Re-inventing the Wilderness: Part 5 - Regions

Before we dive into wilderness regions, a brief note on the Bloggies. I was absolutely shocked and honoured to win BEST ADVICE POST OF THE YEAR and BEST BLOG POST OF THE YEAR. Read the Acceptance speech here but the key takeaway is start blogging”. I’d been following OSR blogs for several years before I started sharing my ideas. And my first ever post won best of that year!

If you start blogging now, you should be in-time to get a nomination for 2024 (and I’m the host this year)! Get on it, folks :)

In this blog series, I will dissect the spatial elements of wilderness environments and explore how tabletop-friendly prep and mechanics could be leveraged to revise exploration procedures. If you’re looking to start from the beginning, you can find Part 1 here.

The crags of the mountain were ruthless in the moon; cold, deadly, and shining. Distance had no meaning. The tangled glittering of the forest roof rolled away, but its furthermost reaches were brought suddenly nearer in a bound by the terrifying effect of proximity in the mountain that they swarmed. The mountain was neither far away nor was it close at hand. It arose starkly, enormously, across the lens of the eye. The hollow itself was a cup of light. Every blade of the grass was of consequence, and the few scattered stones held an authority that made their solid, separate marks upon the brain — each one with its own un duplicated shape: each rising brightly from the ink of its own spilling. ~Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake (1946)

A region is an identity. It’s the character sheet of the setting, marked with features and items that are both descriptive and prescriptive. They tell a story of the past and help us create new stories at the table.

Argenfell, Land of Songs. Every breeze carries with it the strains of a thousand songs. At the heart of Argenfell stands the Great Chime, a towering metal column that pierces the sky like a beacon of light. Legend has it that in the days before it was struck and from its sounds the world sprang forth. It still resonates, but those born within our age cannot hear it as its everpresent tone is all they’ve known.

Regardless of whether a region is formed by geographical borders or political lines drawn by stuffy rulers. Over time, it has formed a unique identity expressed in a few ways:

  • Terrain and Areas: This is the colour palette of the region. I recommend three and they can be complimentary (icicle-laden forests, snowy peaks, and glacial ravine) or contrasting (green fields, looming volcano, baking desert).
  • People and Factions: They bring the region to life. There are people of all kinds, with differing opinions, priorities, and composition. They form groups known as Factions” which provide unique gear, special objectives, and (biased) information.
  • Rules and Ecosystems: This is what separates the outsiders from the locals. Navigational experience is only one component of exploration in a new region, understanding the rules of nature is the rest. This ecosystem” knowledge is rarely transferable as they are unique to the encounters, terrain, weather and phenomena found only here.


Hexcrawls alternate terrain like a colourful mosaic, but in a pointcrawl we can either use terrains as path taxonomy or as subregions. I prefer the stronger identity that subregion terrain grants and the clarity makes it more gameable.

Once you have your concept for your region, define the three main areas. Give them an evocative name and a short description. This will be the blueprint by which we’ll design the local encounters and sites.

The Mists of Mordavian Marsh. Known to the locals as The Mists, this area is identified by its impenetrable fog and twisting marshlands. It is said that the fog is all that separates the marsh from the land of the dead and many spirits have been sighted here. Once, long ago it was home to the principality of Mordavia.

Repeat this two more times to complete your region’s Areas:

The Crystal Caverns. This area was carved over centuries by a fabled river undine. It is now a twisting network of tunnels containing precious teardrop jewels that melt away in sunlight. Famed for its appearance in the dwarven ballad, Eyes in the Dark”.

Zephyr Isle. This area’s sensitive desert sand emanates an eerie hum as wind, fauna and footfalls disturb it. It is said that beings of sea and sky respond strangely to the songs that whistle from this strange isle.

Don’t be shy about stepping into world-building fluff. We’re writing these descriptions first so the gameable content can follow the themes and patterns we’re setting out before.

On an actual map, these three regions resemble a sort of messy Venn Diagram, where 3 unique shapes segment the region, slightly overlap at their border. I find that running the main paths along those borders is most effective as it creates a clear division between Areas (across the tracks, other side of the river etc). Here’s the region above as a basic outline, without POIs/paths/landmarks etc.

Argenfell Region OutlineArgenfell Region Outline


Time for factions! I prefer to have five in total but their presence doesn’t need to be equal. A ruling faction may be present everywhere, some factions may even be a remote hermitage with wild designs in the region. No matter the size, though - they have a vision for the region. They want change.

For each faction, we’ll write their name, description, presence and goal.

Ashul Syndicate. A powerful consortium of miners, gem-cutters, and merchants who control the extraction and trade of the precious teardrop jewels found within the Crystal Caverns. Presence: Command vast wealth and political resources. They are known for their ruthless business practices and willingness to eliminate rivals by any means necessary. Goal: To stripmine and exploit the magical teardrop jewels for profit and influence.

Luminary Church. A religious order of scholars, sages, and historians dedicated to unravelling the mysteries of Argenfell and preserving its rich cultural heritage. Presence: Operate research facilities across the region. They are revered as guardians of knowledge and sought out by adventurers for their expertise in all matters relating to Argenfell. Goal: To uncover the tragic history of Marovia and establish a great library in the region. Also, to protect the Great Chime.

Mistwalkers. A small covenant of magic-users who have mastered the art of navigating the Mists of Mordavian Marsh. Presence: Dwell in restored Mordavian watchtowers. Their mist magic makes them logical guides, but they only use their powers for their own ends. Goal: Unlock the secrets hidden within the fog-shrouded marshlands.

Those-who-live-on. A clandestine society of outcasts, rogues, and aimless undead who dwell in the shadowy depths of the Mordavian Marsh, beyond the reach of civilised law. Presence: Operate from concealed lairs within the marshlands, where they can be employed for clandestine activities such as smuggling, espionage, and assassination. Goal: To establish a haven for those who are not accepted by society.

The Elves. A small community of masked elves (the Zephyri) that commune with spirits of wind and water. They are deeply mistrustful of outsiders. Presence: Their speedy sand-ships cut across the isle to assail any intruders who bypass their summoned storms and sea monsters. Goal: Use the land-rituals of Zephyr Isle to create an impenetrable barrier and prevent interference from the syndicate and church.

From there you can build out relationship diagrams and flesh out the NPCs/POIs related to them - but let’s not get distract too much. On to…


Play occurs in the space between rules, and to create interactivity and depth into the natural world, we need to insert some laws of nature. There are a few ways we can bring the natural world to life.

Laws of the Land

I’ve shamelessly borrowed the concept of Laws of the Land’ from this excellent post, so I highly encourage you to read more there.

Each Law’ should be specific and have three parts — a statement starting with Always or Never, which action you take, and the consequence of ignoring this law. There should also be a situation where it is important (eg. when swimming, at sunrise, during rainfall) or tie it to a specific Area:

  1. Mistwalker’s Creed (Mists of Mordavian Marsh): Never bring animals or livestock, for they will disturb the spirits that dwell within.
  2. Crystal Cave Etiquette (Crystal Caverns): Never carry light brighter than a dwindling candle, as the delicate teardrop jewels will melt away in the presence of heat and brightness.
  3. Zephyr’s Dissonance (Zephyr Isle): Always move slowly and softly to avoid disturbing the harmonious melodies that resonate through the island; otherwise you risk an unwelcome curse.

I recommend one per Area, but you could have several region-wide ones instead.

Ecological behaviour

Encounter behaviour allows us to simulate a simple food chain:

monsters → people → predators → prey (→ flora*)

This order has exceptions and complications, but roughly it follows these descriptors.

Apex Predators: Super-predators that have no predators of their own within their habitat, except ambitious adventurers (dragon, kraken, aboleth). Typically 6+ HD.

People: Humanoids that seek out fauna and/or flora. Typically 1-4 HD.

Predators: Carnivorous beings that hunt prey and attack people (owlbear, wolf, stirge). They likely have predators of their own.. Typically 3-5 HD.

Prey: Herbivorous beings that predators hunt and kill (deer, goat, unicorn). Typically 1-2 HD.

Flora: Trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, and fungi. They grant limited effects when prepared correctly. Rather than sitting on an Area’s random encounter table, they grow in specific circumstances (see Unique flora (and other resources)’ below).

The boundaries are blurred here… dragons employ more intelligence than some humanoids, such as ogres. Some plants like the assassin vine can be considered a predator. However, looking at this spectrum can help you build gameable details into your regional bestiary.

For each creature, you can consider how it avoids or protects against those higher-up the food chain… and why it hunts those below it on the food chain.

I hope to revisit this in another post - but for now, consider having doubles/triples on your 3d6 encounter roll triggering a new paired encounter that resolves simulataneously and follow the logic below:

Flora Prey Predators People Monsters
Prey - Competing if same, if not abundant Predators → Prey People → prey Monsters → prey
Predators - - Competing if different, if not abundant People → predators Monster → predators
People - - - Collaborating People Monster → people
Apex Predators - - - - Competing Monsters

Unique flora (and other resources)

A side-point regarding flora. A dungeon is a location for a handful of sessions (barring megadungeon play), but a region is the focal-point of a sandbox campaign. For this reason, creating a consistency amongst the resources across the whole region rewards long-term play significantly. I am a huge fan of DG Chapman’s Modular Ecology post, and I wanted to share how I use it.

First, identify 6 key resources (typically flora, but it could be some other natural or magical phenomena). Next identify how each is found or gathered (again, check DG Chapman’s post for great examples). And finally detail two uses for them (make sure these are gameable / toyetic”).

Then for each of those facts (Source, Use A, Use B) assign whether it’s landmark (everyone knows this), hidden (encountered during play), or secret (encountered by challenging investigation).


Salt-rice. In a coastal village devastated by a storm, the sea god Hulanti granted the people a crop that thrived in salty waters, to ensure their survival during the Sea Season.

  • Source (Landmark): Other than on coastal farms, it is found natively as a coastal weed, where sand meets grass.
  • Use A (Hidden): Used to enrich food, allowing uncooked rations to be treated as preserved rations.
  • Use B (Secret): Used as a charm against temperamental weather. A bundle kept around your neck keeps rain off you (though it can still make your pack wet).

Weather and seasons

Weather and seasons help us give unpredictable timing to our exploration. Traditionally, this comes in the form of bad storms that hinder traversal or transport. That’s already taken care of, so I’m going to flip it on it’s head. Weather and seasons can grant unique opportunities for savvy adventurers.

Consider each Area above, let’s highlight an ecological phenomena that call players to adventure at each:

Solar Eclipse (The Mists): Once in a great while, a solar eclipse occurs, causing the already gloomy marsh to plunge into darkness. During the eclipse, the boundary between the living world and the land of the dead weakens, allowing spirits to materialize more easily. Additionally, the sudden darkness can disorient creatures and alter their behavior, leading to unexpected encounters and challenges. Fancy walking the halls of sunken Mordavia?

Bioluminescent Bloom (Crystal Caverns): Following a heavy rainstorm, a rare and magical phenomenon known as a bioluminescent bloom occurs within the caverns. Fungi and mosses trailing the cave walls emit a soft, otherworldly glow, illuminating the tunnels with a faint blue light. This illumination doesn’t harm the teardrop gems and the mining operations and adventurer delves increase in zeal.

The Windchord (Zephyr Isle): Every winter, a gusty storm rises harmonising with the eerie hum of the desert sand, creating a new symphony. During this season, the Zephyri elves cannot launch their land-ships. However, the storm uncovers hidden mechanisms beneath the sand, as long-buried ruins and artifacts to emerge from the earth. Adventurers navigate the shifting sands and tempestuous winds to explore the unveiled arcology site before it’s buried again.

This is also a great way of adding new POIs to an existing area. Building on your region during the campaign is an important opportunity to have it evolve and grow. Consider also how does weather and seasons and other environmental phenomena change the context of an area and the POIs within.

What’s to come…

Sorry about the long wait on this. It’s only my 5th post and I’m still trying to find my groove (it’s been in my drafts for months). I hope you find it helpful and it prompts your own interesting ideas.

Next up, we will explore Micro Meso and Macro Landmark and their role as navigational aids in the overworld.

Further reading

I’ve seen some sneak-peeks of Cairn 2e’s sandbox and wilderness creation procedures. If you like this blog series, you should check out the highly anticipated boxed set.

May 24, 2024

Re-inventing the Wilderness: Part 4 - Borders (+Trailblazing)

In this blog series, I will dissect the spatial elements of wilderness environments and explore how tabletop-friendly prep and mechanics could be leveraged to revise exploration procedures. If you’re looking to start from the beginning, you can find Part 1 here.

He looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954)

Borders demarcate two distinct regions, signifying a transition in gameplay much like the descent to a new dungeon level indicates a shift to a different environment, often accompanied by increased challenges. In play, these boundaries play a crucial role in shaping the dynamics and progression of the gaming experience.

Building borders

In a typical pre-modern world, borders often occur at topographic shifts; such as elevation (mountains, plateaus, valleys), bodies of water (rivers, lakes, shorefronts) or biome edges (wetlands, forest, wasteland). These aesthetic and mechanically relevant changes work well in play” to make the transition between regions seen and felt in equal measure.

Rivers make great bordersRivers make great borders

Tip: Including paths along these topographic borders, such as a cliff edge or waterside route, also increases the permanence of the border and often adds engaging environmental features to any en-route combat encounters.

Barrier or seam?

Just as regions are valuable in separating the local politics and identity of different areas, the border is valuable in signaling a transition from one area to the other.

As such, there are two main types of borders:

  • Isolating barrier - where passage is either impossible or incredibly cumbersome, so the regions are divided absolutely. A barrier border is great at isolating rival nations or dramatic shifts in theme (pastoral→nautical, temperate→desert, forest-whimsy→intrigue). Barriers have minimal accessible paths between the divided regions.
  • Uniting seam - where either visual or mobility can penetrate the border, so the regions are tied together by an invisible boundary. A seam border works best if you want to relate the two regions, or if they share an allegiance or physical property. Seams have several accessible paths between the divided regions.

Note, that a region may have borders of differing properties. Perhaps a sea-front (barrier) in the west and a river valley (seam) in the east.

BONUS: Invisible walls Trailblazing

A small note… these trailblazing procedures don’t fit neatly in any post in this series but this one on Borders is the closest fit. Enjoy! ~SachaGoat

There is a way that we may attempt,” said Gandalf. I thought from the beginning, when first I considered this journey, that we should try it. But it is not a pleasant way, and I have not spoken of it to the Company before. Aragorn was against it, until the pass over the mountains had at least been tried.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954)

In this series, I have likened a few open-world design principles to those in video games. However, I want to make it clear that the presence of isolating barrier borders does not necessitate invisible walls”.

Just as it’s possible (but cumbersome) to break through the walls/floors of a dungeon - you can trailblaze beyond the scope of designed paths or penetrate through geographic borders.

I recommend considering the following factors when refereeing trailblazing:

  • Altered procedure: I previously mentioned the use of special procedures to simulate risky paths. When trailblazing, these procedures are a great fit. Whereas travel down most paths is a montage with minimal interactivity, we zoom in” when trailblazing. Players might identify routes up the cliff face, use cardinal directions and wind speed in the open ocean, or track resources in 10-minute Turns through an abandoned mine. I often collect and keep these mini-games to hand during play, if players surprise me with an off-path journey these procedures shine a spotlight on their progress.

  • Getting lost: When the trail-blazing procedure is complete (the clifftop is reached, the boat is docked, the mine exit is found…), there is a chance the players don’t know where they are. Look at the map and pick a local Point of Interest, describe any landmark signs that would indicate its presence (typically either a vertical element such as a tower, smokestack, etc, or a sensory theme* like a local smell, sound, or aesthetic). Armed with these options, players declare a direction to go and arrive at a Point of Interest if that direction is chosen.

    //ASIDE: I have not tested it at the table, but I’d like to use red herring signs too - lures into the wild that make you more lost, such as eerie songs, strange lights, and whispers. If the players (intentionally or not) pick a direction with no canon Point of Interest, they fail to achieve significant progress toward recognisable landmarks, veering off onto an entirely alien trajectory. Refer to this fantastic post by Straits of Anián for inspiration and examples for lost” Encounters and Points of Interest.//

  • Duration inconvenience: Regardless of any procedure risk, alternate routes are always more time-consuming than the traditional route. Total the canon travel duration and increase it by +1 (hour, watch, or day) - so a blazed trail in the direction of a POI 3 Watches away would take 4 Watches. A party can choose to commit time, wealth, and community effort to develop this into a new Path during their downtime. This decreases it to -1 (hour, watch or day) than the canon travel duration, finally creating a new shortcut.

*We’ll expand on landmarks in a later post but a small tidbit: Micro-landmarks can be an indication of the current region or nearby location (eg. the golden-leafed trees ahead are a reliable sign that the workshop of Althea the Gleamsmith is found ahead).

Trailblazing is initiated in 3 circumstances:

  1. Known location, unknown route. A clear landmark or instruction shows them where a location is but they have not uncovered the expected route. This forces them to make their own path over a border.
  2. Curiosity: Despite no information hooking them into the wilds, they venture out into the unknown in hopes of something. This is why I like the potential of dedicated encounters and locations for when you are lost - by refusing to follow the rules of exploration, you invite an otherworldly influence.
  3. Desperation. Due to enemy presence, inclement weather, or something else the party wishes to evade - they take an uncertain path. This is your Mines of Moria moment”.

What’s to come…

In part 5 of this series, we’ll dive into Regions. The region is your backdrop for play and a major part of the setting’s identity. A single region hosts over 50 Points of Interest, a major town, conflicting factions, local resources, and unique encounters. Here’s a little preview of what’s involved in my current (utilitarian) region maps: The Land of Giants

Further reading

January 11, 2024

Re-inventing the Wilderness: Part 3 - Points of Interest

In this blog series, I will dissect the spatial elements of wilderness environments and explore how tabletop-friendly prep and mechanics could be leveraged to revise exploration procedures. If you’re looking to start from the beginning, you can find Part 1 here.

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

Points of interest (POIs) are locations that your players may find useful or interesting. This makes them one of the driving forces for exploration, either as destinations or distractions on the journey. And though we define our journey by the paths we take, our excitement peaks at these focal sites.

Make your points interesting

The clue is in the name here, these points must all be of interest”. Whether they are dangerous lairs or recurring taverns, they need to be memorable with unique features defined by their surroundings or contents. Even a minor site like a clearing should interest the players by relating to their character goals or offering distinct mechanical benefits (I was going to create a checklist here but I’d just be copying Arnold K’s homework; his Dungeon Checklist is fit-for-purpose here).

Okay, you have some interesting points on your map. Does that make the players interested? Of course not. A very common mistake in sandbox play. Remember to plant information in rumours (obtained from taverns, friendly NPCs, eavesdropped conversations, etc) and also signpost what’s down the road” where possible (see Part 2 for more on path awareness).

What is the point?

Points of Interest across published setting sandboxes and open-world video games have various roles. These roles are differentiated by three properties:

  • Complexity: Dense or simple? Is it a small part of a larger region or an independent location rich with its paths and gameplay?
  • Hostility: Friendly or dangerous? Does it offer an explicit benefit or is it a mix of risk-vs-reward?
  • Uniqueness: How does it stand out? Is it a memorable disruption to its surrounding environment or does it rely on a routine appearance to make its presence understood?

Combinations of these alter the POI into a new category. Here are the 5 most common POI types that I have noted across multiple sandbox world designs:

▲U/▲C/▼H - Towns: A dense location hub; a seat of power, assorted resource vendors, several faction HQs, and taverns.

▲U/▼C/▼H - Scenes: Natural features or dwellings; environmental storytelling, hidden resources and/or NPCs. The opposite of Lairs below.

  • Examples: Groves, clearings, passes, shores, shacks, hamlets, villages…

▲U/▼C/▲H - Lairs: Hostile enemy camps or monster lairs - environmental storytelling, hidden resources and/or NPCs. The opposite of Scenes above.

  • Examples: Enemy camps, monster lairs, occupied forts…

▲U/▲C/▲H - Dungeons: Collection of dungeon rooms”; highly interactive risk vs reward gameplay. Split between combat, exploration and puzzles.

  • Examples: Dungeons, ruins, mines, caves, tombs, castles…

▼U/▼C/▼H - Utilities: Useful recurring sites; an obvious repeatable role or service, such as transportation, shelter, crafting, information, healing, magical buffs…

  • Examples: Taverns, shrines, stables, hiring halls, hot springs, farms, faction outposts…

FOE (Formula of Overland Exploration)

The evolution of game guides, dedicated wikis, and third-party interactive maps have provided accessible data points that help us analyse the patterns in some of our favourite open-world titles.

I’ve looked at five games overall but want to share two popular examples that I was able to analyse in more depth - The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim and Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Skyrim (422 POIs)

197 Dungeons (ruins/mines/caves/tombs)

79 Lairs (8 enemy camps, 10 dragon lairs, 49 forts/towers/watchtower, 12 giant camps)

74 Scenes (10 landmarks, 13 groves/clearings/passes, 16 shacks, 10 ships/wrecks, 21 settlements/villages, 4 orc strongholds)

63 Utilities (5 Stables, 14 standing stones, 6 Daedric shrines, 18 faction war camps, 14 mills/farms, 6 remote taverns)

9 Towns (known as cities, w/ faction HQs, castles, taverns, temples, traders)

Breath of the Wild (380 POIs)

129 Dungeons (120 shrines, 4 divine beasts, 3 labyrinths, the Hyrule castle, the lost woods)

187 Lairs/Scenes (Discoverable map locations, approx 50/50 mix of danger and benefit)

55 Utilities (20 Goddess statues, 15 Sheikah towers, 15 stables, 5 great fairies)

9 Towns (known as villages, w/ vendors, faction leaders, and quest hooks)

Similar, right?Similar, right?

The formula

You can always go more dungeon-heavy like Skyrim or more overworld-heavy like Breath of the Wild but if you want to aim for a median ratio, I recommend this:

2% Towns, 22% Scenes, 22% Lairs, 40% Dungeons*, 16% Utilities

Using the formula on a simple starting region, you would expect it would contain: 1 Town, 11 Scenes, 11 Lairs, 20 Dungeons, and 8 Utilities. This would be 51 POIs for your map as a starting point. For context, after a year of playing weekly in Dolmenwood, my players explored 53 hexes (85% of which were on established paths).

*Dungeons have a huge spectrum of scale. I recommend 33% small (5-9 rooms), 54% medium (10-19 rooms), and 13% large (20+ rooms). So for the initial 20 starting dungeons… that’d be 7 small, 10 medium, and 3 large.

Path relationships

We’ve already addressed the navigational potential of path design in my last post. However, I wanted to expand on the relationship between POIs and Paths.

The number of exits (or paths) a POI has alters the way they are encountered and is suited for specific POI types.

Relationship Exits Role Typical POIs*
Remote 1 path** Dead-ends, off-the-beaten-path Dungeons
Passing Sights 2 paths Encountered on the way to somewhere else Utilities
Crossroads 3-4 paths Part of a network of paths offering route options Scenes/Lairs

*Note the features of each Town can define its relationship with paths. Is it a major trade hub or a remote town at the foot of the mountains?

**Multiple entrances are a dungeon design staple. Though a single path can create a remote feeling, this can still be achieved in larger dungeons with multiple entrances if they are appropriately hidden or inaccessible.

The core of a region

I consider it a good practice to have one of a region’s POIs be heavily tied to the identity of the region. A location whose thematic influence radiates across the region and which stands as a symbol for the area. These are called Core POIs.

It’s obvious to make it an influential Town, but what about a prominent landmark? Or maybe a feared dragon lair or even a sprawling megadungeon? They work effectively at dramatic elevations (mountain-top or deep in a chasm) and as part of a path chain (shifting the journey pacing in proximity). The idea of Core POIs will be expanded on in Part 5: Regions.

What’s to come…

In the next post, we will explore wilderness borders (both physical and non-literal) and introduce how player-driven procedure changes can prevent pathcrawl borders from feeling too restrictive. This post is nearly complete; expect a shorter wait!

Further reading

Mythic Bastionland quickstart

January 3, 2024

Re-inventing the Wilderness: Part 2 - Paths

In this blog series, I will dissect the spatial elements of wilderness environments and explore how tabletop-friendly prep and mechanics could be leveraged to revise exploration procedures. If you’re looking to start from the beginning, you can find Part 1 here.

It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” Ursula K. Le Guin

Travel is inherently defined by the paths we choose to take. These paths represent the primary decision points during travel, and our recollections of journeys often revolve around the routes we followed, shaping the rhythm and memorable moments of the adventure.

Paths have been a part of RPGs for a long time. In the first post of this series, I talked about how they’re used in traditional hex-based gameplay and are essential in pointcrawl adventure design. But they’re also important dungeon design tools. The deliberating corridor junctions, hidden passageways, unusual shortcuts, and looping routes all contribute to engaging play. These spatial techniques result in a celebration of space, despite their surface-level restrictions. In other words, a dungeon is engaging, precisely because you can’t go everywhere. The dynamic interplay between information, choice, risk, and reward all contributes to a captivating gaming experience, one that is seldom replicated in the wilderness.

A toolkit for paths

Just as dungeons hide secret doors, the wilderness should conceal secret paths. Just as a room might present an obstacle that requires you to backtrack or overcome a challenge, the wilds should offer similar hurdles. And the captivating twists and turns of dungeon corridors—our world’s routes should provide equally engaging choices and experiences as they crisscross and intersect.


How can this path be reached? Path accessibility can be understood and implemented in various ways, but the primary methods I’ve employed are:

  • Awareness: Knowledge of the path grants access. For instance, players may be informed that heading directly south from the town’s east gate will lead them to the dryad’s grove. Think of this as akin to discovering a secret passage in a dungeon. It can be unveiled through rumors, gaining favor with local factions, thorough environmental investigation, or clear signposts. Once they are aware of the path, utilizing this information (and potentially sharing it) offers a recurring reward—either a shortcut or the value of reaching the destination itself. Additionally, I’ll delve into elevation later, but just as discovering secret doors is a reward for meticulous mapping, uncovering hidden locations and their associated paths is a reward for observant exploration during elevation.
  • Puzzle: Progressing along the path requires either a specific item or an intricate interaction. For example, a rope bridge is designed to split in the middle once the majority of the weight has crossed the midpoint. Consider this akin to the puzzles and traps found in dungeons. It’s crucial that the presence of the path and the puzzle are apparent, while the solution remains elusive. In fact, similar to most dungeon puzzles, the optimal solution is not dictated but uncovered through creative thinking and experimentation.


What are the risks associated with this path? Some paths come with inherent dangers that threaten our characters and their equipment. From my experience, the most impactful ways to introduce this element are through challenge-based procedures or altering encounter probabilities.

  • Procedure: Safe passage depends on engaging in a distinct minigame. For instance, crossing the treacherous weeping cliffs might require successfully navigating a skill challenge (linked to the Veins of the Earth procedure). This approach is most suitable for physical challenges en route to remote locations (or as significant shortcuts): swimming, climbing, spelunking, stealth, sledding, canoeing, and so forth. These challenges need not be solely physical; they can seamlessly integrate with more fantastical paths. For example, a fairy road might demand a combination of skills inspired by Errants lockpicking to traverse safely (bonus point: the clues for this combination exist within local nursery rhymes).
  • Encounters: The path may present a higher likelihood of encountering danger or more perilous encounters. Consider, for instance, that the road passing through the abandoned dwarven mine requires rolling for encounters three times as frequently. While this concept can be applied to an entire region (which we’ll discuss in a future post), it works particularly well for distinctive and significant routes leading to untamed and deserted locales. How your encounters are affected depends on your encounter system and might even introduce unique encounters (e.g., the regional roll-table is modified, where a result of 4-6 on 1d6 always yields the appearance of the Ghost of Adelaide Trist). Alternatively, you can guarantee a specific encounter on the route (e.g., this trail crosses a bridge guarded by a Troll named Nurak, demanding a toll or a battle).


How do paths interconnect and progress? The arrangement of paths, their interconnectedness, and the points at which they converge or diverge significantly influence the pacing of overland exploration. A well-crafted wilderness setting would be punctuated with engaging choices at meaningful spots, compared to the broad options in hexcrawl navigation. Below are techniques for designing path layouts that make path exploration intriguing:

  • Loops: Offer non-linear routes that present compelling choices. For instance, adventurers may opt to follow the trade road to the next town or take the longer path through the mountain range. It’s crucial that the distinctions between these route options are evident, and the choice isn’t straightforward. Using the same example, the mountain trail should provide advantages (such as resources, elevation, secrecy, valuable sites, etc.) that outweigh the convenience and efficiency of the trade road.
  • Dead-ends: Linear paths leading to significant, isolated locations. For example, the sole lightbridge found at the Spineridge mountain pass leads to the remote Rosteq Monastery. Unlike loops, these paths are linear and necessitate backtracking, making them natural focal points, especially if revisited. Use them sparingly and thoughtfully. If one of these linear paths becomes frequently travelled, consider altering it according to factors like weather, season, or recent events.
  • Elevation: Incorporate a Z-axis to enhance the spatial understanding of the landscape. For instance, as you ascend the Spineridge mountains, you can clearly spot the town of Akaton in the Rust Forest below, along with a clearing north of it. While elevation’s significance will become more apparent later (when we delve into Points of Interest and Landmarks), it’s essential to recognize its value on a route, primarily for the perspective it provides. I’ll provide a summary of elevation bands here, but it warrants its own dedicated post: 0 (lowlands/foothills), 1 (montane), 2 (subalpine), 3 (alpine), 4 (summit). If you’re at a higher elevation, you can perceive hints of lower elevation paths and points of interest, whereas from a lower elevation, you can only discern significant landmarks (like the Rosteq Monastery against the backdrop of the Spineridge mountain range). Each Point of Interest above the foothill elevation is assigned a number denoting its height on the map, facilitating the GMs description of visibility during an ascent.

Breath of the Wild opening vista Open world video games like Breath of the Wild use elevation expertly to present and obstruct spatial information.

  • Chains: Define the rhythm and density of a route. For example, the Spineridge mountain pass might consist of three segments/stretches (ascent, ridge-line, and descent). This segmentation slow down gameplay and provide a more immersive experience in traversing the world. My preference is to simplify the chains for trade routes significantly, making them efficient and safe for fast travel, with fewer notable features. Just as you don’t use dungeon-crawling procedures while navigating a local town, wilderness exploration along trade roads should similarly be more streamlined. If it helps, consider in the real world how streamlined your commute or journey into town is compared to exploring a local forest path for the first time.


How much time is required to traverse a path? If you’re a GM accustomed to tracking dungeon turns by meters, you might find this system less appealing. However, I prefer to measure dungeon turns on a per room” basis, and similarly, I gauge wilderness turns based on a per path” basis (per segment/stretch, not a complete chain). The specific duration may vary depending on the focus of wilderness exploration in your game, whether it’s a 4-hour watch, half a day, or a full day.


What is the environment like around this path? This aspect is typically determined by the adjacent Points of Interest and the overall region, which is why I rarely prepare specific environmental details in advance. However, just as dungeon architecture provides insights into an adventure site, paths can offer clues about the destination, potential encounters, and regional events. For instance, the road leading up the Spineridge mountain is adorned with pilgrimage shrines. It’s important to note that these details complement any random encounters and player investigations. When paths are consistently marked with such details, it reinforces to the players that they are indeed on the same path.

A path is a path is a path is a path

I want to emphasize that a path is not always a conventional road. Especially in untamed wilderness, paths can take on diverse forms. In some instances, they might be formed by navigational instruction (for example, once you reach the Lightning-struck tree on the Queen’s Road, head south to find Fog Lake”).

Roads are typically well-marked, maintained, and efficient. Common trails may be less maintained or secure but still reasonably obvious. A path could also follow a natural pattern in the environment, such as an animal trail, a watercourse, the coastline, a mountain ridge, or heritage markings.

There are numerous possibilities, and I encourage you to let your creativity flow when designing your region.

Encouraging path exploration

Paths play a crucial role in the context of Points of Interest (the next blog post will be solely dedicated to this aspect). Ultimately, players are motivated by their interests, whether those are driven by character goals or mechanical incentives. While they may not have a complete understanding of what their journey will entail or how it will test them, there should always be a clear reason for embarking on it. Players will willingly embark on challenging journeys when they are provided with information (such as distinct landmarks, local rumours, quest hooks, etc.) that beckons them into your world.

Annotating paths

The conclusion of this series will provide a comprehensive overview of my procedures for preparing and documenting these details. However, I’d like to offer some insight into my ongoing progress in each instalment. Here’s how I currently annotate mechanically relevant path details:

Path keyPath key

What’s to come…

In the next post, we will delve into Points of Interest (POIs) and their role in propelling player exploration, as well as explore the most engaging methods for conveying them to players. Read part 3 Points of Interest” now!

Further reading

September 16, 2023

Re-inventing the Wilderness: Part 1 - Introduction

In this blog series, I will dissect the spatial elements of wilderness environments and explore how tabletop-friendly prep and mechanics could be leveraged to revise exploration procedures.

This past year, my home-group have ventured across the much-anticipated Dolmenwood setting. In hexcrawling through this mystical land, I anticipated the classic dungeon-game sandbox experience… you know, hexes and such. Yet, in play we engaged most with Dolmenwood’s mesmerizing pathcrawl, where trails, rivers, and fairy roads intertwined with the classic hexmap terrain.

Dolmenwood. The best pathcrawl I’ve run?

But let me expand a little… Dolmenwood is (undeniably) a hexcrawl. But, whether it was a road, trail, river, shore, ley line, or fairy road - these many paths” guided my players choices more than terrain and cardinal direction.

It took around 10 sessions, for my players to venture more than 1 hex away from a road. After a year of play, only 15% of explored hexes had no paths going through them.

Fog of war map with terrain details removed Dolmenwood GM map with terrain info and spoilers removed. Fog of war illustrates the explored hexes.

This revelation isn’t new but I wanted to share my experience after running Dolmenwood myself.

Players & paths

My players gave 3 reasons for their avoidance of unpathed regions:

  1. Safety. Though it was never player-facing, encounter table results were more civil near roads and getting lost wasn’t possible.
  2. Convenience. In our travel rules off-road travel in perilous terrain didn’t allow wagons and sometimes even horses.
  3. Confidence. When the destination was clear via rumour or signposts, they trusted their route. When it was unclear, it became a hook for exploration.

When they did go off-road (either for a shortcut or pursuing a rumour in the wilds), their familiarity with those hexes formed new trails” that they’d frequent on return journeys (eg. Let’s return to Prigwort via Fog Lake. We can check if anything new has moved into the cave as we pass it”).

Unlike the fairly pathless Outdoor Survival map, Dolmenwood is riddled with routes and trails that lead to or orbit its focal points. It’s exceedingly well-designed but left me frustrated because the hexcrawl procedures were focused on off-road exploration.

To summarise (before I get to the re-invention” my post title imperiously uses):

  • When hexes are not player-facing, paths are more easily understood and communicated than the multi-directional choices of a hex
  • Unknown routes (eg. following environmental patterns, unlabelled paths or otherworldly portals) are enticing disruptions to default paths
  • Locations along paths are more likely to be engaged with (and encountered several times)
  • Even when venturing off-road, players formed new paths” through an understanding of hex content
  • As humans, we mostly navigate by route and even when orienteering through the wilderness we create routes ourselves.

Farewell Outdoor Survival!

Now there’s this interesting paradox I’ve noticed in the OSR space. Despite the popularity of wilderness products, there is a lot of guidance on randomly generating wilderness (not just encounters).

Whilst dungeon design is filled with tight advice, checklists, and theory… wilderness design is either procedures that prioritize geological realism or scalable randomisation.

So, I wanted to experiment with what open-world design would look like in my games without the baggage of the Outdoor Survival-derived hexcrawling. My hope isn’t that this replaces the classic hexcrawl gameplay that I still love - but that it prompts us to think of more immersive and gameable procedures for wilderness exploration.

The Image of the Wilds

After a five-year study, urban theorist Kevin Lynch reported how observers formed mental maps of their surroundings in his book, The Image of the City (1960). In it he detailed five basic elements that comprise our geographic mapping: Paths, Landmarks, Districts, Edges, and Nodes. These terms have been used by video game world designers (Stop Getting Lost: Make Cognitive Maps, Not Levels by Nicolas Oueijan) and I’ve found they work excellently in evolving the TTRPG sandbox experience.

Repurposing the urban definitions for the rural framework of most dungeon-fantasy sandboxes, we have the following:

  • Paths: These are the channels along which one customarily, occasionally or potentially moves. They may be roads, trails, rivers, coasts etc. For most, these are the predominant elements in their cognitive image. People observe the world while moving through it, and it is along paths that other environmental elements are understood, arranged and related.
  • Points: (formerly Nodes) Points of interest (POIs) or nodes are the strategic spots which one can enter, and which are the intensive foci to and from which they are traveling. They may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a cross-road or convergence of paths. Or they may be concentrations, which gain their importance from being the condensation of some use or physical character, as a ruin, mine, trading post etc. Some of these are cores”, the focus and epitome of a region, over which their influence radiates and of which they stand as a symbol.
  • Borders: (formerly Edges) These are the linear elements not used or considered as paths by the observer. They are boundaries between two phases, linear breaks in continuity: cliffs, overgrown trails, territory edges etc. They are lateral references rather than coordinate axes. Such edges may be barriers, more or less penetrable, which close one region off from another; or they may be seams, lines along which two regions are related and joined together.
  • Regions: (formerly Districts) These are the sections of the world that one mentally enters inside of”, and which are recognisable as having some common, identifying character. Always identifiable from the inside, they are also used for exterior reference if visible from the outside.
  • Landmarks: These are another type of point-reference, but in this case, one does not enter within them, they are external. They are usually a rather simply defined physical object. Some are distant, typically seen from many angles and distances, and used as radial references: tower, statue, or mountain. They may even be extremely distant, symbolising constant direction (like our sun and stars). And some are extremely local (restricted to specific localities and approaches), the innumerable natural and man-made details that are clues to the identity of a place; these are the wilderness equivalent of dungeon-dressing.

What’s to come…

Each part of this series will dive into each of those components, going into detail about how I use this framework to both prep and run engaging pathcrawls. Read part 2 Paths” now!

Further Reading (Jacob promised to blog about the making of his new point crawl, Exalted Order of the Mystic Moose. Watch this space.)

Finally, I highly encourage anyone who values this series to watch the GDC talk by Nicolas Oueijan from thatgamecompany:

July 21, 2023