A quick note: this article ballooned out to be extra super long. And that’s because of an eleventh hour rewrite. I had filled it with vague suggestions for handling this and that aspect of wilderness travel. But then, I went out to dinner and realized that I could do a much better job of codifying things. So the second half of this article is basically a barebones system for resolving wilderness travel in D&D and Pathfinder. That’s why it seems way long. In retrospect, it should have been two separate articles – theory and implementation – and if not for the last minute rewrite, it would have been. But I already did the whole thing so you get an extra special, extra long article that is half crunch. Merry F$&%ing Christmas. – Angry
When you think about it, it’s really amazing how easy it is to travel across the f$&%ing world. For example, in January, I make an annual pilgrimage to the land of my birth, the best damned state in the best damned country on the best damned planet in the Universe, New York, U. S. of F$&%ing A. And so, the other day, I found myself using one of those aggregation sites to search through all the flights available to take me home from my current residence in the cutest little pretend city in the entire Midwest, a city that is almost just like a real city, the best the poor little Midwest can actually manage, Chicago. In about ten minutes, I found inexpensive round trip tickets for exactly the dates I wanted. I paid for them. And I was done.
Actually, I misspoke. It’s amazing how easy it is to PLAN TO TRAVEL across the f$&%ing world. Getting the plane tickets, booking the train, reserving a car and a hotel? Those are easy as f$&%. But then, you actually have to GET to the airport and BOARD by getting through airport f$&%ing security. And, to be honest, I find having to remove my belt and shoes and get nude photgraphs taken by a machine emitting God-knows-what radiation directly into my gonads, I find all of that far, FAR less offensive than having to stand in line for TWO F$&%ING HOURS for the privilege. And then there’s getting TO the airport. And getting FROM the airport. And the game of “will my baggage actually get to the same place I did?” So, now that I really think about it, it’s amazing that anyone travels anywhere at all. Which probably explains why it’s so easy to BUY tickets and PLAN a trip. To lull you in. Once you get in the car, on the day of the trip, you’re trapped. You’re locked in. You. Have. No. Choice.
Hey, speaking of things that are easy to plan, tedious to execute, and involve no choices at all, several people have asked me about overland travel in RPGs. Enough so that it deserves more than just squirting out an Ask Angry (my Phone-It-In solution when I don’t want to write an ACTUAL article). It deserves for me to squirt out an Ask Angry, but disguise it as a Feature Article. Which is actually not that hard. All I do is take off the part where I say “Dumba$&% Name Asks: Hey, what about travel time?” and I replace it with a three paragraph Long, Rambling Introduction™.
And so, with that third paragraph closed, let’s talk about overland travel in fantasy RPGs. Thanks to the six or seven of you who wrote in questions about it. I would credit you all by name, but I’ve run out of paragraphs and I have to start an article now.
The Intractable Journey
So, here’s the problem. The heroes of your story generally live in some kind of city or town or village. Or at least they stay there. But the story itself actually takes place in a dungeon that isn’t in the city or town or village. It’s usually several miles away. Which explains why people haven’t cleaned it out before. Right? And even if the story isn’t in some dungeon miles from town, the heroes might have to get to some other city or village or town miles away. The point is, heroes spend a lot of time traveling between point A and point B through the wilderness.
Well, that part isn’t the problem. The problem is that, on the one hand, traveling from point A to point B is inherently the least interesting part of the adventure. Or, at least, it feels that way. And that’s fair. Sort of. We’ll come back to that part. Let’s just assume it is for the moment. Traveling is inherently the least interesting part of the adventure. It isn’t the monster-filled dungeon with traps and riddles and treasure. It isn’t the city-state under the thrall of the witch-king. It isn’t even the oracle’s temple. It’s just crossing a blank spot on the map with no dots.
On the other hand, the whole idea of a fantasy world – especially one like D&D – is that civilization is constantly at war with the untamed, monster-filled wilderness. People don’t travel far because travel is dangerous. And part of the reason why no one has plundered the monster-filled ruins or challenged the witch-kings rule and why so few people visit the oracle who has all the answers is because the journey is simply BEYOND most people. As Professor Dumbledore once said, “It’s a dangerous business, Harry, going out your door…”
It comes down to something that snobbish elitist game designer nerds call “ludocognitive dissonance” and what us normal people educated by TVTropes call “gameplay-story segregation.” From a story perspective, we WANT travel to be exciting and wild and dangerous. From a gameplay perspective, travel just doesn’t make for interesting gameplay. Hell, that’s why when Hagrid and Dumbledore and McGonagall led the hobbits south through the mountains toward the Clashing Rocks or whatever, we got to watch a montage occasionally broken up by character development scenes and something about Crayfish from Dunland flying overhead spying for Voldemort. Whatever.
The Two Solutions
Okay, so basically, the problem is this: as a part of adventure, travel is boring. What do you do? Well, there’s two good solutions and then there’s the one crappy solution everyone actually goes with. Let’s talk about the two good solutions first. Because the crappy solution will actually help us in a bit.
Solution the first is to just skip the travel. Seriously. Just narrate it. Wave your magical GM Time Turner and say “after several days of travel through the wilderness, you skip ahead to the exciting part of the adventure, but trust me, the journey was really harrowing and would have killed a peasant. It was that bad.” Yes, I’m calling that a GOOD solution. That solution is perfectly fine. I mean, you can skip the sarcasm if you want. And you can be a little bit more flavorful and say things like “you struggle through the harrowing woods of Harrowood, struggling against the terrain and the thick, rank undergrowth, where the tangled, knotted canopy is so thick and blots out so much light that it feels like you’re actually journeying underground,” but it’s basically the same thing.
Remember that scene in The Muppets, the one with that Jason Statham that came out in 2011? The scene where they press a button in the car to travel by map? And then we see a map with a red line plotting the course the Muppets took and then, in the end, they emerge from the Atlantic Ocean talking about what a great trip it was? Or remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Temple of the Crusade of Doom where they are traveling and Indy presses the button in the plane and/or blimp to travel by map and then we see a map and a red line plotting the course Indy took until his plane gets shot down by Nazis and he ends up riding a river raft filled with snakes down the side of Mt. Saint Helens and discovering the Cross of Coronado? Same f$&%ing thing.
This is a good solution. It really, really is. Assume the travel happens off camera, narrate a line on a map, and then zoom back in when the players are at the interesting part. There is NOTHING WRONG WITH IT. It’s a GOOD solution. It fixes the problem and it doesn’t ruin the game. I know that sounds crazy. But everything I say sounds crazy when your brain is wrong.
The SECOND solution is just to make travel interesting enough to be a fun part of the game.
That’s also a good solution.
Current Travel Conditions: Crappy
Now, let’s talk about the third stupid solution that most GMs adopt. I know, I know, you want to hear more about that other thing about making travel interesting. But it’s important that we look at the crappy hybrid solution because it will help us come up with the good solution.
The current crappy solution most GMs adopt is this. Knowing that travel is inherently boring but also important from a world-building perspective, most GMs try to rush through it. They throw travel a bone. And there’s a couple of ways they might do that.
First, you have the well-intentioned GM who wants to make travel fun and so she tries using those random encounter tables. Every in-game day, she rolls for a random encounter and every few days, there’s a random encounter. She has the party stumble over a random monster, announces said random monster is trying to kill the party, and then runs a combat. And that’s it. At most, she provides one random monster encounter per day. And because of the way the system favors multiple encounters per day and very quick recovery, those encounters really aren’t serious threats. But at least she’s trying. She’s doing what the book told her. She’s rolling for random encounters and then running them.
Second, you have the GM who has recognized that travel ISN’T fun, even with random encounters. She still knows that travel is important to world-building and all that crap. But she hates it and she knows her players hate it. Rather than cut it out altogether and just let it happen off screen and let clever narration provide suspension of disbelief and give the illusion that the world is dangerous while admitting it isn’t fun to worry about dangerous travel, she adopts the Genauein Encounter Solution. That is, whenever the party travels from point A to point B, however far apart those points be, they will have ONE, AND PRECISELY ONE (ein, und genau ein) encounter.
Seriously. Think about it. You may never have realized it, but you’ve probably had GMs who adopted the Genauein Encounter Solution. Seriously, Mr. Wizard explained it in Order of the Stick Comic #145. That’s how prevalent it is. Order of the Stick made fun of it back when the comic was actually FUN! Remember FUN?! What the hell happened to the FUN!?
Honestly, both solutions are a sort of evolution. The well-intentioned GM eventually gets bored with random encounters and recognizes they have no impact on the game, and so she cuts down to one random encounter just to prove travel really is dangerous, and everyone seems less unhappy. Which is the same as happy. And if the poor GM could just take one more step, she’d just turn travel into narrated montages and her game would be a lot more fun.
A Case for Interesting Travel
Now, I know I’ve now supported the whole “don’t even bother with travel except as a line of narration” thing a few times. And it might seem like I’m pushing that solution. And I am. Sort of. The thing is, I support it as a better solution than either the Well-Intentioned Random Encounter Roller or the Genauein Encounter Solution. At least it actually solves the problem by cutting out the boring part. BUT, as I mentioned, there is another solution. And that is: make travel interesting.
That solution, however, presents two problems. First, it means you’re spending game time on traveling between Point A and Point B. Second, it takes work. But those problems aren’t as bad as they seem. We’ll get back to them in a second. First, allow me to make a case for interesting travel.
The thing is, the world is supposed to be dangerous. Traveling between sites is supposed to be daunting. And traveling beyond the confines of civilization into the untamed wilderness is part of what makes adventuring an adventure. The reason people get so turned off to trying to make travel a part of the game is that they confuse the idea with the execution. And that’s a very common problem that a lot of gamers have in their stupid gamer brains. Yeah, I said it.
I’ve put forth ideas before, both on this website and on Twitter, that have been immediately attacked as being terrible ideas. Which is really stupid because I don’t have terrible ideas. I have great ideas. For example, I’ve been thinking through an interesting way RPGs might handle item crafting. And I said as much on Twitter. And half the responses I’ve gotten back have involved how terrible crafting is in Pathfinder and D&D 3.5 and how it obviously can’t work.
Anything D&D or Pathfinder has ever done? That’s the EXECUTION of an idea. That’s a SPECIFIC EXECUTION. The IDEA is to have a system that allows players to craft tools and weapons and armor and magical items. And the idea isn’t bad. In fact, it’s good for a lot of reasons. But Pathfinder and D&D keep f$&%ing it up. And now people assume the IDEA of crafting is bad because the D&D and Pathfinder SPECIFIC EXECUTION was a pile of s$&%.
Same here. I’m not arguing that the rules of D&D don’t really handle travel in an interesting or engaging way. In fact, a lot of the mechanics I’m going to point out in a minute that specifically exist for the purposes of making travel a part of the adventure? They are universally reviled rules that most GMs avoid. But that doesn’t mean travel as part of the adventure is a bad IDEA. Just that D&D hasn’t gotten it right.
And here’s the other thing. Apart from the world-building reasons for interesting and dangerous travel, and apart from it being part of the spirit of the adventure, it also helps fix other problems with the pace of the game. If travel is hard and daunting, then, when the PCs are far from home, they are less likely to retreat to home whenever the going gets tough. While exploring the dungeon, they won’t retreat back to town. They will retreat to their temporary encampment. And because that camp itself may not be one-hundred percent safe, they will be inclined to get stuff done in as few days as possible. They won’t want to be IN THE WILDERNESS for too long. Instead of taking twenty days to clean out a dungeon, one encounter per day and then a long sleep for the night, they will want to clean it out in two days.
What that means, though, is that you have to start thinking of the travel time as PART of the adventure. That is, site-based adventures have THREE parts: there, adventure, and back again. And that means that a two session adventure might involve half a session of travel, then half a session of dungeon at the first session and half a session of dungeon followed by half a session of travel at the second session. And there are going to be some GMs who look at that and freak the f$&% out.
But hold on. Don’t freak out yet. Remember, the key isn’t just to waste sessions on travel. The key is to make travel interesting enough to be a part of the adventure. Just hold your pissing and moaning until the end, okay?
So, the structure of a site-based adventure becomes (1) the party plans the trek and buys supplies, (2) the party survives the trip, (3) the party establishes a temporary base camp in the wilderness near the site, (4) the party adventures in the site, (5) the party breaks camp and journeys back, (6) get drunk in the tavern.
That structure can actually create an interesting feeling of progression in a campaign centered around a home base. See, at low levels, the party actually can’t travel too far from home. They can’t carry enough supplies or reliably survive off the land. They are restricted to local problems. As they gain the means, they can invest in mounts, hirelings, carts, portable holes, bags of holding, and so on to remove those obstacles so they can survive longer across more hostile terrain. They go deeper into the wilderness and forge their way across more and more hostile terrain. Various options like teleportation, flight, the ability to magically conjure food and water, and all of that other crap? That actually becomes super valuable. Teleportation, for example, removes the entire trip home. Hell, it even removes the need for a temporary camp. You just need to make the trip once to get a fix on a location.
And I would argue that this is exactly how it SHOULD BE. In a standard campaign of exploration and adventure, THAT is exactly how you want the game to feel. The world opens up simply because the party can survive where others can’t. And if you’re running a wide-open sandbox type exploration experience, you don’t have to rely solely on using too powerful monsters to keep the PCs from traveling too far too soon unlike something like Fallout.
All of that said, if that’s not something YOU want? That’s cool. I’m just going to encourage you to cut out even throwing travel a bone. Just admit you don’t want to travel to matter in your game and then don’t bother with random rolls and Genauein Encounters. Just narrate the trip, make it sound suitably epic, and then start the adventure at the door to the dungeon. It really is fine.
But suppose you DO like the IDEA of making travel a part of the adventure. You might still find the extra work daunting and the idea of losing table-time to travel a bit irksome. But fear not. I told you I would handle those criticisms. And now I will. Because those are only imaginary problems. See, if traveling is an interesting PART of the adventure instead of a prologue and epilogue, you aren’t wasting table-time at all. Getting there becomes half the fun. In other words, you aren’t trading the fun part (adventure) for the crappy part (travel), you’re making it all fun. A session is still a fun session filled with adventure. It’s just some of that adventure is outdoors and on the road. And if you can wrap your head around that, you’ll also recognize it isn’t any more work. You still have to fill the same amount of table-time with game. It’s just that some of the time you’d spend designing the dungeon will be spent designing the wilderness. Your dungeons might be a little smaller and less complicated, or they might take more sessions to explore, but the amount of work you put in PER SESSION will be about the same.
So, let’s talk about why travel sucks and how to unsuck it. Travel in D&D currently follows the Final Fantasy model. Or, if you prefer, the Pokemon model. You decide where you are going to go, start walking, and then WHAM! a random encounter shakes your screen and you have a fight. Then, you keep walking. And then another encounter. And another. You use tents and healing items to keep yourself in fighting shape for the trip. And finally, when you get to the dungeon location, you use a tent, save your game, and plunge inside.
Honestly, calling that the Pokemon model isn’t actually really accurate. See, in Pokemon, the random encounters serve SOME purpose. They allow you to encounter new Pokemon and add them to your digital Pokeprison. At least, the first few encounters in any new region do that. In Final Fantasy, they don’t even do that. Sure, you gain XP and money, but you also gain XP and money from dungeons. And dungeons are more interesting. So the random overland encounters are just a bunch of boring grindy bulls$&% between you and the fun.
The problem is that nothing in that entire process involves any sort of interesting choice. Nor does it involve any sort of exploration. Once you know where you are going, you take the shortest route and try to minimize the encounters along the way. Some games handle it better. Dragon Quest VIII, for instance, had all sorts of stuff hidden in the wilderness off the beaten path that you could hunt down. Occasionally even interesting optional landmarks. You could stick to the road, which reduced the chance of random encounters and got you where you were going fairly quickly (where there were roads) or you could wander off the road, taking a longer path and tolerating a higher chance of random monsters, but you would find rare items, friendly monsters you could recruit, and even strange landmarks and optional sites. And it’s those little choices that make all the difference.
The key, then, is choice. For travel to be interesting, the party has to make interesting choices. And those choices can’t just be “decide which attack to use on the monsters.” Likewise, travel has to involve a component of risk. Often, in Final Fantasy style games, the overland encounters tend to quickly become trivial. You just grind them, clicking attack, attack, attack, attack, over and over. Hell, I’ve played some of those games with a book in hand to read while “attacking” my way across the wilderness. The players need to face actual dangers. And not just getting killed by monsters. They have to risk getting lost. And running out of resources.
And this is where things get really complicated. In order for there to be risk and choice, there have to be some conflicts in play. That is, the party must find themselves forced to choose between different desirable things. Or between different undesirable things. Remember, when we talk about conflict here, we’re talking about GOALS in conflict. MOTIVATIONS in conflict. INCENTIVES in conflict. And RISKS in conflict. For example, imagine the choice between a long, safe path and a short, dangerous path. That creates a conflict. Do you risk the dangerous path to save time? What’s more important? Time or safety? If you’re traveling to a dungeon with no time pressure, you might be willing to dawdle to make sure you arrive safe and healthy and able to tackle the dungeon. If you’re delivering medicine, you might not be able to afford the extra time. But, you might risk having the medicine stolen by brigands. See? Conflict.
In order to understand how to create conflict in travel, we need to talk about the forces and motivations in play when the party travels from Point A to Point B as well as the risks, rewards, and consequences. So, let’s look at them.
The first travel factor is time: how long it takes to get from point A to point B. Now, it might seem like time is only a factor when it’s important, such as when there is a deadline or a pursuit or an evasion going on. But if you handle travel right, time is a factor all of the time. See, the wilderness is dangerous. That’s the first thing. The more time you spend in the wilderness, the more likely you are to get killed by monsters or blunder into dangerous hazards. This, by the way, is the pressure that random encounters are SUPPOSED TO supply. We’ll come back to that.
But time also weighs on the heroes in another way. See, humans and human-like creatures need food and water to survive. Surprise! And, in the wilderness, there are no taverns or bakeries or fruit vendors. So, in general, the more time the party spends in the wilderness, the more supplies they need. And it may not be possible to carry enough supplies for long trips or to find food and water wherever you go. This is the factor that rations, encumbrance, and foraging and survival rules are SUPPOSED TO drive. We’ll come back to that too.
In point of fact, thanks to both the danger of random encounters and the need for supplies, time is the biggest factor driving choices in the wilderness. In general, all else being equal, the shortest possible trip is the best trip. It minimizes the danger and the need for supplies.
Any other time pressure simply ADDS to the weight of time.
So what affects the time that it takes to travel? Well, first and foremost, there’s the distance traveled. The farther the distance, the longer the time. That’s pretty straightforward, right? But some routes are more direct than others. Roads tend to take circuitous routes, following the easiest terrain. And there are some barriers that most PCs just can’t handle. Rivers can be difficult to cross except at bridges, ferries, or fords unless the party wants to build a raft or carry a boat. High mountains can be all but insurmountable except by following winding passes through them. Fortunately, as circuitous as they are, roads present ways around barriers, winding along cliffs, through passes, over bridges, and across fords.
So the distance along the route is a big factor. But the terrain also plays an important role in how much time it takes to travel. Roads, meadows, and cultivated lands are easiest to traverse. Trackless plains and flatlands aren’t too much worse. But forests and woodlands with any sort of undergrowth can slow travelers down. Hills and badlands force the party to take meandering routes to avoid too much climbing. Wetlands and marshes slow the party down by forcing them to wander around trying to avoid deep water or by forcing them to wade through thick mud and standing water. Sandy deserts drag at travelers’ feet almost as much as thick mud does. And mountains can be all but insurmountable.
Indirectly, the party controls the travel time simply by choosing their route. They can follow roads or stick to easy-to-traverse terrain or choose to travel across more difficult terrain. Often, there’s a tradeoff: the harder route is usually shorter, the longer route is usually easier. In terms of terrain.
Factoring in both terrain and distance, the choice can come down to a simple numbers game. If the long, easy route is 20 miles and the short, hard route is only 8 miles but cuts the party speed in half, the harder route is the answer. It’s equivalent to 16 miles at a normal pace. And a numbers game is NOT a choice. It’s a puzzle. A math problem.
But before we launch into the other factors that can shift the choice, let me mention something that is pretty specific to 5th Edition D&D that is actually a really great idea. In 5E, the party can choose their travel pace. That is, they can travel at a fast pace, a normal pace, or a slow pace. Thus, they can choose three speeds. And there are some specific tradeoffs. At a Fast pace, the party’s Perception is penalized – they are more likely to blunder into trouble before they see it coming – and they are unable to forage for food while they travel. At a Slow pace, the party is able to travel stealthily to try and get the drop on (or avoid) any potential trouble. In addition, navigators receive a bonus at a Slow pace and a penalty at a Fast pace. That’s actually a really nice feature, though I will talk about some tweaks at the end of this article. Being able to choose a pace and to dynamically adjust your pace while traveling adds some much needed control to the travel experience.
The second factor is danger: the chance of encountering a hazard or monster and having to deal with it. I noted above that spending time in the wilderness is dangerous. But the danger factor can vary. It’s just that most GMs don’t vary it nearly enough and, when they do, they don’t let the players know about it.
Civilized regions are the safest. Those are the regions around towns and villages and cities and farms and along the roads, assuming that the roads are even occasionally patrolled by the local authorities. And they usually are in civilized reaches. Contrast that with forests, flatlands, hills, and wetlands. Those areas tend to be the most dangerous because they all offer ample resources for creatures – intelligent and unintelligent – to live off of. Barren and treacherous regions tend to actually be a little safer because it’s harder for living things to survive there to begin with.
But that, again, is just a function of the terrain. And there’s another to factor to consider. Lots of creatures claim territory. Most intelligent, sentient creatures claim lands for themselves, from savage orcs and wily goblins to xenophobic wood elves. And traveling through their terrain can increase the danger. Likewise, the effects of the fantasy world can change the danger of a location. A forest under the magical protection of the fey is less dangerous because most of the creatures there are peaceful. A tangled and gnarled ancient forest filled with vengeful tree spirits who despise humanity is quite dangerous.
Players CAN control the danger of their route, but only if they know about the danger. And, honestly, they SHOULD know about MANY of the dangers. Partly because it empowers them to make informed decisions but partly because people WOULD know the dangers of traveling. The locals can tell the party all about how Goblin Wood is filled with goblins and their spider pets and how no one who goes in comes out alive except that one guy who came out with a mess of spider eggs in his belly and he keeled over in his soup one night and spiders came spilling out of his mouth and I mean it because my second cousin swears she saw it happen. The haunted hills filled with ancient barbarian tombs are probably pretty lousy with undead.
The third factor that drives choices in travel is navigation. See, without magical means, navigating is actually a lot harder than people realize. Suppose, for example, you set out traveling north on foot. You have a really good sense of direction and you’re pretty close to true north. So, let’s say after traveling 10 feet to what you think is true north, you’re actually just 1 itty bitty little foot off. After one day, assuming you travel 24 miles, you’ll be 3 miles left of your destination. Three days on foot and you’re 8 miles off your target. And if that target isn’t big and visible, 8 miles is a lot of distance to be off by. Once you can’t see where you’re going, any distance off is lost.
The thing is, most wilderness navigation is done by landmarks until you can see your destination. Travel north until you hit the river. Travel upriver until you come to the old crumbly tower. Follow the remains of the old road from there until you find the dungeon. Climb a tree or a hill so you can spot it.
If you’re following a road or another terrain feature, navigation is a non-issue. But after that, you’re relying on landmarks and direction sense and you need a good navigator. Fortunately, most parties take along someone who is pretty skilled at navigation, either the party ranger or a hired guide. But that person still runs the risk of getting lost.
Navigation relies heavily on line of sight. The farther you can see, the easier it is to orient yourself based on distant landmarks and determine your direction based on the sun, moon, and stars. But there’s another side to that. If there’s nothing to see except the sky, no distant landmarks, it’s pretty hopeless. Because then you end up in that “if you’re even one foot off in ten feet, you’re going to miss your mark by miles” problem. The end result is this, in open terrain where distant landmarks are visible, navigating is easiest. In terrain with bad lines of sight, like forests, marshes, and very varied terrain like rugged hills, navigation is more difficult. And when all you can see is the horizon, like out on the open sea or in the middle of a tundra or desert, navigation is extremely difficult.
But what does navigation actually mean? This is the tricky bit. Navigation is only partly about finding your destination. Assuming you have very good directions or a very accurate map (and that second thing is extremely unlikely), navigation helps you follow the directions and hopefully arrive near enough to your goal to spot it from a distance. But some goals are easier to miss than others. For example, if you’re traveling to a town on the river, all you have to do is hit the river and then follow it. A river is a hard thing to miss even if you’re traveling vaguely in the right direction. In the end, it’s the quality of the directions and the landmarks that will determine whether you find your place or not more than navigation. Though navigation does play a role. If you’re supposed to travel west until you find a particular lake and you’re miles off the target, you might not be able to spot the lake and find yourself lost in the wilderness.
What navigation really does for you is tell you where you are and how to get back where you came from. And when you get lost, it isn’t just about not being to find where you are going. It’s about not being able to find your way back either.
So what does getting lost mean? What happens? Well, in general, getting lost means the party has been traveling in the wrong direction for some period of time. And, depending on the nature of their directions, they might not be able to hit their goal. Again, if they are going for a river, that’s hard to miss as long as they start moving in the right direction again. But a particular tower in a hilly badland or a small lake in rolling hills? The party could end up wandering for ages.
But getting lost also means the party can’t find their way back. Simply put, they have to guess at the way back. They have to try to retrace their steps. A good survivalist can follow the party’s trail behind them for a little while and that might be all it takes to get back on track, but its at that point that even an inaccurate map can help. If there’s a road south of the forest you’re lost in, well, all you have to do is head south and you’ll hit that road. Somewhere along it. And since roads lead somewhere, you’ll find civilization eventually.
The fourth factor that drives travel is the availability of resources. In wilderness terrain, resources generally represent food and water, the staples for survival. Lush wilderness, including meadows, forests, flatlands, and hills provide a bounty for travelers. Everything from berries, nuts, fruit, and roots to small game like rabbits and game birds. Realistically speaking, in such terrain, its conceivable that a party can forage enough water to keep their skins and bellies full and enough food to survive on a day to day basis. But it is by no means assured. Barren wilderness can be a bit crueler. Rough hills, badlands, and tundra can make foraging much harder. And, obviously, deserts and wastelands yield almost nothing.
But there are other factors to consider as well. Resources are a bit more complicated. First of all, while civilized lands tend to actually yield less game as animals tend to avoid populated areas and the mere act of building roads can disrupt and divert game trails, most traveled roads provide other resources for travelers. Roadside inns and farming homesteads can provide food, water, and shelter in return for some coin. Or a few hours of chores. However, we’ll talk about how to implement that at the end of this article.
However, the fantasy element can also effect the resources available in a terrain. See, the savage goblin forest is still effectively a civilized region. It’s just civilized by evil goblins. And they and their spider friends might have suppressed the game and driven a lot of other creatures out of the forest. Orcs might have overhunted their barrens to the point where game is scarce. Animals might avoid the haunted barrows because they are smart enough to avoid areas that have “haunted” right in the name. And the water in such a region might be spoiled. A fey forest might be rich and abundant, offering up ample fruit and roots and berries for hungry traveler.
Obviously, all of this is supplemental to what the players can carry themselves. The D&D 5E DMG, for example, indicates that a person needs about one pound of food and one gallon of water every day. Given that a waterskin weighs 5 lbs. when its full, it probably holds about half a gallon (a gallon of water weighs almost 9 lbs.) The smart traveler carries two full skins (10 lbs) and refills them whenever they can in the wild. So, they are always carrying 10 lbs. of water. That means for every day of travel, a PC has to carry a pound of food. This is something encumbrance rules SHOULD use to create a tradeoff between carrying extra food or relying on the bounty of the land. We’ll come back to that too. Because D&D 5E especially s$&%s the bed here.
The final factor is a very interesting factor. This is the reason that I brought up Dragon Quest VIII above. And it’s one you might be familiar with if you’ve played any of the sprawling, choking, sandbox games by Bethesda like Skyrim or Fallout. This is the pull-you-off-the-road-by-your-own-curiosity factor of being able to spot interesting things that you want to check out. See, the world fantasy world of D&D is an old world and many empires have risen and fallen on its sprawling surface. And that means that there’s always some random little half-collapsed tower or old gate house or ancient foundation or henge or mausoleum or something waiting just over the next rise. And it is also a world of magic, which means there’s always some stand of enchanted trees with purple leaves or magical waterfall coming out of a portal in thin air or something to be found as well.
The thing that NEVER happens along the road – and a thing that SHOULD happen – is that the party should spot something weird in the distance and debate checking it out. I’m not talking about discovering entire goddamned dungeons, but that’s certainly possible too. I’m talking about spotting the ruined foundation of some old castle that has a small treasure in it. Or a nasty monster. Or both. Or a plaque with a weird point of interest about the world. Or a shrine whose offering bowl is still intact and has a couple dozen ancient coins in it. There should be curiosities to pull the party off the road. There should be something enticing the players to ignore all the other factors and waste extra time in the wilderness.
How to Actually Handle Travel
So, Time, Danger, Navigation, Resources, and Discoveries, those are the factors to consider. How the f$&% do you actually handle travel in your D&D game? How do you make it interesting? How do you keep track of everything? How do you make travel PART of the adventure? Here’s how.
To Map Or Not to Map
First of all, lets talk about mapping. It might seem that I’m about to tell you to use detailed overland maps with exact distances mapped out so that you can figure out exactly how much time travel will take and track the players getting lost and all that crap. Well, you can. I won’t stop you. But you don’t need to. You can use blobby little vague maps. Or none at all. The key isn’t to get hung up on the map itself, but rather on the choices the map creates.
Take this map for example. Sorry for the crappy quality. But, hey, I’m trying to make a point about not sweating the quality anyway.
Let’s say the adventure is all about getting from Onett to Twoson. I COULD measure this all out to scale and figure out how the terrain slows travel and all of that crap. Or I can just fudge it. The map offers three basic routes: directly through the Goblin Woods, along the Road, or through the Hills of Ancient Ruins. And those represent the choices the party can make. It’s just like choosing three doors. In fact, the party could also choose to shave some time off the Road by leaving the road and traveling north of the lake. And I can figure out roughly how long each route will take. The Road might take ten days. The path through the Goblin Woods might take four days (accounting for the slowdown of the terrain). The Hills might take seven days. That’s just the baseline.
I don’t even have to show the party the map. I could just explain that they can travel directly through the Goblin Woods and get there in four days, but they will have to manage a river crossing. They can follow a long, winding road which will take ten days. Or they can follow an old road into the Hills of Ancient Ruins and then cut north once the old road gives out until they hit the river ford. That whole trek will take seven days. That gives them enough information to choose their route. At least based on time.
Once you start tracking the party’s movement, you can just eyeball it as best you can based on the fraction of time traveled. Or just narrate the trip. Mapping – and mapping accurately – is NOT super important.
Designing Routes or Designing the Map
Before you can run an interesting travel game, the first thing you have to do is create the wilderness through which the party will be traveling. And you can do this in one of two ways. You can either design a few different routes for the party to choose from. Or you can draw a map. As noted above, the map doesn’t have to be accurate by any stretch. It just have to show the relative distances and where the different types of terrain are.
Either way, you’re looking to figure out five things. How long is each route? How dangerous is each route (or each section)? How easy is each route to navigate (or each section)? What’s the available of resources along each route (or each section)? And how likely is the party to get sidetracked by an interesting discovery on each route?
Before I launch into specific mechanics, let me explain that I like to grade each one of those things on a five point scale.
First of all, Danger is measured from 1 to 5. 1 is a relatively safe, civilized region or a barren, desolate region. 2 is a dangerous frontier. 3 is enemy territory. 4 is regularly patrolled, extremely hostile territory. And 5 is reserved for the sort of terrain which is filled with monsters that are actively trying to destroy all intruders and can detect the intruders with supernatural means. For example, Hell or The Land of the Dead. Seriously, 4 and 5 are pretty ridiculously dangerous. You’ll see why.
Navigation and Resources are both measured in terms of a DC. But either can be moot. For example, following a road or river makes Navigation moot. And traveling through civilized, friendly farmland makes Resources moot. Otherwise, you want to set a DC of 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, etc. in D&D 5E or a DC of 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, etc. in D&D 3E, 4E, and Pathfinder. Verdant forests and lush meadows have a Resource DC of 5 or 10. Deserts have a Resource DC of 25 or 30. Gently rolling flatlands have a Navigation DC of 5 or 10. A Desert has a Navigation DC of 25 or 30. If you want to add a Fantasy Factor like confounding fair curses or the blessings of the Land Spirits, you can adjust the DCs by 5 either way.
Now, let’s talk about how all of this plays out.
Choosing a Route
Obviously, the first step in traveling is to choose a route. The players need to somehow find out what the lay of the land is and learn any interesting details about the routes in question. They should have a rough idea about how long each route is, how dangerous, how difficult it is to navigate, and how difficult it is to forage. Because they are going to need to plan their food supplies accordingly. Presumably, they will have access to a map or local knowledge or research. As the GM, it’s your job to find ways to get this information in front of your players. As far as discoveries, you can use that as a way to entice the players along a particular route or just vaguely hint at it or leave it as a surprise. Discoveries mainly come up as a way to drive choices along the way.
Now, the party doesn’t have to know everything. Partway through a trip through a forest, they can encounter signs that are passing into goblin territory or cursed land or something and they can make a decision then and there about whether to press through the new territory or whether to try to go around or even retreat and try a different route. Those sorts of surprises can help add decisions to a longer trip.
At this point, it is important for you, the GM, to know how long the route should take in days. That’s how you’ll be tracking things. Not in miles. In days.
The Travel Day
Once the party sets out, it’s time to resolve each day of travel. At the beginning of the day, the party decides what kind of pace to set: Slow, Medium, or Fast.
At a Slow Pace, the party is moving carefully and quietly. They gain Advantage or a +4 Bonus to all checks to perceive danger and all hostile creatures suffer Disadvantage or a -4 Penalty to detect the party, thus allowing the party to surprise enemies. In addition, the party can forage for food normally if they maintain a slow pace for the entire day. Finally, navigation checks enjoy Advantage or a +4 Bonus when moving at a Slow pace. The party’s speed, however, is reduced by a third. So every three days of travel count as only two days of travel.
At a Medium pace, the party travels normally. They may forage for food with Disadvantage or a -4 Penalty.
At a Fast pace, the party travels more quickly. Their speed is increased by a third. So every three days of travel count as four days. While traveling at a Fast Pace, the party cannot forage for food at all. They suffer Disadvantage or a -4 Penalty on all checks to perceive dangers and on navigation checks. Hostile creatures enjoy Advantage or a +4 Bonus on checks to detect or track the party.
Once the party has set the pace for the day, they CAN change the pace based on what happens to them during the day. Don’t worry, you’ll resolve all of that stuff at the end of the day.
Now, pick up six 6-sided dice. Each one represents a time-period of the day. Morning, Afternoon, Evening, Dusk, Midnight, Predawn. Roll them all. For each one that shows the Danger number or less, an encounter MIGHT happen. We’ll talk about random encounters. For example, if the Danger is 3, and your six dice show 5, 2, 3, 4, 1, 6; the party will have three encounters that day. One in the evening, one at dusk, and one at predawn. Notice that the danger number is actually the number of encounters you will expect to happen in one day.
Finally, roll one more d6. If that shows the Discovery number or less, you need to tantalize the party with something interesting off the road for them to check out. A ruined tower, a sign of magic, an old tomb, an ancient henge, a shrine, or whatever. The key is that it has to be far enough off the path that the party has to choose whether to waste a few hours investigating it or to ignore it.
Now, you play out the daytime encounters as they happen. After each encounter, the party might spend some time resting, recovering, or whatever. Don’t worry about that. They might also decide to change their pace. That’s fine too. When playing out the encounters, its important to remember that surprise is a definite possibility. If the party is moving slowly and quietly and the enemy doesn’t detect them, they should be able to plan an ambush or bypass the encounter. If the party is rushing, they might very well be surprised and ambushed themselves. In fact, it is entirely possible that neither party detects the other and the encounter never happens. That’s totally fine. Sometimes, that’s just how it goes. That’s why we roll dice.
If no encounters or discoveries happen, the day passes uneventfully and the PCs find a place to make camp for the night.
It’s time for some bookkeeping at this point. First of all, you have to find out if the party is lost. To do this, have the best navigator make a navigation roll against the Navigation DC of the terrain. If the party traveled at a Fast pace at any point during the day, apply Disadvantage or a -4 penalty. Make this roll in secret. If they fail, the party has gotten lost at some point during the day. They just don’t know it yet.
Now, you have to figure out how many days of travel the party logged during the day. If the party isn’t lost, this is determined by their pace. They either log 2/3, 1, or 1 1/3 days depending on the slowest pace they moved at during the day. If the party has now logged enough days to finish their route, they will reach their destination tomorrow. If the party stopped to investigate a discovery, subtract 1/3 from their progress unless they spent the whole day on the discovery. In which case, they make no progress. Use your best judgment. Likewise, use your best judgment if the party does something weird like stopping halfway through the day.
Finally, you have to figure out how much food and water the party has consumed. If the party moved at a slow pace all day, allow each of them to make a check against the Forage DC. If the party didn’t move slowly all day but never moved at a fast pace at all, have each make a Forage check with Disadvantage or a -4 penalty. If anyone fails, that means the party didn’t find enough food to feed themselves. Each failure requires someone to consume one pound of food from their supply (one day worth of rations). You can generally assume that, as long as anyone succeeds at foraging, the party turned up enough water to refill their waterskins and drink their fill. But if they are traveling through a desert, you can modify that. If everyone fails to forage, however, they drain their waterskins and are now out of water. If their waterskins were already drained and they don’t have a backup supply, they are now dehydrating.
That whole process should be pretty quick. You roll for Navigation and determine if they are lost and then mark off the progress if they aren’t. Then, everyone rolls a forage checks and marks off food. Done and done. Now, it’s time for the night.
Some groups get absolutely bogged down in details about who is taking what watch shift and when. This is completely ludicrous. It really doesn’t matter. There are enough hours in the night that a party of any size can all get a good night sleep and still have a watch rotation with each character taking a shift. If the party really wants to fight about it or someone refuses to take watch or someone takes extra shifts because they are an elf and require less sleep, fine. So be it. But otherwise, just assume that everyone takes a watch sometime.
Now, you play out the nighttime encounters. Remember the possibilities for detection and ambush. Roll randomly to determine who is awake on watch for each encounter. Play them out. If no encounters happen, the night passes uneventfully. Hooray.
When the party wakes up, you do it all again.
So, what happens when the party is lost? Well, you can handle it a few ways. The easy way is to assume that each day of travel doesn’t count as any progress. When the party makes camp, log zero progress. However, you should still have the navigator roll a check. Well, you should roll secretly. If this check succeeds, the navigator will recognize that the party has become lost the next morning as the party is starting to set out. Otherwise, the party will just continue to make no progress every day.
However, you can handle it a few other ways. First of all, if the party travels in one direction long enough, they are going to discover an unexpected feature. They will hit a river, a new type of terrain, a lake, a road. If you drew a map, determine randomly what they will hit and where they will hit it or just pick something. Assume they travel in a straight line in a random direction from the middle of whatever terrain or route they were in. Again, use your best judgment.
Likewise, if the party knows the trip should have taken three to five days, and they hit day seven, they are going to realize they are lost.
Alternatively, each day that they travel while lost, roll a d6 when logging their progress. On a 1, they managed to travel in the right direction and log progress normally. On a 5 or 6, they are losing ground and subtract however much progress they would have made based on their route. For anything else, add no progress.
Once the party realizes they are lost, either because they hit a feature they shouldn’t have or because they realized they have been traveling too long or because the navigator figured out they got lost somewhere, they need to figure out a new plan. They might pick a direction they know will lead them to something (“we’ll head north until we find the river” or “we’ll keep traveling in this direction until we find the edge of the forest”), they might try to find a landmark to make toward (“we know that mountain peak is to the southeast, if we keep toward it, we should be able to find our way back to the road” or “can I climb a tree and see if I can spot the lake from here”), or they might try to backtrack (“can we follow our own trail back home?”). You can resolve each of those simply by assuming the party starts a new route and figuring it out accordingly. At this point, the party is no longer lost on the new route. The important thing is that the party can’t just get unlost. They need to have an alternative plan once they are lost. Otherwise, they will just keep wandering.
When designing random encounters, it’s important to note a few things.
First of all, random encounters represent all of the potential dangers and hazards an area might present to travelers. It is not just a list of combat encounters. In fact, even when it is a list of encounters, it is a list of potential encounters. Remember, the party might evade an encounter. Or the encounter might evade the party. And you don’t even have to assume every encounter is hostile although I advise against using random encounters for friendly encounters. Bandits might be willing to let the party go for a price, especially if the party looks powerful and they aren’t sure of the odds. Some monsters might ignore the party if the party throws some food at them before retreating. Orcs might trade threats and insults with the party in social interACTION!, with each side trying to get the other to back down and go away. Some animals might merely threaten the party and try to frighten them away from their nest or other territory. Random encounters can also represent hazards. Quicksand in swamps, flash floods in hills and badlands, booby traps in kobold territory. They can also be obstacles like rockfalls across a road or a washed out bridge.
In general, the party should deal to one to two of them a day unless they start wandering through very dangerous territory. And that means that three days of travel is roughly equivalent to a short dungeon adventure. Keep that in mind as you plan. Your encounters should be interesting, but not complicated. Focus on single creatures or small groups of identical creatures. And, honestly, instead of a list of encounters, you can just have a small bestiary of creatures you can mix and match easily to get the results you want. In goblin territory, you can get a lot of mileage by mixing and matching goblin skirmishers, goblin archers, and giant spider pets in different combinations.
The one thing to keep in mind though is that the party will have the opportunity to rest and recover more frequently in the wild and will probably encounter fewer encounters than a typical dungeon day. To compensate, it’s important to skew your combat encounters toward the hard end of the difficulty curve. Use the guidelines in your particular edition of D&D or Pathfinder to up the difficulty. Hard should be the baseline difficulty for wilderness encounters to keep them meaningful.
It can be tough to come up with discoveries on the fly. But, the party should only encounter one or two during an entire trip unless they are wandering through an ancient kingdom lousy with ruins. Discoveries are basically just encounters that somehow bait the party into checking them out. But most of them should offer some kind of reward. Either something interesting or something valuable or both. An old ruined tower with an intact cellar, for example, might have a strongbox in the basement with some money and other trinkets, but it might be protected by a booby trap. Or something living in the cellar. An ancient shrine might reward an offering with a minor blessing or boon and might punish anyone taking from the offering bowl. These discoveries are your chance to give the players something to interact with if they are willing to waste time. Remember, if the rat survives the trap, he ends up with some free cheese for his trouble. You’ll need one or two discoveries for every three days of travel, more than likely. But it’s always good to have a pile of them in case you ever need one on the fly.
A Few Tweaks for 5E
As a final note, I need to point out that D&D 5E does a few things that absolutely f$&% up any chance of having good, engaging wilderness travel fun. First of all, the basic encumbrance rules that assume you can carry 15 times your Strength without breaking a sweat completely removes any difficulty in carrying food and supplies. I suggest you use the variant rules for encumbrance on PHB 176. Second of all, drop all that activity while traveling bulls$&%. It disguises nonchoices as choices and drags out the process of setting out. Assume the party will always forage if moving slow enough and that everyone is always paying attention. My system is streamlined to skip a lot of bookkeeping until the end of the day. Likewise, D&D 5E is VERY generous with foraging. F$&% that too. And, while we’re on the subject, some classes and backgrounds have features that also completely ruin any engagement to be gotten from travel. The Outlander background in particular offers the Wanderer feature that amounts to never getting lost and always foraging for an entire party. Replace that with a mechanical bonus to Navigation and Foraging. Like, the Ranger class feature Natural Explorer trivializes absolutely every aspect of wilderness travel, virtually guaranteeing that it becomes a Final Fantasy game of just plodding through random encounters and not sweating anything else. And much of it is tied to the specific, boring rules of overland travel baked into 5E. Instead, change it to having Advantage on Navigation (so that if the party moves at a fast pace, that cancels the Disadvantage), having Advantage on Perception while traveling (so that if the party moves at a fast pace, yaddah yaddah yaddah), and foraging yielding enough food for a second person (basically covering one other party member’s failure).