Wilderness exploration is very popular in OSR games. I absolutely love it. It allows for different, unrestricted adventures that you sometimes can't do in more urban adventures thanks to that pesky law enforcement and social customs. There is also a great feeling when you discover something hidden away that no one else has found. Exploration is great fun, but we can definitely improve on it.
A Populated Wilderness
I briefly touched upon this in my alignment blog post, but I think it bears repeating here. I'm not really a fan of always evil creatures. I think it limits options that players can take when encountering these creatures. I like the idea of players parleying with goblins and trolls, but many times, that option gets tossed aside in favor of razing and looting because they are evil. It's why I ditched the classical alignment and I ditched XP for only combat.
In addition, I think sometimes as GMs, we may focus more on dangers too much. Everything wants to kill, exploit, or betray the PCs and destroy what they've accomplished, so there's really no reason to stay attached to one area or trust NPCs. A lot of times it's because conflict brings adventure, and it adds to the gritty atmosphere of a dangerous world. But we often forget that even in dark times, there are still good people that wish to help out those in need. And when things are rough, you can see people come together and heroism shine through. I think that's why it's important to have allies and friendly NPCs to contrast the bleakness of the setting.
|Zhangjiajie National Forest Park|
How does this tie into exploration? Well, in the real world, the untamed wilderness wasn't as untamed as we like to think. In North America, for example, there was hamlets scattered across the wilds and signs of a human touch everywhere. When Lewis and Clark made their rounds to explore the newly acquired land, they encountered many of these bands of travelers and villagers that would help them in their quest. Across the pond, we can look at Germany during the Roman era on, which had several tribes and homesteads amidst the wide expanse of forest. So no matter where you go, there will eventually be a group of people you can encounter.
|Cenote in Valladolid|
So, what does this mean? Well, one negative to exploration games in the wilderness is the lack of NPCs that you can encounter. Generally, you find some cool landmarks, survive the elements, and kill some monsters. And if you find a sentient creature, it's generally an orc or goblin lair that gets razed and looted. So, having an encounter of a homestead or a small camp would open up the chance for the social scenarios that you would expect in a more urban campaign. Maybe you befriend a tribe of drow with gifts, or take a test of manhood with a clan of orc raiders. They can help guide you around the land, telling of rumors and landmarks in the area.
And speaking of landmarks, special areas of interest can be great encounters for players exploring the wilderness. Discovering a large cenote with hidden treasure in it, or an ancient monument with hidden power, or anything else can be a great break from the combat slog as long as it is interesting. A beautiful cliffside could house a magic item, or some treasure, or it could be a cool spot for a player wanting to make a castle. I like to look up landscapes of places on Earth to get some creative ideas of what the players can get to. Getting some focus on the awe inspiring parts of nature can be a great contrast to the constant threat of surviving Mother Nature.
|Mount Cook, NZ|
Beyond meeting mortals and landmarks, there is also magic and spirits that the players can encounter. Spirits of nature can be a bane or boon to the player, depending how they act. Elder animals that have lived for decades and become spirit creatures can provide great scenarios for adventurers. Faeries, elementals, talking animals that have long been extinct, dinosaurs... it's a magic world, so go crazy with it! It's why I have my Wild Primeval mechanic in my hex games for. Inject some crazy into the world and see how the players like it.
Basically, there's more to exploring than just a hex map with a wandering monster table. Don't get me wrong, killing monsters is always fun, and as a player, I love overcoming tough challenges out in the world of D&D. But I think as GMs, we can get creative and think about more than what can we can throw to kill our players. Sometimes a cool adventure is as simple as discovering what's in the next hex. Also, enjoy some more pictures of landscapes and landmarks.
|Great Blue Hole, Belize|
|Old Man of the Mountain, 2003|