• Justin Handlin

Dungeons & Dragons: How to Create Epic Combat Encounters Part 2 | Interesting Battlefields


Ranger in the forest fighting plant monster

Do you want to build epic Dungeons & Dragons combat encounters?

Then check out this article on “How to Create Epic D&D Combat Encounters: Part 2: Interesting Battlefields”.


If you missed it, you can read Part 1, where I discuss monster roles.


Today I want to continue the “How to Create Epic D&D Combat Encounters” series. As this is a complex topic, this blog will likely take more than one part. At its core, Dungeons and Dragons is a series of encounters. These encounters take various forms, the most notable and rule-heavy is the combat encounter. It’s very easy to get caught up in the simple trade blow for blow combat style when building encounters. While there is nothing wrong with this, it is certainly the least entertaining combat encounter. A complex encounter requires a number of layers to be truly epic. For the second part of the series, we are going to discuss interesting battlefields.


Zendikar Forest Sunpetal Grove
Art: Compliments of Wizards of the Coast

Part of what makes Dungeon & Dragons so amazing is the wonderful landscapes and vistas we imagine our characters visiting. These locales range from majestic floating islands, frozen tundras, intricately crafted flying airships. From rotten-smelling swamps, scorching volcanoes to dark damp cavern complexes. While the number of areas our characters delve into is vast to be sure. This often gets tossed to the wayside when it comes to combat. With the exception of something more obvious like a volcano full of lava. There, one wrong step can mean your character’s toes melt together. As a Dungeon Master you can easily enhance the combat by allowing features of the location to influence the way combat unfolds.


I want to share with you some common approaches to designing combat with interesting battlefields. It's important to remember, while we can completely create new mechanics for these interesting battlefields, it’s not necessary in most cases. Most spells, classes, or monster mechanics probably have something you’re looking for. As adults, we learn quickly that prep time is precious and we want to focus on the important stuff as much as possible. I mentioned some exotic places above, but since most D&D games take place in more generalized areas. I will be using three common locales to give some mechanics that we can add to make it far more interesting during combat.


Interesting Battlefields for your Dungeons and Dragons game.


When deciding on what to add to the encounter, we want to start with evaluating objects that exist in the locale that can conceivably be used during a battle. Keep in mind, our focus is to make the battlefield most interesting. This can take a myriad of different forms. While ways to deal additional damage are common, let's instead focus on features that may be able to give the player characters OR the enemies some sort of advantage.


If your characters aren’t thinking to do this, make sure to have them roll intelligence checks to give them tips on these mechanics they can exploit. If that doesn’t work, have the monsters use them.


Tavern.

The tavern is hands down the locale our characters spend the most time in. Likely your party has burned down their fair share. Yet, still claim to be the heroes. Though, that’s a tangent for another day


The first thing that comes to mind in a tavern is all the random objects that can be used as improvised weapons. Chairs, tankards of ale, broken wine bottles, etc. We want to encourage the use of these objects during the battle. We also want to make sure we don’t step on too many class feature toes such as the “Tavern Brawler” Feat. An increase to damage per hit is a little on point. So instead, let's grant all improvised weapons in the tavern a new feature.


On a hit, the next attack roll is made against the target before the start of your next turn. The attacker can roll a d4 and add the number rolled to the attack roll.

This is fun because it allows the player characters to have a bit of fun with random objects as well rewards each person who continues to use improvised items. Keep in mind, this can also apply to the monsters if you so wish. Which can make for a hilarious time.


Taverns are often full of patrons who may or may not be in on a barroom brawl. In any case, the area is often packed with bodies. This can make movement extremely difficult. Additionally, swinging large weapons may lead to a passerby getting hurt. For this, I recommend making the area difficult terrain and adding the “cleaving through creatures” combat option in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Make sure to make it clear that any two-handed weapons could potentially hurt someone besides the target. But keep it vague. That way, if the big barbarian decides to swing his greataxe and slay an enemy, the weight carries to a random nearby npc.


Also, don’t forget to encourage the kicking over tables to create cover from enemy attacks. It's a staple after all.


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Forest

Next to taverns, forests are probably the second most common battlefield locale in D&D. Here we have a lot to play with. My personal favorite is living vines. In a world of fantasy, magic takes on many shapes and forms. When it comes to forests, this means bringing the entire area to life. This can be harmful and beneficial. When I wrote Fantastic Terrain, I got to include one of my favorite concepts. Vines and tendrils that tend to grab and restrain a creature that is knocked down into them. These patches of stringing vines of living flora aren’t really enough to bother anyone while they are upright and walking through them. It becomes a different story if they are knocked prone while in an area of grasping vines. I recommend using the entangle spell as a feature of the area. But only affects prone targets. You can adjust the DC to fit the party’s level. It’s a great way to allow a character such as a Druid or Ranger to make an Intelligence (Nature) check to potentially identify the grasping vines. This way they know the dangers. Of course, creatures in the area are also familiar with them. So having encounters with enemies from the Monster Manual that have a lot of knock-down features such as the bulette, boar, or dire wolf.


The forest is littered with mold, mushrooms and a plethora of other natural growths. The green slime in the Dungeon Master's Guide is a fantastic addition to a battlefield. You can use it as is or change it to be a bush an enemy can be tossed into. Green slime is prevalent in my forest adventures and is a constant hazard for when the characters get lost in the wilderness.


Related Articles: Weapon Perks: Enhance player combat dynamics. Allow each weapon to feel unique.

Boat.

Naval battles are perhaps one of my favorite types of battle. It can really allow you to have a lot of fun experimenting with different mechanics. Considering a few things about this battlefield, the fact you can toss someone overboard and temporarily remove them from combat is a powerful tool. But, of course, this can also happen to the player characters as well. The larger the vessel, the more difficult it is to return to the deck.


In my games I want this to happen more and more. Additionally, I want it to be more of a concern than just getting wet. I recommend tossing a few hunter sharks or even one big giant shark. This immediately makes the combat a bit more worrisome. What was once just an inconvenience is now a real concern.


Now, the problem is that this relies on the monsters and characters making an effort. Well we can’t have that now, can we? Part of being on a boat is the potential for high waves. When this happens the boat rocks back and forth. So I think giving the boat a Lair Action is perfect for this. With the ship tossing and turning and water splashing on the deck, it's likely to be a bit slippery and cause people to slide around. So at the top of the round, every creature on the deck must succeed on a moderate DC Dexterity saving throw or slide 10 feet in a random direction (adjust for boat size as needed). A creature that fails by 5 or more slides 15 feet instead.


This simple change makes the battle far more interesting and fun. With the threat of being eaten alive in the water, those Dexterity saving throws become high tension moments. Especially for characters at low hit points.


If you really want to take it up a notch, reduce the strength and damage of the tsunami spell in the Player's Handbook and add it during a storm as a lair action will catch your characters by surprise. I hope they thought to tie themselves off.


While these are just a few details to make these battlefields interesting. The options are only limited to your imagination and what makes sense to be part of the battlefield. When you do features like this. Make sure to give advantage to any characters who may be in a favorable situation. For instance, on the boat, a character with the sailor background may have advantage on saving throws against the sliding effect, or may even think to let everyone know to tie themselves off.


Regardless of the battlefield, your combat takes place on, consider the environment and how it can play into the combat encounter. Sometimes stuff may just come to you on the fly, and that’s ok. For example, I once had a player character cast the thunderwave spell at a high level in the mountains. I took a moment to think about it. Then decided that the thundering noise would cause some boulders to come loose and roll down the mountain. Next thing my characters knew…they were trying to avoid boulders. All I did was use the rolling sphere trap in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and BAM! A crushing battlefield encounter.


Now go forth! Bring interesting battlefield mechanics to your Dungeons & Dragons game to the delight or potential misery of your players! Subscribe to your Youtube Channel for more ways to improve your Dungeon Master skills!


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