I am writing a campaign in which the party will likely be traveling through a savanna over a distance that will take them a week. The characters in the party are each at level 1, and the only equipment they have is anything they may have been given at a farming village where they started. They start with no money.
(One of the puzzles early on is how to fight the boss at the end of this journey with very limited resources. Once they do and take the boss’s treasure, they will be able to afford “starting” equipment and then some when they get to a big city at the beginning of the next adventure.)
I’m wondering what kind of downtime activities to allow the players to participate in while they are on this week-long journey. I’ve read about downtime activities in the PHB and DMG, but it seems that they all require money, time (more than a week), a city to set up shop in, or resources to gather, and the adventurers won’t have access to any of these on this journey. I don’t want the players to get bored during that week, but I don’t want to skip it because I’m going to roll random events, including battles, during most of the 7 days.
I’ve never actually DM’d before, so is there a better way to go about this? I’m ultimately trying to set up a journey that will have a few events here and there but will mostly be just walking for 7 days. If downtime isn’t a good way to accomplish this, what is? Do I just fast-forward the story to the next battle or night?
- What kind of downtime activities can adventurers perform while traveling without crafting materials, money, or more than a week of time?
- How can a DM keep things interesting when the adventurers are on long journeys? How does he/she maintain the flow of the story while skipping over hours of time?
Skip (most of) it
Whenever I need to have my PCs travel, I simply skip the travel time and move directly to the point. In the past, I've tried to play through travel time, adding encounters and resource counting, but it's always felt kind of pointless, because the challenges the PCs are facing aren't directly related to the goal. The longer I kept it up, the more impatient my players got for "real plot".
In this case, it looks like you're just trying to fill up time. You've said they have enough rations to make the trip, and you don't have a clear goal for the travel itself, beyond going to the location of interest. What's more, you want the PCs to have zero progress during the travel, since you want the PCs to fight the boss with minimal resources. This means that if you play out random encounters, they will either gain levels (leveling up at level 1 is very easy) and resources, which defeats your intent, or they will gain nothing, and the challenges will feel pointless.
The key idea is that table time shouldn't be pointless. You've stated that you want your players to experience combat while traveling, and that the time period is important. None of that requires that you play out the entire trip, though. Instead, only play out the parts that matter. For example, if they face bandits during their trip, you can just play that part, and then gloss over the uneventful days of walking. There's no requirement that table time has to be proportional to in-game time: if something's not interesting, you can simply skip over it.
Now, I'm not arguing that you should skip everything except major plot points. I'm only saying that you shouldn't use filler to pad out in-game time, and that table time should be used intentionally, whether it's for character interaction, exposition, or even a gameplay tutorial. However, if you're looking only for something to fill up time, that's a good indication that you should just skip over that time period.