Dungeons & Dragons Online

The never-ending search for the “right” way to handle exploration?

I'd like some feedback on how you've run or played through wilderness mechanics in an exploration-heavy world. I'm at a bit of a loss for how to find the balance between fun and tedious.

For the last few years I've run various campaigns on Zendikar (pre-Eldrazi), a WotC-designed setting for Magic the Gathering that is essentially a classic D&D "adventure world." In particular, the setting has very few actual cities and towns, with most inhabitants living as nomads due to a dangerous and chaotic landscape-changing phenomenon known as the Roil. The wilderness is extreme: getting from place to place means slinging lines across floating islands, crossing arid deserts where it rains crystal shards, and slogging through swamps of enormous predators and poisonous plants. Still, adventurers abound here due to the myriad of strange locales and ancient ruins of a once-powerful civilization. My plots mostly involve dealing with the consequences of someone evil finding something in one of these ruins, or a well-meaning adventurer waking something that should have stayed dormant. All but one of the players are hardcore Magic players well-acquainted with the lore, and the fourth loves the stories regardless.

I think Zendikar is the perfect candidate for the "exploration as a dungeon" philosophy, and I initially built it that way, using the following mechanics stitched together from many great design resources:

  1. Long rests can only occur in places of relative safety (in town, on a ship, in a cleared and secured dungeon); nightly rests in a tent in the wilderness are short rests. Trivializing spells like Leomund's Tiny Hut are not permitted (that kind of magic doesn't really fit the setting anyway).
  2. Encumbrance is enforced, but simplified: the RAW variant rules are used, but all items have their weight simplified to "units" (1u is approximately 5lbs, with DM adjudication if needed) or are considered weightless (mostly consumables like potions, gold, and other small things). This way your encumbrance limit is just equal to your Strength score in units, and there's no need to add up all the little nonsense you pick up on your travels. Regular ammunition is not tracked; its weight is just presumed to be included with that of the weapon.
  3. No random encounters, because they suck. Travel from A to B (including any dungeon at B) is designed to contain worldbuilding and/or plot-relevant encounters that add up to the difficulty of a typical adventuring day. These are a good mix of skill challenges (often Roil events or challenging terrain), monsters, and decision points (like social encounters or detours to a new discovery). Difficulty is always tailored to be challenging but survivable.
  4. Travel is not a hex crawl, but treated behind the screen more like as progress along an axis. Each day (or week, for longer travel) characters can navigate, forage, search for crafting ingredients, or take other appropriate actions. I have an optional crafting system for ingredients built from AngryGM's, but few have expressed any interest in using it.
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My plan was for the world to feel fun and sandboxy, filled with ruins and interesting choices. But… it doesn't. No one tracks inventory beyond just writing down an item list, and despite peppering travel with descriptions and small events in between encounters, engagement plummets. We've talked a lot about it and I've trimmed a lot of stuff to make it easier, but I still feel like they see things like "no long rests in the wilderness" as adversarial, instead of as a way to not trivialize exploration (as a note: I have never killed a player, and am not out to do so; I want them to become hardened and heroic through overcoming challenges). This is not to say they haven't had fun; they talk very fondly of many of the plots, NPCs, and combats in the previous campaign. It's just the exploration that sucks.

And I get that; I suspect at this point it's just a matter of different playstyles. I've had some issues I won't get into with players creating characters that don't mesh well with the party or the setting, but as I've learned more about DMing we've (mostly) resolved that. But when I read through other people's wilderness travel mechanics, especially WotC content like Tomb of Annihilation and the sailing rules in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, I have to wonder how ANYONE manages it. I couldn't imagine asking my players (or even myself) every in-game day to designate marching order and night watches, or manage crew morale, or find and track both food and water separately. But while I personally like the character development potential of encounters like deciding between braving an earthquake to get the cart with your supplies to safety, or just running for your lives, I suspect my players would just quit altogether if they had to make a sacrifice like that, even knowing I would never put them in an unwinnable situation.

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So what have been your experiences with modules and mechanics like this? DMs, do you run them RAW or have you found something else that works? As players, what do you enjoy out of systems like this, or is it usually just a slog? Should I just look for a different set of players for a game like this?

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