by Mike Shea on 17 April 2017
Travel scenes in D&D can be tricky to run. We want travel to be meaningful. If the characters are going to hike it from Nightstone to Bryn Shander, they should feel like they've actually gone five hundred miles instead of just suddenly teleporting there. Yet when it comes to the pace of our game at the table, travel scenes can end up boring us if we don't handle them right.
Today we're going to look at three tricks for making the journey between places fun.
I stole this one out of 13th Age, although, to my knowledge, it isn't part of the core rules but something that came out of their organized play campaigns. Wherever it came from, it's a great trick. Here's how it works.
When it comes time for a travel scene, the DM describes the general circumstances of the journey. Are they traveling across a scorching desert, a fetid swamp, or the icy peaks of the Spine of the World? It's important to give out enough detail to spark the imaginations of the players listening to you. With the general circumstances out in the open, it's time for some improv at the table.
Ask if someone wants to describe a challenge the group faced while on their journey. Try to steer them away from descriptions of what their character is doing, which is their instinct given that they spend most of their time at the table in the mind of their character. Ask them to step outside of their own character and just describe a the challenge.
When a player describes a scene, try really hard not to shut down their idea. Maybe they're not as steeped into the lore of the Forgotten Realms but that's no reason to cut down their idea of running into an abandoned fortress of giants in the middle of the Mere of Dead Men even though we know that the Mere is full of draconic ruins, not giant ruins. Try to build off of their idea, using the improvisation technique of "yes, and".
When they have described a situation and challenge, ask what other player would like to describe how the party, together, overcame the challenge. Again, they might start with what their own character does, so ask them questions like "who helped you with that?" or "who else got involved?". Let the other players jump in if they have something to add.
You might be tempted to call on people in particular but its perfectly acceptable if a player doesn't really want to leap in. Not all of us are good at thinking on our feet and not all of us should be forced to play in our hippy bullshit here. Some are just happy to hear the tale.
That said, you will want to make sure that players feel comfortable jumping in with their ideas even if another player is faster on the draw. As you use this technique, make sure to give quiet players a chance to jump in if they want to but don't force them. Give them a chance and a way out without shame.
The player-driven travel montage is a fantastic way to expand the boundaries of the story beyond the DM's head and can lead to some wonderful stories you never would have thought of otherwise.
Many of the hardcover D&D adventures like Curse of Strahd, Out of the Abyss, and Storm King's Thunder have excellent detailed random encounter tables on them. We might be tempted to be really lazy and roll them up right at the table. This isn't the best way to use these encounters, however. Instead we can read though these encounters and either choose a few we really like or roll them randomly when we're preparing for our game. This gives us a chance to fire up our imaginations with random ideas rather than forcing ourselves to just use the first one that comes up. When we have a few we like, we can use those to break up long travel sequences.
We can also spend some time tying these encounters to the backgrounds of the characters. Players will pay a lot more attenton to an encounter with a clear tie to their character. We can still work from the random encounter list but insert a thread or seed that ties back to one of the characters.
These encounters don't have to be combat encounters either. The characters might discover three stone giants still as statues kneeling around a floating geode. The characters might avoid awakening the giants from their sleep or might simply get into a conversation with them if they awaken. Many DMs tend to focus on combat encounters but we can place a lot of interesting exploration and roleplaying encounters out in the wilds as well.
Pardon the shameless plug. Whether we're working with a random encounter or building our own encounter around a character's background, every encounter deserves a fantastic location of sorts. The setting matters. We can start with an ancient monument to get our creative juices going and maybe fill it out with some monsters relevant to the location or the setting. We can load up this location with some secrets and clues so it's not just filler. This way our travel scenes can really mean something. They're important, not just filler.
We might even fill this out into a mini-dungeon of sorts. Maybe it's not just a single scene or encounter but a deeper location the characters can dig into. They don't have to go into the strange catacombs they discover beneath the elemental monolith but they might find something pretty cool if they do.
This, of course, elongates our travel scene. For more relaxed campaigns, this might be fine. If speed is important and the story overall will be better if the characters get to their destination quickly, probably best to avoid sticking a bunch of dungeons in the way.
These options are just three of many you might choose to fill in scenes of travel as your characters move around the world. Use each of them as they make sense for the story and for the pace of the game.