Welcome back; I recently reviewed my DND overland travel notes for the Solo RPG live stream we’ve been doing on Twitch. As I was checking my notes and thinking about what might happen during Lia’s multi-week travel from Split Valley Oasis to Karjunton, I realized I haven’t made a blog discussing what preparation would actually be helpful for a player character engaging in DND overland travel.
If you haven’t checked it out, we’re running a solo D&D 5e adventure, and you can catch it live on Twitch. Or, if you want to catch up on everything in the story so far, you can see the previous episodes on YouTube. We’ve also started uploading videos about DM tips and tricks, plus general Game Master craft. Give it a look!
Needless to say, there’s a lot of weird misinformation and speculation about pre-industrial travel, especially around the not-so-well-documented Western Europe’s dark and medieval periods. Questions about how people traveled, to where, and how. Why did they travel, what did they take with them, and what challenges and dangers did they face? So, I thought I’d speak my piece.
Longtime followers of the blog will know that I was a Boy/Venture Scout growing up, and with that came a lot of experience outdoors with camping, backpacking, boat travel, orienteering, wilderness survival, etc. So for my games, I view travel through that lens, complemented by what historical accounts/records we have about pre-industrial travel and living history done by hobbyists and serious time-period reenactors.
In writing this, I’m hoping to meet my goal of showcasing more verisimilitude in fantasy TTRPG travel by answering these questions:
- Who were the sort of people traveling around?
- Where were they going and why?
- How did they travel? The Do’s/Don’ts
If done correctly, you should have a better idea of what to implement into your DND overland travel, including DND travel speed and a broader idea of D&D travel encounters, obstacles, and challenges to add to your game. And I think the best way to kick that off is to ensure we’re on the same page regarding the common misconceptions about people and travel in our own history.
Ye Olde Common Misconceptions of Overland Travel & People
Whether it’s a history book, museum, or just people talking about olden times we have no personal firsthand accounts of experiencing, it places a distance, even a barrier, between the us of now and the them of the past. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that as modern people on the bleeding edge of history, we’re incredibly different from the people of yesteryear. We’re smarter and better than those people in the past because they were dumb and believed in silly nonsense.
But we’re not different on a genetic or even an intellectual level.
Here is some food for thought. We have fragments and evidence found across centuries that help to normalize the people of the past. Ancient Roman writings complaining about a shop owner, delays, and wrong orders being delivered. There are examples of places being defaced with crude drawings and crass graffiti. We have satirical works like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that bury a grain of truth in hyperbolic stereotypes.
Viewing these, we recognize that people’s most common daily struggles are eternal. We’re the same. We still get wrong orders shipped to us from Amazon or delivered by DoorDash, and we complain on review sites. Certainly, you can find graffiti defacing walls and buildings where you live, the same as it was thousands of years ago. And, you probably have frustrations with the ultra-rich, politicians, organized religion, celebrities, and being disenfranchised from the powers of government. Yep, they faced all the same issues.
Technology, information, and culture change but many of the fundamental challenges of being a person in a society just trying to get by are constants in the human condition. So think of them as you think of yourself, family, and friends, not as inhuman alien life forms. So, with our minds in the right headspace, let’s talk about who might take part in DND overland travel and why.
Overland Travel: Who & Why
Well, spoiler alert, everyone traveled at least a little. You’re probably aware of the pervasive idea that most people in the medieval time period never went more than a few miles from home. NEVER is the keyword that’s wrong. Absolutes are simple but dangerously so. It would be more accurate to say that most people in the medieval period RARELY traveled more than a few miles from home. That’s not too difficult to imagine. I personally RARELY travel more than a few (relative since I own an automobile) miles from my home.
Being an agrarian society, most people worked where they lived. Other than occasional day trips to the nearest town market, church, or fair day, people didn’t often need to travel anywhere. They were also busy. You may have heard that medieval peasants had more holidays than we do currently, which is true. It’s a long time to consider, but somewhere between eight weeks (56 days) to half a year (182 days) was typical.
It’s important to remember they didn’t have our post-industrial idea of the weekend, which nets us, modern workers, 104 days off each year. Then remember that most peasants couldn’t do much productive work on their lord’s land during the winter, plus they only spent SOME of their work time working on the lord’s land and the rest on their personal field share. All to say, there were plenty of opportunities time-wise for someone to travel, though DND overland travel in the winter would be ill-advised.
Nobles, artisans, and religious officials all traveled as a core part of their work. Nobles to court and touring their demesne, clergy to meetings and carrying messages between different churches and cathedrals, and artisan “journeymen” literally traveled for years growing their skill under different masters as freelance jobbers. Travel was pretty typical for most castes, of course, more limited to peasants who were often tied to the land where they lived.
Common People Did Travel Afar Overland
It was a cultural tradition for people, even peasants, to go on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage was THE vacation experience for people from all walks of life. A commoner often needed to get permission from their lord and, usually, a document approving their travel from the church in case they were stopped en route. Consider this pilgrimage one of those lifetime experiences. People who take a gap year to travel or do a whirlwind tour of Europe or East Asia.
Probably the nicest thing about going on pilgrimage is that it was usually an equalizer in society. Many pilgrimages required the devout to travel by foot and take a vow of poverty to rely on the hospitality of strangers and the church for shelter and sustenance. It was a rare opportunity for people of all castes to rub elbows as equals. For instance, look at the different people in the traveling group of Canterbury Tales. There are nobles, clergy, merchants, servants, learned professionals, and artisans journeying together.
And these can be long journeys for those who could afford the time away. Many clergy and nobles traveled from their homes to the Vatican by foot. But, most ordinary people couldn’t take quite that much time off and still have a home when they returned. But consider even a pilgrimage from Sheffield to Canterbury Cathedral. It seems inconsequential to me as a modern person, but I grew up where places were far apart, even by car. So a 230-mile pilgrimage doesn’t seem too bad before you think about having to walk it.
Using the still-in-place Roman roads that crisscross Britain, a pilgrim could average about 11.5 miles per day by foot. Yes, people CAN walk 20-24 miles daily, but I’m guessing you haven’t tried that, especially for a week or longer over terrain using footpaths. That pace is unsustainable, even impossible for many people in good physical condition and with clear weather. But, at 11.5 miles/day, the journey would take about three weeks, often staying in a hospital or inn each night along the way. It’s far from impossible; it’s more like taking a road trip across the US. You’ll probably do it once in your life, have fond memories of the experience, but probably not want to do it again anytime soon.
D&D Overland Travel: Why Did People Travel
We discussed the most prominent reason, pilgrimage, a cultural rite that transcended socio-economic status. It was common for everyone to take a pilgrimage at least once in life, but where depended on their amount of free time and who could attend to responsibilities in their absence. But, there are plenty of other reasons people travel, same as today.
Here are the six most common reasons for travel you can use in your D&D/TTRPG games:
- Coming of Age
Coming of Age
We briefly touched on gap years and international travel before. But also a semester/year abroad. We realize that exposure to different cultures and societies is a net positive for a person. It challenges the norms and assumptions we’ve taken as facts and helps us increase our perspective on issues and empathy with other people. The same is true of a person going away to college. Immersing yourself in a new environment with different people generally broadens our horizons in a good way.
People did the same in ye olde times. Young people were taking on as apprentices to master craftsmen in different places; people moved to court to begin their political careers or to find suitable political partners to wed. Many young men unhappy with their prospects or lack of inheritance at home ran off to the sea, became professional soldiers, or sought to explore new and strange lands to make their fortune. There is an intrinsic movement to coming-of-age observances, whether moving into your own apartment for the first time or searching for a place that offers a more lucrative future.
We touched on this briefly, but travel was integral to many people’s livelihoods and the responsibilities of their station. Nobles traveled back and forth between their estates and court, plus made regular tours of their demesne. A fitting example of this is paladins. In D&D, paladins are holy warriors, more like templars than actual, historical paladins. Paladins came from Charlemagne and represented his most powerful and trustworthy retainers; his right-hand lords/knights.
Paladins acted as Charlemagne’s official representative and spent most of their time touring the large Frankish kingdom to keep an eye on other nobles to ensure loyalty and stamp out any ideas of insurrection or a coup. A big difference from D&D’s interpretation of the paladin, which has become more well-known, no?
Everyone traveled for work. Even commoners took goods to market, grain to their lord’s mill, or tools to the closest smithy for repairs. In the best cases, these would be day trips of only a few miles but sometimes would require overnight or multiple days to complete. Travel was every day for all, especially in the local area. These give some firm ideas of the types of non-combat D&D travel encounters you can include in your games.
Today we travel to see family, especially for significant life events like graduations, births, clan meetings (reunions), weddings, and funerals. Again, the people of today and our historical counterparts are the same. Perhaps the biggest difference is the speed of information transmission. Mail and parcel delivery is another of D&D’s modern anachronisms. In medieval Europe, at least, there wasn’t a regulated postal service. So information was slow and usually done as a favor for people.
If you were traveling one or two towns over, people would commonly ask you to deliver letters and items to family and friends along the route—another novel style of minor quest to introduce into your DND overland travel. You may wonder how vital regulated post service has become. Well, consider that it was so crucial to American revolutionaries that the Continental Congress named a Postmaster General nearly a full year before signing the Declaration of Independence. Reliable and discreet transmission of information and goods is critical. And without regulated post, most people could only learn news through traveling acquaintances or visiting friends and family themselves.
Everyone enjoys a little away time from work for relaxation and to spend time with friends and loved ones. While official holidays were peppered around the calendar, it wouldn’t be strange for someone with a few days off to gather friends and family for a short trip. They might go to a holiday fair or take a simple hunting/fishing trip. Remember that people then act like we do now, just with a different perspective. While we might enjoy a staycation sitting on the couch eating snacks and watching TV, they didn’t have those modern luxuries.
They would go elsewhere for entertainment and leisure. And people would especially travel for leisure if there were family or friends at the destination where they could stay for free, making it economical for all social castes. Undoubtedly, travelers would camp if needed but would avoid sleeping rough if possible. Essentially, they might sleep rough to go fishing at a particular place, but not specifically go camping and then maybe also do some fishing.
Camping as a recreational activity didn’t exist until the turn of the 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt and other naturalists popularized it in the US with the romancing of the US wilderness and the designation of many state and national park areas. It coincides with the birth of the Boy Scouts, which would later explode in popularity worldwide after WWI. All to say, people did not want to stay outdoors if they could avoid it.
If there’s one thing war is pretty well known for by soldiers, it’s marching. The saying “hurry up and wait” is often used to describe the daily life of soldiers. You move to a place and wait there for further orders. Often we think of modern wars as these rare, giant international crises. In comparison, wars were often shorter and smaller in scale. A war could constitute levying the able-bodied from nearby villages and crossing the nearest river into a rival lord’s lands.
But this would often constitute extensive travel for people of all castes to leave their lord’s lands and enter someone else’s lands with people and places they had never seen before, even if it were only a day or two’s walk from home. Of course, there were plenty of larger conflicts as well, crusades, defense from invaders, invasion across seas, and even coming to the aid of neighboring nations and allies.
As noted previously, for many non-inheriting young men, war offered a path of action to wealth, fame, and status earning new titles like their ancestors by earning it in blood with a sword in service to nobles and royalty. And all socio-economic levels took part in the campaigns of war. Nobles and professional soldiers, clergy and artisans who supported their efforts, even the baggage trains of families, hangers-on, and thieves who robbed the dead on the battlefield. Wars were common, affected everyone, and most often included overland travel of some distance.
We briefly touched on journeymen, day wage members of the various medieval-esque guild system. After completing their apprenticeship, journeymen can work on their own, typically as part of a team or crew under another master. They were skilled day laborers who would travel to different towns and outlying villages to offer their services. And they could converge on large-scale projects such as the construction of a castle or temple.
These projects take enormous manpower and would entice skilled professionals from all over the area. But guilders aren’t the only people who traveled for work. Commoners would bring goods to market and raw resources to places for refinement, like ore to smelters and crop yields to mills. We’ve well-established that nobles needed to tour their properties and attend court. But they would also go on diplomatic missions, take part in tournaments, and need to visit different towns and cities to secure resources required to manage their domain.
And for the clergy, remember the lack of a formal post service. Clergy were often in charge of transporting information, people, and items as representatives of the faith. Case in point, many introductions of Friar Tuck in Robin Hood media has him captured in Sherwood Forest while transporting a wagon of communion wine. An example of this I enjoy in contemporary media is the film Pilgrimage (2017). In it, a group of monks is bidden by the Pope to transport a holy relic from their Irish monastery to Rome during the turbulent time of the Norman invasion and occupation of Gaelic Ireland.
If you needed to transport important items, people, and communication across distances, you needed to enlist the aid of someone you could trust to make the journey and complete the task on your behalf.
Those are the major reasons why people of all sorts would be traveling on roads around the countryside. Don’t undersell how useful it can be to use a fedex quest as part of your DND overland travel.
Now, let’s look at HOW they would go about this travel.
DND Overland Travel: How People Move
Imagine yourself getting ready to take a trip, which could be for business or a function of your work. What’s the first thing you do? For me, and most people, it’s preparing for the trip. I want to have a strong understanding of the basics, where I’m going and staying, when and for how long, plus how to get to the place and what I’m going to need once I’m there.
Far before packing, I need to organize and prepare for the trip. What documentation do I need, what items should I pack, what route should I take, when should I plan the journey, and who will accompany me? A successful trip is complex in modern times and was in history too. First, let’s look at travel permission and modes of transportation.
Overland Travel Permission & Protection
Today, most people can travel when, where, and how they like, assuming we can afford the luxury. But, in the anachronistic time, we are trying to duplicate in fantasy TTRPGs; that wasn’t the case. Travelers would need some form of writ, permission to travel to certain places. Often part of that writ was an insurance of protection for travelers. That could mean consent from one lord to another for passage through their lands on the way to court. That may seem silly, but it’s important to remember that all the lords under a nation’s leader were not always friendly with each other.
If a neighboring lord is found riding with armed guards and retinues into your lands without permission, it would be reasonable to see it as an expansionist declaration of war against you. For people like pilgrims, they would often ask bishops and higher clergy members to bless their pilgrimage. Part of that blessing would be a signed writ of travel stating that the traveler is a pilgrim and is to be offered hospitality on their journey. It would also likely state that they were under the protection of the church/Pope, and any attack on the pilgrim is an attack on the church. This writ and protection would make it much easier and safer for a pilgrim to make their journey.
And commoners like serfs and villeins would need permission from their local noble to make journeys, sometimes even within the noble’s demesne. But, because of how often people would travel, this was usually just a formality. A noble might only block one of their peasant’s travels because they are needed for upcoming work on the lord’s lands, or they (or a relation) have done something to upset the noble and are using the denial of travel as retribution.
Choosing a Route for DND Overland Travel
Let’s address the elephant in the room and one of the biggest misconceptions in D&D and other fantasy TTRPGs. Stop using maps. Until the invention of the printing press and more precise navigational tools, maps weren’t very accurate, even local ones. That’s maybe harsh. Maps were still valuable for a strategic, 30,000 ft view looking down, sort of way. You simply couldn’t rely on them as an accurate reference for travel. Instead, most people would put together a travel itinerary for a distant location instead of using a map.
What’s An Overland Travel Itinerary?
Boiled down to its very core, a travel itinerary is the equivalent of today’s driving directions provided by GPS navigation. Rather than an illustrated guide, an itinerary provides the steps you need to take to reach your destination. Here’s an example of a short itinerary:
- Leave Hillsdan headed North along the road
- Travel along the road to Innsmith
- Take the Eastbound path leaving Innsmith
- Cross the bridge over Brillwater River and take the left path fork Northwest
- Travel along the path (~2 days) until you reach a crossroads with a sign for Moggard’s Keep
- Follow the sign’s path to Moggard’s Keep (~3 leagues)
It’s pretty simple. Of course, the weakness of a travel itinerary is you need to know the path that will take you to your destination. Which… you probably don’t. And most of the locals probably don’t know either. Often, you would fill out an itinerary in chunks by getting directions from the locals once you arrived at a location en route.
Imagine the above example, but Moggard’s Keep isn’t the traveler’s final destination; it’s a checkpoint. Upon arriving at the keep, the traveler must speak with people to determine the path to reach the next checkpoint and add the directions to their itinerary. Where maps would be helpful is to gain a fundamental understanding of where you’re going, how far away it is, and what would serve as the major checkpoints along the path for your itinerary.
The travel itinerary is one of my favorite tricks as a DM/GM. Because it helps to reframe what it takes for DND overland travel across unfamiliar lands, it gives a reason for players to WANT to engage in D&D travel encounters (confirm directions/itinerary). Actually, it provides a pretty reasonable idea of how people can become lost even though they’re traveling an established road. They may have gotten bad directions, missed a signpost, or changed course too early and taken the wrong crossroad.
Common D&D Overland Travel Misconception
It’s faster to travel cross-country than along roadways/footpaths. Just like today, it can be faster, but it’s also perilous. Wild animals, trespassing, outlaws and hill folk, monsters, not to mention the fundamental dangers of traveling over rough terrain, make doing so dangerous. Hopefully, by understanding the issue with map accuracy, limited knowledge of local areas, and the dangers of traveling and sleeping in unfamiliar places, you should be able to communicate with your players how not good of an idea it is to treat cross-country DND overland travel as simple.
Historically at least, most people had two choices of travel. They could take a waterway, or they could use a road. And most journeys would use both in combination. It seems simple enough, and you probably have a good idea of how people travel.
Barges, Boats, and Ships
People like to be lazy. When traveling along the coast or following a river, waterways are often faster and allow travelers to carry far more items than they could overland. So, for those who could afford to pay for transport by water, they would.
Horses represent a certain level of affluence and station in most historical and fantastical resources. There is a misconception about horses, though, and that’s how much it increases the party’s speed. Horses can gallop faster than people can run but can’t go fast for long. Most travel by horse is at walking speed, making it not noticeably the same speed as travel by foot. Of course, with relay stations of fresh horses, riders can cover extreme distances quickly, but that requires specialized infrastructure.
Instead, horses shine because they can carry more stuff than you can on your back. It’s more likely for a traveler to put their goods on a horse and lead it rather than try to ride the horse too. Also, traveling by mount will leave the traveler fresh and not exhausted from walking. That’s especially important for considering combats in D&D travel encounters.
Cabs, Carts, & Wagons
Similarly to mounts, a lot of people did not want to ride in land vehicles. The real estate on a cart or wagon was seen as more useful to fill with gear and supplies than people with legs that could walk. Even well-made carriages were not a very comfortable mode of travel. In most instances, people prefer riding a horse to taking a carriage.
And I don’t blame them. These vehicles didn’t have shock absorbers, and the seats often lacked padding. In a time when most roads were unpaved and not graded, bumping around on a wooden bench would be incredibly uncomfortable. Also, vehicles tend to have problems. They have parts that break and are more likely to get stuck, such as in mud or unable to go up a steep grade in the trail. They can prove unreliable means of transportation.
DND Overland Travel By Foot
Humans are the most-gifted long distance terrestrial creature. We are built to walk and do it at length. Travel by foot was standard, especially for those of lesser means. But, it also made travelers vulnerable to robbers. Most people would travel together in groups, or at least pairs with some form of basic weapon to use as a deterrent. And traveling alone was suspicious. In folklore, solitary travel was usually only done by evil people and supernatural creatures, and a lone traveler was often regarded as suspect.
And, despite how it may sound, the traveler support network of civilization made it quite easy for travel to be successful by foot.
Overland Traveler Support Network
The first thing that’s important to discuss is the right of hospitality. This idea is explored by Kant and was referenced even earlier as Hospitium, a Greco-Roman concept. According to Kant, it’s defined as “the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when they arrive in the land of another.”
The idea is that a stranger knocks on a door to invoke the right of hospitality; the host is duty-bound to provide food, lodging, information, minor items, and services as the traveler may require. This idea is an ancient and authentic tradition necessary for people traveling long distances where hostels, inns, and other paid accommodations were unavailable. Part of the ritual is a sacred promise for the visitor not to harm the host and vice versa, enforced mainly by the gods’ ire for breaking the accord’s sanctity.
If you haven’t tried this to mix up your DND overland travel and random D&D travel encounters, I would suggest it. As a player, my D&D characters often invoke the right of hospitality. And we can see the idea baked into the rules of D&D 5e with many background features, such as those for nobles, sailors, acolytes, and folk heroes.
Speaking of accommodations, why not just stay at an inn? Well, because historically, inns were only sustainable in larger communities. I couch much of my worldbuilding for D&D and fantasy settings of Medieval Demographics Made Easy by S. John Ross, which uses the Domesday Book and other historical references as its foundation. It states that a settlement will guarantee one inn per 2,000 residents, and that’s quite a bit larger than the average village or sleepy hamlet. Thus comes the need for cultural touchstones like the right of hospitality.
Especially when we consider the distance between settlements. There are a lot of misconceptions in popular fiction that little villages exist, cut off from the rest of the world by days and days of overland travel. But, we have a dirth of existing settlements and records that show it wasn’t so in reality. I’ve mentioned this video in posts before, but it does an excellent job illustrating this phenomenon where towns are strung together in networks roughly 10 miles apart and why.
These are market towns, places with services that people in surrounding villages need to access sometimes. And they’re positioned in a way so that a pre-automobile person only needs to walk about 5 miles to reach a town. That’s a short enough trip to make a day trip into town whenever you need a more specialized service, to visit the market, or even to attend a worship service. They’re that distance because, organically, that’s the most practical distance. Then larger cities are even further apart.
I think another good example of a support network for DND overland travel is the 53 shukuba (way stations/post towns) of the Tōkaidō, the critical highway between Kyoto and Edō (Tokyo) created at the turn of the 17th century by the Emperor of Japan. Unlike Western medieval roadways, the state government heavily regulated the Tōkaidō, and the 53 way stations helped to make it safe for travelers of all types quickly and safely make their way between Japan’s two capital cities.
The Tōkaidō is what I would consider the best source for a regulated pre-industrial “highway” as it was well-documented and stayed in operation for 250 years. It helps illustrate the relative safety and ease with which people could travel around the lands so long as they had the need and means to do so.
That sounds good, but what challenges would a DND overland traveler face? In the next section, we’ll discuss the essentials of what a traveler would need.
Essentials for DND Overland Travel
First, we need to lay out what is necessary for basic survival. Travelers need air, shelter, water, food, and security in that order of importance.
Air and D&D Overland Travel
Usually, the air isn’t something most travelers need to consider, but D&D adventurers and the places they travel are often unusual. Especially if we want to add planar travel and underwater adventures into our game. In these circumstances, air is the primary concern for travelers.
Shelter for Overland Travel
As noted earlier, are you expecting the characters to sleep rough in your DND overland travel segment? But inns and tents are not the only forms of shelter to protect people from exposure. It also includes clothing, and having the proper attire for the environment you’re traveling through can mean the difference between comfort and death in hours or even minutes.
Shelter also includes things like a campfire, which will help to keep temperatures mild for travelers when the temperatures begin to drop. Fires are also useful for keeping wild animals away from your camp and purifying water, which we’ll discuss next.
Water for Overland Travel
As humans, we can’t live very long without the precious element of water. The constant intake and excretion of water are essential to our body’s functioning. In Dungeons & Dragons and other TTRPGs, we usually only pay attention to a PC’s need for water when traveling through dry, inhospitable terrain like a desert.
But that’s because we see water as readily available in most other biomes. That’s true, but not all water is safe and potable. Ocean water is not drinkable, making travel across the seas much like traveling across a desert. Likewise, still waters like lakes and wetlands are often full of pathogens that make people very sick, even kill them if ingested. Even safe sources, like a spring or well, can be fouled through tampering and natural causes.
It reminds me of an episode of the TV show Hell on Wheels, where the railroad work camp’s water source makes many people sick because there was a drowned rat in the reservoir tank. Ash filtering, boiling, and adding alcohol or vinegar can make most freshwater sources potable and are known processes that have been around for thousands of years.
To make this more engaging for your game, set it as a challenge for your players to overcome. For instance, the party generally boils water while resting in camp to refill their waterskins. But what happens if they need to travel through a wetland where there’s no available dry wood for a fire to boil their water? Or if they are crossing the steppes or tundra without trees for fuel?
These situations are half of why the spell Purify Food & Drink is absolutely vital for adventuring. The other half is food.
Rations and Foraging in Overland Travel
Oh, food. We love it, and it’s the fuel we need to keep moving. Walking all day and fighting monsters is hungry work, and adventurers need a lot of calories to keep going. Many groups handwave this resource management aspect, but I like to focus on it.
If you’ve been reading the blog for any time, you know I enjoy the exploration pillar of D&D the most. And for all the alterations and changes D&D has gone through across its editions, at the end of the day, it’s still a resource management game. Hit points, spell slots, potions, scrolls, abilities, etc., are all resources for the player characters. The same is true of food.
As humans, we can survive some days without food, and we can survive even more depending on our body’s muscle mass, fat stores, and activity level. Rations are the go-to item for dealing with the food situation for DND overland travel.
Longtime readers know I like to use a resource die mechanic to track things like rations. That’s because rations are not magical, and they’re not a guaranteed resource. A guesstimated week of rations can last longer or shorter than advertised. Especially in a pseudo-Medieval context where meals and ingredients are not individually portioned.
Sometimes you eat more than you expect or lose resources. You can drop or spill critical food items. They can spoil (no refrigeration or freeze-drying, remember), get contaminated, infested with weevils and worms, or be pillaged by wildlife in the night. I use a resource die because the controlled randomness of dice rolls helps model this variation of circumstance.
Foraging & Travel
Another significant point concerning food and rations is foraging. Foraging for food serves two essential functions in DND overland travel. First, iron rations are neither very balanced nutritionally nor very tasty. Brined and salted meat, hard cheese, and hardtack aren’t things you want to live off, and consumption of just these items led to scurvy and rickets for sailors and soldiers. So often, people would forage for additional food to combine with these staples to make a more rounded and better-tasting meal.
However, foraging (and I’m including fishing and hunting in this) has some downsides. First, foraging takes time. And I think that’s what needs to be added to the 5e Outlander background. The background’s feature allows the PC to forage enough food for six people as long as forage is available. Many Dungeon Masters wanting to make wilderness survival a part of their game struggle against this background’s feature because it makes it hard to make food as a resource feel insecure.
The big question 5e’s rules don’t address is the TIME it takes to do these things. Our best guess when it comes to the study of hunter/gatherer societies is they spent about THREE HOURS PER DAY collecting food and then additional time preparing it (butchering meat/fish, cleaning and processing edible flora). Essentially, this is not grabbing a handful of berries off a bush while walking. It requires dedicated time. That’s why in my homebrew exploration/travel rules, foraging for food takes a camp day to accomplish.
The second downside to foraging is it’s dangerous. Specific flora and fauna are poisonous to people, especially plants; it’s challenging to identify an edible plant from similar non-edible plants. Animals can be sick or riddled with parasites, which can pass to a person upon consumption. And more plants are edible if they’re processed correctly.
For example, oak tree acorns are normally inedible by people. But, removing the meat from the shell and soaking it in water will remove the tannic acid that makes them extremely bitter and nauseating to eat, which is in stark contrast to birch, which is almost entirely safe for humans to consume (leaves, twigs, inner bark, sap).
That’s why it’s absolutely essential a forager is trained to recognize safe forage and how to prepare it properly. Otherwise, there’s a high likelihood your PC is going to make themselves and the whole party very sick.
Security for D&D Overland Travel
Arms and armor are the least important concerns for travelers, even in D&D. Consider, for every D&D travel encounter combat the PCs have, how many breaths have they taken, sips of water, bites of food, how much weather have they endured?
And the truth is, the go-to answer to potentially violent encounters is de-escalation and removing yourself from the scene. And that’s constant, whether you’re facing man, monster, or beast. Luckily, I can tell you from experience that animals will generally avoid a person, especially a group of people.
Humans are predators, and most animals are not. Likewise, animals on the hunt are looking for an advantage, and they look for an easy target and one they can cull from the group. A mountain lion is a real threat for a lone wanderer, but it will only attack a group in most cases if it’s defending its young.
Monsters and men can be reasoned with to some degree. Of course, this will depend a lot on your game. Are all orcs evil? In my games, I treat sapient monsters like people. They are like hillfolk. They live on the fringe of civilization and have a healthy wariness of strangers. They can be bandits and raiders, but they’re not just indiscriminate “evil.”
The most dangerous situations and potential for death are from the environment and accidents traveling and exploring rather than goblin ambushes. So the best security for adventurers is to remove themselves from a dangerous situation. This resolution can be achieved by backing away slowly, attempting to parlay, or even trying to intimidate and scare away potential threats.
Overland Travel Arms & Armor
Fine, we can talk about it since you’re forcing the issue. If you can only bring one self-defense item with you, I’d suggest a spear or a quarterstaff if you can’t get a spear. That would be my choice because it creates distance between you and an aggressor. Of course, in D&D 5e, they don’t model spears or staffs as weapons that provide reach.
As secondary weapons, I would choose a sling and a dagger. Slings are cheap, you can forage for ammunition, and they’re easy to repair on the road and in camp. These are not things you can say about any other missile weapon. And D&D does the weapon dirty with 1d4 damage. A proficient slinger can reach speeds of 100 mph with their bullet and is estimated to have the equitable kinetic energy of a .44 Magnum round upon hit.
Until the invention of the pistol, daggers were THE self-defense item. They’re relatively cheap and easy to carry. Daggers can be concealed and used in close quarters where you can’t use other weapons. You can see in many HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) and other historical fighting arts that the dagger is indispensable. Primarily it’s used by a combatant who advances inside the range of their opponent’s weapon and then pulls their dagger to commence with violent shanking. And, unlike larger-bladed weapons, a dagger is much easier to care for and has a substantially lessened risk of deformation or breaking.
And if you lack a dagger, you can forage and fashion a perfectly adequate wooden club.
Armor is a bit trickier. In general, armor, like most weapons, are tools of war. So, for the needs of adventurers, we would want something that’s light and somewhat comfortable to lug around on the road for days on end. But it also needs to protect us.
The go-to piece of armor for most of history was the shield, and it’s one of the easiest/cheapest pieces of armor to construct and repair. There are instances in history where free people were expected to aid the common defense (fyrd/militia) and provide their own gear. Chief among these was often the spear and shield due to the cost of materials and construction.
The basic body armor of choice would be a gambeson (padded armor). I would also include a padded cap (arming cap) for the head.
It’s also important to note that real armor doesn’t work like D&D and most media representations. Padding is needed between the person and the metal armor to wear it comfortably. In this respect, a gambeson is the base layer of stacking of body armor. But, by itself, a gambeson provides pretty good protection against slashing and bludgeoning damage.
From there, much of it is up to availability, means, and personal preference. Most reasonable adventurers wouldn’t be wearing full plate. Besides being expensive, it’s cumbersome, heavy, and offers poor visibility with a helmet.
Personally, I would go for a chain hauberk over the gambeson if I could afford it. If not, maybe a maille coif and jack chains. These armor pieces are very flexible and are much easier to don/doff than full-piece armors like plate. Gauntlets are a necessity, and I would opt for a kettle helm because it offers good protection with excellent visibility and has a brim to help keep the sun and rain out of my eyes. And for traveling, I wouldn’t wear any leg armor.
People often didn’t wear leg armor, not because it wasn’t dangerous, but because they restricted movement significantly. Lifting and setting weight with every step is a swift way to tire yourself out walking, running, or fighting. And fatigue in battle will get you killed.
Closing Out DND Overland Travel & Authenticity
Well, I hope you learned something new reading this blog because I definitely learned a few new things writing it. If you are interested in more information about this topic, I suggest checking out one of the bazillion primitive survival or historical authenticity-focused LARP and history channels on YouTube. It’s a bottomless rabbit hole for study.
And, if this blog does well, I already have notes to discuss travel clothing and traveler kit gear. Likewise, if you want me to cover a topic in a future blog or video, reach out in the comments below or on Reddit, Twitter, or YouTube.
Did You Know RedRaggedFiend is More Than a Blog?
It’s true, we host videos on YouTube and have PWYW documents in our DriveThruRPG store to help Dungeon Masters and Game Masters run better and smoother games for your players. You can also find us on Twitch. Currently, we’re streaming a D&D 5e solo adventure about a disgraced academic uncovering the mystery surrounding her old research and the sudden death of an interested librarian.
If that sounds interesting, or you just want to see how I’m using 5e to play D&D alone, come check it out! Also, check out our worldbuilding process posts to see how to build a fully-realized world from scratch.
In the next blog post, I think we’ll be touching on language mapping for our worldbuilding process, so be sure to come back for that.
That’s all for now and I’ll see you in the next one!