Gamesmastery 101: Handling long journeys
I like choice.
When I was writing my game - back in the day - I was very keen to give players meaningful overland travel choice. This led me to think about overland travel as if I was designing a dungeon. Do the players travel down the river, take the well travelled road or the overgrown forest path?
Sometimes the choice was really the illusion of choice.
In 7th Sea there was a system I liked very much of hardpoints and softpoints. The hardpoints were the things that had to happen to maintain the story beats. So sometimes with an overland trek you were splitting up the journey into a river softpoint, a forest softpoint, a choice between the two that led to a hardpoint, followed by the maybe the same choice in reverse. Or, because the softpoints are story agnostic, you can build up a bank of softpoints for different terrain and slot them in semi-randomly.
You'll always end up reusing the softpoints anyway, just in different games.
I'm a big fan of this style of semi-sandbox. I want all the journeys to feel different, but to all feel like journeys. Time has to pass. After the first couple of days you get into your stride, and then you can abstract. I've played games where GM's have insisted on playing through every single day, and night, and meal and randomly rolled monster attack. This doesn't feel to me like a journey - more like a game of whack a mole where I am the mole.
Wilderness encounters can help me set tone. You can share a campsite with fellow travellers and get rumours, hear noises off in the night, scare city dwellers, throw in tracks and spoor for your nature loving characters to identify, have tough encounters that have to be avoided, and describe the most wonderful of scenic vistas. Having a style book helps. Pictures of different biomes. All forests have a different flavour - moreso in a fantasy world.
Fantasy worlds are often quite empty. People travel hundreds of miles without seeing other people. This seemed weird to me coming from the UK where Robin Hood would have had difficulty shooting his bow and not hitting a village.
But then I drove through West Virginia.
Nothing says 'I am in the wilderness' like a slow encounter tempo.
Vary the rolls. There's nothing I hate more in Pathfinder than a lazily written module that requires everyone to make survival and athletics every day. That tree with a rune craved on it? that abandoned religious shrine? balancing on a fallen log to cross a fast flowing river? sneaking past a sleeping bear? medicine checks to heal a painful hornet sting - scenes can be very throwaway. Time can pass in small slivers or big chunks.
Rations can deplete.
Hit points are meaningless in long cross country journeys - your characters will probably heal faster than they can take damage. Failed rolls should cost resources - maybe a sprained ankle for a speed penalty, or a loss of rations. Do you notice how I like costing rations?
My single published game was all about expeditions and how you handle resources. How they deplete, step by step. Travel by movement speed makes sense as an abstract, but no sense if mapped to the real world. Mapped. Without maps it's hard to travel even short distances - goodness knows enough people fail to find Fan Boy Three and wind up walking aimlessly around the Northern Quarter. Stuff like good rations, stout walking boots, pack animals - remember Bill the Pony from Lord of The Rings? These make real differences to real journeys in a way that a random d20 Survival check can't replicate.
Often as a GM I'll handwave a lot of the consumable resources ahead of journey. There was this Call of Cthulhu scenario once where you needed to have made a whole series of rolls for your expedition to spot sabotage. If you failed to spot it, when you got to where you were going your expedition was over. So was your campaign. That's simply bad scenario design.
There's always a way forwards.
Sometimes the journey is the point. The Hobbit, or Lord of the Rings, say. But most of the time people want to get to their destination and you want them to get there too. I'm playing in a ToA campaign right now, and we plod through every hex. I know that is kind of the point, but still. I think saying "on the third day you come to the mightiest river you have ever seen - far too wide to swim across and far to deep to ford" would have had more flavour. A journey session between location sessions gives flavour, and won't burn your creativity out.
That way as well your players will know when a journey was supposed to be long and meaningful, because it took multiple sessions.
May your journeys be ever entertaining. Nobody wants to be trapped in the fantasy equivalent of the roadworks on the M6. And may you ultimately reach your destination and it be everything you ever hoped for.