Into the Unknown

Even without monsters, the world is full of challenges. Exploring jungles, deserts, land near the North/South Poles can be trying even for the most prepared parties. Reading about the early explorers of Antarctica and how they fared is a great example. There are even TV shows dedicated to people trying to survive in the wilderness. In gaming, though, we tend to not stop there — our adventurers try to survive underwater or in caverns for extended periods of time. Because of this, game settings have done their best to demonstrate how to incorporate the environment as a challenge to add to the setting. Exploring a forgotten tomb or city long thought lost to the sands of desert, or racing across the Arctic polar regions before deep winter sets in can be an exhilarating experience if done right.

Explorer Grayscale SnowIn the early basic D&D days, there was the module B4: The Lost City set in a desert. However, in Basic Edition, the modules didn’t really start to explore the environment as part of the adventure until the Expert Set came out. In First Edition D&D, the epic arc from Village of Hommlet led to the Temple of Elemental Evil, which lead to the Scourge of the Slave Lords, Against the Giants, then into the Underdark against the Drow, and ultimately taking on Lolth herself in Queen of the Demonweb Pits. If you ran the whole arc, it was an epic 15 module length campaign. In it, you faced being in a dungeon with no gear on an island that had a volcano erupting, experiencing northern weather as you dealt with Frost Giants, trekked into the Underdark to deal with the then unknown enemy of the Drow, and lastly had to deal with traveling to the Abyss to deal with Lolth herself.

At the time, players (such as myself at the time) had no idea what dealing with the Underdark or the Abyss were like. The modules presented getting there as part of the challenge, but GMs running it had to be careful or the players wouldn’t make it to their destination. Let’s face it, being in a hostile environment and running into Mind Flayers for the first time can end many a party if it isn’t done right.

The question becomes what is the right balance of environmental challenge within the overall adventure? If you do too much of it, the players can lose momentum as they spend lots of effort to survive getting there. Do too little of it and marching through the desert doesn’t seem all that hard. The trick is to make players deal just enough with it that they recognize how much it impacts all their normal chores, without having to check every day to see how it is going.

I have found that balance to be real tricky in games I’ve run, so I’m curious to hear your ideas on how to best make it work. What tricks do you use to make the environment a challenge but not overwhelm the story you are trying to tell with the players?

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