Travel In the Overworld is Hard


Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky - Stormy Seas - 1895

Responding to an almost month old False Machine post, but I keep thinking about it, or at least, it feels like it keeps coming up, so let's do this.

In games YOU have been in, or which YOU have run, do YOU remember any particular experiences of;

- Sense of a loss of freedom, a muting of interest, feeling like you are just "going through the motions"


Traveling through the overworld is difficult to pull off. There's a deep (innate?) drive I think to try and make the journey important. Afterall, it's not the destination, it's the friends we made along the way! Except in RPGs it's not. The destination really is the thing, and the overworld travel to get to it ends up serving as a way to put distance between "here" (and during the early game often "home") and the "remote far away place of adventure". The journey then (to dig up an old meme) acts as part of the "entrance to the mythic underworld".

At least in theory. But I've found that if the journey itself isn't the point, it's almost guaranteed to suck. Distance between places is good. Especially when it forces tough decisions on the part of the players needing or wanting to be in two places at once. However, in the common 5e lands, it doesn't work like that. The journey is often nothing more than a (often toothless) variable tax of some kind placed between the players and the next "piece of the plot". Here's a specific example:

In my Tuesday night game, the group decided to go to a semi-distant kingdom. The place we were felt somewhat like a dead end, in large part because one of the characters had much deeper backstory ties to this semi-distant kingdom. The whole world appears to be on the brink of ending, the place we are now is in bad shape and doesn't seem like it can be helped, let's all go to the place where "backstory" and "plot" seem like they'll overlap.

To get there we've got to take a ship. And taking a ship has rules as seen above. The basic idea seems decent:

  • The ship has hit points
  • The sea is full of ice
  • The ship has multiple roles (captain, navigator, helmsman, lookout, sailors).
  • Each day of travel, everyone rolls dice.
    • The captain can guarantee advantage to one roll, or he can roll and if he succeeds, give advantage to everyone.
    • If the navigator fails, a whole day of travel is added
    • If the helmsman or lookout fails, the ship hits ice and takes a point of damage
    • If the sailors fail I'm not sure what happened, I think it added a day of travel

Again, in theory, not too bad. In actual play, not great at all. In fact, quite bad. Captain fails the roll to grant advantage, navigator fails the roll, now a 6 day journey becomes 7. Then 8. Then the decision is made to have the captain grant advantage to navigation as it's currently the biggest cost. Sailor players began checking out and getting up to take breaks during the roll time.

And I think a big part of it is that it was ultimately a toothless exercise. The group collectively had chosen the destination. It was still early in the campaign (maybe 3 sessions in). The choice had been made to get on this boat in the first place to embrace player written backstories and weave them into "the plot" taking place in this other kingdom.

What would have really happened if we'd failed? The ship could have wrecked and then we're left on an iceberg waiting for rescue or we'd have drowned. Mechanically we'd have likely gotten a level of exhaustion or two (which we could immeditatly rest our way out of upon reaching our destination), or there would have been a TPK 100% because of bad rolls/luck (not player skill). We had no money, we had no treasure, there was nothing really to take from us if we failed. Having everyone make new characters would have likely been pointless (we'd just turned level 2), and more likely would have led to poor morale (i.e., the whole reason we went on this trip was to tie backstories in with the overarching plot, if we're gonna die for that because of poor rolls, why write backstories next time?). AFAIK there were no islands or locations between where we started and where we were headed, we'd just swung out to open sea.

The journey should have been hand waived. Or, if a "tax" was necessary, then it would have been much easier to say: It's going to cost you all 7 days of rations, or 10 days of rations and XXgp, but if you want to make it cost less we can have a roll off of some kind, say best 3 out of 5 (but again, why? there was nothing really to lose on the part of the characters). If there was going to be a real risk of losing the characters, then it should have been communicated upfront: "If you guys fail this slate of skill challenges you're going to have to make new characters, are you sure you want to go, or do you want to find more NPCs to help? Oh wait, you don't have any money so you couldn't get any kind of help."

So the travel really just became, going through the motions. There were a few nice RP events and opportunities, but the stories we heard didn't need to happen on a boat in those conditions. They could have been done anywhere and at anytime and by anyone.

Part of the problem may have been that the skill check system was 100% failure focused. If you succeed things progress "normally", but if you fail you take a set back. But again I'm just left with: why? The ranger can make goodberries, so food isn't a pressure. The destination was a town so exhaustion wasn't a threat. If there was a time pressure I'm not sure that it wasn't communicated, or if the overarching plot being "everything is fucked up" made the situation all stick and no carrot so why hurry?

Even if it had been the late game and the party needed to be in 3 distant locations at the same time and we had to make tough choices, doing a long series of skill checks and leaving the outcome 100% to chance is not engaging. If the game's plot based, and the players don't get to the plot, then the game should be over, and anything mitigating that failure is going to smack of obvious deus ex string pulling. 

What's a potential solution after all this griping?

  • Communicate the cost of traveling from one location to another. If the cost is negligible, hand waive the travel itself and get on with the game.
  • If the cost is high, have discussions on how it could potentially be mitigated and put the risk/skill checks/rolls in that portion of the interaction with the players. 
  • Don't make story progression dependent on a series of rolls, 'cause if the players fail, what are you gonna do? Stop running the module you paid $50 for?