Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Travel and River Crossings

The wilderness is not your friend.

The problem is that most fantasy is fantasy Europe, and real Europe was just countries covered with farms and farms and known borders.

I don't like this.  Too many farms.  Too much possibility of realism infecting my elfgame.

There are city states surrounded by tiny amounts of well-patrolled farmlands.  This might be unrealistic, but fuck you.  

Everything else is a poorly mapped wasteland.  It's not a wasteland in the sense that it's desolate.  On the contrary, it's full of stuff.  But the stuff is not friendly or knowable.  It's elves (horrible, horrible elves), killing fogs, or abandoned cities filled with sobbing mice and nothing else.

You will get maps, and they will all be wrong.  People will tell you about trips that they have taken, and they will all be bad (even though the destinations might be pleasant).  Every crossroad has a graveyard.

The greatest thing that the Church has ever done (both in scope and improvement of life) is the construction of a maintained, well-labeled, protected road across the continent.

How to Make Travel Fun

People (myself included) often talk about how we'd like to make travel fun and meaningful.  This is a noble goal, and we are to be congratulated, patted on the head, and scratched reassuringly behind the ears.  

And we write system stuff for travel.  Rules.  Sometimes it works.  A little.


More and more, I think that interesting travel has to come not from mechanics from from scenarios.  We need content, not system.  Travel needs to be where the game (content) is, not just something that you pass through in order to reach the game (content).

Now I'm just going to talk about river crossings as an example of where we can insert more game/content into our games.

Crossing a River

You come to a river.  Oh, god-fucking-dammit.  Roll a d6 to see what is here.
  1. Appears normal, and is.
  2. Appears normal, but is full of monsters.
  3. Challenge to cross.
  4. Bridge.
  5. Ferry. 
  6. Other NPC.
1. Appears normal, and is.

This is the result you want.  The river looks calm.  A character can easily swim across it if they aren't wearing any armor or carrying more than a rope.  If they tie a rope on the far side, the whole party will be able to get across.  Heavy shit like plate mail needs to be taken off and floated on a small raft, which might just be a bunch of sticks lashed together.

There is a 25% chance that this is actually a shallow ford (1d4+1 feet deep) and you can just walk across.  This is easy as long as you hold on to each other and nothing attacks you.

2. Appears normal, but is actually full of monsters.

Just as #1, except roll a d6.  

  1. Hippo/demon hippo.
  2. Giant carp.  
  3. Rompers (dire otters that build dams and hunt the riverbanks).  
  4. Chatty, hungry mermaids
  5. Knights of Dendrola (mermaid witchs and slavers). 
  6. Leeches!  Aaargh!
Stats for the hippo (temperate climate) and demon hippo (cold climate) are given at the end of this post.  You can write your own carp and mermaid stats.  All I will say about the leeches is that they're going to involve Wis checks to see how long the leeches are just stirges with stealth 5-in-6, who are able to drain blood without the target noticing (Wis check each round to notice).

Be sure to give players a small chance to notice hippos and giant carp.  Those things are fucking awful to fight in the water.  Just awful.  I'll put a couple of mermaid spells at the bottom of this page.

3. Challenge to Cross

I'm not going to go into detail here, because I need to go to bed and this seems boring.  Suffice to say, there are rocks and rapids and a very real risk of broken bones.

There is a 10% chance that the rocks are covered in jeering barnacle men.  They have slings, but will probably not use them (they are up here hunting for birds).

4. Bridge

Roll a d6.  Toll collectors usually charge per head (including pack animals) and a much larger fee for wagons.
  1. Bridge Troll.  (Ex. Gunfus of the Singular Nostril.  Armed with a spiked club.  Collects heads.  Really wants a cat, especially some kittens.  (His old cat died, killed by people who took her hostage.  Their heads were stomped to splinters instead of being collected.))
  2. Violent Bridge Goats.  Will knock the party into the river unless money is put into a large urn.
  3. Guy who wants to fight.  Possibly a black knight scenario, or just some guy who is waiting for his nemesis to come along so he can fight a duel to the death.  He'll pass the time by fighting the party.  He's probably a total badass.
  4. Haunted.
  5. Unattended.  Yay.
  6. Some sweet old man lives in a cottage strapped to the bridge.  He'll charge you the normal fees for crossing.  He wants someone to bring him a wife.
5. Ferry

50% chance that the ferry is waiting on this side of the river.  50% chance that you need to summon it by ringing a gong/bell.  Roll a d4.
  1. Bandits.
  2. Giant trained turtle with a donation box on his back.  Wants ear scratches.  Owned by merfolk who are usually within hearing distance.
  3. Chatty, hungry mermaids will pull you across in a canoe.  They will ask for stories and will only try to eat you if you stop telling them or if you are boring.  It is possible to cross the river safely if you are interesting the whole time.
  4. Ferryman.  Just some person trying to charge a fee, similar to the guy on the bridge.  (Ex. Noctis the Secret Necromancer.  She pretends to pole the boat around, but really it is propelled by four sets of skeletons legs attached to the bottom.  She charges high prices, but if you give her an intact corpse, she'll waive the fee.  Also wants people to cook her dinner (she's very lazy--that's why she's running a ferry instead of raising an army of undead to conquer the world).  Anyway, she already has an army of undead (inherited from her dad) waiting at the bottom of the river.  If she ever loses her owl amulet (such as by intentionally throwing it into the river) dozens of algae-covered skeletons will emerge in order to bring it back to here, where she can then verbally command them.)
6. Other NPC

Roll a d4.
  1. Hasdrubal the Muscular Puncher is here, training his daughter, Makra, in the muscular punching arts.  They are punching holes through snapping turtles while arguing about whose turn it is to make dinner.  Despite their apparent argument, they love each other very much.  Hasdrubal wants to hire someone to defend against (NOT attack) Makra.  She wants help convincing her father to go home (those leeches were horrible).
  2. Pilgrims performing a baptism.  If you are willing to undergo a baptism, you will be given a new name.  They'll also be much better disposed to you, and will happily trade gossip and minor healing.  They may try to hire you on as pilgrimage guards.
  3. Fishermen.  (Ex. Menginges and his three inbred sons are here reeling in their nets.  They will try to sell you fish sandwiches.  Meninges will try to sell you his sons' services as hirelings. Each one suffers from a different problem: withered arm, retardation, kleptomania.  Aside from that, they're decent folk if treated respectfully.
  4. Anti-fishermen.  These are merfolk who have thrown nets onto the land in order to grab animals and pull them into the water.  Like a basket of water-apples on a small stone, and then when you grab it nets pop out of everywhere and reel you into the river.  50% that these mermen are simple food-gatherers who have no desire for a fight, and if they catch you by accident, they will apologize profusely and offer you some deer meat by way of apology.
Two Animals


HD 4  AC leather  Bite 2d8
Move 9  Swim 12  Int 4  Morale 8

<Thick Fat>  Hippos get +20 HP.  They take half damage from fire and ice.  They take double damage from two-handed piercing weapons (e.g. spears).

Demon Hippo (a.k.a. River Bear, a.k.a. Dire Tardigrade)

HD 6  AC chain  Bite 2d8+grab
Move 6  Swim 12  Int 2  Morale 7

<Suck Marrow>  Against a grabbed opponent, a demon hippo can suck out their marrow if the target fails a Str check.  If the demon hippo succeeds, roll a d6 to see where it sucks.  1-2 leg, 3-4 arm, 5-6 head.  If it sucks the marrow out of a limb, treat it like a broken limb.  If it sucks out your head, it has sucked a good chunk of your brain out through your eye, which is analogous to a frontal lobotomy.  You lose an eye and your int drops to 1 until you can receive major healing.  (Go find a fleshcrafter, a powerful cleric, or get a heal spell).

<Dessicate> After ten minutes without submersion in water, a demon hippo begins to dry out.  It moves at half speed, and cannot attack on two consecutive rounds.  If it cannot get back to the water, it will usually bury or hide itself.  After an hour without submersion in water, a demon hippo goes dormant.  While dormant, a demon hippo may dessicate completely, down to 20% of its previous body weight.  It can hibernate like this indefinitely.  As soon as it is resubmerged in water, it rapidly absorbs water and returns to full activity one round later.

Both of these abilities are common knowledge.  When players see a demon hippo, tell them about these abilities (in general terms).  Demon hippos are not extremely common, but they feature in a great many stories.

And yes, the Church does regard them as actual demons.  There have been literal crusades against them (during times of peace, where there was nothing better to crusade against).  They have proven remarkably difficult to eradicate, but this does explain their relative scarcity somewhat.

A Few Mermaid Spells

Wizard 2
R: 50'   T: creature  D: 2 hr
If the target is at least half-submerged in water, they lose their ability to breathe air and gain the ability to breathe water.  If the target is not submerged in water, they just gasp and choke for a round, unable to do anything except move.  Save negates.

Wizard 1
R: 50'  T: object  D: 1 min
A floating object loses 20 pounds of buoyancy per caster level.  This doesn't affect the objects weight, it just behaves different in water (and only water).  It basically works as if they were carrying that many more pounds of weight.  (And I don't know if you've ever jumped into the pool with a 20 lb dumbbell, but swimming with an extra 20 pounds is fucking rough.  40 lbs is probably enough to sink most anyone.

Tummy Octopus
Wizard 1
R: 50'   T: creature  D: 1 min
If the target fails a save, a small, acid-resistant octopus appears inside their stomach and begins biting them.  It does 1 point of damage each round until removed.  Possible methods of nullification include drinking something toxic (brandy works), inducing vomiting, punching the crap out of your stomach, or swallowing something that eats octopi.  This spell summons 1 tiny octopi per 4 caster levels.


  1. Very long comment! Sorry, I’ve just been thinking about this exact thing.

    I want to imbue some of the travel challenges and ‘philosophy’ of traveling through ‘the Wild’ from The Fellowship of the Ring (the book, not the movie) into my games. If you look for it you’ll find dozens of examples of Tolkien menacing and opposing the characters using the terrain they pass through. I can’t think of a better fictional example of making travel in a dangerous fantasy land interesting. Rather than encountering a band of goblins/bandits/wolves every day, the hobbits engage in a prolonged struggle against the terrain while Tolkien takes every opportunity to foreshadow future dangers, hint about possible allies and advantages, and reveal the history of the area and tie that history into the current struggle the characters face.

    1. Frodo leaves the Shire. The ‘PCs’ don’t realize it but they’ve already pushed their luck too far by waiting for their powerful NPC ally (Gandalf) to show up. They think the Shire is safe territory, with no dangerous random encounters, but they’re wrong – the DM has added Nazgul to the encounter table. He’s a fair DM, though, because he remembers that rolling a random encounter doesn’t necessarily mean “you see the monster come out of the trees before you, roll initiative.” Instead, the DM allows for close calls. First, Frodo overhears the Gaffer actually talking to a Nazgul. Creeped out, he rushes back to the other PCs and they leave immediately. Later they hear the Nazgul’s horse coming up behind them before it sees them. The DM throws in more clues – they seem to hear the Nazgul ‘sniffing’ after them, which is also super duper creepy and weird. There are rare positive encounters on the encounter table too, though – the PCs run into a group of elves and receive a safe place to stay the night, a couple rolls on the rumor table, and some very minor ‘loot’: minor stat-boosting elven food. Later, they cross the ferry just before the Nazgul arrive. Frodo, with Merry’s help, does some calculations to figure out how long they can rest before the Nazgul, given all the options on the map, can reach them.

    2. Through the Old Forest. Forced by pursuing enemies to take a dangerous side-excursion, the PCs enter the Old Forest. Again they get a couple rolls on the rumor table and learn about what the trees might like or dislike, and they know they want to walk through the Bonfire Glade. (Unfortunately they don’t roll the rumors about Old Man Willow or Tom Bombadill, but them’s the breaks.) The surly, menacing trees damage the PC’s morale (a useful homebrew rule to add to any game that seriously deals with the effects of travel!), so the PCs try to sing to ‘fight back’ against the menace of the trees, and fail. The terrain is confusing: the paths seem to lead in the wrong direction, a mist rises to obscure distant landmarks when they do finally reach a place with a good view, and when they plunge into the woods, a series of dikes that the ponies struggle to climb out of seem always to bend ‘to the south and down.’ Basically, they fail a ‘navigation challenge’ against Old Man Willow, who brings the PCs right where he wants them.

    3. Another lucky encounter results in help from an NPC ally, Tom Bombadil. Bombadil can be summoned in the local area by singing a song – another cute, thematic, minor encounter benefit.

    1. 4. The Downs. Re-read this part! In two pages Tolkien writes a beautiful example of the danger of traveling through a hostile, unmapped place. We learn to walk around the west sides of the hills, because barrow entrances are on the right. The road seems closer than it is – that line of trees must be the road, right? No, actually it’s just shrubs – the road is twice as far away as you thought. The PCs take a break to eat and recover ‘morale’ at the base of a standing stone, and fail their saves vs. magical sleep. They awake just in time for night to fall and fog to erase all landmarks. Frodo rushes between two standing stones, and turns around to find that everyone else has disappeared (a teleport trap?). He can hear their voices as they cry out for help; the sound leads him to a wight.

      5. The Prancing Pony. The challenge here is that the village has been infiltrated by spies. These enemies won’t attack directly – only at night, when the PCs are asleep – and otherwise are waiting to alert the real threat, the Nazgul, who are nearby. The PCs fail a carousing roll and/or several social challenges and draw attention to themselves. They make a good decision and misdirect the spies, who attack the wrong room. Foiled in their direct attack, the opposition again strikes at the party’s ABILITY TO TRAVEL and scatters all the horses staying at the inn. The PCs, short on cash, succeed in a social challenge and guilt the innkeeper into paying for the only available pony.

      6. The Midgewater Marsh and Weathertop. Loud insects in the marsh prevent the party from resting effectively. At night, the party sees, in the distance on Weathertop, what seems to be lightning – the DM, throwing them a clue as several hexes away their NPC ally Gandalf battles Nazgul. Strider guides the party along a line of standing stones on an old, forgotten road designed to keep them out of sight of any watchers on Weathertop. A faction of the PCs ill-advisedly attempt to regain ‘morale’ with a fire, attracting the Nazgul, who are in adjoining hexes and are able to see the fire.

    2. Last part! Again, SORRY!

      7. Flight to the Ford. A crisis of resource management. Food is running low. Frodo is at 1 or 0 HP (depending on your system) and inflicted with an additional status ailment that will convert him into an NPC monster after failing three saves. The party can’t stop and rest to let him recover HP, because if they do the status effect will kill him instead.

      8. Post-Rivendell: SO MUCH GREAT STUFF HERE. Dueling dwarf and elf PC lore checks give insight on the history of the land, the mountains, and Moria. Hide from crebain! Strider succeeds in his ‘Watch’ check: that’s not the howling of wind, it’s the howling of wolves! An unnatural snowstorm foreshadows the strength and reach of the opposition; the next days are bright and clear “as if some power” desired clarity of sight. That’s strange, this river has dried up; are we in the right place? Oh no, the river was dammed because SOMEONE has recently acted to create this creepy lake…

  2. The dire tardigrade: This might be unrealistic, but fuck you. Well said. :)

    I definitely agree that the travel is the content. If it weren't, why not just start in media res at the entrance to the dungeon? I like random tables (too much), but I worry that a detailed random table is too labor-intensive for all the times a good journey requires a roll. Perhaps the fancy evocative weirdness-table is a subtable on the main nothing/nothing/obstacle/foe/foe/weirdness d6 table.

    1. I really like a detailed encounter table, especially if you mix the generic in with the specific. Like 1d6 orcs, for example (2 orcs dying a of a death curse they contracted in the tomb in Hex 2411. Anyone who kills them must save or contract the same curse. They will tell this to anyone they meet.)

      That way, you can use the specific entry the first time it is rolled, and the generic entry for subsequent rolls. Or you could just write a new specific entry to replace the old one once it gets used.

    2. A lot of the pushback I've gotten on straight encounter tables is for one of two reasons: 1) they're unrealistic ("Dire tardigrades? In the commerce district?!"), or 2) too plain (1d6 generic orcs attack you for no reason). This can be helped without writing a whole new table; your idea of just adding a bit of the specific goes a long way! A couple of motivations is all that's needed. Subtables! Something like a d6: hiding/hunting/recuperating/back from where PCs are headed/on a mean drunk/ambush.

      Okay, 1d6 orcs... *rolls* "hiding from the tribe they deserted / hunting for food." Now instead of just random orcs, you've got some mange-bit deserters skulking along behind the party, waiting for them to stumble or camp, so as to sneak in and ransack the PCs for supplies. Much better.

    3. I wouldn't knock generic encounter tables. Randomly rolling a vampire on one of those is how Ravenloft was written.