Toward a more realistic experience of travel in role-playing games

Posted on February 8, 2021 by mario

Travel is boring

As far as travel and traditional role-playing games go, I’m generally unsatisfied. Travel is an essential element to this genre, but it (and resource management) are one of the first things that are typically yada-yada’d away. There are probably more than a few reasons for this, but the ones that stick out to me are:

  • we’re ignorant of what the experience of travel was like in the presumed setting of our game
  • the tables you find online to spice up travel are either too particular, or too generic, or end up getting stale
  • the bookkeeping you have to do to make travel important doesn’t seem worth it
  • there are other parts of the game that the referee and the players would rather spend their time on

The last point is the one that I’m most sympathetic to. While travel is a necessary element to a traditional role-playing game, it’s not sufficient; you need dungeon-delving in addition (at least). So why not just minimize the boring parts and maximize the fun parts?

I’m also sympathetic to the third point: what’s the point in tracking distance and speed and all that if all you’re doing is rolling generic encounter rolls for enemies and such? You might as well just roll the encounters and subtract the resources and be done with it (and this is basically what 95% of what most groups do…and yes, it’s as boring as it sounds).

The second point segues into the third. You’ve decided that travel is important, which means you’ll be tracking distance and speed and all that, and so you need encounter rolls or travel is nothing other than the subtracting of rations and money, which you know is boring. So you either come up with your own encounter tables or find some online. You probably use a kind of spore type system directly or inadvertently, because the encounter tables you find in MM1/MM2/Fiend Folio are just monsters and running into goblins over and over again but no goblin poop or goblin kitchens doesn’t make any sense. The trouble is that while there are some great tables and advice for making tables, inevitably (at least for me) the tables end up getting boring. Yes, we found goblin poop, or goblin hair, or goblin whatever, again.

The first point is ultimately the one that I’m most concerned with, because I think that it’s really the missing element as far as what makes travel in role-playing games interesting or not: being at least passingly familiar with the experience of travel in the implied setting of your game. For those of you playing fantasy campaigns, you might balk. After all, what are you going to do? Email Greenwood and ask him what traveling around Faerun is like? While you can do this, (notwithstanding the erudition of Ed Greenwood) I think you can do better . Whether you’re playing a fantastical campaign, or one set in a pseudo-Earth, knowledge about the real world and what it was like in the past (or now, if you’re running a game in the present-day) will be of tremendous help in figuring out what your campaign world is like and keeping your games interesting. When all you have are elephants, lions, and humans, you can mish-mash the three only so many times before you’ve exhausted (for all practical purposes) those three ideas (and you can see this sort of thing happen in MM1/MM2/Fiend Folio with Giant Rats and Lion-Hippo combinations; I’m not saying it’s a bad thing…it’s an unavoidable thing; we’re constrained by what we know when coming up with novel ideas). Ultimately, you need more knowledge to make new, better ideas.

Travel doesn’t have to be boring

I hope I’ve convinced you that the reason why travel in role-playing games is boring is because our knowledge of travel in the medieval period or early-modern period is lacking. But the solution to this is fairly straightforward: read more, and then make better tables. This is easier said than done. When we’re ignorant of something, we’re usually also ignorant of the fact that we’re ignorant of that thing, which makes rectifying our ignorance about the thing that much harder. So, assume for the time being that you recognize that you’re ignorant of what it was like to travel in the pre-modern period. Onto step 2, which is finding out what to read. I’d suggest typing some keywords into google books or jstor or google search. But there are two concrete recommendations in particular I’d like to make:

  • The Time Traveler’s Guide Series, by Ian Mortimer
  • Travel in England in the Seventeenth Century, by Joan Parkes

There are three books published in The Time Traveler’s Guide series so far: one for Medieval Britain, one for Elizabethan Britain, and one for Restoration Britain. All of them are still in print, and each of them is excellent. They’re written for a popular audience, so they don’t go into a ton of detail, but the author gives an abundance of information about a given period that you can immediately start using in your campaigns. The notes/works referenced are also very helpful, should you choose to go down this dark path. These books don’t focus on travel per se, but they talk about it to some degree.

The second book was published in the 1920s by Oxford University Press, and as of writing, there’s a digital version on that you can read for free. I purchased a hardcover copy of the book reprinted by OUP on amazon for less than $5.00 (it comes with an excellent reproduction of a map of roads published in the late 17th century in the back); a library was selling it. This book is pretty faultless. The table of contents gives a very good idea of what to expect: roads (and why they absolutely sucked), bridges (and why you should make the sign of the cross before you crossed them), watches (99% of adventuring parties would immediately get detained upon coming into a town; you needed a license to travel, or you needed to be obviously wealthy), wains, wagons, coaches, stage-wagons, stage-coaches, post-horses, the mail and why it sucked to be mailman, Thames wherrymen rioting for the destruction of coaches…it goes on, and on. If you think that travel is a boring subject, I’ve got news for you buddy. Please, please read this book, if only the first chapter.

As a follow-up post, I’m going to create a set of tables inspired by the book by Joan Parkes; it’s meant to serve as an example of how to take a book meant for an academic or popular audience and turn it into a set of utilities that are useful at the table.