In dungeon crawls, Dungeons & Dragons character classes offer an elegant balance. Spells can dominate one fight, but casters need to save spells for the rest of day. Martial characters lack the peak firepower of spells, but they make a steady threat in every fight.
Wilderness adventures differ from dungeon crawls in a key way: Adventurers travel at their own pace and can often rest after an encounter. For example, the sandbox portion of Storm King’s Thunder lets characters roam freely, exploring without urgency. At my table, Fireballs and Hypnotic Patterns ended most encounters before martial characters even reached their foes. Nobody needed the cleric. After winning a fight, characters would rest and recuperate. Even the hardest encounters from the book proved easy for a fully rested party.
Whenever possible, the characters worked a 5-minute adventuring day.
Narrative adventures typically follow players as they take a hook, encounter obstacles, defeat the villain, and claim the treasure. Often, narrative adventures move at the same easy pace as wilderness expeditions. In Time Pressure, Wandering Monsters, and D&D’s Social Contract, I explained how adventures work better with time pressure. In a D&D game without time pressure, all the risk and adventure disappears.
Many, perhaps most, narrative adventures lack time pressure. When players expect fewer fights in a day, spellcasters show more power. Over the years when D&D shifted from dungeon crawls to narrative adventures, characters gained more chances to rest and wizards seemed to gain power—and mid- to high-level wizards hardly needed a boost.
Adventures with the grand scope of the fifth-edition hardcovers add time pressure from threats that build over weeks or months. But pressure on such scales leaves plenty of time for 5-minute adventuring days—especially when spells like Leomund’s Tiny Hut let groups rest in safety.
When characters spends days roaming the wilderness, a few techniques prevent the game from turning too easy.
- Increase the difficulty of a typical encounter. Sometimes I let spellcasters shine, by say, clearing the field of easy-burning blights or hypnotizing a few giants at once. Other times I contrive encounters that limit spellcasters. Spread out foes and let them attack from multiple directions. Make attacks in waves. Let the first battle attract a second group of monsters hoping for weakened prey. Spellcasters tend to use their best spells early, so when a second batch of monsters comes, rogues and fighters gain a chance for heroics. Plus that second wave lets me adjust difficulty on the fly.
- Add side treks that feature multiple encounters. In Storm King’s Thunder, I devised side-trek style mini-adventures that forced players to brave a series of encounters to succeed. These sequences injected some urgency into an adventuring day. This blog presented two of my side treks: To Steal a Primordial and The Giant Ship.