This month’s Unearthed Arcana takes us on a journey. That’s the, um, topic. Journeys? Anyway, this is a rules module for when hour-by-hour wandering through a wilderness region isn’t right for the situation. As Mearls explains in the intro, this is for when you have a destination in mind and a decent general idea of how to get there. As a sideline to this, I’ve done a breakdown of overland-travel rules in D&D, The One Ring, and Dungeon World, over in Harbinger of Doom.
Now, Mearls is completely up-front about the biggest hurdle to using this system: it’s a lot of extra prep, or as he puts it, “They also require that you take a new approach to designing the wilderness regions of your campaign as a DM.” This is not a joke. If you’re a low- or no-prep DM, this system is not for you. Having said that, the day it’s official, you’ll see collections of one-page region writeups for sale from third-party publishers, solving that problem pretty neatly. Let’s hope they’d decide to add these rules to the SRD, and then let’s have a good – if rueful – laugh about the idea of them adding anything to the SRD while they’re working so hard to boost the DM’s Guild.
A core element of this document is the Navigation DC. This ranges from can’t-fail – an obvious road with no obstacles – to very difficult (DC 30), with an allowance for checks you can’t even roll because they’re outright impossible. Given the examples for DC 30, I’m not sure how greater skill is even helpful, since it’s talking about magic that eradicates all clues that a skilled survivalist would use, but it’s fine. Within the source fiction, only an act of the gods or the master of an ultra-hidden destination ever permits the heroes to find it.
A DC of 30 means that Survival expertise, guidance, or Bardic Inspiration could bring that well within reach. Within reach for several days in a row, if we’re talking about a multi-day journey, is a much taller order, but I suppose if you’re only missing by 2d6 miles each day and you have some way to regain your bearings when you start out the next day, some failure might not matter.
Failing a Wisdom (Survival) check against the Navigation DC earns you a roll on the Becoming Lost table. This table has only two results, both of which involve further dice rolls. It’s not clear to me which result is the worse outcome. The document doesn’t suggest what it takes for the PCs to figure out that they are lost, or to correct course.
Mearls suggests creating a table of terrain elements and conditions that might apply whenever you shift from overland movement to the tactical map, including d100 probabilities for each feature. He suggests two always-present features, and a few others that are decreasingly likely from there. There’s nothing especially innovative about this as information presentation, and you’re creating a high probability of features that the players never discover. You can explore a region for a whole lot of encounters before a 5% chance turns up.
There’s a whole separate conversation about whether content the players never observed or learned about in-character is still part of the game. I don’t want to get into that in depth here, though, so let’s say it’s not a great use of the DM’s prep time. Now, if the PCs are going to be in this region for ages and ages – as Mearls’s four named dungeons suggest to me – then yeah, leaving in room for unlikely things that surprise the players and the DM when they turn up could be a good idea. Most of us save those kinds of surprises for the random encounter table, admittedly.
Example: Moon Hills
In practical terms, there are almost no other rules to this system. There’s a lot of guidance on its use, though, including examples of interesting things to include in a one-page writeup. I appreciate how hard this piece works to teach interesting travelogues. Mearls, I think, desperately wants overland travel to never again be “okay, you have one wandering monster encounter along the way, then you’re there, with nothing else interesting along the way.” A lot of the DMG’s text is instructive in this way, without being rules in the normal sense, so I’m not about to criticize that choice here.
The Moon Hills have a lot going on: influence from three planes (other than the Material Plane, that is), what I assume to be four different dungeons (gotta admit, I respect their evocative names), a current or former community of minotaurs, and so on. In addition to the page of rules, Mearls offers a bullet list of reminders on how to present the region to the PCs at the table; there’s enough going on that this is an important minimum level of information storage.
I would hope that a triple confluence of the planes doesn’t become an expected “normal” state for large regions. That’s the kind of thing that fit 4e’s aesthetic a lot better than 5e’s. (In fairness, this is for Nentir Vale, so seeming 4e-like is simply correct.) The difference comes down to the question of whether any place is simply the Material Plane, devoid of influence from the heavens, Hell, the Abyss, the Feywild, the Shadowfell, the elemental planes… In short, if that effectively became required to use these rules well, the whole document loses much of its usefulness to me.
In all, though, I think this document is a strong foundation for presenting a hexcrawl or an overland journey. The worst I can say is that it needs more handling for what happens once you are definitely lost. Pulling the information together into what could be two facing pages of an adventure is a huge improvement for presentation. I suspect that in an actual rulebook, you could fit all of that onto one page and have room left for an art asset. It teaches interesting region design more than it lays out a system. If anything, that’s the nobler of the tasks.
In comparison to The One Ring‘s system for journeys, this doesn’t do as good of a job of capturing hardship and struggle. The One Ring is full of bad things to do to the PCs to punish failure in their roles within the team (typically punishing everyone for the individual’s failure). The DMG’s overland-travel rules, which are still part of this document’s rules, take up some of that slack, but still. What this UA does well is present a magical, capricious world, and remind DMs how to set the stage (narratively and tactically). There are surprises around every corner in Mearls’s Moon Hills, and you’re probably going to crisscross that region a dozen or more times in the campaign. Unlike The One Ring, some of those surprises aren’t orcs or goblins.