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