Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Thala pushed back with all her might against the gnoll berserker, but the gnome rogue might as well have thrown herself against a wall made of dragons. She would end up in the bottom of the magic-tinged purple river behind her. The mage was unsure of the spells within the water, but the resident monsters were trying to push her and her companions into it, so a bath would probably not be pleasant. “Whatever it is, it’s better than being devoured by gnolls,” she thought as she  fell backwards into the icy embrace.

Yet as soon as Thala submerged, she began to rocket back out of the water and beyond into the air. She could fly! The dripping wet gnome giggled. The stupid gnoll had just given her a huge advantage by pushing her into the magic river. “Hey everyone!” she cried to her embattled friends as she knocked an arrow twenty feet in the air. “Take a dip and get some wings like me!”

Hagus would not be outdone by his little friend. The elf fighter grinned as he dove head first into the water… and promptly turned into a pig.

I love traps and hazards that have the chance of bestowing a benefit to players. You can get great, surprising moments like the one above, and you get to watch your players ask themselves if the risk is worth the reward. They can even use such environmental effects as a last-ditch effort to try to save their hides. “We’re going to die! Our only shot is to push that gnoll berserker into the river and pray he turns into a pig. Let’s hope he doesn’t get the power of flight instead!”

The earlier examples involve a stream that can make a person fly or polymorphs them into a pig at random, but there’s tons of fun examples out there. In this post I’d like to discuss the types of risk/reward environmental effects I use most often and provide some examples. Hopefully it’ll spawn some ideas for you to use in your own games and give you some crunchy pieces to steal. These environmental effects are both naughty and nice!

Save to Win!

One of the simplest ways to create a risk/reward environmental effect is to assign a save DC to its effects. If a save is successful, the character gets a boon. If the save is a failure, the character is harmed in some way.

The characters enter a room with a fountain statue of a vampire spewing blood in 10-foot-radius blood pool. Any other creature that drinks from, enters, or starts its turn in the blood pool must succeed on a DC 17 Constitution saving throw. Creatures who fail gain one level of exhaustion. Creatures who succeed gain 20 temporary hit points.

You can even assign levels of success and failure to an effect. Maybe if a creature fails the save by 5 or more, they suffer two levels of exhaustion and if they exceed the save DC by 5 or more they get an extra 20 temporary hit points.

These types of hazards are perfect for a simple, binary result, but be aware this is an easier system to game. In the example above characters with high Constitution scores may decide a little dip is worth the risk while others may avoid it once you call for that particular save.

If you want to see you players struggle with the choice like, “Should I bathe in that blood fountain?” make sure the risk is worth the reward. 20 temporary hit points are a big reward, but a level of exhaustion is just as, if not more crippling. If the 20 temporary hit points were put against instant death, the characters might be shocked to see the first PC die, but the rest will have a very easy choice in front of them and choose not to bathe. That’s fine if you play in a game where the risk of random, instant death is enjoyed by the players and aren’t looking for them to struggle with whether or not they should try the hazard for themselves.

Get Random!

Who doesn’t love a good random table? You can assign a random effect for a hazard, make some naughty, some nice and then let the dice decide. For harmful effects, you may still want to assign a save, so a characters isn’t automatically turned petrified for rolling around in magic mud that gave a companion the benefit of stoneskin spell.

The characters enter a room with an altar to a goddess of chaos. Creatures who touch the altar are subject to an effect randomly chosen on the Chaos Altar Effects table. Once a creature interacts with the altar, it cannot be subject to another effect from the altar for 24 hours.

The stone altar has AC 17, 27 hit points, and is immune to poison and psychic damage. If the altar is destroyed, any effects it created immediately end.

Chaos Altar Effects

d6 Effect
1 The creature must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw. On a failure it is blinded for 4 hours. On a success it is deafened for 4 hours.
2 The creature must make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw. On a failure it suffers a random form of long-term madness. On a success it suffers a random form of short-term madness.
3 The creature must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw as a bolt of lightning flies out of the altar toward it. On a failure it takes 28 (8d6) lightning damage. On a success it takes only half damage.
4 The creature can see invisible creatures and objects for 4 hours.
5 The creature gains a burrow speed of 20 feet for 1 hour. If the creature already has a burrow speed, it is increased by 20 feet for the same duration.
6 The creature gains the benefit of the stoneskin spell for 1 hour.

In the specific case of this altar, you might decide that appeasing the chaos goddess is more likely to give a person a better result. In that case you could add: Creatures who pray to the goddess before touching the altar are given two different effects at random and pick one effect.

Just like with a binary effect, balance is important here if you want the players to struggle with the choice of interacting with the hazard but you have a more ways to achieve that balance. First you can simply have tempting rewards that seem worthy of the risks, just like you would with a binary choice.

Another option is to increase the number of variables, making it impossible for players to determine what they’ll get through trial and error. Don’t feel like you need to put 100 options on a table. Charts with 10 or more options achieve this with flying colors for most groups.

The final option would be to have a table with more instances of one type of consequence with less impactful effects and less of the other type with more impactful effects. Sure four out of six of the options are bad, but the other two are really tempting, or vice versa.


Maybe there can be too much of a good thing. Certain effects can punish players for their greed. The first taste of meal can be delicious and healing, but beyond that first bite, there are consequences.

The characters enter come across a 20-foot radius lake as they make their way through the Nine Hells. The first time a creature drinks from the water in the pool as an action, it regains 15 hit points. Devils receive the same effect on subsequent drinks from the pool. Other creatures that take subsequent drinks from the pool must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw. Creatures who fail take 22 (4d10) poison damage and are poisoned for 1 hour. Creatures who succeed take half damage and are not poisoned.

This type of hazard should be used sparingly since it will seem like an unfair trick to some players. Make sure there’s some clue that there could be harmful effects from whatever it is the characters are near. The example above takes place in the Nine Hells, which should be enough of a warning sign in itself to not drink the water. If you’re characters aren’t in the Nine Hells, a dead body, a mind-controlled (or out-of-control) creature, or a petrified creature nearby is a good way to give characters a warning of what’s to come. They just have to pick up on it!


A hazard could have magic effects that only benefit or harm certain races, classes, alignments, etc. Maybe the wizard who crafted a potion of invulnerability really hates sorcerers, so for that class it functions as a potion of poison. Maybe a dragon created a special incense that when inhaled enhances breath weapon of dragon and dragonborn, but rapidly ages any other creature.

The characters come across a closet-sized room in an orc stronghold that has walls covered in Orc runes that spell out prayers to Gruumsh. A creature that is not an elf that enters and reads the prayers aloud gains a +5 bonus to melee weapon damage rolls for 1 hour. An elf who does this make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw, taking 22 (4d10) damage and becoming blinded for 1 hour on a failure, or taking only half damage on a success.

You could also make this effect much narrower if you say only orcs and half-orcs get the beneficial effects and everyone else is subject to the terrible effect. Again, use these sparingly, and make sure you change-up which characters get punished when you do use such a method.

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Straight-up theft. I confess. That’s what I did, people. I stole an idea right out of the Scales of War adventure, “The Last Breath of Tiamat,” in Dungeon Magazine #175 by David Noonan.

You see, since 2008, I’ve DMed two Fourth Edition parties from level 1 to level 30. That’s huge. We did it twice in six years. You know how many things you could accomplish if you did them for three hours once a week for six years? You could learn a new craft or musical instrument. Bake a whole bunch of pies. Take your significant other out on many fun dates. Watch many different TV series on Netflix. Play through all of Skyrim. Get buff at the gym. You get the idea.

Anyway, that’s not to say you should do something other than create a totally unique story with your friends. That’s the best way to spend time, in my opinion. However, at the end of all things, when Orcus the Demon Lord of the Undead’s corpse lies crispy and headless upon the ground or when you’ve saved all of Eberron from rakshasa princes planning the return of Bel Shalor, you want to feel like your character’s actions and story are lasting. You want a legacy.

So I stole. And I have no bad feelings about it. Never feel bad about stealing a great idea, folks. It saves you time and it’s a form of flattery. Game designers have been stealing from each other since chess and checkers. I assume you’re reading this blog because you want to steal from me. Do it. Please. It would honestly make my day.

Anyway, for my purposes, I stole a cool idea that happened at the end of the Scales of War adventure path, which was a series of Fourth Edition adventures designed to take PCs from level 1 to 30. The final adventure’s last words were options for the impact Scales of War could have on your next campaign world. Here’s the option I stole.

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So I had an other-worldly entity invite my players to throw objects into the Well of Heroes. I did it twice, actually, once for each campaign. Both times, stuff got chucked and fun was had. It was a great way to make the PCs legacy feel like they had an impact that wasn’t going to fade away once the campaign was done. Or so I thought…


Some of you are already shaking your heads. I know, I know. David Noonan even says, “This option breaks the fourth wall a bit.” Now I have a 12 items, some from the Nentir Vale campaign setting and others from an Eberron game, that I need to work into a story and I don’t want it to feel forced or cheesy. Will it cheapen the world I’m building to have the players find objects that tie into other heroes from worlds unknown? How would their new characters know the history of the old characters in-game? Will their new characters even need the same kind of equipment? What about the avenger who dropped her holy symbol of The Silver Flame down the Well, how can I justify that in a world without The Silver Flame? Oh yeah, and one player who was in both campaigns went abstract with it. In the Nentir Vale campaign he played a star pact warlock and whispered the true name of his star down the Well. In the Eberron game, he cried a single tear into the Well for his lost love. Really cool at the time, but… what am I supposed to do with that now?

I was in a rough spot. If I didn’t have the objects show up, it would cheapen our previous games and those PCs would lose a piece of their legacy. If I did include them in the new world, they run the risk of cheapening that game. Also, to make matters worse, I recently recorded a podcast with a few of my players. We were talking about connecting the material plane cosmologies of different D&D worlds. For instance, Forgotten Realms’ material plane would have a portal to Eberron’s material plane and visa versa. For the most part they all thought that material planes should stay away from each other. They didn’t want to travel from Eberron to Forgotten Realms to the Nentir Vale or anywhere else. They thought that approached hurt the integrity of both worlds. It’s a safe bet that seeing pieces of their old PCs’ gear show up in my new homebrew world would be equally off-putting.

Thanks, buddy!

During my recent brainstorm with Andrew, he threw another idea out there. What if the objects from the Well of Heroes landed in this new world when it was just beginning to form? Rather than remain objects, they were absorbed into and morphed the world around them. Andrew, like David Noonan, had his idea straight-up thieved by me. Well, he offered it. I just took him up on that.

To me, this seemed more acceptable, and frankly, way cooler. The items didn’t land in a pile at the end of a Well of Heroes. They traveled through the Well into the place where worlds are made and influenced what happened there. The old items aren’t shoehorned into the new world. They’re a living, breathing part of the world that have been there from the start.

For instance, a lightning staff thrown down the Well of Heroes by a dragon magic sorcerer becomes a perpetual storm of arcane lightning that defends a nest blue dragons. Here’s a list of what my players threw down the Well of Heroes and a musings on what each might be.

  1. Staff of Ruinous Lightning – a perpetual storm of arcane lightning that defends a nest blue dragons.
  2. Ritual scroll of Raise Dead – an altar within a cavern that can restore life to any remains placed on it as per the true resurrection spell. Once it is used the altar disappears and reforms somewhere deeper in the dangerous cavern.
  3. Healer’s Brooch – a special hot spring where a character may bathe once per day and receive the effects of the heal spell.
  4. Staff of Time – a tree with purple fruit, when consumed, gives the creature an extra action once per turn for a minute. During the duration of this effect, the character is also considered intoxicated.
  5. Shield of Barrier Sentinels – becomes a grove of oak trees that prevents creatures from attacking each other unless they make a DC 20 wisdom saving throw. Once one creature saves it can attack others and others may attack it.
  6. Holy Symbol of The Silver Flame – a small mountain from which a precious silver can be mined that is particularly devastating to lycanthropes.
  7. Magic twin bastard swords – enormous, twin cacti that grow needles which can be turned into magic arrows.
  8. Armor of The Silver Flame – a swamp under a perpetual Protection from Evil effect.
  9. Dawn Warrior Dagger – a canyon where fire, lightning, cold, and acid have no effect.
  10. A portal gun – An Underdark cavern with a portal that may teleport six creatures anywhere they’ve been with a DC 20 Intelligence check. An unsuccessful check results in random teleportation.
  11. A single tear, shed for lost love – a waterfall that when gazed into will reveal an individual’s romantic future.
  12. The true name of a star – thousands of diamonds line a canyon deep within the ocean floor. When thrown these diamonds explode with starlight on impact, doing radiant damage.

Just some thoughts, but I’d love to hear what you think these things could be. Leave me a comment. And hey, if you’re liking the blog, please share it, follow me on Twitter, or check out my podcast on The Tome Show.