I recently started running Hoard of the Dragon Queen as a DM and this is the first time for me. During the campaign there are a lot of journeys that take several days, even weeks, and in some cases nothing important happens. Now, my question is: how much time should I dedicate to them? Should I just say "You travel from A to B in X days", maybe adding some details about the road, or should I provide a longer and more detailed description? The same question holds when some important events are planned: should I move directly from one event to the other, like "two days after event A, event B occurs"? I read the advices in the DMG but I would like to have more specific indications on the typical approach. Also, I am afraid that if I start describing some elements of the environment (a waterfall, a big rock, a tree and so on) then the players start investigating about it thinking that it is important for the plot.
This largely depends on both you and your group. Do they want a lot of random encounters? Would they prefer to just play the module out? Do you want to throw things in the mix to interfere?
Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and the Rise of Tiamat, both allow for a lot of flexibility. In addition, they use milestone levels instead of XP based levels. So encounters can be fun, but with this being your first time, I strongly recommend sticking to the books. It will give you a good idea of what to do for encounters, how to tinker with the characters, setting up a good ambush, and most importantly, it will stop you from overpowering them with hordes of magical loot or ridiculously strong enemies.
As for worrying about descriptions, my advice is: Don't. If it's not important, just keep telling them, "It's still a waterfall. Your investigation skill reveals the water falling now is different from the water falling from before. Largely due to the fact that the water can not defy gravity and return to the top of the waterfall." or something like, "You turn the rock over and over, attempting to discern anything at all from it's bleak, soulless face. Getting frustrated you even try licking the rock and singing it a sweet song. Alas, it has a heart of stone, and forever rebukes your attempts by refusing to display even the slightest emotion." Then, when the players leave the area, you should pass the investigating player a note that just has, "I'll miss you.... :(" written on it. It's always good for a laugh.
They'll learn to ask about things, and you'll learn how to be descriptive, or sneaky, in setting up your terrain while they work through ways of using it to their advantage.
A piece of side advice if this is your first time: Don't be afraid to say, "Wait. I screwed something up. We need to rewind 5 minutes." Players are generally less mad at open admissions to a mistake than they are to underhanded retcons.
In my experience, unless a journey will have something happen during it, don't waste time on it. Tell the players "This will take 10 days, is there anything particular you want to do while traveling?" and then react accordingly.
If you want a chance of a random encounter, roll it at the start and throw it in, but don't make it go day-by-day if there is no point.
Long journeys can be played as a series of transitions, rather than as a series of points with nothing in between. Rather than describing landmarks, you should describe the environment in general terms, giving it some effect that it is having during that transition. This means that players have to ask questions to get specifics, and won't think that the waterfall must be special just because it was mentioned.
People are then able to play out how their characters would behave during this transition, rather than playing their reactions to specific events.
The journey will therefore be a living, interactive environment, rather than just a series of random encounters, but you can still chew through multiple days at a time and control the tempo.
A few examples you could try; they are ongoing situations which can match the time frame of the travel. If somebody engages with one of these situations, that is the time to produce descriptions of specific things.
It is 3 days travel between the town of W and small outpost F. The sun is beating down, everybody is hot and sweaty. roll perception checks. Dodgy NPC X can be seen going around the merchants, buying up something in crates.
Over the next 6 days, the boggy ground slows your progress. The laborers are getting into an unusual number of fights.
As you spend the next 4 days travelling through the swamps, the insects are biting a lot more than anybody expected. People are disappearing.
Some of these events, depending on how they are played, can have consequences later in the journey:
- As you travel between settlement M and settlement L, the weather turns to snow and sleet. Your clothes are constantly wet and you are cold. Dodgy NPC X seems to be the only merchant selling winter clothing and is making a killing while people freeze.
Create an Atmosphere
Most fantasy books include travel that describe the journeys with some level of detail, you can just imitate one or two of these. Atmosphere can give the players a feel of what they're fighting for: the simple peasants that don't understand the encroaching danger, the natural wonders that might be befouled. (Remind the party of the encroaching danger to these nice people and places, if needed.)
Also, I am afraid that if I start describing some elements of the environment (a waterfall, a big rock, a tree and so on) then the players start investigating about it
This isn't anything to be afraid of. If the party is interested in investigating everything they see, and if everyone's having fun, then let them.
Keep these things short: one quick encounter, or you can even hit the fast-forward button: "You thoroughly search the rock, and one of you finds a bag with 30 SP!"
"There's got to be something else!"
"You were quite thorough, and are confident you have discovered all the rock's deepest secrets."
Side Quests vs Main Quest
Where this can run into problems is when you have a party that always thoroughly investigates, the plot can really slow down. With a published campaign, too many side quests can get the party leveled up too such, and you have to buff the encounters.
If you use plot-based leveling, that encourages the party to stay on track -- make sure the party understands they won't level up until they hit a point in the main story.
The Meandering Plotline
But it's also fine, if nobody minds, for the main quest to be an overarching thing that the players come back to after looting every cave and abandoned castle they find along the way. Those games tend to have a lot more variety than ones where the party is laser-focused on their singular enemy.