Making Travel More Engaging

Traveling Adventurers - Thank you, AnonAs of late, I’ve been pondering how I can make travel more interesting for my players. It’s something I’ve always struggled with in my career as a Game Master. Sometimes I’ve tried just fading to black between points of interest, but that’s no good. If the players don’t somehow experience the travel, then there’s no tangible metric for how distant various locations are. And even if that’s not a problem for you (which it should be), it also deprives players of the opportunity to experience the game world outside of towns and plot events. Imagery of adventurers traveling together through a forest or desert fuels our imaginations, we can’t simply gloss over that part of an adventure because it’s difficult to present in an engaging manner! We can, of course, try to give the illusion distance by determining that a certain journey will require X days to complete, but even if you try to spice that up with random encounters, the players will get bored. After an unfortunate extended hiatus, my group is finally going to be able to get back together for a new adventure soon. The one I’m preparing will have a great deal of traveling in it, which has brought this problem to the forefront of my attention.

Of course, utilizing a hex map helps solve many of these problems, which I’ve talked about before. Making the players responsible for choosing each 6-mile step of their journey helps engage them in travel, because progress towards their destination won’t continue without their input. Giving them these choices also increases their player agency, which will always increase their engagement. And, as an added bonus, once you start asking your players to make choices, they’ll start making choices on their own. Before you know it, your players will be directing the course of their own adventure, and that’s when you know that you’re a good game master.

But how does it work?

I mean, when the whole group is actually sitting around the table, and you’ve got your filled-in hex map behind the GM screen, what happens next? How precisely do the players interact with the hex map. How do they know where to go? Does a single player just point to one hex after another until the end of the day? How are you going to describe each hex when the players enter it? These are questions which need to be considered, lest we be caught with our pants down at the table. We’re the GM after all, we need to give the appearance that we’re prepared for anything the players throw at us.

Step one is figuring out how the players are going to keep track of the map as they uncover it. Of course, I have a filled-in hex map which I’ll keep behind the screen, but there’s no reasonable way for me to show it to them without revealing information they have not yet earned. My map, after all, has notes on it indicating the locations of dungeons, treasure, and towns. So the players need a assign one of their number the duties of mapmaker, and that player will need a blank map which they can fill in as they play. A quick google search for “print hex graph” turned up a site which creates hexagonal graph paper for you. I printed off 25 or 30 sheets myself, just to keep on hand. I also have a very nice hexagonal battle mat which was given to me as a Christmas gift by a friend. It’s wet-erase, so I can actually have a nice visual “world environment” for my players as they explore. The only drawback is that the mat needs to be erased at the end of each session, so the players will need to keep a map as well.

As with most party decisions in RPGs, reasonable adults won’t need any GM guidance with respect to making a group decision. In my experience, a party leader most often emerges naturally, and when it doesn’t, players don’t have trouble coming to a consensus on issues like “which direction do we walk.” If getting the party to agree on things like this is a problem for your group, then your problems are outside the scope of this post. Likely outside the scope of anything I will ever write about, because I’m not from the “here’s how to handle your friends…” school of GM advice.

Adventuring Parting UnawaresWith that out of the way, the second step becomes determining the best way for players to interact with the hex crawl. What is the conversation that takes place between the players and the GM as they move from hex to hex on the way to their destination. For my purposes, in the upcoming game I’ll be running, the players will receive some very basic instructions. The first leg of their journey will first require them to travel in a certain direction until they reach a river, then they’ll need to follow that river until they reach a village. Pretty straightforward. Straightforward enough that it might end up being boring, but I’ll get to that later.

As the players begin to prepare for their journey, the GM should figure out what the slowest party member’s movement speed is. This will be the movement speed for the entire party, unless the faster party members are willing to leave someone behind. If the players are on foot, the slowest will likely be whatever character is a dwarf or halfling. If the players have mounts (which suddenly become a lot more appealing once you’re hex crawling) their speed will significantly increase. Remember also to consider whether the characters are encumbered or not. If you’re like me, you’ve probably never used encumbrance rules before. However, if we’re trying to make travel engaging, then using encumbrance rules gives the players something they’ll need to pay attention to lest their pace be slowed, and that’s too valuable to pass up. If Pathfinder’s encumbrance rules are too complicated for you, I did a mock up of an alternative a few months back which may be more to your liking. I haven’t got around to putting any spit or polish on it, though.

For simplicity’s sake (and also because this is likely what I’ll have in my game) lets say that the party is made up entirely of unencumbered humans, which have a movement speed of 30. According to Pathfinder’s movement rules (found in the Core Rulebook, on pages 170 through 172), this gives the party a daily movement speed of 24 miles. Now, if you like, you can simply say that since each hex is 6 miles, and 24 divided by 6 is 4, that means that a party may travel 4 hexes in a day–and that’s fine. However it fails to take into account that some terrain is more difficult to travel through than others. Fellow blogger Brendan recently wrote a post entitled “Wilderness Movement Costs,” (which itself was based on a post by Delta). In it, he outlines a basic system for tracking a party’s hex crawling movements which I’ve decided to rip off and adapt for Pathfinder/my own purposes.

Traveling party encounters amazing creatures

Movement Points: Convert the number of miles the party may travel in a day into “points.” So, it the party can travel 24 miles in a day, they have 24 “movement points.” This may seem like a ridiculous extra step. However, its function is that it turns the party’s movement budget into an abstraction, rather than a literal unit of distance. This will help players understand the less-than-literal possible uses for movement points.The party can spend movement points on couple different things:

Travel: Travel is the most obvious function. (That is, after all, kinda the whole purpose of this post). The table below shows the cost in movement points for each of the four terrain difficulties. Since the players won’t know if the next hex will put them over their movement cost, it’s up to the GM to warn them when they’re about to do it, and let them know that continuing forward would constitute a forced march, meaning the players would not be able to move as much the following day. Note that traveling on roads actually allows the party to move at a faster speed than the standard rules would allow. This way, roads have an actual in-game purpose much closer to their real life one.

Terrain Examples Movement Cost Becoming Lost
Easy road
4
No Check
Average clear, city, grasslands, trail*
6
Survival DC: 10
Moderate forest, hills, desert, badlands
8
Survival DC: 15
Difficult mountains, jungle, swamp
12
Survival DC: 20

*There is no Survival check required to avoid becoming lost when following a well marked trail.

The movement cost happens to be evenly divisible for our band of unencumbered humans, though it may not be for all parties. If a party has some movement points left at the end of the day, but not enough to enter the next hex, give them some extra time to spend on other activities. Remember that in Pathfinder, a “traveling day” is 8 hours. So if you divide their total allotment of daily movement points by 8, you can determine how many movement points are spent during each hour of travel. From there you can easily figure out how much time they gain. For example, if you divide the human’s daily allotment of movement points, 24, by 8, you get 3. That’s 3 miles every hour. So if they have 3 movement points remaining, they have an extra hour to spend on tasks such as crafting, foraging for food, or researching spells.

Searching: A six mile hex is huge. A character could spend a week or more in the same hex without discovering everything there is to learn there. Every time they enter a hex, they see only a tiny fraction of what the hex has to offer. By spending one half of the movement points required to enter the hex, they can explore a roughly equivalent fraction of the hex. For example, a character entering a forest hex spends 8 movement points to make a beeline through the hex. If the party would also like to spend 4 more movement points in the hex (for a total of 12) then they can explore a little bit on their way through. They certainly won’t see everything, but they’ll earn themselves a second roll on the encounter table. Maybe they’ll find nothing, maybe they’ll encounter monsters, or maybe they’ll find something worth searching for. See below for more information on encounters.

Traveling Adventurers
Image by Nathan (http://spacestationnathan.blogspot.com)

That covers how the party’s movement through a hex crawl is handled, but how is it entertaining? At this point all we have is a mini game where the players point to a hex, and the GM tells them whether or not they have enough movement left, or whether they need to bed down for the evening. This is a structure, but without putting some meat on that structure, the whole thing ends up being completely monotonous, and players will leave. That’s where the final two elements of engaging travel come into play: survival, and encounters.

Surviving in the wilderness won’t be easy. First off, each party will need to rely on the survival check of one of its members. Each time a hex is entered, that player must make a survival check to avoid getting lost. If the character fails their survival check, then when the party attempts to move on to the next hex, the DM should roll 1d6 to determine which hex the party actually travels to. A roll of one means the party travels to the hex they intended to travel to (though they are still lost). Rolling a 2 indicates that the party travels to the hex one-space clockwise of their intended hex, rolling a 3 indicates they travel to the hex 2 spaces clockwise, etc. The party remains lost until their guide can succeed on a survival check upon entering a new hex. Items such as a compass or a map can help characters improve their survival checks to avoid getting lost. Once a character is an experienced enough traveler, their survival skill will likely rise high enough that becoming lost is no longer an issue.

Players will also need to monitor their rations in order to survive in the wilderness. If you’ve never forced players to keep track of their food supply before, now’s the time to start. Once the players run out of food 4 days into a 10 day journey, you’ll find they’re much more engaged in figuring out how to reach their destination before they die of starvation. Foraging and hunting are always options, but what if they can’t find anything? Will they eat their mounts? Will they eat…each other? That’s the fun! And don’t forget the elements. If the character’s journey takes place during the colder months, they may regret not spending the encumbrance points on those extra blankets when it begins to snow, and they start to freeze to death.

The Party Engages!Lastly, there’s encounters. There are all types of encounters your players can have, which you can roll on a random chart. I won’t take the time to come up with a chart here, but I would say the chart should probably be about fifty percent “nothing,” which will allow the players to avoid getting bogged down in every single hex. The other half of the chart should be some combination of combat encounters, and ‘other.’ Other types of encounters can include walking in on a druidic ritual, finding the entrance to a random dungeon, coming upon a village of friendly or neutral wilderness dwellers, discovering a magic well, or any number of things you can come up with on your own. And for those times when combat encounters are rolled, there’s no need for them to be as boring as the standard “monsters appear” nonsense. Whose to say whether the monsters notice the players or not–or whether it’s a few monsters, or an entire village of them! Trollsmyth once posted an excellent chart which GMs could use to determine what monsters were doing when they were encountered. And don’t forget my Spicing Up the Battlemat series of posts to help make these combat encounters more interesting! (I really ought to do another of those. The last one was in December!)

As I’ve said a million times, keeping your players engaged is the number one duty of a game master. And whether want it to or not, travel is likely going to make up a large part of your game. You can either ignore it, or you can try to use it as another opportunity to challenge and entertain your players. After writing this post, I for one feel a lot more confident about running travel for my players in our upcoming game.

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7 thoughts on “Making Travel More Engaging”

  1. Another fantastic article, and just in time for my next adventure that’s expected to be mostly travel. Thanks a ton! I love this blog. I really need to devote some time to just reading through it all.

  2. Great post. We need more stuff focusing on the concrete activity of refereeing. It is the hardest and most central aspect of running a game, and yet as a topic it is sadly neglected. Everyone has their own tricks.

    Regarding the potential diversity of a six mile hex, have you seen this? All of Skyrim fits in one six mile hex:

    http://steamtunnel.blogspot.com/2011/09/how-much-adventure-in-one-6-mile-hex.html

    Also, do you know the artist behind the black & white picture of the four walking adventurers? I love it. I wonder what the cleric is going to do with that trumpet. This picture is wonderfully iconic (wizard with pointy hat, etc) without being stereotypical in pretty much any way.

    1. I’m glad you think so. I’ve tried a few times to write more on the “concrete activity of refereeing,” but I don’t think it’s really worked out well before this post.

      All of Skyrim fitting within a six mile hex is a fantastic example! This is part of why six miles hexes are so awesome: no matter how many times you visit the same hex, it can easily contain entire cities you’ve never noticed before. You could have an entire campaign within a single hex.

      I’m pretty sure this is the images origin:

      http://spacestationnathan.blogspot.com/2011/06/old-calendar-01-march.html

  3. First off, thank you for your awesome blog. Very well written. I’m a new GM and was lookign around on ways to simplify Pathfinder. Encumbrance and travel were one of the issues I chose to tackle. I love the concept of them, but they just seemed to tedious for me and my players.

    After reading the posts on travel and encumbrance, I came up with this. Thank you again and I hope someone might benefit. Let me know if you think it needs tweaking. I haven’t created a high level character to test this against.

    http://www.azurebloodfire.com/members/orion/pathfinder/share/Encumbered.xlsx

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