Tips and Tricks: Non-violent TTRPG environmental challenge ideas

This article has a whole bunch of ideas and examples for creating environmental challenges to try out in your games!  I receive a lot of questions or comments about how to give more action-packed but non-violent encounters for young players, and environmental challenges are one of my favorite go-tos. 

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Note: still start with safety tools!

First, even though these ideas are intended to give non-violent options that can be less triggering than combat for some, they may still be triggering to others.  For example, if a player is afraid of storms, a storm event could be really stressful for them even if it doesn’t seem violent.  Please check in with your players first and make sure you have some safety tools in place so that everyone is going to feel safe at your table. 

TTRPG weather challenges

Weather is one of the easiest random “encounters” that you can drop into a game because it can be very chaotic normally, and it’s not too far of a leap to imply that other forces could manipulate it through magic, high science, or divine intervention (depending on your setting) to align with whatever other plots you have going on. 

When I initially suggest weather, I sometimes have people connect adding weather events to a combat encounter to make it more interesting, but the weather itself can BE the encounter. 

For an unmoving and perpetual thunderstorm, maybe the lightning seems to be targeting the players and they need to dodge and shield and hide from it as they try to find cover and devise a way to shut off a weather control machine on the other side of the city. 

For a windstorm, players must push through tough winds as they are pelted with flying debris in order to brave through to the epicenter and dispel a magical force that was summoning the wild chaos of storms.

You could even get a bit more creative with the weather and have a fog of confusion lay over the land where different pockets of fog have strange effects or make it rain copper coins (which, while nice to collect, can cause some decent damage over time and devalue the market). 

TTRPG geology challenges

Geological based challenges are, like weather, another one that can be easy to add into games either as something just naturally occurring or as something manipulated by the means of the system.

From volcanoes that won’t stop spewing lava rocks and toxic smoke until players climb through hazards to reach the top and toss in an ancient artifact to needing to save NPCs who have found themselves in the middle of a mountain pass during an earthquake, there are many options that come from below the surface of the planet to challenge your players as well, and they can be VERY exciting without fighting.

TTRPG non-combat plant challenges

I really like introducing challenges from plants because it can be both a great tool to get my kid to start asking questions about the impact he’s having on others in a more low-stakes situation (if he eventually chooses to fight a vine, maybe it doesn’t kill the main plant or it at least maybe isn’t sentient) AND they are often a bit less scary than some of the other bigger environmental challenges. 

For plants, I will introduce ideas like the flowers in the community garden are poofing people with sneezing powder or sleeping powder and anyone who gets too close also gets smacked by a thorny vine!  Someone accidentally planted flowers from the wizard’s lab here, and now you need to spray them with a calming solution and repot them in a local magical university’s research greenhouse!

There could also be a whole forest of trees that’s being controlled by a disgruntled spirit who is upset about deforestation and has commanded all the plants to block intruders!  However, you need to get a flower to make medicine for a sick NPC and must get in!  Players don’t need to fight the guardian, but they may need to face groves of trees that try to root players in place or get through thickets of thorny vines before talking to the guardian through a pool that peers into another plane and making a deal.

TTRPG non-combat animal challenges

Facing against animals in a TTRPG does not always have to be combat based!  Especially when looking at the environment as a whole, there’s quite a bit that you can do to increase the scale of the creatures involved so that it encourages players to find non-combat means to solve a problem.  

One example is that there can be a herd of large, peaceful plant-eating creatures that have moved into the valley and are smashing past gates, simply because of their size, and are eating all the crops!  It’s no use fighting them because there are SO MANY, and there’s a lot of challenges that could arise from this!  Maybe there’s some temporary repairs and fortifications that players can assist farmers with or the herd may stampede (and you all have to shield, get out of the way, etc) if townsfolk cause a loud noise to scare them off… or players need to dramatically bust down a dam that the townsfolk put up because that dam took away the water supply for the creatures and that’s why they moved in.  

By making a creature peaceful but gargantuanly large, maybe they only see the players as annoying pests (like a mosquito) but can be lured away from the area instead of fought.  By making them out of reach, like having creatures fly or phase into another plane, it can also prompt looking for non-combat solutions.  

TTRPG extraterrestrial challenges

So, when I say extraterrestrial, I don’t necessarily mean that it requires going to another planet – it can come from outer space or another world to the world that the players are in or can affect them from a distance.

Meteor showers that require dodging falling and flaming rocks or portals that appear and drop a friendly (but confused) NPC from another world can present interesting challenges that don’t require fighting.

In a game for my grown-up friends, I had players witness a force blast a good part of the moon away.  It caused space rock to rain down on the planet, which players had time to prepare for and help NPCs with taking cover… then they got to watch the results from a safer vantage point, and it lead to a lot of very exciting chaos with trying to investigate what happened and see what kind of impact it would have on the rest of the world.  They spent an entire two hour session excitedly discussing what this means and making a massive plan for what to do next!  It created a very exciting challenge for them, and there was no fighting needed.

Other ideas for non-combat environmental challenges

There’s lots of other ideas that you can use too – finding a cure for an illness by exploring and traveling to collect rare plants, replenishing destroyed natural areas (I made a whole game about this that uses solarpunk mech suits), saving creatures who were displaced as a result of one the previously mentioned challenges… and so on.  

Non-combat encounters can be very exciting and challenging without requiring characters to pick up a sword.  There’s nothing wrong with having combat in your games, but if you are looking for other options or maybe want to start with non-combat games in the begining, using the environment as an antagonist or quest-giver can be a great way to start off your adventures and still have an action-packed game!

Thank you for reading, and I hope these ideas help you to find some new encounters and challenges to add to your games!  Please let me know in the comments your thoughts and ideas – I would love to hear them, and it could help give inspiration to other readers too!

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