Fantasy Roundtable: Travel by Montage

In today’s adventure, the intrepid band of heroes has a long trek to reach their destination. The vast forest is infamous as a haven for bandits and ruffians, shunned by the wise… but it’s the only path to the ruined temple of the Holy MacGuffin. The fact of the matter is that the adventurers are far too skilled and accomplished for a typical band of brigands to pose any sort of threat. Having a random battle would simply waste time without adding any real tension, and compared to the story you have in mind, fighting bandits is a pretty dull story. You could take the red line approach, just cutting from point A to point B with a few sentences of description, explaining just how creepy the forest is and that the bandits are smart enough to avoid the party. But at the same time, the forest is really creepy, and the presence of the bandits is a well established part of the setting; you want them to feel like they’ve taken a significant journey. What do you do?

It’s possible for the journey to be the adventure. The Hobbit is a story about a group of adventurers delving into a dragon’s lair… but the bulk of the story is about the journey to the dungeon. Mechanically, bandits can’t pose a threat to the adventurers. Well, what if they can? What if they come back to life whenever they are killed—and the only way to stop them is to find and destroy the artifact or power source that’s empowering them? Or perhaps it’s a moral dilemma: the “bandits” are actually Robin Hood-style heroes robbing from the rich to raise money for some vital cause, like buying medicine to bring an end to a local plague? The adventurers are, in fact, incredibly rich by local standards; are they willing to help in some way, or do they slaughter the last, best hope of the stricken locals?

This sort of thing can be a lot of fun. The En Route series from Atlas Games presents a host of little scenarios designed to fit into the spaces between the major parts of an adventure—challenges that aren’t simply combat encounters, but interesting stories on their own. However, playing through such a scene takes time, and if the core adventure has a strong story, you may not want to water it down with a side scene. So you don’t have time to make a bandit encounter actually interesting; you don’t want to waste time on a pointless fight; but you also don’t want to just gloss over the journey. What do you do?

What I’ve been doing lately is using a travel montage. Come up with a few interesting things that could happen on the journey and put one of these situations in the hands of each player, giving each character their own spotlight moment. So if I’ve got an elf wizard, a dwarf fighter, a halfling thief, and a human priest, I might say:

  • Halfling thief: “Tell me how you help the group avoid a bandit attack on the first day.”
  • Elf wizard: “There are constant storms in this region. By the second day your clothes are drenched, and the bridge across the local river has been washed away. How does your magic help the party get across the river?”
  • Dwarf fighter: “This forest is older than human civilization. You’re sure you hear the howls of ghosts on the wind, and see things moving in the shadows. You’re a brave man… what’s the one thing that actually scares you on the journey?”
  • Human priest: “Tell me about the dream you have on the last night.”

The point of this approach is to give each character a chance to be in the spotlight for a moment, and to encourage the players to think about what makes the journey interesting for them. Sure, any of the characters could figure out how to cross a river, but this time, it was the wizard who figured it out… now tell me how. Depending what the players come up with, you could incorporate their answers into the later adventure. Perhaps the priest’s dream will turn out to be prophetic, or the thing that frightened the dwarf will return in some way. Perhaps the thief avoided the bandits because he actually knew the bandit leader from his first guild… in which case, that character could turn up again later in a more interesting role. Alternately, the players might just make jokes out of the scenarios; the one thing that actually scares the dwarf is watching the halfling eat, or the snores of the priest. There’s nothing wrong with this. The whole point is to let the players have a chance to tell the story they want; if they want to laugh, this is a great opportunity for that.

What’s your favorite approach for making travel interesting when it’s not a central part of the adventure? What’s worked well for you?

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