Ask Angry: Into the Woods

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Brian Asks:

How do you balance outdoor encounters versus the players desire to get in long rests as much as possible? For example, let’s say the players are traveling from point A to point B and you decide to have them encounter something along the way a handful of times. They get into a fight and blow the majority of their resources knowing they’ll just camp later that night and continue on. Do you scale up those combat encounters to account for their extreme use of resources? Or do you try hard to string a bunch together in some fashion to put strain on the players’ choices?

Wow, Brian, just wow. You asked a nice, specific question. You didn’t give a funny name. You didn’t ramble for six paragraphs. This is, like, the perfect goddamned question. I literally have no funny little lead-in to answering the question. I just have to get right to it. I can’t artificially pad my word-count with a long, rambling intro. That’s just f$&%ing perfect for me. Because I sure as hell don’t rely on that comedy crap to make my advice actually engaging.

Oh wait, yes I do. Nice job f$&%ing up the whole system.

Recently, I did an Angry Rant about Hex Crawls. And I mentioned that D&D is a game of “days of adventure,” where individual encounters are meant to eat away at the PCs resources, not to be deadly dangerous on their own. This creates a nice pace for adventures that involve several encounters in a row. The danger and tension grow as the game builds toward a climax. And when GMs design to that pace, it works very well. So, D&D really wants strings of encounters and obstacles. And it resets most of the PCs resources every game day. When the party goes to sleep, they get most of their resources back. Which, again, is a great pacing tool if you build toward it.

But the world of D&D is supposed to be dangerous. Travel is supposed to be risky. When the PCs set out to plunder some ancient ruin in the scary forest, if they don’t run into hazards and dangers along the way, that belies the danger of the world and begs the question “where is all the horrible danger that the frontier is supposed to be filled with.”

As a result, most GMs split the difference (very poorly) either with random encounter tables or with the good ole method of “okay, you’ll have ONE encounter between here and there.” Neither of these solutions is great though, because they don’t address the real problem: that the game just doesn’t handle days with one or two encounters well. And the problem is not that the players can freely rest whenever they want. If you’re not prepared to load up a day of travel with three or four encounters, it doesn’t matter. That one rest will be fine.

So what do you do?

Well, the easiest thing to do is say “f$%& it.” Don’t worry about the wilderness travel. Handwave it. It’s not like getting attacked on the road by a random griffon or swarm of rabid dire squirrels adds much to the game over whatever the actual adventure is going to be. Or, if it’s important to you to establish that the world really is dangerous, the one encounter or random tables are fine. Just accept those encounters will be trivial. You CAN crank the difficulty. In D&D 5E, PCs can handle hard to deadly encounters once in a while if they are smart and the wilderness gives them ample opportunities to evade or flee encounters. But again, it’s not that important.

But if you do want the world to be dangerous and you do want to make the wilderness more dangerous, if you want to make travel part of the adventure, you’ve got to work at it. You can’t just half-a$&. It needs as much careful design as the dungeon the PCs are heading for.

First of all, sleeping in the wilderness should never feel safe. If anything, it should feel MORE dangerous than moving. When the party makes camp, they are no longer moving, they are sitting in one place, they usually have a fire going if it’s night time, and so on. They are nice, soft targets, they are unmoving, and most of them are asleep. If your party ever feels safe “just sitting still for eight hours” to get some rest in the wilderness, you’ve f$&%ed up.

Now, that doesn’t mean they should get attacked in bed every f$&%ing night. That’d be a pain in the a$&. But stuff should be happening. You should train them to be afraid of sleeping in the wilderness. A bear or a lone wolf could wander close to the camp, checking it out. The lookout could investigate it, rouse the party, and ultimately the thing might get scared off when it becomes clear it is outmatched. A small rodent or a goblin thief could sneak into the camp and steal supplies (maybe the lookout might not even spot it or be unable to chase down or shoot the raccoon as it darts away). The party could camp near a cleft that bats use to leave their cave for the night and suddenly find themselves in the midst of a (harmless) cloud of leathery bats and a rain of chalky bat guano. A snake could surprise the party in the morning because it crawled into someone’s boot. Someone could get stung by insects and get sick for a few days. Or it could rain and some sort of leach thing could creep out of the ground in the night and attach itself to PCs.

That’s second of all. Second of all, not everything in the wilderness is a combat. And those sorts of scares and pain-in-the-a$& inconveniences are often worse than full-on combats because they don’t offer easy solutions. They are annoyances. And they should happen during the day too.

Third of all, attacking the party’s resources is more useful than attacking their hit points over a period of days. Long, difficult, slow travel wastes food and water. Multiple combats waste arrows and healing potions even if hit points come back every day. Equipment can get lost or damaged during river crossings and while scaling cliffs and bluffs. You need to be more creative.

Fourth of all, danger should come in clumps or pockets. Lots of creatures, intelligent or unintelligent, have territories they protect and patrol. If the heroes wander into goblin territory, the goblins might harass them constantly, taking potshots and running away, throwing wasp nests into their camp, separating them, leading them into traps or natural hazards, and ambushing them at the worst moments. Crossing a goblin forest should be as dangerous as any dungeon and the PCs should be terrified of sleeping. Sleeping in wolf or dire wolf territory is asking to be attacked in the night. Even elf territory could be very dangerous if the elves are a particularly private and xenophobic tribe.

And by dropping these “territories” on the map you can create “days of adventure” between one point and another. A “territory” becomes a place of greatest elevated chances of an encounter and a very dangerous place to sleep. And different “territories” should have different signs to help warn the PCs. Goblins might set up icons and warnings all throughout their territory. Wolf howls might fill the night in wolf territory. Spider territory is probably filled with webs and spiders.

The party might know some of this stuff before they set out “the hills are under the control of the brigands, we’ll need to move quickly and quietly through there.” Others might be a surprise, “you begin to notice spider webs in the trees and lots of emaciated husks hanging from the branches. Spiders nested here recently.” The party can then make interesting decisions. Do you plow straight through the Spider Woods or try to skirt the long way around? That might take more food and water than they planned on. Or slow them down. And even being NEAR spider territory makes camping dangerous. If the party encounters a goblin patrol and any of the goblins escape, goblin territory is now on alert and much, much more dangerous. If the party gets the drop on the brigand patrol, do they try to sneak past or try to slay the brigands outright, either way risking getting discovered. Hell, even if you have just one monster (like a manticore or dragon) that considers this area it’s hunting grounds, it’s dangerous to stop or linger too long and definitely dangerous to sleep.

And the fantasy wilderness SHOULD be divided up like this. A largeish forest has its nations and its borders. The spiders stay out of the goblin land. The elves and goblins are at war and have a contested border. No one goes into the marsh lake area because that’s where the chuul hunts.

Hell, even just one territory on the map can be dangerous. If the dungeon the party wants to explore is inside goblin territory, camping outside of the dungeon could be extremely dangerous. And the smart party will take lots of precautions. And if the goblins follow their trail, the goblins might be waiting outside as the party emerges battered but victorious and laden with treasure.

Whatever solution you go with, you can’t half-a$& the wilderness. If you do, the wilderness will always feel half-a%&ed. If you want the wilderness and wilderness travel to matter, you’ve got to work at it.

16 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Into the Woods

  1. Thanks for the answer Angry. I definitely want to try using more of the non-vanilla non-combat stuff to make wilderness more interesting (like the snakes, bee hives and leeches). As a side bar one of the more fun encounters I had outdoors was when a swarm of stirges found the party in the middle of the night sleeping. They’re on a prison island and they have glowing numbers/runes on their foreheads to depict the remaining years of their sentence. The stirges were attracted to the light. Now they all sleep and run their watches with their heads wrapped.

    • lol. It occurs to me: How are they wrapping their heads without blocking their sight? Are they making the stereotypical mummy-wrap? Because I can just imagine some other travelers finding them and going “AH! MUMMIES!” (note that said person would probably not be terribly bright, to make such a mistake, but they ARE on a prison island. People on prison islands usually aren’t good at making smart decisions)

  2. What I really like about your ideas is thinking “yeah, did that to them.” “check, got em” and then “WOW! why didn’t I think of that. That’s pure evil bastard brilliant!” Having read your insightful rants on perception and insight, I’ve been doing this wrong. But I call for my players to make perception checks fairly often. A nine? nope nothing going on. A 23? There’s a rustling in the bushes about 50 yards to your left. Mostly, nothing ever happens, but it develops and reinforces a sense of paranoia that makes every camp-out a little more tense. Hit and run Goblins and thieves are so going to improve the experience. Also we have a ranger with a bad case of special forces solo ops. I throw a our a little vague bait (rustling 50 yards away) and off he goes hunting by himself. On more than one occasion he has been mis-identified returning to camp and been attacked as a threat. (you rolled a one? there’s an Orc with a bow coming through the tree line.) I think the other players actually enjoy inflicting damage on him for his stupid ass stunts.

    Keep up the awesome work. I’ve learned more from reading your articles than I have from buying TSR and WOC and GDW book over the past 30 years. I make my DMs in training; my 17 yo son and his 14 yo friend, read these, because we never had such kick ass guidance back in the day. And I appreciate that you PDF them so I can save them and read them offline.

    Rant on Angry GM, Rant on.

  3. What I usually do is make the surrounding wilderness a PART of the dungeon. Just treat it no differently from another area within the complex itself, with its own battlemaps, terrain hazards, and monsters that are a couple levels lower than the underground nasties.

    Works especially well when using something similar to your Slaughterhouse system.

  4. Thanks for the insights, Angry.

    The core problem seems to be that the whole challenge of D&D comes from, as you say, attrition over the course of the adventuring day. And the measure of that is hit points. That doesn’t work over a days-long journey because you regain all your hit points at the end of each day.

    The fourth point you make seems to come closest to solving this issue – wilderness hazards chip away at resources like food and water. It also appeals to me because it seems like it would be pretty easy to systematise in order to make it simpler to manage; measuring distance in rations, effectively (this is in Dungeon World, which I know is your favourite RPG is the whole world). Running out of rations and starving could have a lasting effect like exhaustion that isn’t cured by a long rest, damage to your MAX hit points, or maybe you have to spend a ration to get any benefit from a long rest.

    The problem is, rations aren’t terribly expensive or hard to come by so the party will usually have a chance to stock up to the point where no journey is long enough to risk exhausting their rations. How would you suggest solving this? Boosting the price of rations? Imposing an arbitrary limit on how many you can carry? Or does an attempt at systematising the whole thing amount to being half-assed? Interested to hear more thoughts.

    • Ok, here’s an idea: when on a journey through the wilderness, you have to make a Survival check each time you take a long rest. If you fail then you gain no benefit – or perhaps only the benefit of a short rest. If you don’t consume a ration then you have disadvantage on the check. The difficulty of the check depends on the terrain and the weather. And a ranger in their favoured terrain automatically succeeds on the check.

      The idea is to turn wilderness travel into a game of attrition, just like a dungeon, by allowing resource loss from the occasional encounter to carry over if your outdoorsy skills aren’t up to scratch.

      What do people think of that?

      • I wish I could figure out how to edit my own posts. Of course, some of what I say below applies this concept. For some time I have been using a similar system in 4e, except I use an Endurance check to determine how many healing surges are recovered, with several environmental modifiers.

      • I think it’s boring. “Roll die to avoid consequences” is uninteresting. There’s no interesting choices, no neat decisions. Nothing. It’s just a random die roll to slap the party.

        I hope that didn’t come off too harsh. But, I’m not the Happy GM for a reason. 😉

        • It’s not random and it’s not there to slap the party. It’s there specifically to create the same attrition-based gameplay that is at the core of D&D when you’re exploring dungeons, so that exploring wilderness can feel like a proper part of the game rather than something that either has to be hand waved away with pretty flavour text or dotted with ultimately meaningless encounters to give it the illusion of being exciting.

          But I do take your point that there are no decisions for the players to make here, and your point below about buying depth with complexity (although obviously what I was hoping to hear was “no worries dude, you can have a deep and compelling game and still be lazy, here’s how…”

          I still would be inclined to try and simplify or systematise to some extent, simply for fear of running out of specific ways to fuck with the PCs. I mean, it’s got to be possible to achieve a balance, right? After all we accept HP, an abstraction, rather than keeping track of individual wounds, mental state and blood sugar levels. HP aren’t boring, just necessary.

          • I had my players do some exploration hex-crawl style to find some key locations where they only vaguely knew the whereabouts. The ration thing became important, and I gave the players a choice. You can forage for food as you travel and move at half the pace, or not. From there they used survival checks to see if they found anything (bigger rolls got a few more pieces of food). I’m not claiming this is an amazing choice but it at least made them decide between getting there quicker or maintaining their current ration inventory.

  5. I note that Angry’s fourth point involves showing the players something about the world, and is really a form of exploration.

    I also note that, in respect of his third point, that “resources” includes mounts. It is a bit of an inconvenience if a passing bear spooks the horses and the PCs have to spend half a day chasing them down; it is a greater inconvenience if the horses were spooked by worgs, which proceed to hunt the stray horses while the PCs are trying to catch them. Or displacer beasts rush the camp, kill a single horse, and then retreat, knowing that the next day the party will have to leave the dead horse behind and they will be able to eat it without risk.

    Re: the first and second points, one of the things I have been playing with in my campaigns is the tension between comfort and security, and making sure there are mechanical benefits to each. I have wounds heal faster if you sleep in dry conditions, when not wearing heavy armor, and when the PC gets decent food and is warm enough through the use of blankets and/or a fire. PCs take a risk if they sleep sitting up in the rain, with no tarp, tent or fire, while wearing plate armor (the padding for which is soaked through and chafing), with a shield strapped to their arm, after eating a supper consisting of dried and salted trail rations, the same trail rations he has been eating for a week.

    If your wounds aren’t healing quickly enough, those random combat encounters may actually have an impact when you get to the dungeon. Given that, are they willing to use tents, even though they block line of sight into the woods? How are they going to carry those heavy, bulky canvass tents, after an owlbear kills their pack animal?

    Ask your PCs, when they are setting up camp, who is going to collect firewood and who is going to look for water (if you think there is enough in the waterskins to cook with, or for the mounts, you are much mistaken). Most adventurers will want to do everything as a group for security. That is fine, as long as you don’t mind taking longer to set up camp and losing an hour or two of travel each day. But it can be a problem if they are under some time pressure. Especially if worgs killed one or two of their mounts.

    • All really good stuff, I think, but also quite bitty and complex. Lots of different elements to keep track of. That’s why I started thinking about putting some sort of system at its core, and it sounds like you did something similar. Hopefully it would turn the whole thing into part of the gameplay rather than giving the players of load of nuisances to deal with before they get to the dungeon.

      • Rather than tying healing and spell recovery to time you could use numbers of encounters instead.

        For example a short rest might only provides mechanical benefits after every 2 encounters and long rests after every 6.

        Sure it’s a bit “gamey” but it allows you to overcome some of the issues with DnD’s adventuring day.

    • I’m inclined to like this sort of system because it sets up interesting trade-offs. Do we waste half the day hunting for the horses (and maybe not find them) or proceed slower and exhaust ourselves without them? Do we need more security or more healing? What’s more important? Do we camp here in this okay spot or hold off for a better one? Yes, it’s more complex, but remember complexity is the currency with which you buy depth of play. And depth of play is driven by interesting choices and trade-offs.

      • Beoric,

        I have just implemented a variant of your idea in my Pathfinder game. Players must make a survival check each night of not sleeping in a proper bed. If they pass, they get the benefit of a full rest; if they fail, they don’t. If they fail more than 1 night in a row, they start getting fatigued/exhausted conditions.
        They get bonuses to the check for erecting tents, a fire if it is cold, a warm fresh meal, etc. Druids and Rangers make get bonuses or automatically succeed in terrain they are familiar with. If you want, you could also attribute secret penalties to each of these things on wandering monster checks (your fire attracts things, erecting the tents makes noise, hunting fresh prey puts the smell of blood on the air)… It sounds complex, but I really just have a small index card behind my screen with bonuses. Players give me a one sentence description of how their character is preparing for the night, I roll based on their choices, it’s done.

        When they decide to camp, I have also decided to start providing them with 2 choices of campsite; one that is safer but conveys a smaller chance of a good rest. If they really search, I’ll give them additional options. For example, the base of a small concealed ravine filled with brambles, or a windy outcrop covered in comfortable moss where their fire will be seen for miles. This does a few things.

        1) It gives players a meaningful choice between probability of good rest and security- and they can make choices to modify the sites and provide additional depth to the encounter (which it is) if they care to. For example, perhaps they can burn the brambles away, or cut chunks of the thick moss from the comfortable site and bring them to the safe site. Perhaps they can erect a windbreak on the outcrop and forgo a fire. These modifications can have consequences if it’s reasonable.

        2) It allows you, as the DM, to describe the wilderness in scenes other than exposition scenes- so you get players to listen attentively while still sneaking world-building details in there. This helps show the diversity of the wilderness and IMO makes it more immersive.

        3) It helps rangers stand out. I was never satisfied with the depth of a ranger’s wilderness expertise before; they are supposed to be masters of the wild places but I never felt like that translated in an interesting way into the game mechanics.

        4) It really drives home the harshness of nature and the exhausting and dangerous nature of overland travel. By the end of the first session, 4 of 5 characters (not players) will probably hate the wilderness. My players found it much more immersive and engaging though; not too boring (because fights become less trivial), not too frustrating (because these aren’t just die rolls or “gotchas”), and full of choices.

        The amount of extra work for the DM is negligible, especially if you are good at making things up on the fly. The only real penalty is that it slows down gameplay and extends the amount of real time spent in the wilds. For a more immersive game experience, I think that trade off is worth it.

      • Mine isn’t even a very complex system. I tinkered with the 4e healing surge recovery system. At the end of an extended rest, roll an endurance check: easy DC gets you one surge back, moderate gets you two, hard gets you three. If there is someone to look after the wounded, they can give back more surges depending on the heal checks. In theory, if you fail an easy check by five you could lose a surge, if you exceed a hard check by five you could get four, but that hasn’t happened yet.

        With “bedroll, dry, sufficient rations, temperate night” as my baseline, I eyeball the conditions and apply a bonus or penalty as I see fit. I may have to tinker it when they get to Paragon or Epic, but it is working well at the moment.

        As for the rest, its just an encounter, so no particular system is required. Because You Don’t Need a System.

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