Thursday, August 7, 2014

Rpg Reflections, The Journey (1) – How to make Traveling feel vivid and engaging?

Traveling, one of the central point of many a story
- How to make them engaging during a game -

(Summary TL;DR)

. Journeys are usually resolved in a very mechanical manner during rpg games, giving more importance to their logistics (distance, kind of mount used, movement rate of the party etc.) instead of focusing on their narrative aspects and possibilities for player interaction with the world.

. It is possible to create more engaging journeys by making the players participate directly with them, giving their characters explorer jobs (hunter, scout, watcher, guide) and making 'travel tests' in order to create scenes that deal with the tribulations of a journey.


Few images in fiction are more evocative or instill the imagination more than travels towards distant lands, different people and forgotten realms (ha!). Be that in movies like Star Wars, in electronic games like Final Fantasy or in books as in the Lord of The Rings, the journey is one of the main troupes in every great saga.

However, in most rpg games, there are few or none discussions surrounding that subject, on how to make the Journey a crucial and essential point in an adventure. In most of the times, a journey becomes just the mechanical calculus of the different variables related to the journey: the distance to be threaded upon, the movement rate per day by the group, the supplies etc.

In the Dungeon Master guide of 2 nd edition AD&D, for example, there is an entire chapter dedicated solely to 'Time and Movement', detailing land movement, sea movement, the use of various kinds of mounts and even tips for how to make a calender ingame. However, there are no descriptions on how to create a scene of a journey similar to that we see in fiction, engaging and immersing into the game world. This kind of conduct repeats itself in many other rpg books – be they new or old.

Weird vistas and great opportunities for interaction
- Journeys are more than only survival tests -
At most, it is discussed on how to make survival rolls and random encounters. In regards to survival, everything boils down to a few dice roll to see if the characters are able to stay on route, gather food and things like that. Normally, such rolls have little to do with the main adventure, e works mostly as purely 'mechanical' than something to add to the story. In regards to random encounters, they try to simulate the unexpected events that may happen during a travel. Most of the time, they can be resumed to combat encounters – something similar to the style of electronic rpgs like Final Fantasy. However, some random encounter tables may have also natural disasters (rain, storms, land slides), social encounters (wandering traders and artists), hidden places (abandoned houses, lost ruins) and things like that.

Those two details – survival rolls and random encounters – add a little more life to travels; but they yet are not enough to engage truly the players. For the survival rolls are too mechanical and abstract and less endearing, and the random encounters are, at most, independent from the character's action and, therefore, feel 'detached' of feeling.

How so can it be done to emulate scenes that we see in fiction, like when, in The Hobbit, the dwarves were unable to light the bonfire. Or when in The Lord of the Rings, Sam and Frodo, together with Gollum, go towards Mordor crossing dangerous and impressive landscapes? Those scenes were more than just simple survival rolls and random encounters. They had a proper pacing and evocative imagery. Is it possible to simulate those in a mechanical point of view?

Here enters The Oner Ring, one of the first (maybe the first, but I'm not sure) rpgs to deal with Journeys with as much importance to an adventure as Combat Encounters or Social Encounters. The system mechanics try to emulate exactly that kind of journey seen in those books and in other works of fiction – both the logistics side of it and the narrative one.

Adventurers meet a maiden near the forest
- Traveling can be a source of curious interactions -
Resuming in a few words, The One Ring journey system requires that the group decides the path that they will take and count the number of days that the travel will take. Based on the total of days on the road, the system establishes a number of 'Travel Rolls' that the group must do during the journey. These travel rolls are similar to the survival rolls with other systems, where the challenge rating depends on how dangerous and hostile is the place which the characters travel through.

Knowing how many travel rolls are needed, the group must decide which character will fill the exploratory jobs of hunter, scout, watcher and guide. With all set, each character makes their travel roll. Each one of those rolls represent not one day of travel, but a part of the whole journey. With the result of those rolls, the GM may invoke a happening, either a complication (if the rolls were bad) or something good (if the rolls were very successful).

For example, supposing that the players want to make a journey through a mountain pass, which will take 10 days and need 3 travel rolls. In the travel roll, the hunter fails. So the GM look upon the table of complications derived from a failed hunt roll and he may either chose one or random roll it. It may be that the hunter was targeting a deer that a mountain lion was also interested with, and the lion attacks the hunter. Or maybe the prey that he got was ill and all characters must make a saving throw against poison. Now, on the second travel roll, let's say that the guide roll a critical success. The GM may now choose a good happening related to the guide, and say that they found a passage through the mountains – an old tunnel. After a little bit of exploration through ancient forgotten ruins of a dwarven settlement, the group is able to transverse the mountains, shortening the travel and needing only 2 travel rolls instead of 3.

Travel rolls alow interaction with the game world
(Forest Bridge, by Pavel Elagin)
As it can be seen, this makes the Journey much more interesting for the players and the GM. Different from the generic Survival tests, each character happen to contribute to the game. Instead of random events disassociated with the rolls, those are motivated directly by what each character does. Traveling becomes a crucial part of the adventure and the GM has the chance to create vivid depictions of land, people, weather, making the experience more immersive for all.

And what about you? Have you tried the mechanics of The One Ring, or have you did something similar in your games? How have you been dealing with journeys? I hope this post helps showing different ways to make traveling more exciting. I intend, in the future, elaborate more about the details of it and how to adapt that system to other rpgs.

Until then,

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