Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mechanics Spoiler: Travel Episodes

All right, how about we do a mechanics spoiler today? Basically I love this mechanic and I've been dying to share it forever anyway. It's one of my favorite things to do in HJ, and generally gets us about the mix of "hey, neat!" and "oh god not again" we're always looking for from players.

As we've mentioned before, there are several units of narrative time in HJ, and the smallest one of these is the Episode, which usually describes a specific event or situation that the Heroes are managing. But there are several different kinds of Episodes, and different Episode types have their own specific rules about what can happen inside them and how they affect the Heroes' adventures.

One of these is the Travel Episode, which is designed to allow games to model mythic journeys and pilgrimages. Long journeys are super important to a lot of mythic stories; traveling toward a specific goal or other important destination is a frequent hallmark of a Hero's story, and whether it's Rama journeying to Lanka to rescue his wife Sita, Isis' wanderings in the wilderness as she avoids Set's search for her, or Odysseus' famous decades-long attempt to successfully get back to the kingdom of Ithaca, the journey itself and the things that happen on it are at least as important to the story (if not more important!) than the final destination and success or failure of the Hero when they get there. Fairy tales especially love the journey or travel narrative; we've all read the repeated pattern of "someone's son goes on a journey to retrieve something lost/find the love of their life/escape an evil antagonist" or "someone goes on a journey to find knowledge or happiness somewhere that they couldn't in their home location or state". Some mythologies almost exclusively tell stories about journeys and travels; others include travel as one mythic part of a larger cycle.

Anyway, journeys are super important to a great deal of mythology, which presents us with an interesting problem in an RPG. For most games, travel tends to get dropped by the wayside, becoming a sort of non-thing that gets handwaved away. Players say, "Okay, so I'll just drive to the neighboring city to grab that missing part we need for our machine," and often the GM says, "Okay, that'll take five hours, so five hours later..." and the story completely skips the travel as unimportant. Or, the GM may have specific events planned somewhere, but not for the players getting to those events, leading to descriptions like, "So five hours of fruitlessly wandering the jungle later, you finally arrive at the thing I've planned..."

Of course, there's nothing wrong with this. Every moment of time or unimportant wandering around doesn't need to be thoroughly documented and played through, and sometimes it's dramatically appropriate to say that a lot of time full of nothing went by before anything happened, or to skip ahead to more interesting stuff instead of making the players trudge through unimportant trips that would interfere with the narrative. But the tendency to handwave away travel, especially if it's unexpected or the players are very goal-focused, can sometimes make it hard for a game to do any of those mythically important travel things that lots of Heroes in other stories do. How much neat stuff would we have missed out on if, say, the story of Theseus had said, "and then Theseus journeyed to Athens" and skipped all the encounters with characters like Periphetes and Procrustes that showed his prowess as a Hero? How much would the story of Ishtar's journey into the underworld have changed if it had just skipped straight to "so Ishtar went to the underworld and confronted Ereshkigal" without the journey in between giving the story the opportunity to carry information to Ereshkigal and strip Ishtar gradually of her powers?

So: Travel Episodes. The idea is that when Heroes decide to start traveling anywhere for a non-negligible period of time or reason (going to the store for a snack is not a Travel Episode; going a town over in search of an informant might be!), a Travel Episode is triggered, which has its own rules. Travel Episodes are "longer", in terms of in-game time, than most other Episodes, and they contain a number of odyssey events, which are the sorts of mythic encounters that you see in travel stories here and there. Odyssey events could be anything appropriate to the current story; they definitely could be "a wandering monster appears", a la traditional dungeon crawls, but they could also be "you discover an important clue", "an NPC is encountered who could be important to the rest of the story", "a storm occurs and everyone has to deal with environmental problems and dangers", or even "you stumble across a cache of useful items that will help you continue". Travel Episodes essentially "contain" or trigger other Episodes, so that travel itself becomes a part of the story that can affect other events.

The exact list of odyssey events is chosen by the GM based on where the Heroes are and what sort of tale they're involved in, and is rolled on randomly as they head out onto the open road (don't worry, there are sample odyssey events in the book, too, so you can pull from those if you're GMing but not sure you can always come up with ten useful possibilities if the players suddenly strike out through the woods without warning). Some events might be good, some bad; some might delay the Heroes or force them to overcome obstacles, others might give them helpful new tools and allies. Some might do nothing at all except give the Heroes a chance to test their relationships with each other and their responses to stress. Others might drastically affect how the story ahead plays out.

Obviously, there's a lot of room to tailor this mechanic to make it work for your story. GMs have full ability to decide that a given instance of travel isn't important enough to cause a Travel Episode - maybe because the Heroes aren't going far, are covering very familiar territory, or because other things are already happening and it would be redundant or interfere too much. GMs also get to decide what odyssey events are in play for any given Travel Episode, so they can insert NPCs that they already wanted the players to possibly encounter, make sure obstacles match the theme of the overall story, and so on and so forth. They're supposed to make the Saga more coherent and mythic, not more of a pain in the butt, so hopefully they have the flexibility needed to make that work out.

Travel Episodes in playtests have been a lot of fun. Sometimes they're hilarious, on account of the players somehow thinking that running off into the wilderness will solve/reset their problems and not being ready for there to be things happening there, too. Sometimes they're super neat and helpful, such as in the case when a group managed to stumble across a hidden oracular shrine and get some predictions about their coming future problems while they were still on their way to them. Either way, though, they've made expending effort to get from point A to point B much more interesting than it might otherwise have been.


  1. I once had a group playing in a Twilight:2000 campaign, and I carefully planned all the encounters along their route to the coast of Poland. Just before the game, they looked at the map, decided where they figured all the encounters would probably take place, plotted a course that completely avoided them, and managed to take a night's gaming down to "Well, you arrive on the coast. Nothing happens on your way there. Wanna play darts?", because I was too irritated to ad-lib anything. Gaming travel can be a blessing and a curse. :-)
    Seriously, the mechanics sound interesting - a way to make an adventure into more than just unconnected encounters. Thanks!

    1. That's the plan! :) There are some powers people can us to try to avoid the full shenanigans of Travel Episodes - Hunters, in particular, have Blessings designed to help them lower how much junk happens to them, or try to make sure it's more positive stuff - but the idea is that a GM can always make travel meaningful if they want to.