How do you do wilderness adventures?

One thing I’ve always struggled with is wilderness adventures.

Not sandboxes. That I can do in my sleep. Preset encounters sprinkled across a wilderness, with clues stretching from one place to another to point the PCs in the right direction. Let the PCs wander about and tug on the plot-threads that they will.

I’m talking about an actual adventure set in a wilderness, analogous to a dungeon adventure. Somehow, when I have the PCs in a wilderness, I can’t get out of sandbox mode, and subtly encourage them to go off in whatever direction suits their fancy. Even if I have something in mind that I would like them to do.

So tell me. How do you do non-sandbox wilderness adventures? What’s your carrot and your stick for keeping the PCs pointed in the right direction, rather than scampering off towards the nearest hillock looking for a barrow?

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

17 thoughts on “How do you do wilderness adventures?

  1. This has been hard for me as well.

    One common thread in real-life exploration is the native guide. Assuming the PCs aren't terribly familiar with the area, a guide can help the DM keep the PCs on track.

  2. This has been hard for me as well.

    One common thread in real-life exploration is the native guide. Assuming the PCs aren't terribly familiar with the area, a guide can help the DM keep the PCs on track.

  3. I've been toying with something like that for a game I've been doing and so far it's tested well with the group. Essentially, you've got to be very hard with food and encumbrance, enough so that a party will understand the value of a pack mule and eating more than just trail rations. Diminishing morale returns occur when you're eating too much trail mix, while a bonus occurs when you finally kill that wild boar and cook it up nice.

    The party has to split into roles; a scout, a lookout, a navigator, a hunter; things like that. Each get their own rolls when it comes time to make camp and one of the most important choices is where to make camp within a single hex. I have the navigator or scout roll and they get a larger selection of choices depending on how well they did or a small selection if they are tired, hungry and not thinking straight.

    Proper planning on an expedition keeps the party headed off to their destination without too much wandering; while poor planning allows for more hex-crawl exploration and greater chance of returning to civilization half-dead and sick. Asking around town also helps get them knowledge on what to expect when they head off to hexes they've never seen, which then allows for them to have the proper gear to face such things.

    The carrot and stick is in this replaced with the danger of the elements and the fear of another day stuck outdoors eating nuts and wishing you could find an elk. It makes getting to the end destination much nicer if you treat it like the bottom of a dungeon with the wilds being terrible miles of floors. It also gives a greater want for the players (if lawful/civilization types) to want to settle the wilds and make travel safer and easier.

    I guess point them in the right direction and make sure they realize that hunting isn't just a "survival" roll, and that just because you have a ranger doesn't mean you can't get lost. They should be just as paranoid in the woods as they should be in the crypt of some ancient demon king.

  4. Well.. The best way I have found is to leave kind of obvious clues.. Or simply railroad them into it.. No matter what direction they go, they find the cabin, den or whatever they need to find to begin the real adventure. It's probably not the best way to do it.. But its the easiest. Plus they usually are non the wiser thinking they just stumbled upon it.

  5. Guides are good.

    Outdoor survival narratives are great. Meeting people never before contacted is a classic encounter in outdoor treks. Dangerous terrain and weather are big things too, but with the standard powers of an adventuring party, that might not be powerful enough, so supernatural origins/effects for climate and terrain.

  6. I think a wilderness adventure is not that much different from a sandbox. The DM has to find ways to provide hints and nudge PCs in the proper direction. Here’s some ideas:

    – Give the PCs a hook. For example, they’re hired to find the magic warhammer that was lost in the forest many years ago. Even if the forest is more-or-less sandbox, the players will approach it differently because they have a purpose.

    – Trails and paths through the wilderness can guide PCs to areas you want them to visit. So can landmarks that can be seen from a distance. If the PCs spot a monolith sticking out above the trees, they’ll want to investigate it.

    – Breaking up the terrain with other terrain types will certainly focus the PC’s attention. They will search a clearing in a forest or an oasis in the desert.

    – As always, ghosts, genies, and other spirits can provide exposition about the “story”.

  7. Like Wayne said, a guide, native or not, can work well. Treasure maps to fabled lost cities or journals of explorers can work well, too.

    Isle of Dread was always my guide for wilderness adventures. There's just enough information that the PCs can follow up on if they want, but enough sandbox encounters that have nothing to do with the map/legend hook if they want to go off the rails.

  8. Tracking is a good thread to run through it, but mostly you can run it like your sandbox, just tune the encounters to match the storyline. Sprinkle the map with clues to the overall plot, have some of the encounters reference key figures in the plot, etc.

  9. For wilderness adventures I find the setup and start are extremely important. The players need to know why they are together, why they are going into the wilderness and what they are after/trying to do.
    — Players can help with the "why we are together" question by putting a little effort into their characters' backgrounds and linking themselves together. If they are either not interested in doing so or can't come up with something then you can tie it into the "why are they going in the wilderness" and the "what are they going after" questions.
    — For the last two questions they need to have a clear action and goal in mind for the start. Using the basic dungeon as an example, they are exploring [action] the dungeon to find treasure [goal]. For the wilderness it could be explore [action] the wilderness to find the lost caravan [goal]. That gives them a clear what and why.
    Obviously, the adventure can be more complicated than that and nothing says that the initial premise for going into the wilderness is the main point of the adventure. Finding the lost caravan could lead them to discover that one of the dukes is about to start a rebellion with the help of dark elves.
    Once I have those three questions answered, like Jasper Polane recommended, I'll use terrain, landmarks, and events in the wilderness to direct the characters. Rivers, ridges, mountains and dense forests make natural boundaries that players need to find a way over, through, under, or around.
    — A ravine blocked with rocks forces the PCs to find another way around
    — A road blocked by fallen trees forces them to stop until it is cleared
    — A spire off in the distance or lights in the dark pique their interest
    — Heavy rains and flooding cause a mudslide that reveals ancient ruins
    — Dry weather/drought means the river is lower allowing for the PCs to ford the river in places they couldn't before
    — Perhaps the players find a freshly cut path through the woods heading off in a direction believed to be empty of towns/people

    Also, I tend to give them some idea of what is out in the wilderness. A town surrounded by the unknown doesn't allow for much choice beyond, "we go that way". But if they know the swamp up north has a tribe of lizardmen living in it and the eastern parts of the old forest are invested with giant spiders the choices get meaningful.
    — Do they try to sneak through the swamp to get to their goal on the other side instead of taking days to go around the swamp?
    — Do they try to out race the orc army and risk getting back to the town with little time to prepare their defenses or take a shortcut by cutting their way through the spider infested forest?
    — Maybe they know of some fairy circles that will allow them to travel through the fairy realm if they can find a way to appease the fairies or earn favor with the fairy queen.

    These things provide options, ideas, and choices for the PCs.

  10. Just think of The Lord of the Rings. Their goal is to get to Mordor and destroy the ring. How they get there are major decision points early in the book and terrain (how do they cross the Misty Mountains), enemy locations (how to bypass Saruman), and how to get to allies factor into much of what happens in the book.
    Make note of what you want to be an obstacle versus a barrier. Obstacles are for slowing them down or for forcing minor deviations (like the 10' pit or chasm in a dungeon) while barriers are meant to redirect them. This gives you in advance an idea of how to describe things and what to be prepared for.
    Lastly, I would read The Alexandrian's Three Clue Rule ( and Node-Based Design ( as they are extremely helpful. Give them multiple clues and information and avoid intentional red herrings at all costs. Players will create enough of their own red herrings without the DM making it harder.

  11. Rivers, roads, and paths as Roger said earlier are a way to keep things organized for more straight forward adventure development beyond the hexcrawl-stumble.

    River travel and trade routes are underexploited in a lot of RPG game play but in the real-world a lot of epic journeys depend on rivers or established trade routes. Rivers serve as barriers, signposts, and travel routes at the same time.
    Trade routes can be dealt with as rivers of people.

  12. Heya,

    This is a problem I've always struggled with as well. A lot of the rules meant for a dungeon adventure breakdown in the vastness of the surface world. What was once functional becomes a mist that evaporates as soon as you touch it.

    For me, railroading is not an option- even if it is the easiest. Sandboxing is also easy, but like you said, not what you're wanting. I think some of the responses here are helpful, though.

  13. Interesting topic. I have had some troubles with wilderness myself. Just like space it's so wide and featureless that my adventures have no structure at all.

    Now, it is of course not featureless, and some comments here have highlighted that. I think at least for me, that is the key. There is a structure to the wilderness, and there are barriers and "funnels", just like a dungeon.

    This makes me wonder if the same can be said of space adventures, where I usually flounder as well.

  14. Here's one I used a couple times: A severe storm can drive them into that eerie tower, they take it seriously when the lightning strikes a tree nearby. If the heavily armored fighter doesn't take the hint, any NPC along can comment on how glad he is that the fighter is there as a proper lightning rod and all.

    At a greater remove, there are always ghosts, dreams, remote magical messages from another MU to the party MU or holy visions for the cleric when doing morning prayers, fey forest pools or wells that give hinting visions, bards or tinkers met along the way passing news, columns of smoke rising in the distance, mass armies or herds of big scary monsters seen off in one direction from a hilltop to herd them off in another, talking magic swords dropping hints, familiars or animal companions doing the Lassie schtick to point out the little child that has fallen down the well, which turns out to be an entrance….

  15. I'm new to the game, but I just see the whole world as a giant dungeon. I have a basic outline, with some sketched encounter areas in a given area, a few set encounters (including natural ones), and perhaps a goal or two (rumors of buried treasure and all). I then sit back and watch to see where they choose to go and more or less wing it.

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