Of all the ideas that were never meant to be, my “Spicing up the Battlemat” series is among those I most regret not following through with. If you’re not familiar with those posts, don’t feel bad, because they’re fuckin’ old. Not just “Back when I used to write about Pathfinder” old. They’re, like, “literally the first post on this blog” old. There are children who were born after I abandoned that series, who are now old enough to attend school.
The premise of the series is solid: combat in D&D is more interesting when the players have environmental factors to play with. Like chasms to push their foes into, chandeliers to swing on, etc. To better facilitate the inclusion of such factors, each post focused on a given biome, and what interesting environmental features might exist there. I even included all those maddening Pathfinder mechanics in an effort to make it quick to run at the table.
Anyway, earlier this year while I was working on Bubblegum Berzerk, my coauthor and I had a minor disagreement about the way rooms should be described. The details of that argument are boring and irrelevant, but by the end of it I had reached two conclusions:
- He was totally right, and I was totally wrong.
- The problem I set out to solve with “Spicing Up the Battlemat” is still a problem in my games, and in many other OSR games I’ve played in.
Don’t get me wrong, the OSR engine is much better at handling interesting environments than Pathfinder is. The “rulings, not rules” philosophy is basically meant to cover this exact sort of thing. OSR games don’t need somebody to help them determine exactly what the composition of local trees is. BUT, allowing players the agency to tinker with their environment is only a job half done. The referee also needs to give the players something to tinker with.
If the referee says “Goblins pop out from behind the trees and move to attack,” it creates a mental space for the players that looks like this:
We know we’re in a forest, but that’s just set dressing for a straightforward combat on a flat plane.
With barely any extra mental effort, however, the referee can say “Goblins pop out from behind the trees and move to attack. The trees here are thick, with low hanging branches. There’s a shallow creek a dozen feet to the East.”
Suddenly the players are in a much more diverse environment. Just those two details give them something to think about. And that, in turn, will get them asking questions.
“Are there birds in the trees?”
“Is the creek bank a gentle slope, or is there a drop?”
“Are there roots sticking out of the ground anywhere?”
However you answer these questions–yes, no, or maybe–will impact how the players choose to fight. All you’ve gotta do is get those two details in there at the start.
To aide myself in doing this better, I could write a table. That’s certainly in my wheelhouse, but it wouldn’t actually be very helpful. I’m not going to keep a bunch of tables on hand, and roll them at the start of every random encounter. Instead, I’ve distilled the problem down to two questions: “What is the dominant feature of the environment like?” and “What else is here?”
What is the dominant feature of the environment like?
The dominant feature of most environments should be obvious. If you’re in a forest, the dominant feature is trees. In a desert, it’s probably sand, or maybe rocks. In swamps, you’ve got fetid water. Whatever the dominant feature is, you should be able to come up with some unusual detail.
Trees are an easy example. They can be sparse, or dense. They can be covered in vines, or moss, have rough bark, or be dripping with sap. They can have low hanging branches, or none at all. They can be rotten, or growing at a strange angle. They can have large leaves, or animal nests, or any number of other features.
Likewise, sand can be loose, or packed tightly, or it can rise and fall in dunes of large or small size. Sand can be still, or blowing into your face, or blowing at your back.
What else is here?
Forests are not just a bunch of trees. The dominant feature of an environment is never going to be all there is, there’s always going to be something else there to play with. Rocks show up pretty much in every environment, for example, and they can be any size, from pebbles that create unsure footing, to stones ready to be used as improvised bludgeons, to boulders ready to be climbed on.
In a forest, there might be bushes or water features. In a plain, there might be tumbleweeds or mima mounds or sinkholes, in a desert there could be a copse of cacti, or some vultures circling overhead. Elevation works in pretty much any environment: the land rising and falling in gentle slopes or steep cliffs.
You don’t need me to write an exhaustive list here. You’ve been outside. When you picture a forest, of course there are trees, but…what else?