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Eight Tips for Using Travel as a Plot Device in Fantasy Games

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!

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Eight Tips for Using Travel as a Plot Device in Fantasy Games"

#1 Comment By mercutior On February 5, 2014 @ 5:52 am

Couldn’t agree more with tips 4 and 5. The environment in a fantasy world should often be as dangerous as its denizens. Don’t forget weather as an effective encounter mechanism either… Rain=flash floods, lightning strikes=forest fires, drought=survival. In the long run, while the world is a dangerous place, monster and bandits appearing every two days becomes a bit unrealistic as well as tedious. Intelligent placement of story driven encounters makes the most sense for all. In my game (and I’m sure in many others) I had players who drooled at the thought of random encounters. They begged for them. Each encounter for them equaled experience points which of course led to advancement. When I eliminated experience points as the factor that governed advancement, for many of the same reasons Aaron suggests here, this became a moot point, and players could focus on the “narrative” we were co-writing. Like intelligently placed encounters, advancement came at intelligent places in the story.

#2 Comment By Blackjack On February 5, 2014 @ 5:58 am

Travel is a great component of the story at lower and middle levels. For low level PCs, the mere act of travel through uncivilized lands is a challenge. It will tax their skills and spells just to find their route, provide food and shelter for themselves, and survive difficult terrain and weather. Throw in a few (just a few!) hostile encounters and the trip itself becomes as dangerous as entering a dungeon or monster lair.

At middle levels travel becomes more of a routine exercise. If the PCs can plan ahead and provision themselves they can traverse all but the most extreme terrain safely. At this level I fast-forward through the mundane aspects of travel and focus on points of interest.

At all levels I use planned, surprise encounters to enrich the setting and establish plot points. Some people call these “random” encounters, but for me they are never truly random. Each encounter enriches the setting, establishes a plot point, or provides a decision point for the party.

#3 Comment By Silveressa On February 5, 2014 @ 11:08 am

I’ve had great luck with turning the journey fro a to b into an adventure or two, especially when said journeys are into unknown lands and/or well stocked supplies wind up ruined by the environment (jungle rot and insects can turn ruin grains stored in a burlap sack quite quickly) and they need to scavenge for supplies until the next town or outpost along the way.

One of the sticking points I’ve had however when fast forwarding a month or more of game time is the classic question of “so during that time of travel we’ve gotten to know our hired (npc) help more, what are they really like?”

Which has led me to flesh out four or five sentences worth of background/hobbies/personality for any NPC (even just the peasant porters) that will be accompanying the group on their expeditions.

#4 Comment By Leesplez On February 5, 2014 @ 11:54 am

I find it important to give the players a sense of time passage, and a sense that things are happening in the world around them. Seasons are a great way to give people a sense of time. The trees change color, the weather changes, and people’s habits change. Consider things like the “planting season” and “harvest season.” Holidays are also a way to remind the players of the passage of time. And also remind players that while they’re gone things are still happening, and people are still going about their daily lives. Maybe while they were gone a new mayor was elected in their home city. Maybe the harvest was poor and the peasants are rioting. Maybe some of their friends are getting married, or having children. All these things contribute to the sense that 1) time is passing, and 2) the world around them is changing with that passage of time.

#5 Comment By Norcross On February 6, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

This could also be good if the PCs follow a particular religion. Maybe they want to postpone a trip if they have to be in the temple in two week? Or they might have to stop halfway and spend a day of rest and meditation on a holiday? Give in-game incentives also – does the party want to push hard and exhaust themselves to make sure they reach the next town in time for a particular holy day, or risk having the cleric loses his spells until they make appropriate sacrifices at the next temple? It’s also a great way to have encourage roleplaying if different PCs follow different religions, with different holidays. And it doesn’t have to be negative – celebrating holidays can be done just to mark the passage of time, or let the PCs be homesick because they are missing a celebration with their family.

#6 Comment By nymalous On February 5, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

One thing I’ve discovered with travel (and roleplaying games in general) is this: NEVER use random encounters! I can almost hear the gasps and thuds as hard-core gamers faint and hit the floor, but just listen. As laid out in points 4 and 5, random encounters generally add nothing to the overall story, plus they slow things down, sometimes a lot.
Here’s what I do instead: I have planned travel encounters at various points along the travel route (sometimes they are ‘movable,’ in case the party decides to go a different way). Sometimes the characters might be surprised, or they could happen while the party is camping, but the point is the encounters are prepared and expected by me, the GM.
Many times the party bypasses the encounter, and in those cases, I simply ‘save’ the encounter for another time and place. The point of all this is that the encounters are in the control of the GM, me, not the whim of random chance. And none of my work is wasted, because if I decide that things are moving too slowly and that the next ‘travel’ encounter will be skipped, I can just use it again another day.
Anyway, that’s my two coppers, hope it helps someone.

#7 Comment By BluSponge On February 5, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

Dropping random encounters altogether may be a bit off putting depending on the sort of play experience you want. But keep in mind using random encounters doesn’t preclude seeding story-based encounters into the matrix. We’re really talking about macro level play here, as your players won’t know the difference.

I flipped the whole random encounter frequency on its head. I generate a single encounter (which includes hazards and story hooks) and then generate what time of day the event happens. This works much better for games where resource management is not a major focus (Savage Worlds, in my case). I also recommend the travel encounters from Rippers, which are sort of big themed events that take place while the party is on its way from point A to B, without all the fuss about daily rolls.

#8 Comment By nymalous On February 11, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

BluSponge, I appreciate your perspective, random encounters are very much ingrained into your typical roleplayer (no matter the genre or system), however, if the players won’t know the difference, then the only person who will be ‘put off’ is the GM. And I am sure any reasonable GM would be able to see the benefits of only using planned encounters (even if some of them appear to be ‘random’).
Think about it this way: all a random encounter really does is slow down game play, I mean, sure it gives the party a combat to experience, but that could easily be achieved by using a planned encounter. Since the random encounter requires that the GM work on the fly, at least somewhat (rolling to see if an encounter takes place, rolling to see what that encounter consists of, rolling up the relevant statistics of the NPCs/monsters involved, deciding where those NPCs/monsters will be placed, rolling for surprise, etc.), all I can see is that the momentum of the adventure/story/what-have-you is slowed for the sake of something that an author somewhere thought was a good idea and everyone just assumed s/he was right.
Before this gets out of hand, I would like to clarify that I do occasionally use random encounter tables… to create planned encounters. Sometimes I don’t quite know what to put along the travel routes that my players are using and so I roll up a ‘random’ encounter, only I do it well in advance of the game session, thus I do not slow down game play, and I can alter whatever doesn’t fit before it becomes an issue (if the party can’t handle the ancient red wyrm that I rolled I can change it to something else without slowing down the game even more for another die roll).
As for big themed events, that sounds pretty cool, I might have to check that out. And it does sound as though you at least limit your random encounters to one per day, and if that works for you, great! And I do know that random encounters don’t preclude story based encounters (though they might not leave enough time for them), but my travel encounters are not story based, they don’t further the plot, they are just planned in advance as part of the ambiance of the experience of traveling (which would likely have the party meeting someone or other along the way).
I guess there is plenty of room for different play styles and a variety of levels of expectation. Thanks for sharing yours. I’ll check out Rippers.

#9 Comment By Roger Brasslett On February 5, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

I thought I’d pop in and say how much I liked this post…because I don’t do that enough.

#10 Comment By Aaron Ryyle On February 7, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

Thanks for all the input! Lots of great additions.

I did not mention using weather, but that is definitely something to keep in mind. Just like with environmental traps, I tend to use the trap rules to set up weather encounters that allow the PCs to avoid things like lightening strikes, etc. And, again, using Survival or Knowledge: Nature to predict and avoid lightning strikes in place of Perception and Disable Device to avoid mechanical or magical traps gives players a chance to use their skills in new and exciting ways.

Using seasons and religious observations is also a great idea. I like the idea of the cleric needing to take a week in the middle of the journey to observe a week of ritual — that is something that shows up in real-world religion and culture all the time, but that is often forgotten in games. It can also add to the sense of foreignness while travelling — and not just for the cleric. (Imagine someone unfamiliar with Western culture travelling through the USA over Christmas week: all of a sudden shops are closed at apparently random times, even for whole days in the middle of the week, while finding a cab or a restaurant is suddenly much more difficult… if you didn’t know to expect those things, it would quickly become apparent that you were in a very different culture).

Finally, in terms of random encounters, I like the old-school feeling of them. What I tend to do is make up little charts for different regions. That way I can use the randomization element of old-school random encounters without the distracting … well … randomness. That’s what I mean by *planned* random encounters. Where, when, or even if an encounter takes place is random, which encounter the PCs face is random, but each encounter fits a basic theme.

And, again, thanks for all the great feedback. That’s what I love about Gnome Stew!

#11 Comment By zjou On February 9, 2014 @ 4:53 am

My latest (d&d3.5) campaign best moments were during travel…
The story was pretty straightforward without much room for extravagant choices to make, but they had a time constraint since they had winter-like weather in summer because of the awakening of an ancient dragon, and winter would have frozen them all…
So, after assembling the party, they trek from the village to the monastery for insight and guidance just to stumble on a newly carved nest of cockatrices, probably migrating south because of the drop in temperatures, which nearly managed to petrify one of the guys and whose beaks were used to make (weak) petrifyng arrows… still they tried to find more after. even going back to that same nest to check if some “respawned” 😛
Then there were the not-so-random blizzards: they could see it coming at evening time, before camping, and I’d give them the choice to scatter to gather wood as fast as possible, or together chop down a big tree for a better fire… Anyway they needed a skill check, and if failed they’d start taking increasing cold damage until it finally succeeded…
The catch was: when they’d go for the big tree I always had a few encounters to choose from to happen 😀
The first time appeared an hostile fire elemental who’d burn those in melee, who had to retreat occasionally in the snow before (or after) catching fire, and who’d hit with a long whip of fire the casters/rangeds, who had to retreat even further inside the blizzard, freezing gradually if they didn’t want to risk being hit… The fight was fun, and then I gave them the option to ask the creature a limited wish in exchange for its life and freedom: they asked for money and 5000 gold coins transferred (from a dragon treasure-them not knowing) to the ground in front of them, creating the opportunity for another encounter (they’d be chased by a young dragon looking for his gold)…
Second time they all wanted to bring down a big tree 🙂 but the tree started moaning:”please let me be” “dont cut me down”… They quickly decided to turn to smaller trees while taking the initial cold damage, eventually chatting with the big tree and departing in the morning a little wiser…
Third time they were in a tundra, so no big trees around…
Forth time they were finally involved in the main quest and decided to skip the big tree encounter to conclude the task at hand 🙂

Anyway, I really like the random encounters tables, even if I agree that they shouldn’t be used as planned: insted of rolling dices I tend to check them to see what kind of monster the PCs can find in the appropriate territory/power level… Even if it has no relation to the story, maybe you can add some color by adding an appropriate monster type to the battle: for example, while travelling in empire territory you can meet more than one eagle trainer, so it’s not just another “imperial guard”, also in the aforementioned Wolves Forest, you may find a small spiders lair with wolves stuck all over the webs: maybe your druid can convince them to join forces to wipe out the spiders and become friends later, or simply butcher them for meat, avoid them altogether and anyway live with the consequences:
bottom line: if I have to roll dices on a random table for a random fight on and on and on, I might as well do without a GM imho