Travel and Exploration in D&D

Warning: this is going to get a little deeper than travel.

As a DM I want to enthrall my players. I want them to have the best time and beg to schedule the next session. It’s fun for the DM when players engage, solve problems, work together, dig deep into their characters and get creative. The traditional “three pillars” of an RPG campaign— RP, Combat and Exploration—are tools to that end. The latter is the cornerstone of a true sandbox environment (at least the perception of) that as a DM I strive to provide. This is achievable –but at what cost.

The DMG provides guidance for running exploration and travel in our Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, boiling it down to two choices: montage or hour-by-hour. For me, these options offer too much or too little. The hour-by-hour approach as described ends up feeling repetitive in the best of circumstances (it’s a lot of hours from Waterdeep to Silverymoon). Worse yet, the montage approach cuts out exploration all together. There are spells and class features that become irrelevant. There are entire chapters of the PHB that won’t come up. The whole “rangers are the worst class” trope only exists because exploration is commonly skipped.

How do we set up travel and exploration—sometimes for weeks—that is fun and engaging without feeling repetitive, or like you took a moonlight gig as a bookkeeper? First, what makes exploration fun are decisions, strategy and choices with consequences. If a party is choosing between two paths, there has to be a clear risk and reward between those paths, or else where’s the decision? We love when folks turn the page on a character sheet to see what bits and bobs they’ve picked up, or what their background feature offers, that might spark an idea on the road.

We also need the crucial element that makes choices matter: a consistent, known set of rules for exploration. It seems simple, but takes a bit of diligence to ensure that it’s in place. There has to be a system and the players need to know the system. In the real world you know how things work; if you don’t eat breakfast you’ll get tired around noon, if the sun is out you’ll burn, and if you walk through a swamp you’ll get alligator’d. You may not actively think of all the millions of aspects of a walk across town, but you know the rules. To that end, having a set travel system every day allows players to plan, choose, and know that their decisions will matter. If the system is secret, or random, then players can’t make meaningful choices.

In execution, that system should include navigation, danger, consequences, survival, and carrying capacity—all the things that allow players to use their skills and spells—without too much accounting. It’s easier said than done. We’ve been using a travel system in one of our house campaigns, that schleps its way all over Faerun, that seems to be working well.


Our System

Have a map

Even a map of rough “as known” trails from the nearest village allows players to gather around and strategize. Villagers will have information on different routes, pros and cons, dangers and benefits.

Simplify Carrying Capacity

Weights and supplies can be a real chore to keep track of (see also: unpaid bookkeeping job) but without it a huge portion of the game just disappears. Why is “create food and water” a spell? Why not take the longer, safer road? Why not loot all 12 sets of leather armor to sell later? Our simplified system looks to find a balance:

Equipment 50lbs*
Standard Equipment Pack 50lbs
Scholar's Pack 15lbs
Max. Weapon Sets 3 Sets*
Max. Armor Sets 2 Sets*
Coinage 1lb/50
50 coins 1lb
100 coins


500 coins 10lbs
Rations (Needed Per Day) 2lbs/day
Total Rations 2lbs
Food 1lb
Water 1lb
Pack Animals 10lb

Any items not listed on the table—Druidic Focus, Bedroll, Box of Crickets, etc—do not count against your Carry Capacity. 

*Exceptions can be made early-game for “a bundle of short swords” when you really need that bandit-swag for filling party coffers, but the player is actively carrying a bundle of short swords, or stack of leather armor. Think about how that affects gameplay (and decisions!).

Follow Travel Protocol

Each day of travel is framed by a set of decisions and daily rolls. There are some standards that I use, and you’ll probably come up with your own for your campaign.

  • Start by Rolling Weather according to the DMG. It’s an oft-skipped element of gameplay (I’ve certainly been guilty) but it’s absolutely core to my games (Check out our blog on weather, or our Weather Dice that handle all this for you). I usually roll this during the watch overnight to use as a descriptive transition “you feel the air get cooler as a storm rolls in.”
  • Road Type and Width: describe the path the players will be taking. Is it a trade road with plenty of room for a grouped party, carts and pack animals? Or is it a singletrack trail through the forest? I usually grab a google-image of a trail/road that looks a bit similar (mine almost always look like the Smokey Mountains) to help me provide a vivid description. Whatever the case, a quick description followed by a marching order starts the day.
  • Set Travel Pace: Check the Player's Handbook for how changing the pace can affect the party.
    • Fast Pace: 30mi/day
    • Normal Pace: 24mi/day
    • Slow Pace: 18mi/day
  • Leader(s) Roll for Navigation
    • Navigation: DC 15 Survival Check. Increase the DC by 5 if the party is traveling at a fast pace, or lower it by 5 if the party is traveling at a slow pace
    • On a failed check, the party is lost or delayed by 1d6 hours
    • Repeat check to get back on track
  • Check for Random Encounters
    • Rear Position(s) make a Perception Check
    • Roll for a Random Encounter per DMG, and make a Stealth Check against the Party's Perception Check if appropriate
      • Roll a d20: an encounter occurs on an 18+ at normal pace, or on a 15+ at fast pace.
    • Additionally, consider adding a modifier for how the party carries themselves. Are they flashy? Did they toss coin around willy-nilly in the last village? Is a member of the party generally undesirable? A flashy party will likely gain favor in town, but catch the eye of more bandits on the road.
  • Food and Water: Call it out! Pick a time that you check for this each day to help you remember. 1lb/gallon/ day, horses/pack animals 5lb/5gallons day
  • Hunting & Foraging: If the party wants to hunt or forage for food/water
    • Foraging: DC 10 Survival Check for 1d6+Wisdom Modifier pounds of food.
    • Hunting: DC 15 Survival Check for d100x2 pounds of meat (if the roll results in over 100lbs, also include a hide from the animal).
    • Modify DC and food poundage for terrain or environment.
  • Special Rolls: This is where you can include other long-term elements of the game that are hard to work into adventuring gameplay. My players own an Inn, but how should that be handled? We want it to matter but not be the whole game. This is Dungeons and Dragons, not Fantasy Tavern Simulator (though, I would definitely plop $5.00 on that app).
    • As your party adventures you may add special rolls to the system. It’s good to assign these daily rolls to a character who doesn’t have as much RP, or who has taken a specific interest in the roll. The party owns an Inn in our game, every day there is an “Inn Roll”
      • If a D100 is lower than the player’s level, the Inn suffers a complication. The player rolls an additional d4
        • 1 = Customer defaults on tab, -20gp
        • 2 = Bandit Raid, - 80gp
        • 3 = Fire, closed for a week, -100gp
        • 4 = Manager Quit, one week to resolve or inn will close for a month / until party returns.
    • Special Terrain/Environment Rolls. Keep different regions of your world feeling unique by tweaking the daily rolls to their specific conditions. Just remember to inform your players so the system remains open and known by the party!
      • Are strong winds inhibiting or precluding flight?
      • Does a high altitude mean traveling at normal speed will incur exhaustion?
      • Is it extremely cold, hot? Dry or damp? These conditions can affect how much food and water is needed per day.
      • In the jungle there are lots of bugs! Did the party come prepared, or are they suffering lost sleep without tents/bug protection.
      • My favorite is, of course, wild magic. We used a modified wild magic roll in the Dire Wood: every time a spell is cast roll a d20. Nat 1 = roll on your prepared spells and that spell is cast instead (provided you have a slot to cast it). The target remains the same.

The party wakes up to a steady downpour on the banks of the Delimbiyr. They had traveled by raft the day before to speed up the journey but fear of a flash-flood keeps them on the trail today. After finishing a breakfast of fresh fish, they head single-file down the trail towards Secomber. Constance is bringing up the rear, but with the heavy rain she doesn’t notice the hungry pack of wolves following along...


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