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.
- Appears normal, and is.
- Appears normal, but is full of monsters.
- Challenge to cross.
- 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.
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).
Roll a d6. Toll collectors usually charge per head (including pack animals) and a much larger fee for wagons.
- 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.))
- Violent Bridge Goats. Will knock the party into the river unless money is put into a large urn.
- 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.
- Unattended. Yay.
- 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.
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.
- Giant trained turtle with a donation box on his back. Wants ear scratches. Owned by merfolk who are usually within hearing distance.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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.
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.
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.