What to do with today’s prompt: Forest. Do we take this literally (How to portray forests in a game…) or metaphorically (the ol’ “forest for the trees” canard)?

Answer: both!

Let’s start with the metaphorical. When planning a game, or even being a playing interacting with the story and setting it is easy to get wrapped up in minutiae. We’ll start with the GM side of things. Maybe you haven’t had a lot of time to plan. You’re focused on the next session. This isn’t necessarily bad for the first few sessions, but having some kind of point to a story is pretty essential. Why are they doing what they are doing? Who’s the big bad (if there is one)? What will the denouement look like. It’s a good idea to have some kind of generalized idea of where you want a campaign to go. (But have a Plan B…because Plan A isn’t going to survive contact with your players.)

It doesn’t have to be in depth. Let’s use a Star Wars campaign as a sandbox here: I want the players to 1) get mad at the Galactic Empire or start as rebels, 2) the have an initial introduction adventure that gets them on the heroic path, and 3) get their group a starship bad enough to fight back to 4) help a specific world fight the Empire, leading to 5) the fight with the big bad (in our case Sith Inquisitors), and 6) liberate the world or get martyred trying. There’s plenty of wiggle room for side quests, and it’s vague enough that if they don’t get through one of the waypoints, you can simply give them a similar challenge to overcome. This is especially useful if someone has a ‘”destiny” or there’s a premonition of something to happen that a character has. Make it vague enough to switch elements of this destiny-connected moment. Maybe they don’t see the face of the person their fighting, just the lightsaber color. It’s dark. They’re super-focused in the premonition and lose important details.

Keep the pace up enough that they are focused on the here and now. Have them look at the trees while you build the forest.


Forests are good places for things to happen. They’re so much more than “You are in a thick forest. There is a footpath you can follow…” What kind of trees? Are they healthy, dying? How’s the light? Is there noise? How about smells?

They provide cover not just to you, but to the bad guys. Woodland sounds, from birds singing to bears farting and grunting, to wind in the trees — there’s plenty of noise that can make it hard to hear someone coming. the foliage can be dense; it’s hard to see a threat until it’s “grabbed you by the belt”, as the Vietcong used to say. There’s animals to distract or attack. Some animals have a pretty strong smell. If’ you’re downwind from a bear, you know. If there’s a skunk in the area, you know.

When you take away noise or some aspect of the forest, you can create real suspense. The noise in the forests just stops…why? The dense tree cover makes it dim light, and there’s constant sounds of things moving in the brush, breaking branches, strange calls or grunts… Throw in some fog or rain. Especially the heavy rain that obscures vision and drowns out noise. What’s that strange smell? What is this strange footprint in the mud?

Forests have different qualities. There’s the cool, damp green of northeastern America or medieval Germany. Its smells and feel much different from the different from the “forests” of southwestern America, where the dry cuts down on smells, but when you do smell something, it’s usually strong and nearby. This is different from the jungles of India  and the those are different from the Amazon, or the Congo. Different plants, bugs, animals.

Making a forest unique can be a challenge, and nothing says you have to go heavily in depth, but even just a few snippets of information — “the trees are tall, their branches high above you, and their canopy obscures the light” — can tell you something. For instance, that example suggests climbing the tree to get a better vantage on something might be difficult. You’re not going to climb a redwood without gear. (Also for all the dark and damp, the redwood forest I was in was warm, even with the cool ocean breezes on the coast.)