Missing the heart of the journey – Travel in RPG’s

Humans have to an incredibly large degree removed the ‘journey’ from a journey.

The 2170 mile Oregon trail from Independence, Missouri to Oregon, for example, would have taken roughly 144 days to complete going at an average pace of 15 mph.

It would now take you 25 hours, or about 3 days driving give or take. You could also take a plane which would take approximately 6 hours direct.

While this is undoubtedly a positive thing in terms of our progress as a species it removes the actual ‘journey’ part of a journey which really is the important part in terms of growth both spiritually in terms of getting to know and be comfortable with oneself in different environs and materially in terms of planning routes, making sure you have adequate supplies, communicating with people you meet and so on.

You also see a homogenisation as a result. An airport in Toyko and the surrounding area won’t look all too dissimilar from the airport in New York you flew from. They both have a McDonald’s and all the other amenities you expect. Every town in England merges into 1 in the 21st century whereas this would not have been the case in say the 15th century where you’d find towns who wouldn’t even speak the same language as you.

Granted I’m not trying to romanticise such a trip, those journeys were gruelling and tough, people died and those same people would no doubt now choose the comfort of a 4 seater than a horse and cart. The point is as a modern human most of us have no real frame of reference for actual travel.

Some people get a taste of travel through going on backpacking trips but even that is an artificial experience in a sense, you still benefit from all the modern means of locomotion, can usually relatively easily find a quick exit and there’s no inherent necessity to the journey.

Yet many great stories rely on a journey taking place. Imagine if Odysseus’s return home from Ithaca took 3 days instead of 10 years. It could not nearly have the same amount of impact on Odysseus and his crew, nor would any pathos exist on his return upon his return. Imagine if Mount Doom were but a day’s travel away from the Shire. Sauron would have been defeated in time for Frodo to get some evening tea.

It’s perhaps the modern human’s inability to conceive of and experience an actual journey that makes designing a journey in a game so difficult.

We view travel as a boring. A chore at best.

The world of video games are full of fast travel points these days in order to allow players to teleport and skip over the boring travel parts and these games actually have beautiful graphics that allow you to explore and travel the world in real time and fully immerse yourself. Yet most players would still rather skip that bit and get to the ‘fun part’. The gaming community acknowledges something was lost, with titles such as Morrowind which forced you to explore the world being hailed as far more immersive than later titles such as Skyrim which added numerous more fast travel points as well as ubiquitious quest markers.

A tabletop RPG is a different beast entirely. A GM can’t fall back on shiny graphics to dazzle the players, they only have the power of description and their limited rules set at their disposal.

This makes travel an even more difficult nut to crack. A lot of GM’s just ignore it entirely, telling the players it took x days, they remove y supplies from their packs and leave it at that.  Maybe a random encounter or two will be thrown in for spice. Yet again something intangible is lost when you do this.

Modern D&D seems to agree that travel isn’t fun, so don’t really bother with it. Hexcrawling mechanics have all but gone from D&D’s core rules set. Spells like good berry make getting food supplies meaningless, classes like Rangers obsolete most of the challenge of surviving in a hostile wilderness, random encounters seem taboo and simplified encumbrance rules that most GM’s ignore anyway mean how much supplies you can actually carry are irrelevant, long rests healing huge amounts of health mean that in a long journey single fight aren’t actually a threat at all as long as you sleep.

Even if we were to bring all these mechanics to the forefront and remove the shortcuts travel is still in danger of becoming a monotonous and repetetive exercise that mostly consists of book keeping.

  • Day 5: Roll for navigation. Add the foraged food to your carried weight. Substract food to eat from your supplies. Your wagon wheels broke. Roll to repair. Bad luck you’re now on foot.
  • Day 6: Roll for navigation. Add the foraged food to your carried weight. Substract food to eat from your supplies. Subtract food from your supplies.  It starts to rain.
  • Day 10: Roll for navigation. Add the foraged food to your carried weight. Substract food to eat from your supplies. Subtract food from your supplies.  You meet some bandits on the road.
  • Day 11: Roll for navigation. You are lost for 3 days. Add the foraged food to your carried weight. Substract food to eat from your supplies. Subtract food from your supplies. A pack of wolves appear in the night.
  • Day 133… Roll for navigation. Roll to forage. Add the foraged food to your carried weight. Substract food to eat from your supplies. You meet a passing potion trader.

You get the idea. Certainly all these things could be made interesting, flair could be added for description, pretty maps could be shown to the players of their route, choices could be presented on the path, getting lost could lead to monsters, ambushes, there could be small settlements on the road to visit, and dungeons to explore, rivers to ford and so on.

Yet ultimately something would feel pointless for both myself and my players. Are we there yet? Isn’t this just filler? Can we just fast travel it? We want to go to Neverwinter, do we really need to narrate every day on the high road? Is roleplaying getting dysentery all that fun?

I can’t say I’ve ever felt like I’ve cracked it and believe me I’ve tried. I’ve run a pure hexcrawl game for a year.  All my games include travel elements which I time as accurately as possible based on players movement, yet most travel in my games seems to just come down to advancing the clock and a few random encounters for taste as that’s the most interesting way I’ve found. Yet it doesn’t feel like a journey at all in the traditional sense, it feels like taking a plane. I then wonder does my world homogenise as a result? Does Hogsfeet feel like Goldcrest?  They both have a blacksmith after all.

Do I just need better mechanics or to remove the likes of goodberry? Or to be stricter on myself and the players with the ones that exist? Do I need to put more prep time into travel elements?

Perhaps I’m just making the priority to get to x destination more important than the journey itself and as a result, skipping over it.  Maybe the idea of a journey is a too simplistic one? You don’t listen to music to get to the end of the track, that isn’t the point of listening to music,  you listen to music for the sake of doing so.

Or is it just not possible to make travel particularly interesting in a tabletop RPG next to say delving a dungeon or exploring a city?

How do you handle travel in your games?

I’m not sure what’s right myself. It nags at me though. I want to work it out still. I suspect this might involve quite a journey.




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