Hey Game Fans, we’re back with a bit of an editorial on a gaming topic that we find personally enjoyable. From the earliest days of playing the game (back in the 80s for us, some of you may go back a little further, some of you got a bit of a later start), one of the things that i really enjoyed was gathering my supplies and traipsing off into the wilderness. We may have had a destination in mind, like an adventure site, or not. Really at the time i didn’t matter to me. One of the most interesting ideas i found as a kid playing games like this was the ability to pick a direction and go, and not necessarily having the foggiest idea of what was along the way, and where we’d end up. The journey was the aspect that i found fascinating.
In older editions of Dungeons and Dragons (and some other systems i played back in the day), it was relatively easy to get lost. Without a ranger, or someone who had survival skills, you didn’t typically wander away from the roads without a map, magic, or a guide. Adventuring out into the world was a potentially scary thing where you could run into anything. The potentials were endless. Marauding orcs, hidden villages of humanoids, ancient burial mounds, and a host of other neat things to interact with were very common in this era of adventure. Even if you didn’t have a destination in mind, as long as you had the supplies, you could find yourself in a world full of adventure.
Somewhere along the way and with changes in rules, we sort of lost track of this idea. The maps got more filled in, and the unexplored edges of the map got pushed further back. It become very hard to find places that hadn’t been explored by someone. There has also been a change in the way we interact with the game,and somewhere we made the destination the focus of the game. There isn’t anything wrong with this, as the destination usually has an adventure of its own to interact with and that usually means monsters to bash and loot to take. However, the emphasis on this point has taken away some of the charm of wandering around the woods/region and “looking for trouble.”
So, how do we design content for this sort of rambling adventure? Well that’s a tricky question that has a couple of parts to it. The first thing to consider is whether or not the environment you’re wanting to go exploring is explorable. Some places in some environments don’t do well for this. Exploring the Sword Coast region of the Forgotten Realms would be hard with the emphasis that it’s received this edition, for example. There are other areas of the Forgotten Realms to go wandering through, and being able to add elements to these areas is a key for being able to go on a ramble. For a good look at expanding an area for this kind of gaming, check out the region chapters in Princes of the Apocalypse and Storm King’s Thunder. They give you excellent local maps of the area, points of interest and even some rumors to get your rambling started.
The second thing to consider is accessibility. If this area is close to major towns and cities, why hasn’t it been explored? What barriers are preventing the entry of civilization into these regions and what forces are at work that keep the status quo? Exotic environments like undersea cities or subterranean vaults present their own interesting barriers to most folks. Even more interesting are magical effects that either prevent entry or redirect travelers around the warded area. You can get very clever with how you build these environments, and then you can have a lot of fun putting things in along the way.
One of the neat things that i find in the “Ramble” is that while i don’t necessarily know if there’s a destination in mind, I know that the GM can come up with a bajillion different random crazy things to trip over. “Rambling” also gives the opportunity for the GM to spring surprise encounters/adventures/story arcs on unsuspecting/unprepared characters. This sort of spurs the characters from a “Ramble” to a more situation based adventure, but the trip getting there is at least half of the fun, and the characters (and their players) have several clues/hooks/points of interest to dig into and follow.
These Ramble based adventures get even more interesting if you can’t easily extricate yourself from the environment you find yourself in. Imagine being a party of explorers who are moving through the mountains and find yourself in an ancient valley full of exotic flora, fauna, and inhabitants. The passes collapse behind you, and you’re trapped in that valley until you can figure a way out. What’s started as Ramble turns into a quest for survival, experience, (maybe treasure) and one hell of a story to tell when you get back to the rest of the world.
The thrill of the adventure for me has always been not knowing exactly where i’m going and what i’m doing. One of the best illusions i’ve had a Game Master pull on me was a time when i went off on one of these “Rambles” and it dovetailed directly into the adventure he was planning. My fun bridged into the rest of everyone else’s fun and fun was had by all. I’ve got a couple examples of places you could “Ramble” into, and some of the best of these are things that don’t look like they are supposed to be where they are found.
Example 1: The Lost City
The characters are heading towards a specific destination that none of them have ever been to. Along the way they find odd cobblestone paths that criss cross the area they are exploring/moving through. None of these are on the maps they have of the area, and they have the choice to follow the cobblestone pathways towards their origin. If the characters choose to explore along these paths, they find signs and books written in an ancient language, coins of unknown origin, and odder things. Meals are sitting warm at kitchen table and fires are freshly lit with full logs in their hearths.
Should the characters choose to follow these roads deeper in, they eventually find an entire city hidden in the trees. The city shares features and a culture with the smaller locales they’ve found along the way, and the city seems ominously abandoned during the day.
Example 2: Where Does This Go?
The characters are off on a journey from point a to point b and a mysterious road/trail/fork cross their path. Where does it go? What’s waiting at the other end? (This one i have a lot more affection for, because the mystery of it is the part i enjoy a lot).
Now, if you’re a player in a game that suddenly has one of the “Rambles” show up in it, you’ve got some interesting opportunities to see where the GM is going to take you. You can see interesting parts of the world, find new monsters, take their treasure and have some stories to tell. If you’re more of a linearly focused player, this can be a maddening experience since the rest of your part has wandered off the story. That’s okay in a game like Dungeons and Dragons (or really any RPG). The game universe is willing to work around deviations in the plot and you can usually take a side quest without dooming the world.
So, step out your door, take the road until it stops, and keep going. Adventure will find you when you least expect it, and you can have a grand time with stories to tell, if you survive. Game On, Game Fans.