Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Building Bhakashal – Overland Travel – The Caravan

I see a lot of posts on social media suggesting that many DMs fast forward travel, and that it is a distraction from the game.

I disagree.

My Wednesday group is currently travelling overland with a caravan, and it’s an opportunity to review this kind of play and how it works for us, as it is a ton of fun. I’m using Bhakashal rules at the table, so anything I discuss here will be represented in the setting guide. You can generate a caravan for the party to join in about 20 minutes or so. The setting guide will have both the method and several sample caravans to be used if you are pressed for time.

Overland travel can take a few forms, from on foot, to mounted to a caravan. My players defaulted to on foot or mounted for the longest time, but in a recent game they talked about how dangerous it had been the last few extended trips they took, and how much they liked being on a ship with armed sailors and a ship Warlock rather than doing the overland portion, which they did alone to “get there as fast as possible”. One of the players turned to me, in part due to the fact they had passed a caravan a few sessions back and asked if the party could join a caravan.

“If you like”

First step was to find a caravan heading to the mountains and beyond to the desert. This was a big ask, there were plenty of caravans going a shorter distance, but they were adamant that they wanted to stick with one group not switch between multiple caravans to get where they were going.

I asked why.

My players are at the point where they have come to realize that loyalty rolls are crucial to the game, they are the cement of faction play and come into play quite often (Bhakashal also has a “repute” mechanic). So, a longer trip where you get to know your allies and generate goodwill, and thus loyalty bonuses, is worth more to them then switching constantly and encountering new people. Any work you have put in is lost when you do that.

In short, they are getting better at the game.

They did the legwork when their ship first arrived and found only one caravan that was going all the way across the mountains to the desert, and it was very big. The party had to convince the caravan master to be allowed to accompany the caravan, they were already well armed and had their own Warlock, so the party wasn’t seen as needed. Also, adventurers who want to leave town in the company of a caravan are not infrequently on the run from someone and might bring their own trouble. The caravan master brought up both of those concerns in the discussion.

However, the party offered to hire an NPC Seer (priest) for healing purposes as the caravan did not have one, and that, along with the party thief’s high charisma, sweetened the deal enough to be allowed to join. Each of the PCs had to pay for a mount as well (they had traveled here by ship, so they had no mounts). As they were going through plain, marshland, hills, and mountain, they settled on Saan (giant lizards) as mounts as they can swim rivers and are excellent climbers.

The agreement was that the party would defend the caravan as they travelled, and once they made it to the desert they would part company, the caravan would continue on its trip to several of the larger desert cities, and the party would veer out into the unknown to find the Forgotten City.

The party found a temple to Omagh, god of death, and found a mid-level priest named Hurna Gamelin who was intent on looking for sacred items in remote and dangerous locations, she readily agreed to join the party for a share of the loot and first dibs on holy items. With the NPC in tow, they left on the 2-week journey. They could have travelled on their own on mounts and made better time, but that was the trade off.

They found a caravan with the following details:

1.      Caravan master: 5th level Saan (lizard-folk) Mercenary named Gogluk Maka

2.      (30) giant lizard beasts of burden, half with carts, half with basket back slings

3.      (50) foot guards

4.      (30) animal handlers

5.      (5) merchants and their retinue of 2-3 1st level henchmen each (10 mounts, one for each merchant, one for each retinue)

6.      (10) mounted guards )1st level

7.      (2) 2nd level mounted guards - lancers

Whenever the party encounters an institution/organization like a guild, a Noble House, a ship or a caravan, Bhakashal assigns that institution an alignment. The alignment determines how the institution works. In this case, the caravan was Lawful Neutral, which meant that the caravan rewarded rule following behavior, and was not inclined to either harm others for gain or to sacrafice to help others. Individual initiative was not rewarded by the caravan unless it was strictly in the service of the caravan’s interests. Essentially, the caravan master ran a tight ship. Most ships and caravans are Lawful.

I also roll for the caravan’s internal factions, and how they would perceive each other and the party. This roll produced tension between the animal handlers and the foot guards. I decided this was due to concerns about wages, the animal handlers had a lot of work to do on every trip, and they felt the caravan Warlock did all the heavy lifting with bandits and such, so they were resentful that the guards were so well paid. The food guards in turn were insulted by this, as they felt they were brave, and their mere presence deterred enemies, making them worth the pay.

I rolled a negative reaction to the party from the guards, I interpreted this as them feeling that the party offering their services was a challenge to their competency. The animal handlers, however, were happy to see the party arrive, as this might make the guards look foolish or redundant.

The party was unknowingly stepping into a rivalry and being assigned to a side.

I also rolled to determine what goods the caravan was taking, half the beasts of burden carried three pairs of “sling baskets” across their backs, as well as one animal handler rider. The other half, the largest beasts, drew carts full of goods and had sling baskets, with one rider, and in emergencies both could take guards on their backs.

Finally, I determined a few random important things about NPCs in the group. I picked the caravan master and the warlock. The caravan master had a secret goal to his travels, to transport a very wealthy merchant who has a contract on his life to safe haven in a desert city. The merchant (an Emberi – human – named Evai Redda), is a level 2 mercenary (fighter) and is posing as one of the two 2nd level mounted guards. Gogluk does not want anyone to know about Evai, so he never speaks to him, even in private.

The caravan warlock, Mahl Unoss the Puissant, is delivering a rare Crystal ball with ESP in a chest that is pulled in a cart behind his giant lizard mount. Unoss and the caravan master know what is in the cart, the guards and animal handlers all gossip about it. One guard, Tivak Ruggle, a 0-level Chitin (insect-person) foot guard, has briefly glimpsed the crystal ball one night by chance when Unoss was checking on it. He has told no one, and puts out false rumors, he plans to tail Unoss when he leaves to deliver it and attack him by surprise to steal it.

Depending on how the party interacts with the group, all of this or none of it might come up in play. It’s NOT my job to make that happen, it happens if the party’s choices and the dice decide that it happens.

The Trip

With all that sorted, the party started out, the weather was clear, hot, and windy that first day. The caravan travels for 6 hours and breaks for 1 hour, travels for 6 hours and breaks for the night, watering and feeding the beasts of burden, and leaving the caravan guards time to do some hunting and water gathering. They bring food and water, but with a caravan of this size it never hurts to supplement.

Every game day the party tells me if they want to role play at all, or just roll for an encounter. Role play can consist of their characters eating, talking with the guards/animal handlers, gambling, hunting, talking to prominent NPCs (the caravan master), training, healing, etc.

The first day there were no encounters in the morning. In the afternoon the party had no encounters, but chose to interact with the guards, asking questions about the monsters they might encounter on the route. There were a few veterans in the group, and with some modest offers of payment for information, they were a few silver lighter but found out about wolves, ogres, and mountain lions on the route forward. They decided not to splash around too much coin but given that the guards were ill disposed towards them (unknown to the party) and thus reluctant to share (known to the party as they asked questions), some sort of payment was a good idea.

The evening of day 1 passed without event, as did the night when they camped. The party phantasmist (illusionist) entertained the guards with some recreations of the party’s past exploits in the evening of day 1. There was some good-natured banter between the adventurers and the animal handlers, and some positive encounter reaction rolls combined with the entertainment, led to a good impression. I add this to the existing modifiers and use the revised number to govern any reaction rolls in the future.

The next day the party continued West across the scrubs and plain, a beautiful clear day. As this was far from Bhakashal I used the wilderness tables in the back of the DMG, which are customized for the setting. In the morning they encountered nothing, in the afternoon the party Warlock struck up a conversation with the caravan Warlock, hoping to sus out what was in the crate. The encounter reaction rolls were poor to average, so the Warlock was not forthcoming, but there weren’t any hard feelings. They did agree to “split” any monster carcasses (for spell component harvesting) if either of them slayed one, that was an ask from the PC Warlock!

That evening they rolled an encounter with a pack of wolves. However, this is a large, armed caravan, so when I rolled an encounter reaction roll, the wolves decided to watch from a distance for a while then leave. This is an important part of random encounters in Bhakashal, they are ALWAYS accompanied by an appropriately modified encounter reaction roll, which can lead to potential foes fleeing instead of attacking. It’s never automatic. Sometimes the party will pursue the attack, but my players, after a few years of play in Bhakashal, don’t borrow trouble.

At night time I will roll for potential thievery. I rolled that one of the guards tried to break in to the cart that the caravan Warlock pulled along. A Magic Mouth went off and the culprit was easily captured. The Warlock demanded justice, the caravan master gave the guard a crossbow with three bolts and a sword and he was sent off into the wilderness on his own. The consensus was that he would be dead by the end of the day unless he was very lucky.

The night time passed without incident. I made a roll to see if anyone on the caravan would target one of the party for attention. One of the animal handlers decided he was interested in the party Warlock’s potential magic items and was “casing” him. I rolled to see if he tried to steal anything, but that came up negative.

Day 3, the weather is windy and raining heavy at the start of the day, a storm passing overhead. The caravan master ordered a push onwards, giant lizards with huge talons rarely slip and slide in the rain. All mounts had canopies on them (used for the extreme heat in Bhakashal, the party brought a supply of them on the ship with them planning to sell or trade them, they repurposed them here) to fend off the rain. The guards marched in turns, going on the backs of the lizards for periods to get respite from the rain. The caravan was also slowed, making their journey longer.

The morning saw our first encounter with a large group of pilgrims, mostly Togmu (frog folk), heading to the mountains for a ceremony in honor of the god of the wind, Uvir. Dressed in dark orange pantaloons and vests of sapphire blue, they hailed the caravan, exchanged pleasantries with the caravan master in the driving rain, and moved on. Togmu do not shelter against rain, they are frogs, so they were happy to chat! The party did not want to engage them or gather information from them, as they had with the guards.

Afternoon passed without RP or encounter.

Evening saw the weather clear up and cool off. The party joined some gambling between the animal handlers. They were positively disposed to them, so when a PC started a conversation, the NPC mentioned that they played cards. Caravaners would LOVE to have PCs gamble with them, adventurers are always loaded, LOL.

So they asked to play hold’ em. The kids had been playing it for a while after watching on Youtube, so we got out a deck of cards, three players wanted to play, two did not, the two that did not played hands for the caravaners, as did I. We played about four hands, the party members tended to stay in no matter what they had as they were flush, and were vocal and obnoxious about it, the reaction roll was not great, and the caravaners ended the game after the fourth hand, dispersing.

The night came and an encounter came with it! This time it was a group of Kutya (dog-people) hunters. They were travelling to the marshlands (the next stop on the caravan’s trail, they were taking a short cut through the marshlands as their giant lizards could handle it).

The party Slayer (ranger) interacted with the hunters for a bit, asked questions about the marshland threats, and he gave out a +1 dagger he had recently found to the hunters as a goodwill gift, as they would be in the area for a month or so before returning home.

The next morning it was cloudy and cool. They had arrived in the marshlands, and travel was slowed a bit. They rolled an afternoon encounter, this time with a giant bloodworm. Less intelligent foes like this aren’t as deterred by a large group, the bloodworm picked off a guard who was walking beside the caravan, and the other guards in the area attacked it with a combination of crossbow bolts then spears. They lost one guard to the encounter, but the bloodworm was easily routed. The caravan master asked the priest to preside over a funeral rite, and the corpse was cremated. No leaving the body for necromancers! I like it when NPCs get to be both vulnerable (shows the game world is deadly) and effective (shows that even low level NPCs can sometimes kick ass). The caravaners were also grateful for the priest’s rites, so that helped out the party’s rep.

That took up the rest of the afternoon. They decided to travel through the evening and stopped around midnight in a small forest in the marshlands where they found enough solid, dry ground for everyone. They added extra watches as they were in a forest, which is always concerning!

There was no nighttime encounter.

They headed out early, wanting to be out of the marshlands before sundown.

My after-school players run some custom Bhakashal classes, there is a Myrmidon in this group who is the first one to be run anywhere! A Myrmidon is a fighter/magic-user, or more precisely, a fighter/alchemist. They brew potions and have spells that allow them to alter, extend, magnify, and combine their effects, they focus on training their bodies and perfecting potions to give them magical power.

The party Myrmidon had brewed up a batch of potions before leaving on this adventure, several for trading purposes, and he sought out the caravan’s Warlock. After some chit-chat he asked outright about a trade, a potion for the Warlock in exchange for him casting a spell for him. He had seen the Warlock’s Magic Mouth spell work when the guard tried to open the cart he was towing. The Warlock was offered a potion of Fire Resistance, and a positive reaction roll led to him agreeing to cast the spell.

The Myrmidon had his backpack, where he stored his potions, covered with a Magic Mouth, which would sing a sweet, haunting melody whenever anyone except for the Myrmidon opened it. There were no encounters that day, and they made it out of the marshlands to camp in the hills that night.

The next morning it was dull and overcast, and fairly windy, hinting at rain. They headed out and I rolled an encounter in the morning, at 10 am.

A Roc.

No surprise was indicated, so the caravan saw the Roc before it was close, the guards took out crossbows, as did the mounted warriors. All of the party took out missile weapons, and the spell caster all lined up spells. The Roc has no distance weapon, so all of the crossbows, bows and spells got to fire off before it arrived. There were a lot of misses, a few hits, and of the three spells cast, two did damage.

But a Roc is an 18HD creature, so it was not stopped.

The game however, ended at that point, this week we will pick up and the Roc gets it’s turn!

I don’t see how anyone would find this to be a “waste of time”, a constrained environment like a caravan, that moves through the game world, is a vibrant, dynamic experience. The party has forged friendships and created enmities in the caravan, they have gathered information, exchanged items and had a few good fights along the way. Next week will be a corker for sure, as the Roc tries to snatch one of the giant lizards for food.


The presence of a group of NPCs provides a background for regular social RP, something that really makes the game world come alive. It will take a number of sessions to get to their destination, and I’m looking forward to them all.

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