The idea to do a semi-regular column/list on my blog dedicated to some basic ways to enhance an aspect of your GMing experience met with a pretty good response at Gen Con this year. So, without further ado, here's our first attempt at that: The Quick 6. Six simple, straightforward ways in list form about upgrading part of your RPG campaign.
Today's Quick 6: Making Your Wilderness Wild. Many games I've been in have completely lost any sense of challenge that might come from characters tramping through hostile, unknown territory. All, too often, long journeys in the spaces between civilization become minor nuisances at best, pleasant camping trips outside at worst. Your travels into the accursed, barbarian-filled Kargon Grasslands isn't a nature walk. It involves hardship, deprivation, and almost constant risk of physical harm. Don't let your players traipse through mountain ranges or automatically cut between urban scenes--consider playing out some of that journey as a true, true challenge.
Next time you've got your players out in the boonies and away from town and village, keep these items in mind to make the wilderness a true challenge.
1) Where the Hell Are We? It's wilderness for a reason. Maps of areas should be sketchy and inaccurate, if they exist at all. Getting lost should be a very real possibility. "Here there be dragons" is perfectly acceptable for filler on blank spots that few mortals have seen...or lived to tell about. This also makes each discovery, each encounter on the way seem that much more significant. Its nice to be the first to do something, like say live through a journey to some horrid destination.
2) My Feet Hurt. Screw rings of power and dwarven talismans. After 4 weeks in harsh mountain terrain, you'll be praying for a new set of boots. As terrain and weather attack clothing, be sure to report on the degradation of those items. If its a lengthy enough trip, your characters won't be rushing into the next town to buy potions of healing or magic weapons, they'll go right to the cobbler to get something to replace the bloody rags they've had to wear on their feet the last 2 weeks of the journey.
3) Whither the Weather? Cold. Rain. Snow. Heat. Mud. You don't just camp at night, you have to find a place by the river you've been following that a) isn't a muddy swamp of a site, b) isn't infested with millions of mosquitoes, and c) affords some protection from the driving, freezing rain. Elements affect people and equipment alike. Food and spell elements spoil. Metal rusts. Nimble boots become muddy behemoths of collected soil and plant matter that slow you down. In the mountains or desert, you might bake at night and freeze during the day. Wind might destroy your shelter. Snow brings frostbite and hypothermia, heat brings heatstroke. Jungles bring poisonous plants and exotic disease. With the elements doing their worst, a good resting place shouldn't be around every corner, and it should be a treat for the traveling party.
4) Camp. Let me guess. A nice quiet night of 3-4 "watches", punctuated by the odd wandering monster? Everyone settle right back down? Hey--unless you've brought a fair amount of stuff, that ground is rocky, sleep can be hard to come by, and in a hostile place, every whispering leaf turns into a wight just beyond the dancing light of your campfire. Or did you have to go without a fire, worried about the bands of trolls you know claim this territory. Pity, cold as it is. And if you did bring enough stuff to spend the night in comfort, you still have to lug it around. We don't all have Leomud's Tiny Hut, you know.
5) Terrain Reigns. There's no easy mountain path. You fall and cut yourself on jagged rocks a half-dozens times that morning. Your well-tailored tunic is slashed in 7 different places, stained with blood, and that's just from this morning's hike. Its still better than that time in the Great Elemental Desert. It seemed like no matter how hard you tried, you kept sliding back down in a cloud of sand the threw grit in your mouth, nose, eyes, and apparently lungs. You thought the plains would be easy, until your horse broke his leg on a hole hidden in the long grasses. Make the players work to overcome the terrain--give them a chance to prepare for it. If they leave right from their masquerade ball into backcountry, they need to realize every terrain has proper accessories to help overcome it.
6) Supply & Demand. Sort of goes with #2. OK, so we all hate tracking rations and crap. But its not just food you can run out of on the trail. Water can be scarce or undrinkable. Your rope can be left or lost on one mountain cliff, making the next one all the more terrible. If your waterskin is damaged, that can spell disaster. Knapsacks torn, armor and warm clothes rent, basic supplies lost--these can turn a wilderness journey into a race and war of attrition very quickly.
Its true that magic can overcome many of these issues at least in part, but when you throw all the elements together, your players not only remember why there aren't a lot of folks wanting to brave the wilds, they'll realize there are elements that sword and sorcery alone cannot defeat. A sand-blinded swordsman, a delirious mage suffering from pneumonia in a unrelenting hailstorm, a rogue hampered by near-impossible terrain--these are the challenges of wilderness travel.
Above all, these aren't ways to just screw with your players (though no one's arguing that isn't fun at times, especially if they're cocky). They're ways to give them a sense of achievement, of perspective, of true distance, and of mighty accomplishment. Make every aspect of their heroic journey a tale to be told!