Making Travel Worth It
Adventuring is great fun. You get to walk around with a big sword or a bag of spell components and enforce your will on to the picturesque countrysides and fearful kobolds. The only problem being is: how do you get to those fearful countrysides and picturesque kobolds? (Stephen is obsessed with kobolds)
By Traveling… with a capital T!
Due to the fact that BBEGs rarely think of being convenient for your table of would-be heroes, your table must plan out their route to the dangerous areas outside their favorite cities. But how do you ensure that Traveling is more exciting than you just saying, “You travel 3 days and you arrive.”
My way of traveling does away with exact measurements and goes in for a simplistic approach. Instead of saying how many miles/kilometers it will take for the adventurers, it goes in on how many days of traveling it takes. Making it more complicated than that just asks for the table to get bogged down on whether or not mounts can be dashing the entire time and how that works with the Chase mechanics on pg. 252 of the DMG.
How to Travel
Using a simplistic method of traveling, you can give your party 3 modes of travel to select: Fast, Regular, & Slow.
Fast: For every day they travel, they travel an extra half day. This speed means that they gain a -5 to their passive Perception to spot any ambushes on their path and they will miss any secrets on their journey(to be discussed below).
Regular: For every day they travel, they travel the full day. This speed means that they can use their passive Perception to spot any ambushes on their path and they can find the occasional secret.
Slow: For every day they travel, they travel half the day. This speed means that they gain a +5 bonus to their passive Perception to spot any ambushes on their path and they have a greater chance of finding secrets along their path.
When to Travel
After they select their speed(and they can adjust this from day to day if they so choose), you then determine encounters for the party. You can either use tables for Random Encounters or pre-determine what they should encounter, which I greatly prefer. I would recommend deciding when encounters should happen based on 3 parts of the day: Starting Out, On the Trail and Finishing the Day.
Starting Out: This time includes early morning when they are getting prepared to travel to just starting out on their travels for the day, typically this is during Dim Light as the sun is still rising.
On the Trail: This includes any time that they are traveling for the day, typically from morning until early evening before it is dark, typically this is during Bright Light as the sun is high above them(so long as the weather is with them).
Finishing the Day: This time includes any time that they are in camp for the day, typically from evening to late in the night, typically this is during Darkness as the sun is no longer in the sky.
Using these 3 times, you can supplement encounters with different changes in light and can provide new challenges for your characters. Maybe only one character has Dark Vision, and so the rest are sticking close to their campfire, worried about what creatures are hunting them just outside the flickering firelight.
Secrets on the Trail
When your party is traveling through the forest, there should be secrets along the path. This provides a sense of wonder when it comes to traveling, and also breaks up the monotony of random encounters and provides a sense of stimulation for your table.
These secrets can range from hidden groves in the forest where a unicorn waits for them, to old wizard towers in disrepair hiding arcane secrets waiting to be plundered, to ancient ruins long since abandoned that hold a secret portal to the Shadowfell. Here is the time to really draw on the mystery of the world and bring them a sense of wonder. But these secrets are optional and should happen about once every three days of travel if they are traveling at a Slow pace, once every six days of travel at a Regular pace and not at all when traveling at a Fast pace. This, of course, is left to how your world feels. Is your world covered in ruins? Then increase the frequency. If your world is fully explored and barely any dangers when it comes to traveling, you can decrease the frequency of these secrets.
Every time the party decides to investigate one of these secrets, it will take them off their intended path and take about half a day to investigate the secrets. This provides a cost to exploration and if they are on any type of time crunch will give them hard choices to make. Maybe they won’t be able to find this abandoned wizard tower on the way back, or if they check out the ruins they may need to travel at Fast pace for the remainder of their time, and that could be dangerous for them.
How to Travel
Now that we have our direction and are ready to start moving, it’s time to put our plan into action.
First, we let our adventurers know how many days it will take to get where they are going if they would know how far away a place is. If they only know they have to go North till they get to the world tree and they aren’t sure how far away it is, you won’t tell them the number of days it’ll take.
Second, we determine what speed they would like to travel at and we can set up encounters appropriate for that.
Third, we begin our traveling! At the end of day during the Finishing the Day period they expend resources(i.e. rations or spells to create food) and we have whoever is leading the way make a Survival check(they can be helped by someone else so long as that other person is proficient in Survival). This check is based on how difficult it is to get where they are going.
My general rule of thumb for Travel DC is as follows:
DC 5 - Following a road and road signs through well worn areas
DC 10 - Following game trails through a forest that they know well
DC 15 - Making their own way through a wild area with little knowledge of landmarks
DC 20 - Never been here before, and they know nothing of the area
DC 25 - This place is actively hindering their progress and trying to kill them
Fourth, after they make their checks for the day, you write down their progress. If they fail their checks they wasted a day of travel and are considered lost. If they made their checks they get closer to the end of their journey.
When your party gets lost, this means that they are no longer making progress. You can solve this a number of ways:
Have the one making checks make a new Survival check at a higher DC to determine they are lost and to reorient themselves
Let them continue on the next day unaware they are lost. If they make their Survival check on the next day, they have successfully reoriented themselves and will begin making progress. Give them only half a day of progress.
Let them know they are lost and see what the party wants to do. They may be able to figure out a way to make themselves un-lost and you can give them a free check to reorient themselves at the original DC.
Traveling can be fun and dangerous for your party, but I understand why some players may find it tedious and monotonous. They may vocally complain about it and ask why you can’t just wave your hand and say they are there. While that is an option, it takes away a bit from your world and makes spells like Teleport pointless if you wave them through traveling.
By the time they get spells like Teleport, they will have earned it and be grateful for it. But they may even end up missing traveling and find excuses to do it even when they have the spells, else how will they find those hidden secrets in your world?