As is often the case, inspiration for my articles comes from things that happen in real life. The latest event in my life was a cross country move from Oxford, Mississippi to Columbus, Ohio. It was stressful, compacted into a few days, and throughout the whole thing I kept imagining myself in different situations to keep up motivation. You know what I mean – imagining that you are piloting a Drayman from Wing Commander while you are mowing the lawn to stave off the boredom or digging for treasure like Indiana Jones instead of just digging up the perennials from the garden. My mind wandered a lot during the move, and there are a lot of gaming related ideas I had because of it. So, here are five things I’m working into my games because I moved.
1. Long Journeys Are Long
Our drive was about 10 hours with modern technology. It took us about 13 with breaks, gas fill-ups, traffic, and time zone shifts. With modern technology. One of the great things about old school fantasy (and futuristic sci-fi) games is their vast, epic, scale. It feels incredible to journey to the ends of the known world to achieve your quest goals, but journeys are boring. Getting ambushed by random encounters is a convention of many older, more crunchy games, but it serves its purpose. Even without the level grinding effect, it helps players realize the time taken with each journey. I don’t intend to ambush my players with completely random encounters in most of my games, but I do want to show them a legitimate journey.
To do this, I’m going to pull out the Indiana Jones mapping technique. But, I’m going to make frequent stops along the way. Assuming that a cart and wagon can travel about 30 to 40 miles in a day and that is an inch on my world map, I’ll mark off the approximate distance for a days worth of travel and show the players where they stop. I’ll let them set up camp according to S.O.P. It’s a fairly old school approach right out of early editions of D&D, but instead of throwing random encounters at them, I’ll ask one player to quickly narrate something that happens at each stop. “We set up camp and I go hunt a deer, but instead of bringing it all back to camp I get attacked by a pack of wolves and they grab the deer. I get one of the wolves and bring that back to eat. Others are less than enthusiastic about it.” or “We’re staying at the roadside inn tonight? My turn to narrate. Cool, I become drinking buddies with a Dwarf named Ruffles.”Â I can do the same for space travel, asking about crew changes or interesting events during downtime, but I’ll get the players on board with the amount of time it is taking. The trip will still be finished in about 10 or 12 real time minutes, but the players will feel the the trip when they reach port. They stopped 8 or 9 times along the way, we made each stop mean something, maybe had a big side encounter, but focusing on the stops and amount of time it takes in a more structured way than “You travel for 10 days and arrive” will drop just enough realism in to make the players feel the trip but not drag down the game.
2. Places Are So Incredibly Different, Even Though They Look The Same
My recent move took me from a rurally distant small college town that is a fairly concentrated area of Southern wealth and also a football mecca (see The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock) to a very urban, fairly liberally minded city with its own fanaticism about football and a lot more people and infrastructure. These two places are very similar and very different. While they both boast Walmarts and strip malls and lots of good restaurants alongside their signs denoting football pride, the ways of life in these towns are very different. Things are much more spread out in Oxford and a car is nearly required, while in Columbus I don’t know that I’ve taken the car out more than 3 times since we moved. We’ve walked everywhere or ridden the bus. The stores are the same, but the stock they carry is different because of the people. The coffee shops operate on different structures and the sheer population differences change so many social norms.
While your players may move between two different metropolitan areas with similar structures in your game, they are likely two very different places. Find a few elements of your cities and “civilized” areas and make them unique. Perhaps one starbase (built off the same base model as another) has exterior walkways between modules instead of interior ones. This is because the nebulae visible are too beautiful to pass up, even though people get a kind of vertigo walking through the clear tubes. Maybe access to fresh food at one base is completely different because of where they are located and what supply runs go through that sector. Perhaps one is full of alien life because it is a hub of transport routes while the other is only locals who aren’t sure of the mercenaries in their midst. In all other ways, perhaps event the map used for the starbase, they are the same but a few key differences make them feel worlds apart, which they literally are. But that’s the feeling you want to give your players. Not that they are at starbase 1025 instead of 1026 or that Waterdeep is the same as Freeport, a big city. Instead you want to foster the feeling of difference so players understand their travels have taken them far away.
3. Realistically, Loot And carrying Stuff Is A Pain In The Butt
We had to leave behind and sell so many things to fit it all in the truck. The big furniture was the biggest pain, but we had boxes and boxes of stuff that we tetris-ed in and rearranged to get most of our possessions to our new home. If you want to drop in a little challenge that isn’t a fight, make a list of all the things on the cart or the transport that the party is carrying and lightly enforce space restrictions and weight limits. When they bring back the really expensive artifact statue that is going to be someone’s retirement fund, figure out if it is too much to fit. Suddenly, the players have a choice between one big statue or food for the trip back. Maybe they will come up with some really clever ideas on how to fit it all and maybe their failed roll means the axle breaks. There was a reason why spare axles were an option to purchase in Oregon trail. Having to deal with encumbrance and weight is a pain to me as a GM, but a casual nod to it every so often will keep your players on their toes and sinking their money into bags of holding or extra cargo space.
4. I now understand partially filled ruins
Following up on #3, I totally get why you find things in ruins now. Looking at our old house when it was mostly empty and everything was being moved out, I could really grok why a ruin would look the way it does. Say the cult who used to use this old temple failed to call up their dread god and disbanded. They packed stuff up and left a lot of it behind. Ok. That’s why there are some empty rooms and some with a few things in it. Some has succumbed to decay, some has been deemed unusable on the road. It’s a common trope in gaming, but I never really got it as a reality until I mulled it over during the move.
An abandoned building makes for interesting terrain full of things half broken or left behind of unknown reasons. Imagine a game of Shadowrun where you are tasked with routing out a small corporation that is messing with your employers stock price with interesting tactics. You’re hired to clean them out, but they get wind of you and pack up before you arrive at their offices. They left in a hurry but hired some security to take out anyone that followed. You’ve now got an office building full of copiers to duck behind, half torn down cubicles, computers that might contain useful information or clues. A smorgasbord of things that won’t provide the key to the mystery, but might have enough pieces to move your game through the mid-phase and point the players in the right direction. It’s not a smorgasbord of useful things (in-game or out of game) but it is interesting terrain with lots of possibility to link to other plot and game elements. It is a modern day version of a ruin in a fantasy game. If you want some inspiration for modern ruins, check out this site: opacity.us.
5. I Love The Devices That Let Us Handwave Realism
Ultimately, I love the devices in our games that let us handwave away realism. What would I have given for a few bags of holding to save my back during the move or make it easier to get things into the truck. NPCs to help lift things so I could focus on more “hero-y” elements of the move. Rocking. Games aren’t about the realism and the dull moments, they are about escaping to another world. Incorporating some of the mundane elements (like long journeys, pains in the back from lifting loot, etc.) into a game can increase immersion and make those handwave elements (like transporters and extra-dimensional storage) feel all the more awesome and useful to your characters.
How do you handle mundane elements like travelling long distances or transporting lots of material? Do you handwave it away or work the realism in deep? What is your perfect balance for these sorts of things and what real life events inspire you to incorporate some realism into games?
* Image of the abandoned office from an interesting game about exploring abandoned places called Infra.Â http://www.moddb.com/games/infra
* Space gnome is a garden gnome wearing the LA Galaxy soccer team space suit.
Good article, John. I’ve used my personal experience with hiking and camping in the rough to add both structure and color to the PCs’ on-the-road adventures. A few notes:
1. Terrain and the quality of the road or trail really can slow things down. Of course, players’ first reaction to news that travel will go slowly is to bellyache. But the speed at which travel normally occurs has an important impact on the nature of the game.
If travel between locations A and B is fast, A and B are much more likely to share similar culture, economy, government, etc. as people and information move quickly from one to the other. If travel between A and B is slow or dangerous, they’re much more likely to be very different from one another, and PCs can “get a leg up” on events and other people by traveling fast.
2. Camping out at night in the wild can be spooky until you’ve done it enough times. Players’ first reaction is usually, “No problem, we’ll just be vigilant.” But that’s the thing… being vigilant means that you notice a bazillion things that go bump in the night! The only real solution is experience. After a while you develop a better feel for whether that sudden CRACK! sound is trees crackling on their own or a predator or enemy stepping on a twig while sneaking up to ambush you.
3. Typically I play one random encounter per night when traveling in the wild. Except it’s never truly random– I’ve written about this before. Sometimes it’s a hostile encounter but other times it’s one of those things that turns out to be a false alarm. My purpose is to convey the flavor of the adventure: that travel in the wild is dangerous and unpredictable. If there are elements that make the area extra dangerous I may play 2 road encounters per day to enforce the idea that PCs are constantly on their toes. Similarly, once the PCs become well versed in travel in a particular area I ratchet down the number of road encounters, the idea being “Been there, done that, not a significant risk.”
Thanks. You’re right, camping is a whole different experience than most gamers who don’t camp would be used to. It would provide a whole slew of different auditory senses. An adventurer in a fantasy setting might have more experience with it, but the wilds they would feasibly face are significantly more dangerous than the wilds we would face even if we camped in a very remote locale.
I particularly like the first point and your specific incorporation. That’s always a tricky line… enough tedium and time to feel like a journey, but not so much that it eats up half a session.
Thanks! I’ve been having an old school yearning lately and been thinking about things like that. How to walk the fine line between realism and fun.
I especially love your story-telling solution to the long journey issue. I shall be adopting that for my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign. It is such a neat way to illustrate the time taken by the journey and to exercise the Players’ narrative skills.
I guess I tend to take a movie-style approach to it. My players’ time is valuable, so I want to concentrate on things they can change or do, and narrate over the tops of tedious things or situations with little to no action important to the story. I’ll tell them how long a journey is, small tidbits of action not worth dealing with in a combat encounter (by the time the group gets fireballs, lightning bolts, and over fifty hit points, bandits really aren’t a serious threat unless they plan a really tricky ambush beyond the planning of common thugs). Of course, if I feel that combat has been lacking, I can and do throw in an average-to-tough difficulty encounter along the way. It all depends on how I read my players and feel what is needed for the pace of the game. A journey or a break in the series of adventures or encounters is also a great time to dangle some new plot hooks or add some tangential information for the group, perhaps a clue or two. Adding a familiar piece like and encounter with a contact, travelling merchant, or a piece of home (like rolling into a new town in Autoduel and finding a well-stocked Uncle Albert’s run by the cousin of the one in the player’s home city) can really add color to your world.
Cool article. Moving certainly does put things into perspective. When I have moved in the past, I learned that I needed to get rid of stuff! lol Its funny how much is hand-waved in games. After a hike through rough terrain to reach ancient ruins, we come to find out that our heroes have brought along ladders and 10′ poles to test for traps. Suuuuuure. My last campaign, the encounters I setup on long journeys were pretty much all related to the story line. I tried to avoid things totally random, but never ruled out the possibility. I like the idea of the players inputting on the daily encounter scenario. Maybe something like the party makes camp at a location where they hear water flowing nearby, so one of the characters decides to go fishing for the nightly meal. Then throw in the curveball… grizzly bears had the same idea. haha BTW, welcome to Ohio. I’ve moved to (and from) Columbus as well. Everything is scarlet and grey up there. But its an interesting and busy city.