Thursday, 19 October 2017

If You Go Down to the Woods Today...

Whether the jungles of South East Asia, the taiga of Siberia, or the ancient mixed woodlands of Europe, forests fascinate me. I like being in them and I like thinking about them: to be in a forest is to be completely surrounded in a gaia-like ecosystem, made all the more interesting because it obscures your vision and plays tricks with sound. This means that exploring a forest is a bit like exploring an overland dungeon - you never know what is around the next corner.

There is also some sort of primitive fear - the fear of a Savannah-dwelling early human/primate - of those dark, closed-off, cool spaces. To stand in an open space looking at a wood is like standing at the threshold of another, different world. A world where you don't belong. A wild place.

Bill Bryson described being in a forest nicely in A Walk in the Woods:

Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees surround you, loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in the woods and you only sense it. They are vast, featureless nowheres. And they are alive.

But there are difficulties running games in forests realistically, by which I mean, without just being yet another bunch of adventure locales except featuring treants, dryads and wood elves rather than derro and drow and whatnot. Taking advantage of, and emphasising, the uniqueness of the forest as an environment. I think there are chiefly three sets of problems.

1) First, as Bryson also puts it, when describing the experience of actually walking through a forest for day after day:

There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It’s where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle. In a way, it would hardly matter.  
At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But most of the time you don’t think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day you don’t think, “Hey, I did sixteen miles today,” any more than you think, “Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.” It’s just what you do.

Existing in a mobile Zen mode is nice, but not really what an RPG session is all about. In other words, exploring a forest is fun and interesting, but in reality also full of nothing-much-at-all in terms of excitement, danger, and adventure.

You can add excitement, danger and adventure with random encounters, of course, or hex locations, or even pre-planned encounters, for that matter, but at some stage it seems to me that if you're doing that too much you're not really being faithful to the nature of being in a forest as opposed to other sorts of environment. Emptiness and featurelessness is part of what journeying through a forest is.

2) When you are walking through a forest, you get surprised by things all the time. It's not an environment for humans (unless perhaps you are born into a tribe in the Amazon, and even Amazonian tribespeople manipulate their "forest" environment a lot). Your senses don't function well there: your main strength is sight, which is rendered defunct by the lack of visibility, and in comparison to just about any animal you could name, you have pathetically rudimentary senses of smell and hearing. The long and short of it is: whatever is round the corner knows you are there before you know about its existence. You are forever flushing grouse, being scared out of your skin by sudden bird alarm calls, and trying to identify the sources of mysterious movements in the undergrowth. You could be hunted and stalked with embarrassing ease by any serious predator.

This would make for good natural world as survival horror gaming (there is death lurking everywhere and it will get you) but not, I think, a long-term campaign.

3) Forests are in a sense featureless, but if at any given moment you stop while walking through one, you will be confronted by a radically different geography than you would have five minutes earlier. There are inclines, crevasses, streams, clearings, fallen trees, boulders, pools, a whole array of different features swallowed up by the trees and undergrowth and suddenly revealed to you as you pass by. More than in any other environment, the surroundings really matter - there is stuff everywhere.

So a realistic encounter in a forest has to take account of that. Want to fire an arrow? Deal with the fact that it's more difficult for your target not to be in cover. Want to creep up on an enemy? Deal with twigs and dried leaves everywhere. It's not so much that there's plenty of scenery to interact with, it's that you are overwhelmed by scenery; you have scenery up to the eyeballs, more scenery than you know what to do with.

This, among other things, makes forest adventuring - doing justice to what makes a forest a forest - one of the true last great frontiers of gaming.


  1. I live in a forest. There was a bear den wihin 300 yards of my house for years. The spooky thing is how goshh darned silent moose are, they are huge and look ungainly but still hardly a whisper or a shadow casued by them most of the time.

    My family had a favorite camping spot in a patch of woods that we used for years. After about a decade we discovered an old farmhouse foundation not too far from the campsite that we never noticed.

    1. I suddenly imagine you writing on a laptop in a hollow inside an oak or in a treehouse or something.

    2. I'm in "the mansion" a big (but no so big house these days) 19th century house built by a farmer/inventor who turned his orchard into a wood mill and manufactured washtubs and basins for sale all over america and the world thanks to the rail line that ended in town. The wood mill burnt down in the 30's I believe, the ruins are still there i the yard swallowed by the woods. The forest here is fighting suburban sprawl in the effort to take over old farmland. One of the families I knew as a kid had an old graveyard covered by woods at the back of their proerty with a number of standing headstones and a few fallen all were too old to read, and there are no curret records that show the graveyard was there. The forest swallows and hides our efforts against.

      We just had a flock of 17 turkies having breakfast in my yard.

  2. Sounds like the first things to do as a GM would be to just toss Surprise rules (except for Elves, maybe) and have every encounter be a surprise when running into natives of the wood, and then up the frequency of encounters but throw a lot more natural features into the tables (crevasses, fallen logs, long overgrown houses, etc. etc.)

    If that's too disadvantageous for the players, maybe only allow surprise rolls (possibly with penalties still)if the party is on an established path but deny them if they stray into the trees.

    By odd coincidence, I've been watching the Cartoon Network miniseries "Over the Garden Wall" this week, which is very much about being lost in the woods. It's also excessively Octobery, apropos to the season.

    1. Every encounter being a surprise definitely works.

  3. Sounds are weird in forests. In a temperate deciduous forest with years of leaf litter on the ground, any size creature makes the same amount of noise: a squirrel or a bear sounds the same.

    Unless there are paths which get constantly maintained, forests are hard to move through: vines, deadfall trunks and branches, roots -- and a carpet of knee-high ground-cover plants to make sure you can't see where you're stepping. "Clearings" are even more cluttered than canopy, because you've got a dense thicket of saplings and opportunist shrubs taking advantage of the light, often with thorns. One reason it's so easy to get lost in a forest is that you're constantly changing course to go around obstacles.

    1. In "1491" the author asserts that native Americans through the continent were constantly using fire to manage their forests for these very reasons. They let the trees stand but burned the rest.

    2. Royal forests of Europe were also managed in a similar way. Not by fire but by clearing the undergrowth, fallen logs, etc. so it was easier to hunt.

    3. Land use rules also helped with that: peasants could gather wood, but not cut down trees. So they kept the forest floor as tidy as a ballroom in order to have fuel.

  4. It is particularly true of forests, but I find in general it is becoming more difficult to convey any wilderness, or even rural, environment because of a lack of shared experiences. The people I encounter nowadays seem to have very little experience with non-urban environments.

  5. Bramble-filled little ravines with rivulets at the bottom...enormous, half-rotted nurse logs...bracken & undergrowth everywhere...combinations of trees, shrubs, & elevation changes which are simply impassable...

    Game-wise, I tend to assume intervening obstacles so increase range penalties strongly, possibly penalize moving silently but greatly benefit hiding. And all terrain is difficult by default when not specified as trail or clearing.

    I have yet to find a set of terrain tiles for use with miniatures, which comes anywhere close to representing an actual's like people go for a walk in the park, then assume that was a forest.

  6. If you throw a typical RPG encounter (orcs, say) into a forest, one distinguishing aspect will be that it's very hard to keep track of enemies. You're unlikely to know how many orcs there are until the fighting stops. And even then, you won't know whether survivors have withdrawn tactically, hidden themselves or fled - or whether there were survivors.

    That sort of uncertainty could be very nicely amped up over a session, so that the players are never sure whether they can safely make camp or even rest. I'd be tempted to run a "clock" of time taken (using a die or whatever), with the chances of further, nastier encounters rising the longer the players stay in one place, as that gives the forest orcs more time to set traps and ambushes ahead - and to sneak up behind.

    1. I think the opening battle in The Revenant is quite a good template (although it takes place on the fringe of a forest rather than in its depths): there's lots of confusion, semi-seen assailants and arrows whizzing everywhere.

    2. I love The Revenant. My only beef with that opening fight and actually the film in general is the way the natives seem near-suicidal in charging headlong into battle.

  7. I disagree in some points with people here but I think it is because I live in southern Brazil.
    The two main kinds of forests here is the Amazon rainforest to the north and the Atlantic forest in all coast from east to south.
    The Amazon rainforest is over the plains of the Amazon river basin so it is even more true that you can get lost easly because everything seems the same. Places are referenced by the many rivers (e.g. at lower xingu river).
    The Atlantic forest on the other side spans through the irregular coast of Brazil with many hills and ridges. It is harder to get lost here because you can always see other hills between the trees.
    Also, as the forests are wetter and denser here, moving through foliage causes more noise than stepping the floor. One thing I noticed when I walked the woods with noobs is that they usually leave a trail of broken and smashed plants in their path.
    But one thing I agree completly is that it is even more easy for natives to surprise and the surprise distances are shorter because of the tress and undergrowth. You can even see that dense forest animals do not flee by run, they just get out of range (not sight) by flying, climbing, swimming, burrowing, etc.
    Another thing is that many natives use bows (and rarely javelins) more than anything else for hunting. Even if the bow shot distance is smaller, the surprise distance is also smaller, so it is not that bad.

    1. It is also true of the Rockies in Alberta and British Columbia that you can always orient yourself by a mountain peak.

      I think when people get lost here, it is less that they don't know where they are, and more that they don't know how to leave where they are, as the area can be a maze of impassible terrain.