The Wizard Sleeve: Over the River and All That Noise, Part 2

wizard-sleeve-02Last time I told you all about two of the ways to handle overland travel in D&D (and other fantasy games).  Today we’re going to jump headfirst into even more techniques.   Again, think of these as different knobs and dials you can adjust in order to make overland travel as easy or as complicated as your campaign needs it to be.

Skill Challenge: One of the more modern approaches to handling overland travel is to make it a skill check.  Fourth Edition D&D excels at this as it already has the skill challenge mechanic in place.  It all boils down to having the players make various skill checks until they reach their goal. How easy or difficult these are is entirely up to the GM.  Examples of various challenges include, finding the trail, foraging for food, hunting, navigating a treacherous bog, enduring the blazing heat of the desert, and finding water.  There’s really no limit to what you can do on part of a trip.  If you’re looking for inspiration watch Survivorman or Man vs. Wild.  You’ll quickly see the huge variety of problems nature can throw at the party.

The key here is to make sure that failure has consequences.  Perhaps failing a check adds days to the journey or gives penalties to certain rolls for the next day.  In 4e, taking away healing surges is always fun to do. One caveat though, don’t make the success of the trip dependent on the skill rolls.  You don’t want a party that can’t progress to the next plot point just because of some bad rolls.  So make sure the consequences make the trip more interesting in some way, not stop the trip altogether.

Using this technique, it’s best to abstract any combat the party comes across and make it a function of skills also. Players who creatively use their powers and abilities should get a bonus on the roll.

The biggest benefit of this technique is that it allows for detailed and flavorful travel that involves the players at every step.  The downside is that without properly preparing to deal with failure, the PCs could get stuck or find themselves bored with rolls that have little consquence.

This technique is best used when you want to make a trip interesting without getting bogged down in combat.

Pure Narration: The simplest and easiest of all these techniques, this is the fast-forward button.  The PCs arrive at their destination immediately and either the GM or the players get to describe what happened along the way.  In this way, travel becomes little more than flavor as there are no risks at all.

The benefits of this technique are ease and speed.  The downside is that not every player is going to enjoy going from point to point this way.  You’ll likely hear the cry of “railroad!” when it’s not one at all.

This technique is best used when the players don’t care about overland travel and just want to move on with the story.

Hexploration: I saved this method for last because it is so rarely done these days. The reason for that is because this method is so involved that it can define the campaign itself.  Hexploration was made famous by such classic modules as Isle of Dread and the Judge’s Guild campaign setting The Wilderlands of High Fantasy.   The basic ideas is that the world map is divided into hexes which the PCs explore.  Many hexes are keyed to adventure sites or other locations of interest that the PCs can stumble upon.  This setup is usually combined with a Regional Random Encounter table to increase the variety.

This method makes overland travel a central focus of the campaign.  Getting from place to place safely becomes a major part of the adventure.  Many GMs will also combine this with rigorous food and drink requirements so that survival and exploration go hand in hand.

Hexploration campaigns went out of vogue twenty years ago mainly because there was a big push for plot and story at the time.  While a story-based campaign and a hexploration campaign aren’t mutually exclusive, the GM has to be careful about the pacing since the PCs are going to spend a lot of time wandering the wilderness.  Truthfully, while this campaign style is rarely used these days, their inspiration can be seen in the resurgence of sandbox campaigns.

Besides the problems mentioned above, another big issue is the same as many sandbox campaigns: since the PCs can go anywhere the GM must be prepared for anything.

Despite these issues, there is no other style of travel that is going to let the PCs feel like they’re actually exploring a wild land.  In those campaigns where exploring is the key focus, usually to the exclusion of a heavy plot, this style has no equal.

Hybrid:  The final method is just a conglomeration of two or more of the above styles.  The benefit here is that different styles will compensate for each others weaknesses.  The downside is that it can dilute their strengths.  As long as a GM is aware of the changes in tone that come with such combinations then he should be able to build something more than the sum of its parts.

That’s the worldwind tour of handling overland travel.  I’d love to hear what styles you folks use.  Drop me a line in the comments!

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.

4 comments on “The Wizard Sleeve: Over the River and All That Noise, Part 2Add yours →

  1. As a GM I resolved most long distance travel by fiat, partly because I didn’t trust myself to correctly balance an encounter. I still let my players do the routine of making camp, having dinner, speculating on what was to come and where they were going, and set up watches if they liked.

    However, I also tried to do what Michael Stackpole recommends for novelists and frustrate reader expectations a little.

    For instance, my party is camping in a copse of trees atop a small hill, in otherwise open country (make your Weathertop jokes now, please). I called for Listen checks (this being 3.0 D&D) in the middle of the night, and everyone, probably also thinking of Weathertop, assumes there’s gonna be a fight.

    Instead, a group of horses, some saddled, some not, wander into the copse. Of course, one of them wasn’t quite a horse, but it wasn’t a threat to them either. The un-horse, an impressive jet black specimen, went to the blind-fighter character, for reasons that never became clear because the campaign died a month later.

    I find that players will grudgingly accept it if you wake their characters up and try to kill or capture them.

    Now on the other hand, wake them up in order to GIVE them things, and they’ll love it.

    In the final analysis, I like the ability to do rewards, foreshadowing, and some neat storytelling tricks that the GM fiat method of travel presents (indeed, the un-horse was all three). If I wanted to use encounter charts and random rolling to do that, I’d just be making it harder for myself and my players.

  2. That’s odd. One would think you’re intimately familiar with it.

    Oh, wait, I have another.

    Weird, figured you’d know it like the back of your…oh.

  3. Regarding the use of the Skill Challenge to simulate travel, this also works really well when the party has to be at Point X in a very specific amount of time. If they succeed at their skill challenge they arrive at Point X on time and there’s no harm done. If they fail however, they still arrive, a bit bedraggled, less a few healing surges and too late to achieve what they were rushing towards. This opens up new avenues of adventure to explore.

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