Monday, 23 January 2017

The long haul: time and distance in D&D

Image result for journey of marco polo

This post grew out of Bardaree Bryant's recent comment on one of my old posts, in which she asked about ways of communicating enormously long-distance travel in play - aside from 'OK, you ride for a hundred days, so hang on while I make a hundred random encounter checks', which obviously isn't very satisfactory. In my reply to Bardaree, I suggested that you could do it by simply emphasising the sheer amount of time involved in travelling long distances on foot or on horseback. And that got me thinking about the role that long duration might play in D&D, as well...

In many D&D games, neither long distances nor long durations come up very much at all. A lot of D&D scenarios follow the model from Keep on the Borderlands, where the Keep and the Caves of Chaos are only a couple of miles apart; Undermountain in the Forgotten Realms later went even further by having the dungeon directly under the starting tavern, meaning that the journey time between Home Base and Mythic Underworld wasn't hours or days, but minutes. But what if it's further? What if it's much further? What if the journey to 'the dungeon' is more like a band of sixteenth-century Spanish adventurers setting out for El Dorado than a gang of graverobbers deciding to break into a mausoleum in the churchyard down the road? Or consider something like the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6, which spent eighteen months travelling from St Louis to the Pacific, five months on the Pacific coast waiting out the winter, and six months on the return journey - a round trip of almost two and a half years, even though they had much better equipment and navigational techniques than would have been available in the Middle Ages. What if the journey to the dungeon and back looks like that? 

Image result for travels of magellan
'We're almost there, guys! Just another five or six months, tops!'

Many readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the old Pendragon RPG, in which the PCs are knights in Arthurian Britain. One of Pendragon's many innovations was the idea that the PCs aren't off adventuring 24/7: instead, adventuring is seasonal, something you do in the summer when the weather is warm and riding around in the woods all day isn't too much of a pain in the arse. A Pendragon party will ride off to slay a dragon or rescue a maiden or whatever, and then they'll come home, and that'll be their adventure for the year done: it's followed by a 'Winter Phase', where you get to roll a bunch of dice to find out whether you catch the plague and whether your wife dies in childbirth and how many children you have left by springtime, and then summer comes around and you round up your mates and go for another adventure. One adventure + one winter phase = one year, and over the course of a long campaign PCs are thus expected to age from brash young warriors in their late teens to grizzled veterans in their 30s or 40s. Play long enough and you might even end up playing as the children or grandchildren of your original characters.

Now, Pendragon uses this model because its PCs are plugged into a specific social structure, rather than just being the rootless freebooters so common in D&D. They can't adventure all day, every day: they have manors to run, peasants to oppress, lords to serve, lands to guard, and so on. But I think a variant on it could easily be used to model 'long-distance D&D': if there are a thousand miles of wilderness between you and the dungeon, then one expedition per year is probably the most you're going to be able to manage. You set out in spring; you reach your destination and have your adventure in summer; you trek back through the autumn; and winter is spent sheltering from bad weather and gathering plans and supplies for next year's expedition.

Image result for silk road caravan

This 'annual adventure' model wouldn't be suitable for all campaigns, and would fit much more easily into a setting where the geography is on a North American or Central Asian scale rather than yet another Merrie Olde Englande knock-off, but I think that it has certain attractions. It gives a more plausible explanation for how the PCs have had time to recover from all their horrible injuries. It makes their increasing power level more believable. (I've never been a fan of the way D&D characters often go from raw beginners to mighty wizards and warriors within just a few months of game time.) It emphasises just how much wealth they've acquired: not just enough to pay their tavern bills for a few weeks, but enough to live off for months at a time and still pay for the supplies of the next expedition. It gives them a reason to build connections with (and invest resources in) their communities, because for much of the year those communities will be their actual homes, rather than just places they drop into briefly to heal and restock before heading back out to the adventure site. And if your group happens to be interested in dealing with Pendragon-esque issues relating to ageing and family and whatnot, then it opens up a space for them, too. PCs who go adventuring once a year can watch their children grow up. PCs who go adventuring once a day are unlikely to live long enough to have any children in the first place.

In practise, this would mean dividing the role traditionally played by 'town' into two. The place that the PCs retreat to at the end of a day's dungeoneering is just 'base camp', which is probably still just a few miles from the dungeon; but the place where they go to resupply, sell loot, hire new followers, and so on is their distant 'home port', so far away that going there and back means adding one year (or more!) to your PC's age on their character sheet. PCs would be aware that their adventuring career was likely to span years or decades rather than weeks or months, simply because of the amount of long-distance travel involved, and would thus have an incentive to engage in the kind of long-term activities which tend to seem pointless in many D&D games: getting married, having or adopting children, investing in businesses or property, training apprentices, founding new religions, starting political movements, and so on. The equivalent of the Winter Phase would be discovering after each adventure how all your long-term projects had developed in your absence, and establishing the direction you wanted then to take next. This would also neatly avoid having the game eaten by the minutiae of running a magical academy / political party / insane conspiracy / whatever: when your PC spends three-quarters of every year on the road, she has to delegate its day-to-day running to her NPC minions, instead.

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By the same token, this structure would mean that the GM was free to make use of long-term situations: not just the 'immediate massive crisis' that is D&D's normal bread and butter, but slowly-simmering issues that might take years and years of game time to finally boil over. That lunatic preaching in the town square might just look like a bit of local colour the first time you see him, but eight years later he and his cult might have taken over half the city. (And, again, all these long absences provide the time needed for major changes to take place. 'When you finally set eyes upon your home city after eighteen months on the road, you can tell at once that it has changed dramatically since your departure...') You could explore plotlines that D&D campaigns usually don't have time for, like the rise and fall of entire governments or religions; you could even take the Pendragon model and start the campaign at the beginning of a new king's reign, allowing the actions of the PCs and the consequences of their adventures to shape whether his era turns out to be one of prosperity or disaster. Most D&D PCs are too anarchic to act as some monarch's Lancelot - but they're pretty well-suited to be their Drake or Magellan, with all the positive and negative consequences that can stem from that.

All this is still just a thought experiment at this stage, and while I do make frequent use of extended time gaps in the D&D games I run, I haven't yet tried building the regular lapse of years into the structure of the game itself. I think the idea might have some potential, though. If nothing else, it lets those enormous blank spaces on the map become meaningful again, if only because of all the things that have the time to happen elsewhere while you slog through them on the way to what you naively believe to be the 'real' adventure...


Image result for silk road caravan

25 comments:

  1. Great post! I really like this approach of the game, and I think that it adds a 'plausible' facet to D&D, like leveling in your home or adding a lot of NPC's (like wives, husbands, sons, friends, financial advisors...) to the campaign.

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  2. I really like the direction of these thoughts. While I wouldn't necessarily limit my campaign to only a single adventure per year, even going with one adventure per season would give a new spin to a campaign that's intended to be episodic. And in some years there might not be a winter adventure at all. Age is less likely to become a factor, especially when dealing with long lived nonhuman PCs, but you still have all those string pullers advance their plots that affect the social environment.
    This is something that I definitely want to bring into my own game in some way.

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    1. Yeah, I think that the option to be able to go long-term could be really nice to have. Normally, everything is either an IMMEDIATE CRISIS or it's irrelevant; but if the pace is a bit slower, then things that take months or years to come to fruition can actually become relevant to the campaign...

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    2. Birthright had something similar to this, where if characters were rulers, adventures could arise from them deciding to personally respond to monthly events, and the DM was encouraged to track the length of the adventure to see if it went into the next month.

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    3. And now I see that Lee mentions Birthright below...that's what happens when I don't read all the comments before posting.

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  4. My group plays 4e. I've always disliked the idea that characters are magically healed back to full just by sleeping. Like, if you break your arm, sleeping isn't just going to make it better. It makes it difficult to throw out challenging encounters when they're always able to go "all out". An idea that I've been toying with has been to reduce them to healing one surge per day of rest, a daily after two, or something like that. That way, if there are immediate tensions, they will have to decide whether they want to press the advantage or prioritize their health. Tough decisions make for an interesting campaign. With the sheer distances involved, they can always heal up to full by travelling to another location.

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  5. I like your drift. I recently finished a campaign of Pathfinder's Kingmaker adventure path, and I used some similar elements there. I set the game in a far northern climate, so most adventuring happened in the short summers. Since the campaign is also designed that the players build and run a kingdom, much of that downtime was spent on that kind of thing.

    So we did have (a few) characters marry and found a dynasty, and talk about expanding on their houses and planning villages into towns.

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    1. Yeah, that's the sort of thing I'd like to open up time for. In this post 'Game of Thrones' era, the opportunity to dabble in a bit of dynasty building should be a pretty easy sell for a lot of groups - but it requires *time*. You don't get that if they're always down a cave!

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    2. Kingmaker added monthly campaign turns to the game. My favorite AD&D setting, Birthright, used quarterly turns, with 3 possible (monthly) actions per quarter. "Adventure" was just one of the possible actions on the list. I would have liked it if some of the turns would have been longer in time, like the Winter Phase described above, so that fewer things might be happening so quickly.

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  6. I've been pining for long-form play like this, but haven't boiled down the core concepts I'd need yet. I've definitely been thinking along some of these lines, though...

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  7. 1. My campaign with a tentpole dungeon: 3.3 years in real time, 7 months in game time, 7th level (which is good leveling for the real time scale but weird for the game time scale). A good game-time system would have characters fighting advancing age as they reach 9th level, one where super-high archmages are NPCs who gained their levels by constant study, and the big monsters are still threats - suggesting an average of 1 level/2-3 years or so.

    2. The travel would also be an adventure of sorts.

    3. Most urgently needed is a system to handle investment of treasure and turning experience to levels in the off season

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    1. I'd never thought about pegging assumed age per level and working backwards from there, but it makes a lot of sense. You'd normally expect someone who's fought his way up from being raw recruit to becoming a lord (or high priest, or master mage) by their own hand to be in their mid-30s at earliest, but in D&D-land it can easily happen in a few months, which can be a bit odd at times. I agree that two years per level seems about right.

      Doesn't LOTFP have rules for making business investments?

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    2. I don't remember if LOTFP does, but Dragon magazine #268 had AD&D2e business investing rules in an article titled "Ill Gotten Gains," by Kevin Haw.

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  8. The part of the long journey I'm most struggling to wrap my mind around is encounter frequency. Bardaree Bryant mentioned my problem in the initial comment.

    It's obviously undesirable to make 6 checks a day for months. Are the steppes so depopulated there's no need to check more than once a week?

    Another thought is maybe at the "lower resolution" months go by mode, you use a higher level wilderness encounter chart because this is assumed to be the "best of" encounter among a handwaved-away number of more usual and more easily managed encounters? If it's something like the latter, it suggests ammunition consumption is another component to consider when trying to work out just how much it would cost to mount an expedition to Wyoming from Texas.

    Which brings up the other point I struggle with on a long journey - logistics. Asking players to work it out themselves seems like a recipe for hilarious planning shortfalls and all your mules starving in the pass like some hapless Oregon Trail teamster. While I as DM might enjoy inflicting a chance of Girardia on my stream-drinkers, that level of detail seems entirely out of place in any game that isn't just about the trip.

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    1. On encounters: yeah, I'd just replace regular encounters with a much more infrequent chance of much more significant encounters, and assume that the regular '1d6 wolves' and '2d4 goblins' and whatnot have the sense to leave a large, well-equipped expedition well alone.

      On logistics: unless your players really love that stuff, I'd just let them pick a destination, tell them how much time and money it will take to organise an expedition to get there, and have done with it. Maybe assemble a hilarious 'under-equipped expedition mishap' table and give them the option of under-spending if they really want to, at the cost of rolling on the table with an ever-bigger modifier depending on just how badly they've skimped on the necessary gear and personnel...

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    2. You're on to something with that hapless traveler table idea. "Under-equipped expedition mishap table" is a totally Rientsian name, too, so awesome! I could really do something with that.

      I'm pretty sure I love logistics more than any of my players, but then my favorite book as a kid was Robinson Crusoe.

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  9. It also opens up the brand-new game objective of creating a "safe pathway" between two distant locations. Noisms posted a little while ago about finding a new approach for overland travel that wasn't just a hexcrawl. This is certainly a candidate.

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    1. Like how video games have fast travel checkpoints. Once they've cleared out an area, they should be able to jump between the points simply by paying time unless there's a plot point involved.

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    2. Yeah, finding a better path should definitely be something PCs can/should pursue, slashing travel times and expedition expenses. You might even have one whole adventure for which the 'treasure' is just finding information on a route which will let you get to another adventure site in, say, three months rather than nine...

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  10. Great Post. I've actually been working on a fantasy Lewis and Clarke adventure but hadn't codified or thought of the long travel nearly as eloquently.

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  11. Another good post Joseph. To expand on your thoughts, Viking society provides a historical example that is simiilar to Pendragon. Real life Norsemen would sometimes disappear for 6 months to over a year for raiding and trading expeditions. Chaosium's 1985 Runequest 3 Vikings supplement encouraged that style of play. Sailing off to raid and trade needn't mandatory. Characters would decide whether to go raiding and trading or stay home and play politics and work on improving their steading.

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    1. D&D as seasonal raiding could work really well, actually. Just hand the players a map and say to them: 'OK, the winter is over, the ships have been repaired, and you're ready to set off. Who will you try to raid and/or trade with this year?'

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  12. Logistics gets the scope/weight of long distance travel to sink in for some playe, feeding a party of 7 PCs, a dozen henchmen, 20 or 30 hirelings, and all the animals required to haul all that stuff is different than keeping everything on a character sheet.

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  13. Good post ! Dave Morris once wrote that each month of travel should be rendered by 30 minutes of real-time role-playing.
    However, role-playing each facet of the intricacies of a travel (ex : food management) can become boring for both players and GM. The RPG "The One Ring" (a recent system set in Middle-Earth) has an abstract travel system Worth looking at, where the main functions of a long-distance journey (foraging, scouting...) are dispatched between the members of the company.

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