Category Archives: Spicing Up the Battlemat

Spicing Up The Battlemat: Deserts

Sand Dunes Sand Blowing Gently into the Sky I’ve never liked deserts. Even when I was a kid, I found stories which take place in deserts to be pretty boring. The character is thirsty, the character is hot, it’s cold at night, boom. Deserts. Of course, I’m aware that deserts have their own forms of diversity. Geological formations in deserts can be quite mysterious and beautiful, and the types of creatures with the ability to survive in such harsh environments are often fascinating to learn about. Despite that, I still don’t find deserts all that enjoyable. It’s a bias of mine. Cold deserts are a little more interesting to me, but those will not be covered in this post.

But you can’t just send your PCs through forests all the time. Sure there are idyllic forests, creepy forests, dense forests, sparse forests, coniferous forests and deciduous forests, forested mountains, and forested planes. But for some reason, players eventually get tired of trees, and you need to throw in something else. Eventually that something else ought to be a desert. In all likelihood, since we are playing Pathfinder, that desert is going to produce a creature which is going to try to kill your players. And unless you’re fine with all of your desert combat occurring within a featureless box with a desert painted on the background, you’ll need to find some way for the environment to become a factor in combat.

The problem is that in many ways, deserts are featureless boxes. The box just extends further than the eye can see in every direction. None the less, there are a number of ways in which the players can use the environment to their advantage, and ways in which the environment can betray them.


Blinding Attack If movies have taught us anything about sand, it’s that sand makes for a good quick blinding attack. (if movies have taught us a another thing about sand, it’s that people are softer than it.) If players want to throw sand in their opponent’s eyes, you can treat it as a ranged touch attack (range of 5ft.) which can be performed from a prone position. If the target is wearing any kind of full eye covering, the attack fails. Success causes the target to be dazed for one round. Bear in mind, as GM, that most creatures which evolved in a a desert will have better protection against this kind of attack than most humans would, and may not be susceptible to it.

Blinding Wind Deserts are often very windy, and that wind tends to pick up sand and carry it around the battlefield. This effectively functions as the blinding attack noted above, but against all players facing a certain direction. How often this effect occurs is entirely dependent on what the whether is like. If the characters are fighting during a sandstorm, then any time they open they’re eyes they’re going to get hit by the dazed effect. More likely, though, players will need to deal with either a consistent wind, or a sputtering breeze.
Consistent Wind: The wind is coming from a single direction. If this wind is not present and defined before combat begins, roll 1d8. A result of 1 means the wind is coming from the side of the battlemat opposite your position at the table, or “north.” A result of 2 means the wind is coming from the “top right” corner of the battlemat, or “north east.” Results continue in a clockwise fashion around the battlemat. The GM may, at any time, roll 1d6. A result of 1-2 means the wind shifts one “space” in a clockwise direction (West becomes South West, East becomes North East, etc). A result of 3-4 means the wind remains the same. A result of 5-6 means the wind shifts one space counter clockwise. Any players facing against the wind without eye protection must succeed on a reflex save DC: 16 or become dazed for one round. Players facing a direction which is only one space off from the wind direction are allowed a reflex save DC: 13 to avoid becoming dazed for one round. Note that since Pathfinder does not include a facing mechanic, facing must be determined based on the direction in which the player performed their last action. If the player wishes to turn in their space, treat it as a swift action which provokes an attack of opportunity to any enemy the player turns their back towards.
Sputtering Breeze At the start of each round the GM rolls to see if there will be a gust of wind this round. There is a base 20% chance (which can be raised or lowered depending on the current weather patterns, but should never be above 50%) that the battlefield will be affected by a gust of wind this turn. If there is a gust, roll 1d8 to determine which direction the wind is coming from as noted above. The effects of the breeze are as noted above under Consistent Wind.

Poor Footing Sand makes for poor footing, particularly when moving up and down the sides of dunes. Any characters not intimately familiar with desert environments suffer a -2 penalty to their CMB and CMD for any combat maneuver which requires them to have firm footing (resisting a bull rush, tripping, charging.) This penalty rises to -4 if the character is standing on a particularly loose area of sand, such as the steep side of a dune. In such an instance, the character also loses their dexterity bonus to AC.

Gets Everywhere Sand gets blown around so much, and is so fine, that it can get into anything. And if enough of it gets into a mechanical device, odds are that device will stop working. If your game includes guns, these would be particularly susceptible to this danger. But any number of devices which rely on moving parts could be at risk. Clocks, locks, or even crossbows! Players can avoid this trouble by wrapping their equipment and keeping it protected, but if they fail to do so, then they risk a 5% failure chance in the first two days, a 10% failure chance for the rest of the first week, a 20% chance the second week, a 30% chance the third week, and so on. For guns, these numbers would likely double. Fortunately for bowers, crossbows are relatively simple, and a standard action to clean out the sand in the triggering mechanism should be enough to restore the device to working order.

Just Beneath the Surface The wind over a sandy desert covers up anything quickly. It would be essentially impossible to actually track something through the sand. It would be be similarly impossible to see anything buried just beneath the sand. If foes are springing a trap on the PCs, they could easily have tripwires beneath the sand which would be impossible to detect. Weapons could also be hidden just under the surface of the sand to give the appearance that a group was unarmed. Sand could even hide a trap door with ease, allowing GMs to prepare deadly ambushes where additional foes can spring forth from the sand itself.

Dune Collapse Sand dunes form in a “wave” formation, with one gently sloping side which the wind blows over, and one steep side which is blocked from the wind. Dunes can grow quite large, and oftentimes, quite precariously balanced. A sudden change of wind can potentially cause a dune to collapse towards the steep side. This would have similar effects to an avalanche (Pathfinder Core Rulebook Page 429)


Hoggar Desert Schrubberies and Loose StonesUnderfoot As noted in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, hot deserts are not always endless wastelands of nothing but sand. Stones, sometimes a lot of them, often litter the landscape of a desert. Occasionally, even extremely resilient shrubs can manage to survive in the harsh desert landscape. So light undergrowth, light rubble, and dense rubble are all possibilities in a desert environment. See the Pathfinder Core Rulebook page 430 for more information on that.

Star Wars Episode IV C-3PO and the Krayt Dragon Bones on TatooineBones Perhaps it was once a large native creature, such as a blue dragon. Or maybe it was a pack animal brought here by travelers, or simply a wild creature who became lost. It could even be the remains of a creature who died here when this desert was lush and green. Wherever it came from, and whatever the cause of death, all that remain now are bones stripped clean of any meat by the persistent winds. While small creature’s bones may only be good for improvised weapons, the skeletal remains of a blue dragon or dinosaur could potentially provide a good vantage point for archers, or just an interesting environment in which to fight. Hopefully the players don’t try to use it as a landmark, however, since the nature of a shifting sea of sand is that it will sometimes completely conceal the presence of these bones under a dune of sand.

Geological Formations
Big rocks are, without a doubt, the coolest thing about deserts. The unique element of sand constantly being blown around seems to create an environment where literally any kind of rock formation imaginable can theoretically be produced. The sheer level of variety makes it impossible to discuss in any meaningful way. Instead, here are a number of photographs of interesting desert rock formations. Let your imagination run wild here. Click any of the thumbnails for larger versions.

Amazing Geological Formation 1

Amazing Geological Formation 2

Amazing Geological Formation 3

Amazing Geological Formation 4

Amazing Geological Formation 5

Amazing Geological Formation 6

Amazing Geological Formation 7

Amazing Geological Formation 8

Amazing Geological Formation 9

Dungeons and Dragons Sandstorm Cover SmallNot to sound like an advertisement, but if you like the options which a hot desert environment provides, and would like to run a session or even a campaign in a desert environment, you might consider picking up Sandstorm. It’s one of the better Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 supplement, and it manages to retain most of its relevance in the Pathfinder system. The only reason it was cut from my recent list is because I thought it would be odd to mention it without the other “Environment Books” (Frostburn, Cityscape, etc), which I don’t yet own and have not read. The book contains a lot of great information on running sessions in a dry desert, as well as some really cool desert monsters and specific locations to adventure in. I’ve wanted to find a use for the “Dry Lich” monster for ages. Now that I’ve got myself all hyped up to give deserts a try, I just might get a chance…

Spicing Up The Battlemat: Water

Ocean waves crashing against a rock, causing a spray of water. After my previous post about improving D&D/Pathfinder battlefield environments went up, someone asked me via my twitter feed what combat would be like in water. The thought made me cringe. Water is a difficult environment for a number of reasons. Chief amongst them is that attempting to perform actions in water can slow the movement of a game down to a crawl. There’s also the fact that it’s much more difficult to represent three dimensional movement on a battlemat, and the fact that water tends to be pretty uniform and uninteresting as a combat environment.

Despite those factors which make water a headache, there are times when water combat is appropriate or even required. Players love to do things like sail ships, or explore sunken cities, and in a world like Pathfinder’s, monsters lurk anywhere an adventurer might wish to go. So, with the hopes of making myself a better GM, I took some time today to consider water combat, and how it might affect gameplay. I divided the problem up into three sub categories: shallow water, deep water, and under water, each of which is detailed separately below. It also helps to be familiar with the swim skill (Pathfinder Core Rulebook page 108) and the water dangers section of the environment chapter (Pathfinder Core Rulebook page 445)

Keep in mind that these are primarily ideas for use on-the-fly by GMs. None of these are intended to be house ruled mechanics for water combat. Nor is are these lists intended to be a comprehensive gathering of everything which could happen to a character while fighting in or on water.

Shallow Water
A shallow water combat environment is defined as one in which the players are standing on their feet in some depth of water. Examples might include a stream or river, or near the shore of any larger body of water such as a lake or sea.

  • Speed: In water up to a character’s knees, speed should be reduced by 5. In water up to a character’s waist or higher should reduce movement speed by half. Keep in mind that different size characters will deal with these issues at different depths of water.
  • Strong Current: If there is a strong current present, the GM should be aware of it. Moving against the current could further reduce a character’s speed by 5, while moving with it might increase a character’s speed by 5. A character’s speed in shallow water should never exceed their land speed unless they decide to start floating and allow the currents to propel them.
  • Slippery Rocks: Underwater stones in shallow water make poor footholds. If a character is walking on slippery stones, moving at their full available speed, many standard actions such as attacking, or taking damage, should force them to make a reflex save (DC 10-12) or fall prone. Moving at half their available speed, or using a full round action to perform a standard action, gives a character enough time to find solid footing, which won’t require any save.
  • Stuck Foot: Any time a character makes a move action, there is a chance that the character’s foot may become stuck. Either by becoming lodged between two rocks, or sucked down into a muddy riverbed. When this happens, a character may either use a move action to free it, or if he or she is willing to lose their shoe, a swift action. Determining where a foot can get stuck is best handled by the GM making secret notation of which spaces can potentially snag a character, and rolling a secret reflex save (DC: 8-12) for the character when they pass through those squares.
  • Natural Caltrops: In a rocky area, or a fresh riverbed, there’s always the possibility that the player may encounter stones which have not yet been eroded smooth. In some cases these stones may even be quite jagged, and act as natural caltrops (Pathfinder Core Rulebook Page 155) which “attack” at a -2 penalty. Placement of these sharp stones is best handled the same way that “foot sticking spots” are described above.
  • Changing Depth: Keep in mind that depths change in all manner of water environments. Not only might there be sudden sink holes (which can be treated as pit traps which the character must make perception checks to be aware of), but even a gradual change in depth can be tactically significant in combat.
  • Forced Drowning: Even in shallow water, drowning is a possibility. If attempting to drown a character in shallow water, the attacker must first grapple the victim and pin them. As when being “moved” into a hazardous location, pinning an opponent in these circumstances grants them a free attempt to break the grapple at a +4 bonus. Drowning is then handled as detailed in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook on page 445.

Deep Water
A deep water combat environment is defined as one which the characters cannot touch the bottom, and must swim in order to stay above the surface. Examples might include a pond, lake, or sea. It is important to note that shallow/deep water is more dependent on character height than on water depth. four or five foot deep water may still be considered shallow for a human, but for a gnome or halfling it would be considered deep.

  • Concentrating On Swimming: Characters with less than 10 ranks in swim should lose their dexterity bonus to AC. Considering that a character in any significant armor would likely be unable to swim at all, any non-aquatic participants would likely have low AC due to this.
  • Distracting Yourself: Taking a standard action, such as attacking, while in deep water should require a DC:12 swim check to stay afloat, or the character will go under water as described under the swim skill (Pathfinder Core Rulebook page 108) This assumes calm water. DCs should be adjusted for more difficult water.
  • Forced Drowning: In deep water, attempting to drown an opponent requires less effort than in shallow water. A grapple check is still required, however rather than pinning the victim, the attacker need only “move” the victim down whilst pushing themselves up. As above, this entitles the victim to a free attempt to break the grapple at a +4 bonus.
  • Slow Moving: Attack and damage rolls for characters swimming in deep water should receive a -4 penalty for light weapons, and a -8 penalty for larger weapons.
  • Waves: When the water being fought in contains waves, they can easily interrupt combat. The combatants should be hit by waves every 2d4 rounds. When hit by the wave, characters are moved 1d4 spaces in a random direction along the wave’s path. Characters are also Dazed for 1 round. A character who uses a move action can avoid becoming dazed.
  • Currents: While currents are unlikely to move two combating characters apart, the characters will none the less be moved about by them. The longer the combat continues, the further away from their starting point they will be.
  • Splashing Obstruction: If there is excessive action, the air around the characters may become filled with splashing water. In that case, both characters are granted concealment. (25% miss chance on a successful hit.)

Under Water
Under water combat is actually what the question which sparked this post was about. Underwater action is easily the most difficult kind. By necessity, being underwater for extended periods of time requires something which allows the characters to survive without oxygen; whether it’s a potion they consumed, a primitive scuba suit, or even a unique kind of starfish which filters the air out of the water. For simplicity, I will assume that whatever mechanism allows the character to be underwater is unobtrusive.

  • Deep Water: Concentrating on Swimming, Slow Moving, and Currents as described in the Deep Water section above would likely work the same way when under water.
  • Three Dimensions: While this can be tricky to use on the mat, one of the biggest advantages to underwater combat. Foes can lie in ambush 100 yards above or below the PCs without being noticed, simply because the PCs aren’t used to threats from above and below. In combat, height and depth can be more easily identified by placing pennies on the battle mat. A character 4 spaces above the ground would have 4 pennies next to their character’s miniature on the battle mat. If the ground is significantly far away, define a baseline depth, and characters can use pennies for each space above that baseline, and dimes for each space below it.
  • Loss of Breath: Whatever allows characters to breathe underwater is a target. If it’s a Ring of Water Breathing it can be sundered. If there is a spell in place, it can be dispelled. Whatever the method in play, don’t be afraid to force your players to prioritize breathing above defeating their foes.
  • Blurry Vision: Most land-lubber eyes are not designed to see underwater. Unless goggles or some other method is being used, any attack made by a character whose species evolved on land should be subject to a 25% miss chance.

While using these, always remember that the point of role playing games is to have fun. If one of these mechanics is slowing down your battle and making everybody at the table bored, either don’t use it, or find some other method to speed things along so the players can start having fun again.

Spicing Up The Battlemat: Forests

Woodland Stream Through a Forested AreaIn the first RPG-related post I made on this blog, I wrote about the importance of adding variety to any battlefield. Even as I posted it, however, I knew it wasn’t enough. The topic is not only rich with detail to be discussed and dissected, but it is essential. Combat is one of the most exciting elements in an RPG, and for D&D/Pathfinder in particular, it plays a central role. Skimping on the options available to our players in combat is not a good idea, and environments provide a great deal of those options.

I think the best way to approach this subject is environment-by-environment. I’ll be starting with one of my all-time favorite environments: forests. These are nothing if not filled with diverse forms of plant life and other obstacles to make combat more interesting. I spent most of the evening making a random chart for my own use, which anyone is, of course, free to use. And below, I’ll discuss each of the elements more in depth, giving some of my own thoughts on how a player might use the items presented to his or her advantage.

Meadows are large grassy areas which can sometimes be found in or around forests. They normally form around water, and are often filled with flowers and bees. If nothing else, a battle here is dramatic, with violence being juxtaposed with flowers. And, for those less interested in poetry, there’s always drowning your opponent in the nearby water source.

Clearings Similar to a meadow, but smaller. Often the result of an old forest fire which opened up an area which the forest has not yet fully reclaimed. More typical forest elements will be present here than in a meadow, and after enough fights amidst trees, the lack of them can seem like a good change up.

Sparse,Medium, & Dense Trees These gradations of tree size and frequency allow for different tactics. While even sparse trees might force a bullrushing fighter to change his tactics, a rogue with intent to hit-and-run through an entire combat will only become more effective the denser the trees become.

Exposed Roots Everyone whose ever gone walking in the woods has tripped over exposed roots now and again. A trip hazard like that could be a detriment–or a boon–in combat.

Fallen Logs Nature’s handy half-wall, ready to protect a diving character from the evil wizard’s Cone of Cold.

Fresh Fallen Tree Nature’s handy half-wall, still covered with protruding branches to make getting over it more difficult.

Low Hanging Branches My ladyfriend informs me that trees with low hanging branches are more rare than I had originally thought. However, as I understand it, they do exist. And aside from making climbing easier, there’s always the opportunity to take some inspiration from slapstick comedy and bend a branch back so it can spring back into position and potentially deal bludgeoning damage to a foe.

Hollow Trees I suppose that once a tree is hollow it’s normally more of a stump than a tree. However, they still make excellent hiding places from which to launch an ambush mid-combat.

Stumps Instant higher ground!

Stream/Pond/Spring Small bodies of water offer a number of tactical choices. Not only can you potentially drown a foe in them (handy for getting rid of spellcasters with low strength, who could turn you into a toad if you let them speak) but if you can cross them more quickly than your opponent, you force them to put themselves at a temporary disadvantage whilst they cross it.

Waterfall Like the meadow, this is great for drama. However, for characters with excellent balance, it also provides them with slippery rocks to fight on. If this lures less-graceful foes onto the treacherous footing, the more well balanced character gains a significant advantage.

Dry Creek Bed This provides an excellent means of stealth for players with a surprise round. Just drop into the creek bed, move along it until you’re positioned favorably compared to your foes, then pop up and strike! Just be sure you’re stealthy enough that you don’t end up fighting from the low ground.

Gradual/Steep Slope While the Pathfinder core rulebook does not list slopes as potential forest elements, every environment has some variations in elevation. Slopes are the most basic element in creating a tactics-rich environment, and should not be neglected.

Boulder/Rock Formation In addition to providing the same benefits as any high ground, some special circumstances may even allow for a powerful barbarian or fighter to move the mighty boulder, dropping it off a cliff or down a hill onto his or her foes.

Ditch/Cliff With a potential depth of 2d6 feet, knocking a foe into a ditch or off of a cliff may deal worthwhile falling damage.

Thorn Bush There are so many uses for the thorn bush. Not only is there the potential to deal damage to unarmored foes, but a particularly tangled bush might require an escape artist check to get away from.

English Ivy This prolific and fast-growing ivy wraps itself around everything, especially trees. And can grow strong enough to provide hand and footholds for climbing.

Irritating Plant While not likely to turn the tide of battle, it felt wrong to ignore the potential amusements offered by poison ivy, oak, or any other poisonous plants.

Wasp nest / Ant Hill While I avoided including animals in this chart, insect nests are too common to leave out. The benefits of using these against your enemies, and the dangers of not being mindful of them, should be obvious.

Once again, if you’re interested, check out the PDF I made, detailing a method to randomly generate forest elements for your battlefield. While it is functional and, I believe, very useful; it could certainly use improvement. I’ll take any criticism into consideration.

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