There remains a space betwixt the the home and the dungeon. Swathes of wilderness, shadowed and unmapped except for its boundaries are callously sliced with trails and roads, eager to avoid those shadows between the trees. It is not uncommon for such wilderness to serve as set piece or setting. A point of mild interest along the way while adventurers eagerly blaze a trail to the nearest sunken catacomb or crumbling fortress.
This lack of danger or interaction is an injustice to the potential the wilderness has to offer.
Consider a walk through the woods. Winding listless trails, trees growing tight, and the light beginning to be choked out by the canopies above. Every nature trail or hiking path presents a labyrinth of sorts, a stretch of hallways and switchbacks populated with wildlife and hazards; the larger they are the more risk of danger a traveller will be. The most famous trails or walks are populated with points of interest, some naturally occurring landmarks and others made by unruly teens with spray paint and knives.
With a glimmer of imagination it becomes easy to recognize the tell-tale marks of a dungeon. Those landmarks, pocked with graffiti and littered with the trash of others become rooms; those winding trails that come dangerously near to cliff edges become precarious hallways; and of course that lone bear that prowls the slopes in search of food, becomes the chief denizen of this rocky maze. What constitutes such a wilderness dungeon is all just a matter of translation.
Why a Wilderness Dungeon?
There is little reason not to use a wilderness dungeon. By form any forest or spot of wild lands has the potential to hold a wilderness dungeon. They present themselves as bastions of terrible natural forces, each containing monsters and hazards that drive hardened killers out like screaming children, but allure them all the same with promises of riches and power. Overtime particular forest or swap dungeons even accrue a legendary status (“Fangorn Forest” and the “Bog of Eternal Stench” are two such places). Wilderness dungeons are as ubiquitous as they are unique, and a clever GM will easily have use of them.
Forest as Dungeon
A roof made of twisted leaves and branches, a labyrinth of wood and fen, and in every corner lurks a desperate beast, ever hungry for the soft flesh of civilized folk. Forests are, in a way, already a dungeon. They encompass large expanses of area, are filled with multitudes of life and hazards, and are peppered with odd areas of interest to be explored. The trick comes in translating the abstract elements of a dungeon into the space of a forest or wilderness setting.
One key part of a dungeon is the “rooms,” the places of action and encounter where puzzles are solved and monsters are slain. In the context of the wilderness, these “rooms” become points of interest, each one scattered across the expanse of forest and connected by trails or tunnels. One such “room” may be a grove of trees, guarded by shrub-men adorned in corroded armor; another room may be a fast moving river, a single decaying bridge with an enormous spider that desires coin for safe passage. The “room” within a forest can be any point that may provide rest or an interesting development.
The idea of a dungeon does not require architecture. A dungeon is comprised of “rooms” and “hallways,” places of interest and ways to get to them. Outside of that it is simply a matter of filling these spaces with traps, monsters, puzzles, and dressings.
Trails as Corridors
There are no walls in the wilderness. There are no corridors, no hallways, or gates. The only real indicator of travel are the overgrowth paths and shadowed trails that connect one location to another. At any point a player may choose to ignore the given path and blaze their own trail through the woods. Perhaps this is done to find a quicker way from one place to another, or maybe to escape a combat encounter that has gone south in the worst possible way. There is no need to stop them in this pursuit, a competent ranger has no need to heed a trail.
However, this lack of walls is not without dangers to characters. The trail exists, because it is the safest and most efficient way from one point to another. To step off the trail risks becoming lost, attacked by the wildlife, or any other multitude of hazards and downfalls. A trail may not be the quickest way from point A to B, but it should always remain the safest.
There is another hazard that comes with the lack of walls, and that is the lack of separation between the Wilds and the characters. A dungeon is merciful in that there is generally a clear separation of where dangers are and are not. A wall is trusted because it is inert and impassible, a monster does not generally spring from the walls in a typical dungeon, which is what makes the wilds so unpredictable and dangerous. Without walls, a monster is free to wander from place to place, prowling the trails and lurking in the unexplored. The negative space that exists outside of the paths and mapped areas is host to every unimaginable horror and monster. To delve into it is an immeasurable risk, and the random encounters that dwell within it are willing to prove it.
A trail exists as a hallway not because it has walls, but because it is safe. There is no rule against avoiding the trail, and there should not be. The key point is that outside of the trail is unpredictable risk that players should be made well aware of.
Distance as Hazard
The wilderness is large. This is not to be facetious, but the scope used in the layout of a dungeon is utterly dwarfed by a true, untamed forest. A person could feasibly walk the length of a haunted crypt, a ruined abbey, or tomb of horrors after an hour or so. They are a trial of wits and blood but not necessarily of distance. This is something that the wilderness introduces.
The distance from one point of interest to another by way of a trail may be minutes or hours in length. Rations and food become thin and the deeper into a forest you go, the longer it will take to return to civilization. The wilderness kills not just with trails of wit and blood, but with a crushing battle against distance.
This is not to confused with a battle against time. Running an adventure necessitates action, movement, and progress. A stretch of hours is not a blow against the players time, but their character’s resources. Distance should require them to make choices on whether to rest for the evening and risk the area they cleared being restocked with monsters, or push on and suffer exhaustion.
There are few things a dungeon can do that a forest cannot. More often than not a forest introduces a wealth of new opportunities, choices, and hazards to both player and GM. But more interesting than that, it provides an opportunity to re-contextualize the purpose of a dungeon. If a dungeon exists separated from the wilds and wilderness outside, perhaps it is not as dangerous in comparison. Perhaps the lich or dragon slunk into the deepened recesses and darkened places of the world out of fear and necessity; a defensive redoubt against whatever horror made them scurry like starved pups
Perhaps the dungeon was built to keep the wilderness out.