My Plans for Aumaril and Wilderness Exploration Rules

People who’ve been following what I write for some time might know that I often come up with plans for grand ideas but rarely have anything finished to present later. Since I don’t have any money at stake with all this elfgame stuff, that’s fine. And it’s rare that I actually abandon anything I’ve been working on completely. Much of stuff that I create is tinkering with mechanics and concepts and it’s always a learning experience that helps me increase my understanding of the material. And nearly all of it kind of just goes into a drawer where I let it sit for some months or a few years while my attention is on other things, to get pulled out again at some later point to continue tinkering with it. So while it might be pretty early to make any kind of announcement yet for what I am currently working on and nothing might come out of during the next year or so, my current plans for a rules system and campaign setting are actually just a new phase of the same things I’ve been working on for nearly 10 years now. I am constantly getting better at it and feel like I am making great progress, but with increasing experience comes a better understanding of how far away the goal has actually been all along. It’s a bit like fusion power research, I guess.

With a lot of talk, confusion, and general uncertainty about the licensing situation of D&D type games in the last month, plenty of people have come out with the opinion that this is as good a time as there’s ever been to just go through with their ideas of what a perfect game system should look like and make it happen. Though in full self-awareness of how much interest and use such systems might actually see, the old term of fantasy heartbreakers immediately made it back into circulation. It’s not going to be the next Dungeons & Dragons or the next Pathfinder, and most likely not even the next Swords & Wizardry. This is something you do just for the fun of it and maybe to use for your own campaigns, and perhaps, if you’re lucky, it becomes popular enough that some people will take bits and pieces as house rules for their own campaigns. And in this mood and environment, why the hell not? I’ve been collecting quite some house rules myself over the years which I already put together as the Yora Rules, and there’s a number of things in B/X that I would personally have done very differently.

So I’m gonna do this!

There are actually three connected but separate things that I want to make:

  1. A revision of the classes and combat rules of B/X (like attack rolls and saving throws) mostly intended for my own personal use.
  2. A set of new rules and mechanics for a streamlined wilderness exploration system that makes wilderness travel and resource management simpler and faster, and a system for maintaining a fixed home base to serve as treasure vault, supply depot, and winter camp. I think this one actually has potential to be a successful (free) product.
  3. A campaign setting for my own next campaign in which I’ll use and playtest the new rules above.

At this stage, these are really more general plans for a playtest than specific plans for a product. These are plans to develop something, which depending on how things work out, could at a later point lead to releasing something.

OSRIC and OSE already set great examples for how you could replicate the structure of AD&D and B/X even with the OGL 1.0a, and with the new Creative Commons license for the SRD 5.1, I feel that all of this is both perfectly within both the letter and spirit of the law.

The Rules Revision

I started RPGs with D&D 3rd edition just when it came out and later played some Pathfinder for a while. It was fine back then because it was what I knew, but when I became curious about this oldschool roleplaying stuff I spend a while with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, as a more accessible way to get into the AD&D mechanic, but since I discovered the Basic/Expert rules eight years ago, I’ve been a huge fan of those rules ever since. That is, at least in general terms. I’ve never been able to actually understand the TSR system for making attack rolls and the saving throw categories seem quite nonsensical for someone who was first introduced to Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. That’s why I always only actually ran Basic Fantasy and Lamentation of the Flame Princess and more recently Old-School Essentials, which all let you make attack rolls like in the d20 system. But I’m also quite a fan of some changes made to the B/X rules by Stars Without Number and its various descendants.

In the big picture, these rules will still be B/X. But with the amount of house rules I already made and some other changes I think would be big improvements to the game, it just seems convenient to do a fully new writeup for everything that I can hand to players and also share publicly. Some of these changes seem quite radical as they throw away a presumed “balance” that Gygax and Moldvay created for different classes. But it’s by now pretty well known that there was no precise fine tuning and diligent play testing for the exact values in the tables, and they just made up numbers that looked right. (If anything does break, it will show up during play tests and can be fixed later.)

  • Attack rolls and Armor Class as in d20-system games.
  • Saving throws are Physical, Mental, Evasion, and Magic.
  • All classes advance at the same XP scores as fighters.
  • Attack bonuses and saving throws increase linearly with levels.
  • No restrictions on weapons and armor.
  • Spellcasting is restricted by encumbrance instead of armor.
  • Spells are not lost after casting. (Though still limited in uses per day.)
  • Encumbrance based on number of items instead of weights.
  • Ability checks are rolled with 2d6 against a target number based on the ability score.
  • In dungeons, 1 turn covers exploration of “1 area” instead of a distance of corridor.
  • Encumbrance increases the requirement for rest turns instead of reducing exploration speed.
The Wilderness Exploration Game

While the rules for character advancement, combat, and dungeon exploration in the Basic rules are already pretty nice as a rules light version of D&D, it’s really the Exploration rules that always keep me coming back to this game. I remember when West Marches by Ben Robbins was first making its rounds and it always seemed like a really cool approach to set up a sandbox campaign. I later was greatly inspired by Joseph Manola’s The long haul: time and distance in D&D about approaching adventures as months-long expeditions into the unknown, interrupted by spending months cooped up in winter camp. More recently, I’ve read Gus L’s series on Classic Dungeon Crawls that emphasizes the survival game aspect as being essential to making the exploration of dungeons an engaging mode of play, and the whole time I was thinking “Yes, but what if we apply all of this to the outdoors?!”

I feel the wilderness has always been overshadowed by dungeons and by city adventures, but my own mental images of amazing fantasy worlds are filled with trees and mountains from horizon to horizon. And pondering on the ideas of the three wise men above, I’ve become convinced that there can be absolutely fantastic campaigns in which the wandering around in the wilderness can be the main attraction, rather than just the connecting transition space between different adventure sites. To make such a campaign work, there needs to be a clear campaign structure, as well as a set of easy to use tools for the GM to make it happen.

As campaign structure goes, the concept very much follows the West Marches and the original Basic rules: The game begins with 1st level PCs in a small frontier town that is relatively close to several ruins and caves that are home to various creatures and hiding ancient treasures. At first adventures are relatively short, with the travel to the sites being quick and probably uneventful and dungeons being fairly small, and all the PCs being back in the town after 3 to 5 hours where they get XP for all the treasures they recovered. Dungeons with more dangerous creatures and greater treasures tend to be farther away from the town and descend into greater depth, leading to increasingly longer adventures that eventually won’t be able to be played in a single go.

At this point it becomes strongly encouraged for the players to have more than a single character to deal with scheduling. If players A, B, C, and D go on a longer adventure with characters A(1), B(1), C(1), and D(1), the adventure can’t continue until all four players can come together at the same time with the GM again. If player C can only play every second week (maybe), but players A, B, and D want to play more often, they can go on another adventures with their character A(2), B(2), and D(2), and maybe also take along two other players with their characters E(1) and F(1)? If the campaign is about uncovering the secrets and mysteries of the wilderness instead of the personal stories of individual PCs, this way of playing multiple PCs is perfectly viable and it increased scheduling flexibility immensely. It also makes long healing times and characters working for weeks or months on creating magic items and similar things more viable. Just because one character is out of action for the game doesn’t mean all the other PCs have to sit around and fiddle their thumbs while they are waiting.

The Expert rules recommend that characters should start going on longer journeys deep into the wilderness and away from civilization around 4th level, which I think remains a good guideline. But I also think that this is actually the perfect time for PCs to start establishing their own stronghold. Not as barons ruling over their respective towns and villages (which isn’t really much of a group activity anyway), but to have a new forward base camp for their exploration deeper into the wilderness. It’s a place where they can stash their newly found treasures in their vault (and get XP for said treasures), have a supply depot with food reserves for months, can set up fully stocked shops for armorers and alchemists, and a garrison for the hired mercenaries who guard the vault and stay with the pack animals and supplies while they go down into dungeons to explore. It can also serve as their winter camp when the whether makes campaigning nearly impossible for several months of the year.

This new stronghold not only serves as an alternative for the starting town for launching new adventures deeper into the wilderness, it also functions as a generator for new adventures. Ben Robins recommends that the PCs should be the only adventurers exploring the West Marches, but the players don’t have to be the only people establishing a new outpost on the very edges of civilization. There can also be the keeps of aspiring new barons, mining camps, bandit camps, and of course endless hidden lairs of evil cults. Not to mention monsters like giants and dragons making their homes in the area. All of which could have a problem with the PCs setting up a new base near their own turf. Or potentially become allies to share resources and information, and aid each other in times of attacks.

The critical importance of random encounter in dungeon explorations is well enough known, but the same mechanic can also do an incredible amount of heavy lifting when it comes to the wilderness. Nearly everything that can be encountered in the wilds or on the road is either going somewhere or coming from somewhere. After the encounter has played out, there’s usually an option for the players to either follow the creatures to where they are going, or to follow their trail to where they came from. This is a fantastic opportunity to introduce new sites to the sandbox. People probably have noticed that the numbers of creatures encountered in the wilderness often goes into the dozens, and in the case of some lairs even in the hundreds. These numbers are not for a group of four PCs being suddenly ambushed by an entire army on the march. These are numbers for populating keeps, camps, and lairs. These groups are what you find when you follow the wandering groups of monsters back to their homes. And they don’t have to be hostile. The same reaction rolls for random encounters in dungeons can be used when approaching a stronghold in the wilderness. Which I think has the potential as an amazing tool to create a wilderness area that is a living space where players can discover the unexpected and the GM has fantastic opportunities for very freeform and improvisational play.

As I mentioned, a campaign like this also needs tools. The following are mechanics that I’ve already dabbled with to make running such adventures easier. Some of which overlap with the changes to the basic game mechanics mentioned in the previous section. Most of these are things that the Expert rules already cover, but I feel they are clunky and inconvenient to use. All of it can be done better without dramatically changing the outcomes.

  • Item-based encumbrance.
  • Simple rules for water and food rations.
  • Mechanical consequences for lack of food and water.
  • Rules for disease(?)
  • More robust rules for hunting and foraging.
  • Travel speeds that map exactly to 6-mile hexes with no half hexes or third hexes traveled per day.
  • Simple rules for river travel speed.
  • Rules for tracking.
  • Wilderness exploration turns analogous to Dungeon exploration turns.
  • Stronghold and lair generator tables.
Aumaril

The final piece for my upcoming campaign during which all these ideas for new rules and mechanics will be playtested is the setting. I like the sound of Aumaril, and I checked that it isn’t already used by something else. And it’s different enough from Arduin and Amalur to not seem like a knockoff.

Aumaril is a world dominated by severe weather and many volcanoes. Volcanic activity covers the sky in ash every few decades that can cause brutal winters and ruin harvests, but on some occasions have tipped the climate to a point of causing ice ages that can range from centuries to tens of thousands of years. The world only emerged from four thousand years of winter fairly recently, which destroyed the civilization of the fey, reduced the kingdoms of the giants to barbarism, and diminished the empires of the serpentmen to a shadow of their former greatness. As the ice retreated and forest returned to the northern lands, mortal barbarians migrated from the south to make them their home. In recent generations, these first mortal empires have fallen into chaos and decay, and many people are fleeing deeper into the wilderness to try their luck among the abandoned ruins of the fey and giants, and things much more older than even the ancients.

While civilization is centered around three old empires that have seen much better days, and could be interesting places for adventures in their own right, these are not the actual setting where the planned campaign takes place. The adventures of the PCs cover the vast wilderness of forests and mountains that still cover most of the world and remain largely unexplored, but have many ancient ruins from the previous age and civilizations that have long since disappeared. I am an unashamed fan of the 70s and 80s Sword & Sorcery style that gratuitously blends together traditional medieval fantasy elements with weird and alien environments from science fiction or prehistoric Earth. Mushroom forests, dinosaurs, and giant insects are totally my jam, as are evil sorcerers in giant black towers covered in skulls. Which I think has never been executed better (at least stylistically) than in Morrowind. I’m not leaning as much towards the camp or melodramatic, but I still think this is a really cool aesthetic that can be just as well suited for more down to earth fantasy adventures.

One thing that really excites me about this setting is that it’s being populated by various intelligent creatures that have been created for D&D pretty long times ago, but never really seen much breakout success or prominent appearances. In addition to the very human-like Aumarilians, who are greatly inspired by various cultures from the Hyborean Age and the Elder Scrolls, the other major peoples are chitines, derro, fey’ri, grimlocks, locathah, quaggoths, raptorans, and stone giants. Goliaths seem to have become quite popular in 5th edition, and of course yuan-ti have always been famous.

This part of my great creation probably won’t see any kind of proper release as some kind of book, but I guess I’m probably going to share various bits and pieces about it here as the actual campaign develops.

Improved Rules for Foraging and Hunting

A while back I wrote about a somewhat more detailed version of the rules for foraging and hunting from the Expert Set. Forget all of that. This is better.

Foraging: When a party is travelling through an area that has a decent amount of plants growing in it that humanoids can eat, there is a 1 in 6 chance that the PCs can collect 1d6 rations of food per day by simply picking up what they spot growing next to the trail they are travelling on. If the party includes characters with special wilderness skills, they have a 2 in 6 chance to find things they can eat.

Hunting: When a party is staying at one campsite for a whole day, they can send out hunters or hunting parties to hunt for food. At the end of the day, each hunting party returns with 1d6 rations of food (1d8 if the party includes a character with special wilderness skills). While the hunters are out hunting, a wandering monsters check is made for each hunting party and for the camp.

Water: Unless otherwise specified by the GM, the party comes across sufficient sources of drinkable water each day they travel through the wilderness. No rations of water have to be consumed at the end of the day. (Assume all characters refilled the water rations they consumed during the day when they had opportunities.) Characters spending most of the day inside dungeons do not have access to sources of water unless the GM specifies otherwise, and must consome a ration of water at the end of the day.

Lack of Food: Characters who do not eat one ration of food in a day, suffer 1 hit point of damage and can not heal damage naturally without magic.

Lack of Water: Characters who do not have one ration of water in a day, suffer 1d4 hit point of damage and can not heal damage naturally without magic. After 3 days + 1 day per CON bonus, the character dies.

The idea here is that in an average wilderness environment, parties will not have much trouble keeping themselves fed by hunting, but replenishing their supply of rations will either take a considerable amount of time or require splitting the hunters up into several smaller groups. Both options mean an increased number of wandering monster encounters before the party makes it back to a town or their base. It’s a very simple mechanic but gives the players a lot of variables they have to pick, like the amount of food supplies they keep, how they pack them among their PCs, hirelings, and pack animals, at what point low supplies might be a reason to turn back, how to split the party, deciding which hirelings to send into the woods to uncertain fates or who to leave behind to guard the camp, and when it might be worth it to keep pushing ahead while starving instead of stopping to hunt. I see a huge potential for amazing unscripted adventures simply because a randomly encountered wyvern made off with the mule carrying half of the party’s food.

Extensive playtesting will be needed to dial in on the best die to roll for the amount of rations provided by hunting so that it severely inconveniences the party without getting it completely stuck and unable to continue towards their destination. But otherwise I’m really excited to give this a test run.

What’s the function of a Stronghold?

Working on my Ruins of the Shattered Empire campaign, I was thinking again about Kenshi, a wonderfully weird sandbox indy game set in a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland full of bandits, robot skeletons, ancient vaults, ninja, cultists, crashed satellites, insect men, random orbital lasers from the sky, and flesh eating giraffes. The game has no story. You just start somewhere in the desert, with nothing but the shirt on your back – if your character is one of the lucky ones – and your only goal is to survive by getting something to eat and avoid getting eaten yourself. Unless your character is one of the mentioned robot skeletons. It’s a wonderfully odd game that feels like something that would have been made in the early 80s if the technology had existed back then. People who like things like Veins of the Earth or Ultraviolet Grasslands will probably appreciate the style. There are various bare bones NPCs around the game world that ask to join your team or can be permanently hired for a one time payment. The desert is full of hungry beasts and nasty bandits, and while it certainly is possible to play the game as a lone wanderer, a very attractive option that opens up very early on is to build a small base with a wall that protects your people while mining ore to sell in a town or working on a patch of dirt to grow your own food. You still keep getting attacked by raiders who’ll easily break down your gates after a minute or two and loot your little storage shed, and so you can easily find yourself in an endless cycle of expanding your base to provide more food and income to expand your group with additional warriors, so that you can expand even bigger to add your own workshops to make your own weapons and armor instead of having to buy them. It’s often compared to Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld, with it’s own special type of weirdness and hilarity.

In addition to building materials, you also need to first research construction plans for new buildings and equipment, and for that you need books of ancient knowledge. A few of which can occasionally be found in stores for a hefty price, but the more rare ones require you to go explore ancient ruins in increasingly more dangerous parts of the massive wastelands. And setting out on an expedition to find and explore these ruins always reminds me of good old D&D wilderness adventures. The ruins themselves are all pretty small, so I wouldn’t call looting them dungeon crawling, but getting your group of scavengers to those places and hauling back your loot to your far away base is just like wilderness adventures should be.

I’m also now remembering how I always found the use of NPCs as part of PC’s “gear” in Apocalypse World a really cool approach, and how they can be used as really nice adventure hooks, but I don’t want to go onto another tangent and actually get to the point.

Base building in Kenshi is in many ways an economy sim in which you figure out how to assign your characters to different jobs, optimize workflows, manage your resources, and invest your profits into new technologies and expanding your operations. It’s a lot of fun on a computer that takes care of all the math, and you spend hours upon hours on it by yourself. It’s not something that translates to playing a roleplaying game as a group. All the stronghold building rules for RPGs I’ve come across so far fail because of this. But the aspects of defending your stronghold against raiders and having to go out into the dangerous wilderness to gain resources you need to maintain and expand your base are also endlessly exciting, and those activities are the daily bread and butter of D&D adventurers.

I am really intrigued by the idea of giving the players the tools to take over any abandoned or cleared out ruin, fixing it up and fortifying it, and using it as their main base of operations while they are exploring the surrounding wilderness. And after some pondering on the subject, I believe the best way to approach this is not to start with any mechanics for upgrading a base or price lists for various expansions, but first figuring out what kinds of functions the stronghold should play in a game that is still fundamentally about going into dungeons to find treasure. This really is just throwing around some ideas and sorting out my own thoughts on this.

What a Stronghold should be for

Safe Resting Place: This really is the primary function of a stronghold in the wilderness for adventurers. A stronghold provides a place where the party can rest and recover from their ordeals without having to make wandering monster checks. I plan to run the campaign without clerics, so healing either takes a good amount of time to recover naturally, or use up healing potions that are valuable and can not be infinitely replaced. This should make a place where the PCs don’t have to worry about monster attacks.

Treasure Vault: If the players have their stronghold guarded by mercenaries while they are out of adventures, I would consider storing their new treasures in their vault as having “returned with treasure from the wilderness”. Since they are also no longer under constant threat of being attacked, that means they have completed their adventure and can get the XP that their loot is worth.

Supply Depot: In addition to storing treasure at the stronghold, the players can also store supplies of food, water, ammunition, lamp oil, and tools. The stronghold might even have its own well or cistern to provide an endless supply of water. Using their base as a supply depot means that the players don’t have to carry as much supplies to get to the dungeon and back, and if they should be running low while in the dungeon, a resupply trip to their stronghold would be considerably shorter than returning all the way to the nearest town. Of course, they first need to get the supplies from the town to the stronghold, which can be a small side adventure in itself.

Necessity of Hirelings: I love hirelings as a game element, and really want to see wilderness adventures turning into large expeditions of a dozen people or more. Having just four or five PCs as the whole party is nice for a lot of campaigns, but I think wilderness exploration campaigns should be at a much larger scale. Wilderness exploration is more than having one outdoor combat encounter between the town and the dungeon entrance. That’s the kind of game the Expert rules are for. Having a stronghold full of supplies and treasures means the players need someone to guard all of it while they are away. And they probably don’t want to leave some mercenaries they picked up in a tavern alone with all their money for days on end on a regular basis, so they should also have some trusted retainers to leave in charge while they are gone. With a more permanent base, you also probably will want to have additional servant staff to cook and make repairs, tend to the animals, and you can see how this can escalate very quickly.

Money Drain: One thing that lots of people have been thinking about a lot for a very long time is what players should be doing with all the money they make on their adventures. Especially in a campaign where XP are gained from finding treasure to mechanically support the PCs’ endless hunger for more gold, the whole thing becomes increasingly less believable if the characters are already drowning in more gold than they know what to do with. Conan is always up for an opportunity to steal some gold because he’s constantly broke. In such stories, the heroes spend their loot on wenches and ale, but enjoyment of luxuries is not something that you can really get across through the mechanics of a game. Players saying that their characters go on a massive tavern crawl after an adventure is maybe fun once or twice, but stops feeling rewarding after that. A stronghold is a great way to drain the coffers of the PCs. Every expansion or upgrade to their base costs money, and all the guards and staff need to be constantly paid for. The wages are pretty cheap, but if you include proper tracking of time (without a meaningful campaign is impossible, as you know) then all the time that the PCs are spending in the wilderness while searching for ruins, days spend healing from injuries, weeks spend learning new spells and creating potions, and whole months stuck inside waiting for the end of winter, this all adds up.

Merchant Access: This is related to the aspect of Supply Depots above. Once the players have established their stronghold and have to make regular runs to the next town for considerable amounts of supplies (all those hirelings need to eat), they can become important enough customers for traveling merchants to make detours to sell their goods to the PCs. Maybe not with whole wagons, but at least with a handful of mules. In addition to regular supplies, such merchants can have a number of special items for sale that the players might be interested in, like potions or maps, and also provide the players with new rumors when they are away from civilization for long.

Trouble with the Neighbors: Even with solid fortifications and mercenary guards, the treasures and supplies inside a strongholds will attract all kinds of people and creatures. Some might be out to raid the place, while others might simply not appreciate newcomers in their territory. The possibilities for adventures beyond the default treasure hunting are endless, without the typical situation of sending the players to chase after prepared adventures. Pacifying the surroundings is a good way to let the players be proactive and deal with situations in whatever ways they come up with, without giving them a villain with a plan they have to stop before it is too late.

What a Stronghold should not be for

Economy Sim: As I mentioned earlier, managing your resources and working out production systems can be a lot of fun if you’re playing by yourself on a computer, but just isn’t something that works as a roleplaying game. Adding a smithy to your stronghold or constructing a wind powered water pump for your well can be fun and exciting, but I think it really shouldn’t turn into a resource management game.

Generating Income: In Kenshi, I started my first base as a small mining camp to simply mine ore, smelt it into metal plates, and sell them in the next town to make money with which I would buy anything else I need, such as food and medicine. Getting your stronghold self-sufficient and even profitable is a fun idea, but that would go directly against the overall premise of the campaign and one of the main purposes for having a base. The upkeep costs for having the stronghold is meant to provide the financial pressure to keep the PCs going into dungeon to search for more treasure. The strongold being a source of money instead of a giant money sink would work completely opposite to that. While being landowners with servants working for them can be a fun idea for some roleplaying games, it just doesn’t fit here.

Seat of Government: Related to the point above, becoming the biggest dog on a stretch of the frontier and clearing the surrounding land for settlement can be a great motivation for characters. But once you get into that kind of stuff, there’s not going to be much room or time for continuing to go dungeon crawling. You could still go into underground places to fight the enemies of your domain, but then you end up with a completely different type of gameplay from sneaking around in the dark to steal treasure without alerting the inhabitants.

This as a broad overview of where my thought are on this subject at the moment. We’ll see if I’ll get around to put further work into this and develop it into some kind of system with established mechanics and procedures.

Discovering Sites in the Wilderness

I’m a big fan of wilderness sandbox campaigns, but never been really enthusiastic about the hexcrawling approach, in the sense of “go from hex to hex until you find something”. A 6-mile hex is something like 80 km². Even a large castle might not be noticed while simply moving through such an area, and if the area is forest or mountains, you would have to run straight into it. Spending some amount of time to search a hex to see if you discover something also doesn’t seem convincing to me. If you’re a treasure hunter, you wouldn’t just pick a random spot in the wilderness and start searching it with a fine comb. That takes way too long to find anything of interest. What I believe adventurers would do is trying to make their way to sites that they already know about and that look promising for holding treasure.

Under this approach to adventuring, the players first need to have clues where to look for treasure and adventure. So here’s a couple of ways that PCs can learn of new sites to add to their own map.

Highly Visible: Castles and watchtowers are commonly build on high points where they can overlook a lot of the surrounding areas. Sites like that could be spotted by simply being in the same hex they are in. Or in particularly clear terrain, even by being in a hex next to it. Though if the site is hidden among trees or mountains, it would remain hidden even party is moving through the same hex.

Sites on Roads and Rivers: If a site is directly on an old road or a river that the party is using for navigation, the players discover it automatically when they pass that spot. In some cases, it might even make sense to road signs or something similar point the players that something worth investigating lies down a side path from the road the party is currently traveling on.

Found Maps: Players can find maps among the treasures they pick up which show some sites that are known to them, and some sites that are not. This allows them to go search for and discover the new locations by following the clues on the map. They could also buy maps from certain individuals, or be given a map as a reward from grateful NPCs.

Rumors and Quests: Locals simply tell the party about sites they know but are not on most maps. This also provides the players with some vague idea of what they might have to deal with when they get there.

Following Tracks: After a random encounter, if the players try to follow fleeing enemies or follow their trail to where defeated enemies came from, the tracks can lead them to a nearby site where the creatures have their lair. If no matching site is anywhere nearby on the GM’s map, a quick lair can be put together with a small cave or campsite plan and rolling up a lair encounter by the wilderness encounter rules.

By using all five of these methods to give players hints where they can find new sites they didn’t yet know about, it should be quite easy to make it all feel quite natural and a consequence of the players’ actions, rather than the GM deciding the party needs a new site to be send to. It’s not a big red glowing sign telling the players “the next prepared adventure is here”.

Expanded Wilderness Travel Rules

Expanding on my table for wilderness travel rates from a few days ago. For maximum efficiency, I am simply listing travel rates in 6-mile hexes. I think in the same way that a 10-minute Turn is not exactly 60 rounds or 600 seconds, we don’t need to treat a 6-mile hex as exactly ….31680 feet. (I had to look that up, and so would you. Those units are stupid!) In actual play, both duration and distance are abstract fiction that don’t relate to anything physical. And characters in the game world would not have actually have any means to measure either distance or time with any accuracy anyway. In a game, if players ask an NPC for a distance to a place or how long it would take to get there, that NPC would give them a rough guess like “some 10 miles” or “three days, if you keep a good pace”. That’s good enough on the players side. When I run wilderness adventures, I am fully in the camp of “the players never get to see any hex maps”. The hex map is a tool for the GM, just like random encounter tables. And for the purpose of telling the players when they arrive at a point, you really only need hexes. Miles are meaningless from a mechanical point. Or at least they are if you have a system for travel speeds in place that doesn’t have any granularity smaller than a hex. Which is what the following tables are all about.

Land Travel

Encumbrance Easy Terrain
Difficult Terrain
Unencumbered 6 hexes 3 hexes
Encumbered 4 hexes 2 hexes
Heavily Encumbered 2 hexes 1 hex

As I mentioned in my previous post, this is based on the assumption that a healthy adventurer with no significant load can cover 36 miles on a road or easy ground in a day. That would actually be quite impressive for a real human, but still plausible. However, in practice characters traveling through the wilderness to explore dangerous ruins and caves will be carrying quite a lot of stuff, and mostly deal with difficult terrain once they get off the roads, so that travel rate will rarely come up in actual play. So for the sake of easy use by the GM, I have no issue with that table maybe getting a bit high.

River Travel

River Speed
Upriver
Downriver
Base Speed 4 hexes 4 hexes
Slow Flow 3 hexes 5 hexes
Fast Flow 2 hexes 6 hexes
Rapid Flow 1 hex 7 hexes

From all I could find, going at 3 miles per hour ± the speed of the water is a pretty common speed when paddling on a river. Take that by 8 hours and you get 24 miles per day, or 4 hexes. If you go with the water flow, you’re going to get a bit more, if you’re going against it, you’ll get a bit less. If you wanted to, you could probably quite easily calculate what the flow speeds in the table above would be in miles per hour. But since player character’s won’t be measuring that during play, “slow”, “fast” an “rapid” are good enough for me.

Switching Pace

Something that I think would be neat to have is a system in which you can seamlessly have the party switch from one pace to another, like going a certain distance by boat, then continuing by foot on a road for a while, and covering the rest of the day’s travel on a mountain path. It could be done, but for that you really would need 1-mile hexes, and that’s just way too small for my own needs. At this point, I am diverting from my usual approach to get the mechanics all neat and consistent, and instead just guestimate things. If the party wants to move into a hex with terrain and encumbrance that would allow for 2 hexes per day, just check if they still have half of the day left. If yes, their camping spot for the night will be in the next hex. If not, it’s going to be in the last hey that they reached. It’s imprecise, but good enough for me.

Random Encounters

I know many people like to check for random encounters in the wilderness once per hex that party moves through, but I found that to actually not make much sense to me. Yes, you are moving through more area when traveling at a faster speed, so there are more spots you pass through where you could encounter something. But you’re also going to spend less time in each spot, which reduces the chances that you are in any one given place just as other creatures are passing through it. I think that just cancels each other out and travel speed does not actually affect the chance of encountering something on a given day. Only the total time spend in the wilderness does.

So I simply roll for random encounters four times per day. Once in the morning, once around noon, once in the afternoon, and then one more check during the night. Regarding which hex a random encounter takes place in, I am again going with “make something up”. If a party is traveling four hexes in a day and a random encounter happens during noon, is it locate in the second hex or the third hex? I don’t know, pick one. It really doesn’t matter.

To check for an encounter, roll a dice that reflects the likelihood of encountering anything in the area the party is traveling through. Going with my paradigm of something always happens on a 1, smaller dice result in more encounters, and larger dice in fewer encounters.

Encounter Density Encounter Check Dice
Desolate d10
Sparse d8
Average d6
Populated d4

I can totally understand if this system is a bit too abstracted and not granular enough for some people. But I like its neatness in how easy it is for actual use during play, while still overall being somewhat plausible in the distances a party can cover in a day and not diverging too significantly from the distances and durations you’d get with using the exact numbers from the Expert Rules.

Overland Travel Speed

The 6-mile hex has long ago established itself as the default size for overland travel on hex grids for a number of reasons. And I rally quite like it myself. I like consistency.

From Hydra’s Grotto (click for more detail)

Hexes are a nice aid for GMs in that you can break down all distances in easy to track chunks, and more importantly can note down where the party of PCs is currently at by simply marking the hex they are in.

One thing that D&D has always gotten annoyingly wrong however, is that the various systems for overland travel speeds all don’t work with 6-mile steps. This whole thing is getting really rambly, but I don’t know how to get it more concise right now, and I really want to get some new stuff on the site.

In B/X, movement speed outdoors is either 24, 18, 12, or 6 miles, depending on a character’s encumbrance. Great. But if you are traveling through forests, deserts, hills, and broken lands, this speed is reduced to 2/3 the normal progress. So 16, 12, 9, or 4 miles. Only one of these is a multiple of 6. Same issue even now in 5th edition. Movement speeds of 30, 24, and 18 miles work great. But not if you cut them to half in any kind of difficult terrain and you get rates of 15, 12, and 9 miles per day.

You don’t actually get the most convenient feature that using a hex grid can provide. You still have to track how many half hexes or even third hexes the party has moved in a given day.

The most convenient for GMs would be a system in which all possible distances are increments of 6 miles. And the only way in which this really works is using base speeds of 36, 24, and 12 miles per day, with all forms of difficult terrain reducing that by half to 18, 12, and 6 miles per day.

Encumbrance Easy Terrain
Difficult Terrain
Unencumbered 36 miles 18 miles
Encumbered 24 miles 12 miles
Heavily Encumbered 12 miles 6 miles

However, 36 miles is really quite a lot.

But how unrealistic is it really? There are plenty of sources for military references for marching armies that put good progress somewhere in the 24 to 30 miles per day range, though often much less than that. And if you look around for advice on how far people can expect to hike for a day, those 24 to 30 miles numbers show up as well as recommendations for beginners who might be unsure how far they can actually make it in a day. 36 miles in a day is significantly more than that.

But a party of PCs in a wilderness exploration game is usually not an army on the march. Nor are they inexperienced hikers. Also, all those numbers assume 8 hours of moving per day. That leaves 8 hours of resting in camp and 8 more hours of… what exactly? If you’re on vacation and hiking for fun, there’s plenty for you to do during that last third of the day. But moving through dangerous territory to get to an even deadlier dungeon is very much not a vacation. I think adventurers crossing the wilderness would do a bit more walking each day than tourists. And another very important factor is that in most systems, being “unencumbered” usually translates to very light gear with very little weapons, tools, and supplies. When a party is crossing through the wilderness for several days, they won’t be unencumbered. If using the numbers I’ve proposed above, 36 miles in a day would be something that only really happens for messengers in a hurry. No loitering around, carrying only the barest necessities, sticking to roads and easy ground. And in that context, 36 miles in a day does not seem that implausible. Much more common, at least for the campaigns that I run, would be traveling with a medium load, mostly going through forests and swamps, which would reduce the usual distance per day down to 12 miles. A much smaller number.

And at the end of the day, we’re talking about a game that has hit points as one of its basic mechanics. We’re not running an actual simulation of anything here. Also, any amount of miles really is just a made up number in an almost undefined virtual space, not any actual physical distances. Might some people think that 36 miles in a day is a bit of a stretch? Sure, why not. And I am not going to argue with anyone on whether that can actually be sustained for more than a day or two. But having to bother with only full hexes and not dealing with any fractions or partial hexes is a big convenience for running fantastical adventures in a made up space, and that’s the part that really matters.