I talked a few days ago about running games where the main form of altercation isn't direct combat, and some of the ways to deal with two particular aspects of that namely exploring a landscape and a driving sequence. Today I wanted to talk about a few other things that become even more important when doing a game that is Player vs. Environment instead of the normal Player vs. NPCs.
Choose Your Words
The first thing I wanted to talk about is description. I say to describe things a lot in this blog, to make all sorts of things more exciting from combat to getting a coffee. This time I want to point out that there is such a thing as going too far when it comes to description. Essentially, you want to remember that a lot of times with description that less is more. If you are going off into 5 minute descriptions of the area, giving intricate details of how everything works and looks, you are doing your players a disservice. One, you are just talking and an even voice going on for that long will get toned out by most people's brains, even if they are enjoying what you are saying. The other is that you aren't letting them participate in the creation of the world. A few words and letting their minds fill things in will go over a lot faster, and a lot better, with more player involvement than going off into long diatribes of explanation of how everything works.
"It's hot and humid, the rain constant and heavy as you cut your way through the jungle" will give your players a better vision of what is going on than if you were to go into details about the exact heat, the exact way the trees are bent and moving, or just how hard it is to cut through. Why? Because it lets them paint the picture in their head. Players are generally very imaginative people, so let them do it. Also, when you are generally just giving the important information and letting them fill in the blanks, when you do need to go into a more lengthy description you are more likely to keep their attention because hey, this is a break from the norm.
Don't Do All Or Nothing
For some reason, there is a belief that when it isn't combat that checks should be an all or nothing affair. Sometimes GMs will give 2 checks on something to give the player a shot out of the doomed scenario, but it is something I never quite understood. Why does it have to be all or nothing? Can you imagine if combat was all or nothing "Sorry Steve, you got hit, that means you are dead" not very fun. So why are you doing it with a failed roll to climb a mountain?
So what can you do otherwise? Maybe give them some damage and describe them falling down but catching themselves on a lower hand hold. Jerk their shoulder out of socket, by all means hurt them, but don't have them just plummet to their doom or back to the bottom. It took them four or five rolls to climb that high, kinda uncool for one roll to dump them back down to the bottom y'know?
Doing it this way, and not heavily punishing failed rolls will also take away some of the wince factor when a person fails a roll. They know you're not going to be easy on them, but also that it doesn't mean a random arbitrary turn of the dice didn't just screw them out of whatever they wanted to do. Makes for a bit more fun all around the table.
These rules actually apply to almost everything you do in gaming, but when the focus is on non-opposition based conflict they become even more important. So try to keep them in mind as you go along through your game.