Travel Challenges in the Witchwood

I have been putting mental energy behind coming up with ways to make travel more fun and interactive. All the action right now takes place in a location called the Witchwood, so, you know, it’s woody. I started out doing the lame thing: You want to cross the woods you have to make Nature checks. If you fail you get lost.

This was not fun. Let me revise that. It was fun in only one way, which is that it made the elf ranger a very important person in one gaming session, because without her nobody was getting back to town. It was a way to make the PCs rely on each other more. Other than that, it’s been kind of a chore.

What I did was some basic mapping on hex paper. The main town (the biggest in the Wood) is called The Hollow. I made that take up one whole hex. I also made other special locations I had referred to in-game take up whole hexes, roughly where I thought they would be in relation to The Hollow. That left me with a few definite spots, and a whole lot of emptiness. What next?

Well, not every direction in every hex needs to be navigable. I decided to set up features in various hexes that made travel more-or-less impossible in one or more directions. Maybe the foliage is just too dense; maybe there is a nasty ravine; maybe there is a significant elevation change. I sketched these out in some places. I didn’t want to spend 30 hours filling in the entire map, though. I just did it as long as it felt fun to me (which, honestly, was kind of a while – I like maps). Plus, the scale of the map is such that each hex represents quite a lot of space. No matter how much effort I spend mapping, a lot of detail is going to have to be invented on the spot anyhow. Take the town hex, for example. Entering the hex doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in town. It’s an ancient, walled community, with gates that close at night, and the PCs had a mini-adventure outside those walls one night. They were in that hex, but none of the territory they played in was actually mapped.

To take care of this mini-detail-stuff, stuff that I would never map out, I made up some tables of “points of interest” that could come up. If there isn’t a macro-scale feature already controlling the action on the map, I will rely on the mini-scale features from the tables. In addition, I had once described the Wood to be kind of malevolent in its own right, and so the game mechanic I’m going to use for that is to let the Wood make opposed rolls against the players. Some features naturally are a series of rolls, or a situation where the PCs can keep rolling until they succeed or give up.

In addition to that, the overall malevolence of the Wood can go up or down according to (semi-) mysterious influences. One thing the PCs can always do is to go quietly. So Stealth is always a useful skill. Nature skill rolls can help get through hexes without causing disruption. Traveling this way keeps the Wood from getting riled up. Building a campfire or chopping a tree makes it madder, and it sets its will against them. Some spells calm things down; some spells are agitators. The way this works is a simple value added to the opposed rolls the Wood makes. When the Wood is calm it gets only a +5. When the Wood is very angry it gets +20. For 3rd or 4th level characters, a very-angry Wood is terribly difficult to deal with.

D20 Feature
1 Vine-ridden overgrowth
2 Berry patch
3 Thorns and briars
4 Animal call or NPC cry
5 Rocky slope
6 Stream
7 Fruit-bearing trees
8 Ravine
9 Graveyard or tomb
10 Lost caravan
11 Abandoned shack or camp
12 Fence or gate
13 Muck or swamp
14 Animal trail
15 Muddy slope
16 Wards or totems
17 Battle site
18 Swarm
19 Fallen trees
20 Cave

The way this plays is that the PCs decide which direction they’re going to go. As I said before, if I’ve already drawn a feature on the map, they’ll have to interact with that feature. Usually these are simply impassable, however (“You can’t go north, the trees are too dense”). If there’s nothing “planned,” then I can optionally trot out one of these random things. Not necessarily every time they want to move, because that would get tedious – just once in a while to add flavor and create challenges.

Suppose I roll a graveyard. The PCs stumble upon an old, moss-grown graveyard, and they know from experience that the dead are easily disturbed in the Wood. This is a Stealth challenge, or perhaps some Thievery to swipe goodies from the dead. They could perhaps use Acrobatics to leap carefully over the graves without bothering them. Whatever they imagine. Failure probably wakes something up, although I might mess with their heads by not having something wake up. Or, their disturbance might draw the attention of the Lich Queen in the Tower, or merely make the Wood angrier (“You get the sense that the forest is frowning at you”). Or maybe the graveyard is thick with traps or snares, or a mesmerizing presence that bids them sleep and dream…forever. Or – one more – maybe they come across some other grave-diggers and have a social encounter. It might be a good chance to use Bluff to make the grave-robbers think they’ve awoken something dreadful.

Anyway, it’s an easy idea-generator. I haven’t played with it much but it seems like it will be useful. No more getting lost, just having fun.

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