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[Wilderness] Running River Based Adventures in BX/BECMIby Mike Harvey
Fun topic, I love rivers in the wilderness because you can do so much with them. Normally I just ad-lib but a table makes it easy to enumerate ideas, so...
CROSSING: A river may not have a good ford for quite some distance. Nearest good ford is in the next wilderness hex upstream and/or downstream. If you insist on crossing here, roll 1d12:
1. cliff or abrupt bank, no easy access to water. You could jump in (10-60 feet) but no way to get out.
2. steep bank or shale, you cannot approach without sliding into the water, and no way to get back out
3. thick foliage/briars and marshy ground. Animals may lair within thicket. You will need an hour to find your way through, 4x if you have horses, impossible with wagons.
4. slot canyon so narrow and slippery you can't even see the water without risking falling in
5. water is extremely deep, no way across except to swim. Swimming in current will sweep you downstream.
6. water is rough: whitewater, eddies, strong currents, undertow, waterfall, save vs death or drown
7. strong current and deep water will sweep you against rocks, 2d6 damage
8. river floor is very slippery slimy mossy rocks, almost impossible to keep footing, DEX roll each round or fall, 1d4 damage and be swept downstream
9. area is full of leeches / catfish / piranhas / crocodiles / hippos / giant crayfish / mosquitos / stirges / snakes / freshwater clams / etc. Don't neglect the idea of fire ants or bees nests in the trees around the river, those will ruin your day.
10. river is very wide here, twice as many rounds to cross it.
11. river is choked with boulders/logs, extremely difficult terrain. 2-12 hours to climb across, save vs death or lose grip and plunge into the water
12. multiple hazards. Roll twice more on this table. Multiple 12's stack. Multiple results increase effect.
Creek: 1-6 rounds to cross, Small River: 2-12 rounds to cross, Large River: 20-120 rounds to cross and requires swimming/rafting.
I took a trip to the Amazon basin once (Cuyabeno / Ecuador). The water was opaque like chocolate milk and very deep at all times with a steady current. I have no doubt there were large fish in there but you couldn't see them. It was a small river, only maybe 50-100 feet across where we were, but very deep. The guide said the piranhas will only attack if they haven't caught any monkeys lately or if you're bleeding. Caymans are always a danger and lurk along the banks hidden by overhanging trees. The trees are full of dangerous insects and it's best not to touch them unless you know what you're doing. Anacondas were often coiled around tree roots near the water's edge. Tarantulas and worse spiders were omnipresent. Once a tarantula fell into our boat when we were close to the shore and hid itself among the clutter, freaking everyone out (but not enough to capsize). In many places the river has flooded the forest for a hundred feet past the apparent "edge" of the river, so you'd have to wade through a cayman-infested swamp with very thick foliage just to reach the dry land. The guides took us swimming but only in the middle of a large deep lagoon a thousand feet from the shore, because the dangerous fauna was mostly in the shallow water near the trees. They said the lagoon was especially dangerous because there were no monkeys for the fish and caymans to eat, so they were always hungry and aggressive. Of course in D&D there would be sea serpents and stuff in the water, and dragons flying overhead, and lizardmen throwing spears from the trees. (And in the forest you have cover to hide you, but on the water you are a sitting duck, exposed for all to see and no way to quickly get to shelter.)
Rivers in the USA have their own hazards, which is what I based the d12 table on above.
Also, +1 for Deliverance!
I'd also like to add the converse: rivers make great "highways" to explore the wilderness, and a riverboat makes a wonderful "mobile base" for the PCs. In the known world I've GMed a lot riverboat travel with few hazards other than the usual random encounter checks. Lots of hazards turn rivers into an obstacle to be avoided, but ordinary hazards make them attractive.
Benefits of river travel are, as mentioned, a mobile base. You can carry lots of supplies and bring men at arms. You can carry your loot back out. The boating rules in the Expert book are simple and lots of fun, and players have fun hiring crews and marines. A mounted catapult gives mid level parties a fighting chance against big monsters. There are unique river encounters like termites and pirates that you don't normally get to use, so it's a nice change of pace. River adventures are a good choice if you want to focus less on logistics. In my experience players really enjoy running their own boat, it's a crowd pleaser.
Another benefit of river travel: it is linear! You can predict exactly where players may go, and can plan interesting encounters. It is a lot like a dungeon crawl in that regard. On foot players can go literally anywhere, but a river constrains them; even moreso if they have sunk a lot of cash into riverboats and crew. They'll go ashore but won't stray too far. Civilization tends to cluster along rivers first, so the shores are where they are most likely to find towns, castles, old ruins, and similar things. No worries about wandering the wrong direction in the forest, there's no way to miss an old ruin on a cliff overlooking the river. A river in a place like Karamiekos or Darokin is also where you're most likely to meet merchants and other travelers, whether on boats or hoofing it along the banks... roads and trails often follow rivers. And where there are travelers, there are bandits preying on the travelers. Everything is simplified and concentrated, but in a believable way.
So, you don't have to make rivers super-challenging to have fun with them.