Living a life in modern times with all the niceties that come with our standard of living, we quickly forget how vital water can be on a longer travel. This due to our speed of travel and how readily available water is to us.
With modern means, traveling from one city to another is a matter of a few hours (or a few more for those of us living in less densely populated areas) and water is readily available for us. Everybody can go and by a soda or a bottle of mineral water and there is an abundance of it. If you play modern role playing games, water hardly become an issue during travel. Even if water is scarce in a given region, you are likely to have access to vehicles that will carry you from one center of population (or, from one base of operation) to another, and water will be there. Just because water is needed there.
If you are in a less-modern fantasy setting or in a post-apocalyptic setting or if a cast of scifi characters ends up in the wilds unprepared.. well, things become different. What I am not going to write about here is how to find water. There are already enough survival-articles about that in the internet. What I want to write about is how the need to acquire waters can be included into the narration of a prolonged travel, and how it can be used to prepare and design encounters. Therefore, the following points need to be highlighted, and all the time is it assumed that the characters are not traveling with an vehicle that provides them with a large storage capacity.
Water: weight vs availability
As a rule of thumb, you will die by thirst before you die by hunger if neither water nor food is available. The only thing our body needs more than water in order to function is air. To carry enough food to get along for three days might be equivalent to a pouch or backpack filled with three to five pounds in rations (depending on what kind of food is available). To carry enough water for three days might as well be thrice the weight or more, as you are going to need about a gallon of water per day (again, depending on the surrounding). Thereby, taking along often goes by a “as much as needed, as few as possible” doctrine.
If water is readily available in the surrounding, a traveler or travel group will rather plan their march so that they rest at a place that allows them to top of their supplies of water. In most fantasy or even some historic fiction games, this means nothing more complicated than having a rest at the next stream or river and fill up the water skins while doing so. In case of a standing body of water every one who was not raised with a golden spoon will cook the water or perhaps even filter it through a
piece of cloth before, but that´s about it.
If water is scarce, more water might be taken along but the water that is available will be rationed. The GM should not feel bad about imposing imposing a minor penalty on dice rolls if a character has lived on cut water rations for more than a day, the body weakens if not given what it needs.
How can that be put to use in roleplaying?
to set the scene
Narrating how water is taken up and the need for rationing is weighed is at the start of a travel is good way to transport a piece of the world-picture into the heads of the player. It helps to remind them that their characters are part of a world that is not only about encountering monsters and slaying them. If a need for rationing is narrated, the players will become a feel about travel being serious business, even without any encounters along the way. In turn, they might urged to play out the relive of their characters once they are back in a village, town, city or similar civilized area and able to drink freely (and might even go straight to the tavern after everything is set and done, just to wet their throats with some good ale). Especially if the narration of the last days of travel included lips that started to
To make things difficult
Imagine a water skin being punctured, torn or lost early in travel as an result of an encounter. Or a source of water that was counted upon turns to be either dried out or polluted (the growth of poisonous plants, an animal cadaver or an abundance of animal feces through a careless herder or an animal swarm that migrated into the area). Suddenly, rationing becomes necessary. Imagine the same for a travel through dry environments where water is not readily available to begin with. The players will actively ask for chance to find some water instead of just stating to be on the watch for attacker of any kind. Even if none such things happen, playing out a bit of exhaustion at the last day of a journey makes the arrival all the more satisfying… and obstacles that would usually have been easy now
become a challenge, and players need to be challenged in order to be satisfied.
To prepare encounters
If an encounter is not meant to jump the players, the players need a motivation for their characters to seek out the encounter or the encounter area. Every natural source of water is a natural focal point of wildlife activity, even more so when the environment is a dry one. Herbivores and predators alike can be met there by chance and characters could meet shy creatures (natural or mythical) that would otherwise never crossed their path. If the area is not completely void of human settlements, the characters could ask at a farm or small hamlet or monastery to use the well.. and while such is usually not denied to travelers it for sure makes a chance for some role playing or the introduction of an NPC or further plot hooks: if travelers are not seen with superstition and distrust (a well being poisoned was a much
feared deed for a reason), they will be met with curiosity at last.