Travel and Transport World-building for your fantasy RPG campaign

Travel and Transport World-building for your fantasy RPG campaign

Build the travel and transport networks between your cities and towns - for a rich background for your adventures

By Neal F. Litherland

A sailing ship in light fog, after sunrise When we picture tabletop fantasy settings, we tend to see villages, towns, and cities as these pockets of isolated civilization among a sea of open, hostile wilderness.

Getting from one place to another is usually a difficult, dangerous affair, and you never know what kinds of threats might be waiting just beyond the borders of the place you call home.

However, while that kind of setup can lead to a very personal, very dangerous world, it can often undermine immersion, and strain your players’ suspension of disbelief. After all, people have always traveled, and they’ve traveled in huge numbers!

So if you want your setting to feel organic, take a few moments to think about how people get around in it… both in terms of mundane travel, as well as magical and supernatural methods of getting from Point A to Point B.

First, Figure Out The Who and The Why

1. Who travels in your RPG world and why?

Generally speaking, travel in a fantasy setting is going to develop organically based on the needs of the population, and the dangers presented.

For example, if you have a large city in the mountains, then there may be well-traveled roads for farmers to bring their harvest to the city for sale, as the farmers need the coin, and the city cannot grow enough to feed its population within the walls of the hold fast.

If you have a city on a river, then it’s likely you’ll have goods coming downstream, as well as passenger vessels used to save people a long trek on foot, keeping all the waterfront communities connected through commerce and travel because it’s easier than walking or riding.

It’s likely you’ll also have people within major cities who have to get to work, who need to get home after a night of carousing, or who want to visit friends without simply going on foot. They may even want to avoid foot pads, and so they hand a few coins to a driver to make sure it’s one less thing they want to worry about.

People might travel for business, ranging from merchant caravans, to students going to an arcane university or a sword college. People might travel as tourists, either on a budget or in luxury. People might go on pilgrimage in accordance with their faith. People might also travel due to military deployment, as government envoys, or just to go see family.

Whatever the reason for travel, the more often people are to move from one place to another, and the greater the numbers those people move in, the more likely it is that some form of transportation service will crop up in those places… or, at the very least, that routes between these locations will be well-known, and well-maintained.

Capture the travel and transport networks explored in this article, and the guilds that run them, with Scabard!

  • Name your Trade Route
  • Create cities and towns and the transport and travel networks that connect them.
  • Create the guilds that run these travel/transport networks with the Group page type. Then add members of the guild with the Character page type. Then use Scabard's connections feature to create "member of" and "leader of" connections.
  • Create ships, barges and caravans with the Vehicle page type, and connect them to the guilds or merchants that run them. Such as the "owner of" or "captain of" connections. Scabard has 176 connection types altogether!

2. How people travel and transport goods

Once you know who is traveling, and why they’re traveling, the next question you have to ask is how they’re traveling. Now, most of our games contain the basics.

People in forested areas ride horses, or drive carts. People in the desert usually ride camels. Wagons, carriages, and caravans can carry a lot of goods, a lot of people, or both. You can take passage with a ship, whether that’s down a river, or across an ocean, or you can pay the shoe leather fare and just walk to your destination.

However, those things are kind of pedestrian. Take a moment and ask yourself what other options are available that are unique to your fantasy setting… or what strange ways these “normal” means of transportation might be altered by the fantastical nature of your world!

As an example, are there dwarven communities who have dug so thoroughly through their mountains that the old mining cart rails once used to move ore and stone are now used to transport passengers instead? And even if they don’t have primitive steam engines, are these “undergrounds” pulled by earth elementals, or pushed along by magic runes inscribed into the wheels that create a force effect?

Are there “highways” grown by elven communities who have slowly woven the branches of entire forests together, allowing them to walk high above the ground below, and to both keep watch, while also resting safe in the knowledge they are too high for most predators to bother with?

Are there huge elevators attached to cliff faces in the mountains, powered by teams of ogres whose massive strength allows goods and people to ascend to heights that would take days to climb normally? Or, perhaps, your setting has colossal airships that can sail on the breeze, covering hundreds of miles in a day instead of a week?

A sailing ship and an airship Some of these methods may be limited by location, climate, or even resources. For example, there may be “night trains” pulled by teams of undead horses, and guided by a necromancer driver, allowing them to travel faster and further than any living carriage team could. However, they are not common outside of areas where the necromancy guild is allowed to operate freely.

Airships may be rare, allowing their fare to be prohibitively expensive. Decanter ships, which are powered by decanters of endless water left on their highest setting to drive the ship along regardless of winds and tides, may be so few in number that it would be easier (and possibly cheaper) to find an archmage to teleport you to your destination, and so on, and so forth.

3. Travel and Transport Infrastructure in your RPG fantasy world

Regarding transportation, what infrastructure exists to support it?

For example, are the roads throughout a certain area marked only by the ruts of cart wheels? Or are there true roads of paving stones that link one town and the next? Were those roads paced by local towns, or were they put in place by a guild, or even a royal engineering corps, ensuring they are all up to a certain code and standard?

Are there clearly marked signs on particular roads so that people don’t get lost? Are there lighthouses on the coast to ensure that ships don’t run aground? If so, are those lighthouses properly manned, or are they crumbling and unreliable?

If there are airships, dragon riders, or other means of (relatively) common air travel in your setting, is there a guild that acts as air traffic controllers, coordinating various persons and ensuring there aren’t collisions and accidents while everyone jostles for a place to land?

Lastly, consider the support systems to maintain these various forms of transport. For example, are carriages and cart rides largely handled by independent drivers? Or is there a guild or company who verifies that their drivers, vehicles, and animal teams are up-to-snuff?

Are highways and shipping lanes regularly patrolled, ensuring that bandits and pirates are unlikely to be found in a given area (and thus making a given route more reliable)? Are there maintenance crews who inspect roads, way stations, outposts, etc., and who ensure they’re regularly repaired, or are these places falling into ruin because they’re too far away to justify the cost of maintaining them?

4. Using Travel and Transport as Plot Hooks

While unique forms of travel and transportation will make your world feel more interesting for your players, it can also be used as a jumping off point for your campaigns, getting your players involved directly with this part of your setting.

As a for instance, the teamsters might be on strike because they keep getting attacked by bandits. With no commerce moving, the party could be tasked with dealing with this threat.

And it might be a straightforward case of thieves simply attacking the most promising targets, or you might find that the “bandits” are actually members of a transport company who is just trying to scare the guild into striking, opening up an opportunity for them to supplant the teamsters and corner this lucrative market.

That’s just one suggestion. A gnomish inventor could be on the cusp of creating a magical engine that would revolutionize transport along mithril rails, but they need hard-to-find materials that will be dangerous to acquire. So the party has to go into the field to acquire the rare metals, fuels, etc., it would take to complete the project.

There might be a dispute with an elven community about whether a road can be built through a given area, and the party has to find some agreement that satisfies all the parties involved. There may even be sabotage in a series of underground roads, and the party needs to ferret out who is responsible before anyone else gets hurt.

Don’t be afraid to get creative, and to really think about how transportation affects not just your world, but the party’s bottom line!

Two climbers at sunset

5. Off The Beaten Track

Many of our adventures take place far away from civilization, and past the point where regular travel routes go. However, that isn’t always the case.

And even if your party is eventually going to have to trek through the trackless forest in search of ancient ruins or lost treasure, the methods of transportation present in your setting can still inform a lot about your world, and the kinds of things that are possible in it.

Author Bio

Neal Litherland is a genre-hopping author with over 160 TTRPG supplements under his belt. For more of his articles, check out both his gaming blog Improved Initiative, as well as his Vocal author page.