The locations where encounters occur are as important as the encounters themselves. Wilderness encounters present memorable moments for the Adventurers, as much as the sites of the adventures themselves.
Hans Christian Andersen's fable The Snow Queen was as much about the tests facing the hero, Gerda, as it was about the main action - the rescue of her beloved, Kay, from the clutches of the cold Snow Queen of the children's fable. Gerda's wilderness encounters were all obstacles and temptations facing her in her path, aimed at deterring her from her rescue mission.
Wilderness travel can be a far more interesting challenge for the Players and Games Master than a set of random combat encounters. Encounters can be about perils, strangeness, dramas, and journeys of discovery - including self-discovery.
Most of all, they can be about tests of courage, of stamina, of cool, and of resolve.
Anywhere can be the site of an encounter. Cities, the road out to one of the outlying towns or villages, and the lands beyond. Beyond the tiny settlements, the outlying villas and holdings, past the coppicers and straggling hunters, the true wilderness begins at the point where the signs of human activity such as cultivation run out, and the truly untamed land begins.
There are many kinds of lands where encounters can occur.
Rural: The outlying cultivated spaces. The breadbasket of the city.
River: The surging waters of the young river near its source, the slow flowing majesty of the mature river, and the marshy, quicksand-strewn littoral realms of deltas, swamps, bogs and fens.
Plains: Wide open, empty spaces, flood plains and open steppes, tundras and savannahs.
Hills and Mountains: The only difference is height. Elevated realms overlooking the flat lands below, and the valleys in between.
Woodlands, Deep Forests, Jungles: Fertile lands where life flourishes, and where the oldest inhabitants were already full-grown before the first humans ever set foot in the area.
Extreme Environments: Deserts, frozen wastes. The coldest and the hottest locations in the world, testing the living equally harshly.
Seas and Oceans: The primal emptiness and unfathomable depths.
Much of the events of travel tend to be encounters - which do not automatically mean slavering monsters and wild beasts looking for a fight to the death. Encounters can be about meeting people - lost wanderers, pilgrims, traders, nomads, patrols, and so on. Encounters with people can be as much about sharing the camp fire and food, swapping stories, singing songs and music, and forging friendships and alliances.
Encounters can become recurring encounters. Travellers once met on the road can turn up under other circumstances. Lasting friendships, or conversely simmering enmity, can lead to dramas and complications later on down the line in the Adventurers' campaign.
The land itself can bedevil the Adventurers' footsteps. Exposure, starvation, thirst, extremes of heat and cold, diseases, and terrain hazards can threaten the Adventurers, or at least can slow them down long enough to overcome the challenges faced by the terrain or the elements.
The road to the destination might not be entirely smooth. The Adventurers can face many diversions along the way. They can be abducted (rather than attacked in a battle to the death ... have you ever thought that maybe not all battles should be lethal in these games?) and hauled off to some miserable situation such as imprisonment, pressganging into service, servitude and so on. The story would revolve around their escape, and retrieval of their most precious tackle and gear, in order to return to their adventure.
Another kind of test is temptation. In the course of their journeys, the Adventurers can be met with temptations. They can meet the most beautiful people they have ever seen and be tempted to settle there rather than continue their journeys - this is a popular theme in Odyssey-style stories, where the Adventurers have been stranded on some distant shore and must find their way home. The land of the Lotus Eaters is a place where every need and desire is satiated, both subtle and gross, all but one: the need to get home.
Types of Journey
The Quest: The Adventurers must quest to some distant place to obtain some desired thing. On the way, they meet challenges and temptations, but steel their nerve and fight the evil being at the end of the journey, whose ownership of The Thing is unjust. The quest is about returning the Thing back to where it belongs. Sounds familiar.
The Pilgrimage: The Adventurers are travelling on a long journey to some place of holiness. They are either trying to be cured, healed, or forgiven of some sin which burdens them. On the way, they and their fellow pilgrims exchange stories, and thereby learn that the journey to Faith is as much a part of the salvation as the final blessing at the end.
The Initiation: The plot of The Hero's and Heroine's Journeys. The protagonist sets forth on a journey, knowing that the journey itself is transformational. On the way, they discover manifestations of their faults and flaws and, by overcoming them, develop or acquire a Great Gift by which they can heal the people once they get home.
The Hunt: A great crime has been committed. The Culprit has fled the community. The protagonists must follow, track down the miscreant, and bring them back to face justice.
The Rescue: Someone cherished by the community, or the protagonists, has gone missing in the wilderness. The characters must go forth to find them, ascertain their health or their fate, and bring them - or their body - back. If they were murdered, the story becomes a Hunt, as they track down the killer.
The Search: Not quite like the Quest story, this involves a long trek into the wilderness, encountering many of its wonders and hazards as the land shows off its beauty and its danger, until the protagonists - tested and tempted by the land itself - reach the site where a vital treasure can be found, such as a healing herb, a rare mineral, or a magical healing pool.
The Exploration: The basic hexcrawl story, where each new hex brings along a new and uinknown danger, treasure, wonder, or temptation. The Adventurers are travelling across terrain which is unknown to them, and everything is about the next surprise around the next corner.
The Odyssey: The protagonists are stranded a long way from home, and they must find their way back.
Forging The Blade
Wandering encounters as presented are just meaningless random combats. They whet no appetites, they consume the Adventurers' resources, and they could even lead to injury and death of the party members before they even reach their goal, the actual adventure.
A Games Master can take the opportunity to turn the wilderness wandering adventure into something else: a chance to forge the blade. By pitting the Adventurers against challenges designed to be solved by playing each character to their greatest strengths and forcing them to work together, the Games Master can take the wilderness adventure and turn it into an opportunity to turn a disparate bunch of Adventurers into a unified fighting unit blessed with a single purpose.
Edited by Alex Greene