Five Quick Tips To Solve Boring Travel Encounters
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #674
- Improving Travel Encounters
- Provide A Background For The Encounter
- How & Why
- Then Add Because
- Expand Versus Demonstrate
- Get Into The Nitty Gritty Details Of Travel
- Add New Environmental Challenges
- Plan In-Pocket Encounters For Use At Any Time
- Reveal Important Information
- Grab A Theme, Any Theme!
- Less Is More
- Three Facts
- Let The Players Carry The Weight
- Convey Setting Information Through The Setting
Improving Travel Encounters
In my Murder Hobos campaign I could be doing a better job making road and wilderness encounters more interesting. I think my players are fine with travel encounters in the campaign so far, but I’m looking to get more out of them as GM.
The biggest gap is plot relevance. How to tie random road encounters back to the campaign or adventure plot?
The second gap I want to close is the intrinsic gameplay in my travel encounters. Why are they fun, regardless of plot ties or not? The last few have been combat focused, and those combats have had the party wade in toe-to-toe with foes. That gets stale fast.
Here are some tips for you and me to improve our travel encounters.
Provide A Background For The Encounter
Create a brief background story for each travel encounter you design.
A little bit of background material, even just a sentence or two, will improve the encounter:
- Fun to GM because it is now more than just a few statistics
- Helps you develop the campaign area in bite-sized pieces
- Gives you information for inspiration during or after the encounter
- Makes it easier to GM the encounter during the game
How & Why
A quick background creation format is How and Why. Ask yourself, how did the current situation develop and why?
For example, say you have a bandit encounter staged. But bandits don’t just camp by the road waiting for unlucky adventurers. So let’s develop a quick background for the encounter:
The How: They have an informant tipping them off when suitable targets will be leaving the city and taking a route ripe for ambush.
The Why: The bandit leader is the bastard of a local noble and has resorted to banditry to raise funds for a small army.
Then Add Because
For bonus points, tie the encounter back to your plot. Ask yourself, is there anyone with ulterior motives involved? If yes, tie these motives back to one of your plots, side plots, or PCs. That’s the key – to tie back to an existing campaign element.
Doing this adds a relationship to an existing plot instead of creating a new plot. This creates depth vs. breadth over time. Depth is always more manageable than breadth. And it gives players more to ponder as they try to figure out all the layers and connections instead of your campaign just being a one-dimensional assembly line of random new experiences.
To create an ulterior motive put a “because” in your Why statement.
The bandit leader is the bastard of a local noble and has resorted to banditry to raise funds for a small army because…
A classic response is the bastard plans a coup. Or revenge. Or to get the princess. All great plot ties.
However, what if your plot is about something else that doesn’t involve local politics? To tie your travel encounter to that, include your villain in the Because statement and add a verb for the motive.
The bandit leader is the bastard of a local noble and has resorted to banditry to raise funds for a small army because… he wants to [VERB] the villain.
The verb lets you pivot this encounter however you want. You don’t even have to decide this ahead of time. You can see how the encounter plays out.
Ideas for the verb:
- Rescue _____ from
The bandit leader is the bastard of a local noble and has resorted to banditry to raise funds for a small army because he wants to rob the villain.
Now you’ve got a new layer added to your road encounter that ties back to your plot. You’ve got more depth, a possible ally for clever players, or a new pawn if your group plays that way.
The potential alternative is more campaign sprawl, which I find harder to manage and leads me to frustration. If the bandits were just rando NPCs with no plot ties, then it’s a boring encounter and a time waster. And if the bandit leader was wanting to come out of exile and overthrow his mean father, and that has nothing to do with your plot, then you’ve just introduced this new thread to your campaign, which is the sprawl I was talking about.
Expand Versus Demonstrate
Not every travel encounter using this technique needs to expand your plot. That’s more potential sprawl. You could use How, Why, and Because to instead demonstrate the effects of your plot. This is a fantastic way to fulfill the advice show, don’t tell.
Use demonstration to motivate or hook your players to hate the villain, join the conflict, or sympathize with victims.
The How: Local bandits have an informant tipping them off when suitable targets leave the city and take a route ripe for ambush.
The Why: The bandit leader is the bastard of a local noble and has resorted to banditry….
Because… people are starving and dying of disease from the villain’s cruel minions terrorizing the region and destroying crops and killing clerics.
Here there’s no coup planned, plot expansion, or campaign sprawl. It’s victims trying to survive. Another reason to hate the bad guy and take him down. And a bit more depth for your campaign where the consequences of unchecked evil are demonstrated to the PCs.
It’s difficult to keep on top of all the events of your campaign area and make it seem alive and dynamic. We have our hands full just dealing with the PCs, and soon it seems as if the world starts to revolve around the party.
However, outdoor and travel encounters are a perfect opportunity to make your world change and move on regardless of the PCs’ presence. Adding a little background to each encounter is a great way to help you do this, as demonstrated with the bandits.
Another background enhancement idea is to link some encounters to the PCs. However, if you’re struggling with a static game world, then be careful not to make the encounters start to revolve around the PCs again. Just look for some small way to make it personal for the PCs.
In our bandit example, we haven’t asked the Who? question yet. One possibility could be, who is the informant?
For a minor link, you could make the informant be the innkeeper who hosted the PCs’ stay. The innkeeper runs to a bandit scout in town who then rides off ahead of victims to alert the bandit leader. This would definitely make your game more interesting if the PCs were to learn about the connection.
For a major link, perhaps the bandit leader, bandit group member, or the informant is related to a PC. That would be an interesting turn of events. A cousin, or son of a childhood best friend. Pick an NPC out of the PC’s life and make the connection. People tell me all the time how it’s a small world when coincidental relationships get discovered. Put this to effect in yours.
Use this technique to make travel not just interesting but connected to your campaign. Add depth not sprawl:
- Ask how
- Ask why
- Add because
- Add a PC tie-in
A nice, four step method to enhance your games.
Get Into The Nitty Gritty Details Of Travel
Without slowing play to a halt and turning a short travel stretch into a three session snore-fest, challenge the PCs with the discomfort and hazards of traveling. An easy way to do this is to think about the details of travel:
- Weather: its effects on progress, equipment, supplies and morale
- Food, water, supplies: spoiled, lost, damaged
- Navigation, directions, route: getting lost, taking long routes, dangerous choices
- Travel equipment: broken-in boots, vehicle maintenance, can-opener
- Flora and fauna: bug repellent, rashes and stings, poisonous plants and animals
For example, the party is delivering a message to the archbishop of a neighboring city. Two of the characters have social aspirations and would like to turn the archbishop into a powerful acquaintance, or even an ally. However, during the trip, the PCs stumble into huge clouds of ravenous mosquitoes. Now, instead of a professional and composed meeting with the archbishop, the characters show up with scabby red welts all over their faces and arms, and often scratch at things unknown beneath their clothing. To add insult to injury, the message scroll is covered with bloody mosquito kills because it made a better swatter than a sword.
Another example would be to quickly gather the party’s character sheets and equipment supply and check if they brought enough food with them. If not, then let this journey become known as “the squirrel soup” adventure. 🙂
Use the categories above to imagine the pesky details of travel. Even modern and space travel can get uncomfortable. Envision the details in your mind and then turn them into quick anecdotes during your description of travel to make the game immersive and fun.
Add New Environmental Challenges
One thing I’m guilty of is to assume, except for terrain and weather, the environment pretty much stays the same during trips. Thanks to a subscriber tip submission from Stanton, I’ve learned about all the things I’ve been missing! Here are Stanton’s tips:
A long list of unspoken taboos and unique criminal offenses should keep the PCs on their toes. Something mundane like eating in public, talking to a person outside one’s caste, or accidentally wearing the “royal” color can put the party in trouble with locals.
Disease & Toxins
From minor allergies to killer viruses, travelers have to be careful of invisible hazards the locals built up immunity to long ago. The issue cuts both ways – the cliche of a traveler’s “common cold” triggering a global plague is always a real fear to port authority officials.
Note, some hazards like radiation is lethal to everything and no normal being builds up resistance.
Locals know the Great Ravinoxarus comes out of hibernation to mate at this time each decade. Too bad nobody mentioned the Great Ravinoxarus to the visiting off-worlders who just left camp for some sightseeing.
Imagine the problems that arise when an off-world trader’s phrase, “Please adopt our Imperial standards” gets mistranslated to the locals as “Please become the parental guardian of our Imperial representatives.” And what happens when the kind-hearted locals agree?
Off-worlders in heavier gravity find themselves awkward, tired, and distracted while their bodies adjust. Likewise, a weaker gravity world seems “bouncy” and can cause light-headedness and accidents until acclimated.
An exceptionally cold, hot, dry, or humid world may seem comfortable to the locals, while off-worlders shiver, cough, or sweat their way across the landscape.
Entry tax, exit tax, road tax, guild fees, ministry dues, carrier service fees, national tariffs, holiday tax, baronial duties….
Regional bureaucrats might have redundant taxes on top of local rulers, and then the “shadow” rulers, criminal gangs, and merchant guilds all seek their due. Some could be bribed or ignored, while others might be fanatical misers willing to pursue tax dodgers to the realm’s farthest borders. PCs might find smuggling an easy way to go, though such a tact has its risks.
Government Surveillance & Intervention
What if a planet’s medical records system is watched carefully by the government, which holds the rights to specific genetic mutations? A character trips one of these tests and government agents insist on detaining the PC indefinitely as cellular property of the state. (“Our study only takes a few years until a stable clone is made.”)
Plan In-Pocket Encounters For Use At Any Time
To ease GMing on-the-fly, create a few travel encounters in advance.
Make a list of typical and not so typical travel encounters that could happen in the region. Scour monster manuals.
Pick six encounter ideas or seeds that you find interesting. Think of one idea for each seed on how you could make that encounter different or unique through a campaign plot connection, location twist, or PC connection.
Use How, What & Because to add a short background to each of the six encounters.
Feel free to leave Because blank until the encounter triggers so you can integrate it into your campaign once you know the context.
You now have a list of encounters that, depending on the background detail you give them, you can drop in when travel gets boring or taken for granted by the players.
Reveal Important Information
Use travel to introduce clues and hooks to keep campaign momentum going. Depending on how much game time you want to spend on the trip, you could give a short description or monologue of the juicy plot information discovered, or get interactive and let the PCs investigate briefly and then move on.
For example, you could introduce a new villain by having the party discover the smoking ruins of a village just raided and razed. Or, perhaps the villain’s carriage runs the PCs off the road.
Or you have a traveler provide interesting news about things happening in other lands to help the PCs learn more about your game world. (As a related tip, information tends to get more accurate as you get closer to the source, so feel free to spread those wild rumours.)
Or, you could simply introduce a new type of flower that could become important later on.
One subscriber wrote in with this great example of slowly revealing information during an upcoming travel encounter:
My party was hearing rumors of bandits on the Mithril Way (a caravan trail) and there was a huge reward. As they slowly got closer to that area they learned the bandits were lead by ogres…twin ogres…the twin ogre heroes, Og and M’og…who wear the hides of dragons…one wields an orc double-axe, the other a dire-flail…”
Each snippet revealed builds ever-more anticipation and makes travel more interesting along the Mithril Way than just ambushing the party with Og and M’og. Good job!
Keep your campaign moving as you keep the PCs moving during travel transitions between plotted locations. Have a half dozen encounter seeds in your back pocket to unleash. Use How, Why & Because to connect travel encounters to create campaign depth instead of campaign sprawl. Do this and travel in your games will become more interesting.
Thanks To The Following For Tips, Advice & Inspiration:
Ranko M., LoneWolf, Aki H., Matt, Maarten vB., Delos, Trent D., banshee, Dwayne T., raven wing, Darin Y., Peter N., Abdel, Michael B., Mad Myrddin, Bradley P., Stanton, David U., Doug C., Bill C., James P., AG.
Brief Word From Johnn
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Planet X: Five Simple Steps To Create Worlds On The Fly
From Nicholas William Moll
Whisper “Hive World” and “Death World” in a Warhammer 40K game and your players will instantly know what kind of situation they’re walking into. You want to create evocative worlds like these in your campaign, and often you’ll use tables, charts, and planetary archetypes to do that on-the-fly during sessions. But the downside of the table method of world-building is it’s time consuming. It takes time to roll the dice, check the result, align it with other results, and present it with an evocative twist. This approach can drain precious gameplay time and kill the energy as players wait for you to come up with something.
What I propose in the following tips is a quick and simple method I use to develop planets, worlds, and cultures on the fly with zero preparation and without any pre-written tools such as tables or charts. It involves enlisting your players’ help, but that makes the game more personal and engaging for everyone. Here’s my approach:
Grab A Theme, Any Theme!
Grab the first theme that pops into your head. One word is sufficient.
Part of the art with building worlds on the fly is it doesn’t have to be grand or glorious, just basic enough for players to grab it in a heartbeat, but also enticing so players can imagine what might be there in terms of geography, history, inhabitants, and so forth. Indeed, “might” is the key word when working with ad hoc setting creation. Leave the history, geography, nations, politics, and all the rest. All that comes in time. But in that first moment, you don’t need anything beyond enough of a theme to spark the imagination of the players.
Imagine the looks on their faces when you lean forward and tell them, “The planet is made entirely out of diamond.” Suddenly, the questions begin to flow… “Is it natural or did something make it? Is it inhabited? What’s on the surface – trees and stuff?” And the answers can be knee-jerk and obvious. “Your scanners are picking up a number of different continental regions. And life forms. And some advanced technology….”
Remember, though, not to say too much. Part of this method, as we’ll discuss later, is letting the players carry the weight in a reciprocal manner that lets the setting grow organically. And too much input from the game master beyond a few simple prompts and details can stifle that organic growth.
Less Is More
Concentrating on the evocative aspects of a setting tends to be a strength. It doesn’t matter if there was a war two-thousand years ago that completely reformed the landscape if the current adventure has nothing to with that. For example, a few years ago I ran a Dungeons and Dragons game set in a world made of living metal. It didn’t matter that this world was made ten-thousand years prior by a Golem-Goddess. The party was dealing with a cult of necromancers draining the life-force from the world to build an undead army, causing the landscape to rust. The focus of the campaign was on a very immediate militaristic and ecological crisis. So I concentrated on the necromancy and ecology of this setting.
In a way, what I am recommending is not that a GM should trim the fat from a setting made on the fly, but instead to not put fat in the world at all. Relating this back to themes, if the players are heading to a planet of vampires, then concentrate on making it a planet of vampires and nothing more. Does it have a sun? What’s the architecture like? Do they have underground cities to accommodate the population’s aversion to sunlight?
With theme chosen, limit the information you provide players about the planet, world, or culture to three items, no more. Generally, the first piece of information will prompt or imply a second, which will then naturally lead onto a third. While there is a natural inclination to keep adding and developing the setting, stopping at three is typically enough to present the players with.
For example, if the culture is one made up of Frankenstein monsters, one might wonder what their currency might be – body parts perhaps. Where do they get them? Human victims. How do they acquire them? A mixture of human trafficking used for donors in black medical markets. These are then our three facts to present to players: The culture of Frankenstein monsters uses body parts as currency, acquired from human victims via black medical markets.
Let The Players Carry The Weight
At this point, you should have a general idea of the planet, world, or culture they have presented their players with. While it is tempting to keep adding information, a powerful method of letting the setting grow in an ad hoc fashion is to let the players carry the development further forward. Sacrifice a little power as omnipotent narrator to the players. Thus the player’s suggestions of hypothesis regarding the setting are treated as definite possibilities. Likewise, take the player’s reactions to the setting as a chance to expand and explore the setting’s existing theme. Maybe the human character on a planet populated solely by robots might go looking for a snack. This is an opportunity to describe what robots eat – if they eat anything at all.
There are automatic implications for this kind action from the players that help build and expand the setting. Without food, for instance, the logical conclusion is to say the planet has no agriculture. Sometimes the logical conclusions and implications players jump to will contradict the pre-written details of an adventure. This becomes an impromptu world-building opportunity. Let’s say the adventure on the robot planet without food has a trip to a farm written into it. Sure, you could alter the details and say the farm is an oil refinery. Or you could shrug and be as cryptic as the sphinx and let players draw their own conclusions – pure export, perhaps – selecting the most valid and interesting hypothesis players think up.
Convey Setting Information Through The Setting
Don’t tell players about the setting yourself. Have non-player characters or the players’ own actions generate knowledge and understanding of the planet, world, or community. If players have some sort of scanning device, use that. If they talk to the inhabitants of a city, roll with that instead. Don’t worry if it feels artificial, it’s a common literary device from H.P. Lovecraft to Gene Roddenberry. The convention is used because it works and its familiar – the setting, however, is not familiar and needs to be made that way. This also allows you to cover for the fact you don’t know all the ins and outs of the setting you’ve just created. If you have no idea how the economy works in your setting, then maybe ditch or swap the accountant non-player character for another one.
This method of creating worlds, planets, cultures, and settings will not give detailed campaigns play spaces the likes of Forgotten Realms or the Dryden Universe. But it does contain the seed for a larger and more detailed setting to grow. And it will ultimately provide enough details for the players to become interested. Let the players get a little bit carried away, let them run with their ideas for the setting, and then pull them back in with a few simple “yes”, “no” or “yes but with the addition of” or “no, except in these circumstances” statements. Your game will be all the more fun with for a little imaginative contribution from everyone at the table.
[Comment from Johnn: I didn’t get an author blurb from Nic, so let me do a quick one for him. 🙂 Nicholas William Moll contributes to the Dryden Experiment, a cool, collaborative setting of universes we can all for gaming and fiction use thanks to their Creative Commons 4.0 BY-SA license. Get the full scoop about the Dryden Experiment at their website and Facebook page.]