Wilderness exploration can be just as detailed as a dungeon crawl, if you know the terrain well enough to give it a variety of tactically useful features as the DM. Generally speaking, you’ll be interpreting symbols on a map and relating that information to your players. These symbols are general in nature; just knowing that you’re in a forest isn’t as useful or interesting as knowing that you’re on one side of a deep but narrow ravine in a forest. If there happens to be a random encounter, the ravine will probably be tactically important. Even if there isn’t one, this gives players something less abstract to think about than just making wilderness skill rolls.
If you happen to be someone who spends a lot of time out in nature, in a wide variety of climates, and thinking about how to describe what you see, then this kind of improv is easy. You could probably do pretty well faking it if you read enough of the right books, which would probably have to include both fiction and non-fiction. I can’t do it though. I need a prompt.
So I’m making die-drop tables for various terrain types that fold all that into the encounter check roll, starting with jungle because that’s what I’m running at the moment. Pretty basic layout, obviously riffing off the inside cover tables in Vornheim. Whenever the PCs enter a new hex, I roll a d6 and a d12 on this (printable download here).
|sized to be cut out and stuffed in the box that a 12 pack of ramen comes in, as all|
die-drop tables should be. apologies for the shitty typography. consider this a draft.
The position of the d6 determines the geological terrain (down the left edge) and vegetation (across the top). The position of the d12 determines the temperature (across the bottom) and current precipitation (down the right edge).* So far it seems to still work when I’m drunk but this aspect requires further testing.
An encounter occurs on a 1 in 6 as usual. The d12 is there because I like using d12 encounter tables. If I ever wanted to use a 2d6 or d100 table instead, I would use three different colors of dice and ignore the position of the encounter check die. Or something.
One weakness of this system is somewhat unrealistic weather that doesn’t connect precipitation to temperature shifts, but I really doubt anyone I play with is going to give any shits about that. One strength is that the weather is unrealistic in a way that's kinda crazy and fun. It tends to change, sometimes wildly, every few hours. Most weather results have mechanical effects associated with them, so they’re usually relevant to gameplay and harder to ignore.
Same thing goes for the terrain; some features can be obstacles in and of themselves, some give the players something to explore** or exploit, and others create tactical opportunities. You know that type of tactical thinking where the intrepid dungeon explorers lead the orcs into an ambush that makes use of that pit trap they found? This sort of detail lets the players do the same thing in the great outdoors.
*this layout won’t always apply; when I do one of these for deserts, it’d make more sense to do something for wind speed & direction where precipitation is on this one.
**okay so you’d still have to come up with something to be in the caves they found but that’s something I’m a lot more comfortable making up as I go along.