The ability to track one’s foes is a common fantasy trope, and a very useful skill for an adventurer. This type of challenge is useful when the PCs must pursue an NPC, forge their way back to civilization after beign lost in the wilderness, locate a hideout, lair, or den, or blaze a new trail through dangerous territory. In reality, tracking through the woods can be very difficult. It takes training, patience, and time. To simulate this, we will create a trail through the woods which perceptive players will be able to navigate.
Note: Tracking challenges should never be used in player versus player conflicts. When following another player, you will have to track them fairly, without assistance from staff members.
Creating a Trail
Drag a heavy log through the woods, leaving a wake of disturbed leaves and crunched twigs. To adjust the level of difficulty, vary the size of the log or the speed that you’re dragging it.
Alternatively, you can leave tough-to-spot objects as trail blazes. Easy ones include bits of fabric tied to branches at eye level or markings on a tree. More difficult blazes might be on the ground, such as colored stones or dropped spell packets. The difficulty can also be varied by spacing out the clues, forcing players to move slowly through the woods as they look for the next blaze.
Some challenges might require players to find a certain number of blazes. For example, to keep on his trail, the party must find at least 10 of the 20 spell book pages dropped by the necromancer as he escaped.
Just like in real life, it’s extremely difficult to track someone after sunset!
Assisting a Tracker
Once a tracker has spotted the beginnings of a trail, she can point it out to her party so they can help too. People shouldn’t have to ignore clues that they can actually see! It’s much easier for large groups to spot a trail though – so increase the difficulty if the tracker has a whole party of helpers.
If you are running a tracking challenge in which only certain players should be able to follow the trail, use a subtle blaze and only let those players know what it is. For example, some races have an excellent sense of smell. They can find trails that others can’t. You can clue them in that a yellow leaf thumbtacked to a tree represents a scent trail, but forbid them from telling anyone what the marker looks like. (This isn’t a foolproof method however – other players might be able to figure out what blaze their companion is looking for.)
At Trail’s End
If the destination at the end of the trail is highly visible (such as a cabin or group of NPCs), it won’t be hard for players to find it through luck alone. Instead, have them searching for something smaller which represents their success.
For example, when tracking a person, you may not be looking for the person himself, but a clue about their destination. You might find a road sign which points to the Silverlake Road. When the tracker locates this sign, it indicates she discovered where her quarry was headed. She can then return to the marshal and say “I’m pursuing him down Silverlake Road.” This triggers the module where the tracker and her party close the distance and catch the escaping criminal.
Or when looking for a monster’s lair, you might find certain marks on the ground or trees which indicate you’re close to the heart of its territory.
If the tracking challenge had a time limit, the party may discover their quarry is already too far away, or that the monster has already returned to its lair.
Finding a Safe Route
Tracking Challenges can also be used to simulate forging a trail through dangerous territory. This is a variant of the tracking module, where players are actually looking for the lack of blazes. You mark “dangerous territory” by putting “anti-blazes” in the woods to represent the territory of hostile wildlife. This could be shredded clothing, bloody rags, or bones.
Players must chart a route through the dangerous territory by tying cloth blazes to branches. None of these blazes may be within line-of-sight of an anti-blaze. At the end of the adventure the tracker will have to walk an NPC through the trail who will verify that it is safe.