Rules Workshop: The Trek

Hello community,

I am a long time gamer and GM (28 years and counting) who has mostly been creating his own stories for his gaming groups. Right now I am working on the next episode for the game I am running for my players, and I am looking for ideas on how to bring it to the table in the most dramatic and enjoyable fashion. The proposition of our narrative is as follows:

The Trek

The adventurers have been asked by Lady Alvine, Castellan of Winterwatch Keep, to escort a trek of civilians from the keep to the walled city of Greendale, 150 miles away, as her rangers are bringing in reports of a humanoid horde marching south from the Stormpillar Mountains that is at least twice as big as the one that has sacked the fortress two decades ago with little difficulty. Winter is holding the northern provinces in its merciless grip and Lady Alvine cannot spare much when it comes to supplies or beasts of burden. Therefore, the outlook for the refugees is pretty grim – and the heroes are in for some hard decisions as they desperately attempt to keep their fosterlings alive.

As the trek slowly travels through the frozen frontier, the characters will have to deal with challenges such as dangerous weather conditions, scarcity of nourishment, outbreaks of disease, ravenous monsters, and last but not least the tension and despair that is growing among the refugees as they remain exposed to this extreme situation.

As if this wouldn’t be bad enough already, another member of the infernal cult of the Ironclad Gauntlet is doing his very own to foster and grow the aforementioned tension, hoping to fuel the fire of wrath so much that it will all erupt into glorious carnage in the end.

In this adventure, we are not going to tell a heroic tale. If the adventurers do really well, they will be able to keep the casualties reasonably low, yet they will not be able to save everybody. The situation is so dire, in fact, that it should be considered an achievement if half of refugees reach Greendale alive.

The game is a D&D 5E game (which is fine and not a matter of discussion), so obviously I do not have any tools at the ready that would help me tell this story. I therefore hope to start a fruitful discussion here on how to come up with a lightweight engine to propel the grim narrative outlined in the proposition above.

I was thinking about using PbtA style countdown clocks for categories like tension, despair and exhaustion, triggering events as the clocks are advanced, but that is only a very rough idea right now and I am having difficulty on how to actually implement this.

I also really like the proposition and think that independently of my current D&D game, it could be turned into an interesting and dramatic one-shot with tailored rules.

I am looking forward to reading your thoughts on this idea!



Consider looking at The One Ring’s Journey mechanics, which, I think, made it across into the 5e version ‘Adventures in Middle Earth’. How well was departure managed and the impact that has on the trek? How does it impact on events on the journey? How well does the journey go? What are the likely obstacles? Which route do they take … Easiest terrain but closer to the horde OR off the beaten track to avoid horde but takes longer and risks supplies running out? One Ring abstracts the ‘danger’ of different areas (which could be hexes if you wanted that degree of detail?).

Also consider ‘World of Fate - Blood on the Trail’ (, for inspiration (where vampire pursuers = your horde, or insurgents hidden among the refugees who are sympathetic to the horde or it’s aims). It’s PWYW and, if I remember, gives factions among the wagon train characteristics. What are the factions among the refugees? Are they all serfs or a mixture if wealthy merchants, tradespeople etc? What are they which expecting from the journey and what complaints might they have that the PCs have to deal with? Each character has responsibility for managing an aspect if the caravan/journey: who is best suited to breaking trail, choosing the route, managing supplies, defending the wagons when push comes to shove etc. It gives every character some distinctive spotlight time in what is at risk of devolving into a series of random encounters … Which I think us what you are trying to avoid?

Also look at Band of Blades for inspiration … Might the PCs need to hang back from the caravan to set traps for, mislead, or confront scouts from the on-coming hoard, so they can buy time for the caravan? It’s mission based and that might give you some thoughts for ‘delaying/distracting’ missions while NPCs actually manage the refugees …

Finally …
A badly maintained wagon is slowing the caravan/falling behind … What do you do?
Scouts from the horde are seen on a ridge line behind the caravan … What do you do?
A family is accused of stealing supplies from those held in common … What do you do?
An old person is accused of bewitching the wagon of a rich merchant so the axle broke … What do you do?
‘Do you know who I am … This is intolerable …’ What do you do?
Some fearsome humanoids approach the caravan … They have heard about the Horde and fear it … Can they join the caravan? … What do you do?
There’s a steep descent/frozen lake ahead … Your animals and beasts of burden can cross/manage the climb but the wagons may be too heavy … You could dismantle them and take then across in pieces but it will cost you time OR you could take the risk that you can race them across/down and maybe only lose a few … Perhaps the least we’ll maintained ones or the ones carrying mist personal wealth … What do the owners say? IR you could abandon the heaviest wagons and make them walk … What do you do?
Do tell us how it goes @Talwyn.

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Is the Ironclad Gauntlet part of the humanoid horde or a seperate group? if the latter is there a chance to permanently or temporarily get them against each other ? (either by bribery, treachery or favor swapping)

Do the heroes have any non-evil necromancers than can use the fallen refugees as skeletons against the hordes? (desperate times call for desperate measures etc)

Are there any known leaders of the horde that the heroes could challenge/kidnap/deceive in order to disrupt or delay the Horde? This gives the pcs a chance to be sneaky/creative etc. Likewise the horde might be bringing food with them and the pcs could raid the enemies caravans to get food for the refugees.

As for starvation, you have 3 boxes, mark a box if they lose people or supplies, clear a box if the heroes have a victory against some of the horde. If 3 boxes are marked, 10% of the refugees starve/are too weak. If no change for 2 days, another 10% gone. Grim stuff but that’s war.


Thank you for your suggestions, I will try to get a peek of the material you mentioned! I believe I bought a lot of PDFs for the One Ring from Bundle of Holding a while ago, just need to delve into the pile of shame.

I also appreciate the ideas for events that can occur during the journey. I need to build a list of those, so I can throw things at my players.


First of all, thank you for your suggestions regarding the starvation mechanics. They are sufficiently simple and very consequential which is exactly what I need for reasons explained below.

To answer your questions:

The Ironclad Gauntlet actually is an infernal cult whose leader managed to unite the warring tribes of the Stormpillar Mountains and turn them into a savage invasion army. Technically, they are a separate group, yet I would consider the cult leader’s sway on the horde so strong that pitting the tribes and cultists against each other is not an option at this point. This is mainly for narrative reasons as the entire adventure is supposed to set the tone for things to come: The invasion is just the first portent of the actual apocalypse that is about to happen (which is what the campaign is about).

I will throw the adventurers into similar situations, until they realize that while they can win a battle or two, the war, however, has already been lost (which happened a thousand years ago, when the God of Light, Truth and the Sun allowed himself to be tempted into a game of chance with the Overlord of Hell). Once they have understood this, the campaign will be ripe for the final confrontation of Heaven and Hell - and the PCs will have to save as many souls as they can.