How DnD 5e Travel Gameplay Can Be Better: 5 Proven Solutions
By Riley Rath
All the Best Methods for Role-Playing Travel in DnD 5e... And Tips for Getting It RIGHT
Table of Contents
- We Need Several Ways to Travel in DnD 5e
- Suggestions for Making 5e Travel Better
- 5 Different Methods for Running Travel in DnD 5e
- Conclusion: Put It All Together
We Need Several Ways to Travel in DnD 5e
Basically... it can be fun... but is usually boring... so we skip it.
And now... IT'S TIME TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!
We need ways to play DnD travel.
Cuz today's DnD is about so much more than getting from point A to point B.
And while the original 1974 version may not have had expansive homebrew and overland travel modules (like Storm King's Thunder)—you had to get a 3rd party supplement—worlds demand it.
Like, you know how there is "no WRONG way to eat a Reese's"?
Well... in a similar way... there is no RIGHT way to travel in DnD 5e.
Fun 5e travel is situational... it depends on your players, where you are in the story, and the destination up ahead... if you try to shoe-horn in a single method for every situation, you only continue the stereotype that DnD travel sucks.
How you get there often (though not always) matters.
There are a lot of different ways to run travel in DnD 5e, and this post goes through them all and helps you choose which one is best for you.
It is part 2 of our travel series, the goal being:
- To make travel a REAL option in your campaigns.
- Add a different, fun flavor of adventure into your DnD campaign.
- Add something you and your players will look forward to.
Suggestions for making 5e Travel Better
There are ways to play travel better, and then there are ways to make sure the ways we play travel better are, in fact, better.
© Middle-earth Enterprises
There may be no "one size fits all" for travel, but there are methods that always work no matter how you travel... sure-fire tips and tricks.
And we'll start these general suggestions with the most important:
A) Narrate the Surroundings Well and Often
When you travel in real life, you get out of your familiar surroundings and are thrust into the big, wide world. New settings, new cities, new peoples. And all of these different settings come with unique sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and sensations.
Perceptions and sensations that are MEMORABLE.
Guy from How to Be a Great GM points this out. He looked back on his backpacking trips and realized that what he remembers are the VIEWS from the mountain top.
You know what he DOESN'T remember? Packing his food for the trip, driving to the trail, or setting up a tent.
The memories that define our greatest travel experiences are the glorious moments we experience... the moments that made it worth it.
So DMs... you gotta regularly narrate what the characters are traveling through... like, A LOT.
And when a few minutes have passed and you feel like you just narrated the scene... do it again...
And again 10 minutes later...
And again when they enter a new area...
Always lean on over narrating.
Travel is part of the exploration pillar; for players to explore, they need to visualize the environment their characters are in.
And players... you aren't off the hook either!
As the DM actively narrates, you must actively visualize. It doesn't happen passively and requires intentional effort.
But trust me, it will be worth it! The adventure will feel so much more fantastic and cinematic.
(One word of warning... once again from Guy... DMs, be sure to distinguish mere narration from something that can be explored. The last thing you want is your players investigating a huge waterfall that you put there just to describe a scene).
B) Explore When the Player Character's Are at Lower Levels
In the previous post, I said travel can help the world feel dangerous and have a sense of scale.
On the flip side, this is particularly NOT true when they are bigger and stronger... starting around level 9. At that point, they will have access to spells like Magnificent Mansion, Teleport, and Heroes Feast, which will turn arduous trekking into a walk in the park.
The tension, wonder, and experience of travel matters at lower levels.
As your players level up and get stronger and stronger, they will find the bloodthirsty bandits that gave them such trouble are now barely an inconvenience. So much so that you can narrate a bandit encounter rather than roll it!
And as a DM, this works to your advantage!
If you traveled at lower levels, narrating an easy battle at higher levels will reinforce just how much stronger the players have gotten! They will think "wow... what used to take us several sessions now takes just 5 minutes!"
So if you want to enjoy travel in your adventure, YOU HAVE TO START EARLY.
C) Always Know the Basics
The basics include two things: 1) cost and 2) "marching" order.
DnD parties often travel for potential riches... but it also costs them riches.
Travel is a dangerous and expensive adventure. Ask how many taverns they stay in, what kind of food they plan on eating, what supplies they need, etc. The gold you give them is for so much more than fancy armor and magic items.
Does this mean you have to track every little thing? Heavens no.
- If they fall into some rapids and crash against rocks... yeah, maybe their equipment should be damaged.
- And if they choose to stay at taverns... yeah, refer to the lifestyle expenses on page 157–158 of the PHB.
- And if they choose to camp in bad weather for a week... yeah, give them a level of exhaustion until they get good sleep in a warm bed.
The Dungeon Coach also pointed out how helpful it is to have the players decide on a "standard" marching order. Knowing who is where will come in handy when there is some sort of encounter. The DM can seamlessly transition from narration to encounter, keeping the pace of the game exciting.
And, if I may add to this point, a lot of stuff happens when the players are NOT on the road. So have several other "marching orders":
- Who keeps watch when
- What characters do at a tavern
- What they look for when they enter a town
Knowing what the characters are generally up to is better than asking them every time they break camp.
D) Don't Run Travel for the Sake of Travel
I cannot stress/repeat this enough:
As much as I love travel, having a long travel session is not always the best idea.
Running travel simply because you feel guilty for not running travel is a bad idea.
Because if, deep down, you see travel as something that is in the way of the "real" quest, then it will inevitably show in how you play travel in your games.
Ginny D comically elaborates on this. Watch the whole thing here, but here's a summary: most of our attempts to spice up travel just ends up as filler. Which is a boring waste of time for you and everyone at the table.
You are better off just skipping it.
E) When All Else Fails... Run a Skill Challenge!
A skill challenge is widely considered the best thing 4e gave to us (that and the Raven Queen). It involves players making a series of ability rolls in order to overcome an obstacle.
Based on the situation and the ability check chosen/argued for by the player, the DM sets an appropriate Difficulty Class. If the party collectively passes enough checks before making too many failures, they succeed the skill challenge.
Skill checks can be used in travel for anything from navigating the wilderness, surviving a flood, or socializing with random passersby on the road. Like a montage in a move, it is a great way to accomplish A LOT in a short amount of time.
This is the method Matt Coleville uses. A skill challenge can bring in some tension and reduce an otherwise complicated and lengthy encounter into something that is quick, cinematically exciting, and allows players to shine in different ways.
Personally, I believe too many people rely on skill challenges to accomplish too much in their campaigns.
That said, I agree that they are very useful and, when done well, very fun.
Furthermore, since they firmly belong in the exploration pillar, they also have a their place in travel.
For more information on skill challenges, check out Matt Coleville's video here.
5 Different Methods for Running Travel in DnD 5e
(NOTE: While many different DnD content creators offer multiple travel methods, the Dungeon Dudes was, imo, the most comprehensive. Watch it here).
Solution 1: Narrate and "Hand Wave" Travel
I know... this post is about the importance of travel and making travel fun. But a sure-fire way to make sure travel is NOT fun is to always role-play travel every time the players go anywhere. Sometimes narrating travel is the right way to travel!
Maybe the distance being traveled is too short... or too safe... or too boring to justify spending time on travel. Other times, the tone at the table, mood of the players, and state of the story demand that you rush straight from A to B.
You don't want travel to distract a highly-immersed and engaged table.
For example, unless there is bad weather or a threat waiting for them (due to their decisions, of course), I usually skip travel if my party is backtracking the same route. There is an argument to be made that the party's familiarity with the route would make it much harder for them to run into dangerous encounters.
Another reason to skip travel is if you are 95% sure that everything exciting that COULD happen will ONLY happen at the destination itself.
When skipping travel, just have three or four sentences describing what the characters see, how fast they travel, etc. and then have them arrive at the destination.
No dice rolls... no random encounters... no supplies... no nothing. Just get there!
Solution 2: Roll Every Hour
This is straight from page 106 of the DMG. Have players roll survival and perception checks every hour and roll some sort of random encounter every hour. The "random encounter" does NOT equal combat... it can be an NPC, a pretty view, a discovery... etc.
This is surely going to result in the 6 encounters for which the DnD 5e rest system was designed.
However, it will also make travel take FOREVER.
Don't do this unless you are hella hardcore and want to have your adventure be as realistic as possible. It is maaaaaybe an option if your entire adventure is just one long travel session (like in Lord of the Rings)... but even that has plenty of narration.
I believe this is "fake travel"... because it isn't really travel at all!
It's just standard DnD! It, like solution 1, gets rid of travel, but does so by just stretching out the travel so much that it becomes the game itself.
In my opinion, the fact that the Dungeon Master's Guide only offers these two solutions shows how much WOTC dropped the ball. It's been 9 years, everyone... you are professionals... come on.
Solution 3: One Random Encounter/One Hour for Travel
This is the most popular suggestion for fixing travel in DnD 5e.
Luke at the DM Lair makes the case that DMs should set side 1 hour for travel. This is an hour of real-world activity. This hour would be enough for a short, 30-minute combat encounter, maybe a 10-minute discovery, some role-playing, and narration.
He also points out that random encounters like these provide an opportunity to use fun monsters and creatures that won't otherwise come up in your game/plot.
And while I love the DM Lair... what he does... and understand where he is coming from... and agree that this is sometimes great...
I respectfully disagree with this method. I think that any of the other methods would result in both a better game experience and better story.
The "one random encounter" method is rarely the right way to travel.
As stated previously, the "random encounter" method for travel is intended to make travel fun! But all it does is make travel take much longer than it needs to. This is because the players and DM know it is a meaningless encounter.
No stakes... no consequences... no choice... no fun.
Order of the Stick has a great comic that makes fun of this... and points out how weird it is. It is one of the only times the players KNOW they will get a long rest as soon as the battle ends.
Which means... they will throw everything they got. Hold nothing back. After all, why not? They will just long rest and get it all back right after.
And if that is the case, then good luck creating a balanced encounter!
Another way it falls flat as a travel method is how ridiculous it is.
Yeah, if they are traveling through a mountain pass it works fine. But what if they are traveling across continents or oceans? Or across wildly different climates? Or for so long that the seasons change?
In my opinion, to skip this is to not give your players, or their characters, enough credit.
However, if you insist on sticking to this method, the Dungeon Dudes make an amazing point that you must heed. They suggest you treat the single travel encounter as a "dungeon room 0" that foreshadows what lies in wait at the destination.
This method builds anticipation, creates a sense of the passage of time, while also getting the party quickly to the action.
Solution 4: Travel in a Single Game Session (or Two)
If the first three 5e travel solutions are about minimizing travel as much as possible, then the final two are about getting the MOST out of it. Maximizing it.
These are the methods you use when you are being intentional about weaving travel into your DnD campaign and table culture.
And while there is no reason to stretch out travel to fill a whole campaign, I definitely advocate setting aside at least a session for travel if you really want to make it fun. I also expand on this in the third travel post.
So how do you design a whole session around travel? The Dungeon Dudes offer a helpful image you are probably familiar with:
Design the travel route(s) like you would design a dungeon.
Give their journey a clear structure with multiple ways they can go. But instead of "rooms," you have encounters and alternation between social, combat, and exploration encounters. And don't forget to narrate the areas they travel through in between each encounter!
This method solves the principle problem facing exploration and travel... the lack of scenes.
Oh, what was that? Worried your players will have the benefits of a long rest for each encounter?
BOOM... use the "travel rest mechanic" I first heard about on We Speak Common:
When traveling, it takes 24 hours to gain the benefits of a long rest and 8 hours for a short rest.
Why? Because traveling, whether it be by plane, sea, car, horseback, or on foot... it TIRING. It takes it out of you!
Solution 5: Travel As an Adventure Arc
This solution is similar to solutions 2 and 4. You don't roll every hour like in solution 2, but you also don't design the route like a dungeon in solution 4.
It is getting every ounce of fun out of travel... but it is also the most time consuming.
This is the method you use to spend anything from a handful of sessions to months or even years on travel. Here are some situations I think for which I think this bold travel strategy works best:
- If the setting/environment the players are traveling through is particularly dangerous (ex: Chult in Tomb of Annihilation).
- If the party is traveling for some common, basic reason and you want to reveal the plot through what they encounter along the road.
- If the party is traveling with some sort of caravan, or on a boat, and you want to give them ample time to get to know the NPCs.
- If the party is fleeing and needs to rebrand, redefine, or rediscover who they are before they dive back into the main plot again.
- If you want your campaign to have a more episodic or anthology format (like Avatar: The Last Airbender). You slowly build the overarching plot, but have separate mini-adventures that add variety to your campaign.
One thing I love about this method is how much downtime there is. Players will have plenty of opportunities to wander forests and villages along the road.
And though the road may be lonely, they can keep each other company! Periodically roll which player characters make small talk. It's a great opportunity to discuss things outside of the adventure, open up, and create more complex characters.
Conclusion: Put It All Together
There you have it. 5 suggestions for better travel, each of which can work with all 5 solutions to travel. In the hands of a skilled DM, each of these will work pretty well.
However, each are forgetting one, crucial element to travel.
A missing piece that, until added, will leave the "travel puzzle" incomplete.
The next post (read it here now) discusses that missing piece, as well as 3 super-simple mechanics you can use to make travel truly come alive.
Suggestions for Travel
- Narrate Your Surroundings Well and Often
- Explore When Player Characters Are at Lower Levels
- Always Know the Basics
- Don't Travel for the Sake of Travel
- When All Else Fails... Run a Skill Challenge!
The 5 Methods of Travel
- Skip Travel
- Roll Every Hour
- One Encounter/Hour Per Travel
- Travel in a Single Game Session (or Two)
- Travel as an Adventure Arc
Based out of Spokane, Riley is a freelance copywriter that combines his love of reading, writing, and people into something useful! He is thankful to be applying his passion for imaginative role-playing to help DnD related businesses communicate their value in the best way possible. He's kinda like a bard giving inspiration, except without the annoying pop covers!