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The party is going to travel long distances for story reasons, which will take multiple weeks by horse.

Likely paths include stretches of wilderness that are not dangerous to characters of their level, but enough non-combat plot points and encounters that they cannot be reasonably elided. I would also like travel time to feel meaningful, both selfishly (to bound preparation time), as well as narratively (to give a sense of distance).

How can I include some meaningful combat or combat-like experience? This is something the group enjoys and expects to encounter in most sessions.


Context: 5E campaign set in northern Faerûn. Four level 8 PCs without access to travel-augmenting items / spells.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related: What's the best way to make time spent travelling more interesting? \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Nov 18 at 19:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Sdjz not exactly what I was curious about, but some helpful ideas, thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – Cireo Nov 18 at 19:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I will take a stab at rephrasing my question to be more tangible. The main dichotomy I am trying to resolve is that the same party at a lower level would certainly encounter combat that would add something narratively and strategically, and it isn't clear that the initiators of that combat can distinguish between a party of "level 5" or "level 10" characters, since the party is not particularly ostentatious. \$\endgroup\$ – Cireo Nov 18 at 19:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, so are you asking 1)if your table would enjoy an encounter where they can easily win, 2)Do NPCs understand when a fight is above their pay-grade? or 3)something else? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 18 at 19:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Editing from a phone unfortunately, which made the question longer rather than shorter. I believe I know my answer to (1), and that it depends heavily on individual tables, but (2) is a generic sub-question I could try to break out. I think the main thrust of my question "what can I do to give over-leveled PCs some combat" might be covered by Sdjz's link, thanks to the depth of response \$\endgroup\$ – Cireo Nov 18 at 20:20
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Throw the party against large numbers of low-level NPCs or area-appropriate animals.

If they're traveling through the wilderness, it'd be plausible for them to encounter an ambush by bandits, demihuman tribes, or military forces that might take an issue with their presence, resulting in combat. Similarly, when you're in the wilderness, it shouldn't be a surprise to encounter groups of predatory animals that might decide to hunt the PCs. The Monster Manual has a number of NPCs with CRs in the 1-3 range, and due to bounded accuracy, they would remain threatening to higher-level groups of PCs when attacking in numbers.

According to the DMG, the threshold for a Deadly encounter is 2,100 XP per level 8 character. A CR3 Knight is worth 700 XP, so even without the difficulty modifier for fighting a group of multiple enemies, a group of 12 Knights would pose a Deadly encounter for your PCs. Once you take those modifiers into account, a group of 6 Knights would.

You could also vary the composition of the NPC groups for variety, as long as the XP total remains at a similar level; for instance, a group of three CR3 Knights and a CR6 Mage would also be a Deadly encounter for your party, as would an encounter with a pack of six CR3 Winter Wolves.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ True, I hadn't really considered the natural evolution from "This is a toll road!" bullies to "Those are the folks that blew up Bob and Cathy!" posse. I'll be sure to play around with some lower CRs that can avoid AOE. \$\endgroup\$ – Cireo Nov 19 at 7:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ As a follow-up: I was able to leverage a decent number of equine-thirsty Ankhegs into an enjoyable encounter, since they are rather attached to their mounts. \$\endgroup\$ – Cireo Nov 25 at 18:51
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Think about what makes travel challenging in real life

First there is planning:

  • Where will the party go?
  • How will they get there?
  • Where will they stop along the way?
  • Which routes and territories are safe?
  • Which areas or towns should be avoided?

Then there is provisioning:

  • What supplies does the party need?
  • What tools or other items will they need?
  • Do they need diplomatic or trade passes to travel?

Then you have to actually set out. But, there are unforeseen circumstances:

  • The map said there was a plain but now it's a forest.
  • The mountain that could be crossed had a cold winter and is impassable.
  • The spring was warm and the river cannot be crossed.
  • The local tavern is overbooked.
  • An area the party thought would be plentiful is barren.
  • The local lord is hostile to the party.
  • Bandits in the area harass the party.
  • A party member gets sick, runs out of arrows, runs out of tools, the horse throws a shoe.

The party gets sidetracked, the priorities change:

  • The see a dungeon filled with treasure.
  • A crow steals the wizard's favorite wand.
  • A little old lady helps them out, then mentions she is suffering from a strange illness.
  • A merchant offers to pay them handsomely to work as bodyguards for a leg.
  • Food runs out, a detour has to be made.
  • Water runs out, the party needs to do something fast.
  • Time passes, the seasons change, new clothing and equipment needs to be procured.

Marco Polo's book breaks travel down to about a 5 days between each town. Depending on how you want to run things, you could certainly have the party incrementally prepare and plan their journey, with a couple of encounters between each town.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the quality bucket list! Could even roll off those directly =). I feel a little Oregon Trail nostalgia \$\endgroup\$ – Cireo Nov 19 at 7:03
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I just read two articles about implementing a 'tension pool' mechanic to basically do exactly this.

https://theangrygm.com/tension-on-the-road/

https://theangrygm.com/making-things-complicated/

Fundamental idea is you have a capped pool of dice, each dice represent a chance of something happening, and adding a dice represent a time increment. You add a dice as time passes, including if the pcs take their time. When the pool is full you roll it and remove all the dice and if you roll a 1 something happens (not necessarily combat).

You can also roll the dice if the players decide to do something risky to save time. "Let's march straight trough the swamp instead of going around." In this case the pool doesn't clear.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I remember those articles but never tried implementing them, will take a re-read =) \$\endgroup\$ – Cireo Nov 19 at 7:36

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