Wilderness Survival in Dungeons and Dragons

Hello! Jonathan here, with Sojourner’s Awake with Inspirations for Your Storytelling Games. Today I will be talking about how to use the Exploration Pillar for Dungeons and Dragons as well as ideas for wilderness survival. 

Exploration Pillar is one of the three pillars of storytelling described in the Dungeon Master Guide. I would like to talk about how to use this pillar in your stories.

Wilderness Survival and Travel can be an exciting part of the game and intrigue players who like challenges.

I recently went camping with my family, we set up a tent, cooked outside and enjoyed outdoor activities such as hiking and swimming. I love including gritty and harrowing experiences in my stories and thought I would share some of those suggestions.

One note before beginning, I enjoy playing the game because I love telling stories. I use the things I cannot control, dice and choices the players make, to further the narrative I have written up. This is like using the raw energy the players bring to the table to power the story. 

Senses count!

Use all the Senses. In our body, we enjoy sight sound smell taste touch balance temperature equilibrium, intuition and proprioception. There are so many to choose from besides the basic 5. Please note that if a player asks a question about the environment, that does not necessarily warrant a perception check, but simply increased description. I think perception checks should be used if it is indeed difficult to perceive, such as reading lips, peering through fog or tasting wine for poison.

Allow for Player Input. If you are like me, when I tell stories, I use 2 or 3 details to describe a scene. It would simply take too much of my brainwidth to describe the entire world, so I leave gaps for the players to use their imaginations and fill in with wonderful thoughts. You can use dice to randomly determine what senses they perceive or if the sense is perceived as advantageous or antagonistic. This method helps with building the story upon each other’s narrative, fosters teamwork and exercises the storytelling muscles from the players!

2 Questions and an Action

I have started using this method in my sessions and found it to be a great way to build upon the exploration pillar. The recipe is simple. After the story teller describes the scene, whether it be a riddle, puzzle, trap or monster, the players then ask the dungeon master 2 questions. After going around the table and building up this scene, the players then takes turns to describe their actions to resolve the scenerio. In this way, the players exercise storytelling muscles to help describe the scene.

This works particularly well for puzzles and riddles. Also, this promotes a culture of active listening. In improvisational comedy and in our everyday conversation, using the “Yes And” method means to take as reality what the other says and build upon it. This momentum can be exhilarating in storytelling and role playing games and personally, I think this is the secret ingredient to making a great experience around the table. During this time of storytelling, use the player’s energy to strengthen the narrative you are telling.

Contribution Challenge

Rather than using skill challenges, I like to think of them as players contributing to resolving challenges. Here are some thoughts for you to consider as you build these conflicts in your stories.

  1. How are you contributing to the challenge?
  2. High dice rolls mean success, because I want them to succeed for the story’s sake.
  3. But good stories have conflict so low dice rolls mean success at a cost, and ramifications for success at a cost include exhaustion, hit die lost, conditions, loss of resources, illness and injury.
  4. The purpose of these contribution challenges are to build teamwork and promote active listening, along with furthering your narrative.

A note on hazards. If you are telling a gritty story or perhaps trying a few sessions of harrowing wilderness survival, consider preventing the benefits of a long rest until the journey is complete. Consider preventing the conditions or loss of hit points unable to be solved using spell casting. This particular disease or condition can only be cured with 3 days convalescence. This can make wilderness seem all the more intense and hostile, leading the players to yearn for relief. Don’t do this just for the sake of trouble, again, good stories have conflict, but that conflict should be solvable or player’s feel their actions mean nothing. With a player down for the count with an injury, I have seen the table come together to solve this problem with more intensity than they have for the main plot. 

Combat in the Wild

  1. Does not have to be turn based! Not every combat scenario has to roll initiative, especially when the threat doesn’t mean anything for the larger story.
  2. You can rather, use the contribution challenge to resolve the encounter. Go around the table and ask how each player wants to act in order to fulfill the mission. Let them ask good questions and then together, build the win.
  3. Consider using the monsters AC as the difficulty for the challenge and reward the players with loot and success for high rolls and damage and success for low rolls. Reduce spell slots, hit dice, or give conditions to express the pain of conflict.
  4. Unless the story begs for a tragic moment in the wild, don’t allow the players to die at the hand of a hungry predator. However, a string of low rolls could mean the player is unconscious for days and must be attended or brought to the local tribal shaman for healing. Let the story continue from there.
  5. This methods allows for exciting combat without taking as much time as rolling initiative. Use this when combat encounters occur but are not necessarily related to the plot.

Resource Management

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Wilderland travel can span over weeks in game, but seconds out of the game. To extend the narration of this story, keep track of the travel time as the players move through the wild. One day 1-4, have the players roll a survival check to determine how well they managed their resources. On a low roll, maybe they still proceed through the travel, but experience dehydration, hunger, spoilage of food or a jungle vermin steals their supplies. And then let the players take over by asking good questions and banding together to resolve the challenge. On day 5-8, have them roll a constitution save to determine if anyone comes down with a sickness. Then, the story continues as the players then have to resolve the challenge with narrative ideas. Note that these challenges don’t necessarily mean casting of spells, but presents an opportunity to describe the legends and lore in your world. Invent cures, and allow the players to discover the environment. My players have come up with bloodflower, underberries and bloated frogs as a means to cure conditions and diseases.

In this way, you can narrate wilderness survival and travel without playing hour by hour and experience the changing of seasons and time in your world. 

A good sojourner asks great questions!

A good storyteller begins by listening!

And so our story continues as we share the stories around the table.

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