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Getting there is not half the fun. Getting there is boring.
In many RPG campaigns, some players will point to somewhere on the other end of the map and say, “let’s go there.” After all, “over here” is dull; the players are already met all the NPCs in this town and want new NPCs. They want to see other cultures and governments. After all, one of the greatest fantasy stories of all time, Lord of the Rings is based on the journey from one place to another: an epic quest that allows heroes to make their mark on the world. Besides, certain settings explicitly state that the space between cities is wild and dangerous, such as the default “Points of Light” setting in Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition) or the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, where the world itself is an enemy. And although the “journey campaign” lends itself well to fantasy settings, this blog post was actually inspired by the Diaspora, a hard science-fiction setting.
In Diaspora, there is no faster-than-light travel except for the conceit of “slipknots,” which are small holes in space that allow ships to travel between star systems. Thus, the journey from one world to another is long and dangerous. When we decided to switch our home campaign to Diaspora, we knew that the campaign would be short and only last a few sessions due to external time constraints. The first session of a Diaspora game involves cluster creation, a world-building exercise where the players and the referee build the cluster of worlds where the game will take place. Knowing that we would only have a few sessions, I asked the players to set some fairly specific goals for their characters. After some discussion, the players decided to pick one world on one side of the cluster to start on and a world on the other side of the cluster that was their goal. They figured that they would visit a lot of the worlds on the way and get to see much of the universe that we collectively created. Before the Diaspora campaign, we had just completed a journey campaign using Dark Sun, and I was reluctant to do another one.
SO WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
There are a few problems with the journey campaign, but the biggest problems are that the structure interrupts the sense of drama and it takes choices out of the hands of the players. Suppose the characters, in a fantasy game, are traveling from one side of the continent to the other, because they need to stop an evil wizard from destroying the world by raising endless armies of the undead. Sure, you can throw certain challenges at the players in the interim, like a village where the children are disappearing in the middle of the night or random encounter after random encounter, but it will be difficult for these to seem like anything but side quests and distractions. Compared to the larger threat of the world being destroyed, helping a little girl find a lost family heirloom seems trivial. Sure, players will nibble at these plot hooks as long as they are put in front of them, but they are unlikely to jump at anything that will completely derail their quest, meaning that any choices that the players make will not be meaningful.
Plus, it is difficult to effectively portray the dangers of the wilds. Games that track injuries to players are generally geared towards “dungeon crawling,” where the characters face several tough challenges without a break. These challenges are difficult for characters, as they should be. However, as some systems do not have serious injuries carry over from one day to the next (a problem that is especially prevalent in D&D 4E), facing one tough encounter every day in the wilderness provides almost no challenge to the players. Besides, these random encounters are tedious and time-consuming and it is difficult to integrate them into the story at large. Although the encounters may be fun in their own right, they will not resonate from a narrative perspective.
ARE THERE SOLUTIONS?
So let’s get back to the Disapora campaign. When the players told me they wanted to do a journey, which would visit each world in the system for one session, I balked. The world that the players eventually wanted to reach was New Babylon: whose previous civilization collapsed for unknown reasons. It currently served as an archaeological dig site for the rest of the cluster. The characters were traveling to the planet for research and exploration. Although I could come up with interesting encounters each step of the way, I felt like it was a foregone conclusion that the characters would eventually reach New Babylon, but once they got to their destination, the possibilities were wide open. So what I did in the first session after cluster creation is assigned each player one leg of the journey to New Babylon and gave them five minutes to summarize what happened on the way there. Although this gave us mixed results, since some players had better improvisational skills than others, it still let us get to the meat of the campaign quickly.
Now hand-waving the actual journey and “traveling by map,” so to speak, is just one option. In my D&D 4E Dark Sun campaign, the eventual goal was to save the world, but the characters were unaware of the goal when the journey began. I packed the journey with plenty of optional (and hopefully interesting) side quests along with a cruel and capricious High Templar NPC who traveled with the party. But most importantly, I divided the campaign into “chapters.” The characters were not permitted an extended rest until the chapter ended, even if that chapter was comprised of several days or even weeks. So the actual travel through the Dark Sun desert was one chapter, which had no set length. The players were allowed to pursue side quests or treasure hunts for as long as they wanted, but every day they added to the journey drained their health and resources. Now although artificially disallowing extended rests solved the mechanical issues with journeys, it was dificult to make all the encounters mean something within the larger narrative. But perhaps we just have to accept that sometimes a randomly-appearing mekillot will create its own excitement without the need to have it mean something more.