HI all, long-time first-time. Unless they're in a dungeon, I struggle with giving your players enough encounters to fill the requirements of an "adventuring day". I know I'm not taxing my players enough and they're taking most encounters at full strength, but I simply find it too difficult to narratively justify throwing fight after fight at my players if they're not already in that dungeon environment.
I've always been told encounters include social, exploration stuff, traps and environmental hazards too, but I've found so little structure and so little resource expenditure in these so far. Therefore, after playing Uncharted 4 and watching Nathan Drake navigate handholds giving way and bridges collapsing, I decided to treat environmental hazards like monsters in themselves. After a bit of tweaking, I've come up with the following guidelines for creating these "natural monsters".
Natural Hazard encounter guidelines
- Have an order. Whether the party decides their marching order or you roll initiative, this gets everyone into an encounter headspace.
- Establish the hazard’s “HP” and the win conditions. We’re often told HP is just an abstraction, and it’s never been more true than looking at environmental encounters. Environmental hazards come in two different kinds: single pool, which requires all the characters to complete the hazard together, or multiple pools, which requires each individual character to complete it alone.
- Have the hazard make an attack. On the hazard’s turn, it makes an “attack” which requires saves from multiple characters dealing a relevant damage type. I tend not to use instant death (you might feel differently) so I abstract HP further here: if it's a cliff above a river of lava, I use a failed save to mean the characters might fall a certain number of feet before grabbing a last handhold. HP damage is dealt by the shock to their body, the effort made to cling on, and the heat of the lava below as it spits at their feet. At my table, only repetitive failures lead to certain death.
- Have the hazard use a reaction. Have a trigger in mind which might provoke a reaction from the hazard, which usually acts as a smaller version or variation on its main attack.
- Establish a consequence. What happens if the characters fail?
I've provided two examples of these encounters below:
Single pool example: The sinking ship.
The Wind’s Fancy is sinking in a storm: there are holes in the boat’s bottom, and the water has already filled the galleys! The captain and crew are fretting as they hand out buckets, but unless someone repairs the hull, everyone (including you) is doomed to be lost at sea.
- Roll initiative! This tells everyone we’re out of “narrative mode” and officially in time sensitive “encounter mode”.
- The water has 100 “HP” and regenerates back to 100 with every round. By shoring up the holes in the bottom of the boat, the water monster no longer regenerates, and the characters and crew are able to “damage” it by bailing it out. This is great if you have a character with a swim speed, who gets to feel useful, or a creature with the Mending spell.
While some characters work to shore up the holes, a character with a bucket can use one attack to automatically deal 1d10+str “damage” to the water. There’s no use trying to codify every wacky alternative method of getting rid of the water (e.g. trying to evaporate it with fire spells, using Control Water, etc), but you can abstract it on the fly into an equivalent Number of Buckets.
- At initiative count 20, a great wave rocks the boat. Everyone makes a DC15 strength saving throw or takes 4d10 bludgeoning damage as you’re thrown arse over tail into the other side of the boat, frantically trying to reorientate yourself as water fills your lungs.
- If a creature goes to shore up the hole on the far left, the water will use its reaction to create a current of forceful water, shoving the creature up to 20 feet away from the hole in a straight line.
- After five rounds, the boat hangs dangerously low in the water, and will have to stop off at the nearest island for repairs. After 10 rounds, the boat sinks altogether, meaning the characters wash up on some island shaped like a skull, inhabited by a tribe of cannibal goblins.
Multiple pool example: The windy cliff
To gain the trust of the chief of the sky-elves, the party must retrieve the egg of a roc. The problem is getting to the nest: it’s up on a high cliff-face, and the wind stings their faces on approach.
- With less urgency, the party can decide their own marching order.
- The cliff is 150 feet up, so it has 150 “HP”. The handholds are climbable, but the party (or at least those without a climb or fly speed) must make the climb at half speed, so they deal 30 “damage” per round if using move and dash. No checks are needed to climb normally, but athletics checks can (and should) be called for at dramatic moments. More on this later.
- At initiative count 20, a gust of wind rocks the climbers. Everyone should make a DC15 strength saving throw to hang on grimly on the side of the cliff-face: those that fail fall 50 feet before grabbing a ledge just in time, taking 5d6 bludgeoning damage as their arms are wrenched in their sockets. Mountaineer rangers and characters with a climb speed should have advantage on these saving throws.
Only if they fall unconscious should characters begin to truly plummet downwards, making no effort to catch themselves. In this case, an individual within 10 or 15 feet might be able to use their reaction to make an athletics check to catch them, suffering 2d6 bludgeoning damage as part of the effort.
- If a creature passes a certain threshold (let’s say 75 feet up) the cliff uses a reaction to have the handhold give way, causing the creature to plummet 50 feet on a failed dexterity saving throw.
- The consequence here is simple: if they fail or turn back, the characters do not make the ascent, and fail to get the roc egg in this way. If a character manages to climb 150 feet, they "kill" the cliff.
And there you have it! It's obviously playtest content in its early stages, so if you have any suggestions, or want to try it at your tables, please feel free to start that discourse below.
- Falling Rules
- Homebrew Let’s workshop a new player condition: “Precarious”
- Magic items for lvl 6 party
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "How to treat natural hazards like monster encounters, or “Why is a boat like a dragon?”" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
- The Tale of the Canon Cannon
- A 4th Type of Encounter: Introducing the Terrain Encounter, combing Skill Challenges, Combat, Chases
- How to scare the bejeezus out of the party with Polymorph / Shapechange
- Don’t focus on doing accents for your characters, focus on doing VOICES
- My older brother (a 35 year old, fully grown man) is both combative with other players AND passive during gameplay. The other PCs are becoming combative toward him in turn. Can’t boot him from the game because I live with him and one of the other players. The situation sucks and I need help.
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