Tonight I had the final and epic battle of a short 3 adventure campaign I ran for my regular group and a long lost gaming buddy who returned to us for a limited 3 month run. I’m happy to say that things went smoothly, everyone had a lot of fun, and the good guys won out in the end. Yet when I think back over tonight I’ve come to realize that the most memorable battle for me wasn’t the final encounter with the nasty evil menace, it was one of the previous encounters. The reason it sticks out in my mind, at least to me, has to do with the fight environment.
The more interesting battle took place in a temple that was built deep underneath a lake. It was filled with air, but the bottom level had the corners open out into the lake and channels of water that flowed around the room. Every round one of the channels would fill with water and try to wash away whoever was foolish enough to stand in them. It featured enemies who could swim and who understood the terrain.
This area forced the players and characters to think about where they moved and opened up some interesting tactical considerations and roleplaying moments. The poor swordmage got pushed into a channel of flowing water by the tail slap of a lizard man, but she managed to escape thanks to the quick thinking of her friends. That was interesting. It was dynamic. It was memorable!
The final battle, in contrast, took place in the village where the nasty monster from beyond the stars crawled out of the well. Sure, it had a lot of interesting things in the environment to use, but none of the players were forced to interact with them, or even encouraged. The fight was tougher, sure, but it was less interesting because the environment was so darn passive.
These days I think that an environment that changes the field of battle and provides interesting ways to use it is far preferrable to stagnant and passive environments. Especially in a game so tactically crunchy as 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve stopped thinking about the battlefield as a passive place and started treating it more like a monster or active participant in a fight. The terrain should move, or provide new options in a fight, or even just provide some really interesting set dressing.
Sure, this concept isn’t new to roleplaying and I’m sure that a lot of you out there have done this for years. I’ve done it myself once in a while, but this is the first time since I started running games where it’s in the front of my mind. And let me tell you right now, that’s a really good thing! It’s made my fights more interesting and memorable and really forced me to think about how the players might actually move about a space. It makes things seem more real.
So, the next time you’re planning that epic battle for your group, sit down and really thinkg about where it’s going to take place. See what you can do to make the battle more interesting by spicing up the environment. You might be surprised what a difference it makes!