The Dungeon Master’s Guide does a fantastic job of addressing what were fast becoming “old school” systems for some time: getting lost and random encounters in the Wilderness. With a capital “W” because in D&D there is only ever Dungeons, Settlements, and Wilderness. The following optional rules expand the Getting Lost section in the Wilderness rules (DMG p. 106-112), providing more opportunities for the player characters to interact with wilderness exploration, hex crawling, and provide a framework on which to hang a slew of new ways to lose hit points, increase their Exhaustion, or otherwise get killed, as adventurers so often do.
It is important to note that these are two separate-but-related systems: (1) Getting Lost (this article), and (2) Random Wilderness Encounters by Terrain (see Dungeons & Dragons 5E: Revised Wilderness Exploration System Part 2 – Random Encounters). The beauty, as you’ll see, is that they operate off of a single table for easy reference!
In order to understand how and when a party gets lost, let’s start with how they can avoid getting lost:
- If the party is following a road or path, they will not get lost.
- If the party follows a guide native to — or intimately familiar with — the region, they will not get lost. A player character can be a guide, if their origins dictate.
There are exceptions to these rules, such as magical effects or obscuring weather, but those situations can easily be arbitrated: if the circumstances of the terrain, inclement weather, or magical means obscure a path or render the guide ineffective, the party has a chance of becoming lost.
Step-by-Step Wilderness Travel
Step 0. The DM’s Map
Assuming the party is not following a path and isn’t following a guide, they are essentially wandering in the wilderness. This is when they stand a chance of getting lost. Before anything else occurs, this system requires a hex map of the area. It may be from a published adventure or campaign setting, something the DM conjures up on his own using Hexographer or draws out by hand, or randomly created as the party goes (perhaps using AEG’s Ultimate Toolbox to determine the terrain and sites located in a particular hex). Refer to the Dungeon Master’s Guide for more details on mapping and scale when preparing your campaign.
Step 1. Choose a Direction
The destination of the party needs to be determined, and is often self-evident based on the events of the campaign. It can be:
- Follow the treeline, river, or some other feature
- Head due West (or some other direction)
- Locate the hidden shrine in the southern part of the Dagger Hills
Regardless, this gives you a direction that the party is headed on your hex map. That’s what ultimately matters.
Step 2. Choose a Pace
The adventuring rules in D&D cover three paces: slow, normal, and fast. Between the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, as well as the scale of your hex map, it shouldn’t be hard to determine about how many hexes the party will travel through in a given day at any of these paces. The party chooses their pace at the start of the day (after their breakfast, morning exercise, and whatnot), and that is assumed to be their pace throughout the day.
Step 3. Navigation Roll
At this point, the party makes the navigation roll that’s rolled by the party member who is designated as the Navigator. The details of this roll — and pertinent sources of modifiers and Advantage — are described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 111-12.
Optional Rule: Alternate Navigation Checks
You can replace the navigation check with an Intelligence (Nature) check at the same Difficulty Class. Alternatively, you might require a map or some other source of information as a prerequisite before allowing a character to use this skill.
Variant: Group Navigation Checks
You can mix-and-match these skills, handling them as a Group Check. However, characters performing other tasks during travel — mapping, foraging — cannot make a navigation roll.
Step 4. Results
If the party succeeds on the navigation roll, they head in their intended direction, traveling a number of hexes dictated by their pace. If the party fails the navigation roll, there is a chance they will become lost. Consult the Wilderness Encounter and Lost Chance by Terrain table at the end of this article for the chance of becoming lost by terrain type of the hex and roll 1d6. Remember, you are rolling at the start of the day, so this would be the predominant terrain type of the hex the characters start the day in. If this roll dictactes that the characters are not lost, then they travel as intended. If the result is that the party is lost, roll on the Lost Direction column associated with the terrain type to determine which direction they travel for the remainder of the day.
Example: The party fails their navigation check while traveling through the forest. The DM rolls a 6 on 1d6, meaning they are now lost (lost chance for a forest is 5+). The DM now rolls on the “Any” table for Lost Direction, as that’s what the table tells her to do. She rolls a 2, resulting in 120-degrees right of their intended direction. That’s nearly going back where they came from in the first place!
Assuming the party has become lost and traveled a day in the direction rolled on the Lost Direction table, there’s usually some opportunity for them to realize their mistake and correct course. Landmarks, encounters, interactions at settlements, or something as simple as the next day’s navigation roll can inform the party that they are no longer headed in their intended destination. This simulates any number of in-world clues: the position of the sun or stars, natural occurrences like moss growing on the sides of rocks or trees, the flow of water, wind direction, the movements of animals, and so on.
If there are no obvious clues that the party is lost through the course of the adventure — interactions with NPCs or monsters, stumbling across obvious landmarks in a particular hex, etc. — then simply repeat Steps 1 through 4 each day. The Lost Direction becomes the “intended” direction for the day, pace is set as normal, and then the navigation roll is made.
If the navigation roll is successful at any point after a party becomes lost, they realize that they are indeed traveling in the wrong direction. Spending 1d6 hours allows them to automatically correct course and realize which way their original intended direction is (but not necessarily how far they’ve gone in the wrong direction!). If for some reason they cannot spend this time correcting course, roll for Lost Chance again, using whatever hex terrain makes the most sense when they figure out they are off course; this means they could start heading in the correct direction, or, if they become lost again, they may veer even more wildly off course (or potentially back on course simply by accident).
If the navigation rolls continue to fail and no encounter- or interaction-related events occur that clue the party in on the fact that they are lost, keep rolling for Lost Chance and Lost Direction as normal. This represents that they might simply stay on the same (incorrect) course of travel, or they might continue wandering in different directions.
If the party should ever travel through the same hex more than once while lost, this should serve as a clue that they are indeed lost, at the DM’s discretion. There are times when the terrain is so consistent and uninteresting that the party may not realize their predicament, but this can be especially punishing in most campaigns, and should not be considered lightly by the DM.
- Chooses their intended direction
- Chooses their travel pace
- Makes a Navigation check
- Takes 1d6 hours to correct their course if they discover they are lost, and repeats Steps 1-4.
- Interprets the results of the Navigation check.
- If the party succeeded on the navigation check, they travel in their intended direction, moving a number of hexes dictacted by their pace (modified by the terrain type, of course).
- If the party failed their navigation check, the DM rolls for Lost Chance. If this indicates that they are lost, the DM then rolls for Lost Direction to determine the direction they travel for that day.
Note that the Day and Night columns on the table below do not influence these wilderness navigation rules. They are solely intended for use in determining the results of Random Encounter checks (see the article on Random Encounters).
Table 1: Wilderness Encounter and Lost Chance by Terrain
|Terrain||navigation DC||Lost Chance (1d6)||Lost Direction||Day (1d6)||Night (1d6)|
|Ocean||10 (15 if overcast)||6+||Any||3+||5+|
Table 2: Lost Direction
- 1-3 means the party has veered left of their intended direction by 60-degrees (one hex-face).
- 4-6 means they have veered right of their intended direction by 60-degrees.
Roll 2d6; these are separate rolls, so do not total them. Roll 1:
- 1-3 means the party has veered left of their intended direction.
- 4-6 means they have veered right of their intended direction.
- 1-3 means they veered 60-degrees of their intended direction.
- 4-6 means they veered 120-degrees of their intended direction.
- 1 = 60-degrees right of their intended direction.
- 2 = 120-degrees right of their intended direction.
- 3-4 = 180-degrees of their intended direction (they’ve completed turned around).
- 5 = 120-degrees left of their intended direction.
- 6 = 60-degrees left of their intended direction.
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