Thursday, September 13, 2018

Difficult terrain: when a day's journey is just a few miles

If you're traveling through wilderness the terrain itself can be the biggest obstacle.

Cracking open my old Dungeon Master's Guide, it suggests a human can travel around 24 miles a day over easy terrain, or as little as 3 miles a day over the most difficult terrain.

So what makes terrain truly difficult?  Good places to travel are level, clear, and have a trail to follow, so let's take all that away.  The first one might come as a surprise:


You'd think grasslands would be easy crossing, and usually they are, but grass comes in many kinds.  Tallgrass of the prairies easily grows 7 feet tall (2 m) which is high enough to leave you basically blind as you're traveling through it.  (It's also the perfect place to get ambushed by a lion.)

Pampas grass is notorious for its razor-sharp blades that can cut up anyone wading through it.  Turn up the danger just a bit further and you get a grassland deadly to most things that don't normally live in it.


Thick woods can be more than just trees, and dense undergrowth hides more than just the path.  When you can't see where you're putting your feet, fallen logs and uneven ground might result in a broken leg.  And any place that has plenty of plant life is likely to have plenty of creatures crawling about, too.

Jungles don't have to be hot places.  Wet and cool climates can have temperate rainforests that are as thick and dense as the Amazon.


Mud and mire can stretch for miles in the right conditions, making passage nearly impossible.  From a distance, marshes and bogs might just look like another type of grassland, but they can have mud deep enough to sink in and disappear without a trace.

Standing water is a great place to get an infection, though alligators, leeches, snakes, and mosquitos might drive you off first.


Moving water is its own kind of problem.  Coming across a stream in the wilderness, far from any trail, you'll have to search for a good crossing point.  If you're lucky, there's a ford where the water is wide and shallow and you can wade across.  If you're not, you either swim or find something that floats.

Crossing has a few dangers of its own: losing your footing, getting your powder wet, getting swept downstream, not to mention bitey things in the water.

If you have boats and are headed in the right direction, creeks and rivers are better than roads.  But if you're on foot and one is lying across your route, it's going to take some time.


Sharp, jagged, or loose rocks can be terrible to walk across.  This is broken ankle country:

As bad as rocky terrain is for your feet, it can be even worse for most livestock.  Drive a herd of cattle through a place like this and you'll mostly end up with beef that's still crying out for a while.

Up and down

The steeper the ground gets, the more arduous of a journey it'll be (even if there's a trail).

Cliffs and escarpments can stretch hundreds of miles across the landscape, leaving no way around.

Canyons and gorges pose a similar problem, though usually with a rushing watercourse at the bottom.

If your game has exhaustion rules, you're going to need them crossing the wilderness.  Plenty of other things can hinder your journey: deep snow, bad weather, dangerous creatures, but these are all topics for another time.

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