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.|
Travel that matters
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
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 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.
All in all it was an enjoyable game within the game which entertained us for the whole session.