Thursday, August 20, 2015

Misadventure, Mishap and Exploration Challenges in D&D Wilderness

I knew the ladder was a Bad Idea. My fortysomething mind microcalculated risk and sagely pshawed it long before my ankle got caught between the doubled up last rungs.

But I had passed by earlier in my long meandering walk and it nagged at an earlier me, defying me to go up and see just what was on top of an aging, abandoned industrial block of a building. Anticlimax that's what. Four seconds of panic then a “hey idiot twist your leg” moment followed by a totally-not-worth-it pile of broken glass, a handful of steel vent ports and an obstructed view of asphalt wastes and new lofts.

Still I am glad I did it. I can even bend this back to elfgame relevance. But first some shaggy dog.
It's the summer of 1993. I, along with a gaggle of earnest, hoodied, patched and gamey-smelling anarcho-punk rawk kids, have been busy wearing out our welcome at a Madison coop house of earnest, bright-eyed local hippy-vegan kids. Aaron, a lanky (and yes gamey) buzz-headed kid from the Bay Area is holding court about the trains he hopped to get here: the long hours (days even) waiting in a yard for a "hot" express train, what kind of car makes a terribly uncomfortable ride, what it's like to get chased off by security (the “bulls”) etc. 

It's all misadventure, but I am instantly drawn in. We talk for a while and exchange piles of collage-suck xeroxed zines. His opens up a decade of doors for me. Between the shaggy dog stories of everyday life in the Bay Area hardcore scene and sweet, funny poems about Punk Rock Love, there were all kinds of misadventures filled with little mishaps. Long accounts of walking tours, most of it trespassing in abandoned industrial, almost all of that just about daylong adventures exploring the urban spaces that we most all just buzz on by.

I guess I gravitate naturally to that kind of exploration and the things that stick in my mind are always framed by some setback: the sapling breaking as I cross the creek, smashing the binding deep in the snow-covered woods on my crosscountry ski, lying in the keel of a boat retching with six-foot swells, watching half my backpacked in food for the week slide down a gorge, watching all my gear float down a creek suddenly engorged over night, running from a group of teens in the great hollow-shelled Detroit railroad hotel, running from security guards inside a shuttered factory, running from what I thought was a bear.
Me inside the Detroit Railroad Hotel circa 1997. 
Watching my dad fish out my brother who has been pulled under by the murderous current, losing my intertube with my dad and brother in a raging Kern river rapids and having to spend the afternoon climbing a mountain in shorts and cheap plastic flip-flops.

That last--which happened when I was still flush in my awkward, rpg-engrossed tween time--gets me to the relevant gaming-related point. I went home and wrote a version of what happened into a dungeon: a mile-wide underground river with some “come drown in me” boats and roaring rapids, whirlpools and secret caves. It was super crude mechanically and railroady but I remember having some kind of Shit that Can Go Wrong table. It probably was my first attempt to do real

Which leads me to my second punchline, maybe one thing that has made wilderness adventuring weak sauce in many D&D presentations is that it doesn't capture mishap well. I mean sure you have the usual beautiful organic misadventures of actual play. The “holy shit, I knew that scattering of bones and high smell of decay was a bad sign...why did we crawl in here” moments.

But generally outside of some mechanics for getting lost, food resource management and the one-off listing of things like rock falls on an encounter chart there isn't a lot of modeling of the horrible, funny things that happen that make the wilds and travel themselves such an adversary.

The closest I have seen to having a good, solid model of environmental challenge was the obscure Heart of the Sunken Lands put out by Midkemia way back when. Worked in there was a whole subsystem where the players had to deal with daily occurrences of such joys as horses going lame, jungle rot, spoiling food, etc.

I know, I know it's not rocket science figuring out these things. Maybe many of you have already homebrewed your own ways to do this (please, do share), read/adapted lifted something from other rpg products or think that it's just not a fun thing to throw into a game (maybe totally valid), but I kind of want to throw in more of that in my wilderness games. 

The wild places should have things, elements that are scarier than just the eight hit dice whozeewhatsee you run into. More ways to model hard gameable resource choices one has to make when an ankle turns, food is suddenly gone, blinding storms or the trail washed out. 

Yes please.


  1. I think that you might model part of this on Brendan's overloaded encounter die: . As written that winds up being more dungeon-focused but it's easy enough to adapt for wilderness.

    But that doesn't quite get the bathetic catastrophe that you mention like losing half your food or something. Maybe an index (adjusting for duration of trip, # of wilderness encounters, wrong turns, and presence of ranger); at a certain point you wind up rolling to see "what gets fucked up on your stat sheet" and then retroactively determining what that means based on environment - like the index just lists "-3 to Dex" and you have to determine what that means in a forest/cave/desert environment and why.

  2. Torchbearer is largely a story game with Forge-ey mechanics, but mishaps like this are central to those mechanics. So failing various rolls can mean that you get sick, you lose some gear, you have to take a detour that leaves you exhausted, you get lost, etc.

  3. In addition to my disease/parasites stuff my random encounters for outdoors (or big underground) include 'events' tables; might be an old trail blaze, might be a dead elk, or a thrown shoe, a henchman who wandered off and is lost, etc.

  4. It's funny; I was actually thinking about something similar last night. Wilderness exploration seems to comprise either getting to the desired destination with minimal hassle, or running into something horrible on the way. Mechanically I think D&D has encouraged this in all editions. The in-between is what interests me, and offering players the granularity for that exploration to be more "real". Nice post.