Cursed Cave battle map (tropical) banner

How to Run a Jungle Adventure

Somewhere below the adventurer’s foot, a breaking crunch is heard. Crouching down to brush some mossy soil aside reveals a skull, bleached white and weaved with vines. It is, or was, human. Marks are etched into the surface, likely from multiple scavenger beasts taking advantage of a free meal. What originally killed the man, they cannot tell. They can only hope that it has left. But, as they rise to carry on with a new uncertainty, the leaves above rustle. Small shadows dart through the canopy. They might be benign. They may be hunters. Worse, they may be running from something else. The adventurers cannot be sure, so they must be careful.

With our set of jungle encounters done, we move onto a more general guide for running jungle adventures. Effectively running the travel through the environment is just as important as the encounters themselves. A jungle, with its many locales and peoples, should have its own character. The dangers within should be ever-present to pull your players in and hold their engagement for the entire session. This is what we aim to help with, regardless of your experience level or confidence.

Cursed Cave battle map (tropical) banner

1d20 Jungle Encounters

We have 20 custom-made jungle encounters to accompany this guide through jungle adventures. Each one is designed for use with our maps and for any experience level.

Encounters by Environment – Jungle

For this article and our encounters combined, consider looking at our available PDFs. We have one for each of our environments, and every download supports the writer!

Part of a Larger World

One of the most important aspects of creating any environment is to ensure it has its own character. A jungle adventure should not feel the same as traveling through the desert or across plains. This is the key to creating landscapes that players can remember and reference down the line. It might come from the challenges they faced, the people they met, or locales they visited.

The first step of this can come down to creating the landscape itself. Play into typical aspects of jungles. You should aim to make it feel dense and restrictive, as if it’s trying to swallow the players at every moment. Use this as a challenge for the party’s travel and ask them how they fight through the plant growth. This can be as simple as hacking through it with a sword and does not need to be a skill check. Instead, use their answer in your descriptions and emphasize the need for the measures they take. Each section only needs to be short, describing the changing terrain and small things that characters notice. Mentioning a passing bird or sounds of a river are simple ways to differentiate each day, gives players the option to interject and act, and can also disguise encounters’ introductions.

Your descriptions are most important as the players are first beginning their jungle adventure. Give some time to focus on the changes in terrain, using features like the tall trees and dense underbrush to foreshadow the challenges they will face. Likewise, ask how the party is moving (stealthily, perceptively, based on rolls) and mix in some description of how well they do it. These descriptions should be quicker as they progress to avoid wasting time or boring players but you should not ignore them entirely. They work to connect each stretch of travel or encounter and maintain both the session flow and the tone of the environment. They will also play into navigation, which we will discuss later. Lastly, putting a focus on travel can also emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of different characters. Describing their contribution is a great and simple way to reward jungle-attuned druids or rangers.

Tribes and Tribulations

Jungles’ rampant growth means that integrating them with your world largely comes down to the people. The first example of this is characters that connect the jungle to the outside world. Settlements and camps on the borders of the jungle are perhaps the most obvious choice. They allow players to meet people who are a mixture of native and knowledgeable as a transition into the jungle-proper. These locations should be filled with sources of information and appropriate supplies, as well as people making use of the jungle itself. Think about who could profit off the location and its visitors. There could be companies exporting from the jungle, importing to explorers, or those that will guide travelers in exchange for generous pay.

A specific characteristic of jungles is their propensity for attracting explorers. The abundance of ruins and untouched tribes can draw treasure-seekers and researchers, while the jungle’s density can make them difficult to chart. You can use this by making various journals and notes available to players. The records can assist in their exploration with stories and approximated maps but do not need to be perfectly accurate. Some explorers will embellish their escapades. Likewise, the party could meet other groups. This could be in the form of explorers hiring muscle in town or encountered within the jungle. These provide players with interactions and options, as well as creating links into the jungle from the outside world.

Of course, jungles also tend to be home to other groups. These can be regular settlements established by the aforementioned explorers, in which case they will function much like any other camp or town. Just keep in mind the defenses and facilities they would need and have access to.

The other side of the population is natives. This is where you can mix in your beast races, goblinoids, and other jungle-themed tribes. Consider how much contact these groups have had with the outside world, for a start, and how this influences their behavior. Do they react violently, or with curiosity? Next, determine their relationships with each other. This point is why we would advise limiting the number of ‘main groups’, as you must manage their alliances, conflicts, and territories. Try not to overwhelm yourself. You might want to select your possible encounters first and build from those. Once you have two to four factions, you can always populate the gaps between them with smaller, independent groups or individuals.

Ruins, Overrun

In addition to the living people, your jungle adventures should also have plenty of evidence of the dead ones. By this, we mean that overgrown temples and ruins are a classic point of interest in jungles. They are also perhaps the easiest way to create different and interesting battle maps. The old buildings can be used almost anywhere in the jungle, but give some thought to how they are laid out. They should at least make sense in relation to each other. What wouldn’t make sense is for every building to be a temple, for example. Likewise, differing styles of architecture and levels of degradation can set ruins apart from each other. Make sure to use them in moderation, unless you are specifically aiming for the ‘ruined, overgrown metropolis’ theme. If you are not, you risk losing the feeling of an uninhabitable terrain.

Jungle Podium battle map, master
The Jungle Podium is only the most recent of our overgrown ruin maps. You can find it here and its variant pack here. Keep reading for other examples…

Give some thought to the discoverable history of your jungle. This plays back into the stories and records that players can find, the people they can speak to, as well as what can be discovered in these ruins. Murals and statues will have eroded over time but might be decipherable. Think about how interested your players might be and, again, do not overwhelm yourself. It is more interesting for players to learn about an ancient fable than to hear the entire history of a certain faction. Focus on what will be relevant and only expand further if it is something you want to do. Ideally, these should also play into your party’s current goals. This is to increase their interest and immersion in the world, as well as rewarding them for investigation.

The most prominent ruins will also attract locals. Your jungle adventure’s factions might congregate in the largest or strongest of the structures, or those that pertain to their history or religion. Smaller ruins can likewise attract wildlife in search of shelter or nesting opportunities. All of these will also be the focal points of any information players have gathered, as they are the most likely to have been explored and documented, or mentioned by legends. This also means that they will become waypoints and markers for exploration groups. Others may already be camping in them or the party may need to use them for navigation. But more on that in the next section…

Quiet Moments

Every environment should come with its own unique challenges to set it apart from others. Encounters contain many of these but it is important to maintain the atmosphere in the moments in between. Players should remain immersed for as much of the session as possible. This should come with the design of your environment, both drawing from real-life examples and exaggerated with magic and other fantastical effects. For jungle adventures, two of the most prominent challenges are navigation and survival.

Navigation

We have already mentioned some of the navigational difficulties that come from jungle environments but it is important to understand how they all fit together. To put it simply, jungles are dense, overgrown, and generally lacking in identifiable markers. Getting lost is a danger equal to the predators that stalk the region. Navigating them often requires knowledge of the area or access to that of another person.

Navigation is an aspect of the game that can often be overlooked or relegated to a simple survival skill check, with certain classes and feats giving advantages. This is fine for open or urban areas, but not when it is a focus of the environment design. Ensure that players understand this before beginning their expedition and motivate them to find solutions. They might hire a guide, study the area, or devise a marker system. You can have them making survival checks to maintain a heading each day, relying on sparse points of interest to find their way. Encounters can then have the possibility of putting them off track and certain terrain obstacles (rivers, ravines, etc.) can cut off their path and force them to circumnavigate or overcome them. Both options come at their own risks.

Wonderdraft Map Icons, tokens
The Wonderdraft Map Assets pack has a huge number of tokens for creating maps of a large area. You might give your players a map of the jungle, with only several key points marked. Have a look at the pack here.

One way to do this is to prepare a loose map of the region with the most prominent structures and features marked. Players can use these to plot their journey and you keep the ability to slot in random encounters. Each additional research effort (seeking out journals, notes, stories) can give them succinct points of extra dangers and navigation markers. Let a character spend time reading these and then give the player some basic dot points, as simple as ‘there is a waterfall south-west of the main temple, north of the expedition camp’. You can let them mark these on the map themselves, but be sure not to punish players whose characters have skills they do not. If a player makes a mistake that their character shouldn’t, subtly help them correct it.

Navigation is much simpler if the party hires a guide or expedition team. This is good. It is the most costly choice, so it’s okay for it to make the most impact. Keep in mind that most locals who are willing to guide adventurers through a jungle adventure are unlikely to engage in combat, unless heavily compensated. It will be up to players to protect them or avoid fights altogether, which may conflict with the party’s goals. In the case of guides, you might wish to have a scale of ‘price for quality’. Include at least three choices, with more expensive options having greater knowledge and experience. These will all come down to a daily pay, many requiring an upfront investment. Perhaps one of the cheapest is also part of a scam or trap?

Survival

Survival mechanics are an effective way to emphasize the dangers of many environments. Our previous snow and desert adventures put a great deal of focus on them. Jungle adventures pose similar challenges, in a different form. Rather than the elements and environment being the danger, it instead shifts to the predatory flora and fauna. This is one way to make your adventure more attritionary and further emphasize the risks of being ill-prepared. This also means it can make the later stages of your jungle adventure much more deadly. Feel free to avoid it entirely, or include backup encounters and options for players to recover as they travel.

Unlike our desert adventures, jungle survival does not focus on resources. The party will still need food, of course, but gathering water and hunting are both viable options in a jungle. Rather, think about the different poisons, sicknesses, and diseases that might be present. That is not to say that you should randomly give the party malaria, though. It is better to add these effects as results to encounters in order to give players ample ways of fighting back. You could extend creatures’ regular poison effects. Being hit by poison-based attacks could also have lingering effects, resulting in sweaty delirium the next day if they are not healed (magically or with a healer’s kit). Exhaustion and the poisoned condition can be especially punishing, so perhaps limit it to double vision giving disadvantage to perception and survival checks.

In these next two cases, we would stress thinking about a magical explanation for the sickness. The jungle air could be cursed or suffused with poisonous fog, for two examples. This is to avoid player characters from suddenly feeling weak and compromising the game’s power fantasy. While it may be realistic, it is rarely satisfying for a monster-slaying, maiden-saving adventurer to be felled by an infected cut. Try to give a reason for the ambient danger’s potency, preferably one that is related to and possibly solved by the party’s jungle adventure.

Quick-to-run environmental obstacles are a good way to keep players active. They can also demonstrate the consequences of survival mechanics without threatening to kill players. The Jungle Stream is just one option, that you can find here.

You can step up the first example by removing the requirement for the attacks being poison damage. You could set a threshold, such as losing 50% of a character’s health in a given day, that then risks infection. Resting could then require a constitution save to avoid the aforementioned sickness. Perhaps losing more health in a day increases the DC? Again, magical or medicinal healing could fight this, and players should be warned of it in town before ever leaving. You should also include mentions of it in your travel descriptions. Highlight that players are struggling against unhealed wounds and can feel it taxing their bodies.

The reference to malaria was a joke but similar sicknesses can be incorporated if handled correctly. Just as in real life, illnesses can be contracted from drinking unfiltered water or simply from insects. A magical version may drift in the air or as a fog. But players should, again, not just randomly receive them. You can use the same constitution saves each rest to fight against it. In this case, though, we would also advise a local vaccine. It could be a relatively inexpensive potion that must be ingested every day for immunity. This is a more straightforward way of challenging players to be prepared for their jungle adventure with minimal bookkeeping. Again, be sure to have a local character mention this to the party as a common and known danger, to allow them to prepare.

We know we mention it over and over, but always make sure players are aware of these mechanics before they come up. Many tables will not expect them and it does not feel fair when a character suddenly falls ill to something the player didn’t realize could happen. You want the challenge to enhance the atmosphere and fun, not hamper it. Players have the choice to ignore the information, at their own risk, but it is your job to ensure they understand that risk first.

As Danger Arises

Now that you are able to handle traveling through your jungle adventure, the next step is weaving your way into encounter introductions. There is nothing more immersion-breaking than a description that flips from describing a passing bird to “and then a bush rustles and 16 wolves jump out so everyone roll initiative”. Your encounter integration should allow for player input while acting as a smooth transition into the encounter’s tone.

Just like the local wildlife, jungles grant players the ability to remain hidden as they move. It pays to be familiar with the general rules for passive versus active perception and stealth and how that affects travel times. This means that you will likely be asking players to make appropriate checks for each new stretch of movement. Try to ration the number of times you do this, to prevent rolls from feeling fleeting and losing effect. These rolls will often determine who gets the jump on who. The dense jungle also makes it particularly difficult to see threats that are a distance away. Think about how much noise a situation might be making, as that will be the first clue players get. The details should be mixed into your travel descriptions to create a natural and organic transition between the two as the characters themselves realize something is afoot.

Jungle River Crossing-3
Keep players on their toes with encounters that use wildly different setups. Our Jungle Wetland Crossing assets can be used for Encounter 11, where players must fight while crossing a river! You can find the assets here, and the map variants here.

These transitions will vary depending on the structure of the encounter, particularly in terms of their speed. Hearing a distant fight will build slowly, whereas a force that is hunting the players might appear suddenly. In the latter case, you might be wondering how to avoid your description feeling abrupt and flavorless. You can avoid this by slowing down the moment it happens. Try to subtly shift from a general description to details that would alert a perceptive character, such as a lack of birds or natural movement, or a glimpse of something in the corner of their eye. Use the tone of your voice to match the suspicious details and increase your pace, describing the last few moments as the trap or ambush is sprung. If a player tries to react, their character will begin the action as initiative rolls.

The key is for all of this to lead up to the moment players take control, whether that is before or after initiative. Be sure to vary your encounters between those that are ambushes and those that are player-driven. The latter will have clues that indicate a problem or encounter is nearby and asks that players decide their own approach. Use their stealth and perception rolls to determine relative positions at the point that it becomes obvious so that players have enough information to act, even without a battle map. Once they do, let them be creative. They can use their own resources or make perception and investigation checks to find others around them. Ultimately, your job is to set the canvas for them and then determine how it reacts, while your goal is to make it realistic and, above all, fun.

A Varied Environment

When it comes to encounters themselves, it is important to use a variety. This goes for both the encounter structure that we just discussed and the location. It is fine for some encounters to simply occur in a section of lush jungle but overusing these somewhat featureless arenas can quickly drain encounters of their ability to engage players. Instead, break them up with encounters that take place in ruins and structures, the middle of lakes, or within settlements. When you do have the party fight in a map of foliage, use a variety of natural features and obstacles to make them unique.

We have already discussed the strengths of jungle ruins and similar features, so we will avoid reiterating it all here. But there are drawbacks to keep in mind and avoid. Above all, you want to stay away from overusing ruins, just like any other map. This is because you want each ruin to feel special and interesting, with lore to be discovered and a reason for it to exist. Encountering too many will have the jungle begin feeling developed and civilized, rather than being a remote and dangerously restrictive terrain. The maps themselves can also begin to blend together, especially if the buildings are worn down to walls that do nothing but act as convenient cover. Your ruin encounters should, ideally, feel like highpoints in the journey that provide excitement and can later act as navigational markers.

Keep in mind what your players will be thinking as you design maps and encounters. You don’t want them becoming bored or complacent or predicting each encounter before it appears. Likewise, using too many features such as ruins can cause them to think the encounters are connected when they might not be. Players can mistake this for a a hook and be motivated to investigate it. It is best to avoid the disappointment of a player trying to solve a mystery and then realizing there never was one.

Roadside Forest Tokens Page 2
Our Roadside Forest Tokens can be easily repurposed to create cliffs, ledges, and obstacles in your map. You can find the 42 different tokens here.

But what can we use other than ruins and sections of random jungle? Well, think about all the differences in the environment you can find in real-life. Hills can form difficult, muddy slopes, or even cliffs. Wide rivers can part the landscape and lead to waterfalls and lakes. Caves are also common for these areas, which can then create ravines and sinkholes. You can roll and use these features randomly or carefully design your region. Just try to keep it realistic so that players can use them intelligently. A ranger should be able to navigate by knowing to follow a river upstream to find a vantage point, for instance. Doing something you think is smart and that works out is incredibly rewarding for a player.

The final note is simply to make use of the other points of interest that we’ve mentioned both here and in our jungle encounters. You don’t need to use a ruin encounter, then a jungle encounter, then ruins, and then jungle again. Your jungle adventure should have other expedition camps, either active or empty, tribal communities and villages, or even just a lone druid’s hut. These different locations are the best way to create unique and memorable encounters, particularly if the creatures involved are not as exciting. Variety is always the key.

Once the Storm has Passed

Finally, you come to the reverse of the previous section: what comes after each encounter? It is important to think about both the immediate and longer-term effects of each encounter. Jungle adventures act similarly to other environments in these moments, with some exceptions. Consequences should continue to demonstrate the character of the jungle, the dangers within it, as well as linking back to other characters both outside of and within it.

First is any survival mechanics you choose to include in your jungle adventure, which may make injuries more impactful and affect subsequent travel. These can lead to players acting more cautiously as each day progresses. More immediately, it can require them to stop and deal with any wounds from combat. This can lead to the next point, which can also exist outside of survival mechanics: what else heard the encounter happen? Similar to parties hearing the encounters coming, the noise they make in combat can lead to other monsters and hunters hearing them. This can lead to smaller, secondary encounters immediately following, or may alert locals to the players’ presence. Emphasizing this is a good way to show the dense dangers of the jungle and make players act more intelligently and cautiously.

When considering these kinds of negative consequences, always remember to be fair. Don’t have hunters ambush players immediately after a fight that almost killed them. Use them in moderation and only when it is appropriate, such as within a hostile tribe’s territory. If you want to maintain the feeling without directly threatening players, maybe they hear the hunters coming? Or perhaps whatever predator the noise drew will now stalk them and wait for nightfall to attack? It could even lead to less negative results, such as Encounter 13’s explorer or 17’s ogre finding them.

Positive consequences will most often come down to the party’s specific actions. They may develop new alliances or build a reputation with an expedition group, granting access to new supplies or support. Keep in mind how these could continue once the players head back to town, given the prevalence of exploration records and artifact retrieval. Perhaps they can sell the location of a ruin? Townsfolk and expedition camps could celebrate their discoveries (or just their survival). Writing a recounting of their own journey is also a great way for them to immortalize themselves in the world. If they don’t think of it, have a local prompt them to or ask for an exclusive, paid interview.

This should all be in addition to the items and gold they receive, of course, which should likewise reflect the jungle. Unique, characterful magical items are perhaps the best reminder of a previous adventure. The best kind of reward is one that a player can hold and retell the story of in a tavern, ten levels and many adventures later. Use them to cap off the climaxes of your jungle adventure and encapsulate the memories that led to acquiring it.

Highland Pass battle map, banner

What Next

With that, our journey into the dense growth of jungles is concluded. While we prepare for the next environment, consider exploring our previous content. We have similar guides for oceans, islands, snow, deserts, and even horror settings! Feel free to also leave any thoughts or comments you might have. We love hearing anything that can help us improve!

Have a little spare change and would like to support our written content? I would love for you to have a look at my Patreon.

Just like a jungle, our content continues to grow. You can find more of it in our gallery…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.