Sometimes hitting things takes a back seat. Exploration is far more than just travel or filler between encounters, or a way for Narrator and adventurers to use their skills and develop creative problem solving—it is the inclusion of the world as a character that is dynamic and influential. More than a pretty backdrop, the environment can be a significant element in storytelling and exploration makes it an eminent part of the game.
Every player can relate to the weather in their hometown and we all feel sympathy for those who are beset by inclement weather in places around the world. Narrators can use relatable conditions to enhance roleplay, making a group feel a greater sense of realism and investment in the setting.
While surprises can be exciting, they might also feel like punishment. Instead the Narrator should use the environment to leave clues for adventurers, placing obstacles and challenges in the setting as needed for the campaign. For example, dark clouds on the horizon might presage torrential rain, high winds, and lightning strikes. Rapidly dropping temperatures are a warning of coming snowfall, frostbite, and freezing rain.
Using unique locations to have confrontations and explore the setting can leave an indelible mark on a campaign—a boring conflict changes if the location is dynamic. A bell tower, cliffside nest, cloud city, massive foundry, frozen lake, or expanse of black sand all make for strange locations, especially if battle begins and the environment has significant effects on the combat.
When the adventurers and enemies clash, the environment can create a new goal, a focal point in which damage dealing isn’t the best course of action. Another swing of a sword or blast of eldritch energy may not be the best choice if the chamber is flooding, a ceiling is collapsing, or a wall of water sweeps over the docks.
Many groups fall into the trap of ‘analysis paralysis’, overthinking and underacting, but the dangers posed by the environment can escalate to force adventurers into action! For example, flooding, mudslides, snowstorms, and hurricanes could all be mitigated if the PCs push forward. Angry mobs, gathering patrols, burning buildings, and collapsing structures are also escalating dangers the party may want to escape. Even classic dungeon traps like tilting floors, flooding chambers, and portals disgorging hungry beasts can build tension—if the party does not move, the environment might move them instead.
Use and Abuse the Environment
You want to knock an opponent over, but where? How about over a balcony, into a pool of acid, down a muddy hill, or sliding across that frozen lake. A character could kill a single ogre in one strike, while an ally could be more effective by causing a landslide that crushes a dozen ogres—and an enemy could do the same. Both the adversaries and the adventurers should take advantage of their surroundings.
Winning At Exploration
When the environment plays its full part as the third entity in the triangle of conflict, winning means more than dealing damage.
A to B. The adventurers must get across a dangerous region. Crossing a raging river, frozen lake, crumbling cliff, narrow rope bridge, or getting to high ground become just as important as dodging a foe’s blade. Fighting enemies may be involved but the goal is to get from origin to destination, not stay and fight.
Close the Gate. This is a catchall for sealing an entry, be that a door, magical portal, or an actual gate holding back a dire threat (for example monsters, flood waters, or gallons of slime). The solution might require brute force—moving a boulder, slamming a door shut, or sliding a giant stone cube—or a specific key such as reading a ritual, grasping magic rods, or disabling chanting cultists.
Survive. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking the hits. The environment can unleash brutal onslaughts upon both body and mind, offering no alternative but to hunker down and wait out the storm (literally or figuratively).
Win the Race. An enemy may want to get to a location before the adventurers and the game’s eminent challenge becomes rapidly crossing a region, avoiding delays, and getting to the goal first. Examples include getting onto a rising drawbridge, rolling beneath a lowering portcullis, catching a drifting boat leaving shore, the first to snatch a magic item, finding shelter from a storm, or reclaiming panicked mounts before they disappear into the wilderness.