Ask the Dragonslayer #1: How to Wilderness

Welcome to a new series where I answer questions. From people. Like you reading this. Yes. You. You people that write in motivate me to write more. I really enjoy interacting with people that are interested in what’s all going on here. I read the comment section of posts and have a contact page if you have a question that might not relate to anything I’ve written about.

Onward! This first question is a callback to my previous campaign, asking about the managerial side of GM-ing a game session that only lasts two hours:

Hello DD! I’m a relatively new GM who has been interested in the idea of a communal table since before I properly entered the hobby. A while back I stumbled across your series on the Skorne campaign and I found your take on an open table to be quite compelling. It seems to provide elegant solutions to my concerns with the West Marches format and I’m prepping a similar game for my own local rpg community. Thank you for sharing your ideas!

I was curious with how you paced your wilderness adventures. When your players took one of eight directions, how did you structure the “path” to the boss? Did you just roll/pick from the area list a set number of times before they reached the lair? If they needed to return to the area, would they repeat the process or head directly to the boss?
I ask because (after running an hour long one shot of Maze Rats-man it goes by fast) I feel like I might be over-preparing my wilderness with too many elaborate encounters which might eat up half an hour each in a traditional game. I’m starting to see why could see why your prep appears like a series of rapid-fire hazards and curios in front of a larger, more demanding monster-puzzle. 

Thanks again for writing, I’m enjoying the blog 🙂

Clark

Welcome, Clark!

When your players took one of eight directions, how did you structure the “path” to the boss? Did you just roll/pick from the area list a set number of times before they reached the lair?

I manipulated the “path” and time with enough dangers and discoveries so that by the time they got to the Artifact and the Boss that went with it, they would be in a tight spot. A race against the clock is always dramatic.

For example, the players arrive in the wilderness section of the game with only one hour of game time. They decide to go north, which corresponds to a ‘1’ on my cardinal notes chart: Cairn of the Winter King. They usually pick a direction because they have some indication of which Artifact they’re going after. In this case, they probably heard about The Black Tome while in the city. I look at the Dangers and Discoveries to see what they could encounter between getting to The Black Tome:

It doesn’t matter if they don’t all make sense. I wrote them for me. When you write your own notes, I’m sure they’ll be much more polished for publication.

So I have the “what” but no “how.” There’s no determined order. And I have a “structure” in my head of what should be encountered and when, but I’ve never written it down. Because I didn’t have to. Until now.

The Danger/Discovery Sandwich

Usually, I’d start with “evidence of a Danger.” The wilderness is dangerous, and the players should remember that. So if I chose the entry “Giant” as a Danger for the players to encounter, I’d give some clue that they were just here or somewhere nearby.

You proceed north as a windy chill blows over you. <PC>, you notice tracks. Bootprints. Big ones. What do you do?

But they don’t encounter it. Not yet. It’s a setup. Things have been put into motion for when things need a good kick.

Then I pick another player. I throw a Discovery their way. Something valuable, curious, or downright weird. It NEEDS investigating. Let’s go with the entry “hermit with a bloated frog on a stick.”

Stepping near an outcropping of trees that are lightly frosted, you hear a light chuckle. <PC>, you are not alone. A man covered in tattered rags carrying what appears to be a fat frog on a stick. “Who you?” he hoots. What do you do?

During that encounter, I’d pick on another player. Probably one that isn’t super engaged with the obviously deranged NPC. Let’s go with the entry “bulette, but groggy after eating frost fungus.”

While you’re talking to the hermit, <PC>, you see a large gray beast stumbling and growling furiously. It’s approaching now in with heavy, angry strides. What do you do?

Maybe now you can see a pattern.

  • Switch between Danger and Discovery as needed.
  • Address a PC, usually the one whose eyelids are getting heavy.
  • Ask “what do you do?”

The “Danger/Discovery” sandwich keeps players on their toes. Never let up on adding more Discoveries and Dangers into the mix. Nothing should be “over” until the session is over. Attack, attack, attack with more, more, more things.

Then, players have to be discerning about what is helpful, and what is not. Maybe the hermit can lead them to a secret passageway. Maybe they’re an evil sorcerer. Maybe those tracks are a friendly giant’s, not one that’ll squash everyone into jelly. Maybe they could give the party a lift. If everything is Dangerous, they’ll just resort to “we keep running.” If everything is a Discovery, there’s no tension. They can’t have tea with the hermit for the whole hour because there are more pressing things.

“Addressing the PCs” comes from an old Dungeon World principle for the GM and I like it. And not just because it makes players remember that they should choose their names carefully. It’s a way to share the spotlight. The attention is on them. Everyone looks to them. And they have to act. It sparks engagement.

Bottom line: the order is more of a philosophy than a set of rules. They’re more like a guidelines as those pirate people say.

If they needed to return to the area, would they repeat the process or head directly to the boss?

The best part of the game was that they usually HAD to go back to an Area. Bosses were often too complex or too tough to be beaten in the last 15-20 minutes of the session. When they went back, I would look back over the list again, noting an encounter that I had already done. Some encounters had been used, but not “dealt with.” If the giants I mentioned at the beginning of last session never made an appearance, they just might this time. So yes, they would repeat the process with new Dangers and Discoveries. Usually the more times they went in a certain direction they would “develop a sense of direction” which is just a way of me reducing the difficultly if they really need more time to beat the boss.

I feel like I might be over-preparing my wilderness with too many elaborate encounters

Ah, don’t worry about it. If the encounter runs smoothly and people enjoy it, you’ve done a great job. If you really think it’s a problem, here are some options:

-Turn it into an Area either with an Artifact. If there’s an Artifact, make a boss be there too. You can always have more Artifacts in the game. Otherwise, give them other cool Rewards.

-Leverage the last few minutes of their time. What I mean is this: it happened occasionally that players would finish an encounter, usually with a Danger, with only five or ten minutes left. They would always reason that it would be a waste to just head “back to base”. So they would instead advance to the boss with the Artifact and take it all in. Just watch. I would set up the encounter, which usually had many moving parts or curiosities with it, and they would investigate and ask questions. “Where are the patrols? Which of these baddies looks the biggest? Are they undead?” It was a Reward of information. “Hey, you made it to the boss, but also are cutting it pretty close. You can see what’s going on so that you can make future plans.”

Resource as Final Word

I mentioned Dungeon World earlier. There’s a resource called Perilous Wilds that I stole this structure of “Danger and Discovery” from. They have an online generator that I would use to cook up ideas between sessions. I would try to have at least six of each type for each direction.

Use it, enjoy it, make merry.

Glad to see that at least one person is trying shorter sessions. Make it punchy, folks!

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