Environment as Foe

I was looking for musings to write about and I was suggested to write about a magical system. While it did scratch the primal neurons and fire some connections off, it did not inspire anything I wanted to write about, yet. However, I was talking with Sigve Solvaag from the Revenant’s Quill about his coming campaign setting and I began to reminisce.

I was playing in a sci-fi campaign where my friend was the referee. He made some extra rules to the system we were using (I do not remember which one it was, but it used a bunch of D6’s) because he wanted the environment to be a consistent foe without bloating the system with skills. To make the action part of the game more about survival in these environments than guns blazing. Moreover, after talking with him about his house rules, I learned he wanted to tie in the narrative tools into the mechanical ones. I think he succeeded, at the very least for our campaign.

So what did he do to making the environment a constant foe, without bloating the skill selection, and make it narratively coherent?

First, to make the environment a foe, he created a number of tables. I would call them Environmental Penalties Tables (EPT) and Weather Severity Tables (WST). The EPT was a collection of climates with all the seasons relevant for that environment. Each season had different penalties, sometimes there were multiple choices. Here is an example:

Penalties to Movement
Penalties to Sleep
Penalties to movement
Penalties to finding food


Short Spring, Penalties as Winter

Penalties to Sleep, Penalties to Finding food

Penalties to movement, penalties to finding food (more severe)

Extreme penalties to finding food, and Movement

Sometimes these penalties were never really met because us players had prepared in advance well enough for them to not be a problem, such as finding food on the planet. However, we had a member die from starvation because they got lost in the middle of winter in a temperate zone during a horrible blizzard. And that is where the WST comes into play. They functioned more as sliders from 1-6, or 1-12, depending on the stability of the weather. With the 1-6 slider being more predictable and the 1-12 slider less so. The referee rolled on the slider the moment we were about to land to see what weather we were met with. Afterwards they would just tick the die upwards and reset it after it hit 6 to 1. An example of this:

Arctic (Autumn weather cycle)
  1. Calm, little windy, bright sun. No disasters.
  2. Stroming winds. Low chance of disasters.
  3. Strong winds, mild blizzard. Low visibility, low chance of getting lost. Medium chance of disasters.
  4. Storm, severe blizzard. No visibility, high chance of getting lost. High chance of disasters.
  5. Peak blizzard weather, extreme minus degrees. High chance for severe damage on character if exposed to weather. Disaster ensured.
  6. Calm no wind, cloudy. No disasters.

The referee I played with used to have folders of these tables, with at least a few for each season for almost all the climates. My advice would be to make them as characters are moving forward in the campaign, instead of all at once. Another recommendation is to have some disaster and dismemberment tables ready for when they are needed.

Remember I mentioned that we were prepared in advance? This was accomplished by two factors: Skills, and Items. The referee put a lot of emphasis on our items and what we could bring with us on these missions. Different climates call for different equipment, amounts of food, vehicles, etc., making your ship your base of operations and treasure chamber of objects. It was therefore important to buy the right items before going on a mission to a desert planet, or tropical megaforest, to minimise the potential penalties we could meet. The EPT and WST together created a mini game of anticipation and outsmarting the environment to our best ability (often did this go wrong, very very wrong….) through our items, and skills!

The skills were a big part of the player preparation before embarking on the mission and the way it was done tied very nicely in narratively. The way we would do it, was that we would set our destination and make a jump through space, however we had to go into hibernation and be suspended in a liquid not to get squashed like a raisin in a mortar, after the jump we would wake up X amount of weeks away from our destination (determined randomly and thereafter noted to keep consistency if we were to go that planet again), in those X weeks we could change 1 skill variant with another per week. It was to symbolise that we were preparing for the climate. This was mostly done for physical skills, such as swimming, climbing, athletics, etc., and knowledge skills such as navigation, survival and so on. You may ask, but did this not bloat the system with skills? And here was the beauty of it, it didn’t, because they were not separate skills, but simply interchangeable skill variants. Here is an example:

Climbing [Arctic, Temperate, Tropical, Desert]
  • Arctic: requires pickaxe, nailed boots, +1 in addition to your normal climbing skill, -1 for each item you lack.
  • Temperate: roll your normal climbing
  • Tropical: requires high adhesive hand and footwear. +1 in addition to your normal climbing skill, -1 for each item you lack.
  • Desert: requires fastening pins. +1 in addition to your normal climbing skill, -1 for each item you lack.

Each of them gave you slight boost in the specified climate and some penalties if used outside that climate. Remember, that a planet mostly consists of more biomes then a single one, so it was made vital that you choose carefully.

I understand that this system requires a bit of hacking and work from the referee’s side. But I felt it was worth the work as a player. It made every mission to repair a terraformer machine an exciting thrill, for you never knew how bad the weather would be or what the climate might had planned for you. Plus it gave agency to the player choices of items and skills, they were not a tackalong you did at the beginning of the creation, but were an integral part of the play.


  • Make tables for the climate and its relevant seasons, they need to give penalties. But those penalties may be avoidable if the players plan in advance.
  • Make tables for the weather and give that weather a cycle. It needs to have consequences that will affect the game.
  • Make Item choice relevant. Restrict how many items the players can bring with them, but make their choice of items feel much more gratifying.
  • Make skills have variants that give a bonus and penalty. They should be vital for the type of biomes the players are going into.