GM Tips for Wilderness Encounters

A Couple Simple GM Tips for the Wilderness

Here’s a couple quick tips for GMs when running adventures in the wilderness.

I’ll start with my own experience. Back in the day, when I was first learning how to play RPGs and GM for them as well, I had a little difficulty getting the hang of wilderness adventures. Why? Primarily, because the first types of adventures I went on were all simple dungeon adventures.

Plus, I tend to have a very structured, inflexible mind/perspective. This made it difficult to “go with the flow.”

Wilderness Versus Dungeon

I think I just had grown too accustomed to the standard dungeon crawl. In such an adventure, there are a limited number of decisions for the players to make. They can choose either the door on the east wall, the north wall, or the west wall and go from there. It’s a very controlled space in which the GM can prepare for each of the obvious number of finite decisions the players have. Room 1 has a troll, room 2 has an ancient statue, and so on.

The wilderness is different. The players can go virtually anywhere they want. That makes it hard to prepare encounters without infringing on the players’ free will. You write an adventure that takes place in a ruined village in the south, and, for some other reason, the players head north. What to do?

The Floating Encounter

Although this wouldn’t work for major adventures, it finally occurred to me to use, what I would call, “Floating Encounters.” Basically, you write up an encounter and don’t place it on a specific location on your map. You pull it out in lieu of a random encounter and put it wherever it fits.

So, say, for example, you write up this short encounter involving an ancient, ruined statue on the side of a forest road that holds some horrible curse or has a secret compartment with some lost treasure or map to some lost treasure of some sort.

You can place the statue and use it on any forest road you want. Maybe it’s also the lair of a pack of wild dogs or what-have-you. The point is, it doesn’t need to be designated as being on the road to city A or city B or city C – until the party is traveling on whichever one of those roads they decide to travel on. It is, for all intents and purposes, a fixed encounter in time, but not in space.

If the party travels to city A, they encounter the statue halfway along the trip. If, instead, they intend to travel to city B, maybe they encounter the statue one third of the way along on the trip. The only thing you have to realize is that once it’s placed and they encounter it, it is there for good (barring magical disappearing statues, etc….).

You don’t have to place the statue before the adventure and meticulously track the party through the wilderness hoping they stumble across it by chance. Just throw it in their path whenever and wherever you deem it appropriate.

The other thing that took me a long time to realize was the importance of … spice.

Adding a Bit of Spice to Wilderness Adventures

For the longest time, wilderness encounters in the games I played usually consisted of a blank wet-erasable hexagonal or graph map upon which the encounters played out. Say, your party of five characters encounter six hyenas in the plains. There’s the map. Placed on it are the five miniatures for the player characters. And, about ten spaces away there are the six tokens or miniatures for the hyenas. Nothing else.

That’s all well and good. But what if there was a road crossing the map? Or a stream? A random couple boulders, perhaps. A couple bushes or a copse of trees. An ancient ruined stone wall. You would be surprised how much a few extra dashes of detail can enhance the quality of an encounter. It will make it far more memorable. It will also make the battle more tactical and strategic as the details create a more interactive slice of terrain. You can hide or take cover behind a boulder or climb a tree. Options like these are lost on a blank map.


Anyway, neither of those things are huge tips for GMs. And I’m sure many GMs have already figured such things out. But, in the event you are new to the GMing endeavor, I offer those tips freely.

Published by atoasttodragons

The author, Matthew D. Ryan, lives in northern New York on the shores of Lake Champlain, one of the largest lakes in the continental United States, famous for the Battle of Plattsburgh and the ever-elusive Lake Champlain Monster, a beastie more commonly referred to as Champy. Matthew has studied philosophy, mathematics, and computer science in the academic world. He has earned a black belt in martial arts.

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