GM Quick Reference: Improving Overland Travel with Encounter Nodes

Do you have difficulty handling overland travel in your games? I know I did. There should be some middle ground between daily simulation and hand waving trips. I’m talking about more than tossing together a few random combat encounters.

Marco-Polo-GM Quick-Reference-Overland-Travel

Necessity being the mother of invention I created a middle ground solution. A node-based system to give you a reasonable in-between you can prepare beforehand or run on the fly. Let’s make an example so you can see what I’m talking about.

If you want to follow along you can pick up my GM Quick Reference HERE from DriveThruRPG. Like all my content, it’s Pay-What-You-Want. If you like it share the link with your friends or throw me a few dollars so I can keep making content.

This quick reference packs everything a 5e GM needs in four, double-sided pages. The perfect reference to keep at the front of your GM binder.


As a proof of concept let’s make a three-week riverboat journey for four, 5th-level characters.

First, we need to tally up the cost. Per the front page of the GM Quick Reference, Courier & Passage Rates section, it’s 2d6 silver per day. Twenty one days, four PCs, and a quick roll (10), makes the cost 84 gp for the journey.

I rolled randomly to make the ship’s captain a gnome. I also rolled on the 2d20 Quick NPC Traits chart (GM Quick Reference, page five). Our gnome captain is elderly with an easy grace to his movements. I envision him as a good dancer and a bit of a ladykiller. He definitely sports a manicured anchor beard.


The players are free to try and haggle their passage price. Social Encounter Steps, structure for running social encounters, is in the GM Quick Reference on page four.

With our captain and travel fare decided we can move forward. Page seven of the GM Quick Reference is Overland Travel. We can skip past the travel pace bits since the party is paying for passage. They should have 1d4 nodes per week. At three weeks that’s… [rolls] 10 nodes. It’ll be an eventful trip!

Next, we need to roll a few twenty-sided dice on page seven’s, 1d20 Travel Nodes table to see what’s in store for the party.

  1. Shortcut
  2. Trap
  3. Bad Weather
  4. Shortcut
  5. Supplies Lost
  6. Vehicle Failure
  7. Fellow Travelers
  8. Vehicle Failure
  9. Shortcut
  10. Haven

Let’s Get to the Details

1. Shortcut

All the shortcuts will be the same. Unfortunately on a riverboat there’s nothing for the PCs to do. Either they trust the captain to take a shortcut or they don’t. I’ll drop in a little wagering mechanic then. There’s an 80% chance the shortcut pans out. If it works the PC’s get a refund of one day’s travel fare, 4 gp.

2. Trap

Normally, I’d hop over to the GM Quick Reference, page six, 1d4 Improvised Traps. But, this situation calls for a pretty specific trap. There’s a tension release buried in the mud of the river. If a passing boat knocks it free a sunken chain draws taut to keep the boat from moving. On the same page in the quick reference is 2d6 Improvised DCs.

  • Trap Spot: Perception DC 21
  • Avoid Trap: Strength (Vehicles, Water) DC 16
  • Only characters with Vehicles, Water proficiency can attempt the check

If the trap catches the boat they’ll need to free themselves before the bandits show up. It’s a pretty simple trap. It only needs a few successes at DC 10 or some clever thinking to overcome. If they PCs drop the ball, bandits attack.

The GM Quick Reference groups information for each pillar of play onto facing sheets to keep you from flipping pages back and forth.

3. Bad Weather

There’s a handy, 2d6 Weather table in the GM Quick Reference on page seven. Weather comes in three basic factors: temperature, wind, and precipitation. I imagine the riverboat has a sail, but its primary propulsion is oars. So I’m going to go with temperature and a sunburn/heat exhaustion combination. Constitution saving throw, DC 14. On a failure PCs gain a level of Exhaustion (page seven). Fair-skinned PCs also gain a nasty sunburn.

4. Shortcut #2

There’s a 50/50 chance it’ll work. On a success the PCs regain two days travel fare. On a failure the PCs lose all previous successes.

5. Supplies Lost

One of the ropes securing cargo breaks and barrels roll off into the river. Dexterity saving throw DC 16 to avoid getting knocked overboard by the barrels. On failure targets take (checks Improvised Damage on GM Quick Reference, page two) 5d6 + 5 bludgeoning damage.

The PCs need to help get all the barrels back as they can. It’s a low risk situation, whatever they try is DC 9. If they flub the situation the captain is going to be less than happy.

Page seven’s Overland Travel Steps also includes information on determining travel pace, tracking journey fatigue, and the different duties player characters can perform on the road.

6. Vehicle Failure Haven

I swapped vehicle failure and haven for two reasons. One, having a haven as the last node isn’t very interesting. A haven is a respite from travel, pointless when the journey is about to end. Reason two, I want a place where PCs who gained a level of exhaustion or were clobbered by barrels can take an extended rest.

You can create a haven with any settlement creation technique you like. I have my own resources. Maybe I’ll release them to the public at some point. Obviously, it’s too large to include in a quick reference. But here’s the haven I created.


Cedar Pikes pop. 153

Cedar Pikes is a small village that cuts peat from a nearby bog and grew up around a riverside guard post. The settlement is run by a scheming noble that has grand plans for the little village. The only thing standing in his way is the neighboring village.

The watch is lenient with visitors. PCs can find room and board at the village bunkhouse for (rolls on Room & Board, page eight of the GM Quick Reference) nine silver a head.

  • Local Lord: Tall, fidgety human male
  • Guard Captain: Ignorant half-elf male with a case of terminal allergies
  • (2d20 Quick NPC Traits, page five)

7. Fellow Travelers


A simple role-play opportunity. I decided the travelers are a band of traveling peasant healers. The crews tie the boats together and everyone shares lunch. The party can buy some common supplies, healing potion, or herbal remedy. They can also ask the travelers about rumors and other bits of world lore.

8. Vehicle Failure

Taking a bend the riverboat lurches as it strikes a boulder. The boat begins to list and the crew has to work hard to push it to the shore. The cracked rudder needs repair. PCs with clever spells or tool proficiencies [DC 15] can help repair the rudder.

9. Shortcut #3

It’s a 20% chance. On a success PCs regain four days travel fare. On a failure the PCs lose all previous successes.

10. Vehicle Failure #2

Hidden damage from the boulder strike rears its head. The hull has started to separate somewhere and the riverboat’s taking on water. This challenge is a DC 16. The PCs can try to find and patch the leak while bailing water or try to drive the boat to the shore for repairs. I’ll give them a few rounds of action. If they drop the ball the riverboat sinks and they’ll have to hoof it the rest of the way.

That’s a busy trip, something happens every two days! The node-based system fills that middle ground by providing just the right amount of content. Your players feel time has passed and miles have been traveled. This overland travel scenario is a small taste of what the GM Quick Reference offers.