It’s not the Destination, but the Journey that Matters Most

WasserfŠlle von Iguacu

One of the things I’ve always struggled with a bit is how to run travel and exploration.  In some ways, the game of D&D, and other similar RPGs is about exploration – both of the world and of the character.  I’ve always liked the idea that a fantasy world could hold anything, and in playing the role of a person exploring that world, your character could truly feel the wonder that I have felt when I traveled to places like Iguazu or Machu Picchu.  Those places felt magical, and they exist today as places you could visit.  Try to imagine a world where magic exists within nature as well.  It takes a more accomplished GM than me to impart that sense of wonder to exploration at the tabletop.


I do try sometimes though.  I’ll describe a sweeping vista, or make that trek up the mountain really feel realistic.  At the same time, I sometimes feel like my effort to make travel feel significant ends up having the  opposite effect.  It slows the game down, leads to random encounters that aren’t as interesting to the story, and those in turn can lead to boredom and frustration.  Sometimes, I think about “Fast Travel” from various computer-based RPGs, and wonder if I should incorporate more of it into my game, and in fact, whether there should be some discussion of it in the exploration rules.  Maybe I should unlock “fast travel” to a location once you’ve found it, or explored the area.

To make a comparison to the creative process in literature, I feel sometimes like simplifying travel rules is like cutting weaker scenes from a novel or book.  But should narrated travel, random encounters, and other travel rules get cut, like an author tightening up a good story?  My main concern is that the game would lose something fundamental.  I talked about, in my post on Experience, wanting to reward exploration as a player behavior – and now I’m talking about significantly removing the barriers to travel.

Should we remove those climb checks and random encounters?  Without some good design, and honestly some re-skinning in the heat of the moment, random encounters can feel out-of-place, strange, and contrived.  Sometimes though, those random encounters are the extra bit of chaos that really takes the game in directions that even the GM didn’t anticipate.  Are random encounters important, or are they keeping us from getting to the good stuff?  I wonder if the journey is really all that important to the players compared to the destination, or whether it could be important if handled differently.  The truth of the matter is though that we have limited playing time, and so I wonder if travel should that be film sent to the cutting-room floor.

11 thoughts on “It’s not the Destination, but the Journey that Matters Most

  1. Andy

    I see this topic divided as follows –

    1) Areas which are of significance in the campaign world (even if they aren’t significant to the current plot of the quest). Examples of these include significant mountain ranges, castles, lakes, cities etc. In my opinion, these areas should be described in detail to highlight their significance. I think a great initial description of these areas can really set the mood and make you feel invested in the area. Even if they aren’t part of the current campaign, they could be use in future backstories of characters and future campaigns.

    2) All other areas which make up the rest of the campaign. Not all areas have significant meaning. I think it wastes time to describe every hex in great detail when there isn’t anything meaningful occuring. For every Machu Picchu in the real world, there are thousands of miles of empty farmland. To describe and require random encounters in every piece of empty farmland will slow the game down and take time away from exploring the interesting places.

    “Fast travel” – I love this in most games. I say after you’ve explored an area you can fast travel through it. IMO random encounters are pretty boring in comparison. Maybe leave random encounters but make them significantly less unlikely than in PF/etc (although varying on the overall danger of the area… in some undead kingdom ramp the likelihood up but in the outskirts of a major city make them VERY unlikely).

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Yeah, there is a lot of exploration in KM and I’m debating about ditching random encounters, I’m just afraid the world will lose a little of it’s living flavor and unpredictability if I do. I like being surprised myself sometimes too, and it absolves me a little bit of the blame… like encountering basalisks when you’re not really prepared for them. If it had to be a planned encounter, it might feel a bit unfair if everyone knew I picked and designed the encounter.

  2. connorbros

    As a GM, this exact topic has been at the forefront of my thoughts for quite some time. I don’t have the answers, but I at least agree on many of the same questions (balancing ‘challenge’ with reward, doing away with extraneous elements, but trying not to do away with the journey entirely). I don’t know if you follow any of the web articles on the official D&D site, but one makes mention of upcoming rules for the DnDNext playtest ( and sounds kind of exciting from this vein. Not that I want to sit back and wait for an answer to drop in my lap, but I think it’s always great to see what a team of paid professional designers who know the game certainly better than I do come up with.

    Also, I really like the blog! While I know I’m far from the only person who GMs and thinks about similar design-like issues, it’s nice to see the thoughts written out and collected (especially when I agree =) )

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      Welcome. Hope you decide to stick around and contribute your thoughts to the discussion! I haven’t been following D&D next very closely, so I’ll need to check it out. The main problem I have with waiting on professional developers is that they are trying to design a game for the masses that may or may not have the same goals as I do.

    2. wylliamjudd

      I read both of your blogs, and especially recently with Turn Based Living’s post on D&D Next, I wish I saw more of you guys on each others’ blogs.

      1. connorbros

        I wish there was more of me taking an active role over at Lost Worlds as well, but life is busy, etc. etc.

        As it happens, I’m on my way over there right now to catch up a bit. =)


  3. Pingback: Other Exploration Rules | Lost Worlds

  4. wylliamjudd

    It’s interesting to me that you link random encounters so closely with exploration. To me exploration is about imagination. The players are exploring a landscaped imagined by the DM, while the DM is exploring the inner worlds of the characters by challenging their choices in different ways. Not that you’re going to plan in advance everything everywhere, but that you’ll imagine some degree of internal logic for your world’s landscape that will make it easier to create encounters on the fly. I agree with Andy, that most exploration should be of landmarks in your story that are not immediately relevant, but will be later.

    I’ve learned a lot about your particular expectations of an RPG, and I think that random encounters fit well into your model. One way to make those random encounters not feel extraneous is to make them still be highly specific to a region. My step brother is an amazing DM, and he did use random encounters, which heightened the sense of danger. I’m pretty sure that his rolls weren’t for “what will the encounter be” so much as “do the dangerous monsters that live here find the adventuring party.” This keeps the sense of danger, and keeps that feeling that everything is at the whim of the DM away. And if the random encounters are highly relevant to the location, I don’t think they feel extraneous to the story (they’re part of the fabric of the world).

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      There are a lot of benefits to random encounters: they add a sense of danger to the world, they absolve the GM from “piling” on since they are randomly triggered, they add something to the game that the GM didn’t know about and has to work with creatively, they add action to times of monotonous travel, etc.

      For the game system though, how should all of this be presented. If you have 4 hours to game, do you want to spend 1 hour traveling from point A to point B, or do you want to skip that extraneous stuff because it’s just not as good as what’s going on at point B? Even if it’s unrealistic to be able to fast travel to the lost temple of the swamp king, everyone spends more of their 4 hours doing stuff that’s awesome, rather than stuff that’s okay…

      On the other hand, that random encounter could turn out to be awesome as well. For example, in the recent campaign, we had some early random encounter rolls that ended up turning into some ongoing story arcs. Without the random encounter, those stories would have never developed. They acted as a creative spark for more good content.

      I think my plan is to lower the frequency of random encounters down from the pathfinder campaign we’re playing in now, and have a greater portion of those random encounters be very specifically non-combat encounters. I think an encounter might just be seeing a unique mystical beast on the horizon, or noticing a field of medicinal plants, or running into a caravan led by a famous minstrel. That way, the encounters can add some depth, but still get over quickly so that we don’t spend the whole session trying to get to the game the players want to play.

  5. Pingback: WILA D&D Next (Non-combat Gaming) | Turn Based Living

  6. Pingback: Dungeon World – Taking Watch and Fast Travel | Lost Worlds

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