Thursday 27 June 2024

Wilderness Exploration Design Approaches: Tight and Loose

Never dispute that the commenters on this blog are deep thinkers who possess profound insights into the True Nature of Things.

In my last post, I suggested that we need to do better in developing the principles guiding wilderness exploration and travel in the same way that we have for dungeoneering. From the comments emerged two suggestions, which I have not made up my mind are in absolute opposition or else McGilchristian productive, harmonied opposition; I will call them 'tight' and 'loose' approaches. 

Tight

Here, first, then is a comment by John:

I'll make the general assertion, that a 'true' wilderness hex crawl should be designed with as much love, care and attention as any tentpole dungeon in any underworld exploration game, and for the same reasons - it's the framework and fabric to which everything else is just an adjunct. It's not simply (rather, it doesn't have to be) an interstitial space between dungeons or a rote navigational exercise. Almost all published wilderness adventures have this thinness to them; those that don't tend to blur the line between wilderness adventure and above-ground "dungeon" in a way I find unsatisfying. The proof of the pudding is that it should produce enjoyable long-term play without any dungeons in it whatsoever, and without constant reinvention or new material added by the DM. I don't believe that's achievable with good intentions and excellent writing skills, it requires methodical design.

The idea here as I see it is that published wilderness adventures should carefully catalogue and describe contents of a region in exactly the same way as one would with a published megadungeon - perhaps not down to the last blade of grass (I suddenly have an image in my mind of the life-sized 1:1 map in Borges's On Exactitude in Science) but certainly in much more depth and with much more in the way of loving care than is done currently. I am taken with this idea and I especially like the implicit challenge behind the assertion that the map should 'produce enjoyable long-term play without any dungeons in it whatsoever' - this is a lofty goal (because I have always thought of even wilderness maps as needing caves, holdfasts, towers, etc. to break things up a bit), and one which gives me creative urges.

Loose

Second is a comment by Brian:

Traditional systems have you roll each day for weather, probably 3 encounter checks, and navigation. That forces the DM into narrating "you travel through the woods for a day", "you travel through the woods for another day". If you have an alternate system where you make one or more rolls that tell you how much time passes between encounters, (could be anything between an hour and a week), how much time passes until the weather changes, etc. now you can actually narrate the travel like Tolkien, who can spend a single sentence on a boring week's worth, or pages on a single day.

This is one of those 'Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter' moments. It is much more impressionistic, and would I think imply different rolls for different terrain types, so that in very hilly, broken up, densely forested country your 2d6 roll (or whatever) would give a gap between encounters read in hours, whereas in an open, sparsely populated desert it might be read in days. It would also need to be done - as Brian himself suggests - across different axes: weather change, actual creature encounters, 'ambient' events (like earthquakes or whatever), landscape featuers (chasms, rivers, lakes, bogs, etc.).... 

It reminds me in some vague way of what I was trying to achieve with the Zonal Combat System, not in the sense of arriving at the same result, but at the level of principle in abstracting distance for game-related purposes from actual distance in the fictional reality. 

What is for sure is that talking about such matters in this broad and air-fairy way can be interesting and inspiring but what is really needed are proper test cases in which we can see the way things work in action and critique and comment upon them.

21 comments:

  1. Wilderness adventuring is something I've struggled with as a DM forever, and reading these posts and comments, my mind is swimming with ideas. Nothing concrete enough to articulate yet, but the cogs are turning...

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  2. Regarding Brian's comment, here is a post on a single roll which approximates the distribution of "rolls until success" for relatively low probability events (e.g., 1-in-6), which could aid in determining how many checks until an encounter, and thus his proposed narrative descriptions.
    https://homicidallyinclinedpersonsofnofixedaddress.com/2024/04/29/how-many-repeated-attempts/

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  3. Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, the RPG podcast (tho for sure not an OSR podcast), always dismiss wilderness travel as boring. I like ‘em so I‘ve long wanted to convert them into seeing it is AWESOME! (I dunno if this goal is truly possible, but I do want to find ways to make wilderness travel in games more exciting) - Jason Bradley Thompson

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  4. I think I prefer the tight approach. My ideal would be a hexcrawl where an entire page is dedicated to each 6 mile hex, with more detail to some specific locations. I've been a bit out of the OSR loop for a while now. Is there any product along those lines?

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    1. Dark of Hot Springs Island is a good example of that.

      In DHSI each hex gets three "floating" keyed locations, ranging from the barely-remarkable to fully mapped and detailed areas with their own specific tables of encounters and events. There's an interconnected web of factions and NPCs island-wide. The wilderness encounter tables and guidelines make a token attempt at complexity, which puts them above the average. I don't think the adventure would hold up if you took the dungeons out, but it ticks a lot of boxes.

      Unfortunately it's also very small scale. DHSI is 25 two-mile hexes. A more typical hex map runs into the high hundreds of six-mile hexes. The approach isn't bad, but it runs into harsh scaling problems, and in a sense dodges rather than addresses the issue of making the hex map and wilderness exploration protocols themselves sing.

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    2. I absolutely agree on Hot Springs Island, though I find the tools there a real achievement. The only other excellent hex crawl is Dolmenwood, which should be published this year.

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    3. That would be my ideal too.

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  5. I have found that wilderness exploration as typically implemented makes the mistake of assuming the proceedures for travel and exploration should be the same. In my opinion moving hex by hex makes sense when exploring, while treating movement between known points as a single operation (still with chances of encounters, weather, etc) speeds play.

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    1. Yes, this is an important observation.

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  6. In my fairly long RPG history I don't think I've ever played with the tight approach. Whenever wilderness exploration has been used it's been in loose, make a few rolls and here's some random encounters manner. How fun these wilderness sessions are has varied greatly, and I think lives or dies based on the strength of the random encounter table. "You encounter 1 Bear/2d6 Bandits/3d4 wolves roll for initiative" is just RPG busywork, you need flavour.

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    1. I agree strongly about the random encounter tables. If we compare empty hexes to empty rooms in a dungeon, what do empty rooms do? They present navigational choices, which have their parallels in hex terrain and landmarks and map design (not always observed in published adventures). They camouflage keyed rooms with non-obvious content. They move the random encounter clock forward, and - because they're drawn at a tactical scale and fit closely together with adjacent rooms - provide a defined space for encounters.

      Because a hex map has very many empty hexes, and because hexes are isolated by distance, the encounter tables have to bear a proportionally heavy load. A dungeon encounter benefits from the context of where it is on the map and who's close by; a wilderness encounter has to provide its own context as part and parcel. That means both the immediate environment and situation, for which I'll give an example below, and connections to the game world's keyed locations and factions. I think the latter is what it takes to lift a hex map from a basically static environment to being its own organism in the way of a megadungeon.

      To make random encounters interesting in a vacuum you need either individual custom entries, or else nested/cross-referenced tables (or a combination). Using spreadsheets takes all the inconvenience out of nested tables, or you can pregen before play. I'll generate an encounter from my own (far less than ideal!) main game's tables, without cherrypicking:

      ***(BORDERLANDS/FOREST) At a dry riverbed surrounded/filled by twisted roots and deeply piled rotting vegetation, encounter a lair: nest (spoor: environmental damage; inhabitants: absent, back shortly).
      Monster + treasure: 7x stink beetles (hostile, may attack), 3800 sp of decorative ornaments, unconcealed.***

      From that I could easily improvise: the glint of silver from afar; the scent and corrosive effects of the beetles apparent on the surrounding foliage on approach; the view down into the gully where lies a ruined wagon spilling a cargo of silver-ornamented furniture, the lot now rotted to fragments and mixed with the rotting vegetation that makes up the nest, all overgrown by tangled roots; rolls for how long to extricate the treasure from the rubbish before they hear the whine of approaching wings. (Probably not worth the players' efforts, even on the silver standard, but it was generated with a single keystroke.)

      That's for a passive, dungeon-based, treasure-hunting game, one that's run too long and gotten too big to properly redesign other than some kludges. I'd say it's still on par with the less interesting keyed locations on many hex crawls, most of which could be profitably offloaded onto the encounter table (consider noism's remarks about just how much stuff can be hidden in a hex - the larger the scale, the higher the bar at which an encounter strictly needs a key entry). For a tightly-designed wilderness adventure I would emphasise the intelligent encounters, connections to keyed locations (where did they come from? where are they going?) and factional, motivational play (what do they want? why are they here?). By frequently tying those to specific NPCs, items and locations via nested tables you can generate a real sense of activity and draw the players into the web. I've had some success with this for cities, except I was generating the inspiration and tidying it up into individual custom encounters before play. I've not yet run a wilderness game that's up to date with my current thoughts on the matter.

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    2. This is a good comment, but I would disagree with one element of it strongly - I don't think any hexes on a hex map of a scale 1-mile or greater should be 'empty' except perhaps in notably empty regions (desert, tundra, and so on). You can fit a lot of stuff into even a 1 mile hex.

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    3. You needn't have empty hexes, but I don't see the need to stringently link the hex map and the key such that you shouldn't have empty hexes, either. It's not a matter of what can fit into the geographical area, since anything requiring exploration to discover has at least a tenable case for being put in the encounter tables (which, using spreadsheets, can almost rival the key for detail and complexity) - up to whole castles and ruins on a large enough scale.

      I think it's important for a wilderness-focus game that all the elements that define the shape of the game world be precisely keyed, down to whatever cut-off point you've chosen for detail and significance, and that will depend somewhat on the scale of your hexes. But the hex itself is a mechanical thing, just the smallest formally-defined navigational division on the map. Breaking, say, a 6-mile hex with 3 or so locations into 36 1-mile hexes most of which are empty doesn't affect how much stuff there is in it, or how far the players can see or travel. In terms of fiddling with exploration mechanics, it seems to me to mainly affect how many navigational decision points the players have, and so how closely-defined the lay of the land is, plus the "catchment area" for encounters. So in one sense it gives the former 6 mile hex more detail than it had before, by giving a finer grain to the geography. Strictly insisting that every hex needs to be keyed limits how much you can adjust your scale to suit, unnecessarily I feel. If you felt a larger map were better served by smaller hexes you would be forced to write exponentially bigger keys. You don't have to fear the empty hex if you trust your encounter tables will stand up on their own.

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    4. I take the point, but there is a difference between a 6-mile hex with three or so locations and 36 1-mile hexes each with one or more locations!

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    5. I'm not so sure I understand yours. I'd like to, would you spell it out for me?

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  7. I've had some luck running wildernesses as dungeons. Basically, you have encounter areas (rooms) that either have something interesting in them or at the very least serve as crossroads. You've got various paths leaving each area (corridors) and a wilderness type character might be able to find more by spotting some game trail (secret doors) or blaze a new trail entirely.

    This fits with my experience of hiking and exploring. You're not always free to move in all directions since the terrain might not support that but you're also not bound to one specific path like you're in a tunnel. This also lets you give the players actual choice based on information. Say, one trail looks like it's frequented by deer but everyone knows deer are often hunted by wyverns (or whatever).

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    1. Yes, this is useful - a sort of nodal environment. One thing that published adventures actually do really badly is chart out paths, trails, and so on.

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    2. These kind of wilderness as dungeon is often the easiest to do and is very gameable but it tends to work best on very small geographical areas. Which is honestly fine by me, often for DMs trying to make vast globe-spanning campaigns their ambition gets in the way of the gameplay.

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    3. Oh, definitely. This is more something to do when you get to the Dark Wood with Old Ruin that serves as a dungeon entrance (or a whole adventure where you're hunting bandits or a lost princess or something).

      You couldn't write up a whole game world like this.

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