Continuing on the series of articles for running Dungeons & Dragons adventures in certain environments – and how to make these as entertaining and engaging as possible – we’re turning our attention to another common place for fantasy quests: mountains!
They’re found almost in every campaign, and they can offer unique types of trials and thrills. Get your climbing gear out and get ready to fend off winged beasts as we examine how to make a trek over a big hill feature much more than just beautiful views and the occasional saving throw.
Mountains are perfect for D&D adventures in many ways. They’re inherently majestic to look at (and to look down from), they can provide natural barriers between regions, and the dales between them can form scenic routes when the adventurers travel. They’re also great for adventuring in, as they come with innate challenges and are home to a range of classic monsters. Merely placing a quest among tower mountains is an easy way to instil a sense of wonder in the players. However, one can do much more than describe a mountain as “massive,” “steep” or “really high.” These regions are immensely varied and can feature very dissimilar sorts of views and encounters – and dangers.
Not your everyday mountain
Let’s begin with the fundamental look and nature of the mountain that the characters will travel to or across. Take a moment and consider exactly how the location looks. Is it a few extremely steep mountains, or is it more a series of rolling hills high above sea level? Are the peaks covered with ice and snow, or are they laden with greenery and flowers? Will there be streams, old landslides, or huge cracks?
The internet is excellent for finding inspiration! Just stick “the Alps” or “unusual mountains” into the search box and you’ll find a vast library of evocative photos (although there’s no reason to go too wild with the styles – a regular mountain is impressive on its own).
Glaciers can offer more than just slippery surfaces: some of these colossal chunks of ice have natural cave systems that might be full of secrets. Perhaps there’s a clever villain with tremendous arcane powers who has disguised their lair as a regular glacier?
And don’t forget about hidden or long-lost valleys, which can feature all kinds of fabled treasures and mythical creatures that have been unseen for millennia by all other people in the realm!
The hills are alive with the sound of…monsters!
On a similar note, the creatures that the adventurers can come across will vary depending on what kind of mountains they’re climbing or travelling through.
Low rises are typically (but not always!) associated with lesser threats and might feature general beasts, such as goats and ponies, as well as humanoids like ogres and giants. If we go higher, there might be more elusive and mythical monsters such as manticores and chimeras. Should we venture really high, this is probably where dragons reside as they will be able to keep their hoards safe from intruders or prying eyes. While far less dangerous than a dragon, one might also expect to find rocs on these altitudes.
Different types of mountains make for dissimilar kinds of risks. The danger of very steep mountainsides is immediately clear to most people: one misstep might be all it takes to send a character plummeting down to be greeted by a pile of damage dice. However, a fall can be much more than a matter of a failed check followed by a chunk of damage.
For example, maybe all characters need to make a Dexterity saving throw at one point when they traverse a patch of ice high up on a cliffside. A character who fails might fall over the edge – but fortunately, there’s a row of vines that they can grasp to hang on if they succeed on another saving throw. This might result in one or more characters dangling from the edge, with the other characters having to pull them up.
To complicate things a tad more, you can introduce an enemy at this point that’s been hiding and waiting to ambush the adventuring party, as clever monsters will know that this is a spot where other creatures tend to get in trouble. All of a sudden, the characters’ already precarious ascent has become an unnerving fight on slippery ground next to a great drop, and a few of the characters might be preoccupied with climbing back up (or be forced to fight while hanging off the edge!).
As for the reason why a character might slip, this can happen because of a multitude of causes: damp rock, icy surfaces, loose snow, debris or loose stones, hard winds, or the unhelpful shove of a hostile creature.
A heap of hazards
However, Mountains have many more problems besides the risk of fall that they (or rather, the DM) can throw at the adventurers. One such is when the ground itself is beginning to move in unwanted directions. Yes – we’re talking about landslides or avalanches, two kinds of events that can wreak havoc with even the greatest heroes, unless they can fly.
make these more interesting than just a saving throw.
Let’s say the adventuring party is making its way along the side of an incredibly high mountain that’s strewn with rubble. (They might even have realised at some point that the area is likely to be prone to landslides and travel carefully, which should be rewarded somehow!). Suddenly, a small shower of pebbles washes over them, then there’s a rumble – and then the whole slope collapses into a slide.
First of all, decide whether or not the characters have a chance to avoid being caught up in the landslide. My rule of thumb when running games is that it’s perfectly fine to dump the characters in any kind of sticky situation, as long as they don’t immediately take damage and also have a chance to escape.
For example, if the party can’t avoid being trapped in the slide, maybe they find themselves balancing precariously on a massive flat boulder that’s rocketing down the mountainside – and then, inevitably, a monster lands on the boulder, forcing the characters to do battle while also making saving throws to avoid falling prone (and maybe they fall off the boulder entirely on the roll of a natural 1!).
Such a scenario is hardly realistic – but this is Dungeons & Dragons, so high-level fights can absolutely be reality-bending in order to be appropriately epic.
Alternatively, the characters might be able to fully or partially sidestep the landslide by succeeding on repeated saving throws as they’re bombarded by rocks. However, this too is an opportunity to create an encounter that’s more intriguing than a bunch of flying stones hitting or missing the characters. An easy change is to add some variation, for example letting the rocks slam down in intervals that require the adventurers to figure out what the pattern is. Or maybe the landslide reveals an opening to a small “bonus dungeon” that hides some form of reward – but the opening will be lost again under the ongoing landslide, so the adventurers must make their way inside (if they want to) before it’s too late…but it turns out that doing so exposes oneself more to the hail of rocks. And so on!
Other ideas for challenges include rickety hanging bridges that span deep gorges – a real classic from untold movies! – that the characters must cross, and obviously there will be a fight on the bridge, along with complications such as snapping fraying ropes, planks that crack when someone is standing on them, and additional enemies that swoop down on wings to peck at the heroes who already are busy fighting the berserkers on the bridge.
Then there are chasms that are virtually (or actually – again, it’s D&D!) bottomless and which the unfortunate adventurers must leap over or cross by other means in order to progress on their quest. These are yet another example of obstacles that the DM can have fun with – are there sounds coming from the darkness below? What is hiding down there? – while at the same time allowing the characters to fail forward in case things go wrong. In other words, even if they fall down, there might be an opening at the bottom to a new part of the dungeon, or perhaps the sides of the chasm are lined with handholds that offer a possibility to climb out of the pit, but there might also be a few monsters hiding at the bottom that don’t mind flying up to take a bite out of the would-be heroes.
Even basic scaling can be lots of fun! Let’s imagine that the characters have acquired a treasure map that is leading them to a huge mountain inside which untold riches are said to be tucked away. But when the characters arrive, they find that the mountain is almost vertical, so they must climb rather than walk. Oh, and the mountain is weirdly magical and causes spells and spell-like abilities to behave erratically – so casting spells that allow the characters to simply soar into the sky is not a viable route. This means the need for traditional climbing great, ability and skill checks, and maybe even some old-school planning before setting out. Who knows – the mountain might even be so high that the characters must strike camp inside a shallow crevice on their way up, and hope that they aren’t attacked by anything during the night. A journey like this one will serve two purposes: it’ll ensure that the characters (and the players) really appreciate how absurdly high this mountain is, and it’ll establish that if things go bad when they have reached the top, they won’t be able to flee in a hurry!
Top of the world
Mountains that are seriously high can present especially tough challenges. One such is the climate, which is likely to be immensely problematic, with rough gale-like winds, thin air that’s hard to breathe, and, above all, deathly cold temperatures. The climate in the mountains is generally rough. In truly high peaks, it can be lethal. Remember the sequence in the screen adaption of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring when the group end up stuck in the pass of Caradhras and have to endure a blizzard, chest-deep snow, and pummelling winds, topped off with a few tonnes of snow crashing down on them? That might be the typical scenario here, only the adventurers won’t necessarily have a mighty wizard to aid them.
On the contrary, mountains of this kind might call for the characters to obtain special gear, such as heavy furs and boots that limit their speed and other abilities. This way, the fierce cold really makes its presence known by impeding on the party in a palpable way. Likewise, vast amounts of snow can result in similar issues, such as the need for special footwear and restricted line of sight. Then there’s the huge height itself, which that if anyone falls down, they might be doing so for a long time. Also, if the going is slow, it might be necessary to strike camp halfway up in a fashion that leaves the characters exposed to all kinds of threats – including monsters that prey on vulnerable people.
When all of these factors – massive heights, icy ground, ferocious winds, and vicious coldness – are combined, the characters are at a massive disadvantage against any threats. Consequently, a battle against winged enemies in conditions like this can land competent adventurers in real danger.
Those were but a few ideas for making adventures that take the characters up or through mountains more interesting, challenging, and enjoyable! In short, it’s a matter of describing mountains that have distinct features, designing encounters that are varied and have multiple parts (and unpredictable consequences), and – perhaps above all – making sure that everyone around the table or in front of their screens truly feel that they’re high above the ground!