Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Current overland journey rules

My players are currently struggling through the wilderness north of Karameikos, on their way to find a certain significant ruin from an old TSR adventure (on this note, I should hint that reading this entire post might offer a few breadcrumb-sized spoilers for B10, Night's Dark Terror). As I'm using said adventure more as a template than a rule, this meant I needed to whip up some decent overland travel rules - or, to be more precise, cobble together a synthesis of other writers' ideas that I like. The rules here might help you, too; feel free to tinker and enjoy them. They use the Powered by the Apocalypse rules approach, but if you're an OSR or d20 player, you can approximate the same system by rolling two saves/checks at a time, and calling 2 failures a failure, 2 successes a full success, and 1 of each a partial success.

I should stress that I don't think any single piece here is original to me, though I'm not aware of anyone with this exact synthesis. My inspirations included the travel rules from Dungeon World and Freebooters on the Frontier/Perilous Wild, as well as the Journey rules from The One Ring rpg and a smattering of ideas from across the OSR blogosphere. Those systems all offer cool things, but I wasn't quite content with any of them overall. (Freebooters players in particular will notice similarities, but also differences).


My goals for this system were as follows:

+ make the wilderness itself tell a story and feel interesting to travel through (the old bogeyman of making overland travel feel more like LOTR's journeys).
+ give each player meaningful choices to make and significant contributions (I have 4 players currently). Make each player's choices cascade with consequences for other players, so that the team has to negotiate their choices while preserving each player's specialty. 
+ recognize rations and all that as important, but just abstract out all the cruft I don't want to deal with. 
+ incorporate risks of getting lost, taking too long, running low on rations, and running into scary things that go bump in the wilderness. 

My players seem to have enjoyed using it so far and have given me positive feedback. So far, they've made good progress at first, had a starving, lost pair of prospectors stumble into camp at night begging for food (and giving information), then got delayed deeper into the woods, had a bear attack the campsite at night (that almost got ugly), narrowly avoided killing off roped-up horses as they climbed a sketchy escarpment, fought down a beastman patrol in the deep, deep woods, and had a pre-planned encounter to set them up for next time.

The system has a few core principles: the landscape is divided up into abstract areas/regions, each of which are nominally 1 day's journey across (with minimal tweaking, this could work with hex-crawling, point-crawling, or zone-crawling). Each of these areas gets a simple narrative description to paint a picture of the landscape being crossed; a navigation score, usually a penalty, which represents the difficulty of moving quickly and confidently across this area toward a desired end-point; and a separate day/night modifier to show how likely a random encounter is here. Each area also may contain a number of Discoveries and Obstacles (typically about equal to the value of the negative Nav modifier). Obstacles are handled semi-abstractly through presenting tough choices to the Pathfinder (see below), though the party could 'zoom in' to approach an obstacle more directly should they wish to try to avoid its sting by risking some Defy Danger action.

Each of the players takes 1 of the following roles: Pathfinder, Warder, Firemaster, and Watch Captain. For each day traveled, the players will walk through these roles in the order listed above, using the "moves" listed below. If a character gains Discouragement, it means they roll on their journey move with a Penalty/Disadvantage die until the Discouragement gets cleared. In a nutshell, the Pathfinder seeks a clear way forward and/or hidden ruins/sites of interest; the Warder watches against ambush and, ideally, guides the players around any potential threat; the Firemaster oversees food supplies but also promotes morale around the campsite (think of camping in Tolkien; it involves rations, yet, but also singing heartening songs in the dark); finally, the watch captain, well, watches against scary things at night (we can assume there's an abstraction here; I'm not tracking who is asleep when and on which watch, I just hand the whole responsibility to the watch captain).

Below, you will find:

- my moves for the player Journey roles.
- a workflow list describing the steps taken to resolve each travel day.
- sample areas through which my players have traveled.

+ PATHFINDER. Rolls + INT.  - Add +2 if you have navigated across this Section/Region previously.
May choose to Forage & Hunt in exchange for Penalty die. 13+     You find a way forward without delay, avoid any non-fixed obstacles, and detect at least some sign of any Discoveries present in this section.

10-12 You find a way forward, detect at least one of any Discoveries present, and progress to the next section without delay.

7-9      You find a way forward, though it takes some time. Choose 2:
  • you detect at least one of any Discoveries present in this section
  • you find a way around any Obstacles in this section 
  •  you make good time, and will mark off progress on your journey for this section

6-        You fail to find a way forward today, and don’t detect any Discoveries present in this section; after all other players have finished their rolls, you can try again tomorrow. Continue with the journey process, but the GM won’t mark off any progress between sections for this day. 

+ WARDER. Rolls + WIS. May choose to Forage & Hunt in exchange for a Penalty die. 12+     You successfully avoid any threats, but you also get a sense of what you might have encountered. If you’re actually looking for trouble, you may have an encounter, and take +Advantage as you get the drop on your quarry. 

10-11 The day passes, and you encounter no threats.

7-9      You have an encounter - but choose 1:
  • You all get the drop on whatever’s coming, and can act before it reacts.
  • The encounter happens on tactically advantageous ground - with the GM’s approval, you define two helpful terrain features at the encounter site.

6-       You stumble into an encounter, and whatever is coming gets the drop on you. 

+ FIREMASTER. Rolls + CHA. Roll with a penalty die unless you hot-camp with a fire. 

10+     any Discouraged are no longer Discouraged, spend no Rations…

7-9      either all test for Discouraged (+ CON) OR spend 1 Ration

6-        Spend 1 Ration AND all test for Discouraged (+ CON) 

+ WATCH CAPTAIN. Rolls + DEXRoll with a penalty die unless the Firemaster chose to cold-camp without a fire.  
10+     the night passes uneventfully.

7-9      there’s a disturbance of some sort, but you’re prepared; choose 2:
  • + You (the watch captain) get the drop on whatever’s coming
  • + You have time to wake and warn the others before whatever’s coming arrives
  • + Whatever’s coming is unaware of your dispositions, defenses, and preparations
  • + You found a tactically advantageous spot to camp; with GM approval, define two
  • tactical features at or near your campsite.

6-        there’s a disturbance (GM rolls/selects nighttime encounter); whatever’s coming gets the drop on you (without the Scout special ability).


For each day of travel, repeat the following steps (these will make more sense once paired with the Move list for the traveler character roles).  

New day. Check the weather, apply any effects.

GM briefly discusses the landscape of the next section.

Pathfinder announces whether they will accept a penalty to spend part of the day hunting/foraging.

PATHFINDER makes their roll, with penalty if Discouraged from the night before. This roll’s result tells the GM whether/how to present discoveries and obstacles.

GM presents, in order, any obstacles to be faced, asking the Pathfinder to make any relevant choices about how to handle them. (The Pathfinder may choose to zoom ‘into the scene’ to play out resolving an obstacle with concrete rather than abstract play, but be aware this opens the party up to possible harm and further loss of resources).

The GM describes any Discoveries made, and asks whether the party wants to divert to explore any of them in detail (dungeon-crawling style/pace). [If the party does explore a discovery, the day’s journey is paused; the Warder will need to roll once the PCs finish their exploration].

WARDER announces whether they will accept a penalty to spend part of the day hunting/foraging (only if not already disadvantaged).

Next, the Warder makes their roll (possibly at a disadvantage, if Discouraged, if Hunting, or if given a penalty die by the Pathfinder).
              They tell the GM the result, GM adds or subtract Section’s encounter risk modifier, and declares the final result.

The Warder’s roll result tells the GM whether/how to adjudicate any attacks/encounters.

The Warder makes any appropriate choices presented after their roll.

Play out any encounters or attacks.

If the PCs are pursued by enemies, you must resolve the pursuit before pitching camp.

The FIREMASTER makes camp. They choose whether to cold-camp or hot camp, then roll (with penalty if cold-camping) and make any relevant choices.

The GM asks the FIREMASTER to nominate one member of the party who will answer one character-background question (PCs get to know each better each night around the fire).

WATCH CAPTAIN now makes their roll (with penalty if hot-camping). They tell the GM the result, the GM adds or subtract this Section’s encounter risk modifier, and declares the final result (the category, not the number…keep the modifier secret).

Play out any nighttime encounter.
If the party has to flee from this encounter, they have to repeat the FIREMASTER and WATCH CAPTAIN roll again before morning.

If the party is still alive in the morning, check off a box of progress, move to the next Section, and repeat the process until the party reaches their journey’s end!!!


Finally, here's a rough example of what regions might look like: my players traveled through these regions recently on their adventure. They seem to be enjoying the travel system. This presentation of 3 particular regions, note, is of a linear path in a mountain valley; there's no reason this system wouldn't work with non-linear travel instead, though writing up a description like this for a hexcrawl could get tedious (unless it's a pretty tight, focused hexcrawl, on the scale of Hot Springs Island).

Area 1
Parkland and broadleaf forest, criss-crossed by the trails of trappers and prospectors. Old, broken-hulled rowboats occasionally seen along the banks of the Foamfire river. 
Nav +0
Day +0 / Night +0 
Encounters (roll 1d6): 
Day/Night: 1-3 hungry prospector; 4-5 1d6 bandits; 6 1d6 hungry wolves
Discoveries: None
Obstacles: rotting bridge - you encounter an old wooden bridge along a path. It’s rotting. Do you, individually, test for Discouragement, or do you accept the time, wet, and effort of tromping around looking for a ford (give Penalty die to the Firemaster), or do you add an extra day to this Section? 

Area 2
Thick broadleaf forest atop rolling hills. The trail(s) fade and vanish. No humans are seen; the land is quiet apart from scattered birdsong and wind in the branches. 
Nav: -1
Day: +0 / Night -1
Day/Night: 1-3 A Brown Bear, 4-5 1d6 hungry wolves, 6 an owl bear 
Discoveries: 1) The stream drops over a noisy waterfall over the escarpment. Beside the lower stream bank, you find an overgrown grave with a carved headstone, barely legible, and a magical, un-corroded arrow (+2 hit/dmg, dissolves after first strike) lying athwart the grave. 
Obstacles: Steep escarpment blocking the way, un-scaleable with mounts; abandon them, add a day to this Region as you look for way around, or roll +DEX to climb up on 7+ … failure = 50% chance of losing each horse/mount (‘real time’ rules).

Area 3
Now atop the escarpment, the land rises gently but is covered by a very old, thick forest; the broadleaf trees above are even bigger here, while below the leaf piles swishing around your feet and hooves grow deeper. The forest closes in with long shadows all about, and there are dark, shadowy places you can’t peer through, in every direction you look. Picking your way through the thick, silent forest becomes more challenging. 
Nav: -2
Day: -1 / Night -1
Day/Night: 1-3 1d6 wolves, 4-5 1d4+1 Beastmen, 6 b2d6 beast men + 1 Beast Ogre raid/patrol
- signs of territorial marking by feral humanoids (see the tower below).
- here and there, crumbling stonework remnants of an old road underfoot leading up into the valley (Hutaakan). If this is discovered, the Pathfinder takes a Bonus die for next day’s/section’s Nav roll. 
- a burned out 3-storey tower with an ancient sage’s emblem in the masonry above the door, now heavily vandalized by crude humanoid graffiti of violent scenes 

  • a marshy bog area (all PCs must test vs CON (7+ = success) vs Discouragement)
  • an Ironroot tangle (add a day to the region by going around/through, or give Penalty to Warder) 

Thanks for reading - and happy gaming!


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks! I used it for several sessions in a row, and found it helpful.

  2. The One Ring influence is nice - there's a travel system with a lot of flavor and potential, but somehow still unsatisfying. I think your version is more of what I was looking for in TOR.

    How do Penalties work here?

    1. In my system, when a character takes a Penalty, it means they roll with "Disadvantage" when they execute their daily travel role. So, for example, if the Pathfinder decides to take time to hunt and forage to beef up rations, they may do so, but when they then make their Pathfinding roll, they roll 3d6 and use the 2 lower die results to calculate their score. You can also gain a Penalty, for example, by becoming Discouraged during the Firemaster phase.

      I don't currently make this Penalty wrap over to other rolls (for example, if a fight breaks out during the day, I don't make the Warder's penalty bleed over into Disadvantaged combat rolls) - it strictly affects how well they handle the dedicated overland travel procedures.

      My design intent was to give each player/character something to do with meaningful choices that can affect the party's journey overall, especially in ways that make 1 character's choices affect another character's performance. So far it seems to work quite well - we ended up running with these procedures for several sessions in a row, to good effect.

  3. What is the Hunt & Forage move?

    1. Let's see, off the cuff, its: the Pathfinder and Warder may each choose to spend part of the day Hunting and Foraging. The party's rations are tracked, but in an abstract format: "3 Rations" means the party is fully stocked with food for PCs and their mounts, and they should expect trouble if they run out of rations and start doing stuff hungry. The Pathfinder and Warder must accept a penalty/disadvantage to their primary task roll (i.e., Pathfinding or Warding) if they hunt, but they can first roll to Hunt. Here's the procedure:
      Ask the GM whether the local ecosystem will allow hunting/foraging. If "yes," then...
      Roll 2d6 + WIS (or DEX, if you want)...
      10+: You catch something substantial; reset the party's rations to 3.
      7-9: You find a bit of food; raise the party's rations by 1.
      6-: Alas, you didn't find anything (there's no extra 'bad consequence, because they already accepted a penalty to their main roll in exchange for the hunting on the side).

      Does that make sense?

  4. Fantastic post. I am mining it for so many ideas.


Unfortunately, recent spamming attacks necessitate comment moderation prior to posting. Thanks for leaving a comment - I'll get to it shortly!