Unearthing the Wilds

So you’re walking, and you’re walking, and you’re walking, and a big scary dragon shows up! Traveling and wilderness exploration in Dungeons and Dragons can be fraught with peril, of course, but they can also be a little more nuanced than that. There are of course rules, in both 5th Edition’s Player’s Handbook and its Dungeon Master’s Guide, for traveling in the spaces between civilizations, but February’s Unearthed Arcana gets a little more specific still. I cracked open both books and compared them to the UA material, so let’s see what it means to head Into the Wild!

This is a somewhat curious Unearthed Arcana, in that it often tells you when not to be wandering away from the rules already laid out in the PHB and DMG. First off, these rules are intended for when your party of adventurers are traveling through the wilderness with a specific destination in mind; if they’re simply wandering through the world, you can stick to the rules we already have in the books. This makes this an add-on, of sorts, that only gets ‘activated’ when the game actually needs it.

The basis of the entire thing is that a destination that the party chooses to travel to, whether it’s within a day’s travel or longer, will be assigned a Navigation DC specific to that location. That DC might be None for a city with many roads leading to it, or as high as 30 for a location hidden by powerful magic such as a constantly shifting forest. This is a lot more nuanced than the DMG/PHB’s Navigate check, which was only based on general terrain (all grasslands have a DC of 5, there, regardless of other factors such as roads). So there are essentially three differences: you have to roll a Navigate check if the target location has a Navigaton DC other than None, the fact that a single roll covers a day of travel while the DMG’s method tracks by the hour, and what happens when the Survival check fails and the party gets lost.

In the DMG the party simply becomes lost and loses 1d6 hours of travel time before they can try the check again and get back on track. With the UA rules the party instead rolls on a 1d6 Becoming Lost table: 1-4 plops them in the vicinity of their goal, 2d6 miles away from it in a random direction, while 5-6 means they were traveling in circles and end 1d6 miles from their starting point.

Overall I like this a lot better; tracking by the hour has always seemed a complete and utter bore to me, and I always avoided it in favor of the montage method of travel. This keeps Survival relevant, deals with the whole day with one roll, and at bare minimum puts the party somewhere else on the map instead of just burning time before having to make another Navigate check.

Random Encounters haven’t changed, although for an optional rule for these optional rules it says you can roll twice for them if the party is lost to represent the chance for them to stumble into something nasty or unusual. Seems fair.

So, once it’s been determined whether or not the party got lost, the DM can find where exactly they have wound up at the end of the day by looking at their map and then narrate the journey they took to get there, dealing with encounters as necessary.

The real trick here is that you definitely need to have an area created for the party to travel through, and the use of a hex map is even called out over the course of the article. This isn’t really a set of rules that works if you’re randomly creating the world as you go along, so the DM needs to have done their homework ahead of time (more on that in a moment). That’s going to work for some groups and not fly at all for others, but since the stated goal of these rules is to get the party to a specific pre-existing location it does make sense.

The second part of the rules talks about actually creating the wilderness the party will be traveling through, which takes care of the basic homework you need to use the first part. The article talks about establishing the mood and the prevailing terrain, creating and placing your adventure locations and assigning Navigation DCs to them, taking regional effects (such as an old dragon’s lair and the alterations it makes to the surroundings) into account, determining the DCs of other skills that might be relevant (Athletics for difficult terrain, Stealth to slip through a patrolled area, etc., which I like because it gives other skills a chance to shine) and the Tactical Terrain.

The Tactical Terrain is an interesting little tool. Basically you create a table of terrain features that might be in the setting for any encounters in the area, and assign them a percentage value. Anything that is always going to be present, essentially the prevailing terrain of the area, gets a value of 100%. For everything else you roll 1d100 for each feature at the start of the encounter to determine whether or not those features are making an appearance. This is actually my favorite part of the article, I think, because it makes describing the surroundings of a fight easy once you’ve put in the work to make the table ahead of time but keeps encounters in an area from being too copy-and-paste.

The final part of the article is an example area for all these rules, the Moon Hills of the Nentir Vale. Aside from seeing 4th Edition’s original stomping ground make a cameo, which is kind of charming, I’m really glad they put this in here to show exactly how all of this is supposed to look. They’ve got the table of Navigation DCs from the DC None of Fallcrest to the DC 30 of the lost gate of the Laughing Path. The regional effects are represented by Planar Confluence, the bleeding through of the Feywild, Shadowfell, and Plane of Earth into the Hills. Various ruins and dungeons are detailed enough to give you an idea of what’s waiting for you, and the Tactical Terrain ranges from the ever-present steep hills and trees to the rare but profound effects of the Feywild and Shadowfell.

Overall I think the rules are solid enough, and the Moon Hills give me a decent idea of what to do with them, but I can’t help but feel there are some gaps. The rules for Becoming Lost don’t seem built to handle a multiple-day trip, so presumably you’d have to find where they would have ended up at the end of a day’s travel and use that for the basis of the roll, but what if the party wasn’t traveling in a straight line? I don’t think I want to have to break out the rulers and drawing compass to figure out the exact length of the winding path through the Moon Hills. The article also talks about ways to reduce the DC of the Navigate check, such as dealing with interfering magic, but there are no examples of that in the Moon Hills entry which would have been nice to have.

But I’d actually be really interested in seeing these rules applied to some of the published adventures they’ve put out, particularly the sandbox-ish ones. I’ve been eyeing Curse of Strahd for a while now, and the Navigation DCs and Tactical Terrain could be pretty useful, there. For that matter, if this UA ends up passing muster, I wonder if future adventures and settings will begin to include Navigations DCs and so on for their locations.

So, what do you think of this new way to travel along the dusty trail?

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