I am currently having difficulty finding a solution to long-distance traveling in D&D 3.5. I don't want to just skip the time it takes to get from one place to another but I also don't want to move at 30 feet per round rolling random encounters. I have a complete map of all of Faerûn and have detailed information about every town, place or old ruin etc., but there are a lot of roads and empty forests to travel through. Over mountains and through caves, I understand that the surface world is not as dangerous to travel over as the Underdark is but it still is fraught with peril! Bandits, Hobgoblin Raiders, Bugbears, Gibberlings, the uncommon Dragon, etc...

  • What system (method) will lend itself to changes in territory and landscape with scaled CR encounters for the party to travel the world and still not reach ungodly levels by having over 1,000 random encounters before the next dungeon they reach.

  • I do not want to just skip travel or pass it off as nothing to bother about. Traveling the world from Waterdeep to the Moonsea is an experience of a lifetime for a lower level party, and a simple teleportation spell for higher levels.

  • I currently am using random encounter tables (Silver Marches for North), (Shining South for South), (Unapproachable East for East) and the DMG for filler and Western lands. This makes the travel just a bunch of random encounters re-imagined for each area. This is not satisfactory for my realism of the world.

I am trying to be fair to the players (reward exploration and battles fought without letting them grind their way through levels.) It should be worth something to brave the journey across the Sea of Fallen Stars, but if that is just the way the party has to get into the next location in the adventure then it should not level them 5 times before they start.

  • I could easily make the voyage across the Sea a stand-alone adventure but then I could do that to every road and every hill.

4 Answers 4


So it sounds like you want to add some thought, memorability and danger into the travel time, but you don't want them to meta-game things so that they are overpowered by the time they reach their destination. You don't want them 'hanging around' these locales longer than necessary, over-foresting the fiendish-squirrels to extinction for XP. I would handle this a couple of ways:

Low treasure for random encounters

If you award XP by the book, with no extra 'story point awards' and keep treasure low to Nil (sorry the Dire Lions did not drop 100gp and a pair of bracers +4), I don't think they'll stay there long or advance too quickly.

Keep the CR level of the encounters in the Yellow Zone

I would keep it maybe at or a tick or two 2 above the party level; whether from sheer numbers of opponents (a large # of giant ant warriors) or quality (1 hill giant) or circumstance (see weather below). I think that most wilderness encounters are things that players should at least think about avoiding or fleeing from. These are encounters that should bloody them if they take them head on.

Roll encounters 'randomly' in advance

Roll a few (2 or 3) wilderness encounters in advance and write the results down on notecards so you at least have some idea of what they are going to be ahead of time. Helps to think about 'if this goes down, here's how it will go down'. Then for the encounter check, you are rolling to see if the encounter occurs (not IF it occurs and WHAT it is; you already know what the WHAT will be. You can also determine the encounter distance in advance or things like that)

Roll the Weather in advance

If there is going to be a lot of overland travel time expected, actually roll the weather up for the next three months. This (can) add a lot of flavor to encounters that do happen. Fighting a Troll in the middle of rainy deluge (or even a dry spell where the whole forest is ready to go up like a matchbox) can be a whole different ballgame from what players are used to. A swarm of Gibberlings in dense fog banks could also be unnerving; it is the Wilderness, so play up the different conditions that can happen there.

Track player supplies, and make foraging a dangerous challenge

In many of the classic fantasy novels, starving or dying of thirst is a real problem. This gets overlooked too often I think, or just 'handled' by someone making a Survival check at +10 or the like. Set some higher DC levels for different areas for foraging. When foraging, check for random encounters. (you might not be the only predator tracking that wild boar...) If an area has a low forage yield, it may be inhospitable, or there may be a real 'top of the line' predator around causing the imbalance.

Use Stalking encounters

Quite a few monsters (natural and unnatural) tend to stalk their prey for quite some time and 'wear them down' preventing them from resting, picking off stragglers. Wolf packs, Meenlocks and many others might come to mind here. Being in the wilderness means there is no safety. You may know 'something' is out there, you might even skirmish it into a quick retreat, but that doesn't mean it isn't going to come back a little later. Stalking is probably waaay underutilized in the wilderness.

Make it a challenge for the characters to exist in the Wild, and they'll not only remember it, they may feel relieved to get to where they are going.


Time Spent Traveling

First of all, there are rules for overland movement that tell you how long it takes to move from place to place on a journey. This will tell you how long the travel takes, and should be accounted for in terms of events in the world and so on.

Describing the Journey

Prioritizing your game time, keeping decisions important and interruptions minimal

Secondly, yes, you should “skip” intervening details if nothing happens. Game time is always at a premium and should be spent playing. If the players stop for some reason (you tell them they saw something interesting, they just randomly decide to do something on their own, or they’re attacked), then you should also stop the “travel montage” and move into more finely described play, whether that be round-by-round for combat or just generally “real time” for finding an interesting ruin or whatever.

Otherwise, you should describe the road and the forests that they travel down and allow in-character time to greatly accelerate relative to realtime, to save game time for playing. If nothing has happened and the players have no reason to do anything but “continue walking down the trail,” then there’s no reason to waste game time asking them what they do. If they think of something they want to do (go hunt for herbs or game, whatever), they can tell you and then you can do that.

I have played games where the DM continually asks us what we do, except that we’re in nondescript terrain with no information that indicates we should do anything other than just continue, and it just comes off as an interruption. Worse still are things like “there’s a fork in the road, which way do you go?” “Do we know where each goes?” “No, you don’t,” “Well, how do each look?” “They look pretty much the same.” What purpose is there to this choice? Choices with no information are meaningless. So if you want to stop the party, make sure there’s something for them to actually do – randomly choosing is not really something to do. If knowing about that one path is better than the other requires skill checks (Survival, Knowledge, Spot, whatever), feel free to roll those for your players, and if they fail just flip a coin for which they go down.

Roleplaying! Don’t forget roleplaying.

The other thing to remember about journeys is that they are the times that allies become friends. Make sure you have your players roleplay out some of the conversation that takes place during the travel, and while a lot of that should be done in realtime, try to also get a sense of the topics that are covered during “fast-forward” time. How much do the characters reveal about themselves on the journey? Do we learn the city boy turns out to have an eye for birdwatching, that the hardened ranger has a particular distaste for certain foods? That kind of thing is really important to bringing a campaign alive. These things usually focus on the characters, not the environment. But also feel free to bring up aspects of the land they’re traveling through: a beautiful sunset, a majestic lake, a foreboding mountain in the distance, any kind of sight that would make even the most hurried travelers stop and look up. Find out how the characters react to these things. Just as the conversations they have give character to the team, the reactions to these sights give character to the world.

Random Encounters

As for encounters that don’t buff them too much before the next dungeon, that’s a bit awkward. Weak encounters that pose no threat and offer no rewards are not typically worth stopping the party (stopping the game) for. You can very easily tell them about how they sent a bunch of meager bandits, poorly equipped and ill-trained, running after their ambush failed – and then the party can choose whether to chase them down to arrest or execute them or something, or let them run. But stopping the game for a fight that’s a foregone conclusion isn’t usually a good idea.

On the other hand, actually challenging the players, putting their resources or lives at risk, should have some form of reward, almost always XP and often gold or loot as well. That’s how the game works. If it’s happening too fast, the solution, more often than not, is to tell the players that you’re playing in a reduced-leveling-rate game, giving less XP in general so that they need more encounters to level up. But it’s important to be up-front about that. The other option is to go with more narrative leveling, i.e. you level up when you’ve done something grand and important and deserving of a new level. This often works better, but be careful about sapping player resources with no reward, or they’ll stop traveling.

Pre-made Modules

Personally, I am not a fan of pre-made modules; I find they rarely are appropriate challenges for my party, even among my friends who think very little about optimization. For the most part they seem designed for the lowest denominator, and for a game as variable as 3.5, that can be very far short of a given party.

But, of course, there are also good reasons to use them; they greatly reduce the workload on the DM, which is crucial for those with busy real lives that must (sadly?) be prioritized ahead of gaming, but still want to game. So I understand the desire to use them.

There are two things I think you can take here, aside from simply redoing encounters at a new level.

  1. Devise (if there isn’t a pre-made one) an arch-plot linking the plots together, and give the players strong incentive not to dally. Figure out, based on the distance between any two modules, how many encounters can be expected, and then try to choose your modules carefully so that the XP gained traveling from one to the next nicely lines the players up for what the next module expects. This, I suspect, is easier said than done, but it should be possible. Especially if you can count on the players taking the direct route (and they don’t think up some route more direct than you were expecting, of course) because of plot concerns.

  2. When and if the players decide to go exploring/hunting more than you anticipated, at some point just swap the originally-planned-on-module for a different one. Maybe they reach their destination and find their quarries have already completed their goals and moved on, or maybe you can just find another module that’s set in the same area (or you can finesse the module into fitting that area). Effectively, the players have replaced the module with whatever wandering around the woods they elected to do.

In general, it probably makes sense to reward players for getting places quickly. Using random encounters to “farm” XP doesn’t make sense in a living world. If the players regret their delays, they’ll be more prompt in the future. And if the players manage to get to the next module more quickly (avoiding fights), that’s a good time to start subtracting from what the forces found there.

Travel Eventually Becomes Obsolete

In all cases, be aware that once higher levels become available, overland travel is probably going to stop being a thing. It will be replaced by flight, and then teleportation.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this and yes I use the over land movement rules, so I will have my players plan out their journey so to better have an idea of what they might encounter set up the small encounters or places of interests for encounters. BUT this dose not help with the grind issue as they could easily plan a route to take them into bandits and goblins to just grind small encounters for exp I don't intend to change the exp rules to the game (should I set up a lesser exp gain for traveling encounters?) \$\endgroup\$
    – Pro756
    Commented Sep 21, 2013 at 18:14
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Pro756 You could just have fewer encounters if you don't want to deal with them. The random encounter rules are guidelines, the DM can (and should) determine how many encounters suit his game. (I know in my game when the party severely overmatches something, I just tell them how the combat goes instead of wasting time doing one where they just crush everything 6 levels below them.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Tridus
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 13:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pro756 My players used to travel in the wilds just for gaining XP and leveling. Since I was using premade adventures where the places they had to visit had already fixed encounters that would have become trivial, when we started the next game I (up-front) told them: "no XP from random encounters". You might want to do that but, since it easily leads to "since it's boring and not advantageous, let's teleport", make clear interesting things will happen if they do travel. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Commented Sep 22, 2013 at 17:45

Travel was one of the most challenging parts of DMing for me, because the pacing just never felt "right." When prepping my newest 3.5e evil campaign, I had a massive climb I wanted the party to take. I didn't want it to turn into 1,000 climb/use rope checks, or just a few checks to make a mile long climb.

I did a lot of research via YouTube before the campaign, and came across a great YouTuber named Matt Colville who has a fantastic video on the concept of...

The Skill Challenge

Apparently this was introduced in 4th edition, and it seems to be more of a situational thing, but I can't recommend it highly enough as a way to spice up getting from point A to point B.


When I did the skill challenge in my game, for a monstrous miles-long climb that the party had to take in 2 sections, it went over great. I described what they'd see, they tell me what they're going to do, and make an appropriate check.
I tell them what happens after that, they repeat, and so on.
My players had a lot of fun during it, and everyone had a chance to interact on the "same challenge." Again, I can't recommend The Skill Challenge enough.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you outline / summarize the contents of the video, in terms of the approach that Matt suggests? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 16:10

Make the travel a mini-adventure of its own.

Design some non-random, possibly related encounters to take place along the road. Some travelers may be fleeing from the troubles. Some may be going toward it to make a deal, or pay the toll just to get past. Minions may be watching the approaches. The road may be blocked to slow travelers coming up to the lair. Just set up 3 or so quick encounters on the road that won't overly tax the party, but will deplete some of their resources before they come to the "real adventure."

  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you add some citation to indicate how this will work out in practice based on experience to resolve the problem? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 16:22

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