To Battle!

Knights Engaged in Mounted Battle
The Battle of Bosworth by Graham Turner

Even after years of running D&D games of all shapes and sizes, I still run a dud from time to time. One such time was just a couple weeks ago, when I thought it would be great fun to give my players two days to direct some settlers in the construction of a town, which would then be attacked by Zombies. While I stand by the idea as a solid one, it played out poorly. Granted, most of the difficulty came from the fact that the game was played online, I think. But aside from that, I’m starting to find that I’m simply not very good at running combat encounters.

Given how central combat is to the Dungeons and Dragons & Pathfinder games, being bad at running it has made things difficult for me throughout my DMing career. In the last few days, as I’ve been reflecting on this fact, I’ve started to see that almost every combat I’ve ever run has taken place on an open field at noon on a Summer’s day. In light of that, I’ve made a concerted effort to think of things I could do which would make battle more entertaining for my players.

Without a doubt, the most important thing conclusion I’ve come to is that I need to make a concerted effort to make my environments more detailed and interesting. There’s almost never a reason for combat to take place in an environment which doesn’t provide some kind of interesting tactical options to the player. Even in the most plain environments imaginable (for example, a desert) there are things the GM should be aware of (such as the poor footing offered by sand, or the fact that visibility is limited due to the rise and fall of sand dunes.)

And really, how often is a desert, or a plane, or any other near-featureless environment going to be part of a game?

In a forest there should be trees for players to climb, or bash foes into. Now and again there should be cliffs or other falling hazards for players to beware of, and use to their advantage. In a city there could be anything from an entrance to a sewer to drop down into, to a criss-crossing web of clothes lines to climb up.

And if static parts of an environment can make things more interesting, certainly living elements can have the same effect. In the wilds, combat may take place in some beast’s hunting grounds, or even in a cave which a dire bear is about to return to. And while a noncombatant character is most likely going to try to stay out of the way of a dangerous wizard’s dual, when there are 100 onlookers gathering around the back-and-forth casting, there’s a good chance one of them will throw a rock at the caster they would prefer to see lose.

And speaking of thrown rocks, there are a multitude of situations where improvised weapons would be appropriate and flavorful. Not every hoodlum in a bar is wearing a short sword. Or hells, there could easily be cities with bans on weapons. The players could be forced to grab broken bottles themselves when faced with sword-wielding thieves. Or, away from civilization, one of the goblins they’re fighting might withdraw, only to appear on the ledge above 3 or 4 rounds later, pushing desperately on a large boulder.

Even if the players are fighting folks who do have weapons, they don’t always need to have them in hand. Giving the players a round to make use of the element of surprise while 30 goblin warriors all scramble for the weapons racks would allow the players to really feel like taking the enemy by surprise meant more than getting one standard or move action at the beginning of combat.

Weather and seasonal elements have also been severely underutilized in my games–and not just in combat. Snow leaves tracks and makes it difficult to move, while piles of leaves in the fall could hide traps to make up for the fact that the branches are too bare to hide stalking enemies. Torrents of wind and falling rain can disrupt spell casting, and darkness can offer partial concealment against ranged attacks.

I’d be interested to hear from anybody else who has ideas on what kind of extra environmental options GMs can make use of.

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