Inspired by the most recent Unearthed Arcana, I’ve written this The 5e GM’s Guide to Travel, integrating some good advice from the Unearthed Arcana with years of solid GM experience.
Why worry about mundane things like travel?
Travel presents two opportunities for the GM: to control compress or expand the flow of time and to introduce new plot elements. The GM can skip through days worth of travel if the encounters would only bog down the gameplay or the GM could choose to introduce new encounters that add to or enhance the story. Travel gives a GM a lot of leeway, but it should also be interesting to the players, especially in a travel heavy campaign.
Either way, the most difficult part about travel in 5e is making it interesting. In a table-top RPG that means one thing and one thing only: making the players feel involved.
Making the Players feel invested in travel
Step 0 of making the Players feel invested in travel is that they must want to travel to where they are going. This could be a specific place for in-character reasons i.e. to a ancient, crumbling temple where the last vestiges of a powerful necromancer are laid to rest with his staff which is said to have allowed him to summon the spirits of the dead and force them to answer his questions.
Or, for most players, they will explore because of curiosity or a desire to drive the plot forward. This means going after the Bad Guy, recovering the stolen artifact, or exploring the mysterious fey forest that appeared in the middle Harrentown at the stroke of midnight just to see what’s inside.
As a GM you should Know Your Players and what motivates them. Fortunately, one of the best guides available for learning what motivates your Players is on page 6 of the Dungeon Masters Guide. Watch your players’ behavior and pay attention to what they care about, then describe the possible destination in ways that make them feel that they will get what they want.
In other words, provide a treasure at the end of the rainbow. To each player that treasure may be a challenge, plot progression, a specific event that’s meaningful to their character, or … treasure. It is your job as a GM to tailor the rumors and possible rewards to pique the interests of your players.
Give everyone a role
Traveling is dangerous for adventures: they’ve made enemies, monsters abound, and they usually carry more treasure and gold than any sane person ought to be walking around with. When they start the travel, force each of them to choose a role:
- Navigator – Make a Survival check to determine how well the party navigates to their destination … or how badly they get lost
- Lookout – Make a Perception check to spot danger and intersting things along your travel
- Forager – Make a Survival check to pick up interesting food and game along your travel, note that it should yield less food and game than a Survival check made while camping
- Cartographer – The PC is preoccupied making a map as they travel. This map should grant the Navigator advantage in the future.
Let the PCs double up on roles if they want and just take the best role as representative of the group i.e. the best Perception of the Lookouts is the Perception of the group for the journey.
Make sure to adjust the roles as appropriate, i.e. if traveling along a mucky path with a cart, there may be a role for someone to push the cart out of the much when it gets stuck by making Athletics checks. This would give your stronger characters a chance to shine and you can reward them by allowing good roles to speed the travel.
In the case of the navigator, use the table from the latest Unearthed Arcana to determine if they arrive at their destination:
|None||Destination has a clear road, trail, or wellmarked
path leading to it
|10||Destination lacks a path but is in open terrain|
|15||Destination lacks a path but is in dense terrain such as forest or mountains|
|20||Destination is hidden, with active efforts made to conceal its existence through mundane
|25||Destination is hidden using illusions or other magic|
|30||Destination is hidden using powerful magic, such as a regional effect that causes a forest’s trees to slowly shift and force characters onto the wrong path|
The PCs are never just lost
If the PCs do fumble their survival check, they should never just be ‘lost’. When players are lost and without direction, the entire onus for plot development is suddenly dropped on them like a brick; and just like you’d expect, they will try to dodge that brick and the session will slow to a halt while they figure out what to do.
Instead, if the PCs are lost, present them with a choice (or a dilemma). They have wandered into dangerous territory and will need to make the choice between traveling back to path and becoming fatigued, or risk drawing the attention of something sinister.
Or gives them a mystery: “Having spent the day traveling without event, you find that you have strayed off course. As you prepare camp for night, behind some bushes you find the corpse of a half-orc. From his dress, he is a messanger, and there is a letter clutched in his hand.”
Or just simply let them stumble into an interesting environment. Perhaps it’s not a major plot point, but the the PCs find strange markings around the place where they camp, as if it used to be a site of druidic rituals. Or perhaps a lone clock tower stands in the middle of eerily quiet forest; at midnight, the PC on watch swears that they heard it chime, those the hands of the clock never move.
As one GM to another: your world is interesting! Let the players know that. If they are 6th level adventurers and every time they get lost they are just in a dull, featureless, barely described environment with nothing of interest, then they will start to see the world that way.
Show them that the world is interesting in reals ways, don’t leave it in the campaign backstory. If there’s a world-threatening conflict, they can stumble across the ruined remains of a colossal war machine; the unmarked graves of fierce battle, an area tainted by the effects of a power and indiscriminate magical weapon.
The only time the PCs should ever be mundanely, boringly lost is when they are pressed for time. The doomsday clock has run its course and every second they waste is borrowed time as the Bad Guy moves his sinister plans to fruition.
Know your players, give them reasons to travel that are meaningful for them, give them roles while traveling, and make getting lost interesting. As long as you use travel as an opportunity to enrich your world, provide plot hooks or dramatic tension, and show them the interesting parts of your world, then you will keep them invested in the game and they’ll never stop talking about “That one time we got lost and…”