Your Dungeons & Dragons party accepts the quest from the King Drakeris, to go defeat the dragon in the Ironstill Mountains. There’s only one problem. The Ironstill Mountains are three days away by foot.
In D&D, there are considered to be three Pillars of Play; Combat, Social, and Exploration. We are very familiar with the combat, as most of the rules revolve that aspect, between Armor Class, Initiatives, Weapon Damage, etc. Then, we are fairly familiar with how to run the Social Pillar, with basic roleplay, which is enhanced by Persuasion, Intimidation, Insight, and more skills. Lastly, we have Exploration, which can often get overlooked and ignored, even though we have Survival and Nature skills.
In the olden days, playing D&D completely ignored the idea of exploration. Often times, the adventure would just jump from the town where you accepted the quest, to the front of the dungeon to start monster-fighting. If a group was interested in the journey between the two, the official rule was to go and buy a DIFFERENT GAME called Outdoor Survival, which was all about…surviving outdoors. It included a map, and rules for finding food and shelter. So from the very beginning, this game never focused on the travel exploration pillar, even if they say it’s a third of the game.
So today, let’s talk about different ways to handle this part of play. Also, I want to mention this is specifically for Overland Travel, but the ideas can be used in other forms as well.
One of the biggest tips I can give, is to start with the actual rulebooks. I’ve never read them cover-to-cover, and chances are you haven’t either. Always take a look at what the basic rules offer, before you look for more, you’d be surprised what you can still learn just from reading the actual book.
The first suggestion that even the rulebook gives, is the Travel Montage. In this situation, the party doesn’t roll anything, they just listen to you monologue about their journey. Mention some interesting sights, the weather, and how tiring it is. This shouldn’t go on too long, because the whole point is to skip over everything.
However, if you want to roll and make a minigame out of it, there are in fact some rules.
First, you figure out how fast you are going. A game assumes you will travel for 8 hours a day, at 3 miles per hour, so 24 miles per day. If you decide you want to travel faster than that, you begin to fight against exhaustion.
Then, you focus on the difficulty of terrain you will be traversing, and how that might affect your speed and ability to survive. Along with this you determine the weather during the trip, which has similar affects.
As you are traveling, you need to focus on a minimum of three things:
- Navigation, to avoid getting lost.
- Foraging, to avoid running through your rations.
- Noticing Threats, so you don’t get attacked by monsters or bandits.
There are other rules as well for tracking someone/thing else through the wilderness, as well as passing through Monuments and Weird Locales.
Now, as we mentioned before, it’s assumed that you will travel 24 miles a day, which is easy to standardize. This leads to the possibility of having a “Hex Crawl.” In a Hex Crawl, the map has an overlay of hexes, each one it’s assumed will take you 1 day to travel through. Therefore, you can count the number of hexes you are going through, and that is how many days it will take to get to your destination. Along with this map of Hexes, it makes it easier to focus on the different biomes, or environments that you’ll be passing through. Perhaps the first two hexes is a forest, and the third hex to the Ironstill Mountains is actually through the mountain range, because the dragon is on the far side.
Not only is each hex categorized into a biome, but also each one would have it’s own Point-of-Interest to explore. These can be cities or towns, as well as monster lairs or fantastical landmarks. Each one also has a different opportunity for random encounters.
The random encounter is the base assumption of travel, that you are going to run into various dangers, which we’ll get into a bit more soon.
By running the travel as a Hex Crawl, you are essentially making the travel a mini adventure all on it’s own. You might want to think about road trip movies or stories, and think about all the different fun, exciting, or scary problems that you could run into as you travel great distances.
Of course, I watch a lot of YouTube to get more ideas from other Dungeon Masters, and take what I like and leave the rest behind, so let’s talk about some other people’s ideas.
Matt Colville, my favorite internet DM, believes that there is nothing wrong with just mentioning the travel, maybe give a brief monologue, but just skip to the part that you are all focused on, the adventure itself. If you are set on playing through, then he runs a 4e styled Skill Challenge. If you aren’t familiar with the 4e Skill Challenge, he has another video about that. For me, that skips over a lot of fun that you can have.
Then, another person I love is Dael Kingsmill (Youtube name MonarchsFactory), who gets way more detailed than I do. She breaks down the possibility of random encounters based on one of 6 different times of day, each based on the different areas you could be in each day, Hex Crawl style. It seems like it would take a lot of time, but it’s clearly how she prefers to prepare her game. However, she also proposes a simple, yet collaborative, monologue style. You ask the first player “What was a challenge you all faced on your journey?” Then you ask the second player “How did you solve that challenge?” Then lastly you ask the third player “What consequence do you still have due to that challenge?” You could add more questions if you have more players, such as “What was the coolest thing you saw on your trip” or “What kept you from getting a good nights sleep on the second night?”
Of course, lastly lets talk about my system, which is not permanent, but what I use currently.
First, I give my players the choice of a short and dangerous path versus a long safe path, if not more options after that. This is a classic conundrum, that lets players feel like they are making important decisions.
Then, we roll for their ability to survive. Like above, there are three tasks needed each roll, a Navigation, a Food/Water, and a Threat check. Each person makes their roll, and can use whatever skill they want to, though Survival, Perception, or Investigation might be the obvious ones. If the party has a Ranger, I let the Ranger make a single check which accomplishes all three, because this is literally what Rangers are here for.
How often do we roll? Well, that depends on what level the party is at. The game has a natural breakdown every five levels, often called Tiers. Therefore levels 1-5 are Tier 1 play, levels 6-10 are Tier 2, 11-15 are Tier 3, and 16-20 are Tier 4. At Tier 1, I have the party roll three times a day, essentially at each meal time, then Tier 2 they roll once per day, Tier 3 once for the entire trip, and Tier 4 I skip this roll entirely. This represents how beginning adventurers are very new to this form of survival, and it takes a lot of effort, and they make mistakes often. As they get better, it’s more likely that they won’t make as many mistakes, and eventually travel is so inconsequential, unless narratively you want something to happen. Otherwise, they don’t even have to think about it.
So, what is a successful roll? Well, my base roll is a DC13, something that’s fairly easy, but can still be missed. If the party is in a rush, I increase the DC to 15, if they are on a road, it’s dropped to 10, if it’s an area that they’ve traveled before, it might go all the way down to 8. Then, I check the weather or biome for special adjustments there. If there’s a thunderstorm, that adds 2 to the DC, if they’re going through the Tundra or the Desert I add 5. Basically anything that could make things easier or more difficult. Of course, if the Ranger is in their “favored terrain” of their Natural Explorer feature, then they get to add their Proficiency Bonus twice to their Survival Check.
Lastly, what is the threat if the party misses their checks? Well, then they are in danger of a random encounter, based on which check they missed. If it’s a navigational check, then they get lost, which as rules in the DMG. If it’s a food check, we start deplete our food reserves, and then have to fight against hunger and exhaustion, of which there are also rules for in the DMG. Lastly, if we lose our Threat check, we have a classic random encounter, probably from a random encounter table. If it’s the Ranger who missed the roll, then we roll a d10 to see what they missed, where 1-3 is Navigation, 4-6 is Food, 7-9 is Threat, 10 is a random event that even the Ranger couldn’t have saved you from.
It’s worth to mention, that when your party has to have a combat encounter, they will almost always have their full abilities, because travel takes so many days, it’s likely that they will have full health and full spell slots. This leaves you with two options that I think make sense. Either have the fight be a big, cool monster that you normally wouldn’t get to fight this early in the game, because you know that you can use all of your biggest spells and make crazy risks, because once this fight is over, you’ll go back to full health. Or, the Dungeon Dudes have what they call “Travel Weariness,” where after 4 hours of traveling, you need a full 24 hours of rest to get a Long Rest. Therefore, either the journey takes twice as long as normal, and you are always ready for a fight, or you only have a single day’s worth of health and abilities, that you must then spread over the course of the entire journey. This makes the random combat encounters more than a nuisance.
However, Road Trips aren’t a bunch of boring bits followed by frustration. Fun things happen on trips as well, so every time that all the checks are made, there are non-dangerous Roadside encounter tables you can roll on to find something fun that happens. My favorite one is from NerdsOnEarth, which has a great 100 “Enjoyable” encounters.
So that’s how I handle Overland Travel in my D&D game.