When players think of foes to defeat, they usually think goblins, trolls, vampires, and dragons; Each more deadly than the last. But what most players don’t know, and what many DMs seem to have forgotten, is that adventure rarely takes place in temperate climes with perfect weather. Often, adventure calls the party to stinking swamps, blazing deserts, frigid tundra, or storm-tossed oceans. And here is where the players will be tested by the ultimate opponent; the environment. Knowing how to handle the environment, and its effects, can make the stakes for your game that much higher, and that much more immersive.
Weather and its perils are briefly covered in the DMG on pages 109 to 111 and list general guidelines for survival checks in these areas; how to deal with heat, how to forage, and so on are sketched in for the DM to use, or not. Usually, most DMs don’t bother with such things, instead focusing on the “one overland encounter per day” tradition, but they definitely should consider a change in their habits. Depending upon your adventure, the environment – weather, its perils, and related challenges – could be the greatest obstacle to the party, mostly because it is unexpected. Most gamers, especially experienced ones, know that an empty room is sure to have a peril and thus are usually on guard. There’s even a tendency to meta-game; John rolled a “2” on his Perception check so Sarah suddenly pipes up “I’m going to look around too” because they know that John duffed his roll and they know something is up with this room. They’re ready for all manner of mousetraps waiting for their toes in the dark and so prepare for dungeon-delving as any professional would. But few players ever think about the environment; a wide-open plain is just that, a wide-open plain. No need to percieve anything or to lore it or to history-check it. It’s just a plain, stupid. Sure, “Survival” is a skill on the sheet, but how often is it called upon? Almost never, really. Many savvy players, when forced to choose between Survival and some other skill will usually choose the other skill.
And that’s where you can surprise them. No matter how prepared a group of people are for their task ahead, it is nearly impossible to prepare for every situation they could come across, and players know that; they prioritize the most likely acute threats to their success, stock up on protective agents, healing spells, and ammunition. Thus the environment is often left at the bottom of the worry list, much to their peril. For example, the classic party probably has one or two heavily-armored characters (fighters, paladins, clerics, and such) who don their armor every single say, just in case goblins attack while headed to the dungeon. Why? Because trying to “tank” without armor is just plain silly; it puts you at a disadvantage. Therefore, the fighters don their armor every day (and keep it on when on watch). They’ve done the meta-game calculus that it is highly likely that they will be attacked at some point, that those attacks will need to overcome an AC, and a high AC is the best chance to deflect those attacks. Armor is an all-positive precaution to take, thus it should ALWAYS be on. Some players will even insist that they sleep in their armor; something real medieval knights would never do because it is uncomfortable and you can get sores which fester if you leave it on too long. But I digress.
But what if they had to cross a vast, hot desert? That armor quickly turns from an asset to a liability as heat builds up and scorches the unprepared player; a DC5 in the first hour (disadvantage for heavy or medium armor) that climbs by 1 every hour exposed to the sun. Now the players have a choice to make; do they stop and maybe risk the desert at night (where humans, Dragonborn, and Halflings are disadvantaged) or press on and risk the tanks/healers suffering the effects of exhaustion (pages 181, 185, and 291 PHB). The players must now think not about how much damage they can do, but what ways they can overcome this foe; an opponent who has no AC, no saving throws, and no hit points but nonetheless will kill the party if ignored. Not only does this make largely-ignored skill checks more important, but it also makes the players think about their mission as something more than “go to the dungeon, kill everything, take the loot, repeat.” They have to take into consideration that the overland journey is causing hardship for their characters and they have to take care of them; there is glory in dying to defeat a demon, but none for the idiot who forgot to bring water to the Anauroch desert.
Some environs also work for the monsters deliberately; a dragon’s influence slowly seeps into the region around its lair and should provide adequate challenge – sometimes absolute peril – to adventurers who would dare violate those lands. Ettercaps, undead, and other creatures who make places their lair will all add increased peril to the adventurers’ travels as well. Don’t forget that adventurers are plentiful in Faerun, as are the ways in which they can meet their ends. There’s a reason the region is unpopulated, dangerous, or both.
When players prepare for an adventure, be sure to inform them of the known (or rumored) environments they will have to traverse in order to reach their destination. Give them the chance to prepare for extreme heat or cold, strong winds, heavy rains, storms, and even high altitude whenever feasible. But if the players make the mistake of underestimating the need for proper preparation, don’t forget that you are the DM and as much as you’d like them to succeed, you’re also the world in which they live. A world that can be unforgiving to the foolish, the reckless, and the unprepared.
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