The Journey’s the thing; part 1

Written By: Stephen Dove - Nov• 30•13

Travel is a significant part of most fantasy novels, yet is often glossed over in films and RPG adventures. This is understandable; after all, it can be hard to interest players in what seems a ‘mundane activity’. And besides, the medieval maxim that ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ is a conceit that sits uncomfortably with the modern mindset, obsessed as we all are with ‘goals’ and ‘outputs’. However, the root of games like Dragon Warriors, Ars Magica and Harn are real or pseudo-medieval literature where travel often plays a central role; look at Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales‘, or modern equivalents set in Medieval times, like Kate Sedley’s ‘Roger the Chapman‘ series of historical novels.

Indeed travel can be the place where you really start to explore your character and their interactions with the other PCs and their environment. In my Jewelspider Chronicles campaign, ‘camp time’ has come to mean that part of the day where the players use the mundane tasks of setting up camp, hunting and lighting fires to further deepen their characters. Laura in our group is particularly good at asking questions that cause the other players to think about how their fictional persona really feels about the world. She’ll say things like ‘Malvol; why did you go off to join the crusades?’ or will ask Jasper ‘who his parents were.’ Admittedly, this kind of interaction can be difficult at first, but then if you never try to encourage it, then your game can quickly devolve into mindless monster slaying, though that can be fun for a while too. I guess some people just want to ‘kill things and take their stuff’ but I’ve had a few players who started out like this and even they enjoyed roleplaying in the end. I suppose I am also helped in GMing travel because I have done a fair bit of rough camping in Mongolia, Slovenia and the UK and so enjoy camp life and can imagine and convey the atmosphere of the journey to my players. With a little research and a bit of reading, you too can convey the same impression.

There is another, far more important reason for including travel as a part of the adventure, rather than the ‘boring bit’ that happens before or after the ‘main event’ and that’s because a road is just another, and potentially far more interesting form of the ‘adventure flowchart’ exemplified by the dungeon. It is a physical entity that goes from one place to another, is easily conceptualised and has obvious choices that players can control in the same way as they can in a dungeon. And unlike the dungeon, it allows the PCs to explore the mundane world, which is an essential counterpoint to the eldritch world in all games. Indeed one technique that can be important to establish the tone of a campaign is to root the first few sessions firmly in the mundane world, and have this aspect of your game to fall back on whenever the Players have finished an adventure. The kind of ‘medieval road adventure’ that I am advocating here fits perfectly with this philosophy. Indeed it could be argued that such a ‘road-sandbox’ is one of the great untapped adventure forms; at least as far as published material is concerned.

So how do you go about setting such a campaign up? Well first you need a framework; a reason why your adventuring group is on the road, and is likely to stay on the road for a while. Here are a few examples of frameworks used in books, films or adventures I have run:

1) The PCs are tax collectors; or perhaps they are involved in compiling a version of the Book of Domesday, that most famous record of every manor and farm in medieval England.

2) The PCs are part of a troupe of travelling players, merchants, or sellers of relics.

3) The PCs are pretending to be players but are actually spies who one lord sets to keeping an eye on the towns and villages of his rivals. Perhaps the PCs are hired to cause ‘mishaps’ or other seeming¬† acts of ill-fortune in the domain of his enemy.

4) The PCs are thief takers, who travel the roads looking to collect the silver that goes with apprehending the many ‘wolf’s heads’ who prey on travellers.

5) The PCs are con-artists who travel the drovers’ roads of the Kingdom, dicing the ignorant and unwary shepherds out of their hard-won coin. They must avoid thief takers and others who would thwart them.

6) The PCs are on a pilgrimage ‘to every shrine in area X’; perhaps as penance for past misdeeds. I have used this idea as the way to get a party of strangers together in a past campaign; as a group of pilgrims on a shared route forced to band together to survive the rigours of travel and the fact that someone travelling with them was a in fact a murderer!

7) The PCs are involved with the local Coroner; in medieval times a ‘Crowner’ or Coroner was actually the King’s official in England who investigated serious crimes. See Bernard Knight’s excellent ‘Crowner John‘ series of novels for an insight into the life of a medieval Coroner.

Once you have your framework you need a mechanism to keep your players ‘on the straight and narrow’, i.e. the road! The easiest is the risk of getting lost. Just throw away any rules in your game that allow the PCs to navigate with pin point accuracy; the fact is, that if you don’t know the local area then leaving the ‘road’ can be a very bad idea, as a friend and I found out in 2011 when crossing a mountainous area in Mongolia on horseback. Our road was nothing more than a dirty scar running across the hilly steppe and we felt no remorse in leaving it behind. Two days later we still had not found the small town we were trying to get to; one that we should have reached by the end of that first evening, and we had maps and modern GPS equipment.

Early travel maps in fact, were often predicated on the idea that the traveller would be using the roads. In case you have never seen one, these ‘pilgrim maps’ were just long rolls of very narrow parchment or paper, that only showed the inns, stopping places, crossroads and landmarks along one linear route of travel. They literally ignored the countryside and wilderness to either side of the road; for those lonely areas were places of dread to the ordinary pilgrim or merchant. This is the only kind of map that I suggest you make available to your players if you want to run a ‘road-sandbox’; perhaps set up in the wayside inns or hostels. See Matthew Paris’ map below for an example.


Matthew Paris’ medieval pilgrims’ map from London to Rome circa 1250 AD

One excellent way to deal with navigation is to roleplay it like you would anything else; an idea championed by Ben Robbins in his famous Westmarch Campaign. I mean, do you lay the maps of your dungeons out and say to your players, ‘where do you want to go?’ Of course not; you describe the twists and turns of the corridors and ask your players to tell you what they do. In his Westmarch Campaign, Ben described what the PCs could see in the distance and asked them where they were going. His players quickly realised that travelling in the wilderness was difficult, dangerous and carried a high chance that they would become lost if they had no guide, map or local knowledge.¬† Following a road, trail or river quickly became the default in his games; just as was actually the case in medieval times. The point of this is to make going off the road something your players will think very carefully about, before doing. Obviously this can be overdone and you have to strike a balance. The key with this is to make getting lost interesting! Perhaps the PCs strike up a friendship with charcoal burners, wood-cutters or hunters as a result of becoming lost. Or perhaps they stumble upon a ‘ghost village’ and awake the next morning to find the whole place a tumbledown ruin. Tracking food and water can also convince your players to take the wilderness more seriously, as can the weather.

The point of all this is to make the wilderness ‘special’ and ill-omened. You are essentially foreshadowing your future adventure locales by separating them off from the mundane world and into the ‘wilderness’. Your players may know that medieval people feared going to places they did not know, but part of your job GMing a ‘road-sandbox’ is to make your players fear it as well.


Now you need to make every settlement along the route ‘special’ in some way. It can be via a shrine, a fayre or anything at all, but all the settlements should have some ‘handle’ that can be used to showcase it’s uniqueness to your players. I mean, if you think ‘this is just another boring village’ then your players will as well. Here are a few ideas;

1) The village or town is in the grip of a fierce feud between the laity and their church over land or the tithe. The settlement is on the verge of a riot.

2) The town is the site of a shrine and the settlement is always full of pilgrims and the sick seeking healing.

3) The settlement is on the main route of the King’s Assizes and all manner of disputes are being brought before the justices, as well as a few public executions.

4) Ancient gold was once found in one of the old barrows close by this village and now the locals have endless trouble with treasure hunters and ne’er do wells hanging around the area, stealing food and looking for buried treasure.

5) The settlement seems quiet but several locals have taken to watching any travellers that come through and then following them and stealing their horses and gear whilst they’re asleep.

6) The Inn is said to be haunted and few travellers care to stay there but since it’s that or the moor, the Inn it is.

7) The settlement is in the grip of bandits who come every moon and demand tribute. The local lord is to old to give challenge to the bandits and now the villagers want to get aid from outsiders.

8) There are lots of ruins outside the village; they could be from a the recent past e.g. a ruined abbey that was destroyed by the King for defying him, or they could be more ancient.

My next post will be part 2 of this article.

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