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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.