Exploring the Wilderness: Navigation and Player Agency
A few weeks ago, I watched an episode of Matt Colville’s Running the Game, his YouTube series of long-form D&D advice. I’m a big fan of Matt’s. I wrote an adventure for his Kickstarter. One of the things I know Matt loves is an old-school module titled Cult of the Reptile God—an adventure in which the village of Orlane is taken over by a sinister cult in the forest beyond, the characters learn of this and travel through the wilderness to reach the cult’s hideout, and then engages in a dungeon exploration to stamp out the cult.
That middle section, the wilderness exploration, is something a lot of D&D adventures of the past decade have lacked. It seems to be making a resurgence, though; Tomb of Annihilation had an excellent hex-crawl through the jungles of Chult, Princes of the Apocalypse had a dodgy but salvageable hex-crawl around the Dessarin Valley, and Storm King’s Thunder had an infamous exploration section that threw the party into a massive sandbox of the entire freakin’ North.
It’s why I was surprised to learn that in his video titled “Making Travel Interesting,” Matt outright states that he thinks “trying to make travel interesting [in D&D] is largely a red herring. It’s this thing that distracts us from what we’re trying to do” (7:53).
Well, sort of. My surprise at hearing that blunt statement was immense, and I’ve taken it a little out of context here so you feel the same shock I did. If you were to continue watching—like I did, after taking a few minutes to walk around and reevaluate my DMing choices—you would hear Matt go on to say, “It’s our responsibility as Dungeon Masters so unless you think that traveling through the wilderness is going to advance the plot [emphasis added], I’m giving you permission to just skip it [and] narrate it in a way that makes it sound real” (8:25).
There’s his real thesis. If an element of your game doesn’t advance the plot, skip it.
Well… hold on, I disagree with that, too. Not everything in a story is in service to the plot, let alone a game. Games of D&D are more about just the plot, they’re about character interactions, out-of-character jokes, engaging gameplay, and—this is what Matt is really challenging us to consider the value of in his video—the verisimilitude of the game world! The challenge of making wilderness travel interesting as a Dungeon Master is, in both his experience and mine, finding ways to give your players meaningful choice in how they travel.
Giving Players Choice
Games like D&D are all about giving the players the chance to chart their own destiny. It’s part of the game’s power fantasy; we often feel powerless to meaningfully change the course of our own real lives, so being afforded the chance to do so in a fantasy world is titillating and empowering. In combat, players have the choice of how to defeat an enemy, which spells to use, how to line up an attack. While exploring a dungeon, players ideally have choices to make in how they progress through the complex and how they overcome its obstacles. And roleplaying scenarios are the most freeform and choice-driven of all, where the course of entire stories can be changed based on the strength of a player’s roleplaying—and the DM’s ability to think on the fly.
But early D&D had another element of choice that the rise of roleplaying-focused games seems to have overshadowed. Navigation. When the game of Dungeons & Dragons was simply about getting from the town to the dungeon, clearing the dungeon of loot and getting back to town again, navigating and surviving the wilderness was a crucial part of the game. Because of this, players needed to make choices on how they would navigate the wilderness; which route they would take to get to the dungeon, juggling decisions like if they could afford to take the long way around to avoid monsters at the cost of their rations, or if dangerous terrain posed more of a threat than random encounters.
When D&D was young, when its core rulebooks were softcover paper pamphlets created by Gary Gygax and distributed personally at Gen Con in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, wilderness exploration required players to buy a completely different game and hack it into their D&D game. That other game was Outdoor Survival by Avalon Hill (which Wizards of the Coast owns these days, by the way), and it came ready-made with an expansive hex-map. Some gamers made their own unique hex-maps for D&D, others used the one in the Outdoor Survival box. Look at this map and choose any two points to represent the town you start in and the dungeon you travel to… and then make a return journey from, laden with burdensome treasure.
What choices would you make? Go around the mountains to save time, but risk going through the lizardman-infested swamp? Or follow the river to avoid getting lost, but risk an ambush from stone giants lurking between the mountain crags?
Game board of Outdoor Survival by Avalon Hill. Image Source: KidzArea
From Point A to Point B
There are two kinds of navigation while out in the wilderness: macronavigation and micronavigation, to coin a few words. Macronavigation is the act of navigating the campaign world on a large scale; or what Matt Colville calls “getting from point A to point B,” and it’s what old-school gamers did when they hacked Outdoor Survival into their D&D games. This style of navigation is fairly well-explored in D&D, even in the modern fifth edition books. We may not have many adventures focused around hauling treasure back to town across hostile terrain anymore, but it’s still important to know how the characters get from adventure to adventure.
The tricky part of this is, as we now know, finding a way to make travel engaging. Sometimes just narrating a travel montage and skipping travel all together really is the best way to go, especially if you’re pressed for time and you just want to get to more dungeon exploring. But let’s set that aside for now. The way to make exploring the wilderness fun is the same as making any other part of D&D fun: give the players agency. That is, players have fun when they feel their choices have a meaningful impact on the world around them or the story they’re a part of.
Choose the Path
Also known as the “Outdoor Survival” method, allowing your players to choose a path lets them weigh their options and choose which route from point A to point B will work out the best for them. This method is sort of like a heist movie, because the planning is the real point of this style of exploration. The bulk of the fun is setting up the dominoes and trying to guess where everything will fall apart—and then sitting back and watching things start to fall apart as the actual exploration takes place.
Once the planning phase is done, you have a couple of choices. You could either play out the exploration, with the characters moving hex-by-hex and rolling for random encounters which you then play out tactically, or you could merge this heist-style setup with the travel montage cutscene we talked about earlier. This is a sleek combination of the two styles that highlights the strongest points of each: the best part of the choose-the-path style is the planning, and the best part of the travel montage is the DM’s tight narrative control and vivid descriptions.
The challenges you may face using this style are all related to how well-prepared you are. If you don’t have a detailed map of your campaign setting with different routes the players can choose from, then you’re sunk. Even if you do have a detailed map, you need to know enough about the setting to drop hints and rumors from NPCs as the characters search for information on the dangers of each route, or else the players can’t make informed decisions—and once again, player agency is all about making purposeful decisions based on information or character, not just choosing randomly.
Develop the Path
Jump to 9:44 in the Matt Colville video at the top of this article for his analysis of his preferred method of making travel interesting: skill challenges, a type of mechanic from fourth edition D&D that he has ported over to the modern game. I actually have played through a number of travel montage skill challenges in a campaign my partner Hannah ran during the D&D Next playtest, and they can be lots of fun!
Skill challenges come in many shapes and forms, and the ones you deploy as a Dungeon Master will be different than most. The simplest explanation of a skill challenge is: the characters want to accomplish a goal, but it requires their teamwork to achieve it. They need to use their ability scores and skill proficiencies to succeed on ability checks against a DC you set, based on how hard the challenge is. The group needs make a certain number of successful checks (let’s say 5) in total before they fail a certain number of checks (let’s say 3). Initiative is rolled like in combat, but rounds in a skill challenge could take seconds, minutes, hours, or—in the case of a navigational skill challenge—days. Each character takes their turn to make an ability check using a skill they’re proficient in. It could be as simple as that, but fun skill challenges require the players to narrate how they’re using the skill; the ranger could make a Wisdom (Animal Handling) and describe soothing the party’s horses during a thunderstorm on his turn, while the rogue could make a Charisma (Deception) check and describe throwing her voice to cause a horde of orcs to start infighting instead of hunting tasty humans.
The point of these skill challenges is to develop character traits. Even though there’s only one way to get from point A to point B—that is, to succeed on 5 checks before amassing 3 failures—the description and roleplay that this challenge requires the characters to perform helps to develops the path they followed and the journey they embarked on. This gets the players more engaged in the stories of their characters and in the process of communally creating a story, as opposed to making the DM the sole storyteller as you monologue at them about how rainy and cold the journey was, and how soaked they all were by the time they reached the dungeon.
Follow the Path
I hate this method… or at least, I used to. Setting up a single linear path for the players to follow and throwing a predetermined series of monster encounters at them is the textbook definition of railroading. Even if you roll randomly, random encounters while traveling are usually trivial affairs that have no bearing on the main plot and, unless your players are extroverted roleplayers, rarely reveal salacious character details. I may be changing my tune on this one, though. Done well, a chain of predetermined encounters can tell a powerful environmental story, completely separate from the plot of the adventure. We’ll come back to this next week when we look at micronavigation—the art of navigating between different regions within the same wilderness encounter area.
A Dungeon Master’s Resources
Whether you’re fully fleshing out a wide swathe of detailed terrain for your players to navigate and interrogate, or simply creating a simple map for skill challenge-based travel, you’re going to need resources. Dungeon Masters seeking official aid for running a large-scale navigation adventure like the journeys in Tomb of Annihilation and Storm King’s Thunder, should first look at the “Wilderness” section of Chapter 5: Adventure Environments in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to help generate ideas for adventures and interesting events that could occur while the characters are traveling. You should also look at the “Movement” section of Chapter 8: Adventuring in the Player’s Handbook, particularly the Travel Pace and Activity While Traveling subsections.
These selections from the core rules can help you create a campaign setting designed to facilitate exciting wilderness travel. There are lots of random tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide that can add a different flavor to an established campaign world, or help you develop your own underdeveloped setting. D&D Designer Mike Mearls has also been crafting a gazetteer of the Nentir Vale campaign setting for his own personal game, and his two-page regional spread is an excellent template for anyone planning on including overland travel in their D&D games. It’s particularly suited towards creating travel montage or stocking free-roaming hex-crawls, but its format is flexible enough to suit any gamer. I can’t recommend stealing this format highly enough. I’ve already swiped it for my next campaign!
Next week, I'll be taking the same question of player agency in navigation and zooming in to the tactical level with an examination of micronavigation. How can DMs provide interesting player choices even in linear, combat-based exploration?
Have you ever included wilderness exploration in your D&D game? What’s your favorite story of a wilderness adventure gone wrong?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and two living skill challenges, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.