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Tabletop Takeaways: Points of Interest and Interesting Points

"Alien Ruin Landscape" on Paizo Blog

Ice Climber Jealousy

At this point in the months-long journey, our heroes are tired but they continue inching closer to taking down the dominating villain of this campaign. They now possess the key pages from the Vekker brothers’ ledger, which outlines the steps to discover the long-lost city of Xin-Shalast. It’s a legendary city of gold, filled with untold riches and artifacts. Explorers have searched the Kodar Mountains for countless years, but due to some otherworldly magic surrounding the peak, it is nearly impossible without some direction.

Paizo Wyvern Pathfinder
Fighting in mid-air? Very cool.

The pages describe the exact path that the party must take to reach their goal. It involves following a series of rivers and tributaries up into the mountains. So, they do what any smart party would do and they stock up on supplies to protect them against the harsh climate of high-altitude travel. Wands, warm clothing, prepared spells – they are absolutely ready for everything except the fatigue that strikes when one isn’t acclimated to the altitude itself.

With their preparations complete, the party sets off into the mountains. They follow the specified river as it winds through the mountain pass, moving slowly over the jagged rocks. The weather is amiable, and there aren’t any immediate threats that present themselves.

In fact, over the course of nearly a week, despite seeing signs of giants and other beasts, the party only encounters monster-related danger once. A huge roc crests over a nearby mountain peak and is suddenly overtaken by a magnificent wyvern. The two winged creatures battle in midair for a few moments before the wyvern overwelms the roc, carrying it away for a future meal.

Eventually they arrive at the Fen of the Icemists, a geologically-fascinating location where lava and ice floes meet. Barnaby gets a bit confused and starts walking out over the ice until it cracks and breaks underneath him. It takes some quick thinking from Krask, the party’s rogue, to pull him free of the hazard.

Over the course of the campaign, the party hasn’t had to do much overland travel. There were a couple instances when they were lower level where they had to take a barge or ship across water to get to their destination. Otherwise, it’s mostly been footpaths and roads to get between major landmarks, up until recently. And now, with Fyn’s access to Greater Teleport, a lot of the overland travel is completely nullified and trivial for them. They can come and go as they please!

These mountains have an occlusion field and some strange inter-dimensional stuff going on, so teleport is out of the equation. That means from here on out, all of their travel is primarily going to be the old-fashioned way.

The Takeaway

As the Gamemaster, one of my primary duties is to make sure that everyone at the table (including myself) is having fun. It’s about turning monotonous tasks into excitement and laughs. It’s about creating an atmosphere that makes discussion of the weather more than just meaningless small-talk.

At the beginning of a campaign, overland travel matters a lot more. Players don’t have access to a lot of powerful spells or gear, so random encounters and harsh elements can be very impactful to the narrative. Hit them with a heavy fog and then have hordes of beasts come out through the trees while the party has limited visibility can be a really fun sequence to play with.

However, in this campaign in particular, we progressed beyond the point when travel was important once Fyn, the wizard, stepped onto the scene. Because of that, I haven’t really had to worry about making wilderness hiking interesting for the party, because they simply haven’t had to do it a whole lot in several months. So, I’ll admit that I’m a little bit rusty in that department.

Regardless, overland travel has never been something that I’ve been a big fan of doing to begin with. In my opinion, rolling on random encounter tables isn’t that fun when you’re playing through a written adventure path. Sure it’s a nice way to test your party’s abilities, practice balancing encounters, and keep the travel interesting, but at the end of the day it rarely advances the narrative.

These are high-level heroes! If they fall off a mountain cliff, that just doesn’t seem like a fitting end to their story. Nor does getting randomly killed by a roving band of Ice Trolls. I’d rather have them fall when trying to bring down an enemy army’s lieutenant or a powerful wizard that is plaguing a village with nightmares.

Now, that may seem like I’m trying to force a narrative, but it really isn’t the case. Technically, you could roll a bunch of consecutive random encounter tables and always come up with the result that nothing happens. It’s possible!

The whole point of my reasoning is that we meet to play once a week, and we all want to progress the main story-line of the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. Over time we’ve added in vignettes that tie to the characters’ pasts, and backstory flashbacks – all of those are fantastic. But the idea of spending an extra week with a random combat that really doesn’t advance the main story at all just doesn’t appeal to me.

So I don’t use them.

That’s not to say that I just say, “Okay team, a week passes and you arrive at your destination unscathed.” Because as a GM, that would be doing my players a disservice. It’s important to keep the reality of the world sculpted around the players by giving them more flavor than that.

For this particular journey, there were several major checkpoints or areas of interest:

  • Travel from the Vekker cabin to the next tributary
  • Ascending the mountains while following the river to the next break
  • Arriving at the Fen of the Icemists

I recommend breaking your travel into these kinds of points as well, built around what ever kinds of flavor that you want to mix in. Each of the stages of the journey should have SOMETHING that makes it interesting. For our group, it included the altitude sickness, roc/wyvern visual battle, and Barnaby falling through the ice.

In this way, you give your points of interest, interesting points. Of course, if random encounters are your jam, then totally incorporate those as a part of your preparation. Find whatever things that your players find exciting and fun, and use those when determining what to build into the narrative.

And, of course, there are tons of resources out there that can give you inspiration for your hooks. Here at Nerds on Earth, we have many Lists of 100 Encounter Ideas that can spark your imagination. If you’re looking for other ‘points of interest’ to create, here are some other things to think about:

  • Travel time – how long will it take to get there using various means?
  • Weather – what will the weather be like, and will that influence the party’s method of travel or travel speed?
  • Method of travel – what might be different about traveling via boat versus journey by horse?
  • Altitude – how might their distance above (or below) sea level impact the journey?
  • Terrain – what influence does a rocky crag have underneath your boots instead of a lush forest floor?
  • Hazards – does the terrain create any unique situations that would hinder or aid the group?
  • Encounters – will beasts, monsters, or people react to the party’s presence?
  • Territories – who protects, owns, or watches over this region, and how might that complicate things?

Again, the key to tabletop games is to have fun. If calculating out exact distances and travel times while factoring in the fatigue level of the horses pulling the carriage depending on their diet of carrots versus hay is fun for you, then please focus on that. But if that’s something that would put you to sleep, by all means – SKIP IT.

We just want to advance the story, so instead of waiting for the players to ask, ‘Are we there yet?’, I’ll get them there as soon as I can.

Thanks for joining me at the table for Tabletop Takeaways! You can always read more campaign journal entries at Origami Goblin, or check out all of the other great GM tips on Nerds on Earth!

Here are all of the installments I’ve written thus far:

  1. Shadow of a Doubt – How to deal with rules mistakes
  2. On the Fly – How to stall and improve your improv
  3. Take the Shot – How to reconcile with tough GM choices
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