GM Advice: How to Enliven Your PCs’ Overland Travel

After 15 days of uneventful travel, you reach the Chasm of Wails.” That’s not exactly an exciting start to an adventure, but often this is exactly how a quest starts. That’s a shame as overland travel can be a dynamic and exciting part of the campaign…

By William McAusland (Outland Art
By William McAusland (Outland Art


Enlivening your PCs’ overland travel is easy – it just requires a little bit of forethought and planning. That said, why would you bother?

  • Slow Down the PCs: Perhaps you are planning a really big module, but haven’t had time to finish it. Alternatively, the session may be ending soon and you don’t want to start something new as you’ll inevitably have to spend time next session recapping details of the quest. In this situation, it’s better to begin the new adventure at the start of the next session when everyone is invigorated and paying attention.
  • Provide XP: Sometimes, the PCs are just a few XP short of a level – and could really do with levelling up before the next adventure.
  • Provide Vital Tools: These could be in the form of magic items, writs, legends,  rumours, the services of an NPC and so on. To achieve this, the GM can have the party encounter other travellers, fall prey to bandits, discover the aftermath of a battle and so on.
  • Foreshadowing: Adding rumours, news and themes important in later adventures is well worth the investment in time and often builds a more believable, dynamic campaign. It also rewards attentive play – something well worth encouraging.

So how can you enliven an overland journey? Here are just a couple of ways to injecting some excitement into an otherwise boring part of the game:

  • Random Encounters: While the PCs are searching for adventure, sometimes the adventure finds them! Standard random encounters can be crushingly boring but crafted encounters with either an interesting setup or selection of foes can create much needed excitement.
  • Other Travellers: The PCs can meet travellers who may have items to sell, stories to tell or agendas to push upon the PCs.
  • Sidetreks: Running short adventures – perhaps involving a village in desperate need of adventurers – can prove a nice change of pace to the normal style of adventures. If you’ve featured loads of combat-heavy encounters, a short investigative adventure can reinvigorate the players.
  • Settlements: The PCs can rest overnight in a settlement along the way. Here they can relax, meet interesting NPCs, catch up on local rumours and more. Some of the shops may even have things they want to buy. Handily, this inevitably leads to roleplaying and can be employed to present the party  with fun social challenges.

So there you have it. Devoting some of your prep time to making your PCs’ journeys more exciting is design time well spent.

Help Your Fellow GMs!

Do you use other methods or strategies to enliven your overland journeys? Let us know what they are in the comments below and help your fellow GMs enliven the overland journeys in their own campaigns!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

3 thoughts on “GM Advice: How to Enliven Your PCs’ Overland Travel”

  1. To go along with your Sidetreks and Settlements points: It doesn’t even have to be a full settlement. Farms, mining camps, logging camps, crazy spirit quest guy’s camp, or any single family/person/occupation location can add to some fun little sidetreks and roleplay opportunities. I’ve given that last few XP because a group of players decided to help a logging camp figure out why the water-saw wouldn’t turn. They got to the next level, plus had a great time because playing a lumberjack is loads of fun as the GM.

  2. Great article! I’ll be using these ideas in my own games, to be sure!

    Maybe it would fall into Random Encounter or maybe Side Trek, but physical obstacles in the player’s path is another way to liven up long trips.

    Strong storms or sudden snowfalls can slow them down in a dramatic way – especially fun if they’re on a time crunch or trying to follow someone and the rain or snow both slows them down and hides their tracks. Or a heavy rain shower causes the road to get slick and muddy, slowing the horses or breaking axles on the wagon.

    If they have wagons, carts or pack animals they can further be slowed by fallen trees, rock slides or snow drifts that block the road even after the weather has passed. Any criminal elements in the area might be attracted to these natural obstacles as places to setup ambushes or opportunities to rob saddlebags while the riders are distracted clearing branches.

    Encounters with nature are a fun way to remind characters that they’re in a “realistic” world. One of my more introverted players likes to make characters with strong emphasis on social skills since he isn’t comfortable roleplaying around social interaction. He likes to tell the story of the time his character contracted poison oak while clearing brush from the road. The “disease” reduced his social rolls for over a week of game time, between the rash and the constant scratching!

    Outdated maps are another fun way to liven things up. Maybe the road they’re looking for has overgrown or the trailhead flooded out – or maybe they just missed a turn in the bad weather. They could spend a few extra days of travel backtracking to find another road – and it gives characters with the Cartography or Survival/Navigation skills a chance to actually use them to their benefit. And the more time they’re in the woods, the more opportunity for random encounters.

    Thank you for an awesome resource.

    1. I’m a huge fan of using weather to bedevil travellers. I think it’s something we forget these days – how at the mercy of the weather medieval travellers were.

      I also love the idea of the outdated map. That’s just brilliant – and could easily end with the PCs either having a minor adventure or spending a rather uncomfortable night in an overgrown ruin!

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