Sunday, June 5, 2016

Never Show Them the Map

I was thinking about why wilderness play is sort of boring, and one of the conclusions I have reached is that showing your players your ground-truth hexmap of unexplored wilderness areas is an incredibly bad idea.  I'm not talking about the secret DM layer where you keep your monster lairs - I'm talking about just terrain.  Maybe everyone else already knows this, but I'm going to talk about it anyway.

One of the exciting things about dungeoneering is opening a door into the unknown.  The potential for death and treasure is clear, and maybe there will be some curious or exploitable feature.  Maybe on the other side is a portal to hell, a shaft descending in darkness to the 6th level of the dungeon, or the hall of the mountain king.  The gradual construction of a player map, which can be exploited to circumvent lairs and reach desired destinations with minimal risk, is a satisfying activity.  In OSR systems where there is not much system-mastery to be had, world-mastery can fill the same role, rewarding players for their attention to detail and their skill.  Additionally, when players keep their own map, they necessarily end up a little uncertain about it, and this adds to tension.

Given that this works well in the dungeon, why don't we do it in the wilderness?  Notably, a number of very successful wilderness adventures and settings actually have given players a blank map and said "have fun filling this in".  The original Wilderlands of High Fantasy did this way back in the 80s.  The player map was a central feature of the widely-imitated Western Marches campaign, and Pathfinder's popular Kingmaker adventure path did the same.  In these cases, the hexcrawl is actually a crawl, with decisions along the way forced by lack of information.  By contrast, in my attempts at wilderness campaigning with a high-detail ground-truth hexmap, typically the party looks at the map, calculates an optimal route, deals with any random encounters along the way, and arrives at their destination.  Rations are laid in with perfect accuracy, so logistics are almost never an issue; hunting and foraging never occur, and resting only results from forced march.  The travel becomes interactive, nonlinear, only when the party fails a navigation roll (an exceedingly unlikely occurrence when you have two characters with Navigation, although re-reading the rules it looks like multiple characters with Navigation don't stack, but Navigation and Explorer do stack so it works out about the same), and the satisfaction of exploration, the joy of discovery, never occurs.

Alexis very accurately expresses this major source of discontent with my last campaign in his book:
A mistake I made many times as a young DM was in recognizing, unfortunately, a common pattern.  If I made the party aware of a place that contained something valuable, they would, most times, unquestioningly march out and get it.  My campaigns rushed from target to target, and as I assigned each target, the next sessions would become lamentably predictable.  I began to feel trapped in my own campaigns.  After a time this became quite dull...  Parties are more interested in and involved with targets they cannot see...  If the party is told where to go, they will go there.  But if the party is told only that the destination is 'nearby', they will go everywhere.
There is also an anachronism argument to be made, that accurate mapping and surveying techniques were not developed until the early modern period to assist the developing European states in clearly delineating their territory into legible administrative districts.  I think the realism concern is less important than the excuse to drop stylized, dubiously-accurate maps with crazy sea monsters on my players, with hopefully hilarious results.

On the flip side, running wilderness navigation is hard.  You do not have the structure of the dungeon, and your extensive experience in indoor spaces, to help you.  My earlier interest in mountain peaks and smoke visibility were part of an attempt to build usable language and conventions for wilderness exploration play (in the way that "You open the door, and see a 30x30 room with a door in the opposite wall, containing five gnolls" is clear and actionable. "You are in gently-rolling forested hills, on a narrow trail; from a treetop, you can see a mountain range to your west and multiple columns of smoke to the south.  The sun is low in the sky to the west, nearly touching the peaks" is a little less useful; it does not present an obvious menu, other than "make camp"), but I recognize now that without concealment, without prolonging wilderness travel and making it interactive, there can be no fun in exploration and such conventions and language are useless.

On further reflection, I guess what I'm really aiming to do is to turn the wilderness into the megamost dungeon.  The megadungeon structure is sort of dumb and deeply unrealistic, but it works.  A lot of the things that make good megadungeons work really well (multiple paths, varying danger levels, factions, restocking, path reuse, too-big-to-clear) actually make more sense or are simply unavoidable in the wilderness, but for the most part we've (well, I've at least) failed to put it all together properly.  I've failed to see the dungeon for the trees.


  1. I keep coming back to this post, as I think there's some good stuff in it, but it also feels like you're working this out as you go.

    I think you're saying that you really like the way that players explore and map megadungeons, and that it's easy to lose this feel in the wilderness. In particular, having a good map takes this pressure away, which allows them to navigate directly to where they want to go (in conjunction with good navigation skill).

    This is exacerbated by having obvious places they want to go (and knowing where they are). They plot a course, load up with the right number of rations, and get there.

    So.. this is timely for me because I'm also running a wilderness adventure, and the players do have a good map which I gave to them! It's had some really neat emergent moments, but I agree, for the most part there isn't a strong sense of exploration.

    I too struggle a little with describing the wilderness. In part there's a huge demand for terrain variety... which I've partly addressed with some subterrain variety. I've also done some working out "how far you can see" and so on, but even so there are some vistas that are brutally hard to describe, at least in a manner that gives the players something to work with. This, for instance:

    I'm starting to feel that 'room-like' zones that constrain visibility are useful. Valleys, winding ravines, forest edges that hide the terrain beyond, etc.

    Also, I'm interested in "paths" - not actual tracks, but routes that relate to the terrain. Dunno if you've read Fighting Fantasy books, but they had lots of stuff like this. Do you follow the river westwards, or cut north, deeper into the plain? (Both options make sense if you're heading roughly westward.) Do you walk high up along the side of the valley, or move along the valley floor?

    For stuff like this, I think decomposing "hills" into individual, actual hills is really useful. Your other ideas about using dungeon traits are also great.

  2. Yeah, this was not my most cohesive post. Your summary is on target, though. And I am very much still working it out as I go.

    Hmm... when you say subterrain variety, what do you mean? And yeah, I'm starting to think that describing wilderness at a really high level of detail may be an intractable problem (on the tabletop, at least).

    Your conception of rooms is very interesting! I've been reading Lakoff's Metaphors We Live By recently, and this is an instance of its "a visual field is often conceived of as a container" metaphor. I had been thinking in terms of movement obstacles like watercourses, rock faces, and such dividing the "rooms" of a wilderness (granted, I was also thinking ecologically rather than adventuringly at that time), but line-of-sight-blockers are just as important. Lakoff is also partially responsible for my attempt at constructing a "wilderness is dungeon" conceptual metaphor. I'm curious to see what falls out if you apply the language of dungeon design to wilderness adventuring (and rooms are a good example).

    Yeah, routing in the wilderness is a fun problem. I haven't read any of the Fighting Fantasy books, but the process makes sense. I took an overland navigation class recently, and we talked about some similar choices. Part of the problem with it in D&D is that historically it seems that my players and I conceive of wilderness as almost entirely forest - we had a guy try to run a desert campaign once and at least once a session, we tried to cut down trees or hide in underbrush that wasn't there. And in forest, bushwhacking off-trail is a real pain, so we always conceive of trails, too, and then that begs the question of "where did these come from?" (which was a major motivator for my Game Trails post this week). So part of the problem is us.

    I agree that higher-resolution single hills are very useful; I measured my local hill at about one two-mile hex in size, which makes mapping just below six-mile hexes pretty viable.

  3. Thinking about it more, auditory spaces kind of matter too - can the orcs hear the horns of that party of scouts that you ambushed, or were you clever enough to put a hill in the way?