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I like wilderness adventures. My earliest games as a player (in AD&D 2e) featured wilderness adventures, and I really enjoyed them. I try to use them in my games (We're playing Pathfinder right now), but they turn into "roll a survival/balance/whatever" check (boring to me, and to the players too I think), instead of the actual decision making that would happen in a real wilderness situation.

Two real life examples:
We see the trail is blocked ahead (landslide pushed a lot of trees into the path). As far as we can tell, there isn't a trail through this, and we're in a bit of a gorge nere, so there's no easy climbing up and around. Do we climb through them or take the safe way around (though that means a long hike in a mountain in the dark ). We chose the stupid option, to climb through the trees. When we were just about through we noticed someone had carved a path along one side with a chainsaw

On a different trip, we were about ¾ up a mountain when it started to rain. The particular point we were at required a creek fording. Not too difficult a thing to do under normal conditions, but the waters quickly begin to swell. We're about a quarter mile north of falls high enough to ruin your day. About half the group is across when this happens. Does one of the halves cross back? Does the group split up?

With that in mind, how can I develop and frame wilderness adventure decisions in such a way that:

  1. The focus is more on the choices players make than on rolling dice (though risky actions carry risk of failure), and
  2. I can present this as a actual choice, instead of "Here's something to make your life hard you have to do it this way"
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Are you encountering a specific reason why you can't have these kinds of scenarios popping up in wild encounters? I mean, you clearly have good examples that would require more than just "roll survival" to solve, so your question leaves it a bit unclear to me what exactly the problem is. – Theik Jan 21 at 21:10
    
I don't know, to be honest, so my fist instinct is to assume I am presenting and/or structuring things poorly during actual play. – rStyskel Jan 21 at 21:20
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I'm curious as to why this is marked system-agnostic. You'll get much more focused answers if they're related to a specific system, as there are often system specific mechanics that can help with this kind of thing. – Wibbs Jan 22 at 0:01
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Because we play/have played Pathfinder (current primary), AD&D 2e, FATE, nWoD (1.0 so far), Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, and I'm looking at RuneQuest and Traveller as of late. It's a system agnostic thing, for me at least. – rStyskel Jan 22 at 1:02
up vote 49 down vote accepted

I used to play a game that was fun and exciting: you rolled a dice and depending on the result moved up some ladders or slid down some snakes and the first one to the top won, its name escapes me for the moment. It was thrilling and intriguing and then I turned 5 and realized it was no fun at all because I had no agency.

My definition of agency is:

Players making informed decisions that have reasonable and foreseeable consequences

To qualify as a informed decision there has to be:

  • Two or more alternative actions the players can take that move them towards their goals (whatever they are)
  • Each of which has a risk/reward/cost profile known to the players
  • None of which is obviously superior to the other(s).

Please note that nowhere in my definition did I mention anyone rolling dice. Dice are only needed when there is uncertainty in the outcome: choices do not have to have uncertainty.

With this in mind let's look at your real life examples:

The blocked trail

This clearly qualifies as a decision, there are three choices here - two obvious and one hidden - that all lead towards the goal and all with different risk/reward/cost profiles:

  1. Push trough - the cost is that this is hard and unpleasant (in real life - RPG characters don't care about this); the reward is that it is quicker than ...
  2. Backtrack - the cost is this will take a lot more time at the end of the day when you have already trekked for miles (in real life - RPG characters don't care about this either); the reward is that its a lot easier than option 1.
  3. Scout around (the hidden option) - the cost is the small amount of time this will take, the risk is you won't find an alternative path and the reward is avoiding the costs of options 1 and 2.

There is a clear trade off here: time vs effort. Neither of these translate well into an RPG context because its the characters who pay the cost not the players but let's see what we can do to overcome this.

We have to put the cost in terms that the players will care about so lets assume that there is a time limit on the adventure: they have to get somewhere by a certain time or something really bad happens - the evil cult summons the demon, the corporation finishes their hack, whatever.

As you move up the gorge, you see that part of the cliff has collapsed burying the trail in a pile of rocks, uprooted trees and dirt. It looks like hard, slow going and maybe dangerous too. If you proceed on foot you will get 1 level of exhaustion and have to make a DC15 Dexterity save or take 1d6 damage (substitute your own game mechanics here), if you go back to the fork in the trail you would be in a similar position to your objective in about 2 hours. Do you want to go on, go back or do something else?

So, the players are informed of the costs of the two obvious options and they matter in game terms: the trade off is reduced capability in future encounters versus definite lost time. In addition, you have indicated that they can do something else - if they spend 10 minutes scouting they will find the path or the could use up other resources like a spell or come up with something I haven't thought of.

Note that only 1 of the options (pushing through) has an uncertain outcome so only if the players choose that one does anyone roll a die.

The point is the players now have agency - a decision with foreseeable consequences.

The flooded creek

This one is even easier as all the choices have in-game consequences - the risk of being swept off the waterfall versus splitting the party.

Dave has forded the stream and tied off your rope. As each of you cross you note that the water level is rising. With a thunderous crash a positive wall of water, branches and forest debris sweeps around the corner. Quick, Alice you are right in the middle, do you race ahead or pull back?

You could put in a saving throw here if you really want to to see if she makes it.

You scramble clear as the rolling wave smashes past, a large pine snapping your rope like it was cotton. The knee high babbling brook is now a foaming rapid well above the waists; carrying branches leaves and who knows what else to tumble over the 300 foot tall waterfall just downstream. What do you do?

You don't need to lay out options here because they are pretty obvious - go forward and risk drowning, go backwards and risk drowning, split the party or use up some limited resources. You can work out the appropriate game mechanics and tell them to the players so they know the risks, only if they try to ford the stream are dice needed.

Again you have given the players agency.

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The game you mention at the top sounds like Chutes and Ladders, where the Chutes are Snakes. – Javelin Jan 22 at 0:01
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@Javelin Its called Snakes and Ladders here - I knew all along and you have fallen into my devious trap! Mwa, ha ha! – Dale M Jan 22 at 0:04
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Your definition of agency reminds me very much of Sid Meier's definition of a game. In any case, you've illustrated out a common pitfall (hah!) that can happen with wilderness obstacle encounters and described how to overcome it, so +1. – GMJoe Jan 22 at 2:10
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+1 for "the characters pay the cost, not the players." – Novak Jan 22 at 5:42

Your examples are good ones, it's all about the PCs having choices - immediate and longer term. I'm currently running a nautical pirate campaign and it was important to me that the actual sailing of the ship was a large and meaningful part of the action and not just a teleporter to some new location (and most of my players have read Hornblower, Aubrey, et al.).

Also, rolls aren't bad - "man vs nature" combat might arguably have as many rolls in it as man vs man combat, right? You just don't want the only source of drama to be roll results.

It can be choices of what route to take or challenge to face. For example, my PCs wanted to sail around the edge of a permanent hurricane (the Eye of Abendego in Golarion). I told them they could go deeper in and try to leverage the higher winds and make the overall voyage potentially much shorter, but with a lot, lot more danger, or stay well outside it and have less weather issues but a longer voyage. That choice wasn't a dice roll per se but it affected later rolls (from ship-handling to how many days of random encounters they had to face).

It can be choices in the moment - when my PCs' ship was in the hurricane and things got bad and a waterspout appeared, I gave them choices about how many crew should be sailing vs bailing vs repairing vs whatever else. Not a roll per se, but led to rolls for sure. (And obviously they could choose at any time to use whatever other resources they had at hand, magic etc., without me presenting that as a choice per se).

It can be longer term resource management choices. If they are sailing into the arctic and decide to not prepare and buy cold winter clothing etc., then they all are getting frostbite - there's no immediate choice to make, they done made it already. (Though it might lead them to a series of choices all with less optimal outcomes to try to get by.)

If you want ideas, read some old style wilderness travel narratives - Ambrose's book about Lewis and Clark, Stanley's How I Found Livingstone, etc. and you'll get plenty of weather/terrain type issues to torment your PCs with.

See also some other questions with the travel tag, specifically What can I do to give the players the same feel their characters would have about wilderness travel?.

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As with any game that represents any situation, the more you represent the actual situation in real game terms that resemble the situation, and present/allow different choices (and creativity), the more it will be like that situation, and the less gamey and artificial it will be.

Characters can have attributes, skills, traits, equipment, supplies and conditions that can all be relevant. Of course, some RPGs lump some or all of this into classes, or handwave some things that some players think they don't like, such as tracking equipment details.

Regional maps can detail the terrain involved and the locations of resources and obstacles, hazards, and various types of plants and animals. Terrain can affect travel speed, what resources, shelter and forage is available, what skills are useful, etc.

Weather combines with terrain to present different challenges. For example, rain can make all your gear heavier, damage supplies, increase fatigue, add risks of falling, swell streams, cause floods, dampen firewood, soak bowstrings, ruin some supplies or unprotected documents, and provides fresh water and different wildlife situations.

The time in a day can be used in various ways with various trade-offs. How long are marches, how much fatigue does that cause, how often do people take breaks, what is their march order. Do scouts lead the group, and how far do they stray? Do people forage and hunt along the way, or even take time to stop and do that? What time of day do people travel? If at night, what do they do for light? If camping at night, do they light a fire, when, how do they prepare their food, and what shifts do they set? Do they wait under cover when it rains or march through it?

When someone gets hurt, what does it take to treat their injuries in terms of time, skill and equipment, and what is the result for them if they continue to march versus rest? Does it affect their travel speed? What if someone isn't hurt but say one of their shoes is lost or damaged? Probably depends on what they have to walk over. Sand or soft earth may be fine without shoes, but rocks or thorns may be a problem.

Then there are the actual unusual situations and encounters. These become more significant based on how all the other systems in the system are developed or not. Maybe there are obstacles that are fairly easy to pass, unless you're carrying a whole lot of equipment. Or that a wagon or even a donkey may have great trouble with. Sometimes making fires, or leaving dead animal remains, or even making tracks, may risk detection or tracking by enemies or dangerous or nuisance creatures.

My main point is that if you have systems (or a strong GM understanding) for taking into account all the details of the reality of traveling in the wilderness, then every aspect of the terrain and every character skill and piece of equipment can potentially have a meaningful effect on what happens, that makes sense. Every GM and player group will have different thresholds of interest, expertise, and enjoyment of detail or abstraction. But when the GM has a rich grasp of the situation and cause & effect, and enough map / weather / party / situation details, the situation itself can naturally generate logical challenges and dilemmas.

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I'v seen some fairly long answers here (most of which are very spot on and clearly explain various ideas/etc). I wanted to through out a quick list of options and thoughts on how I personally would deal with these situations.

  1. Change what the rolls mean for the party. Yes, "survive roll" is always generally there but constantly change the meaning behind the roll. For example, you are crossing a gorge and roll a balance check, you fail and fall into the gorge, roll on some other things to see if you survive. If you do, you might notice something unexpected down the gorge a ways that changes the dynamics of the encounter (e.g. bit of ruins that leads to a side quest, a trapped traveller you can opt to rescue or rob, etc).
  2. Realistic consiquences. This might seem obvious, but is sometimes hard to really do in some DnD campaigns. Don't let the plate wearing warrior with hundreds of pounds of gear swing across the pit trap, have him check the rope in advance to see if it is frayed/etc.
  3. Randomness is always a nice flavor. Again this might seem obvious, but I always like to pre-plan a few encounters for every group, but having a list of random encounters to add to the list is fun for everyone.
  4. Players like knowing what they are choosing, or at least like the feeling of being in control. Giving them a little makes the campaign more engaging and less mundane. Give players information that helps inform a decision, but does not make is a utilitarian choice (e.g. if we go this way its obviously a trap but worth a lot of gold, but the other way is easy with less gold).
  5. Make the game feel larger then it actually is. I like to do this by showing players the far-reaching consequences of their actions. For instance if they happen to destroy a dam up river of the town, they subsequently flood the town. This is fine and quite obvious. What they might find out later is that that specific town was known for crafting high quality items and, being flooded, no longer produces and the prices for high quality items has gone up (thus causing future purchases of weapons to be higher then average).
  6. Also I expect I might get some criticism for this, but home brew some interesting mechanics. I have personally found that players love seeing some easy to understand mechanics added to the generally straightforward play. Although not wilderness related one I have always enjoyed is a renown system for players to become known among various factions/etc.

All of these aspects combined to some level generally make for more engaging encounters. Other then those I would say just have a very large repository to pull from so that they don't feel like you are always giving them the same encounter.

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Trying to keep things simple, you need to present the players with choices that cannot be resolved by simply asking their character "what's the smartest thing to do here, given everything you know about wilderness survival?". When you make a roll, you're counting on the character to do the right thing. When you force a decision to the player, you make it about something other than merely following best practice known to their character and recorded as a skill.

Your examples seem reasonable, albeit you haven't presented them here with maximum possible drama. You can be as good at wilderness survival as you like, and that still doesn't tell you whether the party has the best shot at achieving its real goals (which are more than merely to survive) by risking a delay, or by splitting the party. Therefore, there is more for the players to do than just make wilderness survival rolls on behalf of their characters.

Generally speaking, if you consider fiction in a wilderness survival situation, it will usually be about more than just the mechanics of lighting fires and finding North. Especially if it concerns more than one person. I would guess that the same is true of the games in this style that you enjoyed in the past, so you need to find that. Their skills will take them a certain distance, but fundamentally if they can successfully make the journey simply by exercising their skills then it wasn't a challenging journey. What about strategic decisions? What about personal sacrifice? What about intra-party conflict when the rolls start failing and things get stressful?

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