Muddy steps, or using mud in RPGs

Mud, mud, glorious mud – it seems to me that those are the words in a song but as I can’t remember a single thing else about it I might be wrong. Regardless of song links I was thinking about mud the other day. Yes, that might seem like an odd thing to ponder but I’d gone for a walk from the new office and discovered a public footpath (trail through the countryside). As, for the first time, since moving into the office it wasn’t bitterly cold out (or raining) I thought I’d take a stroll.

The trail leads through a farmers field and then along a small ridge of land. It was mostly dry but the second field that path went alongside was muddier than the first and I checked around to see if it would get worse. I was wearing boots that can more than deal with some mud, but I didn’t want to get clogged up with dirt and walk that back into the office space.

And then, as you do, mentally one thing leapt to another and whilst I continued along a drier part of the path I thought about mud – terrain – roleplaying in rapid blurry succession. And the short version of those mental gymnastics is that I don’t think we use it enough. Indeed, terrain and weather has been on my mind a lot lately and potentially this will be the first of a few musings on the topic although for once I’m really just drafting out a blog without a grand plan behind me.

So, what can we do with mud? A few things.

  • Tracking – when the terrain is muddy it makes it a lot easier for tracking to occur. That’s whether it’s the player characters or the NPCs hunting the player characters. (Someone is hunting them, right?)

  • Falling – tired of having player characters dancing around your villains like monkeys? Increase the critical fail chance by 10% and have it occur on a 1-3 on a d20 due to the mud in the vicinity – or whatever value you feel is fair.

  • Random stumbles – mud isn’t a uniform condition. It is entirely realistic to have a random stumble caused by a small patch of muddy ground that was impossible to spot beforehand. (Anyone who goes walking in the country can attest to this.) Instead of a critical fail result, nominate a secret number that will trigger a chance to fall. When that number comes up due to a character’s rapid (or special) movement or on a combat roll, then they must save vs. falling prone. And yes, this applies to the NPCs and creatures as well. In effect, you are introducing a small random element based around the terrain conditions. (Even four legged animals can slip on mud.)

For example, pick 16 as your DM number before the game starts. During the game, whilst fighting in the forest the rogue decides to sneak around behind the troll to stab it in the back. They roll a 16 whilst rolling for stealth and add their modifiers etc. Regardless of the quality of their stealthing they still must make a save vs. stumbling on a patch of mud that occurred halfway through their movement.

If they fall, clearly that stops their movement for that turn. If they stay on their feet, then you can either penalise any further actions they plan to take that turn or allow them to carry on as before.

[Side note – For simplicity, I determine mishaps during a movement action to always have occurred halfway through the movement distance.]

  • Slow traffic – a large area of mud, such as a path that has turned to mud due to heavy rains, effectively slows all traffic along it. Doesn’t matter if it is a horse, cattle, carriage or person. It takes longer to get from A to B. By having roads swamped with mud you can force your players to pay a little more attention to the map you painstakingly created and force them to head in new directions. It is also entirely possible for mud to make a road impassable.

  • Clues – muddy shoe prints or mud on clothing is a classic clue that someone has been outside. In the wilds, a creature that has mud on it typically indicates it has been somewhere with water. Should your party need water to drink then tracking that creature (rather than killing it) might prove to their benefit.

  • Extreme hazards – mud spills can destroy entire settlements and estuary mudflats can trap and drown the unwary but those are somewhat bigger hazards than I want to talk about today so we will save those for another time.

To have mud what do you need?

Well, moisture and dirt – that means you should periodically have it rain in your adventures. (You can of course substitute snow for rain here.) This often doesn’t happen as most of the time a bit of rain doesn’t actually make any different mechanically so why bother mentioning it? And, if it is mentioned at the table without mechanical consequences players tend to ignore it.

Get into the habit of mentioning rain and you give yourself licence to have mud. Even simple mechanical points like it being harder to light a fire or parchment getting wet and ruined in the rain will be enough to train the players to pay attention when you talk about it raining.

You also have mud occurring in dry periods near water courses. In short, if the ground can get wet, it can get muddy.

Okay then, 900 words on mud. Who’d have thought it.

Right, I’m off to write about magic items and yes, Boots of Mud Repellent did just occur to me…

Until next time, stay safe and keep gaming.



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