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There’s a certain amount of tedium associated with foraging. And let’s face it, spending any lengthy amount of time just picking flowers, looking under rocks for bugs, or diving for scallops can get tedious (I’m looking at you, Animal Crossing).
That’s a pretty damning way to start a section on its inclusion in your campaigns. Tedium is often the opposite of fun. I’ve spent the majority of this series saying if it isn’t fun, don’t include it. If you and your players are not having fun, throw it out.
So why even bother with foraging? And that’s an important question. If you’re asking that question, you might already have your answer: don’t. If it doesn’t seem interesting enough to include, toss it. The other questions to ask are: is it still fun? If not, can it be fun? If so, how do I make it fun?
Pretty much the only way to answer any of these questions, is to ask your players. This would be a perfect subject to toss onto your campaign survey or prospectus.
There’s a chance your players might be cool with it no matter what. I took a potshot at Animal Crossing, but it’s undeniably fun. Your players might agree!
I run campaigns for people who—it turns out—are primarily hoarders that suffer the need to collect all the things (I too, am that way). Historically, without a concept of foraging, I would do what a lot of GMs do. Avoid it. No one wants to be bogged down in a never-ending cycle of collection, scavenging, or looting bodies. I’d often conclude an encounter with auto-looting. Automatically assuming my players would do it, and just telling them what they would find.
Which is to say: they’d probably really enjoy roleplaying it because they’re inclined to do it anyway. I avoided it purely for time-saving purposes, but if there’s fun to be had by everyone at the table, by all means.
If your players are like this, the answer to the first question is probably yes, it would still be fun. If not, there’s a good chance the answer is no, it’s not fun. That’s where the second question comes in: could it be?
I’m a firm believer that ANYTHING can be fun, when handled correctly (again, looking at you, Animal Crossing). If having the ability to collect anything and everything not nailed down (and some things that are) won’t be a driver for your players, making foraging fun is a slight more difficult ask, but not impossible. The key is to tie it to something they want. That could be anything. From exposing more of the map, to uncovering an objective or background on a recurring villain. The one thing that 100% of tabletop RPG players want is progression. Ways to make their character stronger, cooler, better.
Foraging in Breath of the Wild was key to many forms of progression. It gave you the components to cook up strong, temporary buffs. It provided ways to improve the effectiveness of your gear, craft unique gear. It even expanded your inventory slots. It’s an important take away from the game: in every possible way to progress the player character, there is a path through foraging, exploration. Again, reinforcing a key tenet of the game.
It’s important that your foraging encounters are also tethered to the progression players are naturally inclined to seek.
Setting up a foraging encounter
The first thing to do when setting up foraging encounters is training your players to expect them. Run them through a quick tutorial, as they may not be aware of their existence until you do.
There are three important takeaways you want your players to have at the end of this tutorial encounter.
- The narrative context clues you provide to signal it might be a good place to forage
- That they can control—at any time—the ability to start a forage encounter
- How to play a forage encounter
There are many common narrative clues that you can use in the tutorial to suggest a foraging encounter. At any point during exploration you can use the characters with high passive perception, or an affinity for nature to point out unfamiliar flora or fauna.
You can also use far more time and detail describing a point of interest, or noteworthy detail that can be foraged. I would avoid being overt. Don’t frame it as “the blood-red bulbs of the yet unknown flower pique your interest.” The reason for that is simple and ties back to a principle we’ve been building on this whole time: in exploration-first games, the players drive the action, and the DM is passive, reactive, reinforcing the exploratory nature. It’s far more keeping with the spirit of the game to frame the same scenario as “a vibrant pop of color seeps through the tall grass, as the blood red bulbs flitter gently in the soft breeze.”
This is obviously more detail than you’d spend on just any flower. The players will pick up on that, but, the decision to have an opinion or interest in it remains theirs. You did not tell them it was new flora, and you didn’t force an interest in it. Chances are your players will then ask if they recognize it. Which they won’t, and they’ll want to explore it because they don’t.
Having your players understand that they trigger foraging encounters with or without narrative clues is a much more challenging task. Frankly, depending on your players it might require explicitly stating “that was a foraging encounter. You—as the players—can do them any time you’re not in combat, or any sort of danger.”
The only other way to encourage this understanding is to just do foraging encounters a lot, and, tie that language to the event.
When players say they want to look for food in the wilderness? If players say they want to loot the ambushing goblins’ bodies? Maybe The party just limped away from a fight with a frost druid. Now they want to find the last lily-white beetle needed to get full immunity to cold damage before trying again? For each of these instances, let them know that they’re initiating a foraging encounter.
Even in the previous example of seeing the unknown blood-red flower, and saying “I’d like to go investigate the flower, and probably pick the bulbs,” let them know that triggers a foraging encounter. This is the only way to cement that foraging encounters start on their decision, they can initiate, and are not a set situation or area on a map that you, the DM had in mind.
Running a foraging encounter
There are probably countless ways to frame foraging in your campaign. I’m going to focus on the one that is the most successful for me. I refer to them as foraging encounters because I run them more or less like encounters.
Any time a player says, “I’d like to forage here,” or does an action like investigating blood-red flowers, that more or less indicates initiative, I set the scene. Beyond narrative hooks of the surrounding area, I will use a map (doesn’t have to be detailed, or accurate, it could literally be the previous dungeon cleared of monsters, or entirely theatre of the mind), and I’ll set one, two, or however many I’m feeling, initial points of interest. This might fluctuate depending on passive perception, how flush with life or possible things to scavenge the area is, it’s really up to you.
I’ll then tell players they have x number of foraging rounds (this number can be anything, and can be adjusted for any number of reasons, like those listed above).
The order in which players act is rather inconsequential, but the idea of initiative order is so fundamental to play, that the encounter will likely go smoother if you use one. This could be anything, even ol’ fashioned, rules-as-written initiative.
Instead of initiative, or dice rolls, I will often use skill bonuses to determine order. In a verdant meadow, we could determine initiative by the value of the players’ Nature skill bonuses. The higher it is, the earlier a player acts in initiative order. In a musty old library full of long-lost secrets, we could use history instead. In the years I’ve been involved with this game, I’ve often seen the excitement of game night dramatically tempered because fickle dice have made the wizened old mage—whose entire character is built around their intelligence—routinely bring up the rear in the smarts department. So, I choose to reward character choices, without having to find mercy from the dice.
With points of interests and initiative set, the encounter begins. I don’t generally impose strict movement rules, and keep to a pretty basic sense of action economy. Passive actions like scanning the area for potential new points of interest, or trying to find something that the player recognize within the area are bonus actions. Active actions like clipping a flower, or stalking an animal is an action in the economy. Once a player has used both a bonus action and an action, their turn is over.
Expanding a foraging encounter
Thus far, you could be convinced that I’ve done a terrible job supporting the need for all this additional work, creating encounters, initiative, and action economy for something that is just effectively done—and with much less time and hassle—than would be done with our friend, the auto-loot.
And that’s true. The key to making these moments worth your effort and time, is how you embellish them. Every action a player takes during a foraging encounter requires a skill challenge. Players can determine which skill is best, and how to use it.
For many things, the appropriate skill might seem obvious, but the player hoping to perform that action, might be dreadful with that skill, and so they might choose to use another. Let them. It is important that you don’t determine the most critical path to success on behalf of the players. Again, they drive the action.
I’ll use an example to illustrate this in better detail.
Let’s say that during a foraging encounter, a player would like take down a tree to harvest for wood. Something simple that any player could do, and, the solution for doing so seems simple: cut it down.
If the player were a ranger, they might just use a Survival check to use an axe to cut it down.
Instead, if the player were a druid, they might use a Nature check to convince the tree to lend it some of itself.
If the player were a warlock, they might use an Arcane check to blow the tree up, instead of cutting it down.
Lastly, if the player were a barbarian, they might use Intimidation and try and topple the tree by yelling at it!
All of these options are valid, and should offer a path to success, rewarding players for moments of character-driven ingenuity. The odds to success don’t have to be equal, of course. The ranger’s DC for cutting down the tree for wood might only be a DC13. With the druid trying to sweet talk a tree, the difficulty might be DC18. For the warlock blowing up the tree, and not setting it on fire, destroying all the wood, DC20. Lastly, our barbarian, hoping to fell a tree by yelling at it really loud, DC25.
Everyone knows you can simply cut down a tree to harvest timber, so why would ANYONE instead choose to yell at a tree instead? One reason is because the inherent belief that a higher mechanical bonus improves the odds. If our barbarian is inexplicably looking at a +10 bonus to Intimidation, and a +1 to Survival, that seems like a much more successful path, even if it isn’t given the escalating difficulty. They don’t know that. The second reason is that you have to reward that bit of roleplay. Not only would I give the barbarian Inspiration for the absolutely daft, but entertaining attempt, but I’d also embellish the opportunity.
Let’s say that when the barbarian intimidates the tree with a fearsome scream—whether it’s a success or fail—the violent outburst scares several creatures from the nearby brush, including a golden fleece jackalope! Now that barbarian has one inspiration die at their disposal, and gave the party a new, high-value point of interest, that may be better suited to their skill set!
Reacting to your players, and the choices they make is key to opening up the foraging encounter, and making them as engaging as combat encounters. The more that you reward these character-centric choice with Inspiration, additional points of interest, the more dynamic the encounters become. Players will begin to focus on their uniqueness like they do in combat, they’ll work together to secure elusive points of interests, switch off activities to others better suited, and prioritize targets. Especially if some of the points of interest are able to escape, or there are more things to collect than the timer would allow.
All using skill challenges, and their skill bonuses.
I think that a quick rundown on the history of skill challenges is important here, because they tend to pretty divisive.
When skill challenges hit the scene, like just about everything in 4e, they got a bad wrap. Many say fourth edition is considered the ultimate gamification of Dungeons and Dragons. Where the “game” part of the system was brought to the surface. It was always there, but a lot of DMs coming from Third Edition felt like 4e pulled the veil back too far, and it felt like a series of button presses; levers being pulled. It was like playing a video game.
For skill challenges, that feeling was magnified, because in essence, skill challenges are quick-time events from video games. They’re reactions to cinematic events and the players are just propelled through.
It also doesn’t help that at the time when 4e mentioned skill challenges, quick-time events were facing pretty dark days themselves. maligned by the video game playing community.
Games like Resident Evil 5 were locking some of the most interesting moments behind QTEs that were punishingly brutal requiring exact button presses to move forward, did not allow branching paths, and often forced the player to start all over from scratch. All very punitive to the player.
It’s important to remember where QTEs came from, how they were done successfully, and why the industry flocked to them.
I’m not a video game historian, but I believe Shenmue was the originator of the QTE, and certainly the game to coin the phrase. In Shenmue, QTEs were pulse-pounding cinematics that mimed the experience of a blockbuster film, but at your fingertips. The player felt heroic. They also allowed the player to make mistakes, reactions, as the results on screen reacted to how you performed. This resulted in the game being driven forward by the player and being rewarded with a truly cinematic burst in their adventure which few mechanics could match, and not the game punishing the player.
It’s key to approach skill challenges in the same way:
- Be reactive, and let the players drive the action as makes sense to them
- Allow mistakes or interesting choices be part of the experience
- Don’t punish players for choosing their approach; react accordingly
- Give branching paths, even breaking out parties if their approaches become distinct
- Do not require exactitude, but impose restrictions on over-using the same skills
- Be cinematic in your narrative, and let the players have blockbuster moments
Skill challenges have had a bit of a resurgence within D&D and TTRPGs, and it’s in part because they offer a blockbuster or cinematic feel to sequences that normally lack that heroic nature. In other words, it offers the gameplay a heightened sense of excitement that few other avenues provide. They have a bit of tainted history, mottled in part by the very video games they aimed to emulate, and the key to their successful use in your campaigns is to understand where they’ve failed, and approach them in ways—like above—that maximize their benefit, and mitigate their pitfalls.
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