Environmental challenges in MMORPGs

I’ve been reading about environmental challenges in tabletop roleplaying games and started thinking what examples I could come up with from this genre. I’m talking here of ways in which a combat encounter or character’s progress can be made more difficult by the elements around them.


Always bring a waterbreathing item

In Dungeons & Dragons Online, water features in quite a few overland zones and dungeons. It can be a real danger to characters in heavy armour, in particular if they haven’t invested skill points in the swim skill. Drowning in this game is perfectly possible, so having a magical spell or item for waterbreathing can be a real boon on any character.

Water can also hide things. Whether it’s a sea cave that gives access to a dungeon portal, a waterfall hiding a tunnel or a sunken ship on the seabed – there can be a lot of reasons to venture into the water. Just keep an eye on your breath meter…


It’s a standard MMORPG trope that bad players “stand in the fire” in boss fights. Fire is used quite a lot in all games to add threat to boss fight or to keep player characters moving.

Don’t stand in the fire

It can also be a more integrated aspect of a zone, magma zones are surprisingly common. Admittedly the full environmental effects likely to be experienced by your character in such a zone are usually ignored – it’s not usual for characters to need fire resistance items to avoid continuous damage from even being that close to magma (and the heated air likely to be there).

My inquisitor best watch his step…

But falling into magma is a pretty sure way for your character to burn to a crisp rather quickly. There’s often not much you can do to avoid the fate, magma tends to be placed so your character can fall to an inevitable death if careless.


Perhaps the environmental threat that I’ve encountered the least in MMORPGs is the air around my character. The threat of air is less obvious and likely to be differentiated from fire or anything else that you just need to “get away from”. Cloud attacks such as poison gas is certainly indistinguishable in boss fights from fire other than the obvious colour difference. Both damage characters standing in them, both usually last for a time to make areas of the combat area hazardous.

Green fire, move!!!

More subtle uses of air are more likely to concentrate not on damaging your character, but by doing what else strong winds can do – for example, move things. Being thrown in the air can be damaging to your character, well unless you happen to have feather fall or similar means to soften the landing afterwards.

Wheeeee! Anyone have a parachute?

In this sense, and beyond boss mechanics that throw your character about, the air in a dungeon or zone can be a challenge in terms of speed of movement. If the dungeons is very vertical then moving through the air can be quite the shortcut.

The quick way down

There’s even that rare example, in World of Warcraft at least, where air is a barrier to simply moving forward – a movement puzzle of sorts.

At any level, a fierce wind can be deadly

What environmental challenges (elemental or otherwise) are most memorable to you?

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5 Responses to Environmental challenges in MMORPGs

  1. bhagpuss says:

    Guild Wars 2 is one of the very few MMORPGs I’ve played where gusts of air can blow you off ledges or cliffs. It’s fairly common and it works very well although it is undoubtedly annoying.

    Also uncommon are currents in fluids. Vanguard’s rivers all have currents, sometimes quite strong ones, that sweep you downstream when you cross.

    I think developers are quite aware that a little environmental stress works well for flavor but that when players think of PvE the “E” means monsters not weather conditions. A few of the more niche indie MMORPGs in development seem to be banking on the idea that a couple of decades of accumulated wisdom on this is wrong. We’ll see how that works out for them if any of their games ever actually launch.

  2. Shintar says:

    SWTOR has air vents in several places where you need to fly up at a certain angle to reach a specific point, but I’m sure there are other games that do similar things.

    Falling to your death is an unending source of humour for me.

    Earth can also come for you in the form of rocks falling and threatening to crush you – not that uncommon a mechanic in dungeons either (first thing that comes to mind for me is WoW’s Stonecore).

    And I just wanted to say that your first WoW screenshot in this post is amazing. That’s a lot of fire!

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