Thursday, 27 September 2018

About the wilderness

I think that wilderness is only useful to specific adventures and can be replaced in many other kinds of games.

Speaking of wilderness I mostly speak about untouched by civilization vegetation wilderness (forests, jungles, hills, grasslands, swamps) and not extreme biomes such as deserts and rock mountains.

My first postulate is that the smallest 'unit of setting', for the lack of the better word, is almost always a made structure – a dungeon, a city, a ruin, a building, a landmark. Even if in a forest there is an altar of root-god, made from roots and carcasses of animals without a human hand ever touching it or there is a hollow tree where fey lives, both are still _structures_, something that is made to have a certain (human or not) function, something where interesting things happen.

Barring all of these kinds of places, the wilderness itself is amorphous and featureless, or, rather, having most of its features blended. On the map it is mostly a place that is defined by its borders and by points of interest (which are almost always a structure such as a settlement, ruins or some kind of landmark) within those borders.

Pointcrawl is a type of play that especially navigates the wilderness between points of interest, which are usually structures.

Why the wilderness exists, when we speak about the setting of the game?
• It exists that the setting is believable, because IRL wilderness carries a very important function to supply life to the planet, and changing this drastically will immediately make the setting looks more artificial or SF (as in Blame! or Numenera)
• It exists as 'blank history paper' for more history to happen when borders of civilization has to be expanded (royalist rebels run into forest, merge with beasts, fight back, eventually overthrow the regime and create a empire of Beastbloods with the seat in the forest which is also now their citadel).
Setting history-wise it can be as simple as 'the Kingdom of Yrith built its mighty fleet from golden trees of Old Forest'
• It is the place where enigmas and horrors can be hidden, to pull out (sometimes as deus ex machina) some unpredictable things, such as beastblood union above, without much complexity. If setting needs a mystic coming with never-seen-before-revelations, strange beasts or buried secrets, the wilderness is one of the common place to 'store' them until they appear to be known by the rest of the works.
• To simulate complex RL wilderness mostly through random encounters.
• To simulate the long dangerous travel and use of resources (food, time, wounds, nerves). 
• As a 'quiet time' filler area between more intense parts of the game such as dungeondelving.

In computer games and RL it is also to give you strange vistas to immerse into setting more and know its deep beauty, but in tabletops it mostly loses this function because few people are willing to listen to long descriptive paragraphs, therefore such descriptions should be done well (both evocative and succinct) to work.

There is another layer to it: the players' upbringing and 'skill'.

By my personal observation the vast, vast majority of DnD players are of urban upbringing. Some from smaller settlements, some from huge cities, but few are immersed into actual wilderness to the point of being as intimately familiar with it as the rest is with the cities. When I see a forest I can tell very little about 'how it works' aside of what I read in books and from very rare travels through it; I mostly see such forest from urban perspective anyway, in terms of difficult terrains and paths. I don't know what most of the forest means, how different layers of it interconnect. When I am in urban area, I can say what is below my feet, where unseen streets go and what each sound is; I see a ruined building, I can have a pretty good guess what it was and what befell it just by looking at it. Even in an unfamiliar and confusing city I am not near as helpless as in the forest. Players learn urban environment by osmosis and at the end, I believe, they know a sort of language, to understand this environment and its features with much greater details than the wilderness where features has no much distinction. Their characters might know the wilderness but then it is mostly a roll of the die, not an actual interaction.
As a result of such familiarity players instinctively have more 'tools' to interact with urban-like environments. From my (limited) experiments, the same random encounter monster in a wilderness almost never provoked people to use environment to the degree they used when in urban decay areas. Trees were to climb up and hide behind; the urban decay was to crush unstable walls onto a monster, to electrocute it with leftover cables, to lure it to chemical vats, to block yourself in small rooms. Most interesting was that the number of questions 'Is there [X] around [for me to use]?' noticeably grew when players dealt with urban decay environment in contrast to the forest.
This is noticeable in old-school dungeons where players look for traps not by the roll of the die but by player skill and asking questions.

I wonder – if aesthetics are not important and if a setting tone permits, won't it be more interesting to replace the wilderness with urban decay and over-structures-overgrowth to give players an environment with which they can interact more?


  1. So, while I agree with most of the points given here, I actually think the unfamiliarity of a wilderness can be a good thing.
    Your PCs are presumably vaguely urban. The wilderness is, then, a huge Other that they need to survive, overcome and maybe even eventually tame. Being a huge absence of civilisation filled instead with 'nature red in tooth and claw' it's intrinsicly dangerous and thus /interesting/ in a way urban stuff isn't to me at least.
    Now, nature that has /reclaimed/ an urban environment (overgrown ruins etc), combines the best of both worlds, and I really like it as an aesthetic for adventuring.

  2. Emmy Allen, as any unfamiliarity can be, a wilderness can be a powerful environment of helplessness and/or alienation. This is 'place to store enigmas and horrors' bullet point above, this is why I mentioned the tone.
    But, providing that tone is not a requirement and the wilderness is mostly kind of happens between points of interest that are structures (dungeons, cities, ruins) it is too amorphous and vague to me to be a good interactive environment.

    I really like urban decay/reclamation as an environment too. I think as well that (if aesthetics and tone permits) it is more powerful than both wilderness and urban separately.

  3. Agreed with the point about the hijinks potential of wilderness areas trending to fall flat. This is maybe just something to design against though?
    Falsepatrick has that post about putting potential energy into your set pieces which for sure applies. I for one love jamming verticality in there - all the paths are logjammed spiderwebs in the canopy, or tiptoeing along frozen rivers.
    Making sure the pics can get all the encounters to interact is big money too - bandit towers and bear dens, traitor ivy and gullies of hallucinogenic fungus

  4. The challenge is for the GM to ably transform the wilderness from 'amorphous and featureless' space into a place 'where interesting things happen' when an encounter takes place (your 'structure' is a good example). It's two different modes of play/temporality.

    When wilderness is amorphous usually the players are either, a) traveling through it in a fairly abstracted manner or, b) treating it as a source of potential energy; "beastbloods /might/ be building a kingdom in there"; "we /might/ use those trees to build a navy".
    That's no good for interaction, as you very accurately put it, because it's hard to interact with something formless, especially if the DM, as your primary sensory organ, describes it as such.
    For the players to interact with the wilderness the DM need to transform the abstract, amorphous space into a concrete, material place where an event/encounter happens. If it is easier for the players to imagine the specifics of an urban environment (and I agree it often is) then the DM needs to give them more to work with in a wilderness encounter. Mention details of the environment unprompted; the roots hanging out from the steep, muddy walls of the ravine; the brook running through it filled with smooth, slippery stones; the numerous fox burrows (or is it...) holing the dank overhang where the brook drops 10 ft; etc.
    Random tables are good for this, I like the ones in Emmy Allen's 'Gardens of Ynn' or in Jacob Hurst's 'Hot Springs Island', but there are many good ones on various blogs as well. Random Google images is another good source for this kind of detail.

    That doesn't solve the problem of how to make traveling through wilderness interesting, but I thinks that is a different problem.

  5. Dunkey Halton, I don't think it is difficult to design (as in 'to engineer', to artificially create) a good forest environment and give, through a description, a lot of 'pointers' to its interactivity. If players hear something peculiar mentioned in the description they are, most probably, going to use it (like in videogames, where elements of environment are highlighted). But any kind environment could be made more interesting by design, the wilderness is not different. But what I was trying to say, that if people only use/understand/perceive the wilderness well when it is intentionally designed to be full of, so to say, glowing videogame spots and obvious points of interaction, why use it at all? With urban-like environments people don't need as much of _intentional_ design to grasp at least big parts of said environment immediately.

    Malthe, for me the transforming the wilderness into something intentionally designed to be well-interactive and understood is creating a structure within the wilderness, i.e. in a (symbolic way) destroying the wilderness itself by transforming it is, through sapient intent, into useful and understandable to urban-upbrought people place, into, essentially, the distorted facsimile of urban environment. Again, why to use the wilderness at all then, if urban-like environments are immediately better understood by the players, designed or not? I think it is only because the wilderness, as a free-growing place, is embedded into Earth culture and in RPG settings is needed for tone, believability and aesthetic.

  6. One could take advantage of the wilderness' formlessness vs the familiarity of urban environments by inverting the normal 'points of light' setup. Perhaps the PCs are of a nomadic people in the formless wilds, orbiting the decaying, burbling, tumultuous urban areas. They venture into the strange City to steal its pre-apocalypse supplies and gear. Getting back out to the familiar wilderness is where play is abstract, where they can re-supply and heal and get ready to go back in. Instead of points of light it would be a Point of Dark setting, where the Blame!-like urban area contains unknown enemies and opportunities, but the players will be able to recognize remains of elevators, trams, space elevators, etc. The characters could have some rudimentary knowledge of all this via ancient, abandoned ghost-teachers which were made to teach children about the City.

  7. Charlie Vick, this is a really, really, really nice idea. Do you wish to develop it?

  8. While I do agree with some of your points, I feel that removing the wilderness would be harmful to more traditional D&D.

    The story of traditional D&D is simple, you and your relatively inexperienced friends venture out into the Wild, confront danger and Chaos, then conquer it and return to civilization with whatever you needed.

    If you remove the wilderness, which I think could be done, that fundamentally alters what game you're playing, like Patrick Stuart's "SAVAGES".

  9. Yami Bakura, but why Wild should obligatorily be a vegetation wilderness?