... now with 35% more arrogance!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Long Expeditions

This past week, I saw part 1 of a PBS show on Lewis & Clark. I believe it's a repeat, so many of you may have seen it already earlier in the year. Aside from the unusually large number of laxatives they took on the expedition, I was mainly interested in the inspirational aspects. It's a well-documented lengthy expedition under conditions that weren't medieval, but were still low-tech enough to be a good guideline for pre-19th century wilderness travel.

Almost the entire journey is by river. Upriver, actually, so it's not as quick as you'd expect river travel to be, although it is quicker than it would have been overland. Because of the great distance involved, it took a couple years to complete. Part of the time was spent in "winter phases", when the Corps of Discovery didn't travel at all because that would have been foolhardy. A few days here and there during the rest of the journey were spent visiting/negotiating with inhabitants along the way. Lots of time was lost going around a couple obstacles.

The expedition had a general map of most of the territory, but they mapped their actual journey in detail: every little bend in the river, every landmark visible along the way. I think we tend to treat mapping in RPGs a bit cavalierly, assuming that any maps found are completely accurate at any scale. Players tend to skip mapping if they already have a map of the area. Eventually, the expedition reached unmapped territory... and later, discovered that even their general map of the continent was wrong, and the Pacific Ocean was not as close to the Rocky Mountains as they expected.

The expedition heard stories about a "monster" they'd never encountered before: grizzlies. When they first met a grizzly, it was pretty fearsome, but they beat it and felt pretty cocky. Several more encounters, though, and they began to wish they'd never seen one: sure, they were winning their monster encounters, but these things were taking way too much time to kill, compared to ordinary bears. And they didn't seem to get scared away as easily as other bears.

There were a lot of other things about the expedition that would make good examples of things a band of adventures might have to deal with during a long river journey. Overhanging trees wrecked the mast of their boat. The safe part of the river in many places was close to the banks, but the banks were soft and sandy, tending to collapse suddenly into the river and nearly capsizing them.  They came to unexpected forks in the river and had to guess which one actually came from the mountains. Waterfalls forced them to lose a month of time as they carried their boats overland, around the obstacle.

But the main thing all this made me think of was: boy, I'd like to see more very long journeys, instead of short journeys of a couple weeks, with most of the details glossed over.


  1. My lats campaign had a number of long expeditions featuring negotiation, exploration, and survival. A location goal (even a rough one) works pretty well for keeping things focused.

  2. I love the idea, but keep in mind that the Lewis & Clark Expedition was a major undertaking, requiring funding and preparation on the same (relative) scale as the Apollo program.

    A campaign based around such an expedition of discovery when, for instance, a kingdom acquires a vast tract of relatively uninhabited wilderness as part of a settlement following a successful war when their opponents sue for peace might be interesting. There would have to be some reason to choose the PCs as the expedition leaders. Perhaps a contest where the winning team leads the expedition.

    1. Could be a perfect alternative for building a castle at name level. It's either the castle or a funded expedition into uncharted territory. Decidedly mid-level gaming material and a group of adventurers would have to put their resources together, group structure depends on classes (or funding party: if the church is funding, the cleric is leading, etc.).

      Very nice! Thanks for the inspiration...

    2. Oh! Really good. Perhaps after a war campaign, in which the PCs maybe distinguished themselves and rose to name level during the fighting (the thing about pre-planning high level adventures is that they are so frequently contingent on the players having done such-and-so sort of thing), the kingdom gets the Louisiana Purchase or whatever and picks them to lead the discovery expedition, if they want. When they get back, there'll be rewards and accolades awaiting them. Not to mention the possibility of pulling an Aaron Burr and becoming Emperor of the Lost Kingdom.

    3. I'm seeing an expedition of discovery as more as a hero-level activity rather than name-level. Although you could have 1st and 2nd level types sign on as party members to an expedition lead by an NPC. The first expedition might even get aborted, and the PCs as heroes might be first on the list for suggested leaders of a second expedition.

      Of course, I'm thinking of much smaller new territory than the Louisiana Purchase, and assuming that the PCs don't foot the costs. Opening up a new region can generate new lands open for colonization when the PCs reach name-level.

    4. Sure, it is something low level characters may participate in. I read a book maybe a year ago (Latitude Zero. Tales of the Equator) with some, I thought, fascinating details. Gonzalo Pizarro, to give an example, started 1540 such an expedition in South America, with over 220 Spaniards, 4000 Indians, 150 horses, 1000 war dogs and some llamas and pigs for good measure. It took them two years and only 100 hundred of them survived. And that *only* because it was uncharted territory with jungles and swamps. Add some monsters and it should make for a demanding mid to high level game. Anyway, that's the conclusion I came to. I wrote down some more ideas in this direction over here:


      The gist of it is, to give characters a mid level goal (if they get that high or not) to make the transition from low to mid level gameplay somewhat easier (it's something I always thought of as problematic...).