Getting There is Half the Fun

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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.

Unsucking Travel

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.

Time

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.

Danger

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.

Navigation

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.

Resources

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.

Discoveries

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.

Got it?

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.

Making Camp

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.

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.

Being Lost

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.

Random Encounters

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.

Discoveries

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).

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84 thoughts on “Getting There is Half the Fun

  1. Wow, I’ve been reading your articles for a while and they’re uniformly useful, but this one may be my favorite yet. Excellent advice for what I feel is a major problem I’m my games.

  2. I did some of this stuff unconsciously, but this brings it all together and makes me understand why I do certain things and how to formalise it and just make it from OK into great. Thanks Angry

  3. Superb. Could discoveries be baked into encounters to simplify further? e.g., if you a roll a 1 on the encounter die, roll again. On another 1 it’s a discovery (subject of course to GM judgment).

    If someone more talented than me were to put together a 1 page worksheet for this (to list DC’s, encounters, page numbers, etc.) it would be a boon to all right thinking folk.

  4. How do you handle the Goodberry spell? At 5th level characters get useful spells like Create Food and Water, or Leomund’s Tiny Hut, which I am fine with. Travel gets easier the higher level you are, and those spells require you to use a useful spell slot, a real drain on resources. But Druids can cast Goodberry at first level and create enough food to feed 10 people no matter what terrain they happen to be in. By third level, spending one first level spell on food each day is a pretty trivial expenditure. Do you just write it off as the perk of having a druid in the group? Or should it be changed in some way to make travel at lower levels more difficult?

    • Goodberry just solve the food supply part of the traveling. It won’t save them from getting lost nor from reason encounters.

      It’s not that big of a deal. I think that is fitting to have it count as a perk and call it a day.

    • I would just change it slightly to be less effective in “bad” terrains (terrains that are significantly different from the terrain the druid is used to). Maybe if you are in a wasteland the spell gives less food and someone still needs to forage for the day?
      Just an idea though; if it’s too powerful tone it down a bit, of course, but don’t ignore something like that. Having a Forest Druid in the party should make traveling through normal forests trivial, and that’s what the Druid player would expect, so don’t change that.

    • I’ve had frustration with Goodberry myself when trying to GM travel. My solution, which may or may not be a particularly good one, was to modify the spell so that rather than simply creating a berry out of magical thin air, the druid had to bless an actual berry that he had picked and thus grant it additional nutritive power. But I recognize that this makes the spell significantly less beneficial. (Most situations in which you can find fresh berries, you wouldn’t need the spell anyway.) So I’d be extremely interested to see if Angry has a better solution.

    • I just hate Goodberry because so many players argue “We don’t need to have food, we have Goodberry.” Imagine anyone who would voluntarily opt to have the same food every day. Even societies using one food as main staple vary it or supplement it. Not our dear adventurers. They would eat power bars every day until eternity.

      • What’s the alternative, trail rations? Those aren’t exactly known for tastiness or variety. How many different ways can you prepare hardtack and salt pork?

        • If you wanted to get complicated, you could push these kinds of things into a morale system. PCs with lower morale may face the same penalties as light exhaust. Things like this only matter to players if there’s an actual consequence. Plus, a week of lembas bread while traveling isn’t so bad if, when you get to town, you can afford a feast. Then rinse repeat.

        • That answer has a very strong smell of “You’re asking a dumb%&# question that is not worth an actual answer”.

          I personally thing the goodberry spell has pretty much only that for utility. Also you can have it not count towards water foraging ; which eliminates only the “Weight of food” problem. Its really not that big of a deal to be honest and anybody trying to make this into an issue is a nitpicking little goblin.

      • Is that supposed to be a downside?
        My druid would be MORE inclined to eat copious amounts of goodberries if they could give him antlers! 🙂

    • I feel like this should be very easy to deal with, just take ” the berry provides enough nourishment to sustain a creature for one day” as it takes care of your food requirement but not water. You just have to state that “provides enough nourishment” in this case is defined as consuming enough food, via the berry, to provide the required vitamins/minerals/energy an adventurer needs for a full day in place of normal meals.

      This is separate from quenching ones thirst as drinking water replaces liquid lost in the body via sweating, urination, etc and does not provide the nutrients that food would, separating the two. So this way you’re not punishing the player who thought to spend the resources on this spell, but also setting it up so that a level 1 druid spell doesn’t remove the challenge of foraging and bringing food and water completely.

      If the party ends up bringing more water knowing this good on them because they are planning based around a strategy they developed, within the rules, to benefit their team as a whole. The water will still take up some extra weight and they still need to make sure they are full on water so it still serves its purpose.

      This just makes the most sense to me as one thing I’ve learned from angry is don’t make things needlessly complicated if you don’t have to, there are already enough rules that do that.

  5. Interesting ideas here.

    I was previously building off of your megadungeon encounter table rules for my wandering monsters. Only roll if they draw attention (booming blade, campfire, etc), Rest, or enter/backtrack into a region that does not have a force/precense keeping the true dangers away.

    But, I like this 6d6 encounter system better for the purpose at hand. Perhaps there is a combo to be made here. It seems mostly compatibile.

  6. This is a great article, and I kind of wish you’d published a few months ago! Anyway, though not quite in line with what you’ve described, I might throw in a couple thoughts for consideration based upon what I’ve done.

    Knowing that travel is boring, I have my “random encounters” planned. They are not random at all. When the party is getting ready to travel to a location, I spend the week or so between sessions planning. I look at the map and determine their likely options. For each option, I come up with a list of potential encounters they’ll have, and where they are on the map. If the party gets that far, boom! Encounter. To save time, I might use the same encounter on more than possible route – bandits, orcs, goblins, stirges, etc, work well for this. It may not be the same band of orcs, but mechanically speaking, they are the same. One might have the middle finger symbol and the other might have the clenched fist symbol. Meh.

    One of my groups spent a six-week voyage on a caravel to an island in the middle of the ocean. Three encounters total, all pre-planned. Two were attacks by various sea monsters, but other gave them a choice: investigate the burning, derelict ship or leave it alone? I didn’t roll daily random encounters or anything like that. I already had it planned, so it was easy to narrate.

    Next session (tomorrow) they are heading into the lava caves of an semi-active volcano, the lair of a power red dragon… Muwahahahahahaha!

    • So in my other group, I really didn’t have a long travel planned, as I gave them several options… Go east after the Ember and Kistler? Go north after Princess Karana? Go south to the capitol of Antarrow to try to talk the king into ending the war? Go west, over sea, to the Isle of Scone to look for more Dragon cards?

      So I cheated. One of the great witches in the realm is a wild-magic sorcerer who specializes in transportation magic. She showed up, said, “Tell me where you want to go, and I’ll take you there. Of course, we have to wait until tomorrow, because after casting Teleport, I have to rest for a few hours.”

      However, because of this witch’s curse, whenever she casts, she ALWAYS rolls on the wild magic table (which I customized for my world. I don’t like the one in the PH). Bam! The entire party is teleported except the one character whose player didn’t show up for the session.

      (Oh, if you’re interested, I can put my wild magic table on my forum. Let me know, though. It’s not there right now.)

  7. Hi Angry, thanks for the content. I just had a quick question: when you rolled your danger dice did you mean every other point of the day?

    • No, he means every segment of the day. That’s six rolls: one for each of six segments. If the roll is equals or is lower than the danger level, an encounter occurs during that segment of the day.

      Angry did make a mistake, which may be what prompted your question. His dice rolls indicated encounters in the afternoon, evening and predawn; whereas he wrote, ‘One in the evening, one at dusk, and one at predawn.’

  8. I’ve been trying for ages to make travel interesting.
    I ended up just skipping them and quickly narrating any travelling that wasn’t important to the plot.
    Now your article gave me lots of ideas on how to actually gamify the travelling part of my games.
    Thank you.

  9. I really like the idea of having a handy list of Discoveries already ready. It’s like keeping a list of names handy for NPCs. Maybe I run through the list, and depending on my mood or the actual location, I feel a broken tower is more appropriate than a shrine or cave, or whatever. Hmm. I think that will be my next project.

    This is definitely one of my favorite articles so far. The mechanics are easy to remember. You can also take note of the number-differences scale for an area. Perhaps the party travels through a certain area with regularity. Or maybe they decide to go ham in the goblin forest and wipe them all out after so many problems. Does another creature take over that niche, or does the scale drop down to 1? Things to consider as places are explored.

  10. So, knowing my players and how much depth they can afford to buy with the complexity they can handle, I think I’m gonna keep narrating over travel. This system for exploration looks like it could be really cool though.

  11. Excellent article! I’m planning on running a couple games involving travel, and this will certainly help.

    Quick question, though. It doesn’t look like you mentioned how to set a number for discoveries. Would that also be 1-5, or slightly lower?

    Thanks!!

    • “One or two discoveries for every three days of travel”. That means discovery numbers of not more than four. Even with a discovery number of 4, be prepared for five straight days with discoveries some of the time. so reserve 4 for regions with “Ancient” in the title that NPCs have told stories about. And also, limit the size of these regions. Every day in a discovery number 3 or 4 region is potentially a day with a discovery. Discoveries are more exciting if they are rare. And if you actually want three separate discoveries in a region, now you’re running an exploration mini-adventure and you should provide goals and motivations accordingly.

  12. I typically use the “narrate the trip” method as my campaigns are a bit more “railroad-y” in terms of story.

    But the ideas presented here give me something to chew on when considering what the group might do for the next campaign. I have been tossing around ideas for a multi-tier (D&D 4E) campaign in the future and these travel rules could be very useful for that.

    • I would have to think about how to translate this into the game, but in reality, riding a horse in unknown terrain requires a certain amount of attention. You need to keep an eye on hazards on the path, and since horses are skittish you don’t want to be caught unawares if something spooks it. So that is going to have an effect of your perception.

      On the other hand, the horse probably has a better perception than you for certain types of hazards – it has great big eyes with 350 degree field of vision, keen ears and a keen sense of smell. Plus you are higher up and can see farther. So when it comes to detecting encounters, it may be a wash despite the increase in speed.

      Foraging and making discoveries are a different matter. The horse won’t help you there, so I would treat Medium travel as Fast travel for those purposes.

      Navigation can be more difficult in the bush, as there are many places you can travel that a horse cannot.

      A horse really doesn’t walk much faster than a human – about 4 mph. You can cover more ground at a walk-trot-walk, but I wouldn’t try that in rough country. In rough country the horse may actually be slower than walking, because it can’t go everywhere you can go, although this might be mitigated by the skill of the rider and the type of training the horse receives. A pony will probably do better.

      The major advantage of a horse when you are going cross country is what you can carry. It can carry a lot more rations, and gear such at cooking gear and a tent. The problem is, you also need to bring rations for the horse – grass doesn’t cut it if the horse is working hard (like carrying a knight in armor on its back all day), it needs to supplement the grass with oats or other grains.

      There is a great article on the logistics of carrying your food with you in Dragon #94: “An Army Travels on its Stomach”, by Katharine Kerr. It you can find it I highly recommend it.

      Of course, horses have whatever combat advantages the game system assigns, and it is easier t run away from encounters. But on the other hand, bandits will want to steal them and some predators may want to eat them. And its pretty risky to park a prey animal with a mind of its own while you go into a dungeon. You may need henchmen to look after them.

    • I should add that they can go a lot faster for longer, and need less grain (and can maybe get away with forage) if they are not carrying a heavy burden for long. You could maybe double their daily speed if you have a couple of remounts.

      Also, if the horses are going to stay with the party for any length of time, you might give them personalities. They are really NPCs.

  13. I plan for proper adventuring days to occur during the travel. Basically I narrate a few days of uneventful travel and then players come across a trouble spot that requires multiple encounters to successfully navigate. Repeat until the players reach their destination. It makes the terrain/journey memorable without bogging things down IMHO. You can either design the encounters or use the random tables as a source of inspiration… why would the characters encounter X, Y and Z all in one day?

  14. I know this barely matters anymore, but a waterskin in 5e can’t actually hold that much water. There’s a table in the DMG for “Container Capacity” that says waterskins can hold 4 pints, or half a gallon, meaning that having a full waterskin setting out only saves you half a day of foraging for water.

    • Scratch that. Slightly different terms were used, but it does all mean the same thing.
      Should probably have the option of deleting comments, though.

    • The requirement that a medium creature drink 8 pints of water a day is way too much. In real life most people drink well under 4 pints a day, so I rule that PCs need 4 pints a day, not 8.

      • In real life we can get much of our water requirements from the food we eat.
        Water is in everything.

        Not sure if dried trail rations would have quite as much benefit, but it probably has some implication for foraging.

  15. My girlfriend was reading the article and was pleasantly surprised by how much she already does, all the way down to the towns. 😉 I made her play Earthbound a few years ago so now in her campaign we’ve been to the first two and are on our way to Threed. 😀

  16. I’m not sure how to make interesting choices out of this. Boiling it down to raw ‘gamey’ terms, it feels like it’s asking the party one of the following questions:
    a: How cocky are you? How many extra fights do you want to get in?
    b: How much food can you carry? (Or how many ways can you druid/cleric/ranger/outlander around that?)
    c: Has the DM given you a time limit?

    Regarding C, I frequently give players time limits and challenges that they fail because they don’t manage time… ‘Of course you didn’t make it, you took 4 long rests over 5 miles… it took you 4 days to get there and you had 24 hrs.’ kind of thing.

    Another problem I have is the same magic problem above. Create Food is a second level spell, and once the PCs hit level 3 it’s rather non-competitive with other goals to use it if the situation warrants it. i.e. if you’re in danger of running out of food, the party loses a second level cleric spell every day till it gets better. Not much of a consequence.

    How do you make getting lost ‘fun’? It’s a failure condition, and a neat one, but how do you make it a risk, or make getting unlost a choice? Does it just map back to a failure condition (time constraint) or resource cost (food constraint)? You failed the roll (I made for you in secret), so now you have to spend days wandering the woods till you (I) succeed at making a roll? Fiction-wise, there’s some awesome tragedy in realizing the princess is dead because you got lost in the woods, and only finding out days later. For players? Not so much. In my mind, it’s entirely ‘roll’ the dice in secret, and if you want to add a subplot, they get lost and dumped into it, otherwise, get to the main adventure.

    I like the ‘choose between two things you want’ structure, but it seems to me some of these aren’t really choices (how is food anything more than a limit on which paths you can take? What do you get for taking less food? Or, using less of it? More time onsite?) Part of that is my tendency towards more plot driven adventures, and the fact that either there’s a sense of urgency (CAN’T go back to get more stuff) or there’s not (no reason NOT to go back). The section on repopulating the dungeon with new mobs helps there, but seems too punitive, although the ‘not 100% fun 100% of time is more fun’ argument resonates from a design perspective.

    Another aspect is that a lot of the choices end up being answered correctly by the party composition. Do we take the road, or the shortcut? Well, how many people with Nature skill do we have? How many people with Social skill?

    In a long path with many sections, I see this being interesting. Do we take the short, dangerous path, or the long safe path? Well, our food sources are running low (because of bad rolls) so short path it is.

    Part of this cycles back to the ‘How do you communicate danger levels to the players?’ question. Do we go over Mt. Caradhras, or through the mines? The mines are super dangerous, but the mountain COULD have a snowstorm, which would also be dangerous. Which do we risk? How do you turn that into an interesting question the players feel like they have informed input into, especially if they don’t intuitively understand all the rules for freezing and high altitude? Worse, how do you say ‘the mines are dangerous’ without saying ‘it’s a level based hard challenge’? Do you really just throw out hard challenges with no reward? Players are looking for challenges with reward, so if the choice is go through the mines or do literally anything else, it’s going to be mines. The flip side of that is, a DM almost can’t TPK via freezing to death on top of a mountain. How do you make a snowstorm risky in that case? Players losing limbs to frostbite?

    • Honestly, using spells/battle resources to cover for failures in the field is one of the biggest things I *like* about the system. The interactivity between the two systems (battle and field) is otherwise weak at best.

      I like the way XCOM handles this “two games” idea. I like the feeling that making intelligent choices in the field mode will help me, and might even save my ass, in battle. And that a stellar performance in battle might turn everything my way in the field mode. That moment where you think “dammit that wasn’t a great field choice, but if I do this battle perfectly then it’ll all be okay” is pretty neat.

      I mean, imagine this were more gamey, and food could heal you. So you go through food at a constant, normal rate while traveling. And then if you screw up in a battle, you can heal by eating extra food later. You might run out early. Or, if your scavenger is really on his game, you can get a surplus of food, making battles easier. And by making the battles easier, you can save more resources to make the field easier. And traveling the field more easily generates more resources to make battles easier. Etc etc.

      And imagine if the game were tuned to be hard enough for that to be an almost mandatory consideration. Maybe you’re low on food, and can’t afford to take damage. That creates a real pressure on how you act in a given fight. And that’s real gameplay and decisioning there.

      Under this system, the answer for how to make a snowstorm threatening to the PCs is to make it give them hefty penalties in combat. And by performing worse in the combat, they have a harder time passing field trials. In fact, in order to even find themselves in a snowstorm in the first place, they should have screwed up previous field/battle challenges and had to resort to taking that bad route.

      Basically, I would push for more, and scaling (system falls apart once Teleport comes online if there isn’t good system scaling), problems that the party has the option to spend battle resources to solve. Not less. More ways that the modes interact makes both of them much more interesting.

      • In my game I address this with a houserule which allows PCs to heal better during an extended rest if they have decent food and sleeping conditions (with a corollary that they don’t heal well if they are hungry, cold and wet – if it is bad enough you can actually lose health). So a hot meal is better than a cold meal, a fire is better than no fire, a tent is better than a bedroll (in cold, rain or snow, at least), and no armor is better than flexible armor which is better than rigid armor.

        So…
        Do we live on iron rations or pack fresh foods and cooking gear?
        Do we light a fire and risk detection? Do we stop early to forage for fuel?
        Is it worth it to pack a canvass tent?
        Do I sleep in my plate, or just an arming vest? Do I pack chain to sleep in?
        Its getting dark, but we don’t have a good campsite? Do we keep going?

        I started to write a system for it, and then realized it worked better if I just assessed the overall conditions and assigned an appropriate bonus or penalty (the amount actually recovered is based on an Endurance check).

      • Half of this is layering a pretty thick system on top of the game though. I like it, but its’ still a thick system.

        Two other comments, 1, I like the idea of ‘field’ spell usage costing you ‘battle’ spell usages, but the spells to avoid food concerns are very inexpensive for even pretty low level clerics. Think ‘Hey I’ll memorize the spell every day on the road, and cast it if I need to to preserve supplies, near the end of the day. That way, on the off chance there’s a fight during the day and I need it, I’ve got it’. So you only have to pay any cost if you actually have a fight that uses all your spell slots (rare, low food cost) or if you get attacked at night after you’ve summoned the food (rare, low battle cost). 5e doubles down on this with concentration and cantrips. The optimal number of spells in a battle is much lower.

        2. I really like the idea of stacking penalties on the icy mountain crossing. How long after they cross is it really applicable, though?

    • @Granite26: Food is relevant if it displaces other gear, or if it necessary to use wagons or pack animals to carry it, which have their own issues. Magic that creates food may solve problems for parties travelling on foot or by teleport, but probably does not solve the problem of how do you feed your mount.

      I was surprised to see Angry talking about using encumbrance given his stated position on it, but I guess it would not be too much of a hardship to only consider it at the outset of a journey (as opposed to as an ongoing bookkeeping problem).

      Challenge isn’t the same as danger. Trekking through snowy mountains can be a challenge without being dangerous, provided that you don’t make choices that are actively dangerous, like scaling an icy cliff without climbing gear, or attempting the trek without cold-weather clothing (in which case you deserve to get TPK’d, or to lose fingers and toes to frostbite). That trek increases resource use, the likelihood of getting lost, the chances of being injured, and the changes of encountering difficult terrain obstacles, while reducing travel speed. How is that not challenging, even if the party is not really at risk of death?

      • I guess, for me, it comes down to the adventuring day and static challenges. What is the cost of getting injured if you’ve got a cleric with the party? So with any challenge, (much like traps) it either kills the PC outright, or they try again the next day. If they try again too many days, it’s either a loss on a time challenge (which is ok) or just a drain on a resource that doesn’t really matter. Best case scenario, then, you’ve got a wall that stops them till they get creative or make a skill roll. Which is cool, but you’ve got to do something like that enough times to create the atmosphere and few enough times to not be repetitive, and I’m not convinced those numbers haven’t crossed.

        My players tend not to have too many problems carrying too much stuff/gear… How much stuff do they need to bring with them before it starts seriously affecting the amount of food they can carry?

        Create Food and Water is enough for 15 humanoids, or 5 mounts and lasts a day. I just looked it up and it’s a 3rd level spell, though, which means it’s competing with casts of the cleric’s nuke spells. It’ll feed a party of 6 people and 3 mounts. A dinner time casting creates food that’s good till the next dinner time (so you can cast it late in the ‘adventuring day’) Note that if combined with foraging it’s even more generous.

        • My rule of thumb is, if it can’t have an impact on the overall adventure (if time or resources are not relevant), I don’t play it. Its just like adjudicating a skill check: if there is no cost to trying again, and it can succeed, it does succeed.

          Create Food and Water isn’t an issue for me because I run a different edition, but I note that in 5e if you have 4 riders and 4 horses you will need to cast the spell twice, and its not a ritual. That makes it a real choice: I know if my players had to blow two spell slots to feed the party they would strongly consider other options.

    • Exhaustion to make skill checks harder, yeti attacks, crevasses to cross, sheer drops to navigate. Tops of mountains seem like great places to give the PCs challenges to overcome. That’s why I put adventuring days into travel. An exciting day that breaks up the monotony of travel and makes the journey moemorable. It’s classic in adventure literature and movies. The dramatic question is simply will the adventurers make it to their destination in one piece?

    • I do want to say that the ideas here are super useful and could be included verbatim in a fresh game designed to make use of them as a setting item with only minor tweaks (to the game). You really would just have to establish that food was a resource to be managed, and tweak down the survival abilities as mentioned (while also adding a material cost to resource acquisition spells, or eliminating them entirely)

      My issue is with dropping these tactics into a generic game without adding a lot of overhead just to have a few of these types of adventures.

  17. Well, several parts of what Angry described solutions for are problems intrinsic to D&D and its various incarnations. Good counter-example: The One Ring Roleplaying Game.

    Genauein encounter? Every encounter is intrinsically risky in TOR. TOR is not as swingy as Savage Worlds, but unlucky rolls can get you dead soon enough. What kills you usually is a combination of losing endurance (like hp but only measuring your will to fight) and gaining a wound. Since endurance is not that easily recovered in the wilderness (and dungeons) it is much more useful a resource. Being tired, worn, emotionally burnt out, even spiritually on the verge of madness – these things are measured in the game in simple yet effective ways. Each encounter drains endurance, risks wounds, drains hope, may even add corruption. Without being as swingy as “save or die” or “exploding dice” it poses a good balance between tactical choices (including how much you expose yourself in combat), resource management, and the roll of the dice. To me, it’s combat system has D&D beat. Slugging through six combat encounters per adventuring day can become… meaningless at some point.

    Now, overland travel is a key component of the game. It is after all a Middle Earth game, and the damn books are full of travel and roaming and hiking and whatever. TOR has been called a “hiking simulator” by some, but it does the job well. Make no mistake, the system needed some tweaks. But it has most anything Angry talks about in its own way. You assign roles and so each party member can contribute skills when it comes to Guide, Scout, Hunter, and Lookout. Each has rolls to make and roles to take, and everybody’s failures drive what happens to the party and how they might have to deal with it. The game is an ever-growing library of wilderness obstacles you can use in more organic ways than mere encounter tables. And each of them can be a legitimate drain on your resources.

    The food you pack, how heavy your equipment is, whether you bring mounts or pack animals or travel by road or boat, it is all covered by a rather manageable set of rules. It tells you how long it takes to get there, what rolls to make, what kind of encounters and intermissions to plan for. And it just is also being issue with an adaptation for 5e…

    • Have you seen Adventures in Middle Earth, which I think is related to TOR? Apparently it handles travel really well, while remaining within the confines of the 5e rule system. I haven’t seen it myself, so using this reply to fish for opinions!

    • Yes, One Ring is my new favorite, and has been for a few years. The adventures no longer consist of “Sentence of travel and then dungeon”, but “What things challenge the party.”

      …And knowing that going in, it’s a better game for me, and the players that want more narrative than just “dungeon exploration.”

      Things feel more like a real world. But players used to the idea of “4 days and you are there” have often been put off by the encounters and narrative going in an out of the specific place.

      Some players just prefer the goal oriented.. here to get loot style.
      I feel lucky, when I get players who prefer the “Narrate my successes and failures” of One Ring. Crossing a river, or a mountain range. Seeking shelter in a cave when a blizzard hits.

      To me it is all part of the story, and the flavor of the setting.

      I really enjoyed this article.

  18. Do you think it has any undesirable or weird effects on game play or aesthetic that, encounter-for-encounter, the voyage to a dungeon is more dangerous than the dungeon itself?
    Also, would adding in a fatigue effect for traveling fast all the time over-penalize Fast travel or cost too much bookkeeping you think? A good benefit to horses would be, “the horse takes the fatigue for going Fast instead of you.”

  19. For those interested in a game which includes more than just monsters into its random encounter tables, I recommend checking out the Further Afield supplement for Beyond the Wall. It’s got a lot of great stuff for running and designing a sandbox campaign and being a D&D clone most of the actual mechanical stuff should convert easily into whatever edition you’re running.

    Definitely going to try this system, with the caveat that I would personally not make discoveries random. I know it’ll mean a bit more prep for me (and also mean that I’ll be prepping some content that my players will never see), but I’m one of those weirdoes who actually enjoys prep.

  20. This is great! I just turned this article into a handy-dandy reference page in my D&D One-Note and will try it out in my next campaign. I already design all my maps with a hex overlay, each hex representing a day of travel (at a normal pace). I hate dealing with miles/km, it’s so much easier to count the hexes and tell my players that their destination is 3 days away. Offering up different routes and terrain challenges will just make it that much better. To further simplify your method, I decided on Slow Pace = 1/2 speed and Fast Pace = 2x speed. Just easier for a non-mathy person like me. Thanks for a great article!

  21. Huh. I always thought I was doing something wrong by just skipping travel unless I thought of an encounter that truly was interesting. Glad I listened to my gut saying that just piling on random encounters was boring.

    • I personally love random encounters, but it’s an unfortunate fact that most incarnations of random encounter tables they tend to be “You run into some monsters in the woods, roll for initiative.” Instead, as Angry stated, random encounters should have a nice variety of monsters and NPCs that you can actually interact with (and this being D&D where about half the “monsters” are actually thinking feeling creatures the line between those categories is further blurred) as well as other stuff that can go wrong while adventuring. On top of those generic encounters you can further supplement your tables with unique one-time only encounters to add a bit more color to your setting.

      That’s actually an idea I’ve toyed around with: having random encounter tables with your usual mix of monsters, NPCs and other interesting incidents that might happen on the road, but with one of the results being Unique Encounter, of which I’ll have prepped a small list of. Once a unique encounter has been used, I’ll just scratch it off the table and replace it with a new one. These unique encounters would serve as something of a mix between an encounter and a discovery: while definitely interaction scenes they would also provide hooks for further side treks.

      So while a standard random encounter will basically resolve itself in a single scene (whether that scene turns out to be combat or interaction or whatever) these unique encounters would open up further adventures. As an example of what I’m thinking of, a unique encounter might be a bumbling wizard who accidentally got locked inside a summoning circle and let loose a minor demon he was trying to summon. This encounter actually opens up two different side treks: tracking the demon and stopping it before it causes too much mayhem (the demon will invariably gravitate towards towns and cities) if the players are into that sort of thing, and freeing the wizard from the summoning circle (for which the wizard will reward the characters handsomely).

      I think such a mix of random encounters with more fleshed out prefab encounters should make the game feel a bit more organic: not all encounters will be fights with 2d6 goblins (although there is value in such encounters, especially if the GM lets the characters parlay with the opposition and doesn’t assume that all such encounters will turn hostile) but at the same time your players can’t expect all encounters to be tailor-made for them. If the GM is really clever and good at improvization there might not even be a marked difference to these encounters from where the players are sitting.

  22. The advices are very good, as usual, but there’s a BIG problem: in the new UA ranger the group cannot get lost, except my magical means.
    Rolling navigation checks is useless because the ranger is now like a f$&%ing GPS
    How can you handle it?

    • The bottom few sentences of the article address this.

      “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).”

      • ehm thanks, my adhd didn’t let me finish the article before commenting 😀
        well my consolation prize is that i thought same thing that the angry gm did… i didn’t get a solution, though, but it’s something

  23. Nice! I think this is my favourite d&d topic ever. I have a long tradition of in depth wilderness role playing and I never get tired of learning new things or brushing up on things I thought i knew better. I would add another element to things that effect travel, as far as time considerations and decisions go: weather. Even the smoothest road can have an ominous, pressurizing effect on a party if they’re being followed by a massive storm front, or even being forced to head right for it. And weather leads to natural disasters. One of my favourite wilderness days saw the PCs making their way down a deep, shale-filled valley. I stressed how loose the shale was around them, how it would flake off and tinkle down the slope below them. Once I had them thinking of that, I described a collection of clouds around the peaks way above them, and a slight drizzling rain. As the rain kept up the PCs started to notice the music of water rivulets running down the shale walls around them and noticed spots where little rivulets were turning into rushing, not-so-little streams around their feet. You might see where this is going… eventually the snapping and cracking of trees above on the mountainside, coupled with the rising deep rumble of rushing water all around made the PCs realize that a flash flood was crashing down the mountain towards them. This bought them a few precious rounds to decide what they should do before the water and all it was carrying smashed into them. Thankfuly, they’re high level PCs and had a few tricks to stay high and dry, but it was really fun setting up the scene, dropping clues about the unsteady landscape, and finally springing it on them as they figured it out in the last possible moments. And it was all weather interacting with the terrain they were traveling through. Travel can be so much more than straight up monster combat. Its all about perspective, and letting go, and realizing that the wilderness runs just like the rest of the game. A little time and effort can make it shine.

    • This is a really great point, and could even scale with the d6 method being as described being used in the original article. Granted, it’s not like “snow” or “Hurricane” can occur everywhere; each region would have to have its own scale. Weather is a bit trickier when it comes to being “random”. But a light rain could be pleasant, or foretell and oncoming mega storm.

      • I definitely agree that your weather can’t be random. Well, sort of. I’ll take a two week period of time and pre-roll the incoming weather, rolling once for wind and once for precipitation (made my own charts). I have it change every 1d3-1 days, rolling 2d12 to find the hr of the day it actually changes (if it comes up the same the weather just holds). Then I keep the info on a little card and lay that ‘weather template’ over the sessions, no matter what the party is doing. It’s turned into a few neat little choice-scenes, like the PCs deciding to camp another day to wait out or storm, or them deciding to move double time to beat a cloud front. Or even the Druid actually having use for his Predict Weather Spell (I run od&d Rules Cyclopedia). I like those scenes. I should say this is all purely DM candy, something I do behind the scenes because I really like world mechanics. The players just enjoy the flavour and never deal with the actual dice rolling. Like god in Futurama, if the DM does it right, the players won’t be sure the DM has done anything at all .

        • I try to keep the dice rolling on these kinds of things down to a minimum if i can, unless I’m doing it between sessions. Otherwise, I’ll decided “yes or no” on weather and then roll any die. Evens are yes and odds are no. Each subsquent yes, I might decide to increase the weather a bit (now there’s not just rain, but a bit of hail or lightning).
          I also use an app called Sleepy Time that has weather sounds and that adds great ambiance.

    • I was wondering how you set up a situation like the one you described of the flash flood?
      You’ve mentioned that you pre-roll your weather, but did you then decide to put the PCs in a location/situation that interacted with the weather or was that a randomly rolled hazard for the players to come upon, which in addition happened to interact well with the pre-generated weather?

      • Oh good question! So the session before the one with the flash flood, they had a choice at the end: leave the valley the way they came, through a secluded stone giant village; or try the southern pass they had found, which was unexplored but at least had no stone giant village. As I mentioned before, I already knew the incoming weather and hinted at it to the party via my descriptions of their days in the valley, so when they decided to avoid the giants and head south down the narrow mountain passes I knew that they were heading into a dangerous natural situation based on the environmental circumstances I had available to me. Seeing the opportunity I had, I decided to build a encounter around a flash flood, and consulted my handy Ad&d Wilderness Survival guide for the basic rule mechanics and had them ready next session. I guess the crux of this is the timing with the end of a session. I like to plan the party’s descision points to land at the end of sessions, so that I can really think about the repercussions of the things they decide to do. It runs the danger of them changing their mind and ruining your work, but that happens sometimes regardless of the work we’ve done as DM’s haha. Its also helped me just to read up on natural disasters and what actually causes them, particularly ones recorded before our modern era. That way my mind is open to noticing those situations in which a terrible disaster has a potential to occur. The 1e Ad&d Wilderness Survival Guide is incredible for this, regardless of the edition your currently playing 🙂

  24. Cool as always!

    Just a doubt about pacing:

    Let’s say that the party gets 3 random encounters, and so 3 possible battles. Let’s say it’s the classic murder hobo group and so they’re definitely 3 battles. They’re just proceeding in an already chosen direction, so there aren’t much choices between each battle (unless they make a Discovery or they decide to make camp because they got their asses beaten). That could become a little dull.

    What kind of “buffer” would you put between encounters to vary the pace a little?

    • Exploration and social encounters are a great buffer, but if you’ve got a group of murder hobos, you’re gonna have a problem with that anyway…

  25. Great article. Thanks, Angry.

    How would you handle places like the Underdark/Darklands – as a dungeon or as wilderness travel?

    My thought was that the Underdark is more constrained, in that it’s essentially tunnels and caves but I guess by thinking about different underground ‘terrain’ and primary/secondary/tertiary tunnels, you could have the whole different route choice you’ve described here for more classic wilderness terrain.

    Are there any specific considerations you’d add for the Underdark?

    • Check out Out of the Abyss. There are large sections of that adventure that deal with travel through the Underdark. It gives a number of particular considerations for Underdark travel as well as random and unique encounters.

  26. Great article. I don’t like that ended the article by saying to drop the 5e activity while traveling thing, because that’s what makes exploration actually happen in 5e, but I understand you did it because you’re basically saying “here’s how to make your game more complicated than 5e”. Of course, 5e also suffers from massively fast advancement to level 5, and it’s those first levels where logistics and foraging are the most important. (Also tracking and mapping and not being able to use perception is a critical component on the local dungeon level, not overland travel level. But that’s a separate thing.)

    Also, I think the key point that got lost somewhere in the transition to set piece balanced battles of more modern D&D is that wilderness encounters used to be DEADLY at low levels. I mean sure, you could hand-wave them away at a certain point, but you could have-wave away a lot of shit at a certain point, and getting to that certain point took a hell of a lot of adventuring and scrambling to survive. The easiest way to get back to wilderness is deadly and prevents travel is just to toss out all assumptions of CR balanced encounters while in the wilderness, and tell the players up front that they’ll have to expect to talk, hide/evade, or flat out run for it if they want to live. In other words, go back to the idea that dungeons are level appropriate zones (albeit not necessarily the party’s level), but wilderness sure as hell isn’t.

    Not disagreeing that travel shouldn’t be part of the adventure, including all the logistics management and navigating/getting lost. Just that when you’re in the dangerous wilderness, it should be dangerous.

    • I very much agree that wilderness encounters could be almost any CR. But this needs to be telegraphed to the players, eg through local rumours, notes on a map (‘here be dragons’), areas of vegetation scorched or withered by fire or frost and so on.

      Linked to this, I’m glad to see Angry point out that encounters might be avoided completely by either the PCs or the NPCs. I handle this by using Perception checks to determine who’s surprised, and then use information about who’s surprised to determine encounter distance (along with other factors like terrain, party size, light sources being carried). If one group surprises all the members of the other, they may choose to slink away. And if both groups perceive each other from a distance, such as quarter of a mile, they can choose to skirt round each other and not engage.

  27. I’m normally a DM who prefers to summarize and narrate overland travel. I rarely roll for random encounters or play out long journeys, and typically recommend this as a good way to “make overland travel less boring” — instead, I like to just skip it and get to the fun adventure locations.

    This post got me thinking about it as I’m interested in running a 5e campaign that would be based on a fair amount of overland travel through a relatively dangerous frontier region — a 5e conversion of Red Hand of Doom, where the players have a month of in-game time to complete several goals in order to “save the city”. The adventure takes place mostly between 4th and 10th level, so the characters do not have easy access to flight or teleportation (especially in 5e) I want travel to matter, as the players have to think about which routes to take: “do we take the river boat and risk attack by lizardfolk, or brave the haunted forest filled with spider-goblins, or take the road which takes twice as long, but has inns and towns we can stay in along the way?”

    To hammer this home, I was considering a simple house rule:

    “A long rest takes 24 hours anytime you spend a day or more travelling overland. You must still rest normally to avoid exhaustion.”

    In effect, the characters could only gain the benefits of a long rest once they complete their journey, but in desperate circumstances they can delay their progress to rest. Effectively, any bout of travel becomes a single “adventuring day”, cutting off the typical problem where the party can nova on random encounters. Over the course of any given journey, there would then be several “not-actually random” random encounters which would advance the story/ world-build/ foreshadow the destination. I’d then be able to structure overland travel similar to the way I structure my dungeons and adventure sites.

    This could heighten the risk-vs-reward of pressing further and stretching PC class resources, or “playing it safe” but taking more time (and thus risking a “campaign loss”).

    • Ooh, I really like that idea, but I’m not entirely sure about the details.
      I think there’s definitely something to be said for making long rests not usually worth it whilst travelling, to effectively convert the journey into a single adventuring day.
      That way the resource spend follows the same structure as the narrative.

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  29. On the surface, I really like this system. I’ve struggled mightily with making overland travel interesting, and at this point mostly just narrate travel. My main issue is the lack of player decisions. It makes the game less fun for the players, and more work for me. “OK you travel for 4 hours and are attacked by bandits! Uh oh. OK you beat the bandits, you travel for 2 days and then a bear charges out of the woods! Uh oh.”

    I’m curious though, does this system change that at all? Once the players select their route (1 of 3, in the example given), what choices are they making? It seems like it will still be “OK, you travel for 4 hours through the goblin forest and then are attacked by goblins! OK, you beat the goblins, traveled for 6 more hours, and set up camp. Now spiders attack!” Where is the player choice? If they get lost I guess they have some decisions to make on how to regain their course, but where else? What breaks up the combat encounters? I can’t really justify having a ton of friendly encounters in a place like the “Goblin Woods”, but running a travel session with 6+ combat encounters back-to-back sounds really boring. I think I may just not be seeing it, and I want to make sure I understand the system before I subject my players to spending multiple sessions filled with random encounters.

  30. The trick is to build suspense and create descision points with wilderness adventures. Instead of a bear charging out of the woods, drag it out. In the morning the PCs come across some bushes that look to be freshly uprooted. Later, they find small trees pushed over and one big tree with claw marks down its side… Then they find a log cracked open where something was eating grubs. Later, they come upon a deer carcass in the river (which they find when they take a drink, creating another potential challenge with detecting off-tasting water and contracting disease). Every one of these events gives the PCs a chance to use skills or their own brains to make more descisions. They can change directions for a bit (maybe getting lost), or they can try to trap whatever it is, or just keep going, whatever they want. The best is when they start assuming the worst. The above scenario once convinced my PCs they were about to fight some terrible monster, and in the end it was just a bear that the cleric could chat with to get past peacefully. But it kept them on their toes for a while. This way you can turn one encounter into half a day of tense travel. And in the end, when the bear does charge at them, if they still didn’t get it after all of your clues, they all have a eureka moment as they try not to die haha.

  31. There are a lot of cool mechanics written out in this, I like it.
    Yet I feel encounters and discoveries need to be more interconnected in some way. Well I guess they already are, as each discovery is an encounter.

    Maybe I’m underestimating what is a ‘discovery’ and what is a ‘flavorful detail’, but…
    What I mean is, that an encounter could be:
    “just as you are about to set up camp for the night, you spot a campfire in the distance”
    It is a group of bandits, the players might be be able to sneak up on them or they might chose not to light a fire so they can rest without the bandits noticing them.

    Either way, they find both an ENCOUNTER of bandits and they DISCOVER a bandit camp.
    So it is with almost any encounter, goblins in the goblin woods do not pop into existence in order to be a random encounter (well they did, but this is one of those Schrodinger’s gun situations), the goblins came from somewhere, which means they leave tracks that the players can follow to discover some goblin related location.

    Perhaps a pack of wolves or a wandering owlbear or something like that is the only type of encounter that relates to nothing, but even then I would try to include some kind of stream or crevasse in the encounter that can serve as a terrain feature to help the players in navigation, if not this journey then maybe for the way back.

    Maybe a division between minor discoveries and major discoveries is what I am trying to say.

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  33. After re-reading this again, and thinking about how it would translate to my campaign, I just don’t think it would work. My campaign’s world is effing enormous, and their first overworld trip will take them about 26 days at a normal pace. If I assume that the entirety of the trip has a danger level of 1, that’s still an average of 26 encounters between points A and B, just to reach destination 1/52.

    How would you use the rules you’ve presented to run a wilderness trip that lasts that long? And how do your actual players react to your method of wilderness travel? Is it fun for them?

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