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My group has faced a lot of just traveling; so sometimes I just say it's been 3 days since you started traveling, because I don't really have anything big planned on that particular road.

However in a situation like what I'm planning, my party is going through an ominous forest, with a very crooked trail and it's kinda scary. However it's a long trail and in this forest there are few big events that happen, or even big stopping points. The trail is literally just a long trail through an ominous forest; however I want it to seem like it's a really long distance they've traveled through this scary forest.

Is there something that can help me with this?

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4 Answers 4

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The original question, "How do I deal with long travels?" sounds a little too idea-generating. Instead, I pose this question:

What is the purpose of going through the long, ominous forest?

What do you, in terms of helping the story line, hope to accomplish by making the players go through this forest. Especially considering you,

...don't really have anything big planned on that particular road.

  • Are you trying to make them use up resources?
  • Are you trying to give them a chance to role play as they pass the time?
  • Are you trying to give a sense of dread? Of distance?

Most overland travel is pretty boring ("Are we there yet?"). So unless you have a well thought out purpose, skip it. Why go through the tedium?

It sounds like they are going through the forest just to go through a forest. You can just hand wave most of it.

As a side note, the technique I generally use is based on something I've seen on Critical Role: use a success/failure scoreboard.

It's pretty simple:

  • For any given travel, select a number of successful Nature/Survival (you can use one or both) checks that the players must pass in order to reach their destination. Having a lot of checks doesn't mean longer distance; just harder to stay on course.
  • Each check should represent a span of time; for example, each check is one hour worth of walking (could be any duration you want). But it needs a set time so you can gauge day/night, spell duration, etc.
  • A success means they are following the right path, and failure means they strayed from the path.
  • The DC can change each check (start easy, but gets harder the farther they are from civilization).
  • At each checkpoint, run an encounter*
  • At the final success, the party has reached their goal

(*) An encounter does not mean combat. It could be just an odd-sight, or the remains of past travelers, or a trigger for a different side quest, or anything else you want. I created a list of 100 "encounters", with a mix of good, bad, and indifferent possibilities. You can have separate lists for successes and failures.

This:

  • reduces the whole, "You're walking. You're walking. You're walking." of a long trek.
  • gives charcaters a chance to interact with each other
  • keeps players engaged by always having something to do, even if it's just pondering why there are so many insect carcasses piled up on the side of the road.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you! I definitely want to reduce the "you're walking" type of thing \$\endgroup\$ Apr 30, 2020 at 19:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you're thinking about Campaign 2 Episode 93 "Misery Loves Company", IIRC the way it worked was that it was a group skill challenge, with a certain number of successes required to complete the journey. Unlike a typical skill challenge, there was no set number of failures that would result in the entire challenge failing. Instead, each failure resulted in a potentially harmful encounter (acid geysers, harpies, etc.), and the only limit to the number of failures was the dwindling resources (HP, spells, etc.) of the party. I think what you're describing is a bit different, but still similar. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 30, 2020 at 19:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RyanC.Thompson, Yes, it was inspired by that. I just took it a different route \$\endgroup\$
    – MivaScott
    Apr 30, 2020 at 19:58
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Narration will help you.

A simple rule for pacing: Unless setting the mood, always skip to the action.

I write "action", but I really mean "next point in the story where the players do stuff". In more specific terms, whenever your characters are just traveling you should fast-forward. In this fast-forward you can add a bit of narration or ask the players if they do anything out of the ordinary or if they want some time to talk between themselves. An example:

You set off to Port Blacksand. It's a long trek that takes you through the Forest of Doom, but the alternative is to go around it and that would add weeks to your journey. Since you need to get to Port Blacksand before the Barons boat arrives, that's not an option.

At first, the forest doesn't seem that bad. It's a dense forest, but the trail is clear and straight. After a while, the forest becomes so dense that the overhanging trees block out the sunlight. By the light of you lantern you press on, resting when tired, eating when hungry. Strange sounds come from the forest and it smells odd. Old, somehow. When you finally make camp, you're not really sure how far you've gone or if it's actually night - or even if it is already the next morning.

When you wake up you continue this. You no longer have any sense of time and it seems that the only thing you do is walk and walk. The trail is still straight, but it never seems to end. Walk, eat, walk eat, sleep, eat, walk and so on. As daylight breaks through at the end of the trail you have no idea how long you were in there. Just that it was long. From here, you can see Port Blacksand. You arrive there about two hours later and enter the city. Do you meet your contact first or do you want to explore the city?

That narration is what tells the players that the trail was long, not actually roleplaying the walk through it. Whenever you don't need the characters to act, you shouldn't force them to.

And if you have a stopping point or an encounter in the middle of travel? Simply put, you don't. You end the travel, have the scene and then do a new travel. Narrate it the same way, but end the narration differently.

... but it never seems to end. Walk, eat, walk eat, sleep, eat, walk and so on. As you make camp you're not sure if it's the seventh or eighth time you do so, but your feet hurt and your bellies growl. Who takes the first watch as the others sleep?

A stop like this indicates that something is about to happen, but it also allows the players to interact with each other if they like. You've driven home the point that they've walked a long distance and can add whatever encounter you have planned.

There is an additional trick here though. Add a real pause in the game during the travel for stretching the legs, getting some food or whatever. This will take your players out of the mood a bit, so make sure you add it after any encounter you have planned. The real life pause will add some subconscious time to the travel in-game.

Bonus answer to the bonus question:

If you fast-forward the journey the players will have no chance to wander off, but if they do anyway you can always put them back on the right track. You can simply narrate how they wander around for a bit and then find the path again. Simple and effective. You can also have them find another path that leads to the correct one, have them exit the forest and find they're actually really close to where they're supposed to be or something similar. Just narrate in a solution.

If they should have an encounter in the forest, just put the encounter in front of them instead of having it at a specific spot. The players don't know where the encounter is supposed to be so feel free to adapt where stuff happens to where the players actually are.

And if your game would suffer from the players not making a good roll, don't have them roll in the first place. Just let them find their way back.

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I'm going to break this answer into three parts. One for each type of travel as I see them. There are likely more, and you should see this as a spectrum rather than distinct categories, but I hope this gives you a good foundation.

Travel purely to get to the destination

Sometimes the party is traveling purely because they were at location A and need to be at location B for the plot to continue. Location A and B are X days apart because you want your world to feel large and realistic. However the party are strong enough and/or the the region is safe enough that this journey poses no significant threat or point of interest.

In these cases I encourage you to do what you have already been doing:

sometimes I just say it's been 3 days since you started traveling, because I don't really have anything big planned on that particular road.

If you have nothing planned and don't intend for this travel to be engaging, skip straight to the point where you do have something interesting planned. There is no point dragging it out just to make it feel like they have traveled further.

Travel as part of the story

Somewhat of a minor step up on the previous category. Sometimes your travel serves as part of the story you are telling. You can use your narrative description of the terrain and significant landmarks to set the tone or give vital pieces of lore.

In these cases try to come up with at least one interest location, encounter or interaction that can occur along the way. Combine that with as many random encounters you feel you need (0-2 per day is a good guideline) to keep things interesting. I like to use this random encounter generator from donjon for ideas, but you can use whatever you want.

It is important to keep things moving in this situation, don't drag things out unnecessarily. Give the players and opportunity to engage, if they do that's great, if not, move on. The goal is to make getting from A to B interesting, if they aren't interested it becomes more like the first category.

Travel as part of the challenge

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Sometimes the part of the danger and challenge is the travel itself. Either the road is dangerous, the destination uncertain or the party are racing time. When traveling is part of the challenge for your party, I find skill challenges are a great way to run this. Matt Colville has an excellent video on Skill Challenges, you can read my related answer for some more information on using them in 5e.

In particular Matt Matter, DM of Critical Role recently used a modified skill challenge as his party traveled through a dangerous swamp (SPOILERS AT LINK: S2 episode 93 "Misery Loves Company"). I say modified because instead of having a hard loss at a set number of failures Matt rolled for a random encounter each time they party failure a check in the skill challenge. It was a test of if they could reach their destination (3 successes) before the encounters drained them of their resource.

I think Matt's solution is a great one for travel through a dangerous region. Skill challenges are a great homebrew mechanic and you should modify them to suit your needs.

Alternatively...

Treat the road as a really big dungeon. Plan out your encounters, traps and challenges the same as you would for any dungeon in your campaign. Instead of a 5ft scale, use miles or some other appropriate distance. Instead of being connected by narrow stone hallways and tunnels, your dungeon is connected by roadways and forest paths. Instead of secret doors, there are hidden game trails, spike traps become falling trees.

With clever planning and reskinning of the environment, your whole world is a dungeon and the players and none the wiser.

Make it fun

Whichever method you choose, I encourage you to watch and listen to your players. Ask them what they are enjoying and what they found boring and adapt accordingly. The goal of all these suggestions is to maximise the fun, either by making travel fun or encouraging you to skip it entirely.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If your whole world is a dungeon, what are the mimics? ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – BBeast
    May 4, 2020 at 5:44
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Personally, I love describing it like a book. If the party is going through an ominous forest, describe it as much as possible. For example:

The party travels arduously for several days, the dark forest looming overhead. They traverse through thick undergrowths, avoid snarling tree branches, and pick their way through as best they can while still keeping up their pace. Eventually, they arrive at the end of the trail, battered but alive.

I've found from my own personal roleplays that this helps the party feel engaged, and also appeals to their senses

Hope this helps :)

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