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The Toolkit: Walking the Earth

“I’m Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. She’s a transport ship, Firefly class. Got a good crew: fighters, pilot, mechanic. We even picked up a preacher for some reason, and a bona fide companion. There’s a doctor, too, took his genius sister outta some Alliance camp, so they’re keeping a low profile. You understand. You got a job, we can do it. Don’t much care what it is.”

Last week on the Toolkit, we isolated a few themes from The Magnificent Seven to expand on, including A Drifter’s Life. It’s a trope that crops up time and time again throughout traditional, Colts-and-Stetsons Western media, as well as properties inspired or influenced by the Western, such as Firefly, Star Trek, and the A-Team. TV Tropes calls it Walking the Earth, a practice shared by both the Knight Errant and the Drifter.

WalkingTitleIn essence, the characters are bound to never stay in one place for too long, never outstaying their welcome, perhaps crawling towards their eventual destination, or because there are always others in need of help, or better or safer opportunities for work further down the road. In video games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, whilst the main quest line might give the protagonist an eventual destination, much of the story involves the protagonist drifting from place to place, aiding or fighting those they encounter.

Walking1So, we want to run a campaign that ties into this theme of walking the earth, what do we need in order to make it run well?

The Traveling Campaign

Now, my Monday compatriot, The Angry GM, has said a few, admittedly harsh, words on Sandboxes and Hex Crawls before. Whilst they were harsh, they were also very much true. If I want to run a Western-inspired traveling campaign, then I’m not looking for a Sandbox game, or even a true Hex Crawl.

Walking3Sandboxes, to paraphrase Angry, inevitably turn into a massive excuse for the players to piss about, fulfill antisocial urges and generally behave like murder-hobos. Hex Crawls are closer to what I want, but ultimately too random, too directionless. Conversely, I don’t want a campaign to turn into something too linear, presenting the players with no real, meaningful choice as they follow the invisible rails from start to finish.

No, what I’m looking for is more like a dialogue tree, a few distinct options that provide choice whilst still maintaining direction.

Walking2If you can recall the short series I wrote on mystery adventures, I talked a little about signposting (based on The Angry GM’s article “Every Adventure’s a Dungeon”). The principle here remains the same, you can avoid the directionless nature of Sandboxes and Hex Crawls, whilst still giving players a choice in what direction they will take. Most players will take a set of given options over the chance to roam freely, because it means that rather than having to find their own fun, they already know where the fun is.

Walking4Once we know how we’ll structure a walking the earth campaign, we can go about creating the hooks we’ll need to entice the players. From a starting position, create two, three or four locations, and rough out some details on them. Depending on the type of setting you’re using, the barony or planet generator from my world-building series might come in handy here.

WalkingHooks(And here’s a Google Sheets)

For each location, roll once on the Hook column, and once on the Threat column, but keep the latter result to yourself until it becomes necessary to reveal your hand. Through helpful NPCs or rumour, feed these hooks to your players and let them decide which way they go. Threats serve as an extra complication to keep a quest or job interesting. As the players gain experience in a campaign like this, they might get wise to double-crosses and third parties messing things up and take extra precautions. That’s fine; it shows they’re investing plenty of thought in your campaign.

Optional Extras

Whilst they’re not essential to a traveling campaign, the following thoughts might help to emphasise the drifter nature of a campaign.

  • Traveling adventurers often live hand-to-mouth, since they often can only access the resources they can carry with them. Where possible, emphasise this in terms of equipment wearing out or breaking on failed rolls, skill roll penalties where improvised tools are used, and think about encumbrance.
  • Drifters and Knights Errant are always on the move once their tasks are complete. What keeps your party on the move? If they have an eventual destination, then the campaign serves as a series of pit stops on the way. If they have a main goal or quest, drop occasional hints or quest that will help them fulfill it or keep them focused. If they’re on the run from someone or something, perhaps you can drive them on by hinting at this threatening entity approaching, or even have minor encounters between the party and representatives (bounty hunters, agents, heralds) of the threatening entity if they stay too long or develop too much of a reputation.

Walking5

  • Whilst the hooked locations provide the meat of the adventure, don’t forget that a traveling campaign features traveling. Make traveling between adventure locations interesting by providing interesting encounters along the way, or perhaps making the roads too dangerous and force the party to occasionally venture on paths less well trod.

Next week I’ll continue addressing some of the themes and tropes of Westerns through mechanics and narrative and hopefully show some progress on The Reach, but if you have a situation or problem you’d like to see addressed in the Toolkit, give me a shout!

If you like The Toolkit and want to help the Mad Adventurers Society to put out more quality content, consider visiting our Patreon page. If you have any thoughts, questions, or suggestions for new Toolkits, you can reach me through the comments or on Twitter @jay_jaydraper.

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