View Full Version : DM Help Techniques for making the world feel wild and untamed

2017-05-28, 07:19 AM
Something I've always wanted to do with my campaigns, but I don't think I've ever actually pulled off, was to make the setting feel like a vast wilderness world that is mostly unexplored and barely inhabited. I don't want it to be Cave Men World and still have good numbers of ruined castles, sorcerer lairs, and bandit strongholds, but I really want to do something very different from Ye Olde England or a Roman Empire. Basically a Points of Light type of thing.

Worldbuilding is certainly an element of it, but much of that would be mostly show, while what the players really need to feel it is going to be tell. I want to present adventures in a way that makes the players come to the conclusion themselves that they really are adventuring in a vast wilderness and not the woods outside of town. I got some ideas on which I'd appreciate some comments, and also would like to hear additional ideas for what can be done in that regard.

What I think is probably quite obvious is that the main sites where the big things happend and discoveries are made (the ruins and lairs) have to be reached by a wilderness journey from the next nearby stronghold of civilization and are not just a short walk away to be back by sunset.
But much less obvious is that it's probably also a good idea to not have the adventure start within said stronghold, but to begin with a journey to reach it in the first place. If you start in what is going to be the primary settlement where the party has its base camp, then I think it might feel somewhat like home, or that getting from one stronghold to another is easy because it's skimmed over between adventures. When the party travels from settlement A to settlement B, it's probably not worth playing out the entire yourney, especially when it's a trek of weeks to completely different parts of the world. So leaving a stronghold to transition the campaign to the next adventure in a different part of the world can probably be skipped (after the players gathered the supplies that they want to have at the start of the next adventure, except for food). However, the next adventure begins again in the wilderness with still some distance to travel until they reach the settlement where they want to set up camp for the nearby future. My first guess would be to start at a point with still three days of travel left before getting there.

Something else, which I've really come to appreciate, is to not give the players detailed maps. Every single detail that is on the map is something that somebody has already seen, written down, and made available information to anyone with access to that map. The more vague and sketchy the maps are that the players have acess to, the stronger the impression that the area is rarely traveled and information about it shared. A map like this one (http://nentirvale.wdfiles.com/local--files/setting/nentir_vale.png) creates the impression that the people living in the area have knowledge of it that is accurate enought to show the actual bends of the rivers, the contours of forests, the shapes of lakeshores and the sizes and locations of small islands. Some of the areas shown on the map may be uninhabited now, but you get the impression that in the past someone has been there for long enough to be able to draw all the major geographical features, even if a large number of specific ruins and caves are not drawn in yet. Whatever map you give the players will usually be assumed to be looking exactly like the map the characters have in their pockets. If the goal is to have the players reach their destination but feel like they are in mostly unknown terrritory, I find this style of map (http://img11.deviantart.net/44a9/i/2016/015/0/1/aarina_s_map_of_skyrrst_by_gobbokilla-d9o0067.png) to be much more effective. Players can't point with a stick on the map and say "we are here", but only circle with a finger over an area and say "we're somehwere about there".

Which is also why I think that players should never see a hex map of the setting and GMs don't need to have one, unless the campaign is specifically about the players making a cartographic survey of an area. (Which I believe is what many hexcrawling campaigns do.) The information that PCs generally have available on the ground is "the mountains are to the north and look to be about twice as far away as the sea that is to the south". They usually won't have the means to pinpoint their exact position within an accuracy of three miles, especially when they are in what is effectively unmapped territory. You keep going into a general direction until you either see your destination or find a river, coast, or mountain range that you can follow until you do.

Another thing that I always failed to do in all my years as a GM, but which I now feeel should really make an important difference, is tracking food supplies. Which just never seemed to matter because my dungeons were always just a two day's march from the next town where food could be stocked up indefinitly for negligible amounts of money. But if it takes a week to get to the dungeon, a week to get back, and the party won't be going througn the whole place in a single afternoon, then the amount of food they need to bring becomes really quite substential, especially if they have hirelings and pack animals with them. This forces players to keep an eye on how much food they have left until they need to buy or collect new supplies. Buying means going all the way back and dealing with all the dangers along the way, while collecting food takes time.
The rules for collecting food don't have to be complicated, but they shouldn't be trivial either. It doesn't need to have a real risk for starvation. Only a very real risk of slowing the journey down to a crawl if the environment is inhospitable and the party doesn't have specialist of the appropriate type with them (ranger, druid, hunter, scout, ...). I wouldn't spend any significant amount of play time on this myself, but I think it should make the players regularly consider how long their journeys are taking, how far it is to the next place where they can resupply, and how long they can afford to linger in the wilderness. This should help to make them actually feel that they are far from any inhabited place and make the discovery of hidden settlements much more significant.

2017-05-28, 07:45 AM
One other thing worth paying attention to is weather. Civilizations come up with all sorts of weather mitigation techniques, but in the wilderness it's much more of a threat. Go ahead and break out the rain and floods, snow and hail, strong winds and storm currents, and maybe even the occasional magic storm and natural disaster. It and terrain also help with pacing journeys - they may be largely uneventful, and a lot of them may warrant being glossed over. Crossing a raging river or a long stretch of desert is made notable by terrain and more likely to be worth being played out. A crossing on plains is generally pretty quiet, but a brush fire might be worth a bit more focus, even if it's one of those fairly routine minor brush fires that are actually good for the ecosystem. If these come up in combination, even better - a crumbling cliff face in a blizzard really makes the wilderness feel untamed, and characters being able to handle that really emphasizes the capacity of veteran adventurers in D&D.

2017-05-28, 07:56 AM
Another thing to consider is the rules for resting and exhaustion, and the overland distance rules. If the PCs are under any kind of time pressure, and unable to rest properly, an overland journey can, in theory, feel almost like a dungeon crawl, with the party's resources severely strained. I've tried this once before with a "Most Dangerous Game" style overland chase, to mixed success, but I'd still really like to pull it off somehow.

Another key factor is lack of access to hub features like storage, shopping, and spellcasting. I would be more rigid about tracking item weight (including coins!) in this kind of game, where circumstances might force hard choices. And if there are any persistent status conditions that the party can't take care of by themselves, they're in deep trouble because there's no one else around to help them.

2017-05-28, 08:43 AM
One thing you can do is to make it so that there are various loci of activity, and going from one locus to another involves a lot of expenditure of time, resources, etc. For example, if trekking out to the dungeon is a 3 month journey that can't be expedited, then rather than pop back to town for healing and services and such, the PCs really have to figure out how to guarantee a safe location to recuperate between crawls, etc. It also means that when something goes wrong - someone gets petrified, dies, etc - they're really on their own to deal with it.

And if the PCs do make a safe haven to recover, suddenly that is the pinnacle of civilization in that locus. When there are others, expect other adventurers working that site to come by asking for shelter or supplies or aid. Or local nomadic populations, etc. The party might find that their camp is turning into a village because they can provide a degree of safety that just wasn't possible in that region before.

Which comes to another point - in a wild and untamed world, the map is changing. Villages, even cities, get wiped out by natural disaster or plague or attack. There's no guarantee that the location you set out for is there when you arrive.

2017-05-28, 08:51 AM
I think extreme weather might work quite well as an entry on random encounter tables. You could make a separate table to select one that is season appropriate.
Saves the trouble of rolling for weather every day.

Equipment load and encumbrance has always been a problem in D&D in particular (and I think just ignored by almost anyone else) because it was always attempted to be "realistic" instead of practical. Recalculating inventory weight any time you pick up or use an item is just too much fiddly annoyance to be considered worth the time and effort. More abstract inventory slot systems are much easier to use and greatly reduce the temptation of just ignoring it completely. Which makes the game lose a pretty significant component, I think. I am using these rules (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showsinglepost.php?p=21957062&postcount=43) to handle Encumbrance in my games.

I really like the idea of the player map turning out to be outdated. This adds to the perception that the places shown on it are only vaguely known and very infrequently visited.
A real shame if the party is hoping to find refuge in such a place. :smallamused:

2017-05-28, 09:15 AM
What if the maps aren't just outdated, but not even based on real fact? Medieval maps (and art to a broader extent) were based more on concepts and ideals than actual fact (such as depicting Jerusalem as the center of the world, despite evidence to the contrary). Like, the only map of the world has this ancient capital city as the center and everything else radiating out from it in order of importance, despite the fact that arrangement has no bearing on where places actually are in relation to each other.

Alternatively, the maps are accurate, but only if using a system of measurement and depiction that again has no bearing in fact, the way a Mercator Projection makes the areas near the poles seem gigantic and the area near the equator tiny.

2017-05-28, 09:55 AM
Well, then you have the problem that you can't really use it for navigation anymore and that makes it rather useless as a map. That might work as a visualisation for territories, but I feel there would be little use of that in a wilderness setting.

One thing this discussion had me think of is navigating by roads and rivers. Obviously, when you go into the real wilderness, roads become mostly absent. There can be a few, but they would have to be ancient and stand out as significant landmarks, not simply part of the local infrastructure. When going offroad you need to rely on pack animals and can't really use carts or wagons.

I think rivers could have a pretty significant role too. When going by boat you can't really chose your path, but when you're navigating barely charted landscapes this can actually be much more of a benefit than a drawback. If the major river junctions are marked on the map, you can't really get lost when going up a river, and you're completely safe in that regard when going downriver. In addition, while the speed of boats can be quite slow, particularly upriver, they can carry significant loads at constant speed and if light permits move throughout the whole day or night. So using a boat can be a pretty fast way to travel, especially with cargo. (With triangular sails, boats can sail against the current of a river even if the wind doesn't blow straight from behind as their curved shape works like a wing creating lift that can be directed forward instead of just being pushed in the direction of the wind.)

And an interesting obstacle would be the crossing of rivers in the absence of bridges. The party will have to build a raft or find a ford, which are both great opportunities to have river monsters show up. I don't have any in my monster collection yet, but I really need to add some. :smallamused:

Honest Tiefling
2017-05-28, 11:57 AM
Perhaps create a map, but only of a few important waterways. Ancient travel tended to be by sea or water, so it probably make a lot of sense that no one has bothered to map more then 10 miles into the coast because why would you stall your important trip to go for a wander in the woods? This also gives a way for the players to restart if they *ahem* anger the wrong people.

The ancient strongholds could just be inland because they have magic and could fly, so why bother building anything near a river? Or the ancient waterways they used simply changed course for whatever reason. Or they used canals that got silted up with neglect.

Tracking food all of the time might make things a slog that encourages staying within the town. Perhaps just handwave foraging and hunting...Until the seasons change? So don't have them forage during fertile, verdant seasons, but drought/cold seasons force them to. Or even if there are extremely large animal around, make hunting during their mating season when they have migrated into the region difficult because they will attack anything and everything.

EDIT: Also, what if the villages just don't have food to spare, even if larger settlements do? That way, you can't just stock up wherever, and towns presumably aren't near the ancient ruins. Actually, why aren't they near the ancient ruins? Ancient ruins are great building sites, you already have a ton of stone or brick lying around the place.

2017-05-28, 01:22 PM
I actually have a majority of my settlements in old ruins. However, these are nornally fully cleared and explored by their current inhabitants and don't have much to find for trail blazing adventurers.

2017-05-28, 01:47 PM
When the land is tame, it means that the land has been adapted to humanity. There are farms for food so people don't have to forage. The land is exploited - it is safe for people to go into the forest and hunt game and cut lumber. The infrastructure is there already for people to go into the hills and mine for mineral resources. There are no wild animals running around the settlement because of sturdy walls that keep them out.

When the land is wild, it means that humans have to adapt to the land. There are no farms, so people need to be clever about getting food from the "wilderness." There are no roads, so people have to know landmarks or have maps. There are no infrastructures built for exploiting the land, there are no walls, there is no stability but what the human can achieve through their own cleverness and strength.

So in this thread, there've been a lot of comments on how to GM rules for traveling and the wilderness. But the feeling of a wild land is as much in your rules for "settled" areas of the map. Every individual settlement that your player characters get to should have their unique brand of adaptation to the land. The more exaggerated these adaptations are, the more it seems like the society is tailored to the features of the land, the better. For example:

Settlement A is next to an enchanted fairy forest, and it is known that fairies roam the outskirts at nights as floating fairy lights, abducting people or slaying them. To adapt, the settlement has high walls with towers that light large fire beacons to guide people back to the safety of the town before night falls. There is a strict culture of timekeeping and being in the right place at the right time. Hunters, lumberjacks, and such go out of the settlement in the sunrise when a giant bell rings, and come back immediately upon seeing the tower beacons. Many people are simply not allowed outside the settlement. Once in awhile, you hear that people have disappeared because the fairies have been bold in broad daylight or they had a mishap and couldn't return to the settlement at night. An extremely conservative council of elders rule over the settlement, and their authority is held sacrosanct as responsible for protecting everyone from the scary outside world.

Settlement B is built in the mountains where people have developed a symbiotic relationship with the gryphons who nest there and travel by riding gryphons. Since the mountains themselves have little resources outside of the gryphons and its remote location makes trade difficult, the people of the settlement travel by gryphon to the foothills in order to hunt and forage for food, and obtain other resources.

2017-05-28, 03:38 PM
Highly customized settlements sounds like a great idea. Individual solutions to unique challenges. Making the situation of each settlement noticably different should support the appearance that they are separated by great distances.

Supernatural defenses to defend the settlement against spirit and monster threats is also really cool. This is perfect for my own nature spirit ruled setting where people are only a footnote in the bigger picture, who seek safety in their small islands of relative stability and predictability.
Part of the lore of the setting is that civilization can only exist under the active protection of a local god of the land, but that protection is dependent on the strict observation of specific rules. If the rituals are not maintained or the tabus not onserved, then the spirit either can't or won't block out hostile monsters anymore. Replacing important idols and totems or performing a spiritual restoration ritual can be great adventure goals.

When the land is wild, it means that humans have to adapt to the land. There are no farms, so people need to be clever about getting food from the "wilderness." There are no roads, so people have to know landmarks or have maps. There are no infrastructures built for exploiting the land, there are no walls, there is no stability but what the human can achieve through their own cleverness and strength.

One important lesson here is that players will have to heavily rely on local guides and informants for the last leg of the journey to the ruin or cave. Finding a known settlement that has some contact with the rest of the world is relatively easy, but finding a hole in the ground in the wilderness requires very precise knowledge of its exact location. It's a nice opportunity to get some social elements into a wilderness adventure or a dungeon crawl campaign.

Another thing that came to my mind is that in the wilderness there aren't really countries. This is a mistake I made earlier in my own worldbuildung when trying to mimic the layout of Forgotten Realms and Eberron where you have maps with borders and each country has inside it numerous forests, hills, and swamps. In the mostly uninhabited wilderness this approach makes no sense. A forest, a mountain range, and a swamp would all be individual features, but there is no real reason why they would be grouped together as a single land. Countries are defined by cultural similarities of their inhabitants. If the people are widely separated and culturally different then there is no real basis for outlining countries. It makes much more difference to group features together by their similarity in landscape, like a group of islands that all look pretty much the same, or a series of swamps that all lie very close to each other.