September 25, 2013
Traveling: The Shorter Road
Travel is a part of storytelling. The journey of the hero has been a part of myth and legend for as long as such stories have been told, and the same is true of role-playing games. Characters travel the land, kingdom to kingdom, city to city, world to world even. They take up quests that take them to the far reaches of the land and beyond, doing heroic deeds for the good of those people unable to take up such quests themselves. The difficulty is, there are two big problems with travel; it takes time and it can be very boring.
So, what do you do about that? Well, the simple answer that most Gamemaster’s default to is the fabled “random encounter,” where something exciting happens along the road. Usually its bandits or some sort of random monster, the characters do battle with these seemingly unimportant foes, and they continue on. If there is a really long journey, sometimes the Gamemaster will even throw multiple random encounters at the party, or even resort to using some sort of random encounter generator made famous by good old Dungeons & Dragons. Players tick off days of trail rations from their character’s inventory and hope their Gamemaster does not drone on too long about how long it takes their characters to get to where they are going. This is why travel is often ignored, or “hand-waved,” for the sake of story pacing. Saying “your characters travel for twenty days across grassy fields and through dark forests” is what you can usually expect from doing that. Is it the most exciting? No, but then again, travel is rarely the most exciting thing about a story. Sure, the journey is often considered more important than the destination, but this hardly seems the case when there is a fire-breathing dragon waiting for you in the mountains up ahead or some world-shattering apocalypse you have to prevent. In games where your characters have an objective to achieve that you have set for them, skipping the needless travel might not be a bad idea.
This is why, while I do not encourage hand-waving all the travel your characters have to do, it can sometimes be the best method of continuing your story. Do it every time and it will feel as though your characters have a “fast travel” system, which might actually be the case in games where magic and teleportation exists. If you do not want the flow of your story bogged down by in-game weeks of travel time, skip it. Simple as that. However, sometimes it can be a good idea to make the travel an adventure all of its own – more on that later.
I know several Gamemasters who have made a point of limiting/eliminating needless travel from their games by having something of a centralized location for their player characters: a city that acts as a home base in which all of their adventures take place in, or a small kingdom. The Dresden Files game does this fairly well by making the city itself as much of a character as anything else. For some games, this works very well. For others, the question of “why does everything happen here” becomes a bit too much and the desire to explore and experience new places and things lures the characters in. You cannot avoid travel in your games forever, after all, so you had better decide how you plan on handling it.
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