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The party wishes to leave the village and go to the dungeon. This will require a few hours of venturing through a forest.

How do I keep the passage of hours meaningful to the players? I want to avoid the mechanical idea of simply checking for monsters however many hours. To me this seems to make the journey itself seem sort of contrived.

I'm assuming that most interesting events will take place in the time frame of minutes, but are there any ways to make the hours themselves seem less like a linear numerical ladder towards an objective?

I will be the DM of AD&D 1e, without the use of miniatures or tiles.

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4 Answers 4

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You don't have to spend much time at all in order to make travel matter. Two major ways:

  1. Yes, use the random monsters. They represent a pressure that means the PCs must always consider the danger of the places they travel through, and prepare for it (or not, and occasionally suffer for it). They can also be springboards for new, unplanned adventures, which can be as much fun as planned ones.

    And remember, not every encounter is hostile (use reaction rolls!), and not every encounter is symmetrical (use judgement + surprise rolls and encounter distance by terrain rolls). Sometimes it's more interesting for an encounter with "100 orcs" to be with their tracks, an encountered bear to be ambling along ignoring the party, or the terror of a dragon's shadow suddenly falling across them as it soars miles up and unaware of the party. Such encounters allow the players to choose whether and how to engage further.

    Random encounters also allow you to present information about the region (prey, predators, local tribes, unusual beasts, etc.) if you've taken time to tailor them to represent the inhabitants of the area. Even better, sometimes an encounter you didn't expect suggest to you something about the world that you might not have known and can use later, such as that an orc battle group is in the area for some reason, or that hippogriffs live in the mountains looming on the horizon. This is one of the ways AD&D eases the creative burden of the DM.

    Which brings me to the second way to dress up a bit of travel…

  2. Convey information about the wilderness, especially when travelling through the transitions between different types of wilderness. Vegetation type, landmarks, weather, road condition, absence or presence of fellow travellers, beasts and birds half-spotted in the underbrush or flitting through the air, etc.

    Giving the players an idea of the character of the land allows them to integrate that into their decision-making processes. Rocky terrain with frequent narrow canyons may prompt them to travel differently, taking different precautions, than open plains with scattered clumps of trees.

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4  
+1 for the note about conveying the wilderness. often this is overlooked but every forest has its own "feeling". There are different trails and droppings to be noticed, there are different types of trees and edible plants. The air will smell like something. The humidity will be high or low. Or things will change, smoothly or abruptly. All these are good. Remember what it felt like when Bilbo and the dwarves entered Mirkwood? Especially as the PCs are drawing nearer to a place of adventure, the description of the terrain should slowly begin to wrap them in the mood of what's to come. –  As If Mar 29 at 23:58
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Information about the wilderness is especially useful in areas the PCs travel frequently, because you can use it as a subtle way of indicating changes. When the old bear who lives on a particular hill isn't there, it can prompt the PCs to ask why without trying to force them down an adventure road. Did it die of old age? Are there poachers? Did someone see it as dangerous and eliminate it? Did a druid enlist it as a companion? Do the PCs care, and what will develop if they don't? Plus, adding detail helps eliminate the "if the DM says it, it must be critical" phenomenon. –  Stormhound Mar 31 at 0:17

Travel time can be hard to make interesting. I'd say that you have two basic options: fill it with interim encounters or simply narrate the travel.

Encounters on the road: the party could run a bunch into monsters like you mentioned. This is of course a valid option and a decent opportunity if you need filler combat, but remember that encounters don't always have to be fights. Depending on how busy the party is, I sometimes like to use character travel to offer up new plot hooks or to introduce important NPCs/places/events: perhaps they meet a peasant whose cart has lost a wheel or they cross paths with the mysterious Duke of Highcastle. It's also a good times for reflection; if the characters have interesting backgrounds, consider prompting the players to bring them up now. It's reasonable that the party would make small talk during long periods of travel and grow closer.

If you (and they) just want to get to the next point of interest, you could also simply narrate the travel: Find out their mode (walking, riding, sailing) and style (sneaking, beelining, sauntering vaguely downwards) of travel and then narrate a few lines of travel. "You check your backpacks one last time, then mount your steeds and set off for Mount Everest." Describe changes to the environment and weather to emphasize passage of time; "as you get closer to the Northern Lands, you begin to feel a chill in the air" or "as the sun sets beyond the hills and the shadows start looming, you see your destination in the far distance."

Occassionally check to see if they wish to change their travel mode/style or make a rest.

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Use time

Wilderness is anything but static. As hours pass, the sun continues its course. Some creatures go to sleep, others awaken. The sounds change. The air chills or heats, wind picks up. Nightfall makes travel different (Will they stop to camp ? Continue with torches or lanterns and risk attracting beasts ?).

Also consider fatigue. "Realistically", not everyone in a group is going to be able to walk for hours on end (ok, depending on your party, they may). Have them stop for lunch.

Do they know exactly where the entrance to the dungeon is ? Maybe they need a guide who will complain after a while or refuse to go further than some point. Maybe he's the chatty type and insists on relaying details of his history of gallavanting (look to Lyndon from Diablo III for inspiration).

Random events. Including encounters (hostile or not, maybe they cross paths with a merchant caravan ?), but also environmental : the bridge has fallen to disrepair, how will you cross the river ? Especially relevant if the rogue has been dying to use his "Knowledge: Engineering" skill for the last few scenarios. Have them arrive at a point where they will need to search an area for some time. This is the ideal time to have some scouts stumble upon them if appropriate.

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There is also some question of how the journey itself proceeds. Are the characters traveling to this dungeon for the first time? Are they journeying overland or is there a road to the destination?

If there isn't an established route to the dungeon, then make the party actually navigate through the wilderness. Maybe they get lost. Maybe instead of walking up to the front door they stumble into the back entrance and have an entirely different perspective on the dungeon. Maybe since the process of navigating is hard the players start marking the trail. Maybe they build themselves a waypoint because all of those darned random encounters keep wearing them down before they get close to the dungeon, and they need a rest stop. Getting your players to realize they need to rest in the middle of the journey to the dungeon drives home that they're not just walking down the street to get to this place.

Also, don't neglect the weather (though this matters more when you look at each time the players journey to and from the dungeon). If it's raining, the party will move slower. In snow they might just not decide to make the trip. If it's blazing hot, don't neglect to roll for heat exhaustion. All of these things contribute to making the game time feel more like real time, because real time is elastic like that.

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