Hill Challenges for Low Levels

Low-level challenges are tricky. Most characters are delicate little flowers that can be accidentally group-wiped with one unlucky tumble of an eight-sided die. They’re underpowered and underequipped. One fumble, failed save, or bad choice might be all it takes to take them out – and even healing up from the less-than-lethal consequences is usually a painful process. You want to give them a challenge – a taste of adventures to come. You want them to learn to use their limited resources and bond as a group over adversities. What small bumps in the road can we throw into their path to elevate the game and help them climb into their characters? I present: the humble hill.

Hilly terrain is the perfect starter area for low-level groups. It fits into almost any campaign, genre, timeline, and rule system without effort and provides an abundance of options for small (but beatable) challenges. Hills are a GM’s friend. You can use them to block line-of-sight, and you can strategically place them on your map to temporarily deflect travel and funnel the party into your pre-written material. A hill might turn out to be an underground dungeon, a burial site, bunker, or ruined city lost to the overgrowth of time. A single hill can be a landmark, a high place from which to observe other regions, or the critical keystone of a mass battle. A string of them can be a barrier or the line that defines new territory. You can get a lot of adventuring done with hills as your backdrop.

Slope and Slide

Adjust an angle of a hill and you create your first obstacle – the steep slope. You’re looking for something close to 45 degrees or maybe a bit more (after that, it’s a cliff and that’s probably too much to tackle). In dry conditions, this might merely slow down the pace of travel, but you can add in heavy rain, wet leaf litter, dew-wet grass, mud, or tumbling gravel to increase the odds of slipping. Fail the climb check? You get your clothes dirty and can try again – the perfect newbie challenge. Clever climbers will look into their limited kit for picks, pitons, and the ubiquitous length of rope, which is what you want if you’re training new players how to play. And if you’re doing hill combat, you can craft an epic scene where combatants are trading blows and grappling while sliding down the slick hill – then facing off, knee deep in the creek at the bottom.

A different kind of slope challenge can be created with a wagon-hoist, bucket-lift, roller-pass, funicular, or other similar inclined elevator. The basic idea is that there is a spot in the hills where you need some kind of mechanical help to get people, animals, and/or vehicles up a slope. The GM can make this more difficult by including a toll operator who says that he’d be glad to help pull the party up or down the dangerous terrain, but his rope/chain/cable is broken and he needs them to fetch a new one. Or, he’s out of grease and needs a clever substitute. Or, the toll operator has gone missing under mysterious circumstances and nobody can use the elevator without his key. Or, goblins stole the gears! There’s really a lot of options with the “Machine Needs X to Function” trope.



Serpentine Temptation

For our more devious dungeon masters, you can tempt your travelers with a shortcut. Present to them your version of the following scene: “The path leads into an open view where you can see hills all around you. From the high point, you spy the trail winding back and forth, back and forth, in serpentine loops, gently wrapping around the hills in long curves. It will take many hours to walk the full length. But there, just below you, a large tree has fallen and bridged a deep gap that links this hill with the one near the end of this tiresome stretch. It is covered in broken branches and patches of moss, an ancient resident of the forest who might have just enough strength left to aid your journey, should you take the risk. Below – a shadowy gorge of unknown depth.”

Obviously, you set whatever skill checks seem appropriate for your group and make any consequences for failure as dangerous as you need them to be. For squishy, low-level groups, I would try to arrange the log-crossing tests to be winnable about 75% of the time. Give out plenty of bonuses for thoughtful precautions and clever tricks. Then, make the fall result in wet gear, bruises, embarrassment, and maybe some kind of limp that slows down travel. Brave heroes shouldn’t die because of old foliage, after all.

Drop Rocks

Gravity is the dynamic and interesting element in hilly terrain, so it stands to reason you can use it to generate excitement or apprehension. Mudslides, rockslides, lahars, and avalanches might be a bit too powerful for low-level heroes. But you can provoke that same intensity on a smaller, hill-height scale – drop a couple of trees on them!

Large trees leaning over the declination of a hill can be toppled with the timely application of heavy rain, high winds, small quakes, or just plain old ancient-ness. And you don’t even have to be near them to be in danger – on hills, a falling tree can roll or slide for quite a long way. Give your danger-dodgers plenty of warning with the description of cracking sounds, fleeing wildlife, and thundering echoes as the mini-natural disaster approaches. Maybe wipe out their campsite and spend part of a game session adventuring without half their gear. Or slam their cookfire with a termite-riddled oak and introduce a little bit of forest fire stomping skill-challenge into their previously peaceful, sylvan respite. And, perhaps the errant elm was only a warning shot from the inhabitants of the hill who want the strangers to be scared off.

A large-but-perilous boulder is another excellent point of interest for your hilly scene. It should be plain from your description that the rock in question is poised to drop if bothered too much and big enough to cause some primordial destruction if set a-rollin’. Place it above a settlement or important site and write your adventure around preventing it from coming loose. Or, present it as a possible weapon against an enemy that the low-level party can’t normally take on. Let them find the stone and rig it to fall on command – leading to epic scenarios where they have to get a foe to chase them into the deadfall trap. Or, reward a careful scout by concealing the deadly dolomite just above the opponent’s hideout. It then becomes the perfect distraction or opening volley for a surprise attack, or a means to breach a fortification that they might not otherwise possess at low levels.

As a final note, don’t forget to give your baby mountains some character with descriptive elements and a nifty name. If you’ve done it right, they will remember your little hill well into their epic levels.

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