How to Make Travel Interesting in D&D
Travelling in D&D can be boring. There are only so many LOTR: Two-Towers inspired panning shots across the countryside that anyone can deal with. Marking the passage of time can be difficult for a DM too, because you don’t want to have to plan for a million encounters upon the road and random tables can feel stagnant or forced. “Oh no, X randomly comes out of the woods!” gets old quick.
Over the years I’ve come up with a quick and easy mechanic for travelling which gives the players agency (GM Basics: The Golden Rule), encourages roleplay, and takes minimal prep time for the DM. At its heart, this travel mechanic functions like a narrative version of a Skill Challenge. Feel free to tweak this and use as many or few parts of it as you desire; depending on the group you might need to give them some time to find their feet.
For the GM:
- Have the Party roll for Initiative to get a turn order running. Set an Appropriate DC for skill checks dependant on the Party Level.
- After you’ve described the nature of their journey and the type of terrain that they’re going through, here’s what you ask your PCs:
For the PC
- Describe a problem.
What happens to the Party while they’re on the road? Do they encounter Bandits? Is there a gully which needs to be traversed? Perhaps they meet a trader who’s not all he seems to be? Leave it up to the player’s imagination, and feel free to veto anything too ridiculous. If a player is struggling with being put on the spot, offer them some suggestions, and allow them to take inspiration from their fellow PCs. This is the hardest part, so don’t be discouraged by some initial hesitation; they’ll get used to it soon!
- Describe how your character solves that problem.
If there are bandits perhaps you see them off with a display of swordsmanship? Traversing a river with a fast current could require creating a boat or scouting out a suitable crossing. Once again allow for some corroboration in the team if some help is needed.
- Pick an appropriate Skill Check to make and Roll!
This part’s the easiest! Simply pick a Skill which is appropriate to the way the Character is solving the problem and have the player roll. You can have a set DC for each “Travel Encounter” for the players to beat. A success means a positive outcome, and a failure means they don’t! These can lead to some interesting problems for the next player – for instance if a player has failed their Athletics check to swim across the river and is now drowning the next PC in the Turn Order might have to save them!
In the basic application of these Rules, you can use this Travel Mechanic for one Turn or more, depending on how creative your player’s are feeling and once it feels like an appropriate number of instances have occurred.
Here are a few extras I like to use in my games to force the players to think outside the box.
- Player’s can’t use the same Skill check Two Turns in a row.
You can’t use Stealth to sneak past the Kobolds if last turn you were sneaking past Goblins. This encourages the player to think creatively and use a more varied skillset.
- The Players can’t use the same Skill if it’s already been used that Turn.
Josan can’t use Medicine if Redgar just used Medicine. This encourages more teamwork and planning amongst the player’s, and can lead to some interesting moments when a player finds themselves having to use a Skill they’re not particularly good at.
- The Players as a team are allowed one Re-roll.
If someone fluffs it badly collectively they can decide if they want to use their get out of jail free card. I like this extra rule because it encourages that team element and allowing them to decide together can add to the tension when they’re one Failure away from disaster.
- Successes and Failures count towards an overall score.
If the Party hit X successes, they reach their destination easily and nothing bad befalls them. However, if they reach X Failures before that, reaching their destination is made more difficult by an unseen factor – decided by you. More often than not player’s will choose skills that they’re good at, so you can expect a high number of Successes over Failures. A general rule of thumb I use is 8 Successes to 2 Failures, but feel free to playtest it out.
There you have it! Combining all of these elements can take time, so I’d suggest adding in the Additional Rules piecemeal once your players have a grasp of the core principles. Send in your thoughts about the Travel Mechanic below, and let me know about any examples of it working particularly well/poorly in the comments section!