This post at Hill Cantons got me thinking about wilderness exploration again, and provided a few seeds around which some thoughts have crystallized. How do you really bring a wilderness trek to life, and make the wilderness itself the adventure?
The answer to part two of this question, I think, is that you don't. In real life, experiencing the natural splendor of a wilderness area is often an adventure in itself. That's why people go hiking, mountaineering, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and what-have-you. The trouble is that simply describing these things isn't exciting. No matter how great your skill with words and images, narrating the most breathtaking vista of the most awe-inspiring landscape from the most majestic mountain peak you can imagine is not, in and of itself, going to capture the interest of your audience for very long. Narrating day after day of a journey through the forest isn't even going to come close.
Just trekking through the wild to a narrative is not enough. Even natural hazards, in and of themselves, become boring after a while. Oh, another cliff? Roll to see if we can scale it. Another raging river? OK, we follow it until there's a bridge or a place to ford. Facing these dangers simply because they're there is at least as tedious as facing a pointless series of random monster encounters.
The key to bringing the wilderness to life is to make the players intensely curious about what's in it besides nature in all its beautiful and dangerous glory. There must be a goal besides merely experiencing the wilderness. Tell them that somewhere in the mountains is the lost entrance to the legendary halls of the goblin tyrant Ognhash, or that the wooded valley is rumored to have been the location of a fabled Elven stronghold that fell to the goblins three millennia ago, or that the swamp is the home of a tribe of lizard men with a dragon-like fondness for gold and jewels. Once they're out there poking around, let them spot other potential points of interests from high vantages or find tantalizing clues pointing toward new mysteries to pose new choices and keep them moving ever onward.
When they have reason to believe there's something of interest hidden out there, players have a reason to care about the setting. With their imaginations already piqued, they'll be receptive to those tracts of purple prose as you describe the scene before them. They'll be willing to become invested in the mood you want to convey, because they expect to be spending some time exploring instead of just blowing through on their way elsewhere. Instead of just sighing in resignation at the cliffs, raging rivers, or quagmires that block their way, they'll wonder what might be waiting to be discovered beyond them. If lost ruins and treasures were easy to get to, they wouldn't have stayed lost very long, after all. Players expect the greatest rewards to lie behind the greatest dangers and most vexing puzzles, and thus that any given danger or puzzle might be guarding a great reward, so use that hoary trope for all it's worth. They shouldn't all have rewards behind them, of course, but the possibility should be ever in the players' minds.
Making the wilderness trek time-sensitive is another way to make the players care about it. Those hazards actually mean something when the party has taken a shortcut to try to beat the evil warlord to the village in the mountains. The gaping ravine with a churning river at its bottom, which would make them shrug any other time now elicits groans and gnashing of teeth as it represents a costly delay that must be defeated as quickly as possible. Your lush descriptions of scenery work as a counterpoint to the anxiety of the situation and remind the players that precious time is passing without just saying, "Time is passing."
As a somewhat tangential observation, I don't think that the standard RPG hex map with one symbol per hex is particularly conducive to a wilderness adventure of captivating detail. I like contour lines instead of brown humps and triangles, to really show the lay of the land rather than give an abstract impression of hills and mountains. I want, not a tree icon in each forested hex, but the amoebic green mass that shows distinctly the shape of the wood and all the clear areas within it. I want swamps with solid ground, treacherous mires, and water clearly distinguished. I want points of interest like streams, ponds, rocky outcrops, cliffs, ravines, rock slides, waterfalls, and game trails marked individually on the map. Of course, all of this is best done with a map of much higher resolution than the typical 6, 8, or 24 mile hexes of traditional RPG maps. There's just too much in a hex of that size to capture the detail and diversity on the map. You can always drop in features at random as the party traverses them, but that smacks too much of illusionism for my taste. It's not even subtle illusionism; it's pretty clear to the players that the reason they came upon that chasm or waterfall is because the DM or the dice just said so and it has little or nothing to do with their choice to travel in a particular direction.
I prefer a map of 1/2 to 2 miles per hex. This might seem pretty small, but I think it's entirely appropriate. Large scale maps are fine for travel between settlements, when the party should be using a road or at least a well-known route and has little interest in exploring the territory between point A and point B. When they're exploring a tract of wilderness, though, they should be really exploring, and on a time scale smaller than a full day at a time. It's hard to care much about the wilderness when you're glossing over 12 miles or more of it at a time with one or two events per day.
Paradoxically, if you want to make the wilderness itself interesting to players, you have to make it the backdrop for something even more intriguing. It just doesn't stand up well on its own. Just as the straight man becomes an integral part of the act when paired with the slapstick, though, so the wilderness of an RPG setting becomes a force when paired with the lure of something more exotic than itself.