Recently a friend mentioned that he's thinking of trying to do a D&D game that's more in the style of a lot of brick-thick fantasy novels. Which is to say, a large proportion of the pagecount will be devoted to travelling around. Specifically, he doesn't just want to do the kind of nominal journeys that often feature, which are mostly encounters interspersed with occasionally making camp or fording a stream. He wants the journey itself to be prominent. As so often, our discussion led to me saying I'd go away and maybe write a blogpost.
My instinct is that if you want travel to feel real (something you can get your teeth into in a game), you're going to have to pay attention to some things that games tend to (reasonably) gloss over for the sake of adventure, as well as digging out the D&D wilderness rules. Specifically, I think you need to make logistics important. Thinking back on the travel stories I've read - which includes a lot of autobiography, not just fantasy - a lot of the interest and drama and tension comes from the mundane details.
My idea, therefore, is that you probably want to de-emphasise the classic problems of "we are constantly attacked by monsters" and start worrying about things like food supplies, shelter, fatigue, rust and corrupt law enforcement.
Disclaimer: I don't have my Dungeon Master's Guide with me, so I can't refer to it. Any redundant rules or false assumptions I make, please be tolerant.
One of the big things that games tend to handwave is resting. I'm not talking about miraculous hit point recovery, that's just an artefact of genre and actually having fun in games. I'm talking about getting enough sleep, getting good quality sleep, and restfulness in general. This feels like a good starting point for establishing Meaningful Travel, because it will create decision points and tie in to other aspects of travel, as we'll see later.
It's worth noting that, as far as I can tell, sleeping does not actually exist in the 5e D&D universe other than via the sleep spell. You just "rest". I will ignore this, too.
The old Baldur's Gate CRPG series had an intriguing mechanic whereby resting was related to location quality. Not only were there areas where you simply couldn't rest (often annoyingly arbitrary), but you'd recover faster by resting in comfortable locations. Since I always played it with "rest until healed" activated, this meant you'd end up spending a month resting in a small cave a few hundred feet from an ogre to recover your HP, or you could do the same thing overnight in a posh tavern.
Obviously you can't port exactly the same thing into tabletop, but I'm going to propose is a system that does something similar.
Let's assume that locations fall into a small number of comfort categories (as regular readers will know, I really really like categories). They range from so uncomfortable that it's barely possible to rest at all, through adequate, up to Spa Weekend. When characters rest in a location, instead of the normal benefits of a rest, they take location-dependent consequences.
- Barely Tolerable: the location is deeply uncomfortable, distracting or dangerous. Characters may be knee-deep in stinking water, forced to tie themselves together to withstand howling winds, covered in biting insects, lying on a mass of jagged metal, or surrounded by loud and alarming noises. The characters can hardly rest.
- During a short rest, Hit Dice rolls for recovery are halved (but not static modifiers).
- During a long rest, the character rolls their full Hit Dice to determine how much they recover - these are not considered expended.
- In both cases, spellcasters who would normally recover all their spell slots instead regain up to half their slots at each spell level.
- In addition, the location may have one or more special effects suitable to its nature.
- Uncomfortable: the location isn't very suitable. It may be boggy ground, hard stone, exposed to weather, noisy, vulnerable to enemies, or full of fleas. The characters rest uneasily.
- During a short rest, Hit Dice rolls for recover are at two-thirds of their normal value (but not static modifiers).
- During a long rest, the character recovers half their Hit Points, then rolls half their Hit Dice as though taking a short rest (these dice are not expended, though).
- In both cases, spellcasters who would normally recover all their spell slots regain up to two-thirds of their slots at each spell level.
- In addition, the location may have one or more special effects suitable to its nature.
- Adequate: the characters rest according to the normal rules.
- Comfortable: the location is a pleasant and relaxing place. Characters recover as normal, and the location grants advantage on rolls to resist or recover from disease and poisoning while resting.
- Luxurious: the location is a pleasure to rest in, and provides all manner of comforts.
- Characters recover as normal, and the location grants advantage on rolls to resist or recover from disease and poisoning while resting.
- In addition, characters gain the Well-Rested or Clear-Headed condition until they next take a long rest.
I had trouble with the wording on spell recovery. What I want is simply for them to get half their slots back: if they have 5 3rd level slots in total, they should get 2 back whether they used one, three or five. I was struggling to find a way to articulate that.
These are lingering consequences to represent the specific physical and mental effects of particular location types. These can be resisted with a suitable roll (DC set by DM), or appropriate equipment and preparation, to deal with the particular problems of the area. These apply until the characters next take a long rest. These are just suggested samples.
I did think about these effects as I wrote them. My first thought was disadvantage, which is kind of the go-to mechanic in 5e. Although it's nasty, I tried to ensure each will only crop up occasionally; either they're limited to rare situations (Initiative rolls are fairly infrequent), allow a saving throw, or are negated as soon as they lead to serious consequences. I did deliberately pick "harm" as the trigger; I feel the DM should judge this, since it allows for non-damaging consequences to end the condition, but also prevents RAW-gaming by deliberately incurring 1 point of damage.
The alternatives I considered were:
- Disadvantage on X until the disadvantage causes a non-trivial problem. This is logically hardest to justify, but it works narratively (the problem gets one bit of spotlight time, then goes away) and limits the power of the disadvantage.
- A small (-2) penalty to X all day. This is logically consistent, but 5e is not very keen on penalties and bonuses.
- A substantial (-5) penalty to X that fades gradually. Perhaps they can roll once per hour to remove it, or perhaps it drops by one point per hour. This would nicely represent the fact that cold, grime or stiffness wear off during the day.
In the end I decided the fading mechanic was the best, but others seem okay too.
Well-Rested: the character can reroll any or all Hit Dice when they try to recover Hit Points.
Clear-Headed: the character can reroll a single failed roll based on a mental ability. If this doesn't help, they retain the use of this ability.
Waterlogged: even if they're not actually wet any more, the character feels heavy, filthy and bogged down by trying to rest in the constant damp. They suffer disadvantage on Initiative rolls.
Flea-ridden: the character is covered in insect bites, and perhaps a few lingering insects. They feel the urge to squirm and scratch constantly, and every movement makes gear and clothing rub painfully against them. The DM can call for a Wisdom saving throw (DC 15) to resist this at key moments, such as when trying to remain still and silent, impress a dignitary, or perform a complex piece of balancing. Failure mean their itchiness overcomes them, and imposes disadvantage on the roll.
Yes, I did mean Wisdom. High Constitution will save you from feeling the effects of biting at all, so you won't get the condition. Wisdom is used when you itch like anything, but try to refrain from wriggling about.
Numb: the character is distracted and insensitive to stimuli after hours of disturbance. They suffer disadvantage on Perception rolls, and other skill rolls relying primarily on their senses. The effect ends when they suffer harm as a result of the disadvantage, and regain some focus.
Aches and Pains: the character aches all over, and has strange muscle twinges, or perhaps they are chilled to the bone. They suffer disadvantage on Athletics, Acrobatics and Sleight of Hand rolls. The effect ends when they suffer harm as a result of the disadvantage.
So what is this supposed to do?
This makes things more complicated, which isn't necessarily a good thing. So why bother?
The point here is to make "where do we camp" into a non-trivial decision. The decision isn't merely "is it physically safe to camp here", but involves considering personal comfort in a way that the base rules ignore. Adventurers they may be, but they'll still be much better able to perform after a cosy night in a hotel, than after sleeping on bare rock in a heavy storm.
The characters should now have to consider factors like:
- Do we camp on this windy hillside with clear lines of sight, or make our way down into the shelter of those woods, where we're more vulnerable to attack?
- Do we make camp in this Uncomfortable boggy field, or try to push on to the next village and rent an Adequate barn to sleep in? Do we expect the villagers to be helpful?
- Do we rest now, regaining only a proportion of our hit points and spells for the next few fights, or try to fight through to a more comfortable area on limited resources?
- Do we splash out cash and possibly favours on getting a really good night's sleep, or conserve our resources?
- Do we take gear that will ameliorate the effects of poor terrain on resting, such as extra padding for rough ground or waxed groundsheets? They're bulky, so we'll need an extra pack mule.
- Do we light a fire and burn some herbs to help keep away midges, which will create light and scents that might attract enemies?
- Do we withdraw from this ruin to sleep somewhere comfortable outside and return in the morning, even though we'll have to trek two hours each way? We'll be in better condition, but it'll waste time and we won't notice if anyone else arrives.
These are the kinds of decisions that seem to happen in travelogues, which was what I'm aiming for. Moreover, it should make players care about things like terrain, local geography, settlement patterns, and something other than "what's the fastest route?" and "how likely are wandering monsters?"
Ideally, they'd also consider the cost of resting options, but D&D characters tend to have money to burn compared with the cost of goods and services for ordinary people. But maaaybe I can do something about that...
Some concrete examples
Okay, let's see how this might get applied... in the examples below I'm assuming the party has only found one resting place, but of course, the idea is that they make decisions about how far to push themselves to find somewhere better!
- The grassy landscape the party thought they were traversing has transformed into a quagmire after heavy rain, a foot deep in mud and two more in water. The best they can find is some slightly raised hillocks, where they at least aren't actually underwater. The soaking ground makes them and their bedding wet, and mud squelches horribly whenever they turn. Clouds of insects buzz around them from the marsh, seeking blood. This is Barely Tolerable and provides the Flea-ridden (Con DC 15) and Waterlogged conditions (Wis DC 15).
- The Friendly Badger Inn is the only place in the Deadmarsh Quarter where travellers can find a room during Festival. There's room for twenty people in this room, where fifty people are sleeping. The beds apparently haven't been changed since they were built ten years ago, and as well as stinking, they creak and lurch with every shift. The noise of drunken revels comes through the paper-thin walls and floors, and rats scurry about. It's a safe bet there's at least one thief in the room. This is Barely Tolerable - but still safer than trying to sleep on the streets.
- After marching for hours across stony plains, the party can find no better option than camping on the stones in the middle of an empty landscape, exposed to the wind. This is Uncomfortable, but it's possible to sleep. Thick cushioned padding would alleviate the hardness of the rock and might raise this to an Adequate.
- There's nowhere to rest in these caves but on the slippery rock; the best you can do is avoid the pools of stagnant water and dripping slime. However, the air is still and any creeping enemy would be easily heard. The party finds some lumps of rock to prop themselves against, and makes themselves merely Uncomfortable. They may also incur Aches and Pains.
- The party gets permission to camp in a field recently grazed by cows (but not so recently as to be churned up and cowpatty). It's dry, sheltered by strong hedges, near civilisation and the grass is fairly soft. This is Adequate.
- The party finds a spot in the lee of the hill, grown thick with springy heather that pads the hard rock below. It's sheltered from the wind (and to some extent, the rain), has good lines of sight for watches, and is fairly comfortable. This is also Adequate.
- Soft mosses carpet the gentle slope of this hill down to the lake. The copses nearby shut out the wind (though there isn't any on this still summer night) but are far enough away that nothing could sneak up on a sleeper. The midges from the lake don't venture this far up the hillside, and the air is warm and comforting. Birds call reassuringly all around, signalling the absence of danger. This is Comfortable and offers the Clear-Headed condition.
- The sages of the Chapel of Agyara are happy to accommodate our party in exchange for their news and a little northern wine. Honoured guests are shaved and massaged by the acolytes, and soak pleasantly in the hot springs, before a refreshing meal of roasted vegetables and succulent fungi. They drowse contentedly on couches in the guest chambers. This is a Comfortable location offering the Well-Rested condition.
- A shrine to the spirits stands here in the deep forest, now overgrown with weeds, but its power reaches out to soothe the minds of the party. As they look about for a place to rest, soft flowers weave themselves into mattresses and branches bend overhead to shade them. Nothing will harm them here. The area around the shrine is supernaturally blissful to sleep in, and somehow provides Luxurious rest.
- After their victorious quest to bring down the murderous wizard, the party are welcomed to the halls of the Guildmistress, for several days of celebration. They are offered a selection of mattresses of varying softness, and lavish down quilts. Servants dress their wounds, cut their hair, provide pedicures and rub their skin with scented oils. Rich tempting foods are provided, with musical accompaniment, and they can freely avail themselves of libraries, baths, shrines, gardens and whatever enjoyment the town can provide. This is a Luxurious rest offering both the Clear-Headed and the Well-Rested conditions.
- The Halls of the Gnald are calm and beautiful, and the Gnald offers the visitors many comforts. However, the party know they're being secretly watched, so even their sumptuous beds aren't entirely relaxing. The constant drone of temple chants also resonates through the building. This location is merely Adequate.
The party might use magic to dry out the ground in 1, since it's not currently raining. A druid might also be able to keep the insects off somehow, either providing a bonus to resist Flea-bitten or negating it entirely.
In 2, the party might be able to use a combination of money, favours they're owned and social graces to find somewhere else to stay. If not, a party with a reputation might be able to charm or intimidate other patrons into giving them a bit more space, and shutting up. Magic could again alleviate matters - fixing the furniture might be tricky, but even prestidigitation would remove the smell. They might be able to adjust this one to merely Uncomfortable.
Some kind of stone-shaping spell could create a windbreak in 3.
In many of these examples, the party could significantly improve their comfort by bringing along serious camping gear. A robust tent (and pitons for the rocky areas), cushioned pads and waterproof gear would deal with most problems. However, providing that for four adventurers would take a whole mule, due to bulk if nothing else (padded mats are big).