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I find that in a lot of our group's games, traveling long distances through wilderness is too easy. In real life, it's quite arduous traveling overland. No one who's just walked a hundred miles is eager to repeat the trip.

But here's the problem -- for the players, it's trivial to travel a long way. You just say "then we walk over the Groblick Hills to Dorridge", and you get there. The players find it easy, but there's no way the characters would be eager to set out on a long stretch across the wilderness.

What can I do to give the players the same feel their characters would have about wilderness travel?

One thing I'd like to avoid (if possible) is to just make it perilous by throwing in a bunch of fantasy monster encounters. Imagine some hobbits off in Gondor -- sure, they'd love to go home to the Shire, but it's mighty tempting to stay an extra day in the inn before setting off on the journey.

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Lock them in a room with a bare concrete floor and with very little food. Don't let them shower. Give them a scratchy wool blankets to sleep on. Play the sounds of crickets, birds and wild animals all the time. And spray them at random intervals with water. After a week of this, then play your wilderness session. –  BBlake Oct 15 '11 at 2:16
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This doesn't really qualify an answer, but you should really read The Hobbit. The Hobbit has a lot of wilderness travelling, and Tolkien tells it brilliantly. Places in The Hobbit have different qualities about them, that connect to the story and induces emotions in characters. Places like Mirkwood have a menacing quality about them, for example. I really learned a lot from The Hobbit about how to GM travel, and I think you will too. –  Eden Landau Jun 14 at 21:48
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9 Answers 9

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Travel Is Awesome!

Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it. ~Don Williams, Jr.

Far from being something to "skip over," wilderness travel is an interesting part of a story and forms a large part of many narratives, from Lord of the Rings to Star Trek.

From the 1e Wilderness Survival Guide to the more specialized 3e books like Stormwrack and Sandstorm, there is a lot of material to draw on in order to make wilderness travel more arduous and interesting.

For inspiration, I like reading historical travel narratives - ones that go through the jungles of Africa are especially juicy when it comes to ideas of how the landscape can terrorize the unwary traveler.

Weather

The rain falls upon the just/And also on the unjust fellas/But mostly it falls upon the just/Cause the unjust have the just's umbrellas ~Cormac McCarthy

It's simple, but get a random weather table and generate weather each day. (Obvious corollary - have seasons!) Climate has enough perils for most folks! In my current piracy-based Reavers on the Seas of Fate campaign, there's a lot of sea travel. Wind strength and direction can speed them on their way or stop them in their tracks; storms can provide vigorous skill challenges to a ship's crew! Getting wet, getting cold, getting overheated, getting fatigued all contribute to the wilderness travel feel, and give real bonuses and penalties the PCs can't ignore in combat. Have a combat in high wind or a rainstorm and apply the rules for it; it's quite a change of pace! And besides that, it is probably the single biggest addition to the sense of realism, to have variation going on independent of the PCs' actions and desires. Makes the world seem bigger than you are.

Survival

My time in the Boy Scouts taught me that Nature has but one goal - to kill you. ~Me

To get along in the wilderness, you need food, water, and gear. If you're not familiar with the land, you will end up having to backtrack around (or walk into if you're really dense) rivers, ravines, animal/monster lairs... More esoteric threats like quicksand also dot the landscape. Disease is always a threat as well. Insects plague people (and bring more disease) in many different terrains and seasons.

This is a great opportunity for those Survival and relevant skills to come into use. I prepare lists of "random encounters" that are more mundane than monster stuff and make them (and monster encounters) dependent on Survival checks. Skilled woodsmen don't walk into an owlbear's territory or drink too much from water in a cave.

Getting Lost

Not all those who wander are lost. ~J.R.R. Tolkien

You also need maps or guides - besides avoiding trouble spots, it's really quite difficult to find your way across trackless wilderness. Plenty of people get lost on reasonably well blazed hiking trails in the modern day, and having a map (and a compass, and other stuff) in no way guarantees you can't get lost. Time for Survival again!

In my pirate campaign, I require a whole lot of navigation rolls to find things, even when on a chart. It's very not simple. And when you get lost, you run into other stuff, you take more time to get there, you get more wear and tear...

Fatigue

Travel is glamorous only in retrospect. ~Paul Theroux

Wilderness travel is tiring and wearing, and not just to the people, but to gear as well. If they spend a lot of time out in the elements (and especially if they ignore rain, bogs, etc.) then their gear will degrade.

But mainly people get tired. Some of it is from the elements and disease, above (note that in 3e, a lot of the heat and cold stuff ends up imposing the fatigued condition). I'd consider giving nonlethal damage or even ability score damage from some of the natural threats from the "Survival" section above. "Stinging gnats - Survival DC 15 or 1 point of CHA damage."

Then, finding safe places to hole up and rest can provide mini-adventures of their own.

Inhabitants

Travelers never think that they are the foreigners. ~Mason Cooley

Depending on the region, someone or something lives there. If it's free of people, it's probably large herds of animals of various sorts that definitely provide obstacles and threats. But usually it's people. Many of these people don't like visitors and may attack, or demand tribute to pass. Or they do like them, and insist they come, eat, interact, get hit up for various stuff (and if rejected, get hostile). And you're a lot more likely to come across inhabitants than just as "wandering monsters" - the more-hospitable points of the terrain you'll want to travel through, camp in, get fresh water from, etc. will be hot spots for the locals too. And word spreads; if you slaughter/give syphilis to/give loads of money to any given village, the ones nearby will find out quick. Local culture is as much part of the landscape of a trip as the real terrain features, and should be memorable.

I fondly remember the Night Below game I ran where the PCs stayed the night with some friendly gnomes in their burrow. Their elder told them a chilling story about the legendary dark elves, and mentioned that their caverns once extended to below this very burrow... When a dark form broke through the dirt wall of their room that night, the wizard freaked out and Color Sprayed the party fighter into a coma. Of course it was just a puppet on the end of a broomstick being pushed through by giggling gnomes in the next room. I'm pretty sure that the players as well as the characters still have the emotional scars from that session.

Roleplaying

I have found out that there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them. ~Mark Twain

I still remember the 2e game where the PCs holed up in a rural inn for two days waiting for a big rainstorm to let up; as the stir craziness set in they got up to shenanigans more interesting and memorable than the adventure at hand. Not quite the Donner Party, but getting there.

Travel is often an opportunity to slow the pace and have PCs interact with each other (assuming you're one of those weirdos that does such things instead of just slaying monsters). Once you hit cities it's intrigue central; once you hit the dungeon it's hardcore killing action. It's during the journey that you can get PCs to take the time to develop themselves by talking with others.

And it's just gold if there are regular NPCs with the party - this is the time for their personalities to develop, for drama and seduction and all that Real World/Survivor/Insert Your Favorite Reality Show Here kind of stuff.

Combat

Unless you know the mountains and forests, the defiles and impasses, and the lay of the marshes and swamps, you cannot maneuver with an armed force. unless you use local guides, you cannot get the advantage of the land. ~Sun Tzu

If a fight happens, don't let them forget where they are. In the wilderness, nice level stable footing is the exception not the rule. Maybe it's raining, maybe they're on a riverbank, maybe it's 8 PM and it's twilight, maybe they're in a marsh, maybe there's hanging vines everywhere. Once it goes all combat encounter, you should under no circumstances have everything morph into a featureless battlemat. If you do not weave the description of the surroundings into your GM descriptions at least once per round, you're not doing it right.

And keep in mind the locals know the terrain and will use it to their advantage whenever possible when engaging the PCs!

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Great answer. The "Roleplaying" section is important - if you want them to feeeeeel like time is passing, make them roleplay their pastimes. Have them play a card game with an NPC. Or make them listen to the bard singing the same half-finished song s/he's working on, over and over again. –  Lowly Minion Apr 13 at 23:01
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Make the time spent matter.

Players can afford to send their characters trekking through the woods because in most games the PCs are in a vacuum. By that I mean that the world only moves when the players are looking at it. If the PCs are sent into a dungeon, nothing happens in town until the PCs return.

Don't do that. Turn time into a commodity.

If the players leave town for a month, change things by the time they get back. The rival adventuring party befriended the mayor and turned him against the PCs. The bar they'd invested in was ransacked when the local thieves guild got wind that it was no longer under PC protection. The BBEG had a month to himself to advance his machinations. The bard's love interest assumed he was dead and moved away in her grief. Etc.

In short, it's not so much what the players do while they're away as what the rest of the world does while the PCs aren't around.

Outsource your misadventure

This is something I figured out in the last few sessions of my 4e game. There are certain parts of the game that need filler. Travel is one of them.

Rather than write filler, I asked my players to do it for me. I straight up told my players that a journey would net them 4 levels worth of experience, but they had to tell me what they accomplished in those 4 levels. At first this confused them and they started listing combat encounters. Instead I posed that they needed to explain the obstacles they faced and how they worked around those. Obstacles that could be beaten with dice were off limits.

It worked rather well. They tried to teleport to a castle near their destination but found it besieged. They infiltrated the enemy army and led some deliberately suicidal attacks on the castle before being captured. Then each PC got to figure out a jailbreak before they went back to dealing with the army. And that was only two of the levels they earned.

Anyway, the session played out much more like collaborative storytelling than tactical combat. It made sure that something happened during travel. But it didn't feel like filler because it was a player contribution rather than a paragraph of boxed text. (As a side note, make sure to follow up on things your players contribute. If they tell a story that introduces an NPC, you better make sure you use that NPC. Otherwise you're making their story into sidequest filler, defeating the purpose of letting them contribute at all.

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+1 for having the players write the filler. It's always good to share the burden AND there's the added plus of the players feeling more personal investment. –  Iain Anderson Oct 15 '11 at 3:18
    
Definitely have time advance. Once I was running a Wheel of time campaign that started the exact same calendar date the books started on. As they did stuff and traveled, I marked the dates off on a calendar and the world provided by the books advanced along with it. –  Arr MiHardies Oct 16 '11 at 4:19
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A variety of options present themselves to me:

  • Require the players to deal with the logistics of the trip. For instance, tracking food, water, and other supplies.
  • Have a variety of mini adventures and side quests along the way. Instead of fantasy monsters this could be whole villages that dot the path. Remember that inns and small hamlets historically sprung up about the distance a person could go in a day along well travelled roads.
  • Introduce complications. This is sort of a subset of the above, but seems to happen enough in real life that it gets its own place. For instance, make the bridge along the route they planned be out, so they have to back track. Alternatively, have their food spoil, so they have to replace it.

However, remember that more powerful characters may well be able to go quickly and easily from place to place without allowing much interruption. Also, if you make journeys to painful, your players won't want to take them, so be careful about that.

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But if it turns into "Well, it's annoying, but it's got to be done. Seven days food- better make that ten days to allow for delays- at 6lb per day; water, spare boots -we'll need another pony who'll eat more hay; can we afford all this?" doesn't it become what we play FRP to get away from? Genuine question; I've encountered this problem myself and not been able to solve it. –  TimLymington Dec 18 '11 at 19:25
    
So skip the first suggestion and keep the other two. I'm not fond of tracking equipment either, but sebsmith's other two suggestions work wonderfully. Interesting obstacles and encounters can happen no matter how well-prepared the players are. –  Paul Marshall Jun 21 '12 at 1:37
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I am not a great outdoorsman, but I try, every spring and summer, to get a couple of hikes out with my friends. Sometimes it's a day trip. Sometimes we pack sleeping bags and overnight it somewhere. See some flora, some fauna.

What strikes me, every time we do this, is that what is, for me, an enjoyable break from everyday life is, for adventurers, 90% of the time. When I'm pushing aside vegetation and ducking branches, or when I'm climbing a rocky trail, I can't help but feel bad for my characters, past and present, who had to trek like this everywhere.

There are roads between large cities in your average fantasy setting, but once you're out of civilization, even the nature trails I hike in are more than you can expect in the real wilderness. An abandoned temple in a jungle is abandoned, so there's nobody keeping the road from being overrun by vines. Looking for the tomb in the trackless desert? Be prepared for a lot of walking.

So my suggestion is take time for a special session. Do some homework, find a nice hiking trail that's no too rough but not too organized, and head out. Walk throughout the day. Not too much, just enough to get some pleasant fatigue going at the end of the day. Then build a campfire and run a session. I'm sure the players will really get a feel for distances there. Let them learn it through their feet.

As an aside, I think that breaking up the routine by holding special sessions in special locations is a great way to enhance the mood and make for memorable sessions. We have held sessions in ancient Roman and Philistine ruins which were fantastic, though I realize not everyone will have those at their disposal. :)

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The first question to always ask yourself in this situation is: "Will this add to my campaign for will it simply bog down the game play?" If your team of adventurers is not big into resource counting and would rather just enter the encounters with a "game on!" attitude, then adding this will slow the game down and put put undue pressure on you. Don't do it.

If you have a party that enjoys an added bit of challenge and resource counting, then read my suggestion below:

For harsh climates and travel issues I would suggest getting a hold of the Dark Sun book for 4e. Also download the free adventures for Dark Sun that Wizards put out. The rules and examples are based around a desert-y climate, but the rules can be re-skinned for any climate honestly.

With these items you will have a good base for skill challenges in traveling. Using the rules and examples you find there you will be able to set difficulties for travel that will wear down unprepared party members and tax resources like rations and water.

Generally the skill check failures cost extra rations or cause "sun-sickness" which saps Healing Surges and requires the group to get real rest (like at that Inn) in order to recover them.

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Note the [system-agnostic] tag on the question. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 15 '11 at 3:39
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Terrain matters

From first-hand experience, I can tell you that bad terrain can be a real problem. Deep snow or boulder fields can slow you down to a crawl (2 miles per day), and swamps, ravines and rivers can block you completely (swimming or wading through an ice-cold or crocodile-infested river is a life-threatening proposition). Often you can't see in advance what terrain you're going into.

This is easy to ignore, but if you can get your players to actually think about such details rather than foist them off on some generic skill and a dice throw, it can lead to very immersive gameply.

To do that, all you need is draw a map, add some difficult terrain and come up with a list of things that can go wrong or be difficult in each of them.

If you do it right, players should start thinking about getting route advice and maps beforehand, or even hire a guide (will he be trustworthy? Or introduce complications of his own?). And they should start to appreciate paths. If there is a path, it means people went that way multiple times, so the terrain can't be too bad - at least during some season. Hopefully that's the current one...

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OK, with that cleared, let's dive in, shall we?

Descriptions are everything

One of the best ways to give the players the feel that their in someplace that is different from what they've been used to is to describe it differently. There are no more those descriptions of "A 10 on 10 feet room, with an orc in the middle". It's not this game. Not any more, at least. The descriptions should be different, focusing more on making the surroundings come alive. In a forest the birds may sing and flowers may bloom, or the sun will say help from between the leaves; in a desert the sand it will be very hot and dry; and so on. There might still be those orcs from the room, but now their standing in the forest, hiding behind a tree…

There might be some effects to the new places

Your orcs can hide between those trees, or up between their leaves. The PCs might have to deal with a shortage of water when in the desert. Their routes might take them to places they're not used to, and you should play on that. When they enter the swamp for the first time, they should feel the mud sticking to their feet, and when they enter the desert they should feel the dry hair and the hotness that rules the area. If it is a cold desert or a desert in night hours, they should feel how cold it is.

They should feel that time is passing

In your descriptions it should be clear that time is passing, that nothing is standing still. Describe the sun rising and setting, the clouds move in the sky, the changing winds, maybe even change the weather a few times. The idea is that journey take time, much more time than a dungeon. It should feel as such.

Don't forget to have a few events in it

Having events (like encounters) during the journey gives you 2 great benefits. The first one is that it gives the players a sense of time. It is not just "been there, done that" but they've actually spent time, real time, on doing it. They have something to tell when describing those journeys, which always give a longer feel than just moving from place to place.

There's another benefit, though, which is that the journey becomes much more fun. We want the journey to be fun to the players, and in order to be that way something needs to happen. A fight makes it fun for some people, finding things might makes it fun for others. The idea is that you shouldn't stop GMing when there's a journey taking place. The game doesn't stop and become a loud reading of some boxed text. It is something else, a game, just like playing through a dungeon, but with different feel.

Resources

Resources are extremely important in journeys. Those journeys take time, and there might not be shops on the way to the next city or to the final destination. This means that resources are important. If something happens to them, it is far more serious. In a desert, running out of water usually means a not so long death. In a forest, on the other hand, hunting or collecting fruits and mushrooms may be the main sources of food (though one should consider what she's eating, there may be some surprises in those mushrooms…).

Weather

I've mentioned it before but it deserves its own section. Weather is important in journeys. A snowstorm might end a journey prematurely, as might a heat wave. Rain may slow them up; the air, if not too dry, might spoil their food if not kept properly. Weather can do more than that, though, as in addition to making their lives harder (or easier) it can foreshadow upcoming events or make some of the places stand out and come alive.

And an End

There are of course many more things that can make this journey, but these are some of the basics to start from. Hope it helps.

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The simplest but abstract way is to assign a fear rating based upon a combination of quality of road/path/trail/wilderness, terrain/elevation and distance, plus known level of patrolling and available logistics.

Walking a day's hike to a known inn on a patrolled well paved road through farmlands should be your "default no fear"... If it's just distance, reticence is more appropriate than fear, but still.

If it's not patrolled, there should always be some trepidation. If it's wilderness, anyone but woodsmen* should be worried. If it's more than the 10-15 miles of a 1 day hike, trepidation should increase.

For me, I'd say D&D terms, fear rating (overcome with will save) is 10+ (distance/10 miles) +5 if unpatrolled, +2 for unworked pasture through +5 for wilderness, +0 for well paved to +5 for breaking trail.

But, truth be told, most PC's are "Heroes" who should not be troubled with it. just make the journey a source of encounters and drain on resources,


  • in D&D: rangers, druids, wood elves.
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While playing out the travel will keep players from randomly traveling, I don't think that is such a good idea.

However, forcing the travel to cost them gold/supplies/resources/charachter resources or any other cost with a simple die roll might be enough to make them think twice.

In D&D4e language, you can force them to roll endurance and charge them some healing surges for the trip.

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Why do you think playing out the travel is a bad idea? –  Joe Oct 18 '11 at 23:06
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You need a special group for that to be fun or the aim. I would be annoyed if I had to play for 3 months traveling, and then try to remember why we wanted to go to that town in the first place. –  GMNoob Oct 19 '11 at 11:04
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