Equipment in Netherlight

The Journey is the Destination

The following is a guest post written by Vincenzo Zeni. He is a regular player at my Tempest campaign, and he wrote an excellent post regarding travel. You can reach him on my discord server or by contacting him directly on discord with the username Alzred#1541. Enjoy! 

Mountains by Aurélien. Used with permission.
Mountains by Aurélien. Used with permission.

 

Travel that matters

Not so long ago I was GMing a nice short campaign with some friends and I got to the point where the characters had to embark on a perilous and epic journey across a desert. At the time the first thought was "I don't want to 'fast-forward' it because it is supposed to be dangerous and meaningful, but how do I actually do it?".

So I tried asking Reddit, flipping through manuals, I even dove the depths of Discord to get a response from the Elder Ones and I got some solid advice on procedures and rules. It was ok, but deep inside I felt frustrated, I did not want to apply bookkeeping-like procedures, maybe even different rules for seafaring, jungle-crossing or space travel. I consider myself a minimalist and this rules ordeal was a no-go.

Therefore, I kept looking for an underlying idea, a general formula to distill the "essence of journey" for my players. How can the journey itself be the adventure? Adventure, journeys... I ruminated, stripped and boiled down ideas to the bare essential. After all I play an adventure game, so it made sense starting with the dissection of my personal idea of adventure.

Situations...

In my games it's all about situations. I usually present my players a package made of places, people, actions, suggestive descriptions etc. and I let them tinker with them. For  reasons which might require a separate discussion, I intentionally avoid preparing conventional "encounters" or a detailed plot. I usually depict a simple scene and from there on I follow my players in their interactions with an hopefully exciting situation. The scene is simple, but it is always based on two pillars: first, the players should be unable to predict how it will develop and - secondly - it should be difficult for them to keep things under control.

... challenging

My tools to introduce difficulty and loss of control are danger/risk, "mechanical" effort, resource management.
Danger and risk are factors like enemies, hostile/unfriendly entities, natural phenomena like avalanches or a volcanic eruptions. In other words factors which can - in different ways - have a negative impact on the characters or what they care about. This is the most common factor used in TTRPG games, which can make people forget more subtle ones.
Mechanical effort in my formula equates to factors like terrain, weather, environment at large, bodily conditions or load. These, but I surely forgot others, are all neutral factors which determine some degree of attrition. Attrition tends to be quite a subtle instrument, which usually influences risk and danger or how resources are spent.
In fact, resource management can be a game within the game, all about how players use food, air, time, battery packs or whatever else they need. Some players love it, others not so much, but once you get the right ratio they will all have fun while you get a great tool to throttle tension. In a travel session, where you might not want to mess with the bigger narrative, this is just wonderful. 

... and unexpected

I like to challenge my players in how they interpret reality. NPC behaviour, hidden dangers, traces of past events... they always interpret, but are they interpreting correctly? When I present a situation, towards the end of the brief description I sometimes point out a dissonant element in the scene. This usually gets a good amount of attention and sparks different reactions, the most common one being uncertainty.

I believe that uncertainty, tension and the eventual revelation are key elements to keep players engaged and open to the experience. A GM can leverage on this engagement to amplify some specific aspects (like the feeling of being on a journey), to organically present elements of lore, provide clues and hints etc. Anyhow, as attention spans are limited, this tension cannot stay high for too long. My advice is to use uncertainty with caution creating small cycles revolving on carefully chosen moments. Also, let's not forget that some players tend to avoid uncertainty. In this case I put some stakes into play (resource management anyone?) so that the characters have to actively interact with the uncertain situation. Stakes are powerful and they double back when it comes to choices.

Choice

Nobody gets excited while choosing a new toothpaste at the supermarket. For a choice to be meaningful and exciting there must be something at stake, consequences must be clear from the get go. A choice could have impact on resources, risks or on more narrative elements. As long as the characters (deeply) care about it, it should work.

I keep asking to my players "What do you do?" or sometimes "what does your character think?". For narrative to emerge, after a GM presents any situation choices and actions have to follow. These need space, so any situation needs to have gaps to be filled. Whatever the situation, given the space the players will come up with all sorts of ideas and this will move the narration forward. Overcoming (or not) the challenge will make them feel the adventure and they will feel proud because it was them who pushed and pulled the narration.

Stimuli

But let's not forget there are different kind of players who enjoy different challenges, who play complex characters. How do you deal with that? I structure my sessions almost as I would with a dungeon, I put a little bit of everything and a bit more of wha I think my players find particularly fun.

Taking inspiration from the five room dungeon and the "dungeon checklist"  I came up with the idea of structuring my sessions with challenges which periodically leverage on most of characters' skills, but most importantly their "flags". Skills are good way to stress-test the mechanic behind a character, but flags (aka what players deem important in their character) are even a better way to offer well tailored challenges.
 
I don't think of challenges in strict sense. Challenges are a good chunk of any adventure, but I'd rather think of stimuli to the players. I see this as giving some interesting input which the players will enjoy processing while getting the output of an even more interesting narrative advancement.
 
For example, I have a chatty player who RPs a lot. Sometimes I give them occasions to talk, sometimes I take away any chance of "talking-their-way-out", I offer a dilemma between talking and acting or I set a timer which will trigger consequences if they talk too much... for this player role play, Charisma checks, avoiding combat are clear flags and there a thousand ways to "poke at them". 

Front-End

Let's see how I embedded the aforementioned concepts into my travel session.

"You can see the smoky remnants of a campfire below you in the gorge, it looks messy, you can't quite discern what else is down there."
The abandoned camp is down there, you can see it from afar... you can choose to investigate, or not. Smoke means it was abandoned quite recently, are dangers still around? It's messy, why? It's a very much uncertain situation.

In our session a couple months ago, my players went in, found the corpse of a man they knew from their village and it was foreshadowed that a competing group was travelling one day ahead of them towards their same destination. I fed my players some info for them to make choices. I put them under some more pressure to have them increase their mechanical effort or risk more on their resource management and foreshadowed dangerous opponents. They continued their journey in a much different way (no resupply stops, risking on the resource management) and asking themselves "why was the man dead?". They concluded (correctly, I must say) that the other group was so determined to get to their destination first, that they did not care tending to the wounds of their own men. This had a considerable impact on the general mood from there on.

"You approach a pond. It's idyllic, small wild apples hang from a tree while your feet  make no noise on soft green moss. The shore consist of pure white sand which disappears into impossibly blue water."
First of all, a detailed description which sets a positive mood in contrast with the dangerous travel, but in the end "pure white" and "impossibly" hint to something odd. The water obviously presents some kind of danger, being its toxicity or an entity lurking in the depths. Most players are to some degree alerted by the sterile sand and impossibly blue water, but they don't know for sure, as the characters would not be able to know at first glance. This happens in a desert so water is of utmost importance, they cannot miss this chance of a good refill, cleaning wounds etc.. They have to decide and make a choice in an uncertain situation. This will impact resource management, danger and they can only rely on information. The outcome of this scene will inform the mechanical effort for the next leg of their journey.

There are many options here. In my game the players might have fed water or an apple from the tree close to the pond to one of their horses and discover that the water was poisonous, but the plants filter out the toxine. In case they take their time to investigate with the right method they might find some dead animal on the shore or notice birds eating the fruits from the trees.

Situations are the heart of my games, the curated outer layer, the "front-end".

Back-End

But what's happening in the "back-end"? The cogs whirring below the surface serve just one purpose: provide consistency. How you safeguard consistency is not relevant, as long you keep it in check. In my opinion you just need some simple rules (rulings will suffice if consistent), mostly to determine how player can interact with the resources and what are the consequences of their decisions.
 
I'm keeping my terminology vague on purpose because rules are not that relevant, as you can define for each scenario different rules/rulings, resources and consequences.
 
Keep in mind that it's a matter of cost-benefit. For a one-shot or a single session simple stuff works just fine and this allows you to dedicate energy to other aspects, like coming up with cool situations. For a series of adventures you can have more structured rules, some dedicated random table and all kind of cool stuff. For me rules are kind of disposable, but if I were to run a travelling campaign I would not hesitate to adopt or create a mini-system just for it. This will spare me the load of managing consistent rulings across multiple sessions.

In this specific travel session I cannibalised and simplified chunks of "Into the Wyrd and Wild"  to have interesting rules without spending time on it.
 
I took the rules for exhaustion and most sub-system which looped back to it as main components. I wanted everything to revolve around exhaustion to keep things simple while offering many different ways for the players to interact with it allowing creativity and some degree of complexity.

I did not include all long-term components like moon phases and I did not touch complex stuff like cleaning carcasses. I kept the rules for getting lost and I simplified the rules for hunting. I wasn't sure about this last bit, but luckily my players did not hunt.

Of all these elements it was cool to see how the long term effects of the exhaustion the characters got during their travel had an impact long after they reached their destinations.
I must give credit to Feral Indie Studio for one particularly elegant element, which I might carry over to other games: the use of resources (food, water aka rations) in the "Surviving the Night" section. You basically use resources to "fix a bad roll", but let me quote:
Each night after a day of travel in the wilderness, the party can attempt to make a camp. As characters make camp and prepare for rest, roll one d6 dice for each of the three cardinal needs of survival: food, water, and shelter (3d6 in total).

 For how good or bad you roll there are of course consequences and then:

Depending on the amount of failed rolls, the party may suffer levels of ex‐ haustion. However, a character can cancel out the effects of a failed roll by using a supply for themselves. This represents them dipping into their resources for a meal, fresh water, or tin‐ derboxes and lantern fuel.

I love that all is condensed at the end of each day, how it is dead simple and how resources stay super-relevant. In fact exhaustion from a perilous travel requires a lot more rest that your typical "HP loss".

All in all it was an enjoyable game within the game which entertained us for the whole session.

Gluing the dots together

The situations, the mechanics, the danger, the resource management etc: this is where the players interact with the journey. On the other hand there is the phase where the players feel it. This is the transition from one situation to another, one mechanical process to the next. On this regard descriptions are a vital part in rendering this atmosphere of an epic journey. It's the glue which keeps everything together. The GM can have good rules for traversing a desert and present stimulating situations, but it's only when they describe in great detail the characters' feet sinking into the sand while the sun makes their armours unbearable furnaces that the players will get into the right mood. I hate long monologues and I believe one word less is better than one too much, but a couple sentences with a handful of well chosen words can do wonders and take your players on this adventurous path through an imaginary world.