I was just reading DM David’s latest post, about “locations and (monster) tactics that encourage dynamic combat scenes“. As always with his excellent blog there are some great ideas there.
One thing he didn’t cover though was specific terrain features that can turn a drab, barren grid into a dynamic combat environment, so I felt inspired to do just that.
…the most memorable moments in a fight often come through a PC interacting with their environment in a creative way.
Apart from creating additional obstacles and interests, terrain features – be they humble bushes or a series of a crate of ripe melons ready to be tipped over – can be used, by the resourceful player, as cover, to hide, or for some other tactical advantage. In my experience, the most memorable moments in a fight often come through a PC interacting with their environment in a creative way.
Let’s create two lists… wilderness terrain features and indoors terrain features.
Wilderness Terrain Features
Boulders or rocks (some massive, others that could double as weapons)
Stepping stones or giant lillypads
Slippery log bridge
Lake (with jetty, and moored boats)
Crumbling ruins of an ancient temple
Hut, shed or barn
Windmill or watermill
Crate of ripe melons
Long grass, meadow or wheat field
Scarecrow (not the monster… or is it?)
Vines (to swing on)
Pack of wild dogs
Nest of poisonous vipers
Stampede of buffalo / elephants / dinosaurs
Bog (with bloodsucking leeches)
Gorge or canyon
Hill, slope or ravine
Moss-covered skeleton of a long-dead dragon
Bales of dry hay
Plants that give off poisonous spores
A tree that is really a treant
A huge savage beast that doesn’t like you or your foes
Zone of slowness
Since you’re outdoors, don’t forget to consider what the weather is like (as well as whether it’s night or day time). Some conditions that could seriously affect the outcome of any fight are…
An impenetrable mist (range attacks impossible)
Driving rain (range attacks with disadvantage, roll DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) every round not to fall prone on slippery ground)
Snowstorm or sandstorm
Freak hailstorm of small rocks which does 1d4 bludgeoning damage a round to anyone in it…
Solar or lunar eclipse
Dungeon or Indoor Terrain Features
Stalactites / stalagmites
Bridge (natural stone or rope? Or broken?)
Underground river (is that water or acid?)
Underground lake (with a ravenous beast inside)
Tables and chairs
Steps and staircases (trapped?)
Coffins or tombs
Barrels (full of oil)
Prisoners in hanging cages
Columns, pillars and plinths
Mirrors (…or mirror maze!)
Slippery, polished marble floor
Arrow slits (from which baddies pepper you with crossbow bolts)
Walls that start to close in
Water that starts to rise
Gas that starts to fill the room
Floortiles that randomly give way to spiked pits
Levers that set off various traps
Swarm of plague-carrying rats
Lots of confusing illusions
Animated armour and weapons
Lift / elevator
Mining cart and tracks
Strategically placed glyphs of warding
Giant moving cogs
Jets of hot steam
Cauldron of steaming liquid
Giant, swinging thurible
Zone of silence
Ropers hanging from the ceiling
What did I miss? Please pipe up in the comments. Damn, pipes.
Of course pimping the terrain is just one way to make combat more interesting, and hopefully this got the juices flowing, but there are plenty more tricks the wily DM can pull out of their toolbox to spice things up when the d20s start a’rollin’. No doubt I’ll return to this topic in due course.
Personally, I feel you should add on to this with hazardous terrain the players themselves can create through the use of certain items or spells before or during combat. This suggestion is something that came to me after watching YouTube videos of Baldur’s Gate III, where the Acid Splash cantrip is able to leave behind a puddle of acid at the spell’s point of impact, which I will use as my primary case and point example for what I’m suggesting.
Good idea, although I think that would be more a separate ‘player strategy’ article about changing the environment to get a tactical advantage in combat, whereas this article was intended to help DMs create more interesting encounters.
Anyway may well write the article you’re hinting at in the future! Will put it in my draft posts.
Some urban terrain features are notable for their absence from this list. Stuff like:
Guardsman (who does he think is at fault?)
Good call! Probably countless more if we go urban…
Carts / wagons
Tied up horses
Heap of dung
And no doubt many more!