Friday, 19 February 2016

Travelogues: other little bits

There's a few bits of thoughts about travelogues that I wanted to get down, but don't really fit in. These just relate to the kinds of things that characters might contend with when travelling, which don't necessarily get much attention in mechanics designed for a more adventuring style of play, but which might offer some opportunities for interest.

This depends to some extent on the nature of the journey. Is the travelogue genuinely through actual wilderness, with never another human in sight bar perhaps a hunter or hermit? Or is it, more plausibly, through a succession of towns, villages and farming communities, with breaks of perhaps a few weeks across entirely unsettled regions? If the latter, are they unsettled because they're utterly inimical to life (in which case, a bad choice for travel), because they're full of monsters (a different kind of challenge), because they're actually occupied by wandering communities like hunter-gatherers or roving herdspeople, or because they're reserved for use by powerful nobles (in which case gamekeepers and soldiers are to be expected)?

All the following is just bits of ideas I've had.

The law

Fantasy games tend to be faux-mediaeval in their settings, which means there ought to be a lot of laws out there for the characters to encounter. "Laws" range from actual legal documents to traditional practices to simply the whim of powerful warlords, but nevertheless, they exist. Many of them are oddly specific, arbitrary, and enforced strongly by harsh punishments.

Territories are an obvious problem for adventuring parties, and even more so in a fantasy world where it's not just nations but species you need to worry about. What kind of permissions are needed to travel? Do the adventurers bear tokens from a king, church or other regional power that grant them rights of passage? We're used to the idea you can basically go where you like, but that's not necessarily the case. Entering the land of another noble might mark you as a possible spy. Leaving the land of your own overlord might require permission.

Local customs might also apply. Travellers might be expected to stop and bid good-day to the spirits at the Auspicious Bridge, or risk a beating. Carrying certain weapons openly (or even possessing them) may be banned in certain lands, often for fear of bandits or poachers. All travellers might have to pay their respects at a particular temple or offer a gift to a local warlord. Hunting certain animals, digging certain plants, or trespassing in sacred groves are likely causes of trouble - and ignorance of the law is rarely an excuse.


Although adventurers tend to forage and look after themselves, there's still plenty of financial issues to consider.

So, how much money can the party conveniently carry around? Gold is heavy and it attracts thieves. You either need banks (and therefore a functional banking system), letters of credit from influential people which works a little bit like banks for letting you "take out" money in cities, or valuable commodities like gems and small magical items, that can be exchanged at cities en route.

A moderate quantity is fine, but most characters should really be leaving a lot of their stash in a retirement fund somewhere secure. You just can't carry 20000gp apiece around the countryside just in case. If you don't, though, what can you actually afford to buy en route? Carrying gems is efficient, but not necessarily useful. Few people are capable of identifying gems, and virtually nobody in the wilderness or countryside will have those skills (perhaps the odd geologist, miner or trader). That means you can't easily exchange them, since they might just as well be pieces of glass. There are certainly children, trusting people and rubes who will take them, but most of those people don't have gold to exchange for them.

Another issue is that in the countryside there are fewer people with gold full stop. Worldwide most trade will be done in small amounts with low-denomination coins. Adventurers are used to gold because they loot it from monsters and tombs, and because they often deal with valuable goods and visit cities where there are plenty of people buying expensive goods in bulk (as well as all the peasants spending coppers). In the wilderness, most of that high-value trade doesn't happen.

There are two main effects of this. One, people are less likely to be comfortable using gold. They may not be able to tell if it's genuine, for a start; they may be terrified of having it because it makes them a target for thieves; and they may know that it'll be hard to spend because nobody else will accept it. So much like gems, they may not accept gold from passing adventurers. Two, if adventurers sell goods or try to change valuables, most of the money will tend to come as low-denomination currency: silvers, even coppers. Never mind trying to carry a few thousand gold around for hundreds of miles; try doing it with huge sacks of copper.

That means the party will likely need to earn their keep as they go, and save money where they can.

Travel costs

Historically, travel was not free, and it's reasonable to assume that all kinds of petty costs will arise. Many roads charged tolls for their use, so adventurers will need to fork out regular small amounts when travelling between towns and villages. Pack animals and carts attracted extra costs, and some of the supplies brought by adventurers might attract further tolls. Tollkeepers will demand to inspect their goods to ensure no smuggling is going on, and if things like sacks of gold are being carried around, they may well need to send for a local magistrate or sheriff to check nothing unlawful is happening. Letters of passage and royal seals may help somewhat, but can't be relied on to guarantee free passage, especially over long distances.

In uninhabited regions this will be less of a concern due to the lack of roads. Elsewhere, going off the road to avoid charges is possible but not necessarily wise, since this will be trespassing, a crime which may land them in court. In some cases landowners are permitted to arrest trespassers, and attack those who resist or flee. A party of adventurers will likely have little trouble beating down or killing a couple of angry farmers, but should expect to be hunted down by the sheriff (or a violent mob) if they attempt it. Basically: laws apply, even to adventurers.

Entering some towns will attract further charges. Weapons and other important equipment may be held at the gate, and a charge may be made either to store them or to retrieve them on leaving. The same applies to certain categories of goods. Taxes may apply to goods, even if they're for personal use.

Don't forget bribes, either. There are plenty of officials and guards who will cheerfully take the opportunity to try and chisel money out of strangers, especially strangers who seem to have spare money. Some will do so openly, offering adventurers the chance to skip queues at the gates, avoid searches or retain weapons for a small sum - this is basically a transaction they can choose to take. Some will try extortion, demanding "taxes" or other charges with the implied or explicit threat of legal trouble, property damage (destructive searches, confiscation) or even violence - the danger presented by each depends partly on whether their superiors will tend to support them if challenged.

There are also people will simply try to cheat the adventurers by inflating charges, or claiming they owe taxes or fees that do not legally apply. They won't necessarily be explicit about this either - a clerk might reel off a list of fees and offer incomprehensible legal definitions if questioned about them, but they might also just present a summary document with a total, and only try to justify if it anyone complains. If the adventurers do suspect cheating, unless they can simply stare down the cheats, they may need to waste time calling on a series of bureaucrats, or reading up on the local laws.

Trade and so on

There's also likely to be plenty of opportunities for trade along the way. Substantial roads will attract wayside inns, and usually they're either designed to link existing settlements, or people choose to settle near them. In many places the sensible routes (roaded or otherwise) for adventurers to follow will pass by many town, villages and farms. They can expect to buy provisions, repair clothing, replace broken equipment, and pay for information or services.

Often it's possible to hire local guides - adults are typically occupied with their trades, but will send their children to guide the strangers a few miles for a small sum. Older folk with good knowledge of the area are another option. Some areas will have beggars or people with no other work (especially poor regions or places where war or famine has occurred) who will be glad of the money, although not all of these can be trusted - some might be working with local bandits or thieves to rob strangers.

When trading for supplies, consider carefully whether people will actually sell those items, and for how much. In poor areas prices may be low in general; on the other hand, they might see a chance to bring in some much-needed money by racking up prices for travellers with few options (and who could blame them?). Villages that struggle to feed themselves may be very reluctant to sell food - you can't eat gold, so unless the adventurers can offer something that will keep their families fed, why sell at all? In these cases bartering services may be far better: the party is likely to have divine healing, and expert knowledge that might help the villagers improve their quality of life, or spells that could do them significant favours. A druid might advise them on better places to plant crops, and a Nature-proficient character might recommend different crops to plant. A wizard's magic might help them track down good places to dig a well, and then dig the well for them (a long and sometimes dangerous task for a village). Warriors might help them improve their defences against marauders, or simply lend their strength to difficult work, such as removing rocks from the land.

"Black Inns" are a real possibility in many areas. These inns keep an eye out for strangers who seem vulnerable: lone soldiers returning from the wars, traders whose movements aren't well-known, wandering priests and scholars, and anyone who they don't think will be traced. The adventurers aren't likely to fall into this category as they're generally several travelling together, but they might well discover a black inn operating and it could be a fun side adventure. Black inns quietly arrange to dispose of their victims: some simply slip in by night to cut their throats, while others try poisoned wine, deadly snakes slipped in through a vent, toxic gases, and other subtle techniques. In a magical setting, a variety of spells could incapacitate a victim while they are drowned, smothered, or just carried outside and murdered. Certain black inns like to recycle their victims into the food chain, but it's relatively rare. Georgette Heyer's short story "Night at the Inn" from Pistols for Two is a good illustration. I've read of historical examples in south-west England linked to the ultra-violent smuggling and wrecking trade.


Animals are a particular sticking point - beyond the cities and nobles' compounds, or those regions where horse-breeding is a key part of culture, few people have spare horses. Horses, donkeys and mules are vital tools that keep people alive, and are hard to replace. Good-quality work animals require breeding and training, and the breeding often involves delicate negotiation for stud rights from well-regarded animals, or longstanding rights to the offspring of high-quality mares. The bloodline may have been in the family for generations. Farmers aren't going to just sell off their draft horse to someone with a couple of gold pieces - let alone sell four horses and six pack animals to a group of strangers.

Another problem is that horses may well be earmarked for war. Farmers and commoners (and even minor nobles) may not truly own their animals, as nobles may have the right to requisition them for military use. In some cultures all horses might legally belong to the king, and usage rights are passed down to nobles (and thence to farmers) in the same way as land.

A likely possibility is that the adventurers can only rent animals, or perhaps borrow them as a favour. They would agree to leave the animals in the care of a relative of the owner a few days' travel away, or at the next town in the care of an inn. Many inns operate exactly this kind of service, allowing vehicle users to change horses regularly; the animals are rested and fed at the inn, and eventually either taken back by another traveller, or brought back by employees. Adventurers might choose to steal them, of course, but will run into legal trouble. My impression is that historically people were very serious about horse theft, and execution was often the default penalty.


A travelling party has lots of opportunities to hire extra help, but it's not necessarily quite as simple as the rulebooks make out.

First off, hiring people to drive your carts, pack animals, care for horses and armour etc. costs money. The rulebook presents some basic costs, but isn't specifically designed for travelogues. We can reasonably say this basic wage assumes that the person can maintain their normal living arrangements, such as living at home, caring for family members, helping out relatives in off-hours, earning spare cash when not needed, etc.

Other costs that hirelings will reasonably expect may include:

  • Travel fee. Separation from family and community is inconvenient for both, for the reasons explained above.
  • Danger money. If the journey is uncomfortable and dangerous, that costs extra. Even more if you want someone to actively seek danger, such as going into monster-haunted ruins or when you expect attack. You may struggle to find someone with the skills who's willing to accept this danger, even for money - an academic theologian who's prepared to delve into dungeons is relatively unusual.
  • Healing, and possibly even resurrection, will be expected free of charge.
  • Feed for any animals needed for the journey.
  • Provision of any necessary animals if the person doesn't have their own. The cost of hiring a guard doesn't include the cost of that guard hiring a horse, after all.
  • Daily consumables, especially if travelling where these are hard to obtain. A hireling might be willing to pay for their own food in town, but knows they can't exactly pop to the market in the middle of a sinister forest. Some will be willing to bring provisions themselves.
  • Care and maintenance of equipment and supplies, especially unusual consumables, and especially where this is a result of the party's activities. Used a magical scroll? Party cost. All your gear burned by a goblin attack? That's on the party.
  • Cost of any sub-hirelings that may be needed. A scholar might need a secretary, for example, and either bring one along or expect one hired whenever they're doing research. In their hometown they can use their own, but on a journey, the party has to pay for it. Craftspeople may rely on having an assistant. In many cases, though, the party themselves can fulfil these roles.
  • Return fee. If the hireling will have to make their own way back after the job, they'll want paying for that, including any tolls, taxes, fees, permit costs, food and lodging costs, animal feed, and other charges that may need covering
  • Protection fee. If a hireling may have to return through remote areas without the protection of an armed party, they'll want money to either hire guards or at least buy passage with some other group of travellers, which may mean waiting for one to arrive.

In many cases, all or most of the fee will be expected in advance and left with the hireling's family or safely stored away. Unlike adventurers, most people don't want to carry large amounts of money around. Reaching the end of a long dangerous journey, being given a heap of gold, and then expected to travel back alone through the wilderness with said gold, is not a tempting prospect for most people.

Personal encounters

It's likely that travellers will run into various kinds of law enforcement along the way. These might include soldiers, official town guards, militias, private guards, gamekeepers, excisemen and (in some societies) actual police forces.

Depending on the social dynamics of the society (and on personal character) law enforcement may be helpful and professional, bumbling, officious, begrudging and idle, blatantly corrupt, oppressive, or outright thuggish.

Travellers, particularly heavily-armed travellers with bags full of gold, may be met with servile eagerness to help, or leering attempts to extort money. They might be held up by insistence on comprehensive searches and questioning about their journey.

More military types may consider the party to be bandits until proven otherwise, or may appreciate their contribution to dealing with issues that the military don't have time, manpower or expertise to handle.

There's also the interesting question of how adventurers are viewed in the society. Is "adventurer" an actual career path, with its own public image? Will the party be viewed as mercenaries (often dubious and violent), soldiers (ditto), dropouts, weirdos, heroes of the people, agents of the local lord, agents of a government that both the people and the local lord may distrust?

Travelling traders are essential in far-flung areas, and are likely to have a weird assortment of goods. They probably won't sell essentials like food, unless visiting an area like a mining camp which may have nothing but rare metals to recommend it. They'll tend to offer tools that can't be made in the area, and luxury items like pipeweed, books, trinkets, nice fabrics, razors, toys, knick-knacks, and perhaps unusual herbs or even seeds. Basically there's not much point selling things that the locals can grow, can make or can't use.


Another consideration that does arise in fantasy novels is trust. The party may meet a wide variety of people along the way, whether fellow-travellers, roadside peasants or local townsfolk. Not all of them will be trustworthy; they might be anything from unscrupulous merchants to cutpurses to yer'actual spies for the Dark Lord. Who will they choose to share a campfire with? Who will they trade with, or share details of their journey?

Things aren't entirely simple here. Sometimes explaining who they are and what they're doing is the right way to win locals' trust and have them provide all kinds of help and information. You might meet a trustworthy bard along the way, and by proving you're on the same side, learn that the valley is infested with servants of the enemy. On the other hand, the bard might be the evil one. If you choose to keep silent, or lie, then you might make the locals suspicious of you and make life very hard for yourself.

The problem gets even worse when dealing with the authorities. Keeping silent is rarely an option, so your choices are truth, evasion or outright lies - and the latter may get you in serious trouble.

On a smaller level, people don't need to be evil to be untrustworthy. A merchant might be a terrible gossip who spreads news of your activities to everyone he meets. You might join a party of nobles and scholars for strength in numbers along the route, but find they constantly delay you, get themselves in trouble through sheer incompetence, and generally endanger you all. A friendly cleric might prove herself to be a liability, fleeing as soon as bandits attack and leaving both herself and the party exposed to danger. A blacksmith might be a drunken clown whose work fails on the second or third use. A hired wizard might be a braggart who can't really do the work expected when they get to the magical ruins.

Other little decisions include worrying about petty crime: will you keep a watch every single night, in the wilderness, for fear passing poachers will liberate one of your horses? Perhaps the poor shoeless children of this village will try to pilfer some of your clothing - what will you do about it? How safe is this inn from pickpockets?

How a relatively wealthy party respond to encountering poor rural villages is an interesting question. It's quite possible that they could just give everyone enough money to buy themselves decent clothes, fix up their houses and buy better tools. How long can they keep doing that? How much attention will it draw? Is it actually benevolent in the long run, considering things like economic impacts and local politics, or will it just make them feel better? Will the peasants suddenly attract attention from greedy lords, violent bandits or other villages nearby who aren't so lucky?

Tourist routes

The options and opportunities available to a party will tend to depend on how popular their route is.

Tourism or trade will up the price of goods, but also mean high-quality accommodation is available. Inns tend to open where there's plenty of travellers, and the more travellers, the more people are willing to invest in offering services. Routes with a hundred travellers a day will have plenty of inns and some traders (and yes, probably brothels). Routes with a thousand may have artisans, souvenirs, hairdressers, shrines, public baths and specialist shops; little villages along the way will be transformed into towns serving the tourist trade.

Tourist and trade routes will be more likely to accept gold and gems in trade, and to have mounts and pack animals to sell. It'll be easier to find caravans to join, and roads will generally be safer with more people passing. On the downside, they're better targets for bandits, thieves and con artists. On the upside, they'll probably be better-protected since it's worth investing in guards.

This will also affect the reaction to visitors. It's easy to be anonymous when you're part of a crowd of pilgrims on the Nine Gods Trail. When you're the first strangers in ten years to visit Mud Bottom (pop: 32) you'll attract curiosity, remark, and quite possibly alarm or hostility - you'll certainly be gossip-fodder for months.

There are often temples, shrines and monasteries in even the most remote places, and remote temples are some of the few wilderness spots where there are actually roads and a little trade to ease adventurers' journeys. Temples and orders may provide accommodation and food, but it will rarely be great - perhaps not even for high-status people. It all depends on the order!

Final observations

A slightly odd thing is that for adventurers, being in the actual wilderness in areas haunted only by brigands and monsters may well be a (mechanically) better option than being on a common trade route between substantial towns.

Although it's worth bearing in mind that areas haunted only by brigands will not plausibly support said brigands for very long.

This is simply down to skillsets. Adventurers are good at being active, and particularly good at fighting (for example) brigands and monsters because they're stronger, tougher and faster than the average peasant. However, none of this is very much use when they're faced with corrupt guards or moderately-oppressive landowners, who have the backing of the law to push people around and indeed confiscate their stuff. Adventurers could quite easily kill these people, but that would make them outlaws, and outlaws tend to have a bad time of it (not least beause they tend to get hunted down by adventurers). Dealing with these situations within the law is quite likely more difficult than just killing some orcs.


  1. On Black Inns: this is actually a Chinese term (黑店) which I learned from the excellent 武林外传. A friend recommended the more anglophone-friendly Sun Erniang in The Water Margin as an example, as are to a lesser extent the Thénardiers of Les Miserables.

    1. See also the recent boardgame The Bloody Inn