Running the World-Machine: Dangerous Terrain

Why does the enemy always have to be some creature with pointy bits coming at your throat?  In this installment of Running the World-Machine, I discuss environmental challenges in RPGs.

(Ed note — Sorry this one is late!  Other projects got a little away from this week.)

One thing that seems endemic to most RPG tables is the concept that the main source of conflict should be combat.  While this is certainly a valid way to run your game, there are a lot of other challenges you can present your players with, including social and environmental ones.  Today I want to talk specifically about dangerous terrain in RPGs, something I’ve seen too often ignored.

Dangerous terrain is one of the fixtures of fiction.  From the dangerous mountain passes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the collapsing cities of Conan’s adventures, to the deadly vacuum of space in hundreds of science fiction stories, a hazardous environment can be just as threatening as a horde of angry orcs or a well-trained mercenary unit hot on your tail.  That’s why it’s so sad to see them ignored in so many games.  While the types of dangerous terrain you can throw at your players are near limitless, there are a few things to keep in mind when designing these challenges.

First, never make it so one roll is all that’s required through the terrain.  Requiring multiple rolls and different points ratchets up the tension of doing something like, say, climbing a mountain, because a single a successful roll doesn’t mean you’ve made it all the way through.  Reducing a challenge to the single initial roll robs it of tension, making it just another skill check to be ignored.  Spreading out the rolls and having them derive from a variety of skills gives the players more chances for complications to occur.  In addition, with multiple skills being brought into the picture, it’s more likely that multiple players will be able to help the group succeed.  For example, you could have one player roll Climb (in a d20 system) to forge ahead of the party, anchoring down ropes for them to follow up on.  Then, later, a Navigation roll can be required to help the party find the true path up the cliff, saving them valuable time and resources and possibly leading them away from danger.

Another important idea to keep in mind is that a single failed roll should not spell failure for the party.  It’s not fun if someone whiffs their Climb check and you say: “Well, I guess you guys can’t get over the mountain after all! So much for this quest!”  Instead, have failed checks lead to complications.  Maybe failing a climb check causes the player character to slide down the slope into a subterranean cave network, slick with algae and water from the underground river.  This presents them with a new approach to the objective (getting through the mountain, in this case), and lets them know that failure will not spell the end of their quest.  You can make the consequences for failure felt in other ways.  The cave network could take more time to traverse than climbing over, or maybe there’s less food available so that rations begin to run low partway through.  Obviously it’s impractical to do this for every single roll of the challenge, but even just providing an alternate path could help.  Maybe they can’t climb straight up the side of the cliff face, but a daring and acrobatic rogue could hop among the ledges nearby like a mountain goat to reach the top of the cliff and send a rope down to the rest of the party.  This spread responsibility for traversing the terrain among the party members, and the alternate routes with alternate requirements (e.g. Climb vs. Acrobatics) give variety to the challenge that might otherwise be lacking.

Also be sure to not let any of these rolls be “Succeed or Die!”  Players won’t enjoy these challenges if they are so constantly concerned about the risk to their characters that they’d rather not take on the challenge at all.  Provide opportunities for them to save themselves and each other in the case of a failed check.  To harp on the climbing example again, say that one party member slips off the rock wall and begins to fall.  Be sure to give that player a chance to try and grab a handhold to stop themselves, or give other players a chance to try and catch them as they fall past.  These rolls need not be easy, and can be far from guaranteed, but giving players the chance to try, and not just automatically fail, makes the game more satisfying as it gives them more agency to make up for their character’s mistakes (as represented by bad rolls).  Those moments where the very last saving grace is the wizard with 8 Strength trying to catch the 300-lb barbarian as he falls past also make for some great tension moments, for both players involved and the table as a whole.

Lastly remember that dangerous terrain need not only be caused by deadly falls or collapsing caves.  Long-term survival can be just as difficult and tension-filled.  Slowly running out of food and water in a barren desert or dealing with exhaustion in a magical realm where falling asleep means death can be just as threatening, and creates a low-level tension in the game more akin to horror than action.  It drives the players to try to find clever ways to move quickly through or bypass these areas, which can lead to new conflicts of their own and further complicate the story in interesting ways.

I realize these were but brief sketches of ideas for how to run dangerous terrain, but I hope they gave you some ideas.  Dangerous terrain is a favorite GMing technique of mine, as it breaks up the action and allows players to utilize little-used skills such as Climb, Swim, Acrobatics, and Survival.  And it breaks games out of the normal slog of combat-restock-combat, and provides a different kind of threat as compared to the traditional combat-heavy dungeon crawl.  I hope you find it fun and interesting too. Give it a shot, I’m sure you’ll like it!

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