There are three pillars of D&D: Social, Combat, and Exploration. Of those three, exploration is the most challenging for DMs and is often neglected. Unlike social and combat situations, everything is left to the DM to describe. Worldbuilding, or the process of designing an environment, is much easier when there is a give-and-take with players. Exploration, though, requires long segments of monologuing to describe the setting. For DMs who are new to the role, or storytelling in general, this can sometimes be a grueling task, especially in complex surroundings.
Players can also tune out the description because they feel uninvolved or find it hard to picture everything using the theater of the mind. Anyone who isn’t an auditory learner may need some assistance in the form of maps, however crudely drawn, to set the scene. All of this necessitates a lot of prep work beforehand.
Given all of that, there are plenty of ways to involve your players in your environment and help the world feel alive (and less confusing). Listed below are some examples of how players can interact with the environment. Keep in mind that some of the effects in this article are detailed in official guidebooks like The Dungeon Master’s Guide or Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, whereas other ideas would be considered homebrew meaning that the DM makes it up.
- Difficult Terrain
- High Altitude
- Varying Gravity
- Areas with Magical Effects
Like in real life, extreme temperatures can greatly affect your players’ actions. The majority of inhabited areas will be in temperate climes since most humanoids will go places where it is easier to live, but there are plenty of reasons why your party might venture beyond such nice areas. Perhaps they are visiting a city of genasi who are resistant to fire damage and don’t mind the intense heat. Or they have walked to the polar ends of the world to speak with a tribe of goliaths in the biting cold.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives more details about imposing challenges based on extreme temperatures. However, you need not be limited by its descriptions. Specific issues like snow blindness aren’t mentioned, but they could present very real problems for your characters to solve in your game.
Plants are much more common than animals, even in extreme environments. Deserts and tundras alike have numerous plants that grow in enclosed spaces, protected from the elements. Don’t skimp on flora, even if your players are in uninhabited areas! Plants often play roles in specific spells, hiding places for enemies, representations of how societies coexist with nature, and even combatants in battle.
Overgrown plants can also show the passage of time if players stumble into an abandoned village or find an undiscovered dungeon. Even underground, plant life is still abundant in the form of mold, mushrooms, and other (possibly sentient) life. The Dungeon Master’s Guide notes three types of mold that are actively hazardous to adventurers and something they need to be wary of while exploring new underground environments.
Like with wild flora, it’s tempting to focus exclusively on combative animals, and the Monster Manual has no shortage of overly aggressive and territorial creatures. However, players can appreciate an environment more if they see all the inhabitants, not just the fights. In the same way, you create NPCs that are alternately aggressive, helpful, or disinterested, keep in mind that animals are the same way.
Wild animals in D&D can be awakened, meaning that they have humanoid intelligence and can communicate through speech. Such an animal might conceivably be friendly to your party, ask them for help, offer some advice, or warn them away from going any deeper into the woods. Most animals, though, will behave like your NPCs: not bothering the characters unless your players bother them.
If we use real life as an example, you’ll notice that while certain circumstances drive animals to attack humans (such as deforestation, starvation, disease, or maternal instincts), most animals will only fight in self-defense. In fact, most wild animals will flee in the face of danger, even if provoked. Your magical world need not be overly realistic, but players will appreciate you taking the time to have an explanation ready for wilderness battles.
Perhaps the local town has increased their logging, leading to hungry predators boldly attacking humanoids. Maybe your party has accidentally stumbled upon the whelping den of a vicious creature. You don’t need to tie every encounter into a larger narrative, but if you plan to have multiple battles with the wildlife, your players are going to wonder why.
Traps are an integral part of the best dungeons, but many DMs seem to forget a vital aspect of traps: that someone set them. It’s all well and good to say that your party has found an ancient dungeon that is chock full of traps and treasure in equal measure, but you may find someone in the party asking questions like “why?”
Why is there a ton of treasure down here? Who set all these traps to protect it? If someone knew the treasure was here, why not take it out from the dungeon and use it? Despite what legends and Treasure Island might tell you, no upstanding pirate ever buried their treasure for later. With one exception (dragons), you’re never going to find a treasure-filled underground area that is devoid of life made on purpose.
Therefore, it is much more likely that the dungeon used to be a living area. Someone (or many someones) inhabited the area and displayed their wealth in material ways. It makes a lot more sense to have traps surrounding your home – guarding your wealth and your life – than only having traps inside, for example, your offsite wine cellar. People generally want to use and appreciate their wealth by having it close by.
Keeping the “who” and the “why” in mind is also an excellent way to keep your dungeons from becoming repetitive. Differentiation by who lived there and why they protected the area can also inform you what types of traps they’d set. You can add flavor to your traps by describing how they work and what triggers them. Does the trap release a cloud of poisonous gas? A successful Wisdom (Survival) or Intelligence (Nature) check might reveal that the poison is derived from the mold that natively grows on the walls.
You should also be judicial regarding placing the traps on your map. Not every room would need to be trapped and guarded unless something of great value was in every room. Think and plan like real people would: place many traps in one area that protects the most critical part of the treasure or save the most effective traps there. Don’t put traps in otherwise empty rooms unless they’ve been previously sprung, and the room is now devoid of treasure.
Bringing difficult terrain into play is a simple way to engage your players because it makes movement much more well, difficult. Imagine getting stuck in a hidden pit of quicksand or trying to set up camp on a patch of slippery ice. Instead of letting your group travel as they please through the desert, remember that it’s more tiring to shuffle through sand, and they might need to switch out their horse and cart ensemble for something that can cut through the dunes.
Doing anything strenuous in the rain is unpleasant, even for adventurers. You might have it be harder to see or hear in the area or impose long-term consequences for trekking multiple days through the rain. D&D characters could catch diseases or simply take levels of exhaustion for trudging through punishing environmental conditions, giving them an incentive to take an alternative route to their destinations.
Have you ever tried to throw something when it’s windy? Strong winds can make it hard to see, move around, fire ranged weapons, fly, or keep campfire lit. In deserts, you might even run into a full-blown sandstorm if the winds are strong enough. Interacting with strong winds is challenging, and you can easily showcase your environment by occasionally challenging players to contend with Mother Nature herself.
High altitude is defined in The Dungeon Master’s Guide as being above 10,000 feet. The air becomes noticeably thinner and harder to breathe for most creatures unaccustomed to the great heights. The DMG recommends reducing the amount of time the party can travel. Still, you can also add other effects like requiring a Constitution saving throw to avoid taking levels of exhaustion or dealing with altitude sickness.
Like in real life, creatures can become acclimated to the change in altitude by spending about a month in the area. After that, they would no longer suffer any ill effects, assuming that they stayed between 10,000 to 20,000 feet. Above 20,000 feet, it’s much harder ever to adjust or breathe long enough to think about acclimating.
While an unusual phenomenon on the Material Plane, there are a number of places in the wider Multiverse where players might need to contend with levels of gravity far different from their own. Environments with heavier gravity might manifest as slowing characters down, limiting their jumping capabilities, and making their Strength-based weapon attacks more impactful. Settings with lighter gravity could increase the players’ speed, allow them a greater range of motion, and make it harder to resist shoving effects.
You could also designate an area where the level of gravity is the same, but the polarity is reversed. If you want to create hilarious shenanigans, you could have the polarity shift and change every so often, forcing your players to come up with creative ways to navigate the reversing gravity.
Areas with Magical Effects
One of the best ways to force players to think outside of the box is to mess with their magical abilities. This idea is most effective in high-magic parties where almost all characters can cast spells and/or have magic items. How severely you want to affect magic and how you do it are up to you, but there are two main ways to go about it.
Wild Magic Zone
A fun way to make your players think twice about all of the spells they cast is to institute a wild magic zone. Depending on their level, you could have all leveled spells (or all spells including cantrips) force an equivalent to a Wild Magic Surge like those that a Wild Magic sorcerer deals with. You can create your own table of wild magic events or use the ones provided for Wild Magic sorcerers and Path of Wild Magic barbarians.
You can also change certain aspects of a spell instead of adding additional effects. Spells in your environment might last for twice as long as normal or half as long. A single-target spell might affect multiple creatures, including allies. There are various ways to modify all spells to help or hinder your players. You don’t always have to do one or the other either – you can roll or have your players roll to determine whether the extra effect is a good one or not.
Don’t forget that any changes you make to spellcasting affect enemy spellcasters, too, unless they’re native to the area or have some other way of overcoming the environmental effect. It may make combat more complex, but it will be worth seeing how your players creatively take advantage of the area.
Magical Dead Zone
Generally, the magical dead zone forces players to rely on their non-magical capabilities by limiting or entirely restricting their ability to cast spells. You might allow cantrips, but no leveled spells or no casting whatsoever. Depending on your players’ level, you might decide that no magic of any kind works in an area, thereby rendering all spells useless and making magic items into their mundane versions. This could potentially cripple a party without any martial characters at lower levels, so be careful with this environment.