[RPG] How to make engaging Man vs Wild encounters that aren’t excercises in rolling dice


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"

Best Answer

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.