Sunday, September 5, 2021

In Search of Better Travel Rules

Humphrey Carpenter's biography of the Inklings recounts one of my favorite anecdotes about those old dudes. It goes something like this:

C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams liked to go for hikes from one village to another. They'd start at one pub and end in another pub: stay the night, drink some beers. One time they made the mistake of inviting Tolkien. When they wanted to be walking Tolkien was fumbling into the underbrush off the track and pointing out interesting trees. Lewis and Williams did not invite him again.

I don't have the full text with me so maybe I fucked that up. The essential bits are there, though.

from the Witcher comic
Like the Inklings, I do a lot of walking around in the woods. Putting shit into a pack and going from Point A to Point B is one of my main hobbies. During these long stretches I think a lot about walking in the woods and I think a lot about RPGs. 

Ever since the days of Mr. Spends-Too-Long-Looking-At-Trees wrote a trilogy about just waltzing into Mordor, journeys and travels have been a fantasy staple. As such, we have long tried to include this essential fantasy element in our role-playing games. Often, these RPG experiences fall flat. 

Here is something I've noticed: 


Most Travel Rules Suck



The State of Affairs

Sometimes I go into threads on RPG forums where someone asks: What is a system that has good travel rules?

The top comments are always someone recommending The One Ring or Ryuutama. These comments have such overwhelming support that it almost seems like they can't be wrong. These are two systems entirely focused on travel and they're so charming and have such good art, ipso facto, these are two good systems for travel. 

These threads usually end with a hearty congratulations all around, handshakes, people agree to try out these two luminaries, and the threads die. 

Here are two facts:
1. I like both The One Ring and Ryuutama. I think they are pretty good games. If I had time, I'd like to play them and I'd like to run them. 
2. I do not think either game has good travel rules. 

Why?

The essential travel rules for both systems essentially boil down to this procedure:
1. The players decide to go on a journey
2. The Referee calls for a skill check or test from a certain PC for some in-universe reason: they're getting lost, the journey is strenuous, they need to set up camp, etc.
3. The PC makes a skill check
4. Based on the skill check, the Referee says that the PC must spend some resource: they lose Endurance, misplace an item, gain a condition, etc.

That is fucking boring

That is essentially the same procedure for traps in a bog standard D&D3E game. "I walk down the corridor." "Make a Perception check." "Uhhh, 12." "You fail. Darts shoot out from holes in the wall. Make a Reflex check." "OK, I got a 16." "You fail again. You take...9 damage." "OK, well, we continue down the corridor."

Games are fun because it is fun to make choices. Systems that boil down into pure skill checks where no choices are made are boring. People in the OSR community have long railed against the Perception check -> HP tax. 

So why aren't we doing more to improve the way we handle long journeys?

What are Travel Rules?

There's a bundle of things here. Let's disentangle them. 

1. Movement Procedures

There are rules a game uses to articulate how PCs move across the landscape.
  • How far can you travel each day?
  • How many days of rations/water can you carry?
  • What happens if you go hungry/thirsty?
  • What if you have horses? Are on a boat?
  • Can you get lost? How do you orient yourself?

2. Travel Encounters

There are rules to simulate a living, internally consistent world - things that happen to the PCs as they travel:
  • Encounters with the denizens of the wild: wild animals, wild people, monsters
  • Natural hazards that challenge the characters' progress: snowstorms, avalanches, acid rains, thick fogs
  • Misfortunes that befall travelers: broken wagon axels, rock in your shoe, leak in your water skin
  • Fortunes that shine on travelers: edible mushrooms on the path, generous local shepherds, opportune logs across treacherous rivers

3. Player Actions

Lastly, there are rules that adjudicate the actions of the individual players:
  • "Can I hunt? Can I look for water?"
  • "I want to keep an eye out for any rare herbs as we travel."
  • "I want to make sure I'm always on the look out. I have my sword half drawn in case we come across those bandits I heard about."
  • "If the forest spirit is angry, can I make a sacrifice to them before we enter the wood?
I guess I'm talking about all of these at once. I'm most interested in 2 and 3 because 1 seems like a solved problem.

Good Movement Procedures 

There are many hex crawl rules that are perfectly serviceable as "movement procedures." 
Use the movement procedures you like best. 

The other parts of travel rules are a thornier problem.

Bad Travel Encounters

I see a lot of bad travel encounters out there. Hang out in RPG forums long enough and you will see this piece of advice:

A grim example of Reddit advice

(This piece of advice is corollary to this one: "Don't track monster HP. Once the players have almost died, make the boss die first." This is bad advice, gentle reader. Please do not invite me to games that you run like this.)

Here's another travel encounter I also hate (from a game I otherwise enjoy):

From The One Ring 1st ed supplement Journeys and Maps

The similarity between "Walk past the same rock 5 times" and "Make a Corruption test as you think about home"? Neither encounter provides the player any choice nor any opportunity for input. The Referee could have played this game solo. 

Good Travel Encounters

In many ways, traps and travel encounters are the same thing. The only difference is the matter of scale and narrative framing. Chris McDowall has a good read on what makes games interesting: information, choice, and consequences.

To extrapolate, good travel encounters have the following attributes:

  • Good travel encounters are broadcast clearly. Some part of the encounter should be visible. The head of this pimple should be able to be interacted with and interrogated. 
  • Good travel encounters have multiple possible solutions. There should be no obvious solution but there should be many ways to bypass the encounter. Testing a player's ability to make a character, roll a high number, or pack the single perfect item aren't as interesting as testing a player's ability to think through open-ended, difficult problems. 
  • Good travel encounters have consequences. There should be something lost or gained by successfully interacting with the encounter. These consequences do not need to be negative. If you lose your fiddle in the spring and you turn down the fiddle of gold that the fairy offers you, you can get the fairy's special reward for honesty. 
    • Obstacles that are "just off the path of the woods" that the PCs walk around aren't encounters, they're hex features. In the real world, there are situations where you can only go left or right. Consider Caradhras versus Moria. The players can't get past the mountains so they have to go under them.

Brent at Glass Bird Games has put together a list of 50 Travel Encounters, many of which seem to fit into my conception of "good." 

A problem:

Most players don't do enough long-term trekking to ask them to be knowledgeable about it. In the same way that asking players how to handle archaeological procedures or computer science questions isn't fun at the game table, challenging someone's out of character knowledge about the best practices for long haul hiking isn't really fair. Games are about decision making but it's hard to make informed decisions about a niche subject. 

A solution:

Players also don't know a lot about medieval warfare but the rules you provide them help them make informed decisions within the constraints of the game. Here are a few ways to equip players with information about the sorts of travel encounters they'll deal with:

Tools: Consider these two tool writeups: 
  • Cordage - Put this into your pack to tie up canvas to keep the rain off of you or pull your food into trees to deter bears. Useful for 100 other things.
  • Scarecrow - Put this outside your tent to make sure undead scarecrows don't try and come in seeking shelter. Scarecrow are quite polite, so won't come into a tent they know another scarecrow is already occupying. 
By putting these two tools into your RPG book, you're telling players something about the world: the existence of rain, bears, and zombie scarecrows. 

Clear framing: The Referee can simply tell the players the stakes. "OK, you can probably just push through the Swamps of Ill Omen, but I'm going to make each of you make a saving throw versus poison to avoid getting swamp fever. You'll cut a few days off of your journey but you'll be a risk of disease. What do you do?"


Player Actions

'There is food in the wild,' said Strider; 'berry, root, and herb; and I have some skill as a hunter at need. You need not be afraid of starving before winter comes. But gathering and catching food is long and weary work, and we need haste. 

Maybe you don't need special rules for player actions while traveling. Maybe good Referee adjudication and your standard resolution mechanic is enough. However, for the sake of argument, let's talk about special actions for players while on the road. 

As PCs travel, they are working against time. Can they get to the next town before dark? Can they get to the archdruid's grove before they run out of food? Can they get to Big Evil Mountain before Big Evil conquers the world?

Player actions thus fall into two camps: long actions and incidental actions. 

Long actions eat up a significant portion of daylight. This includes things like "Walking 8 hours" but also "Hunting" and "Camping." Basically, any of the Travel Turn actions in Errant qualify as a long action.

Incidental actions can be done while travelling. You can think of them as a PC's role in the wagon train.  Most incidental actions utilize an X-in-6 resolution mechanic. 

When a PC says "Hey, can I do this?," it's the GM's job to make a ruling about what kind of action it is and what odds they'd give. Some examples to use as guidelines are below:

Rules for Common Actions


Cook: Cooking is a long action. A cook has a 1-in-6 chance of providing an additional +1d6 HP recovered during rest. Each additional item increases this chance by 1: cooking gear, fresh water, rare herbs and spices. Halflings are expert cooks and increase this chance by 1. 

Guard: Guarding is an incidental action. A guard has a 1-in-6 chance of crying a warning before an ambush - if successful, the combat proceeds as normal; on a failure, the ambushers gain a surprise round. Gnomes have big ears which increase this chance by 1. Additional guards increase this chance by 1 (to a maximum of 5-in-6). 

Guide: Guiding is an incidental action. In the trackless wilderness, guides have a 1-in-6 chance of leading their party in the chosen direction. Additional guides increase this chance by 1. Maps increase this chance by 2. Navigation checks of this sort are not needed on a road. 

Hunt: Hunting is a long action. A hunter has a 1-in-6 chance to find 2d4 rations of food in the wild. Each additional hunter increases this chance by 1. Especially well stocked hunting grounds (such as the king's hunting wood) also increases this chance by +1-3. 

Scout: Scouting is an incidental action. When the PCs enter a new hex, the GM draws on the Meatgrinder table. The first time a particular Encounter is drawn, a scout has a 1-in-6 chance of spotting spoor instead of encountering the creature. Each additional scout increases this chance by 1. Elves have sharp eyes and increase this chance by 1.

Spoor is a sign that this creature is near - a howl in the woods, claw marks on trees, scat on the trail. Successfully spotting spoor allows the PCs to avoid the creature this time. If this Encounter entry is drawn again, the PCs will definitely encounter the creature regardless of how many scouts are in the party.

Sing: Singing is an incidental action. Singing adds +1 to the Morale checks of hirelings and retainers if a random Encounter is rolled for this watch only.

11 comments:

  1. Good stuff. After watching the new green knight movie I wonder if that characters experience could help with the idea of the hex crawl to the titular adventure site. Or pulp authors like CAS and Vance.

    Is he overland travel really different from the dungeon insofar as the encounters are with friendly-ish npcs? From Tom Bombadil to lord and wizard castles and towers in the original edition there seems to be a place for RP encounters in the hex crawl more so than the infested dungeon.

    Should the food and resource mechanics simply be impetus to seek refuge in weird and gothic places?

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    1. The real adventure is the friends we made along the way...

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    2. Yeah, I don' think overland travel _is_ really different from the dungeon. The matter is one of scale. Each hex is like a single dungeon room writ large. Dungeons are claustrophobic. Wild lands are the opposite - so spacious that you're overwhelmed by exposure before you can reach your destination.

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    3. One other thing that interests me in thinking about the hexcrawl is how the early ethereal/astral rules worked. You can't rest until you get to your destination. No spell recovery, no hit point regen. I wonder if overland travel would benefit from this.

      For example, if you don't have hit point regen, then you can hand wave catching food, because the resource mechanic in d&d isn't food and water, it's hit points and spell slots. The desire to regain hit points/spells is what would drive players to rest at designated locations on the map (a wizards tower, wethertop in LotR, a barrow etc.

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    4. An encounter with a bear may yield food for a month, but what benefit is that when you're at 10% hit points and a simple campfire in the woods won't let you memorize spells.

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    5. "No HP recovery until you get to a haven" is an interesting idea. If you play with that, let me know how it works!Q

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    6. "The real adventure is the friends we made along the way", the traveling Necromancer mumbled.

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  2. I really like this!

    Just wanted to let you know it's "Spoor" not "Spore" though.

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    1. Even copyeditors need copyeditors. Updated. Thank you!

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  3. I and my friends like AiME/TOR for its Journey mechanics...until the challenges on the way, particularly the "you see a ruin, roll to resist getting depressed". Players don't like being told how they feel!

    You're right though, there's also no choice, aside from the route itself. I think that might be the point though? At least, for C7. As I recall in some of the campaigns they add expanded events that have choices in terms of "there's a landslide across your intended route, what do you do about it?". As written though, it's "pick which skill you're better at"...

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  4. Great post, Josh. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot myself, having received the alpha version of the One Ring and being dissatisfied for the same reasons as you with the Travel rules (again). Stop making stuff about dice rolls and points nerds. Anyway I’m wondering if the best solution isn’t simply to follow the specificity of the AD&D random encounter rules, which have encounter checks for certain hours during the journey combined with travel hazards and mishaps (maybe 1/4 chance it’s a hazard they come to, then roll creature if not). (along with all the movement rate and encumbrance rules you could hope for).

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