So today I’m going to discuss a hobby of mine that has helped lend a certain level of verisimilitude to my games when it comes to a few things, like bringing certain environments to life and adding to the experience of hunting for treasure in strange places. The hobby is called geocaching, and if you have a smartphone or handheld GPS you can try it out; I’ll provide links and a bit of advice at the end of the post.
So, then, why would you want to go geocaching to improve your game at the table? By their natures, these are two incredibly different hobbies – one has you gallivanting about in strange places looking for tupperware that someone hid using billion-dollar satellite technology, the other has you clustered around a table (or a virtual table via computers) with friends, about as sedentary as it gets.
It introduces you to the environments you’re trying to describe.
As a GM, you’ll find yourself describing a lot of locations over the course of a typical campaign. Geocaching is a hobby that can help you out with this by directly introducing you to those environments in a way that few others manage. You’ll find yourself hiking out across a wide variety of locations. Since starting the hobby, I’ve found myself hiking across the desert scrub of my native location, finding trails through underbrush in forests, carefully exploring mesquite thickets, trying to be stealthy in urban locations across the western third of the US, and even have gone into tunnels and the like a few times.
This diversity of environments is nothing to sneeze at; simply being present and having to search for a cache makes you aware of what’s around you in ways that regular day-to-day activity doesn’t. It can provide your descriptions with a wealth of extra sensory tidbits to slip in to help bring your players into the story.
Earthcaches – a special type of geocache – teach you little tidbits that help make the game more real.
This ties somewhat into the above, but earthcaches are a special type because to claim them, you have to do a little homework – and that, in turn, will help you as a GM by improving your understanding of the natural environment.
Earthcaches require you to go to a specific location, observe it, often take a photo to prove you were there, and then email the cache owner to answer a set of questions about the location or the type of location; in some cases this will include discovering which way the prevailing winds blow and how the plantlife varies in size and health between two adjacent locations, as well as why.
That can help improve everything from your cartography, if you make your own maps, to your description of how an area looks; an area on one side of the mountains will definitely be greener than the other in most places, and sand tends to pile in a certain direction in dusty places, giving important clues for anyone making survival or tracking checks.
You’ll learn the hard way why ‘a straight line’ isn’t the best path.
If you try to take a straight line from wherever you park your car to the target cache, a lot of the time you’ll run into problems. My wife and I, at one point, crawled under a barbed wire fence in the middle of the night because we didn’t properly research what we were doing, and missed the cattle gate about fifty feet away. Other caches in less arid locales can have dense thickets, ravines, and worse between a good parking spot and the goal. More than one cacher has found themselves climbing an unanticipated steep hill, flailing from sapling to sapling to keep from tumbling to the base.
Sticking to the trails until you hit the closest approach is usually the best method, but even this can sometimes lead you awry – or at least add a lot of distance to the hike, as the path will wander around, generally sticking to the easiest course. What looks like a short stroll to ground zero is a choice between the kind of nightmare thicket that justifies all those reduced movement rate charts in RPGs or a long and exhausting walk that makes you question just how realistic those overland movement rates really are.
Nightcaching makes it clear why lighting is important.
There’s a particular kind of caching that only happens at night; some caches are specifically designed to only be found in these conditions, using reflective tags and solar-powered beacons to guide people through the dark. Other times, well, you want to get just one more, or a new cache is published at 4am and you want to be the first to find it.
And then you discover just how much we need light. Even with a full moon, the world at night looks immensely different – and if you’re out on a cloudy night, dark as they come, or trying to tromp through a forest at 2am, you learn that directional lights are vastly different from the familiar and friendly glow of the sun. Shadows dance with every step and loom strangely, sounds take on an entirely different aspect, and places that are perfectly familiar by daylight become alien in the dark.
You can steal all of this for your game as your experience it; if you’re in a place where it’s permissible, try carrying an actual torch on a hike, to experience how a burning stick in your hand turns every shadow into a dancing phantom in the corner of your vision. Being able to describe these things will add an immense amount to your game and give you a much stronger appreciation of the lighting levels most games detail.
Solve real-world puzzles and get ideas.
There are a few different types of caches that take more skill than simply finding them. Some are simply challenges that involve figuring out how to open the cache to multi-part caches where you have to piece out the coordinates of each step to ridiculously involved thing involving automated phone lines that recite coordinates and manipulating hidden lines to lower caches to where you can reach them. Some involve accessing the ‘net to get webcam screengrabs, while others can involve complicated ciphers that have to be solved in order to get the clues you need.
Each of these usually has things you can incorporate into your game design; one player needs to carefully unwind a rope from a holding spot to lower a store of valuable potions to where others can get them out, and can’t just unwind it quickly because the bottles are fragile. You can borrow real-world ciphers to let the players knot their brains trying to solve it to get the clue they need to solve a mystery, or have them need to trigger recorded messages to get the keys they need.
The mysteries of the more complex caches will definitely stand your game in good stead.
Geocaches can get weird.
Just… Go here, if you’re not arachnaphobic. This is the kind of lunatic behavior you can expect from the kinds of people who hide geocaches. Many caches get more devious and more cruel, involving carefully sculpted fake rocks, pine cones, and more. One memorable cache has a gigantic fake spider that you have to drop out of a tree to get the cache from; having it suddenly lurch down at you when you’re happy that you’ve just solved the puzzle is a good way to get adrenaline going and do a cardiac stress test.
Which, of course, means that these caches are a fantastic trove of ideas for you, as a GM, to incorporate hidden rewards and challenges into your game. Giant spider with a webbed-up cache of treasure hanging down in a pit, which it puts there because about half the contents are old bones from the people who wore the loot, plus a few fresh bodies on the outside of the larder-ball. Or the wizard stores a spare key to his stronghold inside a boulder that’s hollow; she uses an ethereal state to reach in and grab it, but the players can crack it open if they notice how light it is.
Perception as a trained skill.
Start caching, and you will quickly learn that perception is indeed a trained skill; you’ll go from bumbling aimlessly around ground zero to a finely-honed sense for where a cache should go. You’ll also discover a keener sense of awareness for things like people looking in your direction, particularly authoritative types who might take issue with you scuffling around in a vaguely suspicious fashion.
You’ll also, if you go caching with others, learn to appreciate that there is a distinct element of randomness to it, where even the least observant person can occasionally find a cache ahead of a seasoned expert, and where even the expert can stumble around blindly before discovering it was hidden almost in plain sight.
As an added bonus, you can describe the feeling of annoyance and frustration when the players fail an easy check, missing something they know perfectly well is right there somewhere. You’ll get quite used to it, yourself.
Your equipment can matter so very much.
Geocaching will teach you an appreciation for checking to make sure you have all the gear you need, every time you go somewhere and you’re missing a tool like a set of tweezers, a pen, a small flashlight, or any number of other things. This, in turn, will lead to an appreciation of how much things weigh and how much trouble that weight can be, and how much both basic gear and encumbrance can matter in a game.
You’ll also learn how horrible ‘improvised tools’ really are, and probably be less inclined to let players get away with just grabbing a handy thing from the floor to accomplish their goals, penalty-free. Good gear is good, and you’ll be able to translate that experience to the table, in turn helping ensure that your players appreciate having things like a good coil of rope carried by the strongest person, or the value of hands-free light sources.
If this has gotten you curious about geocaching and willing to take a look at it for the benefits I’ve listed, you can start here. Any GPS-enabled phone or hand-held GPS receiver is all you need for the most basic caching, hunting down the simplest ones so you can start to get a feel for the experience and understand how to avoid the view of people who might otherwise get nosy and cause you some trouble.
After that, well, you can find the resources you need with a few searches on Google to find the tools of the trade. Just… Always remember to bring spare batteries. The last thing you want to do is run out of power without having a way to easily find your car again.
Hope this helps you both find a new hobby and improve your game at the table!