, sum up the journey in just a couple of phrases and maybe a random die roll.

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    1. I'd like to see how you run it some day. (Which reminds me that I still like to have you play "special guest star" in the HC one session if you the time/inclination.)

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  5. I always include non-battle or "site" based encounters in my encounter tables. Players also just have to sit back and listen to my descriptions of countryside sometimes, unfortunately.

    There are some rules in the 2e DMG for how obstacles can add time to journeys, so I have some of those scattered around various areas as well. If a road is in poor repair, for example, perhaps a bridge over a stream is out, that sort of thing.

    While not necessarily making an xp- or gold-gleaning ENCOUNTER out of the obstacle (or traveling merchant, or shadowy pack of wolves that stalks you for a while but decides that man is a dangerous game) it definitely does help bring the world alive.

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  6. I've a friend who went out that way a few years back to celebrate Robert E. Howard's birthday. He got the lady at the museum to take his picture sitting at Howard's desk. Pretty neat.

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  7. I think the only way to really get the experience you're talking about is to map out and play the wilderness exactly like a dungeon. Preferably a small area, so that the terrain features have "shape", and preferably littered with interesting features and obstacles, so that it doesn't get boring. You can get a similar experience over a large area by having lots and lots of criss-crossing roads and trails (in place of dungeon corridors) and making off-road travel very difficult or dangerous, saving you from having to populate every square centimetre of the map. The main thing is to present the players with meaningful choices based on what they can percieve of their environment, and interesting consequences to those choices. Which is harder than it sounds, for me at least.

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    1. I agree with this. I might even go out on a limb and say the only real wilderness is hexless wilderness

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  8. I redid the encounter chance tables so that at least you don't have to roll all those d20s:

    http://www.stickshiftmasterclass.com/tww/encountertimes.pdf

    The result is statistically the same (approximately) but involves a lot less rolling.

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  9. Someone mentioned earlier shortening the lengths you could go in a day outdoors. I think this, coupled with what John states just above, could combine into a more exploratory feel outside of a the dungeon proper. I hate to have to make the connection, but look at games like Diablo on the PC (DIII tomorrow baby! - I digress). They make exploring outdoors fun. You are getting through large but not overly expansive areas, "discovering" new areas as you go. Each area is cordoned off into zones of this that or the other. You find yourself moving into an area just to "see" it more then what you might find creeping there. Anyhow, I'm trying more and more to understand what could make role-playing more exciting by what visceral responses you have as a player in a real-time computer game. Not taking it one for one rail style, just, pieces, moods, texture, sound, smell even?

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  10. Actually, -C basically stated this similar above "I run it like the dungeon.
    "You are standing here, you see x. Which direction do you go?"
    I cover the parts of the map that are not visible.
    I think its this last part that is key. Fog of exploration. Skyrim does this well. Again, hate to take a computer game as representative, but make it a living breathing 3D world. Go to this level in an area, maybe then allow them to move quicker over lesser explorative areas, but then slow down and zoom in. Work on different levels of zoom so to speak. Allowing them to explore individual hexes, and not just many hexes.

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  11. Sometimes wilderness/distance is the obstacle; sometimes it's the object. I think you need two different approaches.

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  12. How are you sexing up that wilderness crawl? Can you impart a feeling of something unique about that land without achieving eye glazing?

    Weather works for me. It's good for setting a mood/foreshadowing (or just for creating a *perception* of foreshadowing), slowing travel, constraining choices, making easy things difficult, etc.

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  13. I take a functional approach, which might not suit everyone: sometimes I want to cut to the destination, so I do (though not without getting agreement from the players). If it's actual exploration time by an individual or small group then it's its own type of dungeon and I map out (usually ad hoc) individual trees and deadfalls and blind rises and so on - in these cases I hardly use random tables at all; there's some point to the place, and I'll draw from my own experience, though often reskinned. There's a danger there: if I can see the location too clearly then there will likely be an information gap between myself and the players, so I have to watch out for those "of course you couldn't see the goblin, he was behind the library steps" moments.

    I rarely do the thing I think you're writing about here - randomly-generated hexcrawling - but if I do, then my first question is always "what's interactive here?" What can the players meaningfully react to? If you're stranded in a desert, hoping to find a settlement, it really doesn't matter just how hot or dangerous it is, you must press on or die, so dwelling on your suffering isn't game-relevant, unless it explains why you don't notice the sandmen creeping up on you. I try to present clear choices and things the players can tinker with, or things that will have clear tactical effects (so my forests will be "tangled and hard to see through" if jungly or "cold and twilit with treacherous footing" if they're thick pines, rather than being picturesquely mixed Atlantic scrub with live-oak and sycamores). And I use music (soundtracks, ambient, easily-looped pieces, weather effects) if it's face to face - I'll spend a minute describing the creepy, jungly swamp, then revisit it when people ask questions ("you can't see that far because there's a thick line of wet, moldy creepers in the way") and try to build atmosphere like that. Next session if we're still in the swamp, on goes the swamp track... and the effect can be powerful.

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  14. I just realised my close-in exploration could be called an isovist crawl. It might be really interesting to do a randomly-generated isovist crawl (rather like a video game where mist obscures the far distance), where the DM is as surprised as the players that the cliff they're climbing just keeps going up and up, past those overhangs and step-backs.

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  15. It's a problem that's also concerned me, especially recently. One of the ideas I was kicking around involved a "Colonial Hex Crawl", and unless I'm totally pumped about a sprawling wooded wilderness, it could flatline quickly.

    Here are a few of the things I do right. First, I'm insistent on weather - I tend to pregenerate a year of weather (and campaign events) in advance, stored on the calendar, so I handle it effortlessly during the game: Happy New Year Greyhawk

    Second, I using some tables I created for wilderness travel to help me zoom in on exactly what the party is doing near the time of an encounter - what's the specific local terrain, and are they resting, staggered, moving carefully, etc. I assume that regardless of what they say, no humans alive move in perfect formation, perfectly aware, for 8+ hours of wilderness travel at a time. These tables have been immensely helpful:

    Too Busy Looking at the Map to Notice the Monsters

    However, I still don't have a sensible solution to your basic problem - the party is crossing a 6 mile hex of forest, and how does the DM balance the purple prose? How do you make the travel somewhat interesting and not kill yourself creating details for a sprawling hex crawl?

    I'm going to scrutinize some of these replies from more worthy fellows than myself and see what goods they bring to the problem. Otherwise, I'm thinking the situation calls for something akin to encounter tables for wilderness setbacks, so the day is punctuated with occasional challenges appropriate to the terrain.

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  16. I have been rereading "Lost Caverns" recently and the first half of that module is a wilderness crawl (as compared to a dungeon crawl) that works pretty good... because the encounters are not actually random. Most wilderness encounters act like pot holes, something you go through and endure to get to your goal, as compared to being story possibilities (with a chance for really showing off the PC's chops, and getting more loot). The wilderness encounters in "Lost Cavern" work more as story points than WtF moments. That helps keep it from being a tedious slog.

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  17. One point I'd like to make. If you physically were standing there, smelling the air, feeling the carrion crawler tickle your nethers (ok just checking if you are awake), what are you experiencing. This is where taking 'some' guidance from computer simulation/gaming is potentially helpful. But, you can't reasonably maintain this level of detail throughout a 5 hex crawl for example. Perhaps within one hex of travel (or hex within hex if you get to that granularity), as they are approaching a "probable" location of a rumor hinted "locale", let the players really find that sucker. Let them take in the weather, the smell, the foliage, the fauna, everything. Anyhow, off soapy box. Good comments (and web pages) throughout. Also, thanks for bringing this topic up in general Chris.

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  18. Thanks for the reference, Chris :) Very nice post. I totally get the image of driving through the countryside, imagining my players travelling through it.

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  19. If you read Martin in SoIF, every chapter starts off with an evokative sentence; I'm not over stating it, every single chapter over all 5 books begins with a single powerful description of a place.

    Hit them with one sentence. If you can't give them the feel of the hex in one sentence, 5 min of soliloquy won't make it any better.

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  20. I am a slouch, but I don't have tuberculosis or malaria caxeixe, so I'm probably doing better than your average drifter hireling ;)

    When I hear "good terrain" I think of places where I have walked, like Dartmoor or across the rolling farmland of Upstate New York - the going may be a bit soft but it's basically grassland with few obstructions. Of course, it all depends on your world, but in my conception of fantasy wilderness those places are actually quite rare.

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  21. The 30 mile thing.. It seems like a lot, agreed. I usually figure a 14 hour day for travel, which gives an hour before starting out, and hour after stopping, and 8 hours for sleep. That might be pushing it a bit, but I don't mind it being give-or-take a half hour or so. That would mean averaging just over 2mph, which is not toooo bad a pace over a whole day. I think it says something about needing to rest one whole day out of .. uh.. 7? Not sure.
    I usually go with 24 miles a day (again, roughly) which I think I got out of either Moldvay or 2e. But that assumes pretty optimum conditions. Back when I was in pretty decent shape (not awesome at all) I would routinely go for a 2hr walk every day, and that would end up at around 5 miles. When I walked with other people, I got the impression I was a slow walker. That was on sidewalks and without an overabundance of steep hills.

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    1. I should add that the 24 mile per day figure I mention above would be 'light foot.' For heavily armoured adventurers, it would be 12 miles per day walking.

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  22. Earlier, Evan posted a link to Orbis at Standford which calculates movement times in the Roman world (where the roads were much better than the medieval period). On that sight are their movement rates. Being pinhead intellectuals, they list the movement rates in km so I'll do the same with miles listed afterwards.

    Ox cards: 12 km/day (7.5 mi)
    Porters or heavily loaded mule: 20 km/day (12.4 mi)
    Foot Travelers: 30 km/day (18.6 mi)
    Animals moderately loaded: 30 km/day (18.6 mi)
    Private vehicles?: 36 km/day (22.4 mi)
    Fast private vehicles: 50 km/day (31.1 mi)
    Horseback: 56 km/day (34.8 mi)
    Forced March: 60 km/day (37.3 mi)
    Fast carriages: 67 km/day (41.6 mi)
    Horse relay: 250 km/day (155.3)

    They weren't all that clear on what a private vehicle was, I'm assuming a chariot? The horse relay was like the pony express with horse changes at regular intervals so it would only be along prepared routes. All these times (except forced march) are sustainable long term.

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    1. Wonderful, thanks for working this out. I may post something based on this. Curious that a forced march works out to be double that of a foot traveler, wonder what the assumptions are for that.

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    2. Those are excellent! This assumes well maintained roads, right? I wonder if there are any good references for travel over other terrain.

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  23. @Joshua - what 3d engine are you using? I've been out of that field for a decade, but I'd like to restart some 3d projects: can you recommend any editors or game engines that are easy to get started with?

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    1. Hi Richard. I'm using the Unreal Development Kit. It's free to learn and for personal use, and has an excellent commercial license if you ever need to go that route. It is also "current gen" (tuned for DX9 DX11 video cards) meaning it can handle a lot of complicated art and effects if you need them. The details can be a bit intimidating, but the docs break it up by task/artist. I.E. a Modeling workflow, a Texturing workflow, a Lighting workflow.

      UDK comes with some "game pieces" i.e. models and levels that have been setup by Epic so you can see how they did it, as well as a stripped down First Person Shooter rule-set (to show you how they use their code).

      I want to take this and build some intuitive GM tools, starting with a Pin/Flag on Map tool. UDK is robust enough that I can probably do "cut scenes" to fly in close to specific locations with the cinematic system.

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