One of the cool things 3E brought to the table was CR. I’m glad it made it into 5E. Yes, I’m absolutely aware it’s not a perfect system. That said, it does help to balance an encounter, especially for new DMs. When you’re just starting out, it’s hard to tell how many goblins it’ll take to make a good encounter vs how many will result in an unavoidable TPK. It’s far from exact, but at least it’s something.
Now that the praise is out of the way, let’s talk about how to ignore CR.
“Wait, what? Didn’t you just say how good it is?”
Don’t sass me. I’ll explain.
The prevalent idea now a-days is that every encounter should be balanced. D&D is a combat focused game, so it’s important that every encounter be just the right level of challenge. You don’t want something too big too soon- the PCs might die! But, like… what if you do want to introduce a Tarrasque at level 1?
It’s a case of knowing the rules so you can break the rules. Every encounter doesn’t have to result in a fight with the PCs vs the monsters to the death. Honestly, it’s a little boring if they do. What if they have to bargain with an ogre? What if they end up helping goblins? If they fall into a routine of “see monster, kill monster”, it’ll be tough to break them out of it. If you’re going to make unbalanced encounters, however, there are some things worth keeping in mind.
Throwing a monster that’s way out of the PCs league at them can be a lot of fun! In older editions, you got experience points mostly form treasure. Out smarting monsters who were a lot tougher than you was par for course. It’s not as common currently, so it’s smart to do it with care (especially with newer players.) My biggest piece of advice is telegraph, telegraph, telegraph.
Show how tough the monster is. Have it lay waste to a building or easily kill a monster the PCs know to be hard. Leave a trail of destruction leading up to it’s discovery. Have an NPC explain in no uncertain terms how dangerous it is. When all else fails, don’t be afraid to be explicit! Straight up tell the players it’s CR or explain to them that it’s very unlikely they’ll be able to defeat it. The fun in these situations is finding out what the players do to deal with the monster- it’s not about a “gotcha” moment that leaves everyone dead and angry. I’m not saying PC death is necessarily bad, but I am saying its 1000 times better when everything is understood up front.
Try throwing a dragon at your first level players next time you run a game. Watch as they come up with clever ideas about how to run and hide. Give them some tough decisions about who and what to save before the dragon fire comes. Don’t hold back- let them know what actions might result in death, for themselves or others. That dragon will be much more meaningful once they’re strong enough to face it.
Discover how to use Random Encounters without derailing your game. DM Dix and Crumbing James pulled back the veil on random encounters to help you use them in your games. We went over the basics (as well as some advanced techniques) so you can level up your random encounters.
What is a Random Encounter? – When to use them (and when not to).
The secret to not railroading the players.
Random Encounters by region. – Balance: What is it good for?
Triggers: Hard vs Soft.
A complete system for using random encounters in your game.
Leveled up Random Encounters like no other.
A free offer to take the work out of encounters!
Get ready to take notes because you’re not going to want to miss a thing.
As hoped, this book was a treasure trove of information on gaming and the wilderness. As expected, it was a bit overwhelming, and I have a hard time imagining anyone implementing all of its rules. I feel like you’d spend more time looking up strange minutia and figuring out if your rations had spoiled using the Chance of Food Spoilage Table. No, I am not kidding.
Overview of the Wilderness
That said, it is a good source of inspiration and most folks putting together a wilderness campaign (especially a hex crawler) would find some inspiration in it. It starts by giving a general overview of wilderness terrain. It divides all terrain into a few categories for purposes of game statistics: desert, forest, hills, mountains, plains, seacoast, and swamp. This is a great place to start when you’re making a hex map, assigning one type of terrain to each hex. Obviously, there will be some transition areas (and the book discusses that too), but this is your starting point.
As mentioned before, I started playing D&D during 2E. It’s fascinating for me to look over the 1E stuff, as I can see how 2E came about. For instance, in the ill named and problematic Oriental Adventures book, non weapon proficiencies were introduced. They didn’t exist as a core mechanic of 1E and never graced the pages of the three core books. These were expanded upon in the Dungeoneers Survival guide, and then in the Wilderness Survival guide. To get an idea of what these look like, consider your 5E proficiencies and then make them incredibly specific. Fire building is a distinct proficiency, as is hunting and weather sense.
While this might seem a bit excessive, I mentioned before that, if you give a player a tool, they’ll use it. Characters in 5E have a lot of overlap in the proficiency department, meaning no one feels cool for making a history check. When only one person knows mountaineering, however, the character feels unique and more fleshed out in both mechanics and fiction. This book gives the tools to do just that.
Temperature and Environment
The next stop in the wilderness is the land of convoluted tables!
Every RPG exists somewhere on a spectrum of “reality simulation” to “game.” I’m of the mind that an adequate answer to the complaint, “but that’s not how it would work in real life!” can totally be, “You’re right. Now roll to ride the unicorn.” That “G” in RPG is there for a reason. While folks’ definition of fun does differ, we do play games to have fun, right? For me, there is a point where reality simulation becomes less fun than telling a story and playing the game. That point is right about when you have more than one table about a characters core body temperature. That’s exactly what this book provided.
It only took 18 pages, but this is when the book went off the rails for me. Again, if you like this style of gaming, more power to you. For me, it felt a little bit like figuring out your taxes because the wind changed velocity. (Another of my favorite tables in this book: Wind Velocity Effects. Yup, it took a whole table.)
Encumbrance and Movement
Can we talk about what a blessing difficult terrain is? Not crossing it, but the concept of it? This terrain takes double the amount of movement to cross. End of story.
While I feel like 5E could maybe use more robust rules for climbing, this book devotes 5 pages to the subject. I’m all for mini-games in RPGs (I feel like Star Trek Adventures has one of my favorites when it comes to dealing with long term problems instead of using a single dice roll), this is just a lot. You take into account surface types, surface conditions, if you are roped together, grappling hooks – there are a lot of small pieces here.
Encumbrance does nothing new. This is a great example of old school encumbrance. Basically, you can carry X amount of weight. Tally up the weight of all your equipment and make sure it doesn’t go over that amount. It’s a lot of book keeping that, in my opinion, slows down play unnecessarily.
Personally, I love Blades in the Dark’s inventory management. You have a few slots that you can use during play. You don’t need to decide what is in those slots until you need it. Once you decide, that is what you are stuck with, but it gives a lot of freedom for your inventory to fit the story. What it doesn’t do is get in the way at all. This isn’t great for a survival type game, however.
We can find the best inventory management for those types of games in the post apocalyptic Genre. Take Mutant Year Zero: you get a certain amount of lines on your character sheet for inventory. Different items take different amounts of line, between 1-3. Suddenly that massive damage dealing chainsaw comes with a price. It’s easy to keep track of while still keeping space important.
I like the idea of encumbrance that the Wilderness Survival Guide offers, but I think some really cool innovations have happened since then.
Food and Water
This is where we talk about everyone’s favorite topic: starvation. Going without food and water can basically be boiled down to the distant ancestor of 5E’s exhaustion rules. There are many more paragraphs to explain this, however, with much more minutia. Raise your hand if you are surprised.
Then we get into minimum requirements for food and water. This honestly brings up something I hadn’t thought about before: humans need more nutrients then halflings! I won’t be adopting any of those rules, as it seems like a nightmare to navigate and some needless complexity, but it was an interesting thought.
Then we get rules for hunting, gathering, and fishing. It’s interesting to see how these diverge from, not only each other, but from any other system in the game as well. I feel like one of the big things that changed over the years was the desire for a core mechanic that covers most situations. In 5E, you will generally roll a twenty sided dice and add modifiers to see if you get what you need. In earlier editions, there were all kinds of different mechanics to figure things out. Take the “thief” for example (the predecessor of 5E’s “Rogue.”)
If you want to pick pockets as a 5E rogue, you roll a d20 and add your sleight of hand. Want to hide? Do the same and add stealth. Feel like climbing a wall? Add your athletics. If we look at the 2E Thief, this was all handled by percentile dice. You had different scores for each of the above mentioned skills which ranged from 00-100. To attempt any of them, you’d roll a d100 and try and roll under the number. It worked just fine and made thieves feel different, but there was no reason a D20 couldn’t have been used for these checks instead (other than d100 rolls feel cool, which is important.)
Hunting, foraging, finding water, and fishing are handled in similar ways, with each having its own system. The upside of this is that each feels like it’s own mini game with its own rules. The downside is that you have something to look up wherever you try to do any of them. It may be fun in it’s own right, but it’s not smooth.
Camping and Campfires
I wanted to find something here about random encounters. I did find something about cold weather, though it played into the multiple body temperature charts from earlier. I didn’t really get any system for the difference a fire makes for visibility.
For a choice to matter, each side should feel similarly weighted. I often have parties not wanting to start a fire because of worry of discovery. I generally gloss over the downsides of that because I don’t want to feel like I’m browbeating them with small things. This feels different if it’s baked into the core mechanic of the game, however. I’ll be thinking of ways to make fires matter in my head. If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.
Natural Hazards in the WIlderness
Okay, this was cool. This chapter was largely on natural disasters and quicksand. I’ve never used a natural disaster in one of my games, so this really got some gears turning. It contains information on three different types of volcanic eruptions, because of course. This is a great short chapter for inspiration.
The Rest of it
The rest of the book generally expands upon combat and magic in the wilderness and how it changs. There was also a chapter on fatigue and exhaustion. Newer editions have covered these things just as well, at least the things I feel that needed covering. It felt a bit like a miscellany of things that didn’t fit elsewhere.
There was a chapter on mounts and beasts of burden, however. When I think about my hex crawl experiment, I do tend to think of how much more a horse could carry than a human. When the name of the game is supplies, having something with a large carrying capacity suddenly becomes worth the GP. This chapter talks about donkeys, camels, bears, and dog sleds. I look forward to figuring out my own rules for a pack yak in the future. Better yet, I can figure out rules for a herd of sheep acting as pack animals. Yup, that’s in this book too.
I wouldn’t mind playing in an AD&D game sometime with an experienced DM to get a feel of what all this really feels like in practice. In my mind, there is a lot I’d change to update it to modern sensibilities. Then again, that was my goal going into this book anyway, and it gave me a plethora of material to sort through for that. It certainly feels like it sides way more toward reality simulation than game, as was the trend of the times. This is exactly what I’d expect a RPG book from the mid 1980s to feel like.
Bottom line: if you’re running things with modern rulesets (or looking to make your own), this is a great place to steal inspiration, but very little of it will work as is. Still, it was a fun read. I’ll never forget you, chance of capsizing table. I hope you don’t forget me.
I am 38 years old. I was born in 1981. That puts my graduating year as 1999.
Have you started caring yet? Don’t worry, I plan on giving you many more dates and numbers inconsequential to your own life.
The reason I mention this is that my prime teenage years were during the sunset of grunge. The economic growth of the late 80s crashed into the recession of 1990. There was a sense of fatalism and that the cultural excesses of earlier times had robbed us of some important authenticity. It’s not a new story, as “The Catcher in the Rye” had been telling it since 1951, but it’s a good one. Nineties culture just made the story that much dirtier.
You’ve been watching Critical Role and listening to The Adventure Zone. You are all about the RPG games now. D&D is calling your name. The only problem is, you’ve never actually played. Even if you get all the books, what next? How do you find a group? This can be super intimidating.
A while ago, I wrote an article about describing your combat. People like to think that role playing and combat are two separate things, but they don’t have to be. The way your character fights says something about them too. Does your fighter hammer away repeatedly with their sword, relying on their strength to batter away the enemies defenses? Or do they dance away from their opponents sword, spinning underneath their blade to stab forward under their guard? Both of those are very different and very visually pleasing.
What about magic, though? People often fall into the same trap. “I cast magic missile.” Roll some d4s. Done.
You get a new idea for a campaign, a character, or some game mechanics. A light comes down from the heavens, everything glows with a divine light, and your brain spins endlessly with more thoughts. Nothing has ever been better and it’ll be like this forever.
Sometimes I like to buy RPGs without knowing a thing about them. I love when stores have sales on their old stock for this reason. It might be the gambler in me, but I don’t mind dropping ten dollars on something I might not ever play. It could turn out to be awesome and that in and of itself is a fun game to play. It could also turn out to be a ten dollar waste, but…. meh.
Have you ever been in an RPG game where the GM used music? Perhaps you’ve been that GM. When it comes to epic movies, they have epic scores, That should translate to RPGs, right? Instead, the noise gets too distracting, the player’s complain, and everyone hates it. What went wrong?
Player’s have this long and elaborate backstory. They have 20 some years of tragedy written out, just waiting for that moment their character can be vulnerable and explain what dire straights have forced them into this life of adventuring. Normal well adjusted people don’t want to go sleep on the ground in the cold woods to save the world from whatever abominable threat has reared it’s head this time. Hell, I get cranky if I just skip breakfast.
But what if that moment of vulnerability never comes? What if the heroes are so busy running around killing the baddies and solving the mysteries that they just don’t get that opportunity? Sometimes I want to know about a character’s first love, what their favorite smell is, what keeps them awake at night, and their best drinking stories. The players generally want to share that with you if you just give them an opportunity.
Once upon a time, I was a young DM playing Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition. Yes, that does date me a bit. Long before Curse of Strahd was a thing, there was the Ravenloft box set, which contained all the world building and additional rules you need to play in the demiplane of dread. Vampires, ghouls, zombies, and mists that would wrap you up and take you away. It had all thing things it needed to be scary.
Look, I’m going to come right out and say it. This is my favorite fantasy RPG system I’ve played. It feels really heroic, it has a delicious level of crunch, and you can give someone the stink eye until they die. If you have other qualifications as to what makes a great RPG, I’d love to know what they are. I can’t imagine what would top that.
Personally, I love random encounter tables. RPGs are games of mitigated chance. Characters make dice rolls to hit monsters, negotiate deals, and fly spaceships. Why not have the GM make them to see what’s around the corner? The element of randomness gives both the players and GM something to play with, as the unexpected happens.
Heroes can spend a lot of time out in the wilderness. There is a lot of action outside of town, what with monsters ravaging the countryside, forgotten dungeons, and that pesky environment to contend with. Eventually, the characters are going to come to a settlement, however. Maybe they just want to grab supplies or have a long rest without worrying about pesky Anhkegs for once. Perhaps the city is actually a focus, and you’re planning to run an urban campaign. Whatever the reason, the forests and plains are giving way to wood smoke and buildings. How do you make this community stand out? Continue reading “Giving Your Cities Character”
There comes a time in every game where the DM is no longer really in control. The fighter is drunk and bullying your favorite NPC at the bar, the wizard is using prestidigitation to clean filthy peasants for copper pieces, and the bard is trying to seduce… well, someone or something. It doesn’t matter.