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Here's the situation: The PCs are investigating a mystery far from town, in the dangerous wilderness. Against my expectations, they decide to go back to town, recruit some help, and return to continue their investigations. The problem is that there's less than two hours left of the session, so there's no time for more random combat encounters in the wilderness. Neither is there enough left of the adventure to leave it for the next session.

I want the players to go back to town as planned, but I don't want to tell them that, "Suddenly, the wilderness is quiet and nothing attacks you." What I want is some way of resolving this dangerous journey in an abstract way that doesn't require much time but still retains the sense of danger and allows the PCs to use their skills to make it safely through. Which brings me to my question:

How can I resolve dangerous journeys without playing out every battle in detail?

Note that this is not about PCs making bad choices; they were powerful enough to survive their first journey through the wilderness, so traveling back is a completely legitimate decision. The problem is that there's not enough time left of the session to resolve any additional battles directly.

Preferably, the answers should be system-agnostic, but if there are system-specific rules that would be possible to adapt, I would appreciate seeing those as well.

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3 Answers

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So you only have enough time for either finishing off the adventure, or dealing with random encounters, but not both. Therefore any solution requires spending very little time.

Simple Narration

One acceptable way to handle it seems to be to narrate it away. It's entirely legitimate to narrate their travel through the wilderness and cut to the chase, so to speak. Your players won't object, and are even likely to be thankful that you responsibly paced the session so that it had a natural and enjoyable end.

I wouldn't bother with any resolution mechanic, even a simplified one. Sometimes travel in the wilderness is uneventful. Take advantage of that, plus your power as the controller of the world and your responsibility to pace the game well, to just make this time one of those uneventful travels.

If you feel that it is really unrealistic for this trip to be uneventful, mention what trouble they encounter along the way in the past tense, off-handedly, and conveying that "of course" they handled it without any difficulty. For example, encountering and quickly dispatching an already-weakened patrol of orcs can be glossed over in a sentence, giving them your acknowledgement that the PCs are kick-ass and that was nothing to deal with. Lead right into a description that places them about to engage in the final action of the session and you're good. In systems where encounters lead to XP of some kind, I wouldn't hesitate to give them a token amount – unless the resistance was really beneath them.

Alternatively…

Roll For Complications

You don't want to take any time dealing with the travel, but that doesn't mean it has to be meaningless. Taking a page out of Dungeon World, you can call for a roll to test something during the "perilous journey". Decide on a possible complication of the journey that might lead to a mild consequence for them to deal with at their destination.

Perhaps you have them check if they move stealthily, and when they arrive the inhabitants have been warned of the approach of armed people, or not. Perhaps they make a survival check to determine whether they arrive hungry. Perhaps their pack animals were spooked at some point, and an animal handling roll will determine whether they're down one donkey and low on torches and lamp oil as a result.

Whatever complication you think will be interesting, present the potential event, describe the possible consequence, and call for a single test of their abilities to do well. If you like, you can come up with two or three (quickly), and give the players a choice about which one they want to risk on a die roll (they get success on the others free). This is a very quick and flavourful way of making the travel meaningful while concentrating their attention on the important thing: the final action of the adventure.

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+1 - Also if they made it easily with a small band then a larger force should make it even easier. In the event I want to speed it up but make it seem like I am not just giving them a pass I will roll a dice several and make a comment about getting lucky. If anyone challenges ill say something like except for bob he tripped and fell on a log and now has -1 to dex Its good for a laugh and cuts through the chase without letting them feel like I will always let that happen. –  Chad Aug 19 '11 at 20:36
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+1 for narration, -1 for no consequences of that journey. If it is dangerous, there should be some consequences: lose of healing aids, equipment breakage, horse death, whatever. –  Sardathrion Aug 22 '11 at 8:07
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I don't think you can both not play out battles in detail, and also allow the PCs to use their skills to make it through.

What I would do is simply describe some minor encounters that are leading up to a major one. I don't know what dangers there are in the wilderness, but you could have the party spied upon by goblins who are working for local trolls, or have encounters with small packs of wolves, while knowing that there is a much larger pack out there somewhere, or see a foul-tempered band of giants in the distance cutting trees for firewood, or whatever.

Then, assuming that they continue with the trip, given the suspense you've raised, you run one encounter. (Don't tell them it's the only one.) A couple of hours should be enough to resolve that one.

Then, for the rest of the trip, more small encounters that make them feel tense, but don't take up much time (and can be resolved simply by them stating what they will do: of course they can catch or kill or whatever the three goblins up spying on them from the ledge above). Of course, if they really screw up in some way, feel free to end the trip in the middle just before a new major encounter. ("I told you we shouldn't have let the goblin go after he mentioned he was working for an ancient red dragon!")

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There are two methods that I see here.

  1. If your system has PC skills this is a great time for a non-combat skill challenge. for instance in D&D 4e we would use skills like nature and endurance to stay on a path or out of the way of wild/dangerous animals, and to have the stamina to continue. We would use things like Diplomacy, Bluff and Intimidate to talk our way out of situations involving bandits or thieves.

  2. If your system does not have PC skills then use collaborative story telling. Merely suggest a situation, have your PCs tell you what they would do and use a standard conflict resolution. Whether its dice, or a coin flip or whatever. Or even just let your PCs narrate their way out of the box. It all depends on how much difficulty you want them to encounter. If you want the situation to be dangerous you can penalize failures with some kind of consequence (in D&D it would be a healing surge or HP, in other games it would be character death).

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+1 for narration and story telling. –  Sardathrion Aug 22 '11 at 8:04
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