Filling In the Procedures

Yet another stab at exploration procedures.

The problem with procedures in TTRPGs that are on the lighter side of the rules divide (generally in the OS[R] space) is that they are sparse and leave much to DM ruling. “But,” you say, “isn't one of the core principles of the OSR (if not the old-school games themselves) 'rulings over rules'?” And sure, that's a principle. And what this write-up represents is probably nothing more than some fancy house rules. But the procedures here help me answer some key questions that I'd rather generate than improvise.

The questions:

  1. What does it mean to get lost?
  2. Why did the party get lost?
  3. When in the adventuring day/march does the party veer off course?
  4. Where do they go instead?
  5. What are the consequences?
  6. What do they meet on the way?
  7. If they meet anything or anyone, when does the encounter occur?

What does it mean to get lost?

Under optimal circumstances, the party knows where they are now, where their objective is, and which direction will get them there. Getting lost means losing track of one or more of these aspects, so the procedures here supplement the question of what it means to be lost. For practical purposes, we focus on deviating from an established course, but there are also interesting matters contained in the question of why the party got lost. I feel this requires a more holistic treatment than the chain of simple procedures that are common.

Before I proceed, I should note: getting lost does not automatically denote lack of skill. Rather, the point of these procedures is to help explain why competent characters get turned around and find themselves somewhere they didn't expect.

For reference, the most basic procedure is: conduct a navigation or exploration check of some sort at the beginning of the day; on a failure determine (usually randomly) which direction the party goes instead of the direction they wanted to go. Repeat for each day.

Not contained in this procedure is a sense of why the party got lost, or when the course deviation occurred. So let's add those considerations.

Why did the party get lost?

This is the additional procedure that creates the most potential work for the DM, but that's because it both demands foreknowledge of the terrain and promotes creativity with respect to terrain and weather, among other things. But if you're running a sufficiently detailed point or hex crawl, one where terrain matters, you already have some idea what the terrain constraints are. Let's take a look at a few natural consequences of terrain that could result in getting lost.

Terrain: Mountainous

In the mountains, a party might get lost because there are mountains in the way, and the guide couldn't find a way from point A to point B without deviating. They might also get lost because the mountains or vegetation around them and above them obscure the sun and make it difficult to keep a directional bearing. They might veer off course because they can't cross a river. And finally, they may encounter some kind of hazard, such as a rock slide, a flash flood, an avalanche, or other event that forces them off the path they were on. (Hazards and disasters will be a recurring feature in this discussion, and this is an invitation to consider the effects of such events on both course and progress.)

Terrain: Rolling hills

With gentler terrain, one might veer off course only slightly, rather than getting turned around entirely. Nevertheless, lack of landmarks, presence of uncrossable rivers and streams, marshy lowlands, and the presence of thick vegetation (forests, jungles, etc.) make wayfinding a lot more difficult than it could be. And weather will affect the visibility of landmarks that do exist. Additionally, there are still possible hazards here: flash flooding can wash a party out of a gully, wildfires can force the party in a less optimal direction, and storms can force them to take cover somewhere to wait it out.

Terrain: Flat plain

The biggest impediment to navigation over flat plains will be lack of clear landmarks. A party can presumably navigate by the sun and stars with some degree of competence, so unless thick vegetation (forests or tall grasses) obscures the celestial bodies, keeping a straight course should be feasible. Weather can also affect the visibility of both landmarks and celestial bodies, making navigation more difficult even on flat, open ground. And finally, there are still potential hazards at play, including wildfires and storms.

Terrain: On the water

Generally we mean open sea, but sizable lakes can also qualify. Landmarks at sea may be few and far between, and obscured by weather. Additionally, weather may affect how fast the party can sail or if they should (assuming they can) row. Rough seas and unexpected currents, as well as difficulty catching the wind to propel in the right direction can cause course errors, and of course storms can threaten the boat and move the party off course.

What this section adds up to is the possibility of populating some quick tables to help explain why the PCs got lost in the first place. I find that such randomness helps me to fill in blanks in my own reasoning, or provide natural stepping stones to complete my explanations. But whereas we now have some idea of why a party might get lost, we still need to know when it occurs.

When did the party get lost?

This section and the next require thinking not just about time, but also distance, and are really only separated for practical reasons.

Various systems provide a sense of what an adventuring day looks like. I prefer a day divided into six or eight parts, half of which are part of the movement portion of the day, and the other half of which are spent not moving. In this scheme, movement takes 12 hours of the day. The remaining 12 hours are spent either resting or preparing or breaking camp. I prefer a breakdown like this because a 12 hour stretch of movement, whether you want to further break it down or not, maps to a d12. This allows a quick d12 roll to determine at what hour the course deviation occurs. It also allows you to figure out when an encounter occurs, in case you're checking “day” vs “night” encounters, for instance (see “When did the party encounter something?” below).

Why do you want this information? Well, if you are sizing your hexes in a manner such that the party can travel through one per hour, or you can easily determine how many hexes they've covered in one hour, you can more easily plot any course deviations that result from getting lost. Same for points, distance between, and directions they go to get there, or the time it ultimately takes to get there.

Where did they go instead?

Once a course deviation occurs, and once you know when it started, you can plot out the arc to its conclusion. Again, sizing your hexes or spacing your points in a way that allows for easy single hour travel calculations will make this procedure a lot smoother. Fortunately, hex sizes (I can't speak as easily for point distances) tend to come in some easy to calculate flavors:

  1. The 1 mile hex is amenable to x miles per hour travel speed (usually about 3 walking and 6 sailing).
  2. The 3 mile hex is amenable to x hexes per hour (1 hex walking, 2 hexes sailing).
  3. The 6 mile hex is amenable to x hexes per day (2 hexes walking, 6 hexes sailing).

And so on.

Now, armed with time and some basic distances, it's time to articulate the procedure. If you're using a hex, roll a d6. Compare the result with the intended direction for the day.

  1. Fail forward. The party still goes in the intended direction, but progress forward stops at the appointed hour. This means it could be possible to spend 1 hour marching forward and the remaining 11 hours of the day looking for a viable path forward.
  2. Veer 45 degrees to the right.
  3. Circle back in a direction clockwise from the intended direction. If course error occurs early enough, the party may walk in a clockwise circle.
  4. Fail backward. The party doubles back on its original path.
  5. Circle back in a direction counterclockwise from the intended direction.
  6. Veer 45 degrees to the left.

Start the course error after the party has traveled in the intended direction for the time you rolled on your When? d12, then either continue true or in the clockwise or counterclockwise circling directions until you run out of hours to travel. Make random encounter checks at appropriate intervals (often when entering a new hex, but it depends on terrain and overall encounter density).

In cases where the party circles around or backtracks, you can provide some hints, which could allow them to course correct. Otherwise, only a change in navigational circumstances will help them get back on course.

What are the consequences?

The first and most obvious consequence to this procedure is that a lost party ends its adventuring day in a place other than where it intended to go. The second consequence is that getting where they want to go will take longer than they anticipated. The third consequence is that they will consume more resources than they anticipated, potentially having to delay further by stopping to hunt or forage. And the fourth consequence is that they increase their chance of random encounters, including additional weather hazards, disaster conditions, and wandering monsters, which means more danger overall.

What do they meet along the way?

This is where you develop your random encounter tables. If you've been paying attention, you should now have an idea that the random encounter tables a) should be tailored to the locale, and b) should not be limited to wandering monsters. If you like, divide up a set of encounters into two categories: monsters and hazards. Monsters, of course, are probably already on your tables. You can find plenty of resources to populate wandering monster tables. Additionally, you might want encounters that aren't intended to be dangerous or provide avenues for combat (though never rule those out completely), but instead just serve to reinforce the flavor of the world by offering tailored points of interaction. Hazards, on the other hand, may not yet be on your tables, so let's talk about hazards.

Generally, hazards should be one of a few types: sudden disasters; significant and especially dangerous obstacles; or mishaps. In all cases, hazards should threaten some aspect of continued travel (even to retreat). The main threats are to mission, course, speed, provisions (both consumable items and gear), and the life/health of the party members (including retainers). Some will vary by locale, and others are generalized across many terrain types, though terrain will play a part in how easy such hazards are to survive.

[Side thought: It occurs to me that the threat hierarchy looks somewhat like the old saving throw setup, where you go down the list and choose which saving throw applies by ruling out the previous ones. In that case, the order should be life/health, provisions, speed, course, and mission.]

Sudden disasters include earthquakes, (flash) floods, avalanches, rock slides, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc.; basically anything that can have a quick enough onset that the party can only react by taking shelter (stalling progress) or taking another route (losing course). In some cases, the party may be in the path of these disasters, in which case you can determine what threats they pose. For instance, getting caught in a flash flood while walking through a canyon is an obvious threat to life, but also to provisions, which can be swept away. Riding those sudden rapids represents a course change as well, so is a threat to course, assuming survival.

Dangerous obstacles are things that are risky or impossible to overcome without threatening the lives of the party members. Deep, swift rivers are a usual example, and historically the only way across one without a boat or bridge was to either find a ford or tie ropes and try to swim across (though this doesn't eliminate the threat to provisions).

Mishaps are any minor obstacles, missteps, or events that pose a threat, usually to speed, course, or provisions. Thick undergrowth, for instance may serve to slow the party or turn them off course, while insects or animals may rummage through the party's food supplies.

I'm not going to detail a host of hazards here, but this is a topic I've been thinking about for years, and this post has reignited my interest in developing more hazard procedures for my games.

When did the party encounter something?

If you've rolled up a monster or hazard (or any other kind of encounter you've primed for your location), and your encounter tables aren't on a per-hex basis (i.e., rolling an encounter check when entering a new hex), you will want to know when the encounter occurs. Again, use a d12 to determine the hour of the adventuring day. Similarly, you can figure the same thing out for resting encounters. But this part of the procedure isn't strictly necessary, especially if you have a different encounter pace in mind.

Putting it all together

Have your populated tables at hand: 1. A weather table, with some idea of how the weather affects the terrain the party is crossing. 2. Random encounter tables, some regional, some hex-based, tailored as much as you need. 3. Hazard tables that provide interesting and meaningful threats to life, provisions, speed, course, and/or mission.

An entire procedure for a day of traveling looks like this:

  1. Determine weather and its effects in the terrain the party intends to cross.
  2. Have the navigator or guide make a relevant check (x-in-6, skill vs DC, whatever your system has).
  3. If the roll is a course error of some sort, determine when it happened (1d12 hours after starting out)
  4. Then determine what direction the party went instead (1d6).
  5. And then attempt to explain the course error based on the weather, terrain, and directions. Consider when it might be appropriate to let the party know of the course error and correct it.
  6. [Throughout] Whether a course error occurred or not, make appropriate random encounter checks at established intervals (time or distance), including for hazards to help explain course errors.

And that's it!

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