Content of the article: "Exploration/Travel doesn’t have to be resource management. It can also be descriptive, interactive environments, and non threatening encounters"
This is probably obvious to most of you, but it wasn't for me, so I thought I'd post it here. Sorry if this turns into a wall of text, I didn't have a good outline before I started.
As a DM, I've always had a hard time figuring out how to make travel and overworld exploration fun or engaging. It always turned into rolling random encounters and skipping to the destination. And all over reddit and other media, when I see people mention travel and how to make it more engaging, I often see it boil down to resource management and encumberance, and how it's tedius for both the DM and players.
This was unsatisfying for me. Travel was what made fantasy really engaging for me in other media. Avatar: TLA, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Breath of the Wild, Skyrim, World of Warcraft, hell even minecraft. The environment and the sense of movement across the landscape, it felt like D&D was missing that something. Resource management almost never came up in these other types of media, unless it was a specific plot point (not enough water to cross a desert, extreme temperatures, etc). I've also been told D&D isn't a video game or movie, and trying to emulate mechanics doesn't work well.
I recently had a shift in perspective, that helped me run exploration better and add things to an adventure that make exploration and travel more engaging for the DM and players.
Track weather and seasons, and have the environment change as they travel. The Dmg (109) has tables for weather. Roll it 1-2 times a day, and describe the weather as they travel. Create (or use a premade) calendar, this will affect the weather over the course of the campaign, and give a real sense of time and progress. Maybe even have the players pick a birthday, so they can feel a little more engaged with the calendar, even if it's only for the few days a year. Even in a generic forest, there's changing landscape. Hills, valleys, tree density, trails, types of trees, etc. Even if nothing eventful happens on a specific day, I think it's more interesting to say "As the sun climbs into the sky, you can barely make it out through the dense canopy and grey clouds above. In the late afternoon, a you start to hear rain on the leaves above you. The forest opens up more and more as you travel, and the rain begins to fall through the leaves onto your clothing."
Unless there's a specific reason, I don't track resources or navigation. It cumbersome and bogs down gameplay. Party wants to find a town halfway across the desert? They need a supply of water. This leads to them being resourceful and creative in finding ways to get enough water to travel 10 days across a desert. They have a spellcaster who can create water? Awesome, they can proceed without worry! They randomly get lost travelling in the mountains? Unsatisfying, and if you're with a ranger/outlander, probably impossible. Maybe there's a rainstorm that causes them to have heavy penalties on perception/navigation. This leads to them either having to take shelter, or continue knowing the risk. This is more realistic, less random, and is more fun for the players because they were able to make the decision themselves weather or not to take the risk. I think the only time navigation and resources should be tracked, is when there's a specific reason that the party would be paying attention to it. These should add depth to exploration, not make them a chore.
A week long montage of travel could be broken up with non threatening encounters as well. Exploration doesn't have to be dangerous to be fun. Maybe they come across a baby deer, wounded and alone. This is an interaction that is safe, so the players are invited to engage without penalty, and can lead to interesting roleplay oppurtunities just with what the characters decide to do. Leave it to nature? Try and heal it? Put it out of it's pain? No matter what they choose, it would say something about their character. Or maybe the party stumbles across an old temple in the middle of the wilderness, but instead of being overgrown and damaged, it looks brand new, kept magically maintained by divine intervention. It's well lit inside, heals the party on entering, and if they pay proper respects it might give them a temporary boon. No risk, just a reward for players who engage. I think a lot of groups are hesitant to interact with the environment because they know it wouldn't be here unless there's monsters and traps inside, and they don't want to get to sidetracked from a 'random encounter'.
Have NPCs travel with the party. Having a small group (5-20) of mostly unnamed NPCs can give them a sense that they need to protect their company. This works better in tier 2+ groups, as tier 1 they might as well be unnamed NPCs themselves. Have NPCs interact with the individual players during travel. Maybe they ask them how they came into this line of work, or where they're from, or what they think of other player characters. As they get closer to their destination, have the NPC talk about how far they've come, and give them perspective on looking back at how much they've done, even if it was only 4 days travel. For a commoner, that could be a major life event. Give the player characters perspective that even just leaving the towns borders, let alone traveling through the mountains is something that very few people ever get to do.
These are just a few things that have helped me make travel more interesting. Hopefully someone found this useful. I'm also curious to hear if anyone disagrees with me, or has ways to improve on/add to what I've mentioned.
- Interesting travel = distance / time
- Long Term NPCs – How to make them impactful
- When you realize D&D is a resource management game, the week long rest just makes the most sense.
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