I am the DM and in the last few sessions my party have gone through 2 forests, and in both I described there where a few roads the players could take. This was boring as it was really take one or the other. I do have a list of events that might happen inside the forest. So, how can you make forest travelling more interesting?
Don't run scenes that don't matter
If it's really "pick one or the other" you don't need to ask your players which they pick. If you want to describe things so they have a feel for the setting, do that. If you want to see how they generally approach binary choices with no information, you can do that, too. But when you set a scene, you should have an idea of what's at stake, what you as GM are trying to accomplish or, if not, which player(s) in particular have directed this scene to happen and are presumably trying to accomplish something with it.
There's a couple of ways to approach this to avoid running a meaningless scene, depending on what you're going for. If you're just trying to narrate travel, for example, you might do something like this:
as you travel from Oakdale to the Deepwoods, the forest thickens visibly. After the first 5 or so days, your path is shaded and the atmosphere dark, even during the daylight hours. At night your party huddles close to the fire, and it is difficult to sleep with the ever-present distant howling of wolves and the occasional roars of far stranger beasts. Arriving at an unmarked crossroads, you take the northern path, which will detour through the hamlet of Willow's Glen, though the southern path would reach the informal border in about as much time. After replenishing your rations and torches in the hamlet, and exchanging post and news, it has been a grand total of 17 days when you encounter your first elfin border patrol and know you have truly entered the depths of the primordial forest.
It's like a minute or two of talking, and then all the traveling is out of the way and the players have an idea of the layout of the region they are in and the resources consumed to get here.
If you're trying to figure out how the PCs approach travel so you can narrate it like that in the future, you'd instead need to ask a bunch of questions and find out what sorts of things are important to them in traveling and how they spend their resources and such.
You want to know how your party smells, so you know how the Otyugh Druid whose territory they are entering interprets their presence. You run through a bunch of short example scenes while travelling, or maybe and example day coupled with a couple other questions. You take stock of who bathes when and where and with what, what food, in particular is eaten, if and how dishes are cleaned, what they are cleaned with, whether laundry is done, etc.
If the players are the ones driving the particular scene in question, then you'd need to give lots of details and pertinent background knowledge their PCs would possess, so they can do whatever it is they are trying to do in a manner that makes sense.
One of the players asks if they come across any tree species unusual in the border region as they go deeper in the forest. Thinking briefly on it, you respond in the affirmative, describing the time and circumstances their PC first notices such a tree, and deciding on your part which species will be first to be encountered. The player says they'll try and set camp later, such that one of those trees is nearby. You set a scene of the party making camp, explaining the relative location of the tree, asking other players what they are doing, asking the driving player if they share their plan with anyone, etc. They decline to share the plan, saying it's not a big deal, and cast tree stride on the tree in question to get an idea of the direction towards the center of the forest and the relative lay of the land, before returning to passing time.
If the players are driving the scene and it's for interrelational reasons, then what's going on beyond that doesn't much matter, and you should just sit tight while they talk until more GMing is needed.
While Bob is making sure he isn't lost with tree stride, John and Lisa get to talking over food about the reasons they responded differently to the factions present in the last big town. It provides a good opportunity for the characters to develop, and you don't interrupt them, except to tell them when Bob returns to the campfire and becomes privy to the ongoing conversation. If it goes on extraordinarily long you might let people know that the fire is burning low and it's quite late, but probably not.
Please do note that this is a solution to your problem, not the only reasonable way of doing things. It's a playstyle I've used several times to drive action and meaningful content, but it's not the be all and end all of RPGing.
Another approach is when the travel itself is meaningful and fun. The real world equivalent is that, contrary to the examples given by others, in which travel is either boring or unpleasant (or both), traveling by motorcycle is enjoyable in itself.
I have a continent about the size of Australia laid out, with towns, monsters, wars, political divisions, interesting places and characters, etc. I have had campaigns that were mostly travel; where the PC party just struck off into the wilderness for months at a time to see what lived there.
The key to interesting travel is for there to be interesting things to discover while traveling, either creatures and events themselves, or clues to larger events and plotlines that the characters will find useful enough later for them to want to put in the effort of seeking them.
Presenting Interesting Choices
When you are building your scene with two diverging paths in the woods, remember that while you may know what is at the end of each, your players do not, and even if you put road signs, those signs are meaningless unless you have foreshadowed the destinations.
Foreshadowing and Plot Hooks
If your GM style is story based, and especially if you want a sandbox style game, the best thing you can do to help your players feel like their choices matter and to keep them from feeling lost is to throw out story hooks and see which one they bite on. Rather than simply asking if they want to go north or south, you need to give that choice meaning before they even get to the forest.
Design mini encounters involving people from places that might be important later in the plot that allow you to drop pieces of information and rumors of things that may hold interest for your player's characters. Let them hear news of a famous traveling magic items merchant and that he is headed to Varimore. Let them hear news of the horror that the dwarves of Dargeur awoke in their diamond mine when they tunneled into an ancient underground tomb said to hold powerful magic items. Let them hear of the reward being offered for the safe return of the King of Gail's kidnapped son. Then, when they see a sign post at the cross roads that points north to Varimore, east to Dargeur, and south to Gail, the players will have heard of reasons why they may want to visit one of these places over another of them.
I have had GMs that use "cut scenes" that they either describe during the session or email between sessions to deliver plot hooks and key points of world building. If you do a good job with these it can give your players a sense that they know what to expect from the path north vs the path south. To continue the example from above, one of your scenes could show how excited the people of Varimore are that the Magic Items merchant is coming for his centennial visit, and they lament that he will be gone for another hundred years after spending only a week; have them talk about closing their other businesses early so they can get in while the pickings are still good. Another scene could feature a small group of dwarvish diamond miners as they toil for gems, only to trigger a minor cave in, as they pick themselves up, the horror emerges from a newly formed crevice and tears the hapless dwarves limb from limb before returning to the tomb from whence it came. The final scene could feature the actual abduction of the young Prince of Gail and the subsequent distress of the kingdom's inhabitants, and their reaction to the large sum offered for the safe return of the prince.
Another good tool if you want the choice to matter is to present a scenario where each choice has a cost and a benefit and then end by asking the players "What do you do?" Maybe there is a thief who stole their bag of holding was seen heading north, while the big bad evil guy is advancing his plans to the south. If they don't deal with the thief quickly, they may lose his trail and their items may get fenced and become much harder to find. On the other hand, if they don't go quickly to deal with the BBEG, then he will accomplish part of his plan before they get there, limiting their options to deal with him or becoming more powerful. What do you do?
Let the Unexpected Happen
Let the players be creative. Just because you offer choices "A" and "B" but didn't think of a choice "C" doesn't mean that your players won't, so be ready to be flexible and enjoy the surprises that they pull out of nowhere. I can't tell you how many times my players have come up with a brilliant solution to a problem that I never would have thought of! If it makes sense, let it happen and make it cool, if it doesn't, be sure to describe the danger, and then let them try anyway if they insist and describe the failure in an interesting way (like when Kieleth jumped off a cliff in episode 97 of Critical Role).
There are three broad approaches to making travel interesting for a role-playing group.
- Add interesting encounters. This is the main impetus for wandering monster tables in most adventures. Many smaller set-piece encounters are purpose built for this use.
- Curate evocative descriptions. It can be difficult to improvise these but it's fairly easy to collect small snippets of discription that you can use whenever some description is needed.
- Expand upon or leverage the rules. Larger supplements in the past have expanded upon survival, weather, and terrain effects. Adventure paths or campaigns that involve a lot of travel often use a combination of weather and terrain to create memorable encounters.
Uneventful periods of travel (or travel through uninteresting terrain) can be a good time for character development as characters can be having meaningful social interactions - discussing their pasts, motivations, or plans as they travel.
Historically rules supplements have addressed wilderness travel for D&D, and there are several available on DMs Guild (for example, The Forest - Exciting Encounters 1 was the first 5E-specific result of a quick search for such a supplement).
Travel is boring
The reason for the Are we there yet? trope is that we travel to get somewhere interesting but travelling is boring as hell - if travelling was interesting airliners would not have in-seat entertainment, cars would not have radios and no one would use an iPod on the subway.
Indeed, travel even holds out the possibility that it can get less interesting than it already was: your plane can get delayed, you can get stuck in a traffic jam and the power can get shut off. Now you get to be bored for longer!
Now, interesting things can happen when you travel: the airline pilot could say "We have a small problem ...", you could wrap your car around a tree or a guy with a gun could hijack your train. These are all interesting: none of them is fun. They are not fun because a) they are all dangerous and b) none of them is an activity you want to participate in. From now on, even though you used the word "interesting" I am going to assume you mean't "fun".
Fortunately in an RPG there is a simple way of dealing with the boredom of travel: the magic of DM narration. "After several minutes/days/months/years of arduous/scenic/uneventful travel you arrive at your destination" - potentially years of boredom compressed into a few seconds of boredom! I told you it was magic.
The forest can be fun
Of course, the forest itself can be a destination worth travelling to - it can be full of fun things to do and see.
I went to a forest once and saw this (round trip travel time: 32 hours):
I went to a different forest and dis this (round trip travel time: 2.5 hours):
Seeing and doing these things was great fun - travelling to them was boring.
Make the forest the adventure
If you are going to have encounters in the forest then those should be an integral part of the adventure the players are on. Each encounter should give the players an opportunity to advance their goals - whatever they are. This applies to random encounters as much as planned ones - random encounters are a price to be paid for marching through a dense forest so that you can get this:
If you are too young to know what that is, its from this movie and this movie handles travel in exactly the way it should be handled in a RPG. Where the travel involves encounters that advance the plot it shows them - where it doesn't it shows this:
Because Steven Spielberg would make a great DM.
Mapping the Forest
It looks like this:
The dots are the encounters: that's where the adventure happens.
The lines are the travel: that's where nothing happens and can safely be ignored.
Of course: that's not just what the forest looks like - its what every adventure looks like.