Smouldering Embers: The Use Of The Camp Fire Scenes In Modern Roleplay.

Posted by: Jason Silverain / Category: , , , , , , , , , ,

Flitting restless as the loaned bedroll did little to cushion the packed soil beneath it Tiasel cursed quietly, groggily sitting upright swaying slightly from the growing headache. While normally able to rest anywhere within the city the keen senses she relied upon to keep her safe now acted against her, the mixture of unsettling silence and moments of unfamiliar noise repeatedly roused her from the little rest she could manage.
A sudden surge of anxiety twisted and knotted her stomach only growing as she found herself scrabbling for her rucksack, her fingertips confirming that her mask still lay within the hidden compartment within her hands withdrew still shaking slightly even as the panic receded.
Glancing down at her softly trembling fingers what little panic remain was replaced with anger at the former Mayor of Pryham as another curse left her lips, now fully awake it seemed impossible to keep out thoughts of the events of the day.

In retrospect she had been more than fortunate, the group of mercenaries that had rescued her had allowed her to join them giving her protection and prospects of making some money while simultaneously putting as much distance from the capital as possible. However something was simply strange about the group, she had encounter self proclaimed 'Adventurers' in the city often gesturing and posturing about the wealth they had obtained and often losing said wealth in binges of gambling, drinking and wenching, this group didn't seem to fit that at all.
Closing her aching eyes the throbbing in her forehead eased for a moment though the air within small tent the dwarf Sandell had loaned her seemed stuffy and hard to breath, leaning through the hide flaps the nights chill greeted her face filled with scent of leaves and embers as she now crawled from the tangled bedroll glad not for the first time she was well practised in sleeping in her leathers.

The fighter applying a whetstone to his blade looks up as the ranger steps out from the surrounding undergrowth, cocky smile on her lips as she reveals her success holding up a pair of rabbits and some wild root vegetables before joining the cleric who is currently cooking dinner over the camp fire. Meanwhile the rogue finishes unrolling the last of the bedrolls and furs within the parties shared tent aided by the wizard who chants incantations to ward their possession from insects and other unwelcome guests...

The camp fire scene is iconic in almost any roleplay though its game mechanic effect varies between systems and settings, its also a common sight in fantasy film, literature and most recently video games often used as a time for the party to rest, recuperate and discuss with one another.
However in spite of all this I ask as a player when was the last time in your campaigns did your group set up camp and it went beyond organising who was on watch and a roll for random encounters?

Now this isn't to say that groups are not roleplaying as in depth anymore, in fact even back in the original Dragon Warriors books of 1985 while providing the rules for random encounters and resting the premade example adventure and the campaign The Elven Crystals often glossed over travel using it more as a story telling element.
Its quite understandable that as roleplaying systems (most notably Fate) in recent years have tried to emulate movie or play like scene to scene layouts in order to promote a fast pacing of action flow and between these scenes healing occurs “off screen” that the camp fire scene use has dwindled further.
It should be noted that this is not necessary a bad thing, much like shopping is not always suitable to roleplay these scenes as it can upset the pacing or mood that the DM is trying set, trying to roleplay the camping scene every night for a long journey would quickly grow tiresome. In systems such as Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder many rules that require additional book keeping are often glossed over, simplified, house ruled or ignored, rations, non magical arrow ammunition, encumbrance and random encounters are all the most common rules affected. Since food rations and possibility of random encounters are often factors that influence setting up camp the loss of these risk factors can make it somewhat superfluous from a mechanics point of view.

Now it is interesting that Tavern scenes and scenarios are still widely popular and common though on the surface they share the same purpose as resting up at the campfire there are several key differences.

  1. The Presence Of NPCs: Arguably the most notable difference, in personal experience with my own parties over the last 10 years I've noticed players may be reluctant or shy to roleplay in character when speaking to one another or pursue possible cross party agendas but will be more than willing to chat to NPCs and use them like puppets. Part of this is due to player personal preferences some groups dislike having inter party conflict or romance due to possible issues with player/character separation (who hasn't heard stories of groups dissolving after two or more players took a character death by another party member personally). Another issue is simply that some players simply will not know what to do or discuss because they are talking to another character who already knows everything they might talk about or alternatively certain players (particularly newer players) may feel uncomfortable with been in the spotlight. While there may be NPC's such as followers, fellow travellers or captives in a camp fire scene more often than not the party knows the exact alliances and motivations of these NPCs (or in some cases be directly under the control of another player) so there is no mystery or risk.

  1. A Variety Of Additional Purpose: A camp fire scene has arguably 3 core purposes: to rest, eat and heal, to create a temporary area of safety and to allow time to perform tasks such as changing equipment, interrogating a captive or performing a complicated spell, wait for a contact to arrive etc. A Tavern can cover all three of these in its own way and provides more possibilities such as gathering information (both discreetly and overtly), indulging in celebration and vice such as drinking and wenching, acquiring supplies and wealth (through merchants, fences and gambling) as just a few examples and because of this it retains more of an important role even into the later campaign as the party gain access to versatile magic. In addition a campfire scene in nearly all scenarios occurs while the party is travelling between locations (even if that location is between floors in a dungeon) whilst a Tavern might be a stop between locations or lie in the heart of destination if it is within a city.

  1. Location And Illusion Of Safety: Even if a Tavern is owned by the local thieves guild and has a two people drinking in the corner who a group suspects wants them dead a tavern will nearly always seem safer than a camp. This may seem a strange claim but when analysed it is down to the simple fact that far easier for both a player and character to identify possible risks and sources of danger. After all you only really have to analyse the people within the tavern, if your worried about been killed in your sleep you barricade the door of your room and check for possibility other entrances, if your worried about poison you eat your own food and drink, in the case of a fight its often well lit and attackers are visible. There is no worry about possible roaming monsters, the elements, the possibility of the shelter collapsing and all the other issues that may affect a camp and because of this players are more likely to engage and take risks and be involved in scene where in a camp scene its set up, make a strong fire, deploy spells and bunker down.

  1. Player Familiarity: Simply put many players and dungeon masters are more personally familiar with the concept and imagery of a tavern through media and personal experience making it far easier immerse themselves into the scene. Often camp fire scene in films and book shows the characters recuperating and mentally relieved at the break from the events of the day or alternatively nervous and in fear of what may occur during the night, but because of the detachment between the player and character and often the emphasis on heroic roleplay its difficult to portray either of these feelings in roleplay.
So how is the camp fire scene still used? Well for some groups its still an important for roleplay and character development and plays out much like the introductory paragraph of this article, this is more likely to occur in low magic settings or with low level parties in Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder where the mechanical effects of resting are more important and a party simply cannot cast Mordenkainen's Magnificent Mansion and be all but immune to ambush and the elements.
More often than not its condensed down to a few survival checks for suitable location organising who is on watch or just a time skip by the DM, in special note to scene skipping this habit grows somewhat problematic for arranging unexpected attacks and ambushes on the party simply as by asking the question “Who is on watch?” or “What do you do as you set up camp this evening?” will make the party immediately wary in a similar way that the DM asking if a player is sure about committing to an action will make them pause to think.

I've found in my personal experience that the traditional role-played camp fire scenes occur very early in a campaign but as travel grows more routine then it is often overlooked or reduced to a few simple questions it is only when new elements that change that routine occur that these scenes are role played in character and examples of these are meeting new travelling companions whether NPC or Player and this can include captives, when the players find interesting relics and artefacts that they did not have time to examine in detail and when the players are under stress such as been hunted.
Location has an effect on this as well, scenarios such as fortifying a room in a dungeon to rest in or when the party is under threat (such as been hunted like mentioned above) often had my own groups both as a player and DM act far more involved in and often prompt camp fire scenes.
Its my observation that the reason behind this is that in these situations the party in the mentality of an encounter much like a tradition fight or trap where as traditional camp fire scenarios can be considered party 'down time' and something the players to gloss over so they can continue with the action.

Overlooked, glossed over and made redundant by magic and house rules even so just why do I think the camp fire scene is still important? Two very simple points:
  1. It allows wilderness classes such as Rangers and Druids to bring their skills forth and gives them some time in the spotlight.
  2. It creates a scene where characters can interact with each other in a casual, non stressful manner.

So the next question is what can be done to make the camp fire scene more appealing, well here are a few game elements I've personally found to help:
  • I've introduced more encounters with other travellers on the road such as day to day merchants, PCs in the wilderness may also encounter stray animals, a lone hunter or even another adventuring party though I try to limit these encounters. It helps bring detail to the world and helps with players who have trouble role playing with other player characters.
  • Describing possible weather and conditions that may affect possible camp sites, this combined with some detailed descriptions of the land have lead to rather entertaining side adventures as the parties refused to stop and sort out better camp sites.
  • I also have a general rule of a single camp fire scene per journey (unless the players want more or a event causes another) unless the journey is particularly short. This reduces the problem of the party growing overly wary when questioned about camping as mentioned earlier.

Other Dungeon Masters have also highlight the issue and have created their own sets of house rules some of my favourites are Telecanter's Receding Rules article on camp site mechanics which has two of my favourite rules quoted below:

Music in the wilderness means you are not afraid of being attacked and what reminds characters of home more than the songs of home. +1hp per level per night in camp where music is played. The idea came for having bards as hirelings, but I've allowed characters to buy and play their own instrument. This costs some money and takes up encumbrance space. And how about the noise? I wouldn't want to penalize too much, or players would never play music in camp, maybe just a +1 to encounter rolls.

The Hearth
If the campfire is the extension of the hearth, maybe it should offer some protection against the dark. I'll repost an idea here:
A cleric, or anyone versed in the Old Ways, can take a stone weighing a half-stone or more from the night's fire. By incorporating it into the next night's fire ring they make that fire a hearth. Each night of doing so makes the hearth magic stronger. Undead and shape changers can not enter the light of a true hearth.
Half-stone is ~7 pounds which is one of my simple encumbrance slots. I'm not interested in the bookkeeping part now. Maybe just, using the hearth a second time on gives the protection, but skipping a use in a fire will mean you have to break the stone in again. Particularly old stones taken from ruins or abandoned cottages might function as magic items that give extra bonuses. 

WCP over at Escape Velocity Gaming also very much liked these suggestions and has expanded them in a further article and gave the idea of particular wood properties when burned.

The Campfire Fuel
Telecanter discusses a hearth stone idea that is tremendous. In the same vein, I like the idea of a particular type of wood helping the party. If those with botanical knowledge harvest these special woods to burn in the fire they enjoy some varied bonuses.
Wood with its effect
Barkbane This thick-barked wood is purported to keep all dogs and wolves at bay and is found to be nauseating to lycanthropes (any lycanthrope suffers a small attack penalty while fighting near barkbane).
Bloodthorn This reddish wood has severe thorns all over it. Those who have open wounds will find they quickly close and coagulate (a small immediate healing bonus for those affected by naturally occurring battle wounds of the cut/slash sort).
Greencloak This leafy, vibrant tree has wood that burns with a very thick low-laying smoke. Anyone who burns greencloak is somewhat obscured as the green smoke helps hide them. The GM may institute a small penalty to any foe trying to spot the party’s campsite.
Wyrdwoode This white, gnarly wood burns with a pale yellow smoke. The smoke has a calming effect on all persons and animals nearby (horses won’t spook as easily, the party familiars will rest easily). The wood’s effect may reduce the duration of any sort of agitated condition or mental state (shaken, scared, etc.) or remove the effects of a spell that affects the target’s mental state.

While those of my favourites I hearty recommend giving the full articles a read and if your players are stuck for things to do at the camp fire remember there's always the rules for Skinning and Cooking available here.

I would love to hear what your own thoughts are on the matter and if anyone has any further articles on the matter please send a link,

Clambering through the narrow tent opening Tiasel froze mid step as a quiet snort caught her attention, her gaze flitting in the direction of the sound she found her self eye to eye with the heavy set dwarf in full armour lent against a thick oak camouflaged to the casual observer by his thick brown cloak. About to apologise for disturbing him she caught her words as she noticed the unfocused look in the dwarfs eyes, another low snort rumbling from Sandell confirmed her suspicions. 'He's asleep with his eyes open just like old watchman Andrews used to do...' she thought to herself a sly grin growing on her lips as she resumed untangling herself from the tent flap before lightly stepping through the camp barely even making a sound on the dry leaves.
Placing another log on the campfire to ensure the dwarf would remain warm she turned her head to check on Sandell one last time before wandering down the hill towards the nearby lake hoping that a brief stroll would ease her mind.


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