Far over the Misty Mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day,
To seek the pale enchanted gold.
On one hand, talking about the Ranger class in this blog has had me reading the Exploration rules. On the other, I’ve been reading The One Ring and its rules for Journeys. Obviously, any game presenting Tolkien’s works needs a really good approach to the travelogue, or long-distance overland adventuring. I think that TOR has a lot of interesting things going on. If there’s anything we can learn or borrow for application in other games, I hope to find it.
D&D: Exploration Mechanics
Let’s start with D&D’s process. The Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide present two different things, befitting their purposes. The DMG starts with whether to focus on the mile-by-mile travelogue, while the PH goes into what the players need to know if so. To do this, the DMG divides wilderness travel into, essentially, “Yes, we care about this” and “No, we really don’t.” Neither of these is wrong, because sometimes the adventure is about the dungeon and sometimes it’s about getting to the dungeon and, for that matter, sometimes it’s solving a logistical thought experiment or puzzle, and then letting the DM narrate how you’d make a good travel agent.
The rest of the DMG entry is tables to randomly generate interesting stuff, and small rules blocks laying out Players Versus Nature challenges. There’s some good stuff here, really good for a hexcrawl and a DM who can string random results into cogent story; the worst thing I can say about it is that some of the table results really strenuously don’t fit most D&D settings. Here I’m thinking of earth motes in particular – rocky islands in midair didn’t fit Forgotten Realms before 4e, and still doesn’t fit Eberron, Athas, (to my knowledge), Greyhawk (to my substantially less reliable knowledge), Birthright, or several others. It would be hard for something to be completely wrong for Planescape or Spelljammer, Dragonlance definitely does floating bits of rock, and it sounds like something Sinbad might run into, so I could accept it in Al-Qadim even if it isn’t attested in the setting book. But I digress.
Like I said, the whole section of overland travel in the PH only comes up if the DM decides to drill down to the “hour-by-hour” approach, as the players don’t need rules for the DM’s narration of a travelogue; the hour-by-hour rules of the PH might give the DM some good ways to call out PC competence or lack thereof in a travelogue narration, though.
The major areas of PH rules here are Speed, Special Types of Movement, Activity While Traveling, and a variety of environmental concerns.
Speed is a section of risk/reward choices for the players: speed above normal costs passive Perception, making you easier to ambush; speed longer than normal risks levels of exhaustion; speed lower than normal opens the possibility of overland stealth, but stretches out your travel time considerably. Speed also affects your chances of becoming lost. Difficult terrain works the same way in overland travel as it does in tactical movement – a much less granular result than we’ve seen in earlier editions of D&D, but a good choice for ease of resolution. Special types of movement barely apply to overland travel, since most PCs can’t fly and most climbing, swimming, or jumping takes place on a tactical scale, but the rules support their use on an overland scale as well.
Activity While Traveling gets into more of the verbs than just move, as well as the details of party order. I think it’s been awhile since D&D has spared even three paragraphs on rules about marching order, and in my own use I ignore them and assume the PCs walk more or less in a column but might change order freely. The good side to using these rules is that they improve the odds of an NPC ambush working, because only characters of a certain rank in the marching order have a chance to notice things. I don’t know about you, but in my games NPC ambushes never seem to work, because when the PCs get one Perception check per player (because I also forget to use passive Perception), someone is going to roll a natural 19 or 20. In my defense, I don’t think passive Perception isn’t super satisfying to the player.
Overland stealth works the same way tactical stealth does. Anyway.
Finally, there are four other activities one can perform in overland travel.
- Navigate only comes up when the DM asks for it, and the DMG suggests that the DM only call for it when the PCs have no obvious road or other landmark, so this role might or might not have anything to do – far more likely if you’re going into true wilderness. This job hangs on Wisdom (Survival) checks; as I mentioned above, your group’s speed modifies this roll.
- Draw a map is also not so useful in civilized lands, and while I appreciate the simplicity here, I’m a little bit disappointed that there’s not a crunchier system for creating or benefiting from a map, since one of the PCs in my game is quite invested in his character being a cartographer.
- Sure, I can come up with something on my own, but Wisdom (Survival) does most of the conceptual heavy lifting here. Once you complete a map, your result grants advantage on those Wisdom (Survival) checks for the Navigate task.
- Track is really situational – most wilderness exploration doesn’t have you looking for a particular creature, but when you are, it takes someone’s full-time attention. This job is also about Wisdom (Survival).
- Forage feels like it should be player-initiated, but it’s instead DM-initiated. Anyway, when the DM chooses, someone working on this task can make two Wisdom (Survival) checks to gather 1d6 + Wisdom modifier pounds of food and 1d6 + Wisdom modifier gallons of water. Foraging is only possible when the party travels at a normal or slow pace.
I’m not going into detail on the PH’s environmental concerns here. I want to briefly mention the DMG’s weather types and hazards. Weather includes extreme heat, cold, wind, rain, and snow. I’m sure we could come up with a few more for a fantasy setting…
- Anne McCaffery built an incredibly popular series on highly dangerous precipitation. Yes, I know that thread is not actually precipitation.
- The same way that thread destroys organic matter, one could imagine a weather condition that drained magical power – personally I’d characterize it as a rain of ashes, or maybe a strange-colored lightning storm, that had a per-hour chance to strike and drain spellcasters.
- Sandstorms show up in the Strong Wind section, but I feel like “disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception)” is under-selling it a bit. A dangerous and scouring wind might do a lot more than that, and I feel like characters should have to make Strength checks or something to make any progress at all rather than waiting out the sandstorm, and then digging out from under it.
- Flash floods might be more hazard than weather per se, but they could still be a thing.
- Bushfires, wildfires, and firestorms are some of the most terrifying weather-like circumstances I can readily imagine in the real world. Of course, making them something less deadly than Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies might have some issues on the believability side.
Now in D&D, a hazard is something other than a creature or a trap that is somehow dangerous, but too small and/or rare to be an independent terrain type. Hazards include desecrated ground, my personal favorite (but I also think it should have done more, or more varied things); frigid water, quicksand, razorvine (I think this originally comes from Planescape?), slippery ice, and thin ice. This too could have been a much longer list – the list of weird terrain and hazards was without doubt one of my favorite parts of 4e, for all the ways they could change up a battlefield. Admittedly, many of them are hard to integrate into 5e’s much lower-magic tone.
The last piece of the exploration rules are a few notes in the Ranger class’s Natural Explorer feature. I’ve talked about the class’s issues more than once, so let’s skip that part; when Natural Explorer does apply, it:
- Doubles your proficiency bonus for the all-important Wisdom (Survival) checks.
- Other terrain-related Int and Wis checks, but let’s be real: Wisdom (Survival) is what it’s about.
- Gives your whole group immunity to difficult terrain in overland travel.
- Gives your whole group immunity to getting lost, unless magic made you get lost.
- Negates penalties to passive Perception for carrying out tasks other than standing watch.
- Allows stealth checks at normal, rather than slow, pace.
- Technically this only works when you are alone, and even other rangers with this ability would interfere. Practically, the DM who makes that argument might be a jerk.
- Doubles your food gathered from foraging.
- I wonder if it is also intended to double water gathered from foraging, and they forgot to list it?
- Lets you ask additional questions as part of successful tracking.
That’s quite a broad spectrum of benefits, and narrows down a lot of exploration-related decision-making by eliminating some tradeoffs and risks. As great as this is, though, I’m still surprised that the ranger’s spell list never plugs into the exploration system directly; any benefit is strictly up to the DM to adjudicate, even commune with nature. To be clear, commune with nature can lead you to sources of safe drinking water, which I suppose grants as much drinking water as you have waterskins to transport, plus that day’s gallon of water? Leaving things to DM fiat here is only odd because the spell system does such rigorously defined things for combat and social encounters.
The One Ring: Journeys
The Loremaster’s Book (analogous to the DMG) of The One Ring calls out that the detailed rules for journeys need not be used for every span of overland travel. Tolkien’s writings, and thus The One Ring, don’t exactly have a concept of an aimless hexcrawl, or adventuring just to see what’s there, so journeys in TOR always begin with players establishing a destination. On the other hand, TOR is about filling in the Adventurers’ Map. The game provides the PCs and the Loremaster with similar maps, to which the Loremaster will presumably add still more features. Adventure mostly happens while you’re on your way to someplace else, so it’s a hexcrawl with an end goal. Also, the game assumes you go back home each year, and this is never a journey, because you’ve already learned how to navigate those dangers. Presumably this could change if a new danger appeared after your first passage.
Most of the useful rules on Journeys are in the Loremaster’s Book, but the Adventurer’s Book does have a few options the players need to know. How to judge distance accurately, the effects of terrain types, daily travel speed, and so on are all stored here. Distance calculation is simple enough, and the speed table has a lot in common with the one in the 5e PH except that it folds in boats, while 5e puts all vehicles on a separate table. (TOR takes place very far from any body of water larger than a river or a lake, so other vehicular forms of travel aren’t particularly needed. Giant Eagle, maybe.)
TOR’s terrain is a fair bit more granular than 5e’s, and has a lot in common with overland travel tables of 2e and 3e D&D. Travel time modifiers range from .5x for good roads (let’s face it, these are not often found in Middle-earth) to 5x for Daunting terrain. They’re categorized by difficulty, with examples of each degree, rather than by terrain, which proves to be a useful connection to the Loremaster’s Map. TOR has a lot more respect for blighted or ruined land than D&D does, that’s for sure.
Badlands and wastelands as ultra-difficult territory are the first thing I’d steal from TOR for 5e. Giving the players a passable but incomplete map piques players’ curiosity by framing questions, as I’ve recommended before.
Fatigue tests for wilderness travel highlight the difference in tone between TOR and 5e. In 5e, adventurers get a perfectly good night’s sleep anywhere, as long as they have food and water. Stinking dungeon with the door spiked shut? No problem. Not so for Middle-earth’s heroes, who have to make a Fatigue test (analogous to a Con save or Athletics check) every few days of travel, with the interval based on the season and the difficulty based on the terrain. Places like Rivendell, Lórien, and Beorn’s house are incredibly important as places to recuperate and purge accumulated Fatigue. It’s a completely different way of thinking about the world and the separation between At Home and Out There from D&D, and it definitely models its source fiction.
Some D&D games might benefit from an Exhaustion of Travel rule, with a scaling Con save DC that resets to its base value (by terrain) each time you fail and get bumped up to a new level of Exhaustion. This kind of Exhaustion can only be purged with the Recuperation action and, if you are still in the wilds, some further effort. The Recuperation downtime action becomes the first thing the PCs do upon reaching any safe destination. Definitely not for all games, though.
TOR uses the word “hazard” to mean something completely different from D&D. Here it means “a random encounter or Bad Stuff,” often not related to the terrain. Hazards come up on a 1-in-12 chance for each character rolling a Fatigue test, and require further skill tests from one or more party members to avoid some dire consequence. The party members roll these tests based on their assigned job, on which more later. Some of the bad things that might occur include getting lost for a time, having a combat encounter, getting hunted by a large predator (combat is gritty enough that this is bad news in TOR), or a spoiling a substantial amount of the party’s food.
What I really like about this is the clear place for Bad Stuff other than wandering monsters to afflict the party in their journey, and the clear ways that a wide variety of character skills can resist this Bad Stuff. Even the combat encounter can be pre-emptively negated with a test.
D&D could do a lot worse than reworking its wandering monster tables to include other kinds of Bad Stuff. Looking back to 4e, I always felt that one of the main problems with the skill challenge system was the lack of a clear phase for the opposition – be it creatures, nature, or the eldritch forces of magic – to raise the stakes or erode some of the protagonists’ progress.
Over in the Adventurer’s Guide, the rules are phrased as ways to be proactive. The first of these is Planning Ahead, a Lore roll for each member of the party, tallying failures and the best success of the group. Tallying failures is probably a good way to push players into not having just one capable Lore character on the team. Anyway, the best success outcome is kind of like a Dungeon World move – for each degree of success, choose one item from a list, with modest effects on the later journey. Failed rolls add days to the journey; not an incredibly severe penalty, but even one extra Fatigue test for the passage of time in the wilds might cause some nasty problems when the heroes finally arrive.
Planning ahead could easily be an Intelligence (Nature) or Intelligence (cartographer’s tools) check, tallying both successes and failures (since 5e doesn’t usually reward beating a DC by a large amount).
Much like 5e, there are multiple roles within a traveling fellowship; thankfully, there are not nine or, Eru Ilúvatar forbid, fourteen necessary roles. Where 5e uses Wisdom (Survival) for all of its tasks, TOR has Travel, Explore, Hunting, and Awareness, from an overall chart of eighteen skills (the same number that 5e has, before you count tool proficiencies and saving throws).
The party roles of TOR are the Guide (basically the same as the Navigator of 5e); one or more Scouts, who go ahead of the party to look for dangers or obstacles that require small course corrections (there’s no 5e parallel for this role); Hunters, who forage for food (Foragers, obviously; lembas mostly replaces the heroes’ need for this party role in LotR); and Lookouts, who watch for inclement weather and monstrous threats (Trackers, somewhat, but generally anyone in the front rank might have this responsibility in 5e).
It might be really interesting to add Scouts (possibly a Strength [Athletics] or Dex [Acrobatics or Stealth] task) to 5e. When the DM determines that a random encounter should take place, the Scout can roll an ability check to either force a reroll, or force the DM to roll two different encounters, and the Scout chooses which one the PCs encounter by leading them in that direction.
TOR, on the other hand, assumes everyone shares in cartography duty, and doesn’t have specific handling for adventures based on tracking a creature. Search or Hunting would both be reasonable skills to handle the latter.
The next section of rules is something that I really like, but wouldn’t be for everyone. TOR doesn’t want you to get bogged down in the details of packing your bags for adventure or worrying about the weight of each item; instead, your character knows how to pack correctly, though “correctly” may still leave you Weary at the end of your journey. I like this handwave because I’ve seen more than one whole session get swallowed up with nuts-and-bolts-level logistical planning. It usually seems like two players are hugely engaged with this conversation (without any necessary input from the DM; in fact the players are laying out things they think the DM might do to screw the party over), while one or more other players are completely disengaged. I think most players can be happy with the knowledge that their character doesn’t risk Doing It Wrong or running afoul of a Gotcha from the Loremaster.
If this seems like it’s going to be a problem in your 5e D&D game, just sell the PCs a double-weight Explorer’s Pack with PROBABLY HAS THAT NORMAL THING YOU NEED stenciled on the side and call it a day.
Next up are ponies, which is to say beasts of burden you probably don’t ride. These are incredibly useful if you’re worried about failing a lot of Fatigue tests – it halves the accrued Fatigue value from a failed test.
This essentially concludes the rules on Journeys in The One Ring. I really like the game loop of choices, dice rolls, and consequences with narration; it looks like even very long journeys should be resolvable in a manageable number of dice rolls, unless there are multiple combat encounters from failed Look-out work. The key is that there isn’t a new random encounter check even as often as once a day. Even more than that, I love how well it models the Professor’s fiction.
The dynamic of weariness and increasing difficulty would be very hard to adapt directly into 5e, because 5e does want PCs to be ready for a new day of adventuring after a good night’s sleep (including lots of restorative magic), but if this is something you wanted to pursue, the DMG has optional rules for scaling up the grittiness of recovery. You could even create rules for spellcasters recovering less than 100% of their spell slots if their long rest is not in a comfortable and safe place.
That said, 5e’s system already covers the general needs of most groups. Other than possible problems of a large number of random encounters slowing down story progress (not all DMs know how to keep random encounters fresh), 5e’s system works more or less fine, so only add things from The One Ring if you’re dissatisfied with something or you just enjoy experimentation.
Bonus: Dungeon World’s Moves
Dungeon World also cares about wandering around in the wilderness, either with a defined goal, or just to see the sights. It stores all of this in three player moves: Make Camp, Take Watch, and Undertake a Perilous Journey. Everything else relies on the GM to develop and implement on the fly, which is nowhere near the burden in DW that it would be in some other games. (The tradeoff is that some things are far less predictable for the players, and there’s no explicit guidance for the GM.)
The Make Camp move is what 5e calls “take a long rest.” Each player spends a ration (or receives a ration as part of hospitality), and as the book explains, distances in DW are measured in the number of rations it takes to travel from one to the other. There is no roll to make camp. If you’re in the wilderness, you also set a watch order, which plugs into:
The Take Watch move, which might give players a preparation bonus in a fight, or might leave them with their pants down. The outcome depends on a roll of 2d6 + Wisdom modifier, with an additional +1 if there’s a ranger in the party with the advanced move A Safe Place. The precise effects of a 7-9 roll or a 6- roll are not 100% defined, but (as usual in PbtA games) flow forth from the fiction, and all 6- rolls trigger a GM move, all of which are either “the GM threatens to make things worse” (soft moves) or “the GM makes things worse” (hard moves). As long as the GM follows the established principles, it’s probably fine.
Finally, there’s Undertake a Perilous Journey, which is the meat of the matter. The book spells out that this isn’t for hexcrawling just to see what’s there (that’s handled with a series of Make Camp moves), but for TOR-style Journeys. When you make this move, three party members take on tasks for the group:
- The Quartermaster is a slight reframing of the Forager or Hunter. If this task goes well, you spend one less ration in the whole of the journey. If it goes badly, the GM makes a move, with whatever that entails. “Use up their resources” is a particularly self-evident answer.
- The Trailblazer is the Navigator or Guide. As this reduces the time to the end goal on a 10+ success, this too conserves rations, and also has whatever effect in the fiction that getting there earlier should have. Several of the GM moves fit in obvious ways here, like “Separate them.”
- The Scout matches up to TOR’s Scout and Look-out together. Success here gives the PCs some tactical advantage over the danger. It might take a little doing to describe how an environmental danger “gets the drop” on PCs, but “getting dropped” on PCs springs to mind.
If there are more than three party members, the remainder have no defined task in this move, which might disappoint, but there’s always the Aid or Interfere move. If there are too few party members, any unfilled role is an automatic 6- failure. All three of these are Wisdom rolls, and elf rangers automatically succeed their task with a 10+ if you’re in the wilderness. The ranger class has a few optional abilities to plug into this system. Even more so than TOR, it’s feasible to resolve a perilous journey very quickly, as you make just one dice roll for each job, and that roll applies to the whole course of the journey. The only downside I see to that is that it would be only too easy for a GM to forget to work in enough interesting travelogue narration along the way – I can definitely see myself having that problem.
DW’s system could be a great substitute for 5e’s Travelogue approach. Conversely, there might be some use to adding more tasks to Undertake a Perilous Journey, and I can imagine a new class or custom move imitating TOR’s Planning Ahead. DW doesn’t need, but might benefit from, a list of terrain and hazard ideas from 5e and TOR; all of TOR’s hazard episodes are great GM moves if you need an idea in a hurry.
Each game’s wilderness-travel system works well in its own design environment, but can also benefit from cross-pollination. Even if you don’t make any system adaptations, you might find some great inspiration for your narration and framing of challenges. The one mode that has no rules at all, 5e’s Travelogue style, probably has the most to gain from grafting in modest rules from TOR’s or DW’s Journeys. Or, what the hell, just go watch Peter Jackson’s Landscape Porn a few more times.