In Dungeons & Dragons, gameplay is defined by three pillars: exploration, combat, and social encounters. For the most part, most DMs and players understand the hallmarks of combat and social encounters implicitly well. Exploration is an oddity within game tables, traveling between destinations seemingly always gets overlooked but exploring a dungeon often leads to hours of checking every corridor and door. I personally try to add some spice to my overland travel bits in my campaign narratives, but sometimes the story does not call for anything particular to happen. Some DMs will have random encounter tables during moments of travel that could occur over the course a party reaching their next destination. Not all such travel invokes an encounter, but the chance can always be there.
The latest Unearthed Arcana deals with Wilderness travel and exploration found here: https://media.wizards.com/2018/dnd/downloads/UA_IntoTheWild.pdf
Most of the material presented assumes that the players have a particular destination in mind, characters will perform activities while traveling before resolving all travel and events and then camping at the end of the day. When deciding on the destination, there is a very convenient navigation DC based on whether the goal is well known or hidden. For example, a destination hidden by difficult natural terrain will most likely have a DC of 15 with ones influenced magical effects raising the DC higher. This DC will be the basis for all activities the players may implement to reach their goal. While most of the navigation is assigned the Wisdom (Survival) skill, I feel that if one were to use the Navigation DC table to determine the base DC, you could employ a skills challenge (similar to ones from 4th Edition D&D). The idea of the party getting lost is always narratively appealing, as mishaps are also part of the story too.
Performing activities was generally left vague, mentioning that at least one character had to roll Survival checks, so from a skill challenge perspective, this can something a character can employ once per round with the others contributing in some other fashion. This is a great narrative opportunity and can be met with random encounters devised by the DM. Additional information and tips about random encounters can be found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. My personal advice would be to keep enough random encounters to fit on an index card with a listing of monsters or a sentence describing the scenario to build from. If you have monster stats, make sure to list the page number to reduce time flipping through the Monster Manual.
The Unearthed Arcana article goes on to mention tips and suggestions for designing your own wilderness, keeping in mind the area the players will traverse through, such as a hot desert or a sweltering jungle. Conceiving a map for the area for which your players will explore can be a vexing challenge unless you use premade ones such as the ones provided for the Sword Coast in the Forgotten Realms. For homebrew gamers, there are dozens of cartography videos on YouTube that offer insight and methodologies to develop your topography of your regions in your own settings. I do enjoy the idea of giving specific adventure locations their own unique Navigation DC, but I would say that it could influence by the relative distance of the party. For example, perhaps one place is easier to locate because you find clues in another, sort of following a trail of sorts. Other things to consider would be the lair effects of powerful creatures such as dragons. The list of skills are useful for constructing skills challenges but if you wish for something less restrictive, then having a general skills challenge will provide an excellent way for players to flex their creativity.
Finally, the materials cover bits for randomizing the terrain in a region the characters may explore. Providing tables or charts of randomized terrain features can add hazards or advantages for both the party or the enemies they may encounter.
The best part of the article came with the write up of a region called the Moon Hills. Providing a working example is very useful for other DMs to replicate and see what is needed for their own games. This Unearthed Arcana is definitely more akin to an advice column than straight mechanics which is refreshing to see from Wizards of the Coast. Perhaps we’ll see more material since the need for class options will most likely be down a minimum after the release of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Though I expect races and a few minor adjustments to still perk up from time to time. If you’re looking for brand new mechanics, this isn’t the Unearthed Arcana for you, but if you’re looking to expand traveling for your players, this is a fantastic resource.
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