Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Learning from Boardgames - Tokaido and Things to do on a Journey

My Friday night group recently started playing Ryuutama, which got me thinking about the kinds of things you can do on a long journey. Which, in turn, got me thinking about the boardgame Tokaido.

The Tokaido game is named after a feudal-era Tokaido road between Kytoto and Edo. (Hiroshige also made a series of woodblock prints about traveling along the Tokaido road.) 

In the game, you take on the role of a traveler walking the road by foot. Your goal is to have the most satisfying journey possible. When boardgamers review Tokaido, they usually talk about how it's unusually non-competitive; there's not all that much any player can do to interfere with another's vacation. But as a roleplayer, what sticks out to me is that Tokaido is like a resource that can be referenced for ideas for things that player characters can do on a journey, like the kind you take in Ryuutama.

So what is there to do on a journey?

Leaving Edo from the second printing of Hiroshiga's The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido

Stopping in a village - In the Tokaido game, stopping in a village is synonymous with shopping at the local marketplace. And visiting the bazaar to see the unique wares each town has to offer is certainly one possible joy of traveling. It's easy to imagine giving each village its own specialty ware - this town sells nice hats, that one makes excellent pottery, etc.

Collecting souvenirs - Collecting mementos of your travels is a pretty common practice. But beyond picking up postcards or guidebooks or miniatures of the local landmarks, Tokaido rewards you for collecting different kinds of souvenirs on your trip. You get the most points for collecting equal numbers of clothes, art objects, small gifts, and local food and drinks.

Old school D&D gives experience for acquiring gold, and some OSR referees award experience for spending it, either in addition or instead. If each souvenir acted like a minor magical item, most players would happily buy them up, even if there was no XP reward for the purchase.

Working on a farm - Several activities in Tokaido cost money, but almost the only way to get more of it is to stop in at a local farm beside the road and do chores.

The British travel show Race Across the World has opportunities for the contestants to earn extra spending money by helping out farmers, working in restaurants, assisting the staff at tourist attractions, and doing various kinds of cleaning, from buses and boats to horses and elephants.

In a game like D&D or Ryuutama, its easy to imagine a job board somewhere in town asking for help slaying various monsters, or retrieving small treasures from nearby dungeons. There could even be wanted posters offering bounties on specific criminal NPCs. In my Friday night game, Josh also hit on the rather clever idea of the locals taking advantage of the travelers' itinerant status, by posting jobs like delivering packages or retrieving purchases at various other stopping points along the way.

Admiring the view - The Tokaido game has several scenic overlooks where you can enjoy taking in what the game calls a "panorama".  Stopping at an observation point to admire the scenery is a pretty classic thing to do on any kind long journey, whether a hike or a cross-country drive. You get the most points from enjoying the same panorama from several different vantage points.

Besides just looking, you could photograph the view, or draw a sketch or make a painting. In turn, you could photo, sketch, or paint a plant or animal, or I suppose, collect biological specimens - picking berries, gathering flowers, and of course, going fishing. The other thing you could do, at a particularly lovely natural trailhead or outdoor garden, would be go on a hike-within-your-hike to take in the whole site.

Bathing in a hot spring - Stop by a natural hot spring and enjoy a relaxing bath. This one is kind of culturally specific. Some parts of the world have natural hot springs, or some other tradition of collective bathing; others don't.

What else might be equivalent to going to a bathhouse? The characteristics that seem relevant here are that it's recreational and communal, possibly a bit intimate. When I think of communal relaxation, personally, I think of something like a picnic, brunch, high tea, or happy hour. Something where the ceremony of eating is at least as important as the food consumed.

Visiting some other sort of spa might fulfill the requirements I laid out; something like going for massages, or manicures, or for makeovers. For that matter, something like trying on dresses for a wedding or costumes for a celebration could work too.

Thinking of spas also makes me think of swimming pools and gymnasiums. In turn, that brings to mind participating in some sort of local sporting event. This could be something that tests each individuals against all others (like a race), or a tournament of one-on-one contests (like tennis or dueling), or even a team sport  I can think of a dozen examples, and you probably can too. Participating in a festival, stage play, or religious ceremony could also fulfill a similar function.

Praying at a temple - Stopping in at a temple and making a cash donation is another way to earn points in Tokaido. Panoramas and hot springs are free, but temples cost money, just like souvenirs and meals. The difference here is that you get to decide how much to donate. When shopping, different goods have different prices, but you also might be able to buy the cheapest item and still have it help you most (or you could get unlucky, and have the thing you really need by the pricey one). Mealtimes are similar. But at the temple, how much you spend is entirely up to you, though obviously more is better.

It's not hard to imagine pretty direct equivalents. If religious services don't quite fit the mood of your countryside, you could substitute in tossing coins into fountains or wishing wells (perhaps with a very small chance of being rewarded for the donation?) Anything that costs money, and that calls on you to be more of an audience than a participant, could fulfill a similar role as well. Touring a museum or art gallery, watching a concert or play, attending a reading or recital, watching a sport instead of playing one, witnessing some natural phenomenon.

These are all opportunities to earn experience by spending money, and to watch some local color rather than taking part in it. These entertainments are likely to be briefer. Helping to throw a local festival could take up an entire session, simply watching a parade go by should probably be much quicker for the players.

Meeting locals and fellow travelers - To my mind, this is one of the most interesting possibilities of travel in an RPG. In Tokaido, choosing to have an "encounter" is a bit like choosing to receive the effect of one of the other sites at random. You might get a souvenir, a piece of the view, some cash, even just victory points added to your score. But in a game like D&D or Ryuutama, you could, you know, actually talk to the people you meet. Instead of just archetypes - traveling merchant, shinto priest, guide, noble, samurai - you could meet individual NPCs.

In Tokaido, you only have encounters along the road. In D&D or Ryuutama, traveling encounters are still possible, but you'd expect to have more of them in villages or at the inn. (In Tokaido, the only people you meet at the inn are the other players.) I think there could also be a useful distinction between meeting locals and meeting fellow travelers. Locals are, by definition, only going to show up at a single site, and if you want to see one of them again, you probably have to go back to that town. Fellow travelers are more unpredictable; you could meet them along the road or at any site you stop by. You never know quite when to expect them.

D&D has its rival adventuring parties, but fellow travelers are different - not so much wandering monsters as wandering allies. At their worst, they're more like annoyances or nuisances. If they're "rivals" it's more in the sense of them wanting to be better at traveling than you are. They want to get to the next town before you, or be the first ones to spot all the rare birds along the way, or show off their latest purchase that you didn't get. But most fellow travelers won't be rivals. Some will be friends, some will simply have some eccentricity that makes them interesting or memorable. Sometimes circumstances might force you to cooperate, or pool your resources, or spend time in close proximity, perhaps sharing stories to pass the time. Sometimes you'll simply be passing through at the same time.

Staying at an inn - In Tokaido, every player has to stop at every inn. In D&D or Ryuutama, it probably won't take much convincing for most players to want some time in a hotel after several nights of camping by the side of the road, especially if the hotel avoids any hazards, or permits a better quality of sleep or healing. Any kind of checkpoint or waystation, any place where tolls are collected or papers are presented could serve a similar function as well, albeit with a less friendly atmosphere. Tokaido rewards the player who arrives at the inn last, on top of the rewards that you probably accrue in the process of taking the slowest path and having the most stops along the way.

Eating a good meal - Whenever I think of Tokaido, I think of a vacation my grad school roommate once told me about, where she and her aunt planned to spend a couple weeks visiting different villages around her prefecture, trying out the local udon specialty. Apparently every village has its own traditional style, just a bit different from its neighbors.  

(Later, in a different grad program, I learned about the idea of folk culture, where some way of doing things started out the same or very similar within a region, but then the people who do that thing in each particular place start handing down minor changes to the original way, from teacher to student, generation after generation, so that the traditions of each place slowly drift apart, a process that reminds me a little of island biology.)

The idea of enjoying food from other places is pretty well accepted as one of the benefits of traveling. There are entire series about it on the Food Network, the Travel Channel, even NPR. Describing the unique flavor of the local cuisine is a simple but visceral way to make a place feel different and special. There might not be any mechanical benefit, within your game, to eating at a restaurant instead of by a campfire, but this is still an opportunity to communicate about what kind of people live in each place, what sort of hospitality they offer. And the emotional connections we all have to both food and the sharing of food means that a well-described meal really is its own reward.

Tokaido board game logo

Traveling in the Tokaido game is about following a road dotted with landmarks and deciding which ones to visit. With one exception, there is no hierarchy, and each landmark is as important as the next. This is in contrast to both D&D and Ryuutama, where towns and dungeons tend to be much more important than other sites you can pass alone the way.

I think this is because each landmark has precisely one purpose in Tokaido, while in D&D and Ryuutama, the "size" of each site is variable. We could think of size here as the number of rooms in a dungeon or major buildings in a town - or as the number of potential encounters to be had at each site. Either way, in both D&D and Ryuutama, players spend much more time at some locations than others. Some spots along the road will be like a single room to explore, or a single encounter with a monster or NPC, but others will be both larger and more time consuming. A small town or dungeon might involve far more rooms and encounters than all the singletons put together; a megadungeon or city might be larger than all the other sites of any size combined.

The closest anyone can come to interfering with another players' agenda in Tokaido is to stop at a spot they might like, forcing them to pass it by and go on to the next one, making them arrive at the inn a little faster. Inns in Tokaido are a bit like the various "safe havens" that appear in various roleplaying games, but they still have only a single purpose (enjoying a meal), rather than allowing a full range of downtime activities.

The result of each landmark having only one interaction is that this keeps you moving along the road. There's no temptation to stay at a single site, exploring all the possibilities it contains. Instead, each stop is brief, and the journey continues.

I'm not sure it's possible (or even desirable) to partition things quite so strictly in a roleplaying game, but I think it is worth trying to emulate the idea that there are many possible pleasures, each stop contains only a few of them, and greater fulfillment will come from continuing onward to further sites than from delving deeper into the offerings of a single location.


  1. I just got Ryuutama and I'm excited to get into it. Participating in local events seems like a really interesting avenue to explore because it also builds a connection with the locals if there game is not planned to be a linear journey. Maybe everyone stops at the restaurant, and maybe farm workers come and go, but only one person beat our champion discus throwers last year or flubbed the lines in our mummer's play.

    1. Good point! Probably every site or activity needs at least one NPC associated with it - shops need keepers, restaurants need chefs, festivals need organizers, for example.

      But beyond that, you need NPCs who might be connected to multiple activities - restaurants also need customers, festivals also need participants - but the same person could be both a regular at the fish restaurant, a judge of the annual fishing contest, and a landscape painter who hangs out by the shore of the lake.

      I suppose the same goes for the first people I mentioned. People who own stores and organize community events can have hobbies and side-jobs and the like.

      I feel like it helps make NPCs memorable if they have a strong thematic identity, rather than being really well-rounded realistic people, but I guess the same theme could still have them showing up at multiple sites.

  2. In Ryuutama, each town should have a specialty good. Coming up with what type of goods is a creative way to give each town some character.

    In the Ryuutama game I'm currently playing in (as opposed to the one I'm running) our travelers wound up spending three sessions on farm helping the blind old man that lived there--finding his lost tractor, fixing his well, repairing the roof, etc. It was satisfying.

    Hat damn, I really like Ryuutama.

    1. I forgot that was an official part of Ryuutama's worldbuilding advice, but it makes sense. Whatever specialty good forms the basis of the town's economy is likely to suggest a bunch of other information about the place - Pottery Town needs clay, Woodworking Town needs trees.

      And yeah, the success of games like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley suggests that "helping out on the farm" is a satisfying imaginary activity!

  3. This is an excellent comparison. Travel can make for a wonderful part of roleplaying games and Tokaido does a good job showing it.

    1. Thanks, Joe. I often gloss over travel and downtime. It's been somewhat pleasant to think about what sorts of opportunities exist there.

  4. This is really delifgtful as a style of play!

    1. It definitely feels a bit more lighthearted than my usual dungeon crawling!

  5. I typically do Indiana Jones dotted-line-across-the-map for travel when I DM because I've played so many tedious travel sequences.

    Using these Tokaido inspirations could definitely help make this more flavorful. I also love pulling mechanics and ideas from board games.

    1. I usually do something similar, because I usually just want to get them to the site of the dungeon so they can start delving.

      (And because, I guess, in my mind, the only thing to do in between Point A and Point B is fight something.)

      Thinking about non-combat stops along the way definitely makes slower travel sound more tempting.