2019-03-19

Time Spent on Travel to the Dungeon

In a traditional megadungeon campaign, where most sessions start in the same town and then move to the same dungeon and then back to the same town, how much time and energy should be spent travelling back and forth between town and dungeon?

Answers in published megadungeons vary.  Castle Greyhawk and Ruins of the Undermountain are right under cities, avoiding all that pesky travel completely.  The Temple of Elemental Evil is about a half-day's walk from Hommlet, and right next to Nulb.  Castle Whiterock is "a full day's ride" from Cillamar.  (Ride!  Clearly their PCs aren't as cheap as ours.)  Rappan Athuk is off in the wilderness somewhere, an unspecified distance from the nearest town, surrounded by brutal wandering monster tables.

Regardless of the game-world distance, what really matters is its effect on play.  If the travel distance is 500 miles but the GM handwaves the trip every session with "you hike to the dungeon and nothing happens on the way," without so much as a random encounter roll, and the time and provisions spent travelling don't matter, then the dungeon might as well be in town.  On the other hand, a 20-mile trip featuring horribly risky terrain and monsters might be as hard as the dungeon itself.  So perhaps it's better to talk in terms of the travel time in terms of percentage of session time consumed, and amount of risk to the PCs.

At one example of the time-versus-risk continuum, imagine a game where mundane travel is impossible, but the wizard has the ability to teleport the entire party to the dungeon instantly, except there's a decent chance of critical failure resulting in a total party kill.  (Let's call this "Star Trek Redshirts.")  Given that scenario, most PCs are going to try to dramatically reduce that critical failure chance as quickly as possible.  (Luck, Bless, more Teleport spell skill, etc.)  If they can't, they're going to make that trip as seldom as possible.  They're going to want to move into the dungeon, or set up a permanent base camp nearby.

At the other extreme, if town is safe and travel to the dungeon is risk- and pain-free, the PCs will probably return to town almost every session.  Town has nice things like rooms, hot food, healers, sages, trainers, and shops.  Unless you have very particular disadvantages (like you're a "monster" that townspeople might try to kill, or you're afraid of crowds, or you're terminally cheap and think that sleeping in a tree and hunting for your food full-time is a great bargain), you're going to want to live in town.  Beyond the shopping and training and such, one great advantage of returning to town is that it makes it easy to swap PCs between sessions.  So if you want to run a "pickup" game with rotating players and/or characters, like Peter's Felltower campaign, easy travel to and from town is the way to go.

Somewhere in the middle, you make travel to and from the dungeon take a non-trivial part of every session, and there's some risk (wandering monsters, bad weather, etc.)  But if the PCs are going to the same dungeon every session, clearly their commute can't be that hard, or they'd stop doing it.  If you want outdoor travel to be a major part of the game, maybe you want a hexcrawl with lots of little dungeons rather than a single megadungeon.

Castle Whiterock is designed for a quick trip from town to dungeon.  The adventure doesn't come with a local area outdoor map, or wandering monster tables.  Clearly, as published, the intent is to move the PCs quickly from town to dungeon, where the fun is supposed to be.  The castle is "a long day's ride" from town.  But the terrain is pretty rough, so horses are only so much faster than walking.  Since the PCs are (so far) too cheap to buy horses, that means a very long day's hike, modified by encumbrance level and whether the slower PCs make their Hiking roll.  Also, there's a lake between Cillamar and the castle, so going over the lake rather than around it is noticably faster.  (Unless something in the lake eats you, of course.)

I could probably just handwave the trip to the dungeon every time, both ways, but I can't resist making the players make some choices about travel.  Do you buy horses?  A wagon?  A boat?  Snowshoes?  Skis?  A sleigh?  A flying carpet?  (Ha, good luck finding one.)  The Flight spell at a high enough level to keep it going for the whole trip?  Winter clothing or Warmth spells?  NPCs to help?  Applicable skills?  And I make them roll Hiking every time, on the way to the dungeon.  (The trip home is often handwaved for out-of-time reasons.)  And I roll for random encounters every time, though it's a not a super-dangerous area, so the odds aren't high of meeting a challenging one.  My goal is that we usually spend about 30 minutes per four-hour game session on town business and travel.  If a non-trivial wandering monster attacks, it might be more.

So far, the answer this group of players has come up with is "we're too cheap to buy horses, and we're afraid of lake monsters, so we walk and we take the long way."  They have a few wheelbarrows for hauling heavy gear and loot overland.  This has worked well enough that I don't see it changing, until Se├ępravir achieves Flight-25.  (Flight has a 1-minute duration, so if you have to pay even 1 FP to maintain it, that's 5 FP per minute for 5 PCs, not sustainable.  But skill 25 gets the maintenance cost to zero, and at that point why wouldn't you?)

Of course travel to the dungeon is only half the story; I'll talk about travel within the "cleared" parts of the dungeon another time.

3 comments:

  1. Also once we arrive at the dunngeon a gryphon might eat our horses while we are busy dungeoning

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  2. I've just not seen the immediate "this will improve my life" factor for horses. I keep thinking I'll see a need and rush into shops to buy one, but so far? nah.

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  3. It's true, once you buy horses you have to think about whether to hire someone to guard them. And then perhaps the guards need horses too. It adds up.

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DF Whiterock Session 56: Spider Temple

Date: 2019-07-12 Weather: None, session entirely underground Player Characters: Elias (Wiggles), Wood Elf Cleric, 320 points ...