Making Man vs. Nature work in RPGs; or, nobody ever dies of scurvy in Dungeons and Dragons

Percy Fawcett went into the Amazon one last time, but he didn't come back.

In the last few months, I’ve read two riveting books about humanity’s drive to survive (and thus “conquer”) the most inhospitable environments on the planet. First up was The Lost City of Z, a historical account of the explorer Percy Fawcett‘s expeditions into the Amazon. The second was Dan Simmon’s The Terror, a fictionalized (complete with supernatural elements) account of the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage.

I thoroughly enjoyed both books, different as they are, and found myself utterly engrossed in the almost impossibly difficult struggles to survive in environments where man was clearly not meant to tread. In both cases, the natural environment is so inimical to human life that it is perceived by the survivors/victims as possessing an active, malevolent desire to destroy them.

It makes for gripping reading. But being a gamer, it also made me wonder why Man vs. Nature struggles, so compelling to read as narratives, are so rare in roleplaying games.

My instinctive reaction to a typical Man vs. Nature conflict as a roleplaying episode is that it would be rather boring, although I’m not immediately sure why that is. There is nothing about game rules that would stop you from putting together a survival scenario like the ones described in the two books above. Consider the roleplaying actions a sea-based arctic survival scenario would involve:

  • Successfully navigate your ship through icy waters and avoid getting lost or trapped in the ice.

  • Send expeditions out to hunt for food, often hunting dangerous animals (think polar bears).
  • Avoid scurvy and disease.
  • Keep party morale up and put down mutinees as needed.
  • Jury-rig shelter and equipment to stay alive.
  • Repair continual damage inflicted on your ship by the environment.
  • Avoid going mad yourself.

Trust me, getting eaten by a troll is a much better fate than scurvy.

Each of those could be broken down into discrete, accomplishable roleplaying activities; most games have skills and rule systems that would accomodate these activities. So why don’t more games feature environmental survival as the core challenge? Why doesn’t that sound more fun?

In most RPGs I’ve played, weather, environmental danger, and survival are abstracted into a few modifiers or die rolls done on the side—and usually just to find out if you’ll suffer any combat penalties from starvation or snowy terrain. Or else the challenge of survival is represented by a handful of “environmental challenges” that you overcome once and then get on with the scenario’s other, more interesting challenges. The handful of games I’ve played that featured straight environmental challenges (like the iceberg-scaling in “The Trail of Tsathoggua” for Call of Cthulhu) were actually kind of boring. The players rolled dice, occasionally took damage or suffered a penalty when they failed a roll, and then we got on with more interesting stuff. There was neither much tension in the challenge nor a meaningful sense of accomplishment upon overcoming it.

Have you ever run a game that featured explicit environmental challenges that really worked? Have you ever made the challenge of simply surviving something that was as tense and entertaining as an epic battle or other more traditional roleplaying challenge? How did you do it?

Note: for a related discussion, see Justin Achilli’s thoughts on the concept of exploration in games. I think a big part of a successful exploration-based game would be getting the “survival” part down solid, since part of the historical allure of exploration is the challenge of surviving in the strange new environment you’re exploring. And I think it’s telling that genuine exploration and environmental survival aren’t prominent in most published RPGs.

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3 Comments

  1. Aaron says:

    In one of Charlie’s 4e sessions (that you were sadly gone for!) he ran an entire encounter that was exclusively putting out fires in a town, and it was definitely action-packed.

    When I GM’d my own homebrew d6 D&D back in the day, I once ran an encounter where the party was scaling an arctic ice shelf, and it was pretty sweet. Maybe because they had to make skill checks for like every single foothold or handhold they climbed, so it made it MUCH more intense and edge-of-the-seat-suspenseful.

  2. Andy says:

    Hey Aaron! It doesn’t surprise me that Charlie pulled it off–he’s an excellent GM 🙂 And wow, a roll for every handhold… I can see how that would be tense.

    So what did Charlie do to make the putting-out-fires scenario work so well, besides just generally being an excellent GM? How did he keep it from turning into “OK, you rolled a 16 and put out another fire. Rinse, repeat….”

  3. Aaron says:

    It wasn’t exactly EVERY handhold, but I basically made them make one check every “move” action they took, and it took like 5 or 6 move actions per player to scale the face, so it was definitely intense — only to be met at the top by a gigantic polar bear! 😉

    Charlie used a battlemap, and he used translucent fire-elemental minis to represent various patches of fire going on in the town. (A meteor had just crashed, causing the flames.) So, we had to run around putting out the fires, but the fires were (1) constantly spreading, (2) trapping or hurting townsfolk, (3) damaging PCs, etc. So, it made the encounter more dynamic, since the fires were not static, waiting to be put out. You should ask him about it =).

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