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.