On the Use of Secret Doors

How do you use a secret door?

Secret doors are an opportunity for wonder, amazement, and frustration. They are the diamond of puzzles: optional, intriguing, and rewarding. But they come with unspoken rules and can be misused.

The original rules for secret doors have remained almost unchanged over forty years. Secret doors and passages are not visible. Searching a 10'x10' section of wall takes a full turn. Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits discover secret doors on a roll of 1 or 2 on a six-sided die, and Elves discover them on a roll of 1-4. Elves may automatically discover secret doors they pass with a roll of 1 or 2.

After that, they are just treated as normal doors. Which as we all know are immincal to player characters and only open on a roll of 1 or 2.

While this is certainly an acceptable option, this text is located in Men and Magic, Volume 1:

"Caller: Okay, what does the room look like—we're examining the walls, ceiling, floor, and contents of the room itself.Referee: (After checking to see if dwarves and/or elves are in the party:) The room is a truncated pyramid. The east wall is the truncated part, directly opposite the door you entered. It is 10' long with another door in it. The walls connecting it to the west wall, the place you entered, are each about 35' long. The west wall, which is where you entered is 30' long with a door in the middle of the wall. The elf has noted that there seems to be a hollow spot near the east end of the southeast wall. The floor and ceiling seem to have nothing unusual. The room contains the bodies of the gnolls, a pile of refuse in the north corner of the west wall, and two trunks along the wall opposite the one which sounds hollow. Caller: The elf will check out the hollow sound, one of us will sort through the refuse, each trunk will be opened by one of us, and the remaining two (naming exactly who this is) will each guard a door, listening to get an advance warning if anything approaches.Referee: Another check on the hollow sound reveals a secret door which opens onto a flight of stairs down to the south. The refuse is nothing but sticks, bones, offal and old clothes. One chest is empty; the other had a poison needle on the lock. (Here a check to see if the character opening it makes his saving throw for poison.) The chest with the poison needle is full of copper pieces — appears to be about 2,000 of them."
The Referee has taken the mechanical effect and turned it into a real-world situation. The elf doesn't discover a secret door, but rather a 'hollow spot' that could be anything.

This is the real magic of secret doors, which is why I always design a mechanism to open a secret door within the environment. For players, this creates interest no matter how the secret door is interacted with, instead of frustration.

  1. First, the players don't discover the secret door or the trigger. They go on their way, unencumbered by any knowledge as the treasure and other rooms stay safely hidden away for future delvers. Party Experience: If you don't know you missed something you can't be upset about it. 
  2. Second, the players discover the secret door, but not the trigger. They can discern the presence of a passage, but can't access it! This creates a puzzle of how to open the door. Of course like all doors it's possible to attempt to force it down, or even take the time and make the noise to bash it apart. But those both have consequences.* 
  3. Players discover the trigger and not the door, and are amazed and surprised when a secret passage opens!
Taking the extra time to come up with some triggering mechanisms for secret doors is the only additional work this requires from the Referee. I've already written an article on some basic types of secret doors here: On the Thursday Trick: 10 Basic Secret Doors for when your module or adventure has a ton of secret doors. 

There are rules for using these correctly also. Everything behind a secret door must be optional. Everything behind a secret door must be optional. If you've got something that's necessary for play to proceed, you shouldn't place it behind a secret door or a puzzle. I've told you three times now so you know it's true. If you commit this enormity, it's on you.

* Players always want to escalate! The attempt to open the door with the die roll is exactly that. Everyone working together to try and force open the door. That's the assumption. Either it's successful, or the group has failed in their efforts to open the door. Retrying is pointless. Attempting to do this takes a full turn which assumes retrying is happening. What occurs for the entire 10 minutes they are trying to open the door? They are trying to open it! Failing the roll is a failure.

"BUT!" comes the hue and cry from the players, "What if we are HUMANS and we use our WILL TO AVOID ACCEPTING REALITY". Well, fine. I'm running a game. You guys are heroes. You can bash down the door. Not kick it open, but literally bash it to pieces so it can't close on you and you can have free access to the passage. Why not? It takes longer than a turn, requires some tools that can damage wood or stone (depending) and has some side effects. Usually I have every monster in rooms within 100 or so feet show up in addition to three rolls on the wandering monster table. Sometimes they do make that choice, and it leads to exciting gameplay. After all, the monsters aren't necessarily all friendly with each other. And the question of dealing with 3+ encounters simultaneously in exchange for not taking the time to figure out how the door actually opens is a completely reasonable exchange. 

There are of course, caveats. It is important that you don't engage in "pixel bitching". If the secret door is opened by a button on the vertical part of a stair, and the players say "We search the area" you tell them they find a button on a vertical part of the stair. I would encourage you to recall that they do not have perfect knowledge like you do. Perhaps that button turns the stairs into a deadly slide. Providing multiple things that look like triggers, some of which are trapped, also leads to good gameplay. 

Very frequently just taking the turn to look around the room provides the trigger to a secret door. But that doesn't mean it's always obvious. One of the most challenging secret doors I've run is a secret door in a room with a iron chandelier on an iron chain. The room is otherwise empty. The way to open the door is simply to pull the iron chain six times. Behind the door are three keys (two trapped with yellow mold and one real golden key). The keys are optional that give players access to extra treasure.

This kind of challenge for the secret door is the exception. Like encounters, some secret doors are easy (It's a swiveling wall!) with a low challenge, and some are hard. This balance is key.

When running secret doors remember choice paralysis. In your mind it is easy to keep different areas of the dungeon separate. But if a player is approaching an encounter in character, this button could trigger anything in the dungeon! In order to reduce this option paralysis and keep things fun for the actual people at the table,  I try to provide some guidance as to scope. Much like in a video game, if a switch/trigger doesn't do anything obvious I give some insight into what it might be affecting. I try to be rather explicit about the scope of puzzles. In the example above, for example, I always let the players know that the iron chandelier is related to the nearby door to avoid confusion or uncertainty that the real trigger might be somewhere else or that the chandelier isn't related to the secret door and is doing something unknown somewhere else in the dungeon. 

People don't show up to play a game to be confused and made to feel stupid. 

If you aren't using secret doors, you should be. Have fun with them in your game and be sure to let me know how it goes!

On Blog Compendium IV

I'm very proud and excited to show you this collection of wizards and magic. This is the fourth compendium, the others being focused on backgrounds, treasure, and classes. While this one has secrets about wizards.

I even talk about how to access  real magic in Dungeons and Dragons! It's Jack Chick's nightmare come true!

3.99 pdf at rpgnow
7.99 print at lulu

There aren't any immediate plans to move print copies over to rpg.now; But if you want to e-mail me a lulu receipt, I'll comp you a .pdf copy.

This is the fourth collected works of the Hack & Slash blog. Containing wizards and fungi!

  • 90+ Pages of content!
  • d100 Table of Wizard dicks by Chris Tamm!
  • Hotlinked .pdf!
  • Types of magical and non-magical currency!
  • Public domain illustrations!
  • Pages of magical side effects from spells!
  • Investigations into the magical properties of dragon corpses!
  • Information on crossbreeding your monsters with insects!
  • Details of the panoply of wizard accoutrements. 
  • And how your campaign can let you access real magic!

On the Wizards Panoply: Servants, Pacts, and Sanctums

A few years ago +Benjamin Baugh created a post about the accoutrements of wizards on Google+. It's a great idea and I wanted to examine the suggestions in greater depth.

The objects presented are talismansfocifamiliarscabalsraiments, servantspacts, and sanctums, in order of difficulty of acquirement.

Humans themselves are relatively poor conduits of magical or elemental energy.

The basic conceit of this system is that humans are incapable of safely wielding any magic beyond the first level of power. 


  • Attempts to cast magic of a level higher than 1st require a roll on a retribution table. 
  • This limit can be increased by the acquisition of accoutrements. They may be acquired in any order.
  • Each accoutrement acquired increases the level of spells the caster can cast by one. 
  • No type of accoutrement can be applied more than once, even if you own more than one. Each one only counts towards spell levels you can cast once. 
  • These are generally acquired and lost during play. 
  • If lost or destroyed, that type of thing can't be used again until you have gained a level or a year and a day have passed. 

Creatures from other planes can greatly increase your power. There are two primary methods to bind extra-planar entities. You can either bargain for a pact or capture a weaker creature. The way spell levels are used in the two forms varies.


Make a magical agreement with some otherworldly power, demon lords, demigods, ancient alien entities like mountains made of meat and mouths.  Pacts grant you power in exchange for service.  When you patron makes a demand, you must act to accomplish it or you lose its magical support and will never again be able to form a pact.  Each spell invested in the Pact gives you the power to demand a direct intervention from your patron once per month.  

Bargain for Service: Each spell level granted to such a creature shows your devotion. As long as you adhere to the general ethos of the creature in your service, the creature can grant you static boons. This could be an inspiration use, a small permanent bonus, access to a special spell like ability, or other power within the purview of the patron. 

Solar: Assuming you can capture their attention (which is the primary difficulty in acquiring a Solar as a  patron) and you are pure of heart, a solar may accept your devotion. Examples of boons a solar might provide include: granting the caster the ability to detect any time a lie is spoken, the ability to detect evil at will, the ability for your spells to do radiant damage instead of fire damage, The ability to use Shield of Faith once a day, or the ability to restore 8d8 + 4 hit points to any creature once a day. The direct intervention is generally either asking the solar to restore someone to life, or the solar appearing and taking a shot at an opponent with a Slaying Longbow (if a target is hit, they must save or die). 

Dragons: It is not difficult for a magus to form a mutually advantageous relationship with a dragon. The danger is that the dragon may turn on you. Examples of boons dragons might provide include secret dragon magic, acting as defender of a building or property within its domain, a magical bonus to your charisma, the ability to utter a Suggestion three times a day, or the equivalent of a Legend Lore spell, once per week. 
Dragons grant their owner rods, which are designed to call them. 85% of the time(5 out of 6) when held, the dragon will teleport to the bearer when the bearer calls for aid, once weekly. They will assist with one battle or task before leaving. 

Kraken: Wizards who travel amongst the waves will frequently serve a monster of the deep. The disadvantage being that the influence of such creatures doesn't extend far on the land. Boons provided include the ability to control the weather while on the surface of the water, the ability to extend an obscuring cloud out to 60' in every direction once a day, In the water, the actual creature itself will come to the aid of the wizard weekly, but on land the aid is restricted to a Call Lightning as an 11th level caster (with a sixth level spell slot).

Pit Fiend/Devil: Wizards find that devils are only too eager to grant them service. The devil is able to grant a wide range of boons, access to spells, arcane tomes, problems solved. They are eager to extend their services, and they only ask for such small things in return like your soul, or the corruption of your friends. It's a small price to pay. When requesting boons from a devil, the character may bargain his soul as if it were equal to half his level in spell slots. This has no effect, except that if the caster dies, the soul becomes the possession of the devil and he cannot be raised. 


Form an agreement of service with a creature -  demons, angels, elementals, dragons, fairy, and similar naturally magical creatures.  The creature must agree to serve you as a retainer - or be intimidated, threatened, bribed, or similar - and after, you can use its magical nature to reinforce your own.  Each spell level invested in the servant gives you one service you can request of it each day which it must obey.  A servant may agree to perform actions on your behalf, but only with investment can you ensure they obey in good faith.   

These creatures will act as a hireling with the investment of a spell level. They will follow the caster around, and during combat, the caster may use his action, move, or bonus action to cause the creature to take an action, move, or bonus action. 

Hell Hound: These beasts are excellent servants. Having one of these increases your bond to the infernal planes and the fire elemental plains. This grants you +2 damage on any spell that does fire or necrotic damage. 

Shadow: Famously Venger, son of Tiamat had a shadow servant. This creature is an excellent spy. It increases the power of ice, cold, and shadow spells, all acting as if they were cast a level higher then the slot used to cast it. 

Fairy: This category includes nymphs, slyphs, and other delicate fragile forest creatures. Because the very nature of these creatures is that they already have a bond with another being, the only way to secure their aid is to capture and imprison them. Only by imposing your will upon them can you make use of their power. Unlike normal servant relationships, they do not travel with you, and instead of investing levels in such a creature, they provide an additional spell slot of a level equal to their hit dice. Note that abusing and torturing such a creature is an inexorably evil act. 

Quasit: Such a creature loves spell energy and will willingly serve any master who provides it. Though they provide no special bonuses, invisible, flying, intelligent creatures who can shapeshift make excellent servants.

Mounts: Although few wizards choose too, this also allows them to secure the service of magical beasts, such as an Owlbear, Winter Wolf, Phase Spider, Giant Scorpion or Griffon.


Fortify a place of power, and stock it to your requirements.  This can be done earlier, but you get this gratis when you level enough to found your stronghold.  So long as your sanctum remains secure, you can draw on its power even at a distance. Spell levels invested in a sanctum grants you the ability to cast a chosen spell of level equal to the investments at will when you reside in your sanctum, or to put such spells on a conditional release so they 'go off' when conditions are met.  

This requirement is frequently described by your system of choice. If your system has no rules, then simply requires the expenditure of 100,000 gold pieces to create a sanctum will function. Any spell levels invested may be used to create permanent enchantments that do not require material components. For example, a Wizard could enchant a room with a Identify spell, obviating the material requirement of a pearl. This would allow them to identify items within their sanctum. Spells of up to 6th level can be enchanted in this way. 

On the Wizards Panoply: Cabal & Rainment

A few years ago +Benjamin Baugh created a post about the accoutrements of wizards on Google+. It's a great idea and I wanted to examine the suggestions in greater depth.

The objects presented are talismansfocifamiliarscabalsraiments, servantspacts, and sanctums, in order of difficulty of acquirement.

Humans themselves are relatively poor conduits of magical or elemental energy.

The basic conceit of this system is that humans are incapable of safely wielding any magic beyond the first level of power. 


  • Attempts to cast magic of a level higher than 1st require a roll on a retribution table. 
  • This limit can be increased by the acquisition of accoutrements. They may be acquired in any order.
  • Each accoutrement acquired increases the level of spells the caster can cast by one. 
  • No type of accoutrement can be applied more than once, even if you own more than one. Each one only counts towards spell levels you can cast once. 
  • These are generally acquired and lost during play. 
  • If lost or destroyed, that type of thing can't be used again until you have gained a level or a year and a day have passed. 


Join an occult society, mystery religion, circle of conspirators, or cult and sign magical bonding oaths and compacts.  The force of the cabal's collective power backs your actions, but you will sometimes be called upon to act in the interests of the cabal.  Investing in the Cabal improves your status and position in the fraternity, allowing you to call upon it for aid (the loan of magic items, borrowed retainers, support in battle).  Such requests are honored with a 1 in 6 chance, plus 1 for each spell level invested in the cabal.  

Though wizards bristle at the need for anyone else, the cabals serve multiple purposes. The ritual frequently attracts 'cultists', those who follow the wizard in the hopes of accessing true or real power. They are normal humans, and beyond what power the wizards allow them to access from the cabal, they have no magical ability or potential.

Minimal membership in a cabal is fairly painless, costing nothing more than yearly dues. Investing more in the cabal attracts followers and power.Though cabals are joined in general principle, there are many schisms and fractures within them. They may provide both allies and foes.


Order of the Falling Star: The order of the falling star serves the visitors, who visit the world from the astral plane, to collect followers to join them on their journey throughout the planar spectrum. The travelers hope to save as many people as possible before something they call the 'scourge'. Initiates live an ascetic life and are rather humorless.

Guild of Naturalists: This society of wizards is devoted to the discovery and cataloging of natural specimens. Members join for various reasons, crossbreeding research, prestige, a love of the outdoors, access to monster information or resources. Prestige within the society is gained and lost based on new research and facts, and there are longstanding rivalries between members. This guild is open to any classes.

Pax Draconis: This society attempts to reach a true source of magic, draconic power. They are usually in service to the nearest old (or older) usually chomatic dragon nearby, granting their devoted service in exchange for whatever power they can manage to siphon. The dragons often find these arrangements palatable until they are not. Once initiated the mage is brought before the dragon who both asks a service and grants a gift.

Students of the Pearl Tower: This is an academic group of researchers who seek out and collect magical power. In exchange for new magics, students may access the vast library available in the enchanted pearl tower.


Your garments and costume, the working clothing or finery which declares your profession and power not just to mortal observers, but to the Unseen Realms as well.  This is quite expensive, but protects from all natural extremes of heat and cold, and keeps you comfortable even in thunderstorms.  Each spell level invested in Raiment improves your AC by 1.   

This garment must cost at least 100 gold, though some of the most powerful and famous garment can be priceless.


Robe of Eyes: This option costs little to create, but requires the collection of 100 eyes from beholders, basilisks, and gibbering mouthers. Mouthers are relatively easily controlled and harvested, but they won't grow new eyeballs without being fed people. Anyone who wears the robe of eyes can no longer be surprised, and can see in the dark, as well as into the ethereal and astral planes.

Robe of the Archmagi: This is a robe costing at least 100,000 gold pieces. Once the base material has been enchanted, the wizard may invest spell slots for various effects. Common ones include a +4 bonus to armor class from the investment of a single spell level. Granting the user 5% magic resistance per spell level investment. A bonus of +1 to saves per 2 spell levels sacrificed (capped at +4 for a 8th or 9th level spell, being the highest level investment), Or granting an opponent a -1 to saves per 2 spell levels sacrificed. They are specifically tailored to the creating wizard. Anyone trying on the robe who is not the wizard takes 11d4+7 damage and loses a similar amount of experience times 1,000.

Part I is here
Part II is here

If you like this, let me know. Or check out the other stuff I write.

Hack & Slash 

On the Wizards Panoply: Focus & Familiar

A few years ago +Benjamin Baugh created a post about the accoutrements of wizards on Google+. It's a great idea and I wanted to examine the suggestions in greater depth.

The objects presented are talismansfocifamiliarscabalsraiments, servantspacts, and sanctums, in order of difficulty of acquirement.

Humans themselves are relatively poor conduits of magical or elemental energy.

The basic conceit of this system is that humans are incapable of safely wielding any magic beyond the first level of power. 


  • Attempts to cast magic of a level higher than 1st require a roll on a retribution table. 
  • This limit can be increased by the acquisition of accoutrements. They may be acquired in any order.
  • Each accoutrement acquired increases the level of spells the caster can cast by one. 
  • No type of accoutrement can be applied more than once, even if you own more than one. Each one only counts towards spell levels you can cast once. 
  • These are generally acquired and lost during play. 
  • If lost or destroyed, that type of thing can't be used again until you have gained a level or a year and a day have passed. 


A large obvious magical tool used to focus and direct spells, such as a staff, rod, or occult weapon.  Each spell level invested in a Focus penalized a target's saving throws made against your magic by 1.

All wizards must carry a focus, even if it is devoid of enchantment or power. Those without a focus grant their opponents a +4 bonus on all saves or they have a -4 penalty to hit the target. Without the focus they cannot effectively direct their magical energies.

In addition, foci can act as spell batteries. For every 1,000 gold spent (in the form of precious gem dust), a focus can be enchanted with temporary power, or charge. Each charge is equivalent to a single spell level. A wizard can cast a third-level spell without it being lost for three charges. Most foci limit the types of spells these charges can be spent on, depending on the individual foci.

You can also discharge your magical energy through the focus. For every spell level of the spell you discharge, you can do 1d6 points of damage to a single target within 30. This damage is considered force damage, like a magic missile, and is blocked by the same magics that block magic missile (broach of shielding, etc.).

In addition, attempting to wield magic without a focus creates an astral disturbance, detectable for dozens of miles. Considering the possible danger of people wielding magic beyond their ability, there are certainly people who look for such things.


Oakenhart Wand: This is a gnarled branch, nearly 18 inches in length. It feels of livewood and is encircled by vines. A small quartz crystal is nestled in the tip. This focus connects wizards of weather and nature to the earth. Spells can be discharged through the wand to heal 1d6 points to a target per level of the spell discharged. The spell also allows the caster to transmute any of her spells of a greater level into one of the following: Pass Without Trace, Massmorph, and Plant Growth.

Crystal Ball: This is a translucent crystal sphere. It exudes energy that makes hair stand on end. Usually within a setting, this allows the user to bypass the line of sight requirements for targets—any target that the crystal ball scrys on can be the target of the spell. The wizard may expand a first level spell slot and the focus will levitate and orbit the user until the next exposure to dawn's light.

Rod of Dragon Control: This is a cold iron cylinder, with the head of a dragon on one end. The user may expend five charges or spell levels to summon a small red dragon hatchling, as Summon Monster III. The wearer can utter Commands, as the Cleric spell that affect only dragons. Dragons have a -4 to their saving throw versus this effect. Reaction adjustments for all dragons is at +2, and any dragons must save versus rods, staves, and wands before they can attack the holder of the rod.


Form a magical bond with a small intelligent magical creature.  Familiars can't fight, but can scout, distract, and provide other useful aid.  Each spell level invested in a familiar allows the creature to aid you in performing some task, adding a 1 point bonus to your roll.  

The familiar is your constant companion. By the very nature of the magical bond between the caster and the animal, the animal is protected. When on your person it has access to a small, nest like, interdimensional space, rendering the familiar immune to damaging fireballs, exposure to the vacuum of space, drowning while the party spent 8 turns under the influence of a water breathing spell, and other fridge logic moments.

Familiars are usually small, normal animals. A robin, a small snake, a black cat, a toad, owls if you're creepy etc. Sometimes wizards desire more powerful aids. For every spell level sacrificed to the familiar, the wizard may have a more powerful familiar, with hit dice equal to half the level of the spell level sacrificed. Classic more powerful familiars include pseudodragons, imps, quasits, hell hounds, and shadows. For the cost of an additional spell slot, the wizard can see through the eyes of the creature.

In any case, because of your bond with the familiar you are effectively one creature. During combat, you and your familiar share actions. If your familiar dies, you lose 1d4 hit points permanently.

Part I is here

If you like this, let me know. Or check out the other stuff I write.

Hack & Slash 

On the Wizard

No Wizard is happy.

Imagine a doctor. Years of study. Chooses to become a proctologist. There's a reason. Yes, money, job security, comfort. Still, to devote so much time to assholes, looking at asses of mostly older men and women, thinking about what the health of a colon really means, nobody that has the opportunity to become a doctor would choose something like that if it didn't resonate with them at least a little.

So it is with wizards.

Whatever they are into, is not a topic of interest to most people. It's off-putting and strange. They didn't get to be so knowledgeable about such topics by wiling away their hours in idle pursuits. The study, social inexperience, and strange experiments and activities push them further apart from their fellow man. They wonder how much to care about the opinion of a person that can't even read.

You're a wizard

Magic never has the answer. Solitude, isolation, and the plain fact that magic is terrible for utility, why risk your very life toiling with such forces for such a meager payout? Magic leaves you destitute. Those with money or no future will seek tutelage from other powerful wizards, in exchange for either cash or servitude. Your habits of study and isolation leave you unclean—your spirit, hygiene, food even, are just annoying things that take you away from what matters.

And it does matter, when you finally bind the axial niffit from the dolorous realm to the resonant exoskeleton of the clockwork narix, allowing you to maneuver it under your control. You share your idea, only to be told the utility of such a thing is useless.

How do they not see the potential?

You have your awakenings, as all mortal creatures do. But revulsion and disgust on the face of the young man or woman you fancy, is it your stench? Unkempt hair? It doesn't matter. People speak in euphemisms. You are a 'magic-user'. You let go of the idea that you would spend hours, hours, every week engaged in such banal activities, just so other people found you palatable. What a waste! You have more important things to do.

The study of magic, is, at its core, based on a series of poor decisions. The energy for it comes from other creatures and other realms, filled with powers beyond the reach of men. Those willing to traffic in such knowledge often did not have better options. Unsuccessful sociopaths, power hungry criminals, those who would just as soon see you fail. These are your peers and sources of magical knowledge. Each as unseemly and untrustworthy as the next.

You start to realize what magic means. That people are really just harmonic wave reflections, made transparent by sacrifice of loric natodes. It is your will that you enforce upon the universe. Are people that do not even real? More and more you discover the limits, the forms and behavior that make up your so called "peers". They are revealed and controlled just as easily as a simple narix. Well, perhaps not a simple one, but. . .

If you're lucky, you have money, and can secure yourself a homestead and an apprentice far enough away from civilization for you not to be noticed. If not, you could find yourself a group of ner-do-wells and trade your services in hope of finding enough money. Allying with a group who's best plan was to sell everything they own; to roam around try to steal lost "treasure" from deadly monsters while hiding it from the government? You soon realize it wasn't the best plan. Like you, these people were poorly-suited for fitting in among civilized people. Except they didn't have intelligence to carry them. Assuming their poor judgement and ignorance doesn't get you killed, you put up with their abuse, because what does it matter what gnats say?

Finally, what's your success? Ultimate power and riches? Hardly. Now that magic's secrets are unfolding, you see the endless cost, and it becomes about tricks and techniques and resources to bear the weight of that cost. You see what you want, but just out of reach. Only another year or two of research. . . . If you're successful, you've created an isolated environment that allows you to actually do that research, and then just hope a bunch of armed and heavily armored thugs doesn't break into your home and murder you.

Finally, when magic gives you real power, when you've twisted and folded your very being that the cost for what you want is finally enough to bear. You look around and realize you are alone. Your path leaves you few friends and many enemies. You yourself have become old. You no longer recognize the land, the songs they sing are strange, and it feels as if you walk among a cardboard stage. Any who see you whisper and those that meet you recoil in fear.

You spend an age using your power to grant you all your lost desires. You form a demi-plane and within your dreams come true. Even you are intelligent enough to realize the base urges and simplistic ego structures that make up such a fantasy are empty and devoid of value. You live there for years after all the joy has fled.

Finally, assuming you avoid running to the unknown or other self-destructive behavior, you realize all that's left is your engagement with the mysteries of magic. All worldly concerns cease to be yours, your environment idiosyncratic, your only company, those few of your peers who have survived, but can't really be trusted. Your intermittent communications with them the only telluric enterprise that remains.

Eventually, you die while at work, as your body gives into the ravages of a life unbalanced.

This is the life of a wizard.

Hack & Slash 

On the So-Called Wilderness

The seminal work on this topic is done by
Victor Raymond in Fight On #2 & #3
It's Citizen Kane all over again.

It says it right on the cover of Dungeons and Dragons Volume 3 of Three Booklets: "The underworld and wilderness adventures."

"The Wilderness:
The so-called Wilderness"

Those are the first five words Gygax wrote on the subject. Victor Raymond makes it clear that the phrase "The Wilderness" doesn't mean the actual wild, but all non-dungeon content—dangerous wilds and other civilizations and civilized areas—that the players might encounter.

But what about the wild? The planes of fairy and the unknown? The mythical wood? The archetypical wilderness that threatens civilization? The line beyond which the cartographer writes, "Here, there be dragons."

Nearly every adventure published for Dungeons & Dragons follows these hidden and archetypal guidelines in design, here we are just going to uncover them and make them explicit. Strap in.


People are breathing all the time, yet aren't really aware of it. There's this fundamental underlying structure to role-playing games, an archetypical truth, that we all know about yet remain unaware about.

Dungeons and Dragons is literally about taming the unknown. There's this central idea of a human narrative, where a person goes out into the unknown and retrieves knowledge and then returns. It's pretty central to the idea of us as a species, showing up again and again in psychology and fiction.

The basic structure of any role-playing game, is that players have a character. That character exists in a literal limbo, until the Dungeon Master utters a setting. Once within that setting (right after play starts) areas are delineated as adventure locations. I am speaking in categorical terms. An adventure location may be a scene, a conversation with a non-player character, or a cave entrance.

You are, sitting at the table, in possession a character, and several adventure options. You have an idea of your current (safe) location, which you leave to engage with the adventure option.

The adventure is fundamentally about exploring these unknown spaces. What's in the cave? What does this person think? You uncover the unknown. Literally. The majority of Dungeons and Dragons play is exploring dungeons, which are represented as darkness or blankness and then are filled in as we explore. What's more, you are given a score for this activity; (or alternately the activity allows you to acquire a score). When you return successful, this score allows you to become a better explorer of the unknown.

This is a fundamental human instinct.  We go absolutely bonkers for frontiers. How exciting is the boundary between what is known and unknown! And here's a whole game where the entire structure of play is focused on rolling back the frontier!

If you're wondering, that is why 95% of role-players are playing Dungeons and Dragons or some derivative thereof.

Hell, Gygax figured it out, wrote down his excellent system of handling this from his seat of understanding, and then it was immediately misconstrued and lost, ignored by almost all, leaving us to discuss endlessly what's going on with hexes, and coming up with iterations like pointcrawls.

Archetypal Assumptions

A lot of this work proceeds from the excellent guidelines and overview provided by Victor Raymond. I encourage you to read his articles in Fight On #2 and #3 on this topic. For now, let's have an overview of his key points.

First, the wilderness doesn't refer to the mythical wild, but rather all uncivilized AND civilized areas that are unknown to the players.

Second, barring travel through the wilderness, a topic well covered in AD&D, other styles of wilderness adventure mentioned by Gygax include "Exploratory Adventures" and "Clearing the countryside of monsters"

Third, 20 miles is given as the amount of territory a stronghold can keep clear of monstrous influence.

Fourth, don't treat the wilderness as generic. Think of it as a collection of places and conditions. No terrain is "Forest" or "Hills" It's old rotted oaks, with a matting of decaying leaves, or mostly bare hills, with steep sides covered in grass and moss.

This is the core of his analysis that we are going to build off of.

The first thing to note is that the idea of wilderness is adjacent to chaos. The original game had three alignments, because the original game was about the conflict between law, and the rise of civilization, versus chaos, the wilderness and the unknown. The players are almost universally lawful, because their very actions involve imposing order upon the world (by discovering new territory and killing monsters).

That is the Terminus Est. Dungeons are pockets of chaos that exist within civilized lands (usually close enough to be within the 20 mile range of safety). The Wilderness is the chaos beyond.

The third Original Dungeons and Dragons book outlines the entirety of adventure. You can adventure in the Underworld or the Wilderness.*


So, what use is this?

Concretely, D&D is a game, organized as a collection of procedures.

Designing a wilderness: This is covered in the article by Victor, but needs little description. You can generate a wilderness yourself, or use phenomenal online tools, or use pre-existing maps. This topic is extensively covered.

Travel to a destination: This is also very explicitly covered. This is where the wilderness rules for getting lost apply, wilderness encounter tables are used, and where hexmaps at a scale of 25-60 miles are useful.

An Aside:
This journey should often be structured as a resource management exercise
in food, lives, and loss.
Having unique systems for unique terrain greatly enhances this mode of play.
(That link leads to the marvelous wilderness mini-games by Telecanter)

Exploratory Adventures: This is the process of discovering the lay of the land. This procedure is outlined in Volume 3.

"When players venture into this area they should have a blank hexagon map, and as they move over each hex the referee will inform them as to what kind of terrain is in that hex. This form of exploring will eventually enable players to know the lay of the land in their immediate area. . .  Scale: Assume the greatest distance across a hex is about 5 miles. Turn: Each move will constitute one day. Each day is considered a turn. At the end of each day, the referee will check to see if a monster has been encountered. "

This assumes, of course, that the Dungeon Master is using a map with already labeled castles/strongholds. If that's not the case, the essential CDD #4 Old School Encounters Reference places fortresses at about a 1 in 20 chance per hex.

Essentially this exploration allows the players to both identify the terrain of the hex and informs them as to an outstanding features of the hex—is there a castle? a lair? a tribe of humanoids? It seems like the type of adventure for 7th-8th level players to engage in.

Clearing a hex: This process is clarified on page 24 of ODD.
"Clearing the countryside of monsters is the first requirement. The player/character moves a force to the hex, the referee rolls a die to determine if there is a monster encountered, and if there is one the player/character's force must remove it. If no monster is encountered the hex is already cleared. Territory up to 20 miles distant from a stronghold must be kept clear of monsters once cleared—the inhibition of the stronghold being considered as sufficient to maintain the monster-free status."

What does this mean logistically? You have to clear the site of your castle, and out to four hexes in every direction (at 5 miles a hex). That's 95 hexes, for an average of 16 encounters. Here are the 8 encounter options presented for a forest hex:
1. Men (30-300)
2. Flyer (Ex. Rocs 1-20)
3. Giant (Ex. Orcs (30-300)
4. Lycs (2-20 werewolves)
5. Lycs. (2-20)
6. Men (30-300)
7. Anmls. (Ex. 10-100 pixes)
8. Dragon

So, you can see that clearing 20 miles may present a bit of a challenge.

This provides a core of wilderness play. It covers design, travel, discovery, and taming. A process for pushing back the frontier. acquiring territory, and moving into conflict with other fortresses and lords.

As complete as this is, there is still something missing.


What we have is not enough. We need more. What of the mythical unknown?

One of the stipulations that Victor notes in his search for when the wilderness encounter table is used is that even though those 20 miles may be cleared, the wilderness always encroaches. So from 0-5 miles you roll city encounters. From 6-10 miles you might have level 1 dungeon encounters on the list. From 11-15 miles you might have level 2 dungeon encounters on the list, and from 16-20 miles you might have level 3 encounters.

The other thing he notes is that dungeons, often, lie within civilized lands.

So what we are left with is the idea that "exploring" and "clearing" the hexes just addresses the proud nails. What's left is suitably wild, though perhaps not of particular interest to name level characters.

So in addition to having unexplored dungeons in civilized lands, and somewhat more controlled groups of monsters (maybe a gnoll raiding party numbering 20, versus the 220 gnolls the lords killed), you can also have pockets of mythical wilderness!

This is where pointcrawls and zones (to avoid the genericness of area) come into play. The general idea is, much like the dungeon is an area of high resistance, so is the mythical wilderness.

In each hex are four possible kinds of areas. Bastions of civilization, rolling terrain covered with wandering monsters—the local ecology—not power groups that are rolled for and cleared when clearing or exploring, point crawls which are mythical wilderness-style areas that are treated as areas of ineradicable wildness and magic. And finally zones, (usually at the many points of a pointcrawl) which are simply small maps (like dungeons and ruins) that are uncovered and cleared (though the possibility of restocking always exists). Zones are usually dungeons, but treating ruins, abandoned keeps, and small clearings, caves, and lairs as alternate zone types provides a lot of variety on the players end. Reference the video games Baldur's Gate 1 & 2 (or any of it's many spiritual descendents) for exceptional and creative use of zone wilderness design.

Hexes fail when applied to finer terrain. This is the key insight behind the development of pointcrawls as a middle point between Zone style play and hexploration. It is simple. The 6 mile-hex is our minimum structure. Our atom. You can't subdivide it into further atoms without serious issues. So instead, we deal with the hex as having an interior structure made up of structures, people, and sites. ("Citadels & Castles”, “Ruins & Relics”, “Idyllic Islands” and “Lurid Lairs”.) Once located within the hex, each represents a point, with the distance between covered by wandering monster checks, weather, and a specific one-line description of the terrain. Voilà! It's game structures all the way down.

But how to maintain that sense of discovery? Where is the wonder and awe in exploring the wilderness. This idea must feed back into design.

We must assume that even though the hex is cleared, that this has only eliminated major threats. Smaller, hidden threats, can still be present. Secondly, in addition to many landmarks being visible on the hypothetical pointcrawl, many should not be, and should only be locatable by actually visiting the location. The fact that the landmarks visible are not sequential (they have more to do with their location and visibility in the hex) means the path through the pointcrawl to them, as well as other features remain hidden to be discovered by the players during exploration. Finally, there can be both obvious and unobvious paths, much like secret doors, requiring either foreknowledge or wilderness expertise to locate.

Further, this is what differentiates wilderness exploration from dungeon exploration. When you begin wilderness exploration, many landmarks are already visible, as opposed to all being obscured by the dungeon.

The above outlines the core of the adventure within wilderness exploration.
The following amazing resources are some of what I use in play and design.

CDD#4 Old School Encounters Reference
Telecanter's Wilderness Travel Mini-games and challenges
Telecanter's list of Geographic Wonders

*It's important to note here, that by no means did Gygax exclude the idea of chaos being iminical to civilization. He also postulated exploring cities as adventure, because there are types of chaos that can lie beneath a veneer of civilization. As noted in the possible city and castle encounters, he included the unknown city interior as wilderness. 

Also, I'm able to spend time working on these topics thanks to your support. If you liked this article and want to see me continue to produce content, please support me on Patreon! Thanks for keeping me from starving to death!

Hack & Slash 
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