Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Why Your Travel Rules Suck

I was considering not posting this, I felt it was a little rant-y. But I stand by the general premise, so here we go, see what you make of it. (Also the game I mention at the end has since been streamlined to the point that those travel mechanics are fairly different than how I wrote about them here lol.)


A few times during my GMing... career? Ew. Life? Oh dear...

A few times, I've tried to write specific mechanics, for whichever fantasy adventure RPG system I happened to be running at the time, to deal with overland travel. These, I surmised, would make travel a key component of the game, something to plan for and experience tension through, just like combat.

Crucially, they would make travel interesting, and fun.

Most gaming blogs or video channels or whatnots have a post somewhere about solving, or at the very least easing overland travel in D&D. Some of these thoughts are good, but most devolve into creating a subsystem, or wrangling existing mechanics into doing travel "better".

Here's the thing - within the context of these games, that's impossible. I was wrong, and so is anyone who writes travel rules for such an RPG.


One of the OSR blog posts I keep going back to is from Rogues and Reavers, and it defines the concept of a campaign frame. You can and should read the post here.

The thing I'm concerned with for now is the definition given for a frame:

A. Clear choices for the players to engage in, while still allowing maximum flexibility.
B. A model for the DM which guides them through the process of building this aspect of their campaign.
C. Rules for interacting with the frame in a meaningful way, from arbitration on the DM end to procedures on the player end

That, to me, seems like all the ingredients needed (outside of the mechanics themselves) for a great rule book. As for those mechanics - the only mechanics that are needed in the book are those that facilitate the campaign frame.

That's why I got rid of combat rules in my game about thieves. That's why D&D has rules for dying because a dragon breathed at you, or how likely you are to pick a lock on a treasure chest. Dungeons, and, indeed, dragons, are the campaign frame of D&D. You don't need anything else outside of the frame.


So, what does this have to do with terrible travel rules?

D&D - and by that I mean WotC, pre-WotC and every OSR game ever - doesn't include codified mechanics for overland travel beyond "here's how far you can go in a day, hexes are a thing".

This is not because good travel mechanics are impossible. It's because travel mechanics are not part of the assumed campaign frame of D&D.

"What? What do you mean, travel doesn't fit into D&D? It fits in perfectly! In my campaign, we do travel all the time! And besides, my group loves my travel rules! I added resource management for rations and terrain-based encumbrance tracking and..."


Travel fits into D&D in the same way social interaction does. You can spend all session doing nothing else, but there have never been mechanics for it other than maybe a Charisma roll. Those mechanics are not needed. Your game may well be travel-heavy, but what the rules are about is not what the game is about - as we well know.

Oh, and your group doesn't love your travel rules. Even if they do, they like other parts of the game better. The actual D&D parts. D&D is about the dungeons and the dragons.

This is why the most obvious, and most correct, advice GMs are given when asking "how do I make travel more interesting" is to add an adventure site (dungeon) en route, or an encounter (dragon).

Overland travel is neither a dungeon, nor is it a dragon. Those are codified within the mechanics of the game, they are the campaign frame. Travel is just a thing that happens in between.


Do all travel mechanics in RPGs suck, then? No, of course not.

I'm working on a game - I write a lot of games, and even if they don't go anywhere I learn something from the design process. Anyway, it's a game with travel mechanics.

These mechanics are good. They make travel interesting. They offer, if you'll refer back to our definition of a campaign frame, A, B and C. I hope I can get the other bits sorted out, I'd like to let people play this some time.

The reason the travel mechanics work in this game is because it is a travel game. It's a game about journeys, going back and forth and all around between places on a map, life on the road. They are also, importantly, the only mechanics in the game - because they support the frame. Other mechanics are not needed.

D&D is not about those things - at least not in the way that people who write articles on how to do travel wish it was. When Gygax wanted to run overland travel, he played a whole different game.

Stop trying to make travel in your fantasy adventure game interesting. Unless it's a dungeon or a dragon, I don't want to hear about it.

PS: If you have a sci fi game and nobody cares about the starship mechanics - same reason. Your game probably just isn't really about the ships.


Ynas Midgard said...

First of all, I love that post about campaign frames - it was very influential for me in the past.

Second, I agree that the way most travel subsystems work in OSR games isn't very good, but I don't think it's impossible to make them work. Just like the combat subsystem is part of the dungeon crawl subsystem, overland travel could be the outermost ring of the whole.

The thing is, just like you have core mechanics and class abilities interfacing combat and dungeon crawl, overland travel needs to be treated the same. It must have a core loop and some class abilities must have effect on them (plus, y'know, player choices). In fact, overland travel has to become the main loop, into which dungeon crawls and ultimately combats are embedded.

D. G. Chapman said...

Yeah I guess that's what I was going for, you can't just tack these systems on to D&D, you need a system completely designed around the frame.

Your last paragraph pretty much exactly describes the travel-based game I'm working on, actually!