Today’s guest article is by Aaron Ryyle, and it’s on a topic that comes up in just about every fantasy campaign: travel, and how to make it fun. Thanks, Aaron! –Martin
Many Game Masters of fantasy games enjoy creating vast, wild worlds for their players to adventure in — I am one of them. In such a world, however, travel times can become extremely important…something we often forget to consider until our players actually hire a ship to take them to that far-away land. I have certainly been guilty of this; I gave my players a sandbox to play in, and only when they actually wanted to travel halfway around the world did I really do the math…and realized that the journey would take months! With that experience in mind, I offer some brief thoughts on travel times in fantasy campaigns.
1. Use the Calendar
The Game Master should always keep a copy of the game world’s calendar with his or her notes — even if this is just a rough collection of hash-marks and vague seasons — and mark off days as they pass. This is generally worth doing, but especially when long travel times are involved. The world will continue to go about its business while the PCs are off traveling, and it can be important to know how long they might be away. Have some sort of idea about what might be going on in their absence.
If you design campaigns heavy on overarching plot, then it will be crucial to know just how long the evil regent will wait before he tries to assassinate the king…and if the PCs are gone for a solid year, the young king will probably be dead when they return. That is not necessarily a bad thing — it can add verisimilitude to a game, and make for some tense role-playing as the party debates whether it would be better to chase the MacGuffin of Infinite Koalas, or to protect the king and let the Big Bad get his hands on the power of unlimited cuteness. Alternately, if your plot hinges on the PCs confronting the evil regent, then perhaps the king has not been killed but imprisoned on some trumped-up charge… If your campaigns are not heavy on overarching plot, a tool like a random event generator can be useful. Either way, long travel times can actually create story seeds all by themselves!
2. Whenever Possible, Do the Math in Advance
Of course, this is not always possible. No GM plan long survives contact with the players. Still, whenever possible, if the GM has planned for the PCs to travel to a distant location he or she should have some idea of just how long such a journey might take. It can be pretty demoralizing to realize that for your carefully constructed climax to work, (1) the PCs have to protect the king, (2) who according to the prophesy will be murdered before the year is out, (3) and to do so they need to find the MacGuffin of Infinite Koalas, but (4) by the time they get back from finding that crucial item the king will be dead!
Let’s take some examples, and just for old-times’ sake let’s use the very simple travel rules from AD&D. Buried on page 58 of the First Edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide we find the following: an adventurer carrying an average load can walk 20 miles a day in normal terrain, and 10 miles in rugged terrain; a medium mount carrying an average load can travel 40 miles a day in average and 20 miles a day in rugged terrain; and a small merchant ship can sail 50 miles per day.
For this example, let us assume that our fantasy world is analogous in size to our own Earth, and let us begin by imagining a journey across a huge ocean, like the Atlantic — say, a voyage similar to one between New York City and Ireland. That journey is just over 3,000 miles. Using AD&D numbers of 50 miles a day for a small merchant ship, this means that the journey will take 60 days. That’s just to get near the adventure location in the first place. Once they get to port, the characters will still have to travel to the tower, dungeon, castle, abandoned city, or whatever.
Now, although the port and the Tower of Incredible Magic are only about an inch apart on your map, that inch represents four hundred miles, and the characters can’t just walk straight there. They have to make their way south through the Pass of Sharp Rocks before following a long, jungle-choked valley east to the vicinity of the tower. To walk from the port to the tower should take almost two months! (200 miles south over normal terrain + 400 miles east over rugged terrain = 50 days.) Notice that that is nearly the same time that it took to sail 3,000 miles. Trust me, once the players figure that out, they will want to know how long it will take if they hire horses. (Cut the time in half.)
On top of that, the characters will have to climb a mountain when they do arrive — and once the characters leave their horses behind, you just know the poor beasts will be eaten by goblins! (Because of course they will.) Now imagine that the PCs had to sail to a distant land, and then travel overland for a couple of months. By the time they get home, half a year has passed. (120 days round trip sailing + 25 days in on horses + 50 days walking back after the goblins eat the horses = 195 days.)
3. Make Planning for Travel Part of the Adventure
Are the characters taking horses, ships, or going on foot? How much gear can they carry, either way? Remember that the amount of gear the characters carry will affect travel time. What about food and water? Water is heavy. Do not hand-wave that away! Many players enjoy the sort of logistical planning that goes into answering those questions. Having to find (or magically create) food and water might affect the cleric’s spell choices, which could become a factor in (planned) random encounters (see tip number 4). Or maybe the ranger gets caught alone while foraging, and has to hold off the horse-eating goblins for a few rounds while her companions negotiate difficult terrain to reach her.
Again, this can bring in a touch of verisimilitude without bogging down the game too much. The GM describing how long it takes to get from here to there takes the players out of the game by making them passive listeners. If the players spend just five minutes discussing the merits of horses versus ships and noting that they are preparing Create Water rather than another spell during the journey they will have helped to shape the story, even if the end result is the same.
4. Use Random Encounters with Purpose
Any travel to distant locations is going to involve a journey, and possibly adventure along the way. This does not mean that the GM should force players to tediously role-play each and every day. What it does mean is that the GM should definitely include a few random encounters along the way — and especially include environmental encounters. The two key words there are “few” and “environmental”; you do not want to include too many meaningless encounters, and adding environmental encounters makes the landscape part of the game.
Environmental encounters can be extremely effective in communicating the sense that travel can be difficult and even dangerous. While description can add to the feel of a story, at the table a little bit of narrative goes a long way. On the other hand, a couple of well-chosen environmental encounters can create a different mood for different regions, and add to the sense that the world is a dangerous place. Tweak the rules for traps to create environmental encounters without monsters. Maybe a swamp is notorious for quicksand sinkholes — well, that sinkhole is just a pit trap with a risk of suffocation, and dealing with it makes the players really feel like they are in a swamp rather than a mountain pass! Using Knowledge: Nature and Survival checks in place of the standard Perception and Disable Device checks to avoid the quicksand trap (or whatever equivalents your system uses) can throw an added wrinkle into the encounter.
5. Don’t Use Too Many Travel Encounters
This is the flip-side to tip number 4. I once played with a DM who sent us on a journey through a forest, a journey that was to take twelve days. He proceeded to begin rolling random encounters for morning, noon, evening, night, midnight, and pre-dawn — just like the rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide say. With a 1 in 10 chance of encounter, that meant we would average an encounter every two days, or six random encounters, minimum. We spent the next two hours playing random encounters, battles that had nothing to do with our story or goals, battles that didn’t make the terrain stand out in any meaningful way, but battles that we had to play out because the chart said so. The rationalization was that all of these encounters would make us feel how long the walk was. What it really did was make us feel how long the session was.
Use these sorts of encounters wisely. Is the forest notorious for being filed with intelligent wolves? Don’t use random encounters; make the characters battle three waves of wolves and worgs. (Three, not twelve.) A scorpion in the Forest of Wolves feels random and pointless. Wave after wave of wolves is epic.
6. Always Communicate the Elapsed Time to the Players
While 600 miles of travel might take only a half-hour of play time, it will take as long as two months of game-world time. Make sure the world moves on while the adventurers are gone. The evil regent has not been sitting around waiting for his nemeses to return, guaranteed. He has been scheming, and putting his schemes into action. This can offer a GM the opportunity to add to the verisimilitude of character advancement and geo-political events without bogging down play with tedious exercises. Moreover, it can seem unrealistic for characters to level up every week or two, but if four sessions of game time incorporate a year of travel, then that means that the PCs might level up on average every year or so — much more believable.
7. Save Teleportation-Type Effects for Higher Levels
If you do plan to use teleportation in a game, make sure to set up one or two early adventures that involve long-distance travel. If you have already introduced a means of teleportation, find a way to make it temporarily inaccessible. It can help to bring home just how important the ability for rapid travel is in a world without automobiles, trains, or jet planes. Yeah, I know, those Portals of Instantaneous Travel scattered across your world are super awesome, but resist the temptation to introduce them too early…let your players really feel what a six-month-long journey is like. When the players finally do achieve the ability to teleport, they will have discovered a powerful tool indeed! If the players have never been made to feel the effects of long travel times, their reaction to finding a teleportation portal will be far less exciting than if they can suddenly avoid taking months to get anywhere. And if they find those portals just a month before the prophesy about the evil regent is to come to pass, well…
8. Make Them Travel Even So
Always keep in mind, when the characters do arrive on the other side of that teleportation device they will probably have to walk to where they are ultimately headed, which could again take weeks or even months. (Even if you have to fudge a bit.) And, of course, they will have to climb a mountain when they get there, leaving their horses behind to be eaten by goblins!