dungeon crawl, hex crawl… journey?

It’s interesting how evocative the word “journey” is. In fantasy literature, overland adventure is mostly framed in terms of journeys – from the Fellowship’s journey to Mordor and Bilbo’s unexpected journey back to the journey to the west.

Given that, it’s funny how few journeys my D&D group has been on. Wilderness adventure is often framed in terms of sandbox hex crawl. Long-distance travel is often not that difficult: a few encounter checks maybe, or some light teleportation, or sea travel (which is exciting in its own right, but rarely gets the word “journey” applied to it. “Voyage,” yes.)

What would it mean to frame a D&D campaign as a journey instead of a dungeon crawl or hex crawl?

  • You’re travelling mostly through unknown (Lewis and Clark) or hostile (Xenophon’s Anabasis/The Warriors) territory.
  • It’s nigh impossible. The completion of a journey is never routine. In fact, completing it is enough to make you a legendary hero. The journey should force you to enter some high-level areas (Mordor).
  • It takes a long time – months through a year. D&D travel rates range from 5 to 30 miles per day, but you’d expect some downtime in a long journey. Lewis and Clark took a year and a half to travel 3700 miles – less than 10 miles per day. A journey of 1000 miles might easily take 3-4 months. Keep in mind that every journey is going to hit some delays: the PCs might spend days waiting for a storm to subside, weeks recovering from wounds, or months imprisoned by a goblin king. They’re likely to get lost, lose their horses and supplies, or be teleported far out of their way by an angry wizard.
  • It’s dangerous most of the time. It’s peppered with safe spots to rest (Rivendell, for instance) but most of the time it provides threats that could overwhelm the adventurers. Keep in mind that the PCs are likely to level up a few times over the course of the journey, so it’s likely that the danger level of the inhabitants should ramp up over the path of the journey.
  • It’s a travelogue. Consider Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey (one of the books on Gygax’s Appendix N), which ranges over lots of mutated biomes, from tundra to giant woodland to lake to urban jungle to sentient mushroom forest. Don’t just put the PCs through 2000 miles of desert. Let them cross desert, jungle, frozen wastes, crystal forests, and other exotic locations as colorful as the Technicolor terrain of The Wizard of Oz. You’re a DM; you’ve made up a cool world, and now’s your chance to show it all off.

    Designing a journey-based campaign requires a little bit of a different approach to worldbuilding than a sandbox game. For one thing, you need an impressive stretch of hostile terrain: maybe a 500 or 1000 mile stretch of wilderness between the heroes and the destination. The area must be so dangerous that no one else (or few others) have made the trip and returned. And the terrain must be varied, and stocked with varied monsters, to provide novelty for the players. Because sea travel is often easier and faster than land travel, there should be no easy sea route to circumvent the journey – but there should be choices: the players might skip the desert entirely if they travel through the jungle. Not every world map can support such a journey. Keep it in mind when you’re mapping.

    By the way, this musing on the word “journey” was sparked by Journey to Justinia”, an amazing maze/RPG lite game created by a dad for his five-year-old son. It’s a big D&D-like poster maze. I have a soft spot for those.

  • 4 Responses to “dungeon crawl, hex crawl… journey?”

    1. Baf says:

      Seems like one of the big advantages of the Journey model for the DM is that it provides a framework for disparate adventures without requiring a separate justification for the heroes’ participation in each one. The heroes are just trying to reach their destination, and the adventures are obstacles that stand in the way of that goal.

    2. The thing I always overlook in long journeys is something Tolkien does very well: there need to be a lot of significant, interesting landmarks along the way, to break the journey up into bite-size pieces. Safe places are good to include, but Tolkien does this with UNsafe places as well – Amon Hen, Emyn Muil, the Dead Marshes, Cirith Ungol – and it gives a much more meaningful feeling of progress to the whole deal. A hex map helps with this, because at least you can move your marker on the map or whatever, but I think I could stand to improve my Big, Memorable Landmarks quotient most of all.

    3. 1d30 says:

      I’d like to see the party have more objectives than just one (reaching the destination).

      Let’s say they need to carry a fragile thing all the way there, like porcelain gifts for the King of the West Coast, or virgin priestesses.

      Also let’s say that while they aren’t supposed to map out the whole world, the more stuff they map out the greater their reward is.

      Things they need to sidequest for along the way. Maybe they aren’t the first to make this journey: the Royal Dudes Who Explore came this way, met the King of the West Coast but half of their party fled with the first set of gifts (different ones) and slowly died on the way back, scattering them. Much glory would come to the PCs if they could give not one set of porcelain gifts, but also the first set of lost (and not as inconvenient to carry) gifts.

      Optional sidequests that will take more time, but possibly give rewards like the loyalty of the natives, loot, wisdom from hermits, maps of the area, etc. They might also find themselves in a position to wait for snows to clear or rains to stop flooding the rivers, meaning they have some extra time to spend and need to choose what to spend it on. To summarize, use the time as a resource. Getting there sooner gives some benefit, or there’s a deadline like the marriage celebration of the Princess of the West Coast.

      Choice of routes. Not just the standard “the plains to the south will be a longer detour, but the mountain pass is more dangerous”, but also “you must choose whether to pass through the Valley of the Scorching Plumes or the Valley of the Thieves” (two different dangers), or “the overland journey is tough on wagons and the river is tough on boats. But if the wagon spills you don’t lose the supplies like if your boat breaks up. Then again, you don’t need to rely on draft animals to pull boats. Also, the river-boatmen you’ll need to hire are sometimes traitors who lead you into dangers like the maw of their river-god, while the plains-wagoneers are scrupulously true and fair but their gods are fickle.” (what the heck is going on DM how are we supposed to choose just tell us what the best one is (but the DM just smiles and shakes his head)).

      And at the end of it, this would be a perfect time for a land grant. A whoop and huzzah rises about the table, before the more clever players realize this is a ruse to lead them onto more and greater adventure …

    4. Xaos says:

      Well, to keep it from being just another adventure path scenario or plot where the PCs have to travel around the world and grab the four elemental McGuffins to beat the final boss, you really should play up the survival aspect of exploring an unknown region. Give the players interesting choices to make and incomparables in the decisions.

      The biggest hangup might be the party’s motivation for journeying.

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