Before I ever had a chance run a game of Dungeons & Dragons, after acquiring my sister’s copy of the 1981 Basic Set, I received my very own copy of the 1983 version of the D&D Expert Set. The Expert Set is what introduces wilderness travel as a key aspect of the D&D experience, and wilderness travel felt very important to my D&D experience from that point forward. This was only reinforced by acquiring the Wilderness Survival Guide as soon as I started playing AD&D, and interestingly, by the clear plastic overlays packaged with the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting boxed set in 1987.
All of this focus on overland travel reinforced to me that traveling between locations was almost as important to D&D as what existed at those locations. I was amazed at the concept of being able to determine who or what was on the road between locations, and even the exact weather for each day of the trip. The problem was, the novelty of knowing exactly what was going on each day wore off quickly. At the very least, I was having more fun if I could roll all of those weather rolls and random encounters as part of my prep, so I could streamline the descriptions and emphasize fun set pieces. But the PCs could easily do things that could obviate all of that prep work.
Modern D&D hasn’t done a lot to address this paradigm. The biggest change in D&D 5e, oddly, was in the Dungeon Master’s Screen–Wilderness Kit, which consolidated rules that appeared across different relevant chapters, as well as introducing the Journey Cycle, an option that explicitly told the DM to use a “per day” cycle for short trips, and a “per week” cycle for longer journeys, effectively telling DMs not to worry about the day to day details if your PCs are traveling halfway across Faerun. But only if you picked up the Wilderness Kit.
Expanding our look at D&D 5e into third-party SRD releases, if there is one thing you would expect in a game based on Middle-earth, it would be a focus on travel. The One Ring RPG had a Journey phase, but that was built into the game from the beginning. When Cubicle 7 published Adventures in Middle-earth, a 5e adaptation of The One Ring, it created Journey rules that married the spirit of The One Ring’s Journey rules with the mechanics of the 5e SRD. Uncharted Journeys is Cubicle 7’s product that adapts the Journey rules, not just to the mechanics of the 5e SRD, but to all of the assumptions of a “standard” D&D setting, rather than a setting with the same assumptions of Middle-earth.
I purchased my copy of Uncharted Journeys from the Cubicle 7 website, and did not receive a review copy. I have not had the opportunity to use the rules in this product, but I did adapt a version of the Journey rules present in Adventures in Middle-earth for use in a Storm King’s Thunder game that I ran.
Writing and Design: Emmet Byrne, Alex Cahill, Dominic McDowall, Josh Corcoran, Cody Faulk Editing: Calum Collins, Bryce Johnston, Christopher Walz
Additional Writing: David F Chapman, Walt Ciechanowski, Chris Colston, Zak Dale Clutterbuck, Eleanor Hingley, Elaine Lithgow, TS Luikart, Jessica Marcrum, Pádraig Murphy, Ceíre O’Donoghue, Ross Parkinson, Andrew Peregrine, Jacob Rodgers, Shu Qing Tan, Sam Taylor, Graham Tugwell Editing: Calum Collins, Phoebe Hedges, Brian Johnson, Roz Leahy, Christopher Walz
Production and Development: Emmet Byrne, Alex Cahill, Josh Corcoran Cover: Antonio De Luca
Illustration: Mauro Alocci, Nicola Angius, Carol Azevedo, Alberto Besi, Giuditta Betti, Federica Costantini, Antonio De Luca, Emanuele Desiati, Mirko Failoni, Runesael Flynn, Mariusz Gandzel, Michele Giorgi, Daniela Giubellini, Eve Koutsoukou, Dániel Kovács, Roman Kuteynikov, Vincent Laïk, Christine Leone, Andrea Tentori Montalto, Clara-Marie Morin, Sam Manley, JG O’Donohue, Michele Parisi, Giulio Perozziello, Martin Sobr, Eveline Skibrek, Darko Stojanovic, Kim Van Deun, Mike Wolmarans
Graphic Design and Layout: Emmet Byrne, Diana Grigorescu, Rory McCormack
Proofreading: Alex Cahill, Josh Corcoran, Tim Cox
This review is based on the PDF of Uncharted Journeys. The PDF is currently only available with the preorder for the physical version of Uncharted Journeys, with the physical version arriving in Quarter 3 of 2023. The PDF itself is 294 pages long. This includes a credits page, a half-page table of contents, two pages of special thanks, a redesigned 5e character sheet with room to record the character’s Journey role, a Journey Chronicle with places to track the elements of the current Journey, a full page Cubicle 7 ad, and a full page OGL statement.
The book is laid out in a two-column format, with lots of sidebars and tables. The book is full color, and includes a copious amount of half and quarter-page artwork. A particularly fun bit of thematic art direction is that there are two statues that appear as the borders of facing pages throughout the book. However, these statues have different details based on the type of terrain being detailed in that part of the book. For example, they are spikey, dark red, and surrounded by flames in the Hellscapes chapter, but appear more like angelic cemetery statues in the Haunted Lands chapter.
The book is organized into the following sections:
- Journey Rules
- People Along the Way
- Ancient Ruins
The Encounters section, in particular, has a lot of subdivisions, going into many encounter types as well as encounter locations.
How Does This Work?
Journeys are divided into broad categories based on how long they take to resolve. These are given example distances in miles and travel times, but there are several sections of the book that reinforce that these are general guidelines, not hard and fast requirements. All Journeys are Short, Medium, Long, or Very Long. A short Journey may be one that takes 15 to 150 miles or two days to a week to complete, while a very long Journey is a trip of more than a thousand miles or one that might take two or more months.
Journeys have a difficulty rating. The base difficulty is 10, modified by weather, terrain, and other circumstances. This is the difficulty used for any check referenced in the resolutions later on in the book. The length of the journey sets the number of encounters that will happen, from 1 to 4. But wait . . . there are a few instances that can increase or decrease the number of encounters in the Journey.
The encounter type is rolled individually, and includes the following themes:
- A Chance Meeting (convey information)
- Hidden Reserves (add or remove Inspiration or Exhaustion)
- A Bump in the Road (avoiding Exhaustion)
- Needing Assistance (add Inspiration, lose Supply Dice)
- Danger Afoot (a hostile encounter that starts with the PCs or NPCs acting with surprise)
- Natural Wonders (advantage or disadvantage on checks made in other encounters)
- Monster Hunt (avoiding or surprising a monstrous encounter)
- A Place to Rest (gain a long rest, a short rest, or pick up a level of Exhaustion)
- Old Memories (add or subtract an additional die when resolving other encounters)
- A Dark Place (regain hit dice or lose hit dice)
- Deadly Fight (hostile creatures looking for a fight)
- Fateful Encounters (introduce contacts and impart information)
The themes on this list touch on the three pillars of D&D, roleplaying, exploration, and combat. It’s also worth remembering that some of these encounter types involve getting something extra if you engage with the environment, for example, whenever an option in the rules mentions that an additional encounter may happen during the Journey. This isn’t always going to be something that involves negative consequences (but it might).
Characters can abandon a Journey, so if your players decide that they aren’t going to travel all the way from Waterdeep to Silverymoon in one go, there is a way to adjudicate this change of plans. That said, abandoning a Journey early can involve picking up a level of exhaustion as well as potentially losing hit dice.
The Arrival chart determines how the PCs arrive at their destination. There may be dangerous opponents waiting for the PCs at their destination, looming threats the PCs can detect and avoid, or they arrive at their destination able to take either a short or long rest before the action continues.
The above is an important aspect of the Journey rules to note. You can’t take as many short rests as you like during a Journey, and you can’t take a long rest at all unless you get a particularly favorable result from one of the encounter types. This is an understandable rule to add to the Journey rules, because if you don’t outright kill a party member or inflict an ongoing condition on them during an encounter, long rests wipe out most of the consequences of an encounter in the standard rules. That said, getting that buy-in for suspending the way short and long rests work is important, and ultimately was the biggest problem I had when I adapted the Adventures in Middle-earth rules to my Storm King’s Thunder game. We’ll get back to how the book attempts to bridge the gap toward that buy-in soon.
At the end of the Journey rules, we have rewards, something that the PCs may get for surviving the Journey they just finished. These are broken down by Narrative Rewards, Short-Term Rewards, and XP. Narrative rewards usually take the form of new contacts, while short-term rewards involve getting inspiration or bonus dice they can use on upcoming checks. The XP chart awards XP based on the overall difficulty of the Journey, multiplied by the number of encounters on the trip. While I’m glad to see an additional XP table in the game, I’m not sure how well these XP awards scale, in either direction. As an example, the chart ranges from 100 XP for a Journey with a DC of 11, to 25,000 XP for a Journey with a DC higher than 30. There are a lot of dials beyond just the DC of the Journey, which means you could have low level PCs that get knocked around hard with a DC of 30, who still survive, and then get a staggering amount of XP.
Roles and Class Interaction
The Journey system is predicated on having four roles. If you don’t have one PC for each role, someone can double up on a role, but the PC will be making their checks at disadvantage. If you have more PCs than roles, you can have more than one person in a role, which will usually allow checks for that role to be made with advantage. Each of the roles has a list of skills they can choose from when making the group skill check for resolving the Journey. These are:
- Charisma (Persuasion)
- Wisdom (Insight)
- Charisma (Performance)
- Wisdom (Survival)
- Intelligence (Nature)
- Cartographer’s Tools
- Constitution (Athletics)
- Blacksmith’s Tools
- Leatherworker’s Tools
- Cook’s Utensils
- Brewer’s Supplies
- Wisdom (Perception)
- Dexterity (Stealth)
- Disguise Kit
Each one of these ability checks allows the character to explain how they contributed to the expedition in a different way, which can be unique depending on who adopts the role. Depending on how well the party succeeds, they might end up with anywhere from one fewer encounter to two additional encounters.
In addition to being the party member responsible for making one of the checks to resolve the Journey, each one of the roles has a special ability that functions in context of the Journey. The leader can grant a party member a reroll on a save or an ability check once per party member per Journey. The Outrider can have another dice rolled for an encounter and pick the one they would rather have occur based on the title of the encounter (A Chance Meeting, Hidden Reserves, etc.). The Quartermaster gains Supply Dice that they can spend as a reaction to add to an ally’s ability checks, and the Sentry has Focus Dice they can spend in a similar manner to add to saves or initiative checks.
You may be asking, what about those classes or backgrounds that have “absolutes” that interact with traveling cross country? Because it’s the individual encounters that determine if a character gets lost, a class ability doesn’t obviate the character negating a consequence. Characters that can always find food may count has helping provision the party (see below), and that may be useful for setting the DC of the Journey, but it doesn’t remove potential consequences, either.
Now, let’s talk about pushback and buy-in. The Adventures in Middle-earth version of the Journey rules didn’t allow for short or long rests, unless they were a reward from successfully resolving an encounter. While there are still some additional rests bestowed by encounter resolution in this version of the Journey system, this updated version allows the PCs to take one short rest, in exchange for an additional encounter. They can also spend hit dice to recover special abilities.
While there are specific examples given for all of the SRD classes, in general, regaining a single use of an ability that recharges on a short rest costs a hit die, while recovering a single use of a class ability that recharges on a long rest costs two hit dice. This same structure can be applied to subclass or species abilities in addition to class abilities. The most expensive hit dice expenditure, however, is the recovery of spell slots, which cost one hit die per spell level of the spell.
This recovery of class abilities using a finite resource is essentially an olive branch. The Adventures in Middle-earth rules didn’t really account for how many toys a class has at their disposal, and how limiting it might be to not have a means of recovering those toys. This allows PCs to be a bit freer with a wider range of abilities in the resolution of encounters, while still maintaining the consequences of the events on the trail.
PCs can each make a single preparation before the Journey starts, which can range from charting a course, consulting omens, getting mounts or beasts of burden, procuring supplies, or studying the weather. These different preparations can grant specific bonuses or extra benefits during the Journey, or they can reduce the overall difficulty of the Journey itself. In some cases, the form of preparation has a built in quick resolution for how the PC wants to engage with that preparatory work. For example, if you have someone in your group particularly good at acquiring goods without paying for them, they might attempt a Slight of Hand or Stealth check when Procuring Supplies, Beasts of Burden, or Mounts.
Each of the encounter types has a broad explanation of what should happen in those encounters. There are two ways to resolve these encounters. One is a more standardized resolution, where a character in a particular role is setting the scope of the encounter, and the party rolls a group check to resolve the encounter.
There is still some degree of variability in this form of resolution. For example, a Danger Afoot result determines if the PCs can act with surprise when a fight starts, or if the enemy can act with surprise against the PCs, but what the PCs encounter still needs to be determined.
The second form of resolution is to read one of the prompts that is given in the book under the various locations, and to roleplay out the situation. These scenes are long paragraphs that may have a suggested check and a suggested reward, but don’t include the two-step resolution of the Role character making an overall check, followed by a group check.
Using the more mechanical resolution doesn’t remove roleplay from the situation, but it does mean that there will always be a specific means of resolving that type of encounter, which the DM and the players can work together to detail. Using the prompts creates a more detailed opening scene that may provide enough details that PCs will find ways to resolve the encounter that aren’t as obvious.
While extensive, the above rules don’t take up that much of the book. So what makes up the majority of the page count? This book provides a lot of examples to plug into encounters in different ways.
There are tables for determining the time of day and location of an encounter, as well as the species, age, demeanor, and purpose of an NPC. There are also several bullet points to walk a DM through information they may wish to have ready for an encounter.
There is a section on ancient ruins that allows you to generate locations with charts for who built it, how old the ruin is, what the ruin’s purpose was, what it looks like now, and how it might have been repurposed. The list of who built the ruin runs the gamut from typical PC species, to wizardly conclaves, evil cults, giants, fey, undead, fiends, celestials, or aberrations. That’s going to affect how old the ruin is, and may make it more or less likely to be used for different purposes on the later charts in this section.
But by far the most extensive section involves the encounter prompts for different types of terrain. These are divided up into tables of ten different events underneath the categories of encounters given above. For example, for each of these terrain types, there is a section on A Chance Meeting which includes ten different detailed paragraphs of an encounter under that theme, for that location. That means each one of these locations has 120 example encounters. The different locations in the book include:
- Great Cities
- Haunted Lands
- Lands of the Fae
- Open Waters
- War Torn Lands
- Wild Magic Lands
In addition to the example encounters, each section has a table of example weather, flora and fauna, local inhabitants, points of interest, and possible reasons to travel through that location.
Something that occurred to me as I was reading through all of these different locations is that many of these locations, especially some of the more fantastic ones, correspond with some of the official WotC adventures that have been released, giving you some built in encounter examples for Journeys using those adventures.
For example, Coasts and Open Waters work well with Ghost of Saltmarsh, Haunted Lands provides some solid Ravenloft support, Great Cities dovetails well with Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the opening sections of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, and Hellscapes works well for the Avernus portion of that adventure. Underground provides encounters for the many, many days of travel in Out of the Abyss, Lands of the Fae is a good companion to The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, and War-Torn Lands provides a lot that can be used for traveling through the war-torn sections of Ansalon in Dragonlance Shadow of the Dragon Queen.
Positive Elements While I personally am a big fan of the Journey system, the fact that it’s useful beyond its implementation of that mechanic, by providing so many encounter ideas and randomized details, is a great draw.
There is so much material in this book, it’s going to be hard not to find something useful even if you don’t use the Journey system exactly as written. As written, it greatly expands instances where the PCs can use skills to make an impact on the story of the game. I appreciate that the abstraction doesn’t feel too abstract, but is still loose enough that it allows for some workarounds when compared to the absolutes presented in some of the classes and backgrounds. Examples of weather for the different terrain types do what all of those random weather charts from AD&D didn’t do for me–provide me with context for an encounter.
While this modification to the Journey system does do a lot to address allowing players to use and replenish their class abilities, the spell slot recovery cost, in particular, is really harsh. While the book provides some adaptations for using the rules for naval travel, the suggestion to use them for traversing a large city leave a lot to be desired, because many of the options in the Journey system, for example, preparation, don’t work if you try to change the scale of Journeys to minutes through hours.
Strongly Recommended–This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.
It is going to be really easy to recommend this product to anyone that plays D&D and is looking for a whole lot of broadly useful encounters. While I personally am a big fan of the Journey system, the fact that it’s useful beyond its implementation of that mechanic, by providing so many encounter ideas and randomized details, is a great draw. In fact, there are a lot of fantasy games where all of these examples and details might be useful.
What are some of your favorite ways for handling travel in your games? How do you make it feel important, without having the game grind to a halt? What do you do to streamline random encounters into meaningful narrative elements? We want to hear from you in the comments below!