Friday, 21 September 2018

Forests in roleplaying games


Aside from the dungeon, the forest is potentially the most ubiquitous environment in fantasy roleplaying. Chances are you've passed through, delved into and become lost in a woodland on many occasions. We love forests because they're liminal places. When you enter one you're in essence transported from one world to another - one where things might work a little differently.

Folklore has a lot to answer for here. Back when common fairy tales would have been told, the woods were a real risk. Bandits would waylay travellers, while some held the danger of wolf packs on the prowl. So tales were populated by witches, fairies and goblins. The forest became its own character - dark, gnarled, enchanted, forbidding, mysterious. One sure thing is that you'd never be the same person coming out as you were going in.

I don't believe in 'passing through a forest uneventfully'. For me that's like taking a quick detour through a dungeon where nothing happens. This is a place where you can let your imagination run riot. Start by thinking about the character of your forest. What's its essence? Is it filled with dread? Is it a confusing place where paths shift? Is it a tease to lure in strangers before showing its true colours? Is it playful and enchanted? Then think about how its character affects the forest physically. A forest of the undead would probably be blackened, rotten, replete with fungi. An enchanted forest will be brighter, with flowers, birdsong and little calm pools.



Every forest needs a guardian - a creature that could be good or evil (or neutral). This is the being that, above all else, locals are aware of. They tell tales of the guardian in taverns, they have folk songs about it. You might decide on creating some rumours - some true, others false and it's up to the players to discover which is which. Guardians aren't necessarily the most powerful beings in the forest, but they should be the catalyst for how the PCs are altered. Witches are common forest guardians, like Baba Yaga in her chicken-leg hut or the witch in the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. These are the essence of the forest personified, usually found at the heart of the wood.

Aside from the guardian, you've got the flora and fauna of the forest, some of which will be working with the guardian (whether they're conscious of it or not), while others will be neutral or perhaps antagonistic to the guardian. I like to have at least one helper in the forest - a wise old hermit, a dark elk queen, a happy Muppet - whatever it is, it's going to act as a guide through the forest, perhaps giving them a clue as to how to defeat the guardian. They can also equip the PCs with something to aid their quest (think the Phial of Galdriel). At least two warring parties in the forest can allow the players to pick a side (and face the consequences of picking a side).

I love the forest. It's an organic funky dungeon where you can pretty much do anything you want. The above is just a template I like to use when designing them, but don't let that hold you back from adding and removing elements.