I love the idea of including epic journeys and voyages of discovery in my games, a la Sinbad or the great achievements of Age of Sail captains like Columbus or Zheng He, the same way I love travelling and making personal discoveries myself.
I guess it’s part of growing up on the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies and the seaside life of Puerto Galera as a boy. But how to make a voyage-of-discovery adventure more than just a string of fights with sea monsters and pirates?
I’m thinking one way of enriching the game for the players is to put a proper value on the one thing a traveller is sure to come home with, whether he gets any gold or not – knowledge.
How to value knowledge? How to determine how much knowledge the PCs are bringing back? I’d say the very first and one of the most valuable is simply the knowledge of how to get somewhere and back again. Charting routes, specially marking points of peril, can bring in major rewards – particularly if the PCs belong to or serve a mercantile power. One very obvious way to do this is to make producing a map part of the PCs’ mission.
If your players like to fight, make some of those perils combat-oriented. Clearing a valuable new trade route of pirates or other hostiles should bring the PCs both material rewards and good relations with factions who can use those new routes. More scholarly PCs can busy themselves with astronomical, geographical and cultural observations. Befriending locals to learn their customs and language is also very valuable.
But what if I run out of ideas for discoveries to make, you might ask. Pssst, this is the time to cheat – you’re totally surrounded by creative people when you’re at the game table. Let the players contribute! You could tell any player at any point in the journey, ‘Your character has made a discovery. What was it?’ Then throw in a complication related to the discovery if desired.
Some of my ideas on knowledge different character types can bring home include:
Observations on the weapons, tactics, organization and possible weaknesses of hostiles encountered on the route. Take this as encouragement to add diversity to your military cultures.
Frex, “The tribes of the G’bo people fight riding huge water buffaloes. Their charge is much slower than horse cavalry, but much harder to stop because of the buffalo’s strength and ferocity. On the other hand, the G’bo do make very loyal mercenaries if one is honorable to them, so I recommend making peace with the G’bo. Then we can have them guarding our caravans through the southern savanna instead of raiding them. Just don’t mention my name when you deal with them, though. There’s a chief out there whose daughter … ” (Wink wink to Charles Saunders – read the Dossouye stories!)
Observations on wildlife and flora of interest or danger en route, and means of dealing with them. Rangers and druids could both contribute to knowledge of medicinal plants.
Frex, “The Durga berry looks very much like our common wild blackberry, and grows in similar locations. However, it is very poisonous until it starts to rot, upon which it becomes safe to eat, with a flavor and kick like old wine and a dream-inducing effect like some of our mushrooms. Hungry travellers may be tempted to pick and eat these berries, thinking them the same as the ones back home. Beware!”
Rogues – or dedicated merchant-adventurer classes, if you use them in your game – can contribute discoveries on items of commercial value. This may be a new trade item or resource, or a local condition that can be exploited for gain.
Frex, “The Ersanese ruby mines sometimes yield a rare purplish-red ruby which they prize above all other gems. The lords and ladies back home will certainly go wild over jewelry set with these exotic stones found nowhere else in our known world.”
Or, “The King here is an indolent wastrel who would rather spend all his time in his seraglio. The next trade mission should instead seek private audience with the Queen, through the Chief Royal Eunuch – after paying their respects to His Majesty, of course. They should take care, though, not to cross the King’s younger brother the Prince Vulpeas …”
Wizards may discover not only new spells and schools of magic, but also alternative ways of casting a known spell. Perhaps in this distant land different components are used for casting, say, Fireball. Or, they may find out (the hard way) that certain schools and types of magic are seriously taboo.
Frex, “The chief god worshipped here is Devrath, the god of fire and the sun. So sacred is fire to these folk that any form of magically manipulating fire is deemed a sacrilege, punishable by being placed Under the Crystal. The Crystal whereof I speak is a gigantic piece of quartz, or perhaps glass, mounted at the peak of Devrath’s ziggurat. At high noon, anything placed under the Crystal will be kindled ablaze by the sun’s rays concentrated and focused by it.”
Let your cleric be more than a walking first-aid kit by playing up to the religious aspect of the class. Clerics can contribute observations on local religions and religious practices, and since premodern cultures are so bound together with religion, your cleric cannot help but study culture as well. Once again, taboos to be avoided can make a good, useful discovery.
Frex, “The people here believe that the gods all depart to attend the Celestial Emperor during the entirety of the tenth month, thus leaving the world below unprotected. Every household and public building keeps candles and incense lighted all through the night for the whole month to keep demons and ghosts away, for these are said to rise out of the earth and make trouble while the gods are away. Blowing out a candle or incense, specially in another’s house, is regarded as extremely bad manners, as it signifies a hostile intent or wish for the people in the house – you are opening the way for the evil spirits to enter.”