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I am writing a campaign in which the party will likely be traveling through a savanna over a distance that will take them a week. The characters in the party are each at level 1, and the only equipment they have is anything they may have been given at a farming village where they started. They start with no money.

(One of the puzzles early on is how to fight the boss at the end of this journey with very limited resources. Once they do and take the boss’s treasure, they will be able to afford “starting” equipment and then some when they get to a big city at the beginning of the next adventure.)

I’m wondering what kind of downtime activities to allow the players to participate in while they are on this week-long journey. I’ve read about downtime activities in the PHB and DMG, but it seems that they all require money, time (more than a week), a city to set up shop in, or resources to gather, and the adventurers won’t have access to any of these on this journey. I don’t want the players to get bored during that week, but I don’t want to skip it because I’m going to roll random events, including battles, during most of the 7 days.

I’ve never actually DM’d before, so is there a better way to go about this? I’m ultimately trying to set up a journey that will have a few events here and there but will mostly be just walking for 7 days. If downtime isn’t a good way to accomplish this, what is? Do I just fast-forward the story to the next battle or night?

TL;DR

  • What kind of downtime activities can adventurers perform while traveling without crafting materials, money, or more than a week of time?
  • How can a DM keep things interesting when the adventurers are on long journeys? How does he/she maintain the flow of the story while skipping over hours of time?
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    \$\begingroup\$ More generally what items will the players have on them during this journey? \$\endgroup\$ – Lymakk Jul 23 '18 at 22:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related (and all the posts mentioned below it in the comment from sevensideddie): rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/55406/… \$\endgroup\$ – Derek Stucki Jul 23 '18 at 22:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ I should add that they will also have enough rations to make the journey. \$\endgroup\$ – KSchank Jul 23 '18 at 22:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a particular reason for the campaign to start like this — "you are travelling from A to B for days, blah blah.." — compared with this — "you've arrived to B, what do you do"? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jul 23 '18 at 23:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Those are two significantly different questions, and should probably be split into separate questions. Since the current answers focus on the second question (how to maintain story flow while skipping periods of time), you might want to edit out the first question (what can characters do while traveling in such a manner) and ask it as a separate question. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 23 '18 at 23:57
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Skip (most of) it

Whenever I need to have my PCs travel, I simply skip the travel time and move directly to the point. In the past, I've tried to play through travel time, adding encounters and resource counting, but it's always felt kind of pointless, because the challenges the PCs are facing aren't directly related to the goal. The longer I kept it up, the more impatient my players got for "real plot".

In this case, it looks like you're just trying to fill up time. You've said they have enough rations to make the trip, and you don't have a clear goal for the travel itself, beyond going to the location of interest. What's more, you want the PCs to have zero progress during the travel, since you want the PCs to fight the boss with minimal resources. This means that if you play out random encounters, they will either gain levels (leveling up at level 1 is very easy) and resources, which defeats your intent, or they will gain nothing, and the challenges will feel pointless.

The key idea is that table time shouldn't be pointless. You've stated that you want your players to experience combat while traveling, and that the time period is important. None of that requires that you play out the entire trip, though. Instead, only play out the parts that matter. For example, if they face bandits during their trip, you can just play that part, and then gloss over the uneventful days of walking. There's no requirement that table time has to be proportional to in-game time: if something's not interesting, you can simply skip over it.

Now, I'm not arguing that you should skip everything except major plot points. I'm only saying that you shouldn't use filler to pad out in-game time, and that table time should be used intentionally, whether it's for character interaction, exposition, or even a gameplay tutorial. However, if you're looking only for something to fill up time, that's a good indication that you should just skip over that time period.

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    \$\begingroup\$ On that note, a commonly mentioned rule for writing fantasy: Don't write about something unless it's the most interesting thing going on. The same thing applies here. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Zastoupil Jul 23 '18 at 22:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanielZastoupil: I am disappointed. I found that rule to be kind of a poor rule for writing fantasy. I found rather filling in enough details to make the world appear lived-in did wonders for things. Generally, the world changed because other people did things, and surprising the reader like that is no fair. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Jul 24 '18 at 2:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Here's something one of my DMs did. Tell your players they encounter a band of bandits doing some bad things (harass innocent old ladies, robbing farmers, whatever takes your fancy). And then tell them they vanquished the bandits. Then ask them to describe how they did it. Get the paladin to describe his mighty blow, or the rogue about her sneak attack. The poor old lady doesn't have anything to repay them (except a future favour? Plot point), but the players get a feel of battle without actually going through an actual dice-rolling battle. \$\endgroup\$ – Vincent Tan Jul 24 '18 at 7:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Joshua If your reader is bored, you likely just lost a reader. The rule isn't that something vital to the plot must be happening for 100% of the writing, but that something interesting must be happening. If nothing interesting is happening, skip that part with some kind of transition. If a "boring" scene is vital to the plot, then add something interesting, even if only in the background. If your scene is just walking through a village, throw in an oddly marked dog barking at a treed squirrel, or a cat stealing a some unusual food item from a shopkeepers display. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Richardson Jul 24 '18 at 15:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ I somewhat agree with this answer, but I'd be very careful when deciding what's is "important to the plot" and what not. At this early stage, you can't even know what the plot will actually be. Even if you think you pull the strings, stories are about themes and ultimately about what players think are important events. Imagine you skipped most of what happens from the hobbits leaving Hobbiton to the Council of Elrond, where "The Story Really Starts"... just imagine. \$\endgroup\$ – xDaizu Jul 24 '18 at 15:48
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Utilize "random" events

Fill up the time with seemingly random events that inflict penalties or rewards on your players without spending too much time on them.

Example: They see an oasis. It has a 25% chance of being real (only you know). They can attempt to see if it's real (DC 15 investigation or perception), but if they believe it's real and it's not, they lose a lot of time and enough rations to impose 1 level of exhaustion on everyone who fails a DC 15 Constitution check.

If it IS real, everyone is overjoyed, gaining an extra day's worth of rations and inspiration.

If it is fake, but they spotted it, the spotter gains inspiration and the day ends without interruption.

Fill out about 2-5 of these between each fight, and provide major rewards and resources after each fight, so that they're equipped enough for the boss.

Interactions with merchants, runaway cattle, ruins, nomad orcs, a boulder on a spring, a giant scorpion killed by something much larger, all these things come to mind as meaningful encounters that don't require much planning.

Since rations are a big deal in a desert, use them as a regular resource that increases and decreases each day, at least until they are properly equipped and wealthy.

The key things I have learned from utilizing this is that you can't strictly rely on a random table. Dying due to ration loss is a huge problem, since players will feel like there was nothing that could have prevented it. Losing a fight from the same thing is just as bad.

But ALMOST losing a fight because you have been starving the last 2 days and your wizard is too weak to see is something very understandable and sometimes preventable.

A thing we implemented, for great effect, was the fact that I made Exhaustion not improve in standard conditions in a desert. You can prevent it via rations, but once you're exhausted, it stayed that way without extra effort (more rations consumed for the day, or a decent place to rest such as an oasis).

An oasis or a caravan is coveted for the people who are desperate. If you give them unlimited food without the terror of dying, they will get bored and ignore the normally insignificant things in front of them. Let them go a day without food, and everyone but the Barbarian is starving, and THAT'S when they see an oasis.

Have a backup scenario in case they get stuck that they only get once, like if a hunting caravan stumbles upon them and provides food and water for assistance with a monster hunt.

Generally, your events should have major drawbacks on a failure and minor (or major temporary) benefits on a success, as they will succeed more often than not. If they need a major benefit (such as obtaining gear or temporary companions) have it cost them (requires a combat, healing from hit die requires a ration, etc).

The players should feel on edge (they're in a DESERT), but don't push it too far. Give them literal breaks(the players themselves will be a bit frustrated at times when they're exhausted).

This will not work to the same effect if you have a Ranger or a Druid since they have means of making food, but you still can implement a similar effect that simple nourishment (such as Goodberries) are considered a single ration for the sake of the trek, so you still might be exhausted or require additional rations or water to remove exhaustion if it sets in. To get around the lack of risk of exhaustion, implement exhaustion into failed events themselves rather than relying on strictly ration use to manage exhaustion.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you used this method or seen it used at a table? How did it go? What worked well? What didn't? I like this idea but I feel this answer could be greatly improved if you "back it up" with personal experience. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Jul 23 '18 at 23:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ If lots of events give or use rations, that means the party can run out given too much bad luck and/or too many bad choices. I doubt I'd enjoy a game where party members starved or died due to lots of exhaustion penalties at level one or two. \$\endgroup\$ – aschepler Jul 24 '18 at 0:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do this and as I am running a "west march" style game I can reuse these events at later dates. \$\endgroup\$ – Reed Jul 24 '18 at 13:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @aschepler As a GM I would not kill players because they had bad-luck with the rations - I would rather give them encounters, where they would have to sacrifice something to get their much needed rations. Things sacrificed could be dignity (having to do undignified work for food), pride (bowing down/begging), moral codex (stealing food), taste (eating something truly disgusting), future freedom (incurring a debt)... \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Jul 25 '18 at 7:49
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If you are comfortable with collaborative story-telling, then use a montage. These are a concept originally from 13th Age (I believe), but should be useful in any game system.

It is described in more detail here. But to summarise:

  1. You ask one player to describe a problem they encounter on the journey - for instance there is a deep river crossing the savanna, that looks unfordable on foot.
  2. You ask the player to their right or left to describe how they solved the problem - for instance we chop down a nearby copse of trees, and make a raft.
  3. It is now the turn of the player who solved the problem to describe the next problem the party faces. This could be a direct consequence (whilst rafting down the river the bard falls into the water) or completely unrelated (we discover one of our food packages has gone bad, and now we don't have enough to cover the remainder of our journey)

Continue until all players have posed and solved a problem.

Make sure you set expectations before starting - specifically that these should be small, relatively easily overcome problems, and that there will be no in-game 'reward's (experience, money, items) - but also no costs (lost health, lost items) from it.

Also don't bother rolling any dice, this is just your heroes being, well, heroic.

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This is how I generally handle long distance travelling (often my players are travelling for months at a time because the little b....brothers in arms decide they want to go to the other side of the continent every few sessions):

  1. Roll all your random events in advance of the play session
  2. Gloss over any events that don't require player agency (if there's a wizard's tower they can explore mention it, if they go from forestland to plains, simply tell them "after 2 days travel through the forest, the trees thin out and you arrive in a wide, grassy plains")
  3. Some players might have the ability to hunt for water/rations. You can have this slow their progress or cause some randomly rolled events (the skinned deer attracts a hungry pack of wolves for instance)
  4. Don't have unavoidable random events every day, generally I'd stick to one ambush a week on average
  5. Try putting in friendly encounters rather than combat encounters. For instance, consider having them meet a young girl crying because goblins have kidnapped her parents. Do the adventurers pursue the small band of goblins, possibly running out of rations? Do they rob what little the girl has left? Do they find where the goblin camp is with the idea of assaulting it at a later date, when they are stronger? I've found players tend to prefer these kind of plot hooks to constant combat (not that a night time ambush isn't fun now and then) and they can naturally build up your world with NPCs a little at a time.

I generally narrate over several days or even weeks depending on the above points. A typical narrative might be

"You set off for the distant town of Gerrick in the east, after a weeks travel across grassy hill lands, you come to a more mountainous area. Consulting your maps of the area, you realise you could either detour to the south, adding on a week to your journey and taking you dangerously close to a den of orcs, try to go round the north of the mountain, adding several weeks to your journey, but taking you through the safe, merchant route of Sky's Pass or attempt to pass through the perilous mountain pass in front of you."

The most important role you have as a dm is presenting an interesting, interactive world to your players. Merely throwing a bunch of mandatory encounters at them can get quite dull, and allowing them to make meaningful, informed decisions is important, even if they can seem trivial.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I especially like the small sample narration. Even while skipping, it's important that travel doesn't feel like teleportation. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 Jul 25 '18 at 0:29

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