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Natural Environments

As your adventurers traverse the world, they might be confronted with any number of environments. When designing your world, you might want to use environments as they appear in the real world, or you might want to modify the environments in some way. Maybe you emphasize the most extreme elements of an environment (forests with miles-tall trees, for example) or perhaps you introduce a small but significant twist to your ecosystem (such as a region where water flows uphill, or a temperate forest that inexplicably thrives in the middle of a desert). Interspersing mundane environments with fantastical ones can keep your adventurers deeply engaged in the world around them.

When describing an environment to your heroes, be sure to engage as many of their senses as possible. Don’t describe only what they see, but what they hear and smell, how the humid air might stick to their skin, and the general sense that the environment might evoke in them.


On the surface, waves may vary tremendously in height and intensity, from a gentle lapping to a devastating onslaught. Deep beneath the waves, enormous creatures lurk in the twilit depths. Whether on a freshwater lake or the open ocean, the aquatic environment can be quite unforgiving

Any large body of water can contain enormous aquatic life, and while some such life ignores the affairs of smaller creatures, there will invariably be some predators in any watery expanse. Krakens and sea serpents can devastate ocean vessels, devouring a ship’s crew or leaving them to the ultimate irony: dying of thirst in the middle of endless water.

Surface currents can send an inexperienced crew far off course, and in extreme cases deep water currents can cause whirlpools large enough to swallow ships whole. Furthermore, on the open ocean, there is no physical shelter from storms. Waves can tower scores of feet tall, wind can lash harsh enough to tear sailors from their rigging, and lightning strikes might split a ship’s mast asunder.


The taste of salt in the air, and the bitter aroma of rotting seaweed, and the shrill cries of gulls pervade coastal environments. Sandy beaches, rocky shoals, seaside cliffs, and colorful tidepools are coastal hallmarks.

A coastal environment may seem relatively safe at first glance, but this does not mean that danger doesn’t lurk. Rocky shores are subjected to ongoing erosion, which can lead to cliffs with unstable handholds or entire boulders that split off from their cliff faces to crush whatever lies beneath. Saltwater crocodiles and the like might lie waiting in coastal waters. Cannon crabs, stonesharks, and flocks of carnivorous seagulls might threaten a hero’s life as well.

The coast is directly exposed to the ocean, so tsunamis, hurricanes, and severe thunderstorms can be deadly to anyone trying to survive on or near a coastline. On small islands, a creature might find that they quickly run out of food, forcing them to look elsewhere to survive.


The searing sun bakes your skin and the stirring sand abrades it, the heat shimmers on the horizon as tantalizing facsimiles of water, and all around, the air is so dry that you can practically hear it. Sand stretches for endless miles, or rocky bluffs and scraggly brush offer a modicum of shelter against the elements.

Aside from the obvious threat of dehydration and overexposure to heat, the desert can provide a handful of additional threats. Seeking a shady area to rest from the relentless sun seems wise, but these areas are often sought out by dangerous wildlife such as snakes and scorpions. Especially in open sand deserts without much in the way of rocky outcrops, high winds can kick up severe sandstorms that are abrasive and blinding.


The chittering, chirping, and crooning of myriad wildlife dominates most forests, except perhaps during the hush of a cold winter. The ground feels spongy underfoot as many years worth of pine straw, decaying leaves, and mosses and fungi carpet the forest floor. The air is prickly with the scent of dirt and vegetable life, and the quiet explorer might spot larger wildlife, such as wolves, deer, moose, or bears.

If an adventurer knows what they’re doing, the forest can be one of the safest habitats to inhabit, but that is not to say it holds no dangers. Valleys and rivers can give way to flash floods during heavy rainfall. Poisonous berries, stinging nettles, and poison ivy are only a handful of flora that can pose a threat in the forest, and wolves, big cats, and bears might hunt a hero, especially a solitary one.


The breeze rustles through prairie grasses, clouds dot the endless blue sky above, and massive herds of grazing animals roam the gentle slopes while predators watch crouched among the grass. The grassland environment might be a lush, green prairie, the dry, golden savannah, or anything in between.

Like the forest, adventurers will generally find that the grassland holds fewer dangers than other environments. Wild canines and some species of big cats, like lions and cheetahs, dwell in some grasslands. With little in the way of shelter, natural phenomena can be especially punishing in the open grassland: thunderstorms in the spring and summer, wildfires in the fall, and blizzards in the winter all might pose a threat.


On the forest floor, the jungle is dark and dank, the light from the sun rarely reaching so far to the ground. Fungi, rodents, and snakes roam through the mirk. Climbing any of the enormous trees will reveal a colorful, vibrant ecosystem among the trees’ thickest branches. All manner of wildlife and brightly colored flora bloom along these wide boughs Still higher, macaws and tropical birds croon from the forest’s canopy, soaring high above the denizens of the jungle’s floor.

Jungles can be incredibly dangerous environments. Many jungles have monsoon seasons with heavy rainfall that causes the forest floor to become entirely flooded, pushing land-dwelling creatures onto hills that become islands for the season, or into the lower branches of the jungle’s enormous trees. Big cats, crocodiles, enormous snakes, angry apes, and predatory birds all pose a threat to an adventurer, along with poisonous fruits and toxic fungi. Some plants are even carnivorous, luring unsuspecting animals near with a sweet smell before devouring them.


Tall, rocky foothills give way to soaring mountains that pierce the clouds. The stony earth is hard underfoot and the air burns your lungs with each breath. A gorgeous view by day and night comes with chill gusts that buffet these tremendous heights.

Mountains often blend with other environments. In a temperate climate, a large mountain might roughly share characteristics with a grassland or forest for several miles, giving way to a more arctic environment at its peak. Desert canyons and badlands can share many properties with mountains, though creatures that pick their way along a canyon will not suffer the dangers associated with a lack of air due to elevation.

Mountainous areas have the obvious risk of falling from great cliff faces. A traveler would also need to keep on the lookout for rockslides and avalanches, and heroes at particularly high elevations will experience shortness of breath due to the thinner atmosphere.


You plunge into darkness so black that you can hear it, the taste of minerals coats your tongue, and the plinks of dripping water echo all around you. Somewhere, a creature flutters its wings and chitters in its strange way.

Caves can contain many wonders and ancient artifacts, but they are also perilous environments. Spelunkers constantly contend with the risk of cave-ins, and they must proceed carefully lest they fall down unseen holes. Flooding and lava flows can also pose threats to cavern explorers. Sometimes, the air itself might be toxic, and adventurers that carelessly venture into tight spaces run the risk of asphyxiating themselves, especially if they use fire-based torches, which consume oxygen.


Swamps are steamy and humid expanses of scummy water, interrupted by small, shallow islands of dense overgrowth. Teeming with small creatures, buzzing insects, and larger aquatic reptiles, swamps can offer an abundance of natural resources, and an abundance of threats.

Swamps are home to vicious predators like alligators, constrictor snakes, and flesh-eating fish. Swamp waters are usually murky, making it hard to see how deep the water is below you. This offers excellent cover for those predators, and also conceals the shallow rocks that might damage or strand your boat. Swamps are usually quite humid and are often breeding grounds for disease-ridden mosquitoes and other insects carrying potentially deadly infection. Some berries and nuts found in swamps might have great healing properties, while others are toxic. Quicksand and muskeg can also drown an unsuspecting adventurer who thinks that they are safely on solid ground.


The bitter cold seeps into your very bones, the hairs inside your nose freeze and bristle, and each breath in your lungs is like a cold knife. The air somehow looks sharp and crystalline, and vapor puffs from every exhaled breath. A forlorn kind of sigh seems to blanket the hushed white snow. Occasional copses of boreal trees dot the rolling white hills, offering possible respite from the elements.

Tundras hold the implicit threat of death by freezing, but more dramatic dangers dwell within these snow-choked lands as well. In the spring and summer, thin ice might break underneath you and trap you in a watery grave. In the fall and winter, blizzards threaten to completely disorient you if not freeze or bury you outright.

Glaciers can have huge crevasses and boulder-sized chunks of ice might split off from a glacier’s face. Hilly and mountainous tundras also pose the risk of avalanches. Some predatory animals, such as lynxes and ferocious polar bears, make tundras their hunting grounds.


The acrid smell of heat and minerals drowns out all other senses. A dry sweat breaks on your skin as you near a volcano or its lava flows. Smoke and particulate matter make every breath taste chalky. Despite the extreme danger of an active volcano, volcanic soil can be incredibly beneficial to the nearby environment.

Lava is so hot that it can cause creatures to burst into flame even before they come into direct contact with it. Once a creature has touched lava, it is almost certainly dead. Even if one steers well clear of lava flows, volcanic environments also pose atmospheric danger. Air thick with sulfur and silicate particles can cause permanent damage to a creature’s lungs.

Points of Interest

Break up the monotony of a journey by sprinkling points of interest (POIs) into your wilderness. These might be ancient ruins, a strange natural formation, or the result of magical activity such as a terrain-altering ritual. Consider how relevant to the adventure a POI might be, or whether it is simply a small detour that has little bearing on the overall story. If the latter, design your POI so that it will not take more than half a session for your heroes to explore it, so that they can continue to focus on the primary adventure. If a POI does have more campaign relevance, this can be a great time to foreshadow some of the significant milestones that you anticipate for your campaign. If the villains plan to summon a fiend or use powerful ancient magic, maybe the heroes find an ancient ruin with pictograms depicting the destruction caused by such entities or magics.

Travel Pace

When a party travels through a wilderness environment, you may choose to track how far they progress each day. If this is not the focus of the campaign, or you only want to pay attention to POIs that your adventurers find, it is fine to ignore these rules. But if you are running a survival intensive game or the time that it takes to travel between two points is highly relevant to the plot, then these rules will help you determine the consequences of traveling at various paces.

The type of terrain or environment that your party is navigating might also affect their travel pace. The miles on the table below assume relatively straightforward travel conditions: little to no precipitation on flat, firm ground or shallow hills, such as those you would find in a grassland or a scrubby desert.

Travel Pace Table

Travel Pace Miles/Hour Description
Normal 2 A ssteady pace of travel, balancing speed and endurance.
Forced March 3 Pushing beyond normal Limits to cover more ground quickly.
Cautious 1.5 Moving slowly and carefully, prioritizing steal and safty.
Encumbered 1 Traveling while carring a heavy load or burden without a wagon or beasts of burden.

Forced March: Make a dc 6 END check, adding Forced March if you have it. The check increases by 2 for each extra hour of travel. If you fail the check, gain 1 Fatigue.

Cautious Travel: Gain a +2 Bonus on all AWR checks.

Encumbered: If you have more Unwieldly items then can be carried per character, and no wagon or pack animal, you travel more slowly.