The Wizard Sleeve: Over the River and All That Noise, Part 1

wizard-sleeve-01Welcome, weary internet travelers! The kind overlords at Ideology of Madness have given me this new column as a place to spew my incoherent babbling about gaming.  Some would say I already do that enough over at The Podge Cast, but some brain droppings are better consumed in a visual medium such as this than through the audio ambrosia that is podcasting.  In other words, this is where I can talk about that stuff that doesn’t lend itself to roundtable discussion.

As a bit of background, I am currently running a D&D 4e game with my group.  A lot of this column is going to be about exploring the concepts and themes of whatever I’m running or playing at the time.  As someone who has spent the last few years mainly running and playing intense player-driven, plot-focused, intrigue-laden games, going back to my gaming roots with D&D has been a nice change.  No matter what edition you enjoy, I think we can all agree that there’s no feeling like slicing off a dragon’s nuts and then stealing his hoard while the halfling juggles those man-marbles.

To start off with, we’re going to talk about the different approaches to overland travel in D&D.  Overland travel, and all of the dangers that come with it, are something that has at least been mentioned in every game of D&D, if not every fantasy roleplaying game.  I think that somewhere in the great shared gamer subconscious that we remember all the walking and riding that came with the fantasy fun in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

While travel is always a topic that’s been given rules, it has been handled very differently as the years have moved on.  This is a positive thing because it gives us another dial to use when running the campaign.  The Gamemaster has a range of options to use depending on his needs and the needs of the group.

Let’s go through the pros and cons of some of these styles.  When your party decides to venture into the wilds, the GM will usually pick from one of the following styles.

Gamemaster’s Choice: By far and away the most popular choice, this lets the GM choose whether an encounter occurs or not.  This is usually accompanied by the PCs making camp, setting watches, and talking of their preparations, even if there is no encounter.  This lets the GM send the message about the danger of the area, emphasizing that the PCs are not warm and cozy within a city’s walls.

The biggest benefit of this style is that it leaves the GM in complete control of what happens during the session.  He decides when and encounter happens and exactly what it is, so if the party is short on time he can choose not to throw something at them. This is particularly useful when the PCs are on a time-restricted quest of some type and don’t want to spend game time on something that’s off-plot.  They’re also easy to prepare as the GM is controlling what to expect.

The downside is that encounters of this nature can feel like throw-away encounters.  After players have been told how dangerous the Big Bear Woods are they’re likely thinking “Okay, let’s just get the bear fight out of the way so we can get on with the story!”  So what is intended to emphasize how dangerous a part of the wild is instead becomes a banal, expected task.

If you’re thinking of using this method, you need to ask yourself if the encounter is needed at all.  Will it just be a speedbump on the way to more entertaining things?  Is it really the best way to communicate the danger of an area?

The biggest pitfall here is working out how to use these so that they do not become completely trite.

This technique is best used when the game is very plot-driven as it allows the group to avoid those encounters that don’t move the plot onwards.

Regional Random Encounter Charts: Ah, old school gaming, you did so love your charts. With this method we have a chart for each GM-defined region which lists a number of possible encounters tailored to that region.  When it is determined that there is an encounter (whether the GM chooses or it’s a roll of some sort) the GM rolls on the chart and starts whatever encounter is listed.

The biggest benefit to this is it makes the area feel a bit more wild and untamed because the GM isn’t spoonfeeding the group something he knows it can handle.  The players know that even if they are trying to get somewhere in a hurry, there’s the chance they could meet with serious trouble on the way.  It hammers the danger of travel home as you never know how safe you are once you leave civilization.

The downsides are there, too.  The GM may not have prepared the proper encounter.  The encounter may still be boring and unengaging, and it can really slow down a game that’s rapidly moving elsewhere.

A lot of times you’ll find GMs using the “Gamemaster’s Choice” style while picking from  encounter tables. While this does take away some of the drawbacks, it also puts the kid’s gloves back on travel as the players know the GMs going to screen anythign out that he doesn’t like. There’s nothing wrong with this, but GMs should be aware that they’re changing the tone of the game when they combine the two methods.

This technique is best employed in games where exploration and discovery are essential to the plot or where the plot’s pace is slow enough to let the PCs sniff the flowers a bit.

Join me next time for Part 2, where we talk about two other techniques for handling overland travel.

If you liked what Lucias had to say, head on over to The Podge Cast where you can hear him jabberjaw about all manner of geeky things on a weekly basis.

11 comments on “The Wizard Sleeve: Over the River and All That Noise, Part 1Add yours →

  1. Tim,

    You really have to have that kind of relationship built with your players, though. I’ve tried that before and gotten my stuff jumped by players put out that they didn’t get to RP the travel.

    “I thought this was a role playing game!” She snarled at me, “I would have thought we’d actually play our roles!”

    Sad that shortly thereafter her character was devoured by ravenous, flesh-eating pixies.

  2. Yep – I’ve pretty much changed over to the Narration approach – even to the point of awarding XP for narrated overland encounters.

    In the the last couple of Northmoor sessions (like in Feb and April, which is months behind where the show is), the phrase “Skip to the Inn”, has been used when someone (including me) wants to narrate the journey back to the Inn, rather than play it out… 🙂

  3. I had a friend who would occasionally narrate things that happened along the way that might have been tedious in play. “On your four-day journey through the Bear Woods, the halfling accidentally disturbed a family of dire bears. You managed to fight them off, but the bard broke a bowstring,” or some such.

    It gave us something to work off of (the bard needs a new bowstring when we get to the next town), keeps the flavor (we fought bears in the Bear Woods), and keeps us from the tedious fighting of bears in the Bear Woods.

    The narrations were short and sometimes entertaining, and got us back into the story with minimal distraction.

  4. What I have done in the past, outside the view of the players, is made a few “random” rolls in advance of the game. Then, when I needed an encounter, I could just check that random number. Thus players didn’t feel the “randomness.”

  5. Mmm. Random overland encounters. I used them one time back in 1998, and my players laughed at me so hard, I’ve avoided them since.

    Player 1 (also a longtime DM): “Since, uh, this creature seems to be of the random variety, perhaps we should run away?”

    Rest of Group: “Good idea!”

    Me: “Um…there is a lot of treasure, uh, sticking out of the Ogre’s backpack”.

    Rest of Group: “Treasure’s no good if you’re dead. We run”.

    Me: Sigh. Random encounter charts should not be rolled in front of the group….

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