Thinking about travel

So travel is a big part of adventures. Braving majestic mountains, navigating insidious swamps and traversing foreboding forests. Lord of the Rings, the books as well as the movies, would not be the same without their iconic locations. Minas Tirith’s grandeur is incredible in contrast to the Shire. Interspersed between these grand locations, there are also the lesser locations, such as Bree, the Watchtower, the calcified Trolls, the Argonaths, I could go on forever. Yet, it has often been my experience that journeys in RPGs fall short of this. Often in spite of procedures.

I don’t have any solutions… yet. In this post, I will describe some thoughts I’ve had about travel in roleplaying games.

Picture by Frank Winkler, used with permission.

Where is the fun?

For the most part, I’ve experienced travel roleplay in roughly two forms. One is basically a quick summary of “what happened” as the party went from A to B, with varying degrees of descriptions of the landscape. The other is the hex-map, where we mapped a blank map ourselves, indicated where we wanted to go, and the GM rolled for random encounters. Either case felt very much like a minor segment between the “interesting” things in the game, such as roleplaying in town or delving in a dungeon. There’s also the journey rules in Adventures in Middle Earth, which seems more like a table-based mad-libs short-story generator.

So arguably, these modes aren’t loaded with fun. They seem more like a brief formality to acknowledge geography. What I usually find engaging in roleplaying games is problem solving, whether it is making sense out of clues, making tough choices or making tactical decisions in combat. So why not apply the same for travel? Why not make traveling about problem solving as well? What does that entail?

So we need a framework that enables problem solving. Or, in other words, a way of presenting problems.

What seems to be the problem?

So what are interesting problems for travelers? In my mind, making decisions that have impact is important. So a problem you present to a party on the road should have meaning, whether it delivers immediate impact or something that snowballs. For example, if they find that the rope bridge over Ragged Gulch is broken, what do the players do? They could try to find another route, or maybe attempt to repair the bridge?
Problems could be signs of activity (friendly or hostile), distorted landmarks (risk getting lost), resource trades (cross a river, but gear gets soaked), drastic change of weather (there’s a storm comin’). I think it’s important to let problems be open-ended, possible to mitigate or possibly circumvent (especially with spells). Social interactions should definitely be on the list too. Locals could convey rumors, guide the party, or tell of local legends. Other travelers could advise of rumors from far flung places, perhaps even accompany the party parts of the way.

Essentially, what I want travel to be is a series of interesting things to deal with. Not just combat encounters, but a range of problems. If a tool exists, there should be a problem for it. Choices should be made, and downstream they should have impact. 

Navigating the world

Along with problems, I have been thinking a lot about making navigation a thing. Even using a hex map as a basis, there should be landmarks to go by, paths to find and tell-tale signs of camps and similar settlements. I’m a big fan of node crawls, which can be quite local and zoom out without effort.

It’s possible to combine this with a bit of fuzzy topology and say, for example, that from the Daisy Clearing, you should be able to see Whitescar Peak. And maybe the next place, i.e. Sleepy Town, it would also be possible to see that mountain. With a few more big landmarks like that, it should be possible to make some informed choices about directions, beyond the basic compass.

This method is something I haven’t tested out much, but generally I want to give my players a “mind map” of an area. If you come across the crossroads with the Broken Statue, you should know you’re close to Gurney’s Inn, the Pottersfield Farm and the Abandoned Village. It already works to a degree with dungeons that have memorable rooms - even without mapping, you can navigate much of “Tomb of the Serpent Kings” using the descriptions of the rooms alone. 

So what do we do?

Well, this was just a post with some thoughts I wrote down. I’m working on a location - a forest - which should be possible to navigate using clues like landmarks and memorable locations. Have you done something similar to this? Do you have revolutionary travel ideas? If you have any thoughts about this, feel free to share them on my discord.

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