Friday, April 22, 2022

Running Wild

I spent much of last year running Old-School Essentials by the book: meaning, I only added a house rule into the game once the need arose (e.g. rules for magic staves or additional combat declarations). I gave the rules a chance before deciding to change something (Chesterton's fence and all that), or deciding that something was even meaningful or relevant to change at all.

That campaign focused mostly on traditional low-level play: a base of operations (Fourtower Bridge) with nearby dungeons (we visited Winter's Daughter, Hole in the Oak, Incandescent Grottoes, Prison of the Hated Pretender, Star Spire, and The Waking of Willowby Hall). It was great fun.

This year I wanted to focus on adventuring in the wilderness. I talked with my group, got an idea of what might interest them, and then set out to build a setting for their adventures. We began our campaign at the start of the year and it has been a resounding success.

Rocks fall, everyone dies: wilderness adventuring is a dangerous business!

Though I highly customized the setting, I took the same approach with the actual rules for wilderness adventuring that I did for dungeon crawling and combat last year: stick to playing it as close to "by the book" as I can before making changes.

You can find numerous blog posts and videos about hex crawling across the Internet, ranging from elegant and practical to needlessly complex. In fact, almost every hex crawl procedure that I found overcomplicated the process. You don't need to do this to run a wilderness adventure! A referee has everything they need to run an excellent wilderness adventure right there in the Old-School Essentials rules.

As you play, you will add to or clarify those rules. That is expected. But, if you start with the bare necessities, your brain will thank you later for the reduced mental overhead.


Here is a real example of a full day of wilderness adventuring from a recent session.

1. The party woke up at camp and I described what they saw in every direction. In this case large hills to their north, southwest, and southeast with an obvious stretch of open plain due east. I asked them what they wanted to do for the day.

2. The party decided that they wanted to try to find a nearby river, which they knew was somewhere to their west. Hills rose in that direction, but there were a few passes that they could try to pick their way through.

3. Now I rolled some checks: a check for wandering monsters (the result was high, a 5 or 6. No wandering monsters today). Then a check for losing direction (a 2, uh oh).

4. Since they started in a clear plain, they did not immediately lose their way. But, as they moved into the hills, I described them getting turned around as they tried to make their way across them to the west. They couldn't tell one slope from the next. I described the peril and presented their options: they felt confident that they could backtrack and get back to where they started the day, or they could try to push through in a random direction. They chose to backtrack.

5. Now, having lost half of the travel day in the hills, they were back where they started. I described their surroundings once again and this time they chose to head northeast, keeping to the open plain while skirting the range of hills to the north.

6. Since they were on horseback, they could still move pretty fast. By the book, a riding horse travels 48 miles per day in grasslands. Having wasted half of the day in the hills, I ruled that they could still make 24 miles of progress. I eyeball this on the map, drawing a line as I go. Hexes are six miles across, but sometimes they only clip a hex. So, I use the hexes more as measuring guides than actual units of measure.

7. Whenever they reach a point where their surroundings change, I describe that so they can reevaluate their options. In this case, a clear pass opened up to the northwest between two ranges of hills. They shifted direction, so I continued their line of progress to the northwest.

8. As the travel day winds down, I describe them coming across a smaller stream that flows into the river they're looking for. They decide to make camp there, where they each consume a ration.

9. I roll again for wandering monsters overnight: this time, I roll a 1. I roll again on my regional encounter table: a small pack of blink dogs. I roll a d12 to determine an approximate time of night when this encounter happens and get a 3 or 4, so the encounter takes place a few hours before midnight (3 hours after making camp).

10. I follow encounter procedures. The blink dogs end up playfully trying the lead the lawful party member to a nearby river crossing. He does not follow them the entire way, but the party decides to head in that direction the next day ...


We play on a virtual tabletop, but it would look very similar if we played in person.

The referee has their own map. This map is likely keyed and labeled. They do not share it with the players.

Here is a portion of my referee map relevant to the example above. They started the day at the X in Hex 0912. They traveled west into the hills and got lost. They backtracked and instead headed northeast, then turned northwest and camped by the stream at the X in Hex 1010.

The referee's wilderness map

As players complete their expeditions into the wilderness, I reveal those areas on their map. Note that I do not reveal as they go, only once they return to town. If the players want, they can make their own map based on my descriptions during an expedition. I highly recommended that my players do this.

Here is their map. You can see a previously explored area in the lower left. A previous expedition had already traveled up the river to this point and returned to town. Notice that their scale is off, but it doesn't matter. I don't try to correct them. In fact, I don't even look at their map at all during play. If they have a question about their surroundings, they describe what they do in the fiction and ask me!

The players' wilderness map

That's it. Rinse and repeat. Make rulings as they come up. Add rules for things that become relevant to your table. Have fun!

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