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Most RPGs leverage combat as a main source of mechanical conflict. From what I can tell, this tradition stems from RPG's heritage in tabletop war games, and to this day combat remains a staple of the RPG genre. The most salient example is probably Dungeons and Dragons, where character classes are almost entirely defined based on what they can do in a fight.

Many modern systems have introduced structured and engaging rules for social conflict, recognizing that role playing is a central element of RPGs and deserves mechanical support. The Duel of Wits system from Burning Wheel and pretty much the entire game of Hillfolk are good examples.

One aspect that has seen much less mechanical support is (environmental/wilderness) survival. Generally the rules for survival are condensed to the point of nearly being a non-mechanic. For example, in Mythras wilderness survival is essentially reduced to a set of timers based on a character's constitution.

What mechanics can be used to make the environment itself into a challenging (but not immediately deadly) adversary for the players? This question is asked in the context of the Mythras system (but not the Mythras setting), which is based on Basic Role Playing system.

For example, swapping out the Mythras inventory system for the one in Torchbearer would be a fairly straightforward change that could indirectly enhance the mechanics of survival by facilitating strategic resource planning for long journeys (e.g. is that crossbow a better use of a torso slot than a backpack full of rations?).

Please also feel free to suggest answers that do not port a mechanic from an existing system.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Rather than shopping for examples from all other game systems—which will surely see this question closed—, this question could be posed so that it asks for help doing this with your favorite specific system. (e.g. How can I make nature the antagonist in [RPG]?). \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 23 '18 at 19:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Heh, I wrote that to avoid getting the question closed as too broad, it would be ironic indeed if that line got it closed for a different reason. I like your idea, but I'm not sure what a good base system to build off would be... Maybe Mythras... \$\endgroup\$ – realityChemist Aug 23 '18 at 19:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking for systems that focus on environment-based survival challenges? Or are you looking for (possibly unofficial) ways to implement such challenges in a specific system? \$\endgroup\$ – MikeQ Aug 23 '18 at 19:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Saying "environmental/wilderness survival", what environment do you mean? What world/planet, what setting? Do any dangerous animals count? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 23 '18 at 19:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Ultimately I'm interested in mechanics. If people making up their own mechanics would be acceptable as not primarily opinion based, I'm fine with that. I have edited the question. If you still think it's unacceptable then vote to close. I've put about two and a half hours work into this question and would prefer not to make further edits. I'll just take it to reddit if it's deemed inappropriate for this site. \$\endgroup\$ – realityChemist Aug 23 '18 at 23:47
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As I am oft' to do; here is an article by The Angry GM on this subject. I am personally running a campaign at the moment entirely outdoors so far!

The Outdoors are a dungeon

Rather than sit there and think "how do I make this interesting" you may start by just designing a dungeon that is interesting to start with; then change all the scenery and how you describe it. You're now done.

I know it seems like it should be more difficult than that; but a game is basically defined as A Series of interesting decisions.

So what you need to do is structure each part of your journey not as Constitution checks and Fortitude Saves; but as a series of interesting decisions.

Just like you would build a chase scene, a series of combats, a trap-filled dungeon, or a series of encounters in town; you build the outdoors exactly the same and then change what the D20's are doing to what objects.

Example: You finally arrive at Mount Bad-Place. You look up to see a mix of sheer cliffs, steep climbing, and hazards a plenty.

"Let's do it."

You start ascending the mountain. Take a perception check.

"18"

You believe you could save a quarter-day's treck by going up a nearby cliff with various branches jutting out of it; or you could continue marching to your left up a thin trail.

"Let's save some time as we may suffer some setbacks later."

As you're climbing a branch catches your pack; you feel stuck

"I pull with all my might on my cliff holds"

Strength check

"22!"

You pull mightily but the branch does not give way. Instead a strap on your pack snaps and the other side falls into your elbow. You strain to hold your grip.

"I'll attempt to get the pack around my neck like a sling"

Let's do a dexterity check as you maneuver the pack while holding onto the cliff

"12..?"

You begin to lose your grip as you're fumbling with the pack; what do you do!?

"I let the bag slip off my arm and cling to the cliffside"

You steady yourself. Jane -> The bag is falling fast toward you

"I squish myself into the cliff-face!"

Reflex save!

"25!"

You not only would dodge it but see an opportunity to grab it; though fear it could pull you off the cliffside

........

You get the idea. That was a single encounter that I wrote off the top of my head that was a branch sticking out of some rocks. Several choices that could spell pain and despair for our party and a quick and memorable "encounter."

If you do a half-dozen encounters like that it'll feel like they spent a couple days traveling and that there was actual danger. Notice that by dropping their pack; there is a new choice:

  • Go back and get it?

and an interesting consequence of not only losing some gear; but losing some rations on a dusty dry mountain.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this perspective quite a bit! Do you find that you ever have trouble with things being too dangerous, though? I like to avoid "save or die" situations as a rule, but if you take a tumble from 200' up on a cliff it's hard to see thing ending any other way. Do you just give players multiple chances to roll their way out of potentially deadly situations? \$\endgroup\$ – realityChemist Aug 24 '18 at 2:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @realityChemist I would not likely add a Save-Or-Die situation unless the player really.. er.. "Earned" it? Maybe if it was the final step in avoiding a super-dangerous encounter? Otherwise I'd generally try and "minigame" it instead of playing directly by the rules. Similar to how you'd structure a Chase Scene or something; find a way to add tension and choices then; like a dungeon; add some narrative to help get them to the next "tension" area. Sprinkle this with use or loss of resources and it should be alright. My campaign; mind you; still has combats so it's not a perfect match. \$\endgroup\$ – blurry Aug 24 '18 at 3:16
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While the answer above is quite good for more forested or mountainous settings, I often find my players traveling across vast wastes in my campaign. As such, the two primary elements of danger I pose are weather and starvation.

Weather

Weather can be a lot of fun in role-playing games, but only if you play it right. Simply saying "There's rain" rarely creates a sufficiently challenging area. Sudden storms, especially damaging ones like hailstorms or blizzards can be really interesting as characters either scramble for natural shelters or work together to manufacture their own. Stats can easily be gained from the various weather-based spells, perhaps increasing some of the weaker ones.

Building on that, there are many weather-like enemies in many different systems that can easily be adapted to the forces of nature itself. For most magic based systems, an Air Elemental of some sort exists, and modifying it to be truly invulnerable but uncaring towards the players is an easy way to recreate a dust devil or twister. This can be expanded to countless different enemies to really develop that concept of "Even the sky's against us!"

Starvation

Ah, loot. When players get their paydays, they usually buy the next coolest weapon or armor, and on occasion they stock up on consumable get-out-of-jail-free cards. Very rarely do they worry about rations, and those that do, rarely worry about the quality. Especially in my aforementioned wastes, where walking is a constant necessity, food can play a major role in how the party travels. If it is a short enough crossing, the loss of wealth into food can be a minor setback, but if the environment is sufficiently expansive and treacherous, you can see the party foraging for food amongst thorns, selling equipment at small bazaars for scraps of food, and hunting wild animals to stay alive. I know in most D&D systems, exhaustion is a debilitating effect, so introducing it to even one of your players can make even simple enemies or adversities a monumental task.

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