We’ve got a map, we’ve got our random tables, and we’ve got a team of players ready to tackle our wilderness hex map. Taking a peek at the view from the players’ side of the DM’s screen, the obvious question for them is: why go?
Dungeons are great for players. They know exactly where the monsters are likely to come from, they are full of treasure, and they are relatively easy to map. In the wilderness, there’s much less treasure per square mile, the monsters are not easily categorized in terms of toughness by your depth beneath the earth, and they can pounce you from nearly any direction.
So why should they go out there?
Seven Cities of Gold: There’s some insanely fabulous treasure out there. If the PCs find it, it’ll easily kick them to the next level, maybe higher since it’ll probably take multiple trips to bring it all back to civilization. It’s brimming with magic in the form of lost spells, swords fabled in the annals of history, and holy relics. If the PCs find it, they can buy their own private island and retire as kings!
If I was going this route with my current map, the big haul would, of course, be in the sheltered valley at the center of the map. But the entire island would be scattered with clues as to its whereabouts, and maybe bits of related treasure would be seen in other hauls. If the campaign begins with some dungeon runs, they’d find hints about the treasure to whet their appetites in those dungeons first.
Of course, if you’ve got seven cities of gold to hunt down, maybe the PCs uncover the smaller ones before working their way to the capital.
The Legolas & Gimli Expedition: Powerful (or, at least, wealthy) interests back in civilization want the wilderness mapped and they’re willing to pay to have it done. Usually, there’s a flat fee for every hex mapped (60 gp or so, depending on the size of the party), which encourages both caution and speed to earn relatively easy money. Bonuses will be awarded for securing resources that are of interest to the PCs’ patron. Maybe they want logging or mining rights, or negotiated trade settlements with the natives. Or, in the case of the classic Keep on the Borderlands, the lords of a newly settled castle need the surrounding territory explored and cleared of monsters, so the bonus is on monster heads.
Missing Persons: There’s somebody out there the PCs want to find: lost family members, kidnapped princesses, or hated enemies the PCs want to track down and slay. Be careful about dragging this one out too much; there’s only so much “your princess is in another castle” most players will put up with.
Lost: I’m a big fan of shipwrecks, defeated armies, or other variations on the theme of being stranded out in the wilderness as a way to start off a campaign. The caveat with these is that, once the PCs find their way back home, they might have little incentive to return to the wilderness.
There’s no reason, of course, you can’t mix-and-match these. In fact, you probably should. “Yes, we know you just escaped from the goblin-infested jungles of the eastern coast after being shipwrecked, but you now know that territory better than anyone, and we’re certain the fabled Tower of the Stars is out there somewhere. Here are the clues we have to its location...”
Don’t fret too much about keeping the PCs out in the wilderness after they’ve spent some time exploring, making friends and enemies, and learning the lay of the land. These are all just baits for the hook of a persistent world that reacts to their presence in it. We’ll talk more about that next time.