Naturalism and conflict

Moby Dick 2Listening to my first ever Postcards from the Dungeon podcast got me thinking about conflict, nature, and gaming (particularly D&D).  It's a fun podcast, by the way.  One of my new favorites. 

Humans vs. nature is a staple of narrative conflict.  Many, many stories in many, many mediums make use of this conflict, often pairing it with other sorts of conflicts.  In Moby Dick, for example, you get humans (Ahab) vs nature (the whale, the ocean), but given the narrative and thematic circumstances, you also get a lot of human vs. human conflict and human vs. himself conflcit.  In Into the Wild (a book and film which I like a lot), you get the man vs. himself conflcit primarily because of the man vs. nature conflict.  Chris' encounters with nature force personal reflection and change.

Conflict is a necessary part of RPG's, but the human vs. nature conflcit seems to be a hard one to pull off in an interesting way.  In D&D, the "nature" is almost always personified in monstrous form.  There are animals of normal and monstrous stripes (though "normal" animals aren't "monsters" anymore, at least if one defines "monsters" by what's in the Monster Manual), but there are also treants, elementals, plant monsters, and other things where "nature" has eyes, claws, and 10 hit die.  By default, then, human vs. nature becomes human vs. monster.  There's little left of the human vs. environment side of the human vs. nature conflcit that seems so prevalent in other sorts of narrative -- the sailor, struggling against the sea itself, the nomad, alone in the hostile desert.  Sure, in D&D there are rules for environmental hazards, but in my personal experience (limited as that is), these were never a central part of an adventure.  Nor, perhaps, should they be.  Rolling checks to find water, then rolling Constitution checks to see how long before you die of thirst doesn't seem like much fun, if that's all that happens in the game.  Of course, "you die of dysentery" always gets a chuckle ;)

I am curious to hear others' take on this.  Is the human vs. environment conflict one that can be incorporated into an RPG in a meaningful and fun way?  If so, how?  What are some good examples, from any system?


  1. Risus could be used to personify natural forces very effectively. A Crusty Old Sailor (4) vs. Unfathomable Sea (6) is a totally valid combat. And you could do similar things in other systems that utilize an abstract combat mechanic. Depending on you goals as a GM, you could resolve the combat all at once or resolve it much more slowly over the course of a session (perhaps you a single round/exchange of combat and deal with the consequences for an hour before moving on to the next exchange/round).


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