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Running Travel Scenes in 5e

by Mike on 5 June 2023

Travel scenes can be hard to run. Like downtime, travel scenes can lack structure, not offer any meaningful actions to the characters, and not offer any interesting choices to players.

Some GMs run a travel montage – describing what happens and asking for checks to survive in the wilderness. Others hand-wave the whole thing. "After three weeks of grueling travel, you reach Castle Kaverice".

For more on this topic, Ginny Di has an excellent video digging into interesting travel encounters.

Pointcrawls offer an alternative – turning travel into an almost dungeon-crawl-like experience with locations and paths instead of chambers and hallways. Sometimes, though, we don't need anything as complicated as a network of routes and locations. There's one main road, the characters are on it, and off they go.

How can we make these journeys meaningful? One way is to run encounters during the journey.

Some GMs roll random encounters right at the table. Sometimes they're fun – particularly of the GM is good at improvising such encounters and making them relevant. Other times they're a drag. Instead, consider rolling random encounters during prep to build interesting and relevant encounters the players might enjoy more. Here's how:

Develop a Location

Where does the encounter take place? What makes this location interesting? Random tables help. You might use the random monument tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook and the Lazy DM's Companion to build out interesting central monuments for travel scenes. Roll a bunch of times until you get one you like. Build your encounter around that monument and use the monument itself as a vehicle for secrets and clues, giving the characters discoveries relevant to their drives and goals.

Add Some Creatures

Fill out the location with creatures. Maybe they're monsters. Maybe they're nice people. Maybe a mix of both. Maybe roll on a random monster table a couple of times and mix two encounters together. This is a great way to make an encounter rich and deep. Not every encounter should be just one or more hostile monsters. Sometimes they're just friendly travelers or wary lizardfolk. Combat isn't always the goal.

Want tools to improvise creatures on the spot? Check out Forge of Foes!

Build a Situation

What's happening at this location? Maybe a monster already passed through and the characters can follow its trail (or not). Maybe the characters witness one group fighting another or stumble on one group who just defeated another. Maybe it's just an argument between a dwarf merchant and an acolyte of a god the dwarf hates.

Offer Choices

These situations should offer meaningful choices. Do the characters defend one group against another? Do they get involved in a heated argument? Do they track a monster to its lair?

Players want to make choices and have their characters do things, not just listen to you describe the journey. Get the players involved as fast as you can. Are there meaningful choices in the situation you developed above? If not, keep building.

Add a Reward

Ensure the characters are rewarded for their choices. Maybe they find a random magic item or some well-needed gold. Maybe the characters learn valuable information or a treasure map. What do the characters earn for their effort?

Chain Travel Encounters Together with Routes

Returning to pointcrawls, we can connect such encounter locations with routes. If we have the time and it makes sense, offer multiple routes with useful information to help the characters choose their route. Do they want to take the well-traveled but longer route or the shorter but more dangerous route? Offer useful options to help them decide which route to take.

Consider adding secret routes as well. Maybe a surviving goblin from a goblinoid ambushing party shows the characters a secret shortcut through the nearby mountains. Maybe the characters find and activate a fey gate taking them along a shadowy road cutting a long journey into a short one that has a strange toll.

One Encounter Between Major Locations

We probably don't want too many encounters during a journey. One works well between every two major locations the characters visit. This single encounter can give the players a good feeling for the path they took in the same way Weathertop highlights the fellowship's journey from Bree to Rivendell in Lord of the Rings.

One Option of Many

Encounters like these are only one way we might make travel more interesting during our 5e games. Campfire tales offer another in which the players describe what their characters are thinking and feeling while resting underneath the stars. Player-driven travel montages like those in 13th Age hand the story over to the players to describe what happens along a journey. Or we might simply handwave the boring parts and get back to the interesting parts of the story.

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