There are many ways we as gamemasters can challenge characters; bad guys have villainous plans, locations are full of traps and monsters, and things rarely go according to plan. However we often overlook more subtle and mundane methods of providing a challenge. In this article we’re going to look at a few circumstances that can make life tough on your adventurers, not only in interesting ways, but also in places they rarely expect to meet a challenge. Places and situations players tend to take for granted and think of as being safe and a little mundane. In the first part of this two-part series we’re going to take a look at things that can happen on the road, between adventures.
On the Road
Traveling can offer an entire host of difficulties for the heroes. Oftentimes we gloss over the trip between towns, or from the village to the dungeon, but an encounter on the road can really set the tone for the coming adventure. Here are a handful of ideas to make a road trip more challenging:
- Toll Bridge: A bridge spanning a deep canyon or a river to wide to swim across, can easily pose a challenge to the party when manned by toll collectors. The collectors might be agents of the king, members of the builders’ guild, acolytes of the goddess of travel, or even formidable monsters. A few coins might be easy enough to pay but what if the collectors demand something more exotic? Perhaps they want something like the hide of a dangerous beast or someone to escort a person or object to the next town. They might want the heroes to solve a riddle or help them defend the bridge from an approaching enemy.
- Forest Fire: Traveling through a burning forest is a huge challenge in and of itself, but don’t underestimate how difficult a journey is just travelling near a major forest fire. Smoke and ash can impact travel for dozens of miles downwind, fleeing wildlife can pose a serious threat, and whatever caused the fire could still be a challenge (dragon, wizard, angry god?).
- Troop Movement: The impact of an army on the move is substantial. Whether following in the wake of an army, meeting one headed your way, or crossing their path, heroes will find resources scarce and roads damaged. A traveling army can almost become a city on the move with all sorts of support services, blacksmiths, cooks, armorers etc. Any number of problems, difficulties, or even opportunities could present themselves with an army on the move. An important aspect to consider is whether the army is headed to war or returning from one. If they’re returning, were they victorious? The answer to that question could seriously impact the nature of the heroes’ interaction. Another aspect to consider is if any of the heroes support, or belong to one of the sides in the conflict.
- Severe Weather: Weather is an easily overlooked aspect of the campaign world; even when a GM remembers to mention it players often ignore it. I think that the tendency to disregard weather is one of the most common, and biggest breaks in realism that occurs. Weather affects us daily and has affected the very course of history more than once. On a journey you should focus on weather. Heavy fog impedes perception and can cause heroes to become lost. Severe rain not only slows travelers but flash floods could swell rivers (making them extremely dangerous), knock out bridges, and completely washout a road. Heavy snow can bring a party to a near standstill while also reducing visibility to zero. Don’t forget that any number of dangerous creatures might be completely unaffected by the weather (looking at you yeti!).
- Border Crossing: There are many reasons a realm might have a some sort of checkpoint or guard on their borders. A kingdom might be at war, taxing travelers, looking for contraband, or simply paranoid. Regardless of the reason heroes having to deal with guards or soldiers could cause delays or at the very least prevent the party from entering the nation discreetly. Never underestimate the difficulties the heroes can face just because a settlement or group is alerted to their pending arrival! Players rarely consider the effect of their enemies keeping tabs on them and acting accordingly.
- Pilgrims: Another great way to showcase your setting, pilgrims can be used to highlight any number of foreign religions or cultures. Pilgrims might be traveling to or from a sacred site, escaping persecution, or following in the footsteps of revered holy figure. Some may travel to gain enlightenment while others might be performing penitence. Followers of a benevolent deity may offer healing or useful information while those that follow a malevolent god could prove aggressive and hostile. Also, consider a group of pilgrims interpreting a meeting with the heroes as some sort of divine sign; who knows where that could lead?!
- Wildlife: Beyond simply random wilderness encounters with local critters, wildlife can create a variety of unique circumstances. A noticeable lack of wildlife might have ominous undertones or simply inconvenience travelers that rely on hunting for food. A mass seasonal migration could also be an issue, especially if the creatures in question are dangerous (wyverns flying south for the winter!). In addition, plentiful wildlife might also suggest plenty of creatures that use other animals for food or as a resource.
- Battlefield: The site of a major battle can not only offer some interesting challenges but also shed light on the history of the campaign setting as well. A battlefield could have discarded equipment laying about, unmarked graves, or even a mourners (see Pilgrims above). Dangerous military equipment could still liter the site not to mention threats of an arcane nature such as the undead or lingering spell effects. Perhaps the battlefield saw a divine event that still carries the blessing (or taint) of a deity. A battlefield is a great place to tie other elements of your campaign together as well. Maybe the paladin wields the magic sword once carried into battle there. Perhaps the wise wizard the heroes consulted fought there in his youth. Whether happening months ago or centuries, any number of things could be tied to some epic battle fought in the past.
For a different twist, you can use any of these for a return trip from an adventure. Having your players deal with a challenge after finishing an adventure can really put them in a difficult spot and one they may no longer be in a place to deal with effectively. You can also combine any of these for a different challenge. Perhaps an army of thousands is in the process of crossing the only bridge that spans the mighty river. The heroes could be held up for days waiting to cross!
When I GM I like to show the players aspects of the world that are not focused on the heroes, their actions, or the plot lines they interact with. I like to immerse them in the campaign setting’s history, cultures, and events without resorting to long-winded narrative. In essence, I like to show, not tell. The kinds of challenging circumstances I’ve talked about go along way to breathing life and realism into your campaign world and make for a setting your players aren’t soon to forget.
Next time we’ll take a look at circumstances that can challenge your players in the place they usually feel most comfortable, back in town. Until next time…