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You Cannot Fast Travel When Plot is Nearby

You’ve probably been there. Trying to get from one part of the map to another. A sound effect cuts through the overworld music, an animation comes up, and the music switches to something a little more adrenaline-pumping. The first time it happens in a game, maybe the first few dozen times, you’re probably pretty excited. What monsters will you face? Will there be materials to upgrade your weapons? Just a little much-needed currency and experience? A surprise treasure box? Then you get to that fourth dozen time…fifth…sixth? Somewhere in there it becomes a boring monotonous grind just to get anywhere, or maybe to find the last component you need to upgrade your ranged weapon. At best, the ritual becomes a minor annoyance while you pass through as quickly as possible. Would it be better if you could just fast travel? Zipping between two points without subjecting your character(s) (and yourself) to yet another pointless battle? This can work well in video games, but do you use it at your tabletops? What are the pros and cons, and how can we best implement this feature as we build our shared tabletop RPG stories with our friends? - A

A: Both members of Never Say Dice have been dong quite a lot of IRL traveling lately. Life would sure be a lot easier if fast travel were an option. Fortunately, for our tabletop games fast travel actually is. Why would you want to include fast travel at a tabletop? Often our game worlds expand to vast distances, and player goals and story beats can send us all across these imaginary spaces. Getting to those juicy bits is often quite a priority in our games, and fast travel can make that significantly easier for the players. You cut out the tedious slogging battles between your heroes and low-level peons. Those chance encounters aren’t needed anyway. After all, the plot is what your players are there for, right? Get through those boring parts as quickly as possible and right to the meat of the game.

Then again, think of all of the things you may be missing if you do use fast travel to skip around. There are chance encounters that can bring life to your worlds. Perhaps your players have run into that group of bandits they keep scaring off yet again building on a recurring gag. Just walking along in Breath of the Wild, I may wonder what that rock in the field is as I’m headed from one town to another. Before you know it... ya ha ha! I’ve solved a puzzle or gotten a clue for something else. The problem here is doing this too much and making travel take too long. There's a fine balance you need to find, and all the additional planning you need to do for "random" encounters. While you may have a favorite table or chart you like to assist you, additional work is still needed to make pre-set "random" things happen in a way that's interesting and serves as an addition to your story, as opposed to something that drags it down. Bugsy, where do you side on the matter and what do you think are the best ways to incorporate fast travel into our tabletop games?

B: In Clerks 2, Randall does get one thing right, despite his penchant across all iterations of the franchise for always being wrong: the Lord of the Rings really is all about walking. But, of course, that's the point. If Tolkien was concerned primarily with moving all the plot pieces around, he could have easily squeezed all three books into a single (if still somewhat-hefty) volume. But the journey was as much about conveying the culture and history of Middle Earth as it was the epic War of the Ring, and so there are songs and historical digressions for each and every place visited - not to the reader, but to the characters. And this approach of worldbuilding through characters' eyes is one of the major reasons those books are deeply beloved and even academically studied today, whereas the works of contemporaries like Robert E. Howard are considered historically-significant pulp at best, as well as why Tolkien's novels have a wider appeal than his more studious Middle Earth books like The Silmarillion. This approach has its detractors (and not simply people who can't stand the pace of Tolkien's prose), the cliche "plot hole" about the Fellowship not "fast traveling" by riding the Eagles to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring has been around so long that Tolkien even complained about it in his lifetime.  That even fans will concoct elaborate explanations to get around this still seems to miss the point: the slow travel through Middle Earth, both literally in the events of the narrative and figuratively through geography, history, language, and myth is the story, not a contrivance.

This is not to say that every creator and gamemaster out there should take things as slowly as possible to fully immerse the characters in the setting and story! Besides considering the appetite (and/or patience) of audiences and players, sometimes things simply need to move faster. But, even then, I'd encourage a bit of time spent between here and there, to experience a little of the world, convey a sense of scale, and remind the players and audience that the world does not revolve around these characters. In my Paranoia games, for instance, I will usually feature some kind of experience in transit to the mission setting, whether it's an altercation with an autocar or a massed crowd protesting or even a minor detour. These lower-stakes moments can develop the setting and allow players to ease into the world and their characters - especially if they're newcomers. Even in non-interactive media, travel time helps to show who the protagonists are and how they feel about the events that have happened to them... and the events to come. The original Star Wars benefits greatly from the time spent on the Millennium Falcon both before and after the time spent on the Death Star. Star Trek, as well, is as much (if not more) about getting somewhere as it is what happens upon arrival... it's in the name, after all!

Electronic gaming, from which the term "fast travel" originates, has developed its own ways to please both camps, and many modern "open world" games offer the opportunities for players to traverse the territory themselves or to skip ahead via one method or another - although usually requiring the initial visits to take place slowly, ensuring the players have at least grasped enough of the setting to understand what's going on (and maybe trigger some cutscenes). Given my predilection for viewing landscape as storytelling, I almost invariably take the time to cross distances myself, feeling out the characters and the worlds they inhabit, even if it slows things down. On the other hand, if a method of fast travel is amusing or interesting in itself, and thus an aspect of worldbuilding and story, I will use it from time to time: Metal Gear Solid V's cardboard box delivery and Marvel's Spider-Man's subway vignettes are fast travel systems that exist within those game's worlds, and they feel appropriate for the characters who occupy those worlds to use them.

In short, as with so many things, it becomes a matter of a storyteller knowing their strengths and their audiences. Some folks will want to take their time (in either side of this exchange) and some folks will want to get to the action. But I'd encourage anyone to at least stage something in between, even if it's something small. The destination will feel more real and even more earned, whether it's in fiction, a game... or even a blog post.

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