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Monday, October 27, 2014

On Mountains high Altitude and adventures.

Altitude and adventures:
(Not the name of some crappy fantasy game I'm writing.) yet

I have a second Blog, I started it last week and on it I dump work I am doing for my campaign that I want to share with the players. 

Part of that has been hex mapping the players current surroundings. Right now they are near a ruined city in  what is basically frontier wilderness. A no-mans land that was basically depopulated during a war some  200 years ago. So for now it's pretty easy, the area is populated, but not heavily, there are a few notable villages and one actual town. The rest is overgrown ghosts of an agrarian past.
but to the south , the  south contains mountains.

So mountains:
I am thinking eventually the party is going to head south and hit the mountains. I might be wrong but I have a hunch.

I have one major mountain range to contend with. The kind of range where there  are only a few safe passes. Think  the  Rockies. 
Think Donner party.

According to that fount of  all knowledge "wikipedia" the Rockies are 3000 some odd miles long. And more importantly to my needs range from 70 to 300 miles wide. At 23.38 square miles per hex that's a ton of hexes of  sparsely populated high mountains. By Sparsely I'm thinking  three or four people per square mile perhaps, less in the really extreme parts. That's sparse, like hermit sparse. I am thinking  small towns on the  southern side of the  mountains in the valleys, sort of like the Italian / swiss alps towns (Lorenzago Di Cadore for example) 

The  Northern approaches will be much less populated.

I love mountains as a fantasy game environment. There are lots of  places for interesting things to  hide, caves to spelunking, peaks to wonder at. The whole idea is ripe for exploration. Thinking about mountains got me thinking, "what makes mountains dangerous, what if the characters experience if they decide to explore more than just a convenient pass?"

So lets look at some mountain dangers:

Keeping in mind I'm no mountaineer. By the same token I don't expect the players to send their characters off to ascend peaks. I think they  will have to cross the  high mountains eventually and  will more than likely not want to pend too much time there.

I think most interesting is the writer makes a distinction between, Subjective and Objective dangers. Subjective being things the characters have control over, bringing rations, hiring guides, making sure they fasten ropes tightly. Subjective dangers could lead to a  mire of  making  skill checks to climb a mountain which is not what I 'm looking for. For me at most the  players are way too lax about preparation when climbing to height, we should  know enough to call them on it appropriately. (AKA make their climb suitably hellish)

The major objective issues characters would have with  mountains, are exposure and altitude. Other more dramatic events like land slides, avalanches, lightning, and dangerous terrain, are GM events to be narrated and expounded upon. The elements and altitude just are, they always are, no matter how careful the players are.

I think exposure has been covered in RPG manuals in the past, But I'm not sure I have seen Altitude sickness brought up very often.

(I think the old AD&D second edition wilderness survival guide gave it a good once over.)

Some solid information on the dangers of Altitude, a bit more dry than what was offered above but useful. Taken from here:

For example, I find this  block useful"
"Altitude is defined on the following scale High (8,000 - 12,000 feet [2,438 - 3,658 meters]), Very High (12,000 - 18,000 feet [3,658 - 5,487 meters]), and Extremely High (18,000+ feet [5,500+ meters]). Since few people have been to such altitudes, it is hard to know who may be affected. There are no specific factors such as age, sex, or physical condition that correlate with susceptibility to altitude sickness. Some people get it and some people don't, and some people are more susceptible than others. Most people can go up to 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) with minimal effect."
So anything over 8000 feet the  characters should start having a chance of feeling something going on.
Also interesting is, "There are no specific factors such as age, sex, or physical condition that correlate with susceptibility to altitude sickness"  Which leads me to believe the typical "Constitution save" or what ever your game has is really not appropriate.  

How does a GM figure out who is  effected by the altitude? 

A random roll? I suppose that would be the most realistic way to do it honestly just assign the victims randomly. Though I'm not sure it's the most interesting way, it woudl work.

I would give every  character a chance to start showing systems of altitude sickness of about  15% starting at 8000 feet and going up about 15% every 500 feet climbed. 

So on D20 starting at a roll of:
  • 1 to 3  at 8000 feet 
  • 1 to 6 at 8500 feet, 
  • 1 to 9 at 9000 feet, 
  • 1 to 12 at 9500 feet, 
  • 1 to 15 at 10000 feet 
  • And so on. 
  • Or something roughly like it, whatever floats your boat.

"Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

AMS is common at high altitudes. At elevations over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), 75% of people will have mild symptoms. The occurrence of AMS is dependent upon the elevation, the rate of ascent, and individual susceptibility. Many people will experience mild AMS during the acclimatization process. Symptoms usually start 12-24 hours after arrival at altitude and begin to decrease in severity about the third day. The symptoms of Mild AMS are headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, disturbed sleep, and a general feeling of malaise. Symptoms tend to be worse at night and when respiratory drive is decreased. Mild AMS does not interfere with normal activity and symptoms generally subside within 2-4 days as the body acclimatizes. As long as symptoms are mild, and only a nuisance, ascent can continue at a moderate rate."

This  is a nuisance in the real world yes, but the  interrupted sleep and Dizziness might  play havoc on  Spell casters. 
I would  assign  Save penalties and perhaps even combat penalties for any one under the effects of mild Mountain sickness.

"Moderate AMS

Moderate AMS includes severe headache that is not relieved by medication, nausea and vomiting, increasing weakness and fatigue, shortness of breath, and decreased coordination (ataxia). Normal activity is difficult, although the person may still be able to walk on their own."

This is bad, This is where the fighters start to feel the bite. Shortness of breath, weakness, all lead to combat modifiers. Ataxia can lead to the inability to even walk leaving even the  strongest fighter at a loss. For spell casters it's the same only worse than Mild AMS, there will be no reading spell books with proper focus at 10000 feet.

Severe AMS is similar to the above only  every ting is worse. "including shortness of breath at rest, inability to walk, decreasing mental status, and fluid buildup in the lungs. Severe AMS requires immediate descent to lower altitudes "

As a gm I would move Mild AMS into the realm of  Severe AMS after the  party has climbed another 1000 feet without  taking time to acclimate.

AS far as acclimation goes here is a blurb from that oracle known as wikipedia:

"Full hematological adaptation to high altitude is achieved when the increase of red blood cells reaches a plateau and stops. The length of full hematological adaptation can be approximated by multiplying the altitude in kilometers by 11.4 days. For example, to adapt to 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) of altitude would require 45.6 days. The upper altitude limit of this linear relationship has not been fully established"

Though if I were GMing I would let the characters take less time. They are not looking for full acclimation they just want to get where they are going.

Here is another treat:
"Above 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) most people experience a periodic breathing during sleep known as Cheyne-Stokes Respiration. The pattern begins with a few shallow breaths and increases to deep sighing respirations then falls off rapidly. Respirations may cease entirely for a few seconds and then the shallow breaths begin again. During the period when breathing stops the person often becomes restless and may wake with a sudden feeling of suffocation. This can disturb sleeping patterns, exhausting the climber."

Again Cheyne-Stokes is going to make getting enough rest to heal (ala D&D 5th), recover, or memorize spells difficult. The whole experience is physically and mentally taxing, in ways most characters would be unaccustomed to.

Lastly on altitude, going too high too fast can kill a person outright. taken from here:
"High altitude Pulmonary and Cerebral Edema: Are a deadly, sudden, and seemingly random swelling of the  brain and  restriction of the lungs from fluid build up. It can kill in hours and  getting lower is the  only way to cure it."

I am not saying dropping this bomb on a party member is a good idea. However, that  pesky hireling might  have to die in order to put a sharp point how dangerous extreme heights can be.

Why is all this important?
Imagine a party trying to reach a temple at 12000 feet, being  set upon by a tribe of goblins that are acclimate to the  heights?

Even a high level party might have their hands full as the  fighters stagger around trying not tip over, dizzy, blurry eyed chests heaving. Spell casters unable to focus properly, botching what ever spells they might have on scrolls.

This all adds up  to  two things, characters take their time and camp for days on the  mountains leading to the  chance of  random events or wondering  encounters causing havoc with the party. Or they charge up the mountain risking  altitude sickness. Say  the party is at 8500 feet and the fighter is getting sick. Do the characters camp for two days to let her acclimate? or do they press on hoping they can reach their goal before it gets worse? Are they being pursued? is the climb time sensitive? Is there something living on these mountains that might be waiting for the heights to weaken the party? Storm Giants live up here and they  are wicked smart, capable of luring a party higher and higher if it would give them an advantage.


If you have a party heading off into the  high  territory of your fantasy game world remember. Climbing a peek can be a mini campaign all it's own, an expedition fraught with overt, subjective, and objective dangers. Climbing a peak can be an achievement that makes a man a hero. In whatever way the GM and the players treat a formidable mountain range, they should be just that, formidable, and those mountain passes all that much more valuable.

As usual thank you for reading:
Please drop any comments you  have in that hikers rucksack below.