The concept of the journey is used quite frequently in fiction, and not without reason. It is a wonderful device to have your protagonists explore interesting locations, and meet interesting characters and deal with interesting situations. It allows for episodic adventures while keeping some amounts of continuity with the main cast.
Today we’ll look at the journey in fiction and how we can use it for our games. In RPGs, we often like to include some sort of overland travel/survival minigame into our journeys. Often with rolls for navigation, random encounters, and tracking rations and/or foraging/hunting for food. This often can be done to model how dangerous traveling can be for the ordinary person. Ideally, if you are doing this, the players and GM are all down for this type of game planning the trips and avoiding dangers and surviving on the way there is actually part of the fun and not just something that feels obligated to include. This might involve a random encounter table, which varies, either in frequency or encounters, enemy type, or both depending on the route the PCs take, as well as things like tracking rations, river crossings, and other sorts of survival-type events. I don’t think every game needs to have this, but feel free to include it if it fits the tone of your game and is fun for your table.
When we are discussing journeys in fiction, in particular how they might apply for our games, I think we can very broadly put them into three separate categories. A particular story might change between any of the three as suits the narritive’s need, but I think this, in a sort of general way, fits most specific journeys we see, included in the list is an iconic example of each.
- The ‘Get You There’ Journey. The Characters just need to get from one place to the next because the next bit of action is at the destination (Indiana Jones).
- The ‘Perilous’ Journey characters need to get from one place to the next, but their are significant obstacles in their way which they must overcome to accomplish their goals (The Lord of the Rings).
- The ‘Wanderer’s’ Journey characters are on a journey, but frequently get involved in the various situations they encounter, many of which might not even be necessary for them to complete the journey, (But might be the POINT of their Journey, see Star Trek)
Get You There
Dr. Henry Jones travels around the world to all sorts of exotic, set-piece locations and gets into all sorts of adventures in all sorts of places. However, how we rarely spend much time on the actual travel scenes in the movies, unless there is some action scene or plot-important pit-stop to break it up. More often than not, we see a map with a moving red line to give the audience an IDEA of how far along he’s traveled, but ultimately we very quickly cut to the next exciting scene. In RPGs, particularly if you are not interested in dealing with the survival aspects mentioned above, there’s little reason to do anything besides that. In such cases (and, in fact, for any non-important gaps between legs of the journey for all categories), I would suggest to simply resolve journeys as such:
“You make your way North, following the Azure Coastline, until you reach the mouth of the River Massus. From there, you hitch a ride with a local fisherman and he brings you upriver. It is only a short ride more until you round a bend and see your destination. After 12 days of travel you arrive the Iron City of the Feral Queen”
And we’re done, now whatever it is the PCs need to do in the Iron City, which is presumably what we all want to do can just be gotten to. If our game isn’t about trekking through the wilderness, let’s not waste everyone’s time on it. If you want to make those 12 days more meaningful, then make the passage of time itself matter. If the PCs only have two weeks to stop the ritual, and they know you’ll actually do it if they delay, maybe they’ll consider paying through the nose for a chartered boat instead of hiking up the coast.
The Perilous Journey
Mt. Doom is not a dungeon, not in the D&D sense, and not in the classical sense. All that needs to be done is to throw a ring into a pit of lava (although admittedly the corrupting influence of the Ring makes it a harder task than it sounds). The tricky part is getting there. Frodo and Sam spend nearly the entire trilogy just traveling, only making detours our of necessity and having to deal with hostile terrain as well as the dangerous creatures that inhabit them. If Tolkien had used the methods described above, the Lord of the Rings would be a much shorter tale. Moria, on the other hand, is D&D dungeon, and perhaps one of the urexamples. And yet, why does the fellowship go there? Merely because they have no other way through or around the mountains, it is a danger they must face in order to get there.
A Perilous Journey, in practice, actually functions a lot like a “Get You There” above. The key difference is that rather than just narrating directly to the destination, the GM narrates the player characters to some set-piece obstacle to overcome, which in turn leads to the next one, and the next. There is a bit of overlap between a Perilous Journey and the survival minigames mentioned above, as both can introduce obstacles in the middle of traveling from one place to another. In general though, I feel like there is a distinction to be made between making the game out of the logistical challenges and environmental dangers of a journey, and the particular set-piece dangers that make up a perilous Journey. That said, you are free to include both at once if you think that will make a more fun game.
The Perilous Journey requires a bit more buy in from the players then a Get You There journey above. If the players do not know (and are cool with) that the challenges along the way ARE the adventure, they may feel frustrated about all the time “wasted” when they could be getting to the “plot”. It also can be rather tricky to run as a GM if you desire to give your players more freedom than the linear adventure. To make things a bit more free-form without driving yourself prep crazy, have an idea of the overall terrain and routes, and then paint in broad strokes the dangers of those possible routes. Then, ideally, you get the players to commit what route they will take next time before the session ends and then prepare for that.
Sometimes they’ll change their mind, and sometimes they’ll come up with a route you didn’t think of “Can we just climb down the canyon walls over a few days and camp hanging from the sides?”, but that’s within normal expectations of players for any game you run.
The Enterprise doesn’t have a true destination in mind, it’s mission is to “to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”. The Enterprise inevitably finds itself faced with a new planet, alien, or cosmic phenomenon every episode. Their mission, their own sense of morals and duty, and the danger to the ship and themselves compels them to get involved, deal with, and sometimes resolve the situation they find themselves in. The people they get involved with often change with each adventure, but the crew mostly remains the same, and sometimes an old friend or enemy catches up with them.
Wanderer games are truly not about the destination. While a perilous Journey is ultimately about the struggle to get to the destination, the Wanderer finds themselves in a variety of situations that often have little or nothing to do with why they are traveling in the first place. The Wanderer might not even have a destination, just be unable or unwilling to settle in one place, they might be looking for something or someone that they do not know where is, or they might be pursuing an objective that requires them to travel all around or a great distance. In any case, their wandering mostly serves as a framing device for whatever situation the protagonist(s) find themselves in.
Wanderer games require the MOST player buy in out of any journey. The Wanderer party can just move on from a situation that disinterests them, and, there are plenty of examples in fiction of such protagonists that need to be dragged kicking and screaming to get involved in the local events most of the time. For GM and player alike though, there is only so many times circumstances can contrive to keep the wanderer party in place just long enough to see the situation through before it gets old. And, personally, I feel as though deciding to just leave because this situation is not worth salvaging is a perfectly valid choice… it just is much more powerful and meaningful after the character has tried to engage first. Instead players who sign up for this kind of game should intentionally make busybodies, or otherwise characters whose morals or weaknesses won’t allow them to just ignore trouble when they see it.
On the other hand, the GM should be making situations that actually ARE interesting to the players (although that is true for most games). In particular, the players in such a game are not really free to choose their own missions, but rather have agreed to deal with what’s presented to them on a given session. Therefore, problems that ask interesting questions and have no obvious solution (otherwise the locals would have already come up with it!), and give the PCs freedom in how they want to solve it can be used to make up for the lack of freedom in scenario choice. That said, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional Seven Samurai action when you just want to set up a big fight!
I’m sure there are even more examples you can think of for each of the types of journeys I mentioned. Are there any journey archetypes you think I left out? How do Journeys go in your games?
Current PaDC score: 29/31