Table of Contents
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was Nintendo’s first real attempt at bringing one of its marquee franchises to a new console. While that meant that a lot of fans expected it to bring something new to world of Zelda, it also meant that those same fans had more or less been playing the same formula for 20+ years, since the release of Ocarina of Time. Nintendo managed to be quite successful on both counts. While Breath of the Wild felt comfortable and familiar to anyone who’s played Zelda in the 3D era, it also brought a whole host of elements that felt fresh, and new by comparison.
Instead of tying dungeons together with narrative threads, and occasionally dumping players into limited sandboxes, Breath of the Wild is almost entirely propelled by exploration. Sure, there’s a central plot unchanged since, well, pretty much ever (save Zelda, defeat Ganon), there’s almost no propulsion toward the narrative, beyond the player’s own navigating the unknown world.
To further encourage this shift in approach, gone are the lengthy, puzzle-filled dungeons capping off narrative blocks. Replaced instead, with puzzle and combat challenge shrines hidden throughout the map. These are the keys to player progression.
Additionally, this is reinforced with various item durabilities, cooking recipes, and upgrades tied to this sense of exploration. While not novel on their own, these concepts—pardon the pun—breathed new life into the franchise, and the result is a masterfully crafted experience that is exhilarating and fun.
No doubt none of this is particularly new to most people reading this blog, but one thing that I believe in as a DM, is acknowledging when something is just…fun. Nothing more, nothing less. When something is fun or joyous, there’s undoubtedly something in its makeup that can be translated for inclusion in our campaigns.
Ultimately, that’s what these “Anatomy Lesson” articles will be about. What if we wanted to lean heavily on the framework of Breath of the Wild in a campaign we’re designing? What is the essence of the game, its success, fun, and how could we emulate? What if we just wanted to run a Breath of the Wild campaign, where the party—instead of just playing Link—play the Heroes of the Calamity?
Points of Light
I talk a lot of “points of light” campaigns as it’s a key feature of the types of campaigns I run (West Marches), but, Breath of the Wild uses the concept so nakedly.
The concept that the party, or player is handed a map that is entirely dark until they either explore it themselves, or find something that helps illuminate it, are the essence of a points of light campaign.
In the case of Breath of Wild, the first thing a player is taught is how to seek out Towers and activate them to illuminate the area around them. It is also the most direct way for players to define purpose in the game.
So many times in BOTW, Link will learn or hear about something (a point of interest, a plot point, a quest), and won’t have any idea where that is until they reveal that part of the map.
In essence, Breath of the Wild is a solo points of light campaign. I would be lying if I didn’t get a good chuckle out of the fact that players in BOTW mark items on their maps with literal points of light. Like I said, it uses this concept pretty openly.
So, great, we’ve identified that the most overarching concept in Breath of the Wild is that it’s literally a points of light-style campaign. How do we successfully translate that to our campaign?
The truth is, there’s probably a lot of you already running this style campaign, as it’s not exactly a new concept. For those of unfamiliar, there’s too much ground to cover on how to run a successful points of light/West Marches campaign in this article alone, but we’ll leave with some good cornerstones. You could also just lift directly from Breath of the Wild, and probably be okay.
That said, here are some general ground rules for a BOTW-style campaign.
Provide an initial nudge, and get out of the way.
Whenever you start a campaign, it’s key to have a macguffin, a reason for doing anything. For most campaigns this in an event or enemy that will be the driving force until the end.
In a points of light/West Marches campaign, the players and their exploration drive the story, accomplishment. As a DM, you need to set an initial goal, set up the logic behind how to continue propelling the story forward, and then get out of the way.
Breath of the Wild does this very simply: In order to progress past the initial sandbox (Great Plateau), you need to explore, and seek out your first point of light/expansion (Sheikah Towers). The game asks the player to do this before it even introduces the fact that Zelda is in peril. It’s a simple nudge that enforces the expectation of exploration. You want more to do? Find a point of light, get more to do. Rinse and repeat.
That’s the goal for you as a DM, nurture that expectation. It’s also good to explain how to do that (in BOTW it’s find a Tower, climb it, activate it). Once you’ve done that, the players will begin to drive their own narrative, in search of the next point of light.
You will of course develop new ways to leave clues, or amp up the expectation of adventure, but that initial understanding should always be available to the players.
Reinforce exploration with exploration.
This probably sounds redundant, but, it’s important that the logic of your game builds upon itself. In points of light games, the key is exploration. It stands to reason then, that, uncovering more points of light (a feature) should be possible through exploration (a mechanic), too.
Breath of the Wild does this through two of its most core exploration mechanics: climbing and exhaustion (both of which we’ll touch on later). It reinforces its most important plot-driving features with its two of its most important mechanics. This logic helps develop and cement player expectation that is self sustaining. That propels players to own their own experience, and seek out that which interests them.
Towns are safe. Wilds are Wild.
This is lifted directly from Ben Robbins (originator of West Marches), and is absolutely vital to the system, and to emulating BOTW.
It is important to delineate that towns equal respite, while the wilds equal danger, or action. The adventure is always “out there,” and towns offer nothing more than rest, basic needs, shopping, and perhaps an occasional red herring. Nothing ruins a campaign built on exploration faster than offering a town that is as thrilling an experience as the world outside it. Town should be almost entirely functional, and the more interesting Town becomes, the less players will go exploring.
There’s a reason why the wilds in BOTW are filled with so many travelers, dropping hints and lore. It’s to keep the excitement and purpose outside of Town. Spending time in Town should feel anathema to the campaign itself.
We’ve talked a TON about exploration already, but that was mostly the theory of exploration. Now it’s important to apply the mechanics of it.
By and large, mechanical exploration is an undercooked part of table-top RPGs. Even in a points of light game. In points of light games, exploration takes on the context of exploring a map to uncover narrative and adventure. It’s rarely about the act of traversing the wilds, swimming to the bottom of a lake, or checking under a rock. It’s rarely about the mechanics.
This isn’t terribly surprising either. When was the last time you played in a campaign that made overland travel exciting? It’s not even the DM’s fault. Objectively, Dungeons and Dragons and the many games it influenced are not about exploration. They’re about action, adventure, and the roleplaying that spins out of that. Exploration tends to get lumped into the idea of a “passive encounter,” and most DMs breeze through it, or simply fast travel.
For BOTW though, its sense of adventure is driven by exploration. Not only in seeking out new shrines, or combat challenges, but the thrill of finding unknown flowers, animals, or sprawling vistas. There’s always excitement waiting at the top of every new mountain climbed.
How do we bring that excitement to our campaigns? Well, I’ll be honest, it won’t be easy, and it will probably be the most complicated thing to mirror from BOTW. As always, the below concepts you can take or leave, depending on what does or doesn’t work for your campaign.
Travel is paramount in Breath of the Wild. The player is given three main means of overland travel (Walking, horseback, glider), in addition to climbing and swimming. It is the connective tissue of the player’s adventure, and the means on which most mechanical exploration is played. Travel in BOTW is fraught with danger; monster spawns, combat trials, dangerous weather, deadly puzzles, and of course, the guardians, all imperil overland travel.
To mirror the danger and adventure of travel in BOTW, I’d choose to treat it much the same way as a dungeon.
First, including a tactical grid on the world map. This serves the game in two major ways. One, it helps signal to the players that even while traveling, the wilds are wild, and the possibility for danger is always present. Two, it provides the DM a hook on which to hang random encounters.
I know there’s a lot of feelings about random encounters, both from DMs and players, but that’s essentially what a majority of BOTW’s overland encounters are, and there’s some guardrails we can put in place to make the encounters feel more earnest, less antagonistic.
Before we get to that, though, let’s define the use of the tactical map during overland travel.
Tactical world map
In dungeons, tactical maps use grids to define distance, and we’d use them much the same way for overland travel. Obviously, the scale will be much different. For the overland, one square/hex might equal 200 feet, or five miles. Obviously, that scale might depend entirely upon your map, and how distant you want your points of light to feel.
I tend to define my scale by how far I feel is reasonable for the party to travel on foot in a single day. For me, this is the simplest math on which to adjudicate travel. One square equals one day of travel. Things such as mounts, favorite terrain, and even encounters might impact the speed at which the party can move. I’m going to include a table of possible guidelines for travel speeds.
|Type of Travel||Travel speed (per day)|
|Foot (Wilds)||1 square|
|Foot (Road)||2 squares|
|Foot (Favored Terrain)||2 squares|
|Mount (Wilds)||2 squares|
|Mount (Road)||3 squares|
|Mount (Favored Terrain)||3 squares|
|Difficult Terrain||1/2 square|
|Combat encounter faced||1/2 square|
I don’t believe in making it more complicated than that. The biggest crime overland travel can commit is making it more arduous (from a gameplay standpoint) than core mechanics of the game. I’d refrain from making it too crunchy, or cumbersome, or creating a slog getting from A to B. Even in the case of emulating BOTW the destination should as important as the journey.
The one thing I might add, is giving the party the chance to split during travel, to fan out and explore the route they’re taking to their destination, and incurring multiple roles of random encounters if you’re using them. You’ll want to keep it reigned in, however. If you allow this, make sure the party sets a destination before travel, and all movement must be made with that destination in mind.
Random encounters, until they aren’t.
Random encounters can sometimes be maligned because of the perceived lack of fairness. They can be seen as a tool of a harsh DM in hopes to “level set” a party that is exceeding expectation.
For me the key to earning trust in random encounters, and ensuring they’re a source of entertainment, and not frustration is to put up guardrails that ensure fairness. My guardrails are below:
Set a frequency for random encounters. Let your players know what that is, and keep to it. That frequency might differ depending on how grueling the campaign is meant to be. For me, I like an encounter every two days of travel.
Ensure that not all encounters are combat, or adversarial. Perhaps one encounter is the party stumbling across a flooded temple in a nearby lake. Give players advantage on all checks to explore the temple.
Random within limits. I like to define an ecosystem for random encounters. I do this most often by creating map regions. Region by region, players can expect certain encounters. That can mean monster type, less combat encounters (signaling nearness to civilization, safety), or any definition you choose to add. For me, this also means different encounter tables by region. As the overland map being defined by the players is key to this type of game, I would never mark the regions on the map, but, it’s useful for driving expectation: “oh, we’re in the Maul Woods, and, every time we’ve been through here, it’s been mostly orcs and beasts.”
Decide whether to roll your encounter die out in the open. Let the dice follow the same rules as a player dice roll; higher numbers are favorable to the players. If so inclined, you can also leave your encounter tables in the open. One last thing I like to do is to use the same dice every time for random encounters. It’s usually unique by color to any of the other dice I’m rolling. I find this is important for players trusting the honesty of the roll, and to understand the cadence of random encounters. It creates familiarity, and that always helps trust. If you have total buy-in from your players, this will be wholly unnecessary.
Random encounters should feel different from the encounter the players are seeking; more challenging. The reason for this might not seem obvious, but it helps to set a mental map for the players that this is not the goal for the session, to tackle this random encounter, nor is it the goal of the DM to punish the players be throwing a bunch of monsters at them. It is merely a function of exploring the wilds, which are dangerous. This will impact how the players see exploration, and also how they approach encounters. They’re less likely to empty their health and magic reserves facing a random treant if they know they’re still headed toward a goal set by them. It’s also a good way to let the players know that there are challenges that are beyond them at any given moment. That as they explore deeper into the wilds, the dangers they face grow more and more severe.
If an encounter resolves without the players having achieved the goal of the encounter, it remains where it was until completed. That encourages the player to come back and face the challenge when they’re ready, and if they’re not, they can avoid it all together. It also conveys a sense of permanence, fairness to the world. That random counters don’t exist just to make life difficult for the players, but that the wilds are living, and the danger is real.
Once the players have triggered a random encounter, it is okay to let them pass the rest of their time traveling without subsequent disruption. We want the wilds to feel dangerous, but we don’t want random encounters to feel like the purpose of the game, especially when exploration-based games succeed on the purpose being defined by the players.
Check back in for Breath of the Wild 102 where we’ll discuss the gameplay mechanics behind skill challenges, foraging encounters, the glider, and so much more!
Full Anatomy Lesson
Introduction | Points of Light | Exploration | Overland Travel | Tactical World Map | Random Encounters
Weather | Climbing & Swimming | Exhaustion & Stamina | The Gilder
Foraging | Skill Challenges
Cooking & Crafting | Weapon Durability | Armor Boons | Item Upgrades
Shrines Not Dungeons | Divine Beasts (but also dungeons) | Runes |
The Master Sword | Anachronisms