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5E The right use of hazards

M.T. Black

Explorer
I define a hazard as an aspect of the environment or terrain that poses a threat to the party. Examples might include avalanches, cave-ins, boiling geysers and rooms full of poison gas.

I've got some questions around the best way to use hazards. Specifically:

* What is the "in game" purpose of hazards?
* How do you make hazards fun for the players?
* How does the use of dungeon hazards differ from wilderness hazards?
* What are 1 or 2 good examples of hazard encounters?

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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Most recently-created adventures that I've bought and played are focused on story and NPCs as the antagonists. In older adventures, I'm thinking 1e days, the dungeon was the antagonist. Monsters were kinda thrown in as one of many hazards you had to overcome. But many dungeon crawls had few monsters. The challenge was avoiding traps, solving puzzles, mapping so you didn't get lost, and navigating hazards (collapsed areas, unsound architecture, tough climbs and delves, etc.)

I think modern designers fail to take the opportunity to give their dungeons, cities, and wilderness areas more character. So much is focused on the denizens of the environments and the traps and protections they set.

Hazards can increase immersion and give variety to the challenges your adventurers face.

I think this is especially true for tier-one play. Monsters should be few and far between and should be a BIG EVENT when encountered. Build up the suspense with tough natural challenges. Scaling the cliff or lowering themselves into the sinkhole that revealed the cave system. Why are so many dungeons dry, with the exception of the occasional water trap or pool? Have the walls and floors slick with water and slimes. Maybe the party needs to scale a flow stone to get up to another cave complex (e.g., see this pic of a flow stone in Mystery Cave from here in Minnesota: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowstone#/media/File:MysteryCaveFlowstone.jpg)

Some other examples of hazards:

* crossing dangerously thin ice

* needing to get through (perhaps as part of an escape) a large area thick with thorny bushes

* quick sand

* trying to traverse a mangrove swamp without slipping and getting stuck in slippery root system

* crossing a salt swamp with deep, sticky mud

* quacking bog (decay under the the sphagnum moss creates layers of muck, falling through and getting stuck in it can be nearly impossible to escape—the good news is if your character dies there, his body can be preserved for centuries, for someone to resurrect ;-)

* while traversing difficult terrain—e.g. saltwater swamp/marsh—a character gets bit by a poisonous snake. If the party can't treat it on the spot, the character may not be able to get out in time before succumbing to poison

* avalanches

* cave-ins

* leeches, mosquitoes, chiggers and other creatures that are not combat encounters but can weaken party members with discomfort and disease.


Hazards will be hated by your players. But it can be a good hate or a bad hate. A bad hate is if it just slows down the game and can only be overcome by luck of the dice. Treat even natural hazards as puzzles. Make sure that you design your hazards so that a bad roll doesn't lead to the party being stuck. Reward smart thinking, preparation, and team work.

Some hazards can be used to prevent short and/or long rests without having to keep throwing combat encounters at the party.

Hazards can make combat more interesting. Make both the PCs and monsters fight around a hazard. Such hazards should be dangerous for the PCs, but should also allow creative players a way to use the hazard against the enemy. Use hazards to help PCs defeat monsters that would be deadly if taken head-on, but also have enemies of lower CR use hazards to make them a more serious threat to higher-level PCs.
 
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M.T. Black

Explorer
Thanks for such a comprehensive answer MN, that was great. I will refer back to this post in future, no doubt.

You wrote:

A bad hate is if it just slows down the game and can only be overcome by luck of the dice. Treat even natural hazards as puzzles. Make sure that you design your hazards so that a bad roll doesn't lead to the party being stuck.
Can you give me a more concrete example of this?
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I see hazards as being environmental challenges, which can grossly increase the lethality of any creatures capable of exploiting them. What is the use? They give environments character and make them more memorable.

Your players may not remember Generic Swamp #321, but they will sure as hell remember "that swamp with the flame spouts and quicksand and giant rats." Also, hazards can be clues to a place's origin (maybe the insane warlock built her tower here because she knew the razorvine and slippery ice - both detailed in the DMG - would prevent casual visitors from disturbing her volumes on apocalypse rituals). Or clues to a place's fate - maybe the old fortress was abandoned because it turns out that brown mold, which feeds off warmth, is hard to keep in check when you build your stronghold inside an active volcano.

Quicksand is a wilderness hazard in the DMG, and is a pretty nasty one at that. But it gets a lot nastier when a band of brigands (or goblins, or whatevers) sets up an ambush site near the quicksand pool; now, players have to deal not only with sinking into the ground, but doing so while under attack.

Similarly, a pool of frigid water (same page as quicksand) presents a multidimensional challenge for PCs, especially if it is deep (say, 100') and they need something at the bottom of it (say, the contents of a treasure chest). Add in white dragon wyrmlings, which are immune to cold and can swim, and you have a real problem. Obviously, bigger dragons mean even more trouble. It doesn't even need to be dragons; constructs and undead are immune to exhaustion, so a group of gargoyles or ghouls in a flooded chamber makes for a nightmarish encounter.

There was an EN5ider article a bit ago with new dungeon hazards, which included some different mosses that affected magic, made a surface incredibly slippery, created illusions of safety, or got people really high (I'm sorry, "euphoric"). Any of those combined with creatures either immune to the effects or able to exploit them can make any encounter far trickier.

How is it "fun" for players? I would argue that anything out of the ordinary becomes fun, unless it becomes a drag. Hazards add background and life to an area, and can reinforce the sense of danger and wonder in a new place. But requiring a Dexterity check every 10 feet to avoid quicksand or a flame spout or whatever becomes really tiresome really quickly. Maybe the PCs can notice a popping noise preceding each gout of flame? That way they can avoid being lit on fire but still have an adventure to reminisce about 30 years later.
 

guachi

Explorer
To me, hazards exist to allow players to engage in the exploration pillar of the game. Good hazards also encourage players to engage with each other as they form their plan to overcome the hazard rather than like combat where the interaction is mostly with the DM.

There's a section near the end of B10 Night's Dark Terror (which I'm currently running) as the players move into a narrow valley and have to traverse a windy path through the mountains. It's an introduction to the wilderness adventuring that was supposed to occur around level 4 in the old BECMI line. There are a series of 4-5 short encounters as the players deal with the hazards of an ancient and crumbling road way cut into a mountainside. It's not really dangerous, but the players got to do something other than combat for once. Also, as a DM, hazards area chance for the DM to relax for a few minutes as the players discuss amongst themselves what to do.
 
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Croesus

Adventurer
A couple hazards I used in a "Journey to the Center of the Earth" side-trek:

1. Descend a shaft deep into the earth. The party used rope and pitons, but were set upon by a horde of stirges part way down. They came up with multiple options, such as fighting the stirges while hanging onto the ropes (not a great option, but workable), readying actions to cut the ropes, then have the wizard cast feather fall and hope they reached the bottom in 1 minute (a really bad option, given how deep the shaft was), or the evoker wizard saying "heck with it" and casting fireball, excluding the party members (simplest option). There were other options, but those were the ones they thought of and it made the encounter a bit more memorable. It also used up some resources, which was important because...

2. After several encounters, they reached the ancient city with the McGuffin. A dense evil fog covered the area. The fog made it impossible to rest and recover (it caused terrible nightmares and hallucinations). The party had to choose whether to backtrack out of the fog, losing an entire day during which the bad guys might beat them to the McGuffin, or push forward with fewer resources. Neither choice would stop the mission. If the bad guys got the McGuffin first, then the party could still try to track them down or otherwise interfere with their plans. If they fought and lost, the bad guys would have just taunted them, grabbed the McGuffin, then left. If the party won the fight (which they did, barely), they get the McGuffin and get to taunt the bad guys.

Another one used in the same campaign: Lake of lava, bad guy performing ritual at the end of narrow stone path through the lava. Blocking the stone path were dozens of flaming skeletons. How do they get to the bad guy and stop the ritual in time? The wizard cast fly on the rogue, who flew over the skeletons. Another character cast water walk on everyone, which allowed a raging barbarian to run across the lava (taking half damage). Another barbarian found an unblocked path to the bad guy and raced through, taking multiple opportunity attacks. The rest of the party occupied the skeletons. Oh, and there was a red dragon swimming in the lava, popping up now and then to breathe on everyone. Great fun! ;)
 

the Jester

Legend
I define a hazard as an aspect of the environment or terrain that poses a threat to the party. Examples might include avalanches, cave-ins, boiling geysers and rooms full of poison gas.

I've got some questions around the best way to use hazards. Specifically:

* What is the "in game" purpose of hazards?
* How do you make hazards fun for the players?
* How does the use of dungeon hazards differ from wilderness hazards?
* What are 1 or 2 good examples of hazard encounters?

First, I'd like to point to 4e as an amazing source of examples of hazards, including cool mechanics for dealing with them. They're in a lot (most?) of 4e adventures, and work like traps, except that they aren't intentionally set to hurt people... they just do.

So to answer your questions:

1. The in game purpose of hazards (at least, to me) is twofold: first is to make encounters more interesting by adding an additional component to them. Second is to establish that the environment is a thing that isn't always safe for you, which is part of the worldbuilding element of D&D.

2. I find that most of my players enjoy hazard encounter/situations. They like that it's a challenge that they can't just stab (well, usually). I find that few players want the same situation to happen over and over again; most enjoy it when there's a catch or a trick to things. When they have to think their way through something instead of just rolling to hit and damage.

3. The nature of the hazards are different. Dungeon hazards might include green slime and cave ins, which you can't have under an open sky in sunlight. Conversely, outdoor hazards might include a lightning storm or wildfire that the pcs have to seek shelter from, which you can't have underground (usually, easily).

4. Some examples. Okay. Can't limit myself to one or two, sorry. Some of these could overlap between categories, too.

Dungeon hazards include green slime, yellow mold, brown mold, ear seekers, cave-ins, unsafe floors, water dangers (including flooding and areas you have to navigate through underwater), razor-sharp rocks, phycomids, poisonous or noxious gasses, acid or lava pools, giant spider webs, boiling-hot geysers of mud that may erupt at any moment, areas of extreme heat or cold, etc.

Wilderness hazards include finding food or water that is tainted or poisoned, lightning storms, wildfires, avalanches, flash floods, disease exposures (hi jungle fever), earthquakes, volcanoes, poison oak or ivy, magical plants that put you to sleep for a thousand years, slippery ascents alongside a waterfall, lack of food and water, spoilage of supplies, sandstorms, acid rain, the divine wrath of a deity that brings curses down on a whole landscape, etc.

Urban hazards include accidentally stepping on a spike, dagger, shard of broken glass, etc that works its way through your boot, getting your pockets picked (though this is arguable- you could easily call this a creature encounter instead), plague exposure, famine, fires in the city (arguably the very worst thing for a city in pre-modern times), a miasma caused by all the smoke from all the fires, alchemical run off (various potential effects), pot holes that make your wagon throw a wheel or your horse break its ankle, getting chamber pots thrown on you from a window above the street (more disease), etc.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Thanks for such a comprehensive answer MN, that was great. I will refer back to this post in future, no doubt.

You wrote:


Can you give me a more concrete example of this?

Example of bad hate would be when the party encounters hazard after hazard where they are just asked to make some dice rolls, maybe take some damage, and move one. Such hazards, if used too often, just slow down the game. They are not memorable. Even worse is a hazard that the party HAS to overcome to move on in the story, but then a mixture of the party not seeing the "solution" and/or having the dice-gods be against them, can't overcome the hazard. Now they are either stuck, get to "take 10" to overcome it (boring), or forced to keep trying until they get it (even more boring).


I think that the other posters gave many good examples of hazards and how to use them. I would just add that you should find a way to work them into the story. For example, the party hears that a couple of stone masons found a scroll case containing a map to some cavern that had instructions, warnings, and a key hidden in behind a false brick in a wall they were repairing in the village temple. Only one of the two returned, that other fell to his death in a crevice in the mountains. The now old man is willing to lead the party to where his partner fell.

Dungeons and ruins may have old structures that are no longer safe. Being forced to cross a rotting wooden bridge while being chased by enemies is more memorable than simply having to cross when not under such pressures.

Create "pick your hazard" situations. You are being chased along deep, strong rapids and you see that they end in a waterfall at a steep and high cliff. The waterfall ends in a large pool of water. You've never been here before. Do you risk a jump? You are not sure how deep it is. Do you try to cross the rapids and hope those in pursuit loose your trail or are at least slowed down as you continue along the cliff on the other side and look for a way down. Do you just try to scale the cliff? Risking getting shot at from above or having things dropped on you?

NOTE ON FLYING HAZARDS: once characters can fly, many outdoor hazards are are no longer a threat. But should there not also be airborne hazards? Down bursts, updrafts, microbursts, and wind shears should all be used to add some risk to character flight. ESPECIALLY magical flight. Birds may be built to not only survive, but to take advantage of some of these hazards. A magically flying PC or especially a magic carpet—well not so much. Airplanes are at risk of bird strikes, why not flying characters? Maybe your player flies up above a marsh during migration season. Combat below begins in earnest, causing HUGE flocks of birds to all take to the air at once. Hell, passenger pigeons, before we managed to kill them all, used to fly in flocks so large it would darken the sky. Locus swarms are a good air hazard. Heck, have fun, a huge flock of migrating monarch butterflies temporarily blind the flying creature. And you don't need a flock...look at some of the pictures of the damage that one bird has done to jet planes: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-truths/how-dangerous-is-a-bird-strike/ (imagine if that was a character's head).
 
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the Jester

Legend
First, let me just gush about how damn great the post I'm replying to is. MNblockhead really hits some very important things here that go beyond the surface of using hazards, but to encounter design as a whole.

Example of bad hate would be when the party encounters hazard after hazard that where they are just asked to make some dice rolls, maybe take some damage, and move one. Such hazards, if used too often, just slow down the game. They are not memorable. Even worse is a hazard that the party HAS to overcome to move on in the story, but then a mixture of the party not seeing the "solution" and/or having the dice-gods be against them, can't overcome the hazard.

Yes!! Even a not-hazard, but just obstacle, can really grind the game down in a similar fashion. The classic example is the secret door the pcs must find to finish the adventure, but don't. (Contrast this with the secret door that the pcs could find and would get cool stuff/lore/whatever from, but don't have to find, to finish the adventure.)

Create "pick your hazard" situations. You are being chased along deep, strong rapids and you see that they end in a waterfall at a steep and high cliff. The waterfall ends in a large pool of water. You've never been here before. Do you risk a jump? You are not sure how deep it is. Do you try to cross the rapids and hope those in pursuit loose your trail or are at least slowed down as you continue along the cliff on the other side and look for a way down. Do you just try to scale the cliff? Risking getting shot at from above or having things dropped on you?

The best hazards and traps have multiple solutions that allow characters with different sets of abilities to engage them. If the only way through a thing is to cast a specfiic spell, nobody without that spell can possibly succeed. If the thing has like ten approaches to it, from picking the lock to bending the bars to trying to swim the caustic moat, most everyone can work on it. And if you use a hazard in conjunction with other threats, your options only expand- there's a great pic in (IIRC) the 4e PH of a rogue frantically picking a lock on a wall shooting jets of fire while the pcs hold off the monsters... it's awesome, and really shows how different ability sets can work together. Another really, really good resource for this is the 3e book Dungeonscape; it's got a whole chapter on trap design, including "encounter traps" (basically the template for traps and hazards in 4e) that you can easily adapt into hazard design (also, if you're an Order of the Stick fan, Rich Burlew is one of the authors).

NOTE ON FLYING HAZARDS: once characters can fly, many outdoor hazards are are no longer a thread. But should there not also be airborne hazards? Down bursts, updrafts, microbursts, and wind shears should all be used to add some risk to character flight. ESPECIALLY magical flight. Birds, may be build to not only survive, but to take advantage of some of these hazards. A magically flying PC or especially a magic carpet—well not so much. Airplanes are at risk of bird strikes, why not flying characters? Maybe your player flys up above a marsh during migration season. Combat below begins in earnest causing HUGE flocks of birds to all take to the air at one. Hell, passenger pigeons, before we managed to kill them all, used to fly in flocks so large it would darken the sky. Locus swarms are a good air hazzard. Heck, have fun, a huge flock of migrating monarch butterflys temporarily blink the flying creature. Any you don't need a flock...look at some of the pictures of the damage that one bird has done to jet planes: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travel-truths/how-dangerous-is-a-bird-strike/ (imagine if that was a character's head).

Wow. I've never even thought about this, and I've totally worked on a high-altitude airborn ecology in my game. Next chance I get, I'm using some of this.
 


I see hazards as being environmental challenges, which can grossly increase the lethality of any creatures capable of exploiting them. What is the use? They give environments character and make them more memorable.

Your players may not remember Generic Swamp #321, but they will sure as hell remember "that swamp with the flame spouts and quicksand and giant rats."
Yes! Character. Realism or a synonym of that I can't think of now. But absolutely.

I mean, who hasn't seen the Princess Bride and doesn't remember the Fire Swamp?

...
I think modern designers fail to take the opportunity to give their dungeons, cities, and wilderness areas more character. So much is focused on the denizens of the environments and the traps and protections they set.

Hazards can increase immersion and give variety to the challenges your adventurers face.
Yes, again, great point. People complain about the grind of one combat after another. About being bored about another group of orc, etc. HAzards, as part of the world that adventurers live and explore in, give the opportunity to make memorable scenes and places.

First, let me just gush about how damn great the post I'm replying to is. MNblockhead really hits some very important things here that go beyond the surface of using hazards, but to encounter design as a whole.
Agreed, this is a post I've already subscribed to. And will be linking to as well. Excellent discussion all.

The best hazards and traps have multiple solutions that allow characters with different sets of abilities to engage them.
Yes, good point.

...
I've got some questions around the best way to use hazards. Specifically:

* What is the "in game" purpose of hazards?
* How do you make hazards fun for the players?
* How does the use of dungeon hazards differ from wilderness hazards?
* What are 1 or 2 good examples of hazard encounters?

1) Possibilities are many fold. To me, they are to add character and variety. Either to add flavor and interest to a location, or to make a combat encounter interesting.
2) Make them opportunities for role playing, not for dice rolling. They should engage the creative and problem solving abilities of the players themselves, and maybe even their real world knowledge. (But, they should not be real world intelligence tests! There are a hundred discussion and blogs about the problem with doing that, and one commonly found in old school modules.)
3) I just see them as different types of hazards, not a different purpose. I'll have to think on this.
4) An amazing assortment already given.
One example (from real world person experience);
Want to get to an island in the middle of a lake. The lake is softly frozen, difficult to take a boat to unless you break the ice (and you don't have a big boat, dangerously cold if you try to swim, but the ice is dangerously thin if you try to walk on it. Figure out how to get there :)
 

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