So, the D&D Dungeon Master’s Screen Wilderness Kit ended up in my holiday stocking. 

While I’m not a product reviewer — other gnomes are more talented and dedicated to such tasks — I thought I might share a few thoughts on it.

As a DM tool, it does several things really well. I know this because it replicates elements that I’ve long been utilizing with homemade supplements over the years. 

But, they’ve been nicely packaged together and presented in a single format, which is utilitarian. It’s held together in this paper folder, which I expect will have the lifespan of most paper folders. 

Still, it’s what’s inside that matters — and here it hits most beats for what a DM needs for running wilderness encounters.

First: Magnificent painting of a mountainous wilderness vista across four panels of the player-facing side of the screen. Display that at the table and you’ve sent an unmistakable message: We’re going on a wilderness trek! Credit for the illustration, by the way, goes to Grzegorz Rutkowski.

Second: Inclusion of three numerically keyed hex maps on letter-sized sheets that have been laminated for dry-erase markers. What better way to track your adventuring party’s hexploration than with these? While, it is true, the three hex maps do not interlock — that’s a pity — each one represents a 10 x 10 area — that should be sufficient for most roleplaying sessions. (And if you are the sort that uses a hex grid for miniature combat encounters, they are very close in size for that, as well).

Third: A set of cards for tracking initiative and references for conditions. They fit in a handy little box you construct out of the same paper as the folder. They are similar to the cards that came in the Encounters introductory set. I doubt I’ll use numbered cards for initiative, but numbered cards do have other uses — especially as round counters for spell effects.

Fourth: On the backs of the hex maps and on other sheets there are ready-references for relevant rules, such as Actions In Combat, Wilderness Chases, the sequence of a Wilderness Journey, and a dry-erase chart for tracking party member supplies of food and water. (More on this farther on down)

Five: The meat of a wilderness-focused screen is what is printed on the DM-facing side, and largely, it does not disappoint. There are rules references for weather and the effects of temperature extremes, travel pace, roadside services, encounter distance adjustments, wilderness navigation by terrain, how sound travels over distance, rules for cover, light, obscurity and visibility, the speed of air and water vessels, foraging DCs and the associated costs for food and drink at whatever inn or tavern you might stumble across, should your foraging be unsuccessful or you think the queen’s rangers are on to you for poaching. 

That’s a lot. There are also general rules printed for setting DCs, trap damage, object AC and hit points and the always useful skills and associated abilities list.

My only quibble is a repeated printing of the Conditions rules, which takes up a panel and a half. Given the inclusion of the ready-reference card deck, it seems unnecessary. If anything, maybe that should have been printed on the back of one of the hex sheets.

The Conditions are a quirky bit of the 5E rules set, one of those things that might not come up for several sessions, yet, then appear repeatedly in combat after combat. And in the Player’s Handbook, they are concisely presented on three pages in Appendix A, which is useful. And generally, I’d agree: including them on a DM screen is good sense, simply because it eliminates page-turning during combat. 

I think, for instance, the inclusion of Conditions was fitting for the D&D Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated, which has proved itself as a useful screen for dungeon crawls and low-level adventures. That product is geared for new DMs or DMs becoming accustomed to 5E rules, and benefits from having them. 

I’d argue, however, that for a wilderness-themed screen, I’d much rather have rules specific to wilderness play in that space. (Besides, as we’ve established, the Conditions rules already appear in another form in the product). All the information contained on the Wilderness Journey sheet, including the sequence of wilderness play (which it calls Journey Circles), rules for becoming lost (and found, hopefully), wilderness encounters and discoveries and rules for supplies — would be a better choice for the DM-facing side of the screen. 

In fact, the Wilderness Journey information, will most certainly be the most referenced set of rules by those DMs taking their game out into the wild for the first time.

 

My own wilderness encounters

My own rule-of-thumb for wilderness encounters is a bit different. I also think when fixing random encounters, letting chance do its work on the “when” portion is also fun. So here it is.

Point-to-point travel on established roads. I figure on one encounter for the entire journey. Most likely, it will be with bipedal intelligent folk, who, like the players, are trying to get from place to place. Merchants, peddlers, soldiers, couriers, farmers on slow-moving vehicles — you get the point. That’s because, while roads in D&D realms aren’t the safest places, they are established trade networks. Plus, I try to make such an encounter work for the adventure — which is at the destination anyway. I’m more interested in salting the players’ landscape with information, rumor and mood than I am with a random band of bugbears (though, there’s nothing I love more than a roving band of bugbears, believe me).

Overland exploration. The current fashion for random wilderness encounters is a 10% chance per day. To me, that’s far too infrequent to be interesting. (I can go on an afternoon hike at a government-managed park or trail nearby my home and have more encounters, for goodness sake. The wildlife isn’t likely to eat me, but you get the idea). Overland exploration is that part of the game that as DM you drive home the fact that D&D is a heightened fantasy experience. This is why ordinary folk don’t venture far from their cities, and why their towns have palisades, and why it takes courage (or desperation) to be a guard on a merchant train. You step into a hex, there will be an encounter. That part isn’t random. Better to roll for “when” the encounter will occur and “what” it will be. Roll two d12s. The first is an odd-even for AM-PM, the second is for the hour. Now you know “when” (and your players don’t), go to your favorite random encounter chart and chuck that percentage dice. And, you can spice up the “where” of it all by rolling on the Monuments or Weird Locales charts on pages 108-109 of the DMG

“Following the mountain goat trail, you come upon the toppled statue to Istus, goddess of fate and destiny. It is mid-morning (about 9 a.m.), as you look into the sky, a winged creature appears silhouetted against the sun. What is it? It’s a wyvern, and it’s swooping down toward you!”

Yes, it’s time to roll for initiative. 

Guess I need those initiative cards after all.