A few weeks ago I shared an article highlighting the character creation in the tabletop RPG Reclaim the Wild, a game designed to recreate the Legend of Zelda experience at your game table. Character creation is a great opportunity for someone on the player side of the table to understand what kinds of characters they can create and what kinds of actions they’ll be taking in the game. But for most tabletop games there is another role to fill: the game master (GM). The game master’s role is to present scenarios to the players, portraying the hazards of the world as well as the friends and allies that the heroes meet along their way. For the GM, character creation may show what players are capable of, but it doesn’t reflect the various responsibilities which will fall to the game master between sessions.
As someone who typically serves as the GM when playing tabletops, the rules and tools for preparing a game are ones I consider carefully when deciding whether or not to run something. When a game has weak advice for game masters, that makes it more difficult to put sessions together. Conversely, a game that has clearly defined rules for the GM with specific examples and structures to utilize makes it easier to run the game successfully. As a result, good GM tools can be what what separates a mediocre roleplaying game from a truly great one.
In today’s article, my goal is to go through the process of preparing a first session of Reclaim the Wild. I’ll start by talking about the stated goals of the game, then about my experience reading the rulebook to prepare for GM prep, before finally using those themes and tools to put together what I think could be a compelling first session for my (theoretical) group of players. Once I’ve got a session together, I’ll talk a little bit about how helpful the toolset was during my preparations.
WHAT MAKES A ZELDA GAME?
This question is a core piece of the game’s introduction section, coming immediately after a description of how to utilize the rulebook. It’s a solid question, as it is the answer to this question that theoretically brings a person to Reclaim the Wild instead of any other fantasy roleplaying game. What does it mean to play an RPG that is about the world of Zelda specifically? Is it as simple as slapping some key names and concepts onto any other TTRPG? Or does recreating the feeling of The Legend of Zelda at the table require some key mechanisms to succeed?
Reclaim the Wild posits that the following are key elements that make up a truly Zelda experience:
- Grounded Fantasy
- Those Who Came Before
- Humble Beginnings
- Puzzle-Solving Power
- Video Game Logic
- Ancient, Irredeemable Evil
- Recurring Elements
Essentially, a Zelda game tells the story of an fantasy world where magic is a rare and powerful force left behind by an ancient precursor. The heroes are not demigods or spirits or anything more than ordinary people who choose to rise up and do good in the face of a seemingly-unstoppable evil force. To do so, they’ll encounter familiar elements from stories past and use their wits to overcome the challenges presented in the wider world. In the midst of all this, fun comes first – the world may not always make sense but if this leads to gameplay mechanisms which create exciting adventures, then all is well.
To me this is a pretty solid example of what makes Zelda feel special. When I think of what I want conceptually from a Zelda tabletop, I see the familiar tropes and set pieces but reimagined in new situations which are not possible in the games. The characters I picture are in over their heads, but the courage to stand up against villainy and the simple wisdom of well-meaning folk give them the power to overcome any opposition. I imagine dungeons with mechanical puzzles to open secret doors, massive bosses who may be brought low if the heroes can just expose that one vulnerable eye, and quiet nights by the campfire in the midst of journeying across a vast and beautiful landscape.
HOW DO THE RULES HELP CREATE A ZELDA GAME?
These are the grand concepts which the book suggests will be the basis of your game, but what are the mechanical tools that enable you to tell these kinds of stories? Reclaim the Wild – perhaps unsurprisingly – takes many cues from Breath of the Wild when it comes to recreating the Zelda experience. Characters can expect a world where exploration and survival are key concepts supported by careful management of finite resources like food, finances, stamina, and weaponry. Battles can be overcome not just by raw strength but by clever tactics or careful preparation. If you’ve played Breath of the Wild many of the concepts in the game will be familiar to you: preparing food to give you temporary health for strong enemies, setting brushfires to damage and scatter prey, and scavenging weapons from defeated foes to replace ones which broke after combat are all core pieces of Reclaim the Wild.
The book can be challenging to navigate in some ways because there are no clear sections marked as being for the GM or player. The section on “playing the game,” for example, has plenty of material that the game master will need to reference. There’s no chapter devoted to session prep, or even really any advice for what to prepare in advance of a game. There seems to be an assumption that even if the players are not experienced tabletop roleplayers, the GM probably is. This can be challenging for people who decide to run the game with no experience or for those whose experience involves prepping for a very different sort of game. And while there are reference tables scattered throughout the book to simplify concepts for quick usage, the materials which could serve as quick one-page tools for referencing key concepts are sparse for both the GM and the player. This makes the game somewhat unfriendly to those learning it for the first time and not ideal for, say, a one shot game at a convention or over the internet.
I bring to my reading of Reclaim the Wild years of experience running games, and experiences from a variety of game types (narrative vs. simulation, western vs. eastern, indie vs. mainstream). It’s easy for me to take bits and pieces of advice I’ve read for other texts, see how they could be applied in the context of Reclaim the Wild, and use that as my guidebook for preparing a session. I also have plenty of Zelda reference material in the form of my experience with all of the games. These things will work together to inform the type of session that I create more than any advice text in the book, which is unfortunate because not every GM is going to bring the same kind of background to the table. For those who feel like they would need additional guidance on how to make this work practically, the resources are slim.
EXAMPLE SESSION PREP: THE FROZEN VILLAGE
To introduce the core mechanics that drive Reclaim the Wild such as the basics of combat, harvesting materials, and crafting items as a means of preparing to overcome challenges in the environment, I want to design a session inspired by an early quest in Breath of the Wild. Link must complete four shrines in order to obtain the paraglider and leave the Great Plateau. One of those shrines is on a mountain where the air is too frigid for normal traversal. Link learns of a number of different ways to keep warm and uses those methods to make it to the top of the mountain and complete the shrine. In my scenario, I imagine a sudden cold snap in an area of normally temperate conditions, caused by some type of icy monster. The players will need to gather materials to prepare themselves for the cold weather, then defeat the monster in order to return normal temperatures to the suffering village.
My first goal is to identify the enemies I’ll need for the scenario. Gathering wood will almost certainly be key to preparing for the wintery conditions, so for an introductory forest battle I imagine the classic Zelda bokoblins will serve as a perfect challenge. Now while Reclaim the Wild has detailed rules for creating your own monsters, the supplemental bestiary Ravage the Wild includes pre-made classic Zelda monsters for players to use. Looking at my options for bokoblins, the simplest choice looks to be a swarm of peons. Note that swarm is in italics because it references a specific mechanism. Swarms are massive groups of enemies whose “health” is tracked by how much space they take up on the map. One square (a single unit of space/movement) of a swarm can be defeated in a single hit. Eight squares of swarm are considered to be a suitable challenge for one hero whose equipment is a similar rank to that swarm. Assuming a four-player game of starting characters, eight squares of bokoblin peons is a pretty easy task to manage (characters will have rank 0-1 equipment and the bokoblins are rank 0). This is perfect for introducing the bare basics of combat without spending a lot of time on a drawn-out encounter.
I also need an ice monster to bring to bear against the players as the “boss battle” for the session. Now note that a boss is also a significant mechanical concept in Reclaim the Wild – introducing players to the game with a full-fledged boss would be pretty challenging, so instead I want to use a weaker enemy type with some vulnerable minions to keep the balance more manageable. The bestiary is conveniently organized by rank in its index, allowing me to quickly reference what sorts of rank one monsters are available for me to use. None of them have an obvious ice affiliation so I start looking at specific examples to see which one might be interesting to add ice to. Elemental keese jump out at me – the ice keese from the games are certainly an annoying hazard to work around – and I have the concept of a monster with an icy aura that regular keese can fly through to become ice keese. I look at the names of some monsters and settle on the spiked beetle: a rank one enemy with an obvious weak point for the players to learn about and capitalize on. It has no ice abilities by default but part of the process of upgrading a regular enemy to a heavy (the type of advanced enemy I want to use as the final combat for the scenario) is adding a feat or spell to its repertoire. In this case, I decide to give the spiked beetle a passive ice aura similar to the elemental keese (while using regular keese for the swarm) as well as the elemental specialist feat to increase the damage from the beetle’s ice attacks. I check the difficulty of the encounter based on fighting a heavy and a swarm; a heavy and an eight-square swarm are a challenging encounter for two to three heroes. This is probably plenty if I have only three players, but if I have four I may grow the swarm to 16-squares, a suitable challenge for three to four heroes.
Now I need to think about the strategies for this boss battle by considering the combat roles of the monsters, their weak points, and the environment in which the battle takes place. Monsters in Reclaim the Wild have assigned combat roles which describe their default behavior during battle. When monsters of different roles work together, their tactics support one another and create effective strategies for defeating their enemies. Keese fall into the protector role, meaning that they draw aggro towards themselves to defend their allies from heroes’ attacks. The spiked beetle has a warrior role, meaning it focuses on dealing damage in melee combat. The keese distract heroes from focusing on the beetle, which can then dole out heavy damage with enhanced melee attacks. Now the beetle would have two weak points: fire damage would be particularly effective due to its ice affinity, and the beetle has a passive penalty which causes it to take extra damage when knocked prone. This is an opportunity for the players to learn how to get an edge against a tough enemy by capitalizing on its weak point and to learn about combat maneuvers that can inflict prone status. One thing the book emphasizes is a need for significant encounters to take place in a unique environment specifically designed for that battle. In this case, I imagine a cavern made slick with ice from the beetle’s influence. The ice is a detriment to players because it could cause them to slip and fall – but it can also be weaponized against the beetle to expose its weak point. Players will have to be careful that the keese don’t drive them onto the dangerous ice patches with their attacks.
The final detail I have to establish for this battle is the weather. The whole premise of this session is that the characters need to come up with ways to deal with the coldsnap caused by the beetle. Weather varies in rank from 1-5, with damage from the weather conditions starting at rank 3. I don’t want to quite push that far because I want the players to have a legitimate chance at totally negating the weather on themselves to start with a significant advantage during the final battle, and depending on the stats chosen by the characters there could be a limited capacity for making the food and elixirs they need. With that in mind, my next order of business is to look at resource eligibility. Thankfully, the guide provides a number of references tables for ingredients sorted by both habitat and rank, meaning that it takes only a matter of moments to find both critters and food with the spicy effect to get rid of coldsnap penalties.
My players will need to be able to find monster parts and critters to make elixirs, or spicy food ingredients in order to make cold-resistant dishes. The rank 1 spicy critter is the summerwing butterfly, which lives primarily in mountainous regions, so I now have some added context for my village – this place is located in the mountains, possibly built into the cliffs of the Lanayru region where it isn’t normally cold (a map of Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is available at the back of the book to assist in casually tossing out names the way I just did). Of course I don’t want elixirs to be the only path to success, here – perhaps the crew instead chops up some firewood and mines flint to set up a roaring fire at the site of the battle. Or maybe defeating the bokoblins is an odd-job that gets them the money to spend on purchasing torches for everyone on the team. It’s important to remember that part of the magic of Breath of the Wild is having lots of viable solutions for a single problem, and really that’s part of the magic of tabletops too. A good rule of thumb is the three clue rule discussed on The Alexandrian: for every challenge which could serve as a halting point for your game, you should have a minimum of three ways for your players to overcome it. I’ve got four different means for the party to try to keep warm between food, elixirs, campfires, and torches, so that should be sufficient.
At this point I have all the material I need for the combat scenarios and a basic structure for the session: the heroes battle a crew of bokoblins while gathering materials to prepare for their foray into an icy cavern, where they must use the environment against their foe to gain the upper hand and stop the unnatural winter which plagues the nearby village. What I need at this point is to define the village around which these events are placed. Having an NPC or two to function as questgivers for the players to tell them about the ice problem in the first place, as well as merchants who can sell the party any helpful tools they need that they didn’t grab at character creation to assist them with their mission. In essence, I need to build the village that this story is focused on. For that, there is a whole ‘nother rulebook to reference: Rebuild the Wild.
Rebuild the Wild has all of the rules regarding buildings and communities, including the types of services available and guidance for the size and composition of different locations. A village is meant to have at least one house and one farm, with a limited number of other facilities. Fortunately a table in the Rebuild the Wild supplement easily boils down what types of buildings are available, and a quick read of the description of the Shop category shows me that what I probably want to be present in this village is a Hardware Store – a location specializing in mundane items and tools. Here the heroes can pick up cooking utensils, bottles, torches, and the like. One final consideration for me to keep in mind here is how pricing in the game works. The book has a clearly marked and very detailed section on the haggling mechanics of the game, and this means that I need to know roughly how competent the merchant at my hardware store is. There are three methods for determining merchant quality: shop size, location, or rank of items sold. I decided to go with location as my method and based on the location being a small village, the merchant has 3 discipline for haggling with player characters who want to try to work prices down.
At this point I can decide the set dressing that goes around the village. We already know it’s built into some cliffs in the Lanayru region and there is a cave nearby that has been recently inhabited by an icy beast. Rebuild the Wild establishes that villages are generally led by an respected elder without a formal leadership title or role. Immediately what jumps to my mind is the “it’s dangerous to go alone” guy, so I decide that the elder is a bearded gentleman by the name of…Rauru. Recurring themes is one of my agenda items, right? If I had a real group of players to work with I might tie their reason for being in this village to some kind of larger narrative, but for a con game or one shot I might leave that up to the imagination. What is important is that Rauru has requested this ragtag bunch of fledgling heroes to save the village from the coldsnap caused by the spiked beetle – if the cold weather continues, the farm that sustains the village may lose animals, costing the village precious food and dairy. Rauru will suggest that the heroes ask around for any information that the villagers can share about the creature, giving them the opportunity to learn about the nearby bokoblin threat as well as learning about different ways to stave off the cold. After all, the villagers have probably explored lots of methods of surviving the cold weather themselves. Now that I have a solid vision of what the session overall would look like and I know the mechanical tools I’ll need to have handy to run it, all I need are players and characters to make it happen!
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF THE TEXT
So then, having now put together a session for Reclaim the Wild, where do I feel it excels and where do I feel it struggles? The first thing I will say is that I am truly impressed with how well it seems like this game captures Breath of the Wild from a mechanical perspective. The care that was put into the resources and environmental challenges really does help the game to feel like the party is struggling to survive in a beautiful but harsh wilderness. The many different ways that both terrain and weather can be hindrances or used to the party’s advantage embraces the freedom that Breath of the Wild offers to the player. And there are many places in the text where it takes time to say “here’s how you use X rule in order to make this feel like Zelda.” Weak points are a great example of this. Bosses aren’t just giant sacks of HP for the players to stab over and over again. They are puzzles that, if solved, can be resolved in a satisfying way that creates an exciting story to be told as part of the heroes’ legend.
So strong are the Breath of the Wild influences in the game’s design that the game actually shares weaknesses with Breath of the Wild. The weapon durability system, for example, is a controversial aspect of Nintendo’s open world title, and I can see it being frustrating here just as it is in the video game. Fortunately the text offers alternative rules to work around that. Reclaim the Wild has an Assist Mode which removes complexity from the game as well as a Master Mode which adds complexity – there are multiple alternate rules within each and you can mix and match as you see fit to customize the experience at your table. If weapon durability is a problem for you, you can’t get rid of it entirely without hacking the game, but the assist mode rules allow you to repair weapons to prevent them from ever breaking or to restore them if they do ultimately break.
The other weakness that Reclaim the Wild shares with Breath of the Wild is the lack of dungeons. We discussed already that there is no dedicated GM advice section in the game, and that the advice which is spread around throughout the book ultimately tells you nothing about how to do session prep. Because dungeons are not a clearly mechanized part of the game, there is no advice to the game master about how to create them. For many Zelda fans, dungeons are an integral part of the Zelda experience – they were almost certainly the most missed aspect of classic Zelda in Breath of the Wild. What’s weird to me is there isn’t even any mention of how to design shrine challenges, something that was prevalent in Breath of the Wild and serves as the perfect opportunity for content that captures the Zelda spirit on a smaller and more manageable scale. This means if you intend to run this game and you want it to have dungeons, you’ll have to bring knowledge about dungeon design in from outside just as you do with session prep. (For useful texts on dungeon design, I recommend Johnn Four’s five room dungeon if you want a basic introduction and The Alexandrian’s series on Jaquay-style design for truly designing dungeons that emphasize exploration; I’ve also recently tried out the on-the-fly dungeon creation in the Dungeon World supplement Perilous Wilds with great success.)
Overall, my experience putting together a session for Reclaim the Wild was an enjoyable one. It was fun thinking of ways to teach the complex mechanisms of the game to a group of new players through a simple scenario, and I’m honestly impressed by how it seems that the game truly excels at recreating Breath of the Wild for the RPG table. Of course, there’s a difference between how a text reads and how it really feels to play a game, but unlike other fan-designed RPGs I’ve read in the past Reclaim the Wild strikes me as having the potential to be a lot of fun. I’m excited to look for the opportunity to try it moving forward, and would recommend any Zelda fans looking for a tabletop to consider giving the game a look!