Shorter adventures break up the campaign story into chunks that are easy for the Dungeon Master to run and easy for the players to understand.

The Demon Queen's Enclave adventure cover

"Behold for it is I, the demon queen . . . who is really a drow . . . or maybe I am one of her lieutenants. I suddenly wish my picture had more context."

My first experience with Dungeons and Dragons 4e was as a player in Demon Queen’s Enclave. One of my buddies had picked up the adventure, and he wanted to give a shot at DMing a paragon tier adventure. Two years and three more levels of twice-a-month gaming later, we had vanquished the evil drow queen and what seemed likely to be every other drow within a five hundred mile radius. The adventure was fun, and it served its role well as a stand-alone paragon mini-campaign. Outside of that context, I would have hated it.

This is not a review of Demon Queen’s Enclave, nor is this a criticism of my friend’s DMing skills, which were solid. This is a critique of the long adventure as a tool that is frequently used by both game designers and game masters.

The adventure is probably the core trope of swords & sorcery style games. Heroes get a quest, go on the adventure, and then come back home with loot in hand and experience under their belts. It is classic, and it provides a solid narrative framework on which to hang the story. Problems can arise, however, as stories grow more complex.

At its core, Demon Queen’s Enclave is a neat story about warring factions within a drow city. The heroes travel through the underdark to the city, explore the city, and then navigate another plane in their quest to destroy the drow matron. Along the way, the heroes must negotiate or fight with the different factions who wish to use them as pawns. By itself, this is not a problem – it is, in fact, a pretty solid adventure concept. The problem lies in the details, and the details are what made this adventure worth three levels of encounters.

When in Doubt, Cut it Out

Typical of many adventures, Demon Queen’s Enclave was rife with encounters that contributed little to the story. Fighting spiders on a bridge over a chasm was certainly heroic, and it was a fun encounter, but at the end of the battle we had progressed the story no further than simply conquering another challenge. The encounter itself was story-neutral. This was true for many of the encounters. Truthfully, these encounters often did reveal some small bit of culture or interesting flavor, but these bits could have been communicated just as easily through narration or a briefer exploration segment.

Taking this lesson to our own tables, it is important that we look at each encounter we design and consider if it is really necessary. Some adventures need a few filler encounters to make the challenge sufficient for the players. In long, complex adventures, however, filler encounters rarely help things. Instead, they just take time away from the real meat of the story.

Make it Fast and Difficult

As GMs, we should look for ways to make our adventures exciting and challenging. No one gets upset that an adventure only has three encounters if they are three great encounters that leave the party hanging by a thread at the end. Players appreciate a story that is told with brief, meaningful, powerful segments.

The mid-heroic climax adventure for one of the parties in my campaign had only four encounters:

  1. A battle between the elven army of Rhuobhe Manslayer and the army of men under the PCs
  2. A large combat encounter where the heroes began isolated from each other and engaged with elven skirmishers and soldiers
  3. A skill challenge to represent the heroes lead their army into the elven tree city
  4. The climactic battle between the Manslayer and the heroes’ mentor in the narrow walkways and rope bridges of the tree city, where the heroes had to use that distraction to accomplish another goal

Two encounters, an army-scale battle (using house rules), and a skill challenge – that is it. I told my entire story in two game sessions and with roughly half a level’s worth of experience award. The action was fast and furious, and then it was over.

The big advantage of this strategy is time. The group had plenty of time for role-playing, debating strategies, and doing all sorts of things besides the “required content”. They players got a full narrative arc in a brief period of time, and they could easily follow the story through the adventure.

Dealing with Complexity

Not all stories can be easily crammed into a single adventure of four challenges. Most good stories need much more time and complexity to be addressed in a meaningful way. How can we tell complex stories using shorter adventures? The answer is chapters.

While each adventure should be a full narrative arc n its own right, those arcs can be assembled into a larger picture. The adventure I describe above was the climactic chapter in a story that lasted over many adventures. The players got to make difficult choices, plan out long-term strategies, and explore the world while still knowing that any given story chunk would remain a digestible size. Authors use this technique in novels and in plays; we should do the same in our games.

The Tomb of Horrors book cover

Raiding Acererack's tomb never gets old.

More recent “super-adventures” published by Wizards of the Coast follow this strategy. The most recent iteration of the Tomb of Horrors provides for several adventures that move its plot forward, with space available in between for the DM to add in custom campaign content. Madness at Gardmore Abbey is similar, but it goes one step further and weaves a framework where there is no one set path to the conclusion – adventures can be accomplished in different orders and with different approaches.

Breaking up stories into multiple adventures makes the entire structure easier for the players to wrap their brains around. It helps avoid the feeling of, “Are we still in this dungeon?” Most importantly, it pushes the DM to craft scenarios whose challenge takes place in a limited, more intense range, which is more fun for everyone.

How do you craft adventures in your home game? Is there a certain number of encounters that you find to be ideal? What has your experience been with pacing when running published adventures?

a black raven silhouette above the words, "Winter is Coming: An RPG Blog Festival"

The Winter is Coming blog festival is in full force, organized Jim (Wombat) White. You should really check it out. Many skilled writers and game designers have contributed all sorts of winter-themed content. This is a great opportunity to introduce your players to the harsh realities of a frozen adventure.

Instead of writing my usual post here on Blood, Sweat, and Dice today, I encourage you to drop by Wombat’s Gaming Den of Iniquity and check out my guest post there. By now you know my love for terrain powers, and this guest post give you three new terrain powers for a snowy and icy environment. These powers are useful on any wintry battle map, but they are specifically designed to be compatible with the Caverns of Icewind Dale dungeon tile set.

Please, check out my guest post and take a look at the other articles  in the carnival. I will monitor the article and try to respond to any comments or questions, like I always do. Thanks for reading!

Skill challenges can vary from the norms established in the Rules Compendium. Pass-or-total-failure checks can make for intense moments.

a gnollThis past week, the heroes in my game decided to sneak through a forest occupied by gnoll raiders. This seemed like a great opportunity for a skill challenge, but I always try to deviate from the proscribed norm in my skill challenges. I want every skill challenge to be different and feel unique in some way. Some level of mechanical repetition cannot be helped, but I do try to keep it fresh.

For this challenge, I took a moment to consider the culture of the gnolls in the area. Gnolls, at least in my game, rarely manage to band together into anything larger than a pack. Any groups of gnolls patrolling the woods would likely be much more interested in saving their own skin than in alerting the others or sending for help. If the party acted tough enough, they could probably discourage the cowardly gnolls from harming them.

For skills, I ran with:

  • Nature - for navigating the forest and finding their goal within
  • Athletics - for setting a brisk pace and helping the party to traverse the difficult terrain
  • Stealth - for avoiding the gnoll packs that patrol the woods

In a skill challenge, I require every player to contribute before anyone can try a second time, so I set my DCs to Medium. That would be enough of a challenge for untrained players, but it would give players that excelled in that skill a chance to shine. Eight required successes seemed like a fair number and would keep the challenge going for a bit without taking up too much time.

I did not want to use the normal failure mechanic in this challenge, so I decided to change it up. Failure at any skill would induce an immediate pass-or-total-failure skill check. In this case, I figured that a gnoll pack would get too close for comfort on a failed skill challenge roll, and the next hero would need to frighten the cowards off immediately or else the challenge would end. Play ran something like this:

Matt: “Liriel, how are you helping the party?”

Leanne: “I am going to use my elven grace to walk ahead and try to find the easiest path for the humans.”

Matt: “Okay, roll a Nature check.”

Leanne: ::rolls:: ::sighs:: “I got a thirteen.”

Matt: “This is just taking too much time – you cannot find an easy path for your friends to take, which slows down the party. The pack of gnolls you saw in the distance has decided to close on you while your movements are limited by the terrain. Miri, if you want to keep the party safe, you need to scare off these gnolls right now. Rolling an intimidate check can do that.”

Janna: “Oh yeah, I have got this. Miri lifts her spear high above her head and lets loose a blood-curdling cry.” ::does a fantastic Xena-style battle cry:: ::rolls:: “Twenty-nine! Who’s your barbarian?”

Matt: “The gnolls stop short of reaching you, thinking better of a confrontation. You are safe, for now.”

Failure on a skill check during the challenge meant that the next player needed to pass a difficult skill check for either intimidate (stated by the DM) or bluff (if suggested by the player). Failure on that second check would end the skill challenge, with a consequence based on the check that failed the challenge.

This challenge ran well. I am overt about when my players are in a skill challenge, allowing them to view it as tactical role-playing. I also have the players roll a simple initiative, with the highest player going first and then just going around the table from there. This meant that not every character was well qualified for scaring off the gnolls, and failure was a real possibility. They passed in the end, but only after two near-failures.

How do you mix up the skill challenge mechanic? What types of skill challenges would you like to see addressed in the future? How would you have handled this scenario differently?

Flowcharts provide great flexibility when planning your campaign, but they also afford enough structure to make sure you never feel lost in your own game.

A young child plays in a sandbox.Sandbox-style game play, where players are free to explore and engage in the game world in a non-linear fashion, is often held up as a sort of ideal to which game masters should aspire. Done well, it is highly engaging for the players because they feel they have a real impact on their environment. This would all be wonderful, if it were not so gosh dang difficult to manage.

The single biggest obstacle to sandbox play is that you cannot predict every possible player action. Infinite options for player choices leads to an infinite amount of work for the game master, and that is no good at all. How, then, can a game master allow for sandbox style play without increasing prep time to unreasonable levels? My solution to this problem has been flowcharts.

Flowcharts are nothing new in the world of campaign design. Masterplan is a great software tool for campaign designers in Dungeons & Dragons 4e, and it has the advantage of being able to nest flowcharts within other flowcharts. This means that you can have one flowchart for your campaign, and each adventure on that chart can have its own flowchart, connected by a clickable link. It is a pretty solid choice, and I have enjoyed using it in the past.

If you are at all familiar with Dave Chalker’s 5×5 Method, then you may have realized that it is just a different approach to flowcharts. This big advantage of the 5×5 Method, to my way of thinking, is that it balances the competing narrative forces within your campaign. If you sometimes struggle with certain parts of your narrative arc overwhelming your campaign while others remain underdeveloped, then I strongly recommend you check out Dave’s work. Wait, scratch that – check out Dave’s work anyway. You will not be disappointed by it.

I prefer to use flowcharts when designing my campaigns because they limit the amount of extra prep I need to do when creating a sandbox environment. When designing my current campaign, I found that making a flowchart of the likely PC actions gave me a good idea of what I needed to be ready for. Continue reading »

a black raven silhouette above the words, "Winter is Coming: An RPG Blog Festival"

I have a couple of news pieces I am excited to share with you.

First, I need to let you know that Winter is Coming. Jim White of Wombat’s Gaming Den of Iniquity is hosting a blog carnival to lead us into the colder months. I will be participating in this carnival, bringing you several wintry-themed terrain powers. There are many good writers in this carnival, so you should enjoy it.

Secondly, I have a new monthly article at This is My Game. If you like my writing, check out A New Game for the Mundane. In this series, I explore the potential of the old standbys that fill every hero’s equipment list.

If you have enjoyed the content on Blood, Sweat, and Dice, be sure to check out these other blogs as well. There is a lot of really good RPG stuff on the web now, and active participation can plant the seeds for excellent DMing.

Skill challenges provide a great opportunity for a unified travel mechanic.

Travel is almost always a bit of a problem in tabletop role-playing games. Should we handle it by skipping over it, as frequently happens in movies? Should we make our players tells us who is keeping watch each night? Do we just give a highlight reel to cover the most interesting parts of the travel? There is no one correct solution to the problem, but I have found one that I enjoy and use in my home games.

Begin by dividing the travel into regular segments. Days of travel are a common choice, but you can use whatever feels appropriate. Since my home game takes place in the Birthright campaign setting, I track PC travel by province, with each province equating to about one to three days of travel, depending upon the terrain.

For each segment if travel, give the party an opportunity to pass a very simple skill challenge. Each player gets one roll for the segment, and the party as a whole must pass three different skills with DCs as shown on the tables below.

If the heroes pass the skill challenge, then they move though the segment without incident. If the heroes fail the skill challenge, then trouble finds them in whatever form you, as the DM, feel is appropriate. The system is quick, easy, and allows for some role-playing of travel without addressing every aspect of the journey.

The thing that separates this skill challenge from others is that you should not change the DCs as the heroes increase in level. As the heroes gain power, travel should become easier for them. A highwayman that might try to coerce a green party into giving up their gold will steer clear of the same adventurers once they have more experience. Terrain that once was challenging can be easily crossed through magical powers or sheer tenacity. Cities are easier to navigate when the peasantry falls over themselves to help the party. If a player is guaranteed to make a roll, then do not force him or her to make it. Some parties will be able to automatically cross friendly territory without incident starting at level one, and higher-level parties will find challenges less and less often. Come roughly eighth level – which is, conveniently, the level of the Linked Portal ritual – travel problems are virtually non-existent. The unchanging DCs of the skill checks mean that the players can really feel their characters growing in power and maturing as adventurers.

The thing that I really like about this mechanic is that it gives the world some sense of danger for low-level parties, but it slowly fades from view as the party levels up and moves on to bigger and better things than the goblins outside their village.  If you really like the mechanic, it is not at all difficult to reintroduce it when the heroes travel to completely new lands or planes of existence. Drop your eleventh level heroes into the Feywild or Shadowfell, and they can experience the dangers of travel all over again, with increased DCs to correspond to their level. If your eighth level PCs enjoyed finally being able to cross the frontier with relative immunity, they could get a real kick out of doing the same in alien lands at a higher level.

Playing out travel in an interesting, concise way is difficult in most game systems. The above system might be what you need to make it work in your game.

How do you handle travel in your game at home? Does it changes based on the setting, or do you use a unified mechanic? How would you do this differently in a game set in a world with more extreme conditions, like Athas?

Swords and sorcery is the standard trope for Dungeons and Dragons, but a few rule changes can turn the game into a grittier, more “realistic” experience.

A while ago, I posted a video excerpt from The Princess Bride and broke it down as a combat encounter in Dungeons and Dragons 4e. There is a good deal of fighting, but at the end of the combat, very little meaningful damage is done to the hero. Contrast that with the gritty, dangerous combat found in Game of Thrones.

Settings like that found in Game of Thrones are a very different beast from what we normally find in D&D. In the above fight scene, Jory Cassel, captain of the guard of Winterfell and (in game terms) a fighter with a few levels under his belt, dies from a single well placed stab from Jamie Lannister. This is a world where any mook with a sword is a real threat to the heroes, regardless of level. Combat is lethal, and drawing a sword means someone is likely to die.

Some games do a great job of making combat something truly frightening. DragonQuest is a great fantasy example of this style and Traveller is a common science-fiction choice. Is combat in 4e terribly frightening?  I’d argue that it’s not really that scary at all. A hero with a few levels is no longer threatened by the city guard, and it becomes something of a wonder that mid-paragon characters bother adventuring at all when they are practically invincible when compared to the common man.  There is nothing wrong with this trope, but it is a fact of the common D&D world.

Can D&D 4e even support a play style where combat is quick, deadly, and a thing to be avoided? You bet your sweet bippy it can with only a few minor tweaks to the existing rules. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

Deadly Dungeons and Dragons

The Premise: A Man Ain’t Nothing but a Man

Experience counts for a great deal, but heroes are still limited by natural constraints. No amount of experience can make you jump ridiculous distances, climb walls of sheer ice like a ladder, or become so convincing that no person can ever resist your glib words. Experience in combat does make one a better warrior, but a man with a knife is always a threat, and many men with knifes is likely to be lethal. Some men and women do live and die by the blade, but far more do the latter than the former.

Rule Changes

For 4th edition to become a more gritty game, use the following rule changes. They are designed to be used together and work best as a comprehensive set.

Experience isn’t Everything

Characters do not add 1/2 their level to anything. This means that attack rolls, defenses, and skill checks remain fairly constant. Similarly, when using monsters, subtract 1/2 their level from all attack rolls, defenses, and skill checks. With just this simple change, the city guard is suddenly a real threat to the heroes.  A higher-level hero has more powers, feats, and better equipment, but he or she is not invincible.

Wounds Really Hurt

Characters still gain hit points as they normally do – experience with adversity does make one able to shoulder a greater burden. In addition to hit points, characters now also gain another type of wound: vitality.

Changes to Hit Points

Under this rules change, hit points represent a character’s general ability to withstand being “roughed up”. Losing all of your hit points signifies that you have taken enough abuse to be knocked out, but otherwise the damage is not particularly lasting. All attacks do their full damage to hit points, just like they normally do. Resistances and similar traits do not change, and healing is also unchanged. When a character reaches zero hit points, he or she is knocked unconscious from the trauma. There is no reason to keep track of hit points below zero, since reaching your negative bloodied value does not kill you. Having zero hit points does not force death saving throws. Being bloodied is no longer related to your hit point total.

Introducing Vitality

Vitality is a representation of how much physical harm a body can receive before it dies. If damage to hit points are bruises, sore muscles, and fatigue, then damage to vitality is internal bleeding, broken bones, and ruptured organs. Every character and creature has vitality equal to its constitution score – this value does not increase with level. If your vitality drops to exactly zero, you fall unconscious and must begin making death saving throws as you “bleed out”. If your vitality drops below zero, you die. A character with any vitality damage is considered bloodied.

Armor, shields, and generally better defenses lessen how much vitality damage is done by an attack. When a character is hit (not on a miss or as an effect), he or she takes vitality damage equal to the damage of the attack, lessened by ten less than the targeted defense:

Vitality damage = damage from hit – (targeted defense – 10)

A coup de grâce deals its full damage to vitality.

Healing Wounds

Healing hit points remains unchanged from the standard rules. Vitality heals much, much slower. A character receiving proper medical care (a DC 15 heal check) may heal one vitality after each extended rest, with a new skill check required for each extended rest. A character that fails to receive proper medical care must make a saving throw after each extended rest. Passing the saving throw means the character heals one vitality. Failing the saving throw by less than five means no vitality is healed. If the character fails his or her saving throw by more than five, then the character’s condition degrades and he or she loses one vitality.

In addition to their standard effects, leader classes may, twice per day, use their Healing Word style power to heal one vitality in addition to hit points.  This increases to four times a day at paragon tier and six times a day at epic tier.

How This Affects Play

Using these rule changes brings the adventure from a world of heroes to a world of people. Experience gives the heroes a leg-up on their opponents, but it is far from the standard invincibility found in most games. The heroes need to think about drawing their swords, because initiating combat could quickly prove deadly – a lucky shot means even the greatest could fall to the humble.

In terms of running games with this rules set, it is imperative that the DM remember how lethal combat can be. It is important to strongly consider providing avenues for success that do not necessarily require combat.  When a fight does break out, remember that the NPCs probably do not want to die either, and are likely to retreat or give up after receiving a solid flesh wound, or even after the heroes prove their superiority of skill. Remind the players as well that their characters need not fight to the death. Campaigns based on intrigue, exploration, and the dangers of the unknown could all benefit from this style of play.

These changes do affect game balance. Feats that increase defenses and attack bonuses are highly beneficial for combat, but going first might be a better deal. Feats that improve initiative increase the chances of going first in combat, and thus increase the chances of doing mortal damage to the enemy before he or she even has a chance to unsheathe his or her sword. With combat stakes so high, it could easily be tempting to optimize for surviving combat. That is completely doable, but this sort of campaign is likely to place a greater emphasis on skills on a routine basis. Having a broad base for stats and taking feats that provide skill check bonuses can make a character more generally useful.

While this could easily be too lethal and lacking in epicness for most people’s taste in a standard campaign, this system can really shine in a one-shot. Brutal, quick combats combined with many skill challenges could make a great break from the norm for many gaming groups. If you are looking for a change of pace for your table, you do not necessarily need to learn a new system.  A few tweaks can give D&D a new feel.

What do you think about increasing the “realism” of a Dungeons and Dragons game? How would you structure an adventure or a full campaign to take advantage of this change to the rules? What other rules might you change to give the game a more “gritty” feel?

Permanent injury can be a great alternative to character death, but how much is too much?

In a recent post about character death, I talk about the possibility of using permanent injuries as an alternative to character death. Since I am a big fan of old-school random tables, I thought I would provide one for rolling permanent injuries. Then  I got to writing.

Dang, game design can be tricky, sometimes.

I want to share something useful, but then I get to thinking, “What is an appropriate permanent penalty to replace character death?  What is severe enough to be a real detriment while not making the character unplayable?”  I feel that I have a good grasp on the appropriate level of penalty, but I want  feedback to either confirm or invalidate my thoughts.

The table below contains examples of wounds and penalties I have developed for permanent injuries to the head. The penalties range from minor to more severe, but none strike me as making a character unplayable. What are your feelings on this? How would you feel if instead of losing your character to death, your character instead suffered one of these injuries? Do the injuries and penalties help make the character more interesting, or do they simply make the character less fun to play? Should a feat be introduced to limit or completely remove the penalties given by these injuries?

Feedback from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and the comments section of this blog will be used in designing the final rule variant, which will then be posted here in its complete form. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Rules that support weaker DMs frequently limit the strength of stronger DMs.

The "Y U NO" meme guys, with the text, "Mr. DUNGEON MASTER, Y U NO LET ME FIND THE TRAP?"I originally had a very different blog post ready for today, but then I read today’s Legends and Lore article by Mike Mearls.  That post was scrapped and now you get this one.  That’s just how inspiration rolls.  Take a moment to read the article and then come back.

In today’s Legends and Lore article, Mike Mearls identifies a key problem facing those who work in role-playing game design: balancing challenges between player and character skill.  He is right to call this out as a major issue.

Role-playing game design walks a difficult line between making a game accessible to newer, less experienced game masters, and making the game flexible for those who are more seasoned.  Codifying rules to help the less skilled often comes at the expense of limiting those who were already rocking their technique.  The common response to this is that the rules are just a set of guidelines, and the DM should feel free to alter them as he or she wishes, especially if it improves their game.  While that is technically true on paper, reality often plays out differently.

Some years ago, a good friend of mine ran us through Return to the Tomb of Horrors in his own 3.5e conversion of the 2e adventure.  It was a fun game, but I was a bad player.  My friend had tried to remain faithful to the Tomb of Horrors, and this included many traps and secret doors that had non-standard rules for detection.  I just about lost it when we were hit by a trap that only could be detected on a roll of 1 on a d10.  We had searched the area several times, and our Search rolls were solid, so it was a huge frustration when we still got struck.  I became sullen for the rest of the night, and I am sure I made for lousy company.

Through the magical tubes of the internet, I can already hear people replying, “But he was not a good DM.  He did not follow the rules of the game!”  That response is precisely my point.  No matter the system, players expect the game master to play by the rules.  We often claim that DMs have the right to change whatever rules they want, but the tacit requirement of that is, “If the players want and expect that rule to be changed.”  My buddy had a perfectly reasonable stance in wanting to run an updated classic like it’s unfair predecessors, but I just couldn’t deal because he was changing the rules of the game.

We expect everyone at the table to play by the same set of rules, and we default to those being the official rules of the game as published.  When rules are designed to limit the mistakes of poor game masters, they also limit the strengths of good game masters.

How do we maintain a rule structure that supports newer game masters while still giving breathing room to veterans of many tabletop battles?  I propose a return to the days of optional rules.

I played a lot of 2e Dungeons and Dragons back when that was the new rule system.  Optional rules abounded in those days, especially once the Player’s Option books were introduced.  Did you want tactical combat?  There were rules for that.  Did you want your game to take place in a world where skill is the deciding factor, not magical equipment?  They had rules for that.  Should death come easily, or should characters live longer?  Those rule variants existed as well.  Rather than simply writing off all variants as “house rules”, the system supported many options within its official publications.

Optional rules have their place in most any game, but I deeply miss them in Dungeons and Dragons.  They were part of what made the game so versatile.  You could custom tailor your game with specific rule choices, and you could easily point your players to the optional rules you were using.  This is something I would love to see officially supported in 4e.

Being a good Dungeon Master is very much like being a good writer.  First you need to master the fundamentals.  Once you master those basic, you can then chose which rules to break in order to best make your point.  A well-designed basic system helps newer DMs to grow and build their skill set.  A robust system of officially supported optional rules would do wonders to help make good DMs into great DMs, as they would finally have the tools they need to customize the rules to the story they hope to tell.

I agree with Mike Mearls that the current rules of D&D have supported newer DMs at the expense of allowing experienced DMs to really shine.  Hopefully, the folks at Wizards of the Coast will be able to find the right middle ground for the flagship game of the hobby.  My own experience tells me that one way to do this is to increase official support for rule variants.

Do you find that the rules limit you as a DM?  How do you strike the balance between player expectations and your own design license?  What sorts of optional rules would like to see supported in 4e Dungeons and Dragons?

The high-flying, daring antics of swashbucklers can make for an exciting combat.

The sword fights of Errol Flynn and the other actors from the era of swashbuckling movies are still exciting to watch.  The combat is not at all static, and the rapid pace is a great approximation of what combat might “really” look like in our Dungeons and Dragons games.  Today’s set of terrain powers are inspired by the movies Errol Flynn and the creative fight scenes they produced.

The Rope Swing power is useful for encounters that take place on sailing ships, in elven tree cities, and even in the bell tower of a grand cathedral.  It is also designed to have special synergy with the Falling Chandelier terrain power in the article on terrain powers involving light sources.

Swagger allows a character to clear out the field a little after achieving some success in battle.  Include this power in encounters where the heroes are being cheered on by a crowd.  The arenas of Athas are a clear example of this power, but bar fights with hecklers in the balcony are also a good choice.  If you want a cinematic quality to your battle, have the heroes in your game interrupt a stage production, and have the audience respond as if it were all part of the show.

I use Death from Above more than any other terrain power in my game.  Any time I have a battlefield with a drop of ten feet or greater, the player of the barbarian in my game gets a wicked grin on her face.  Besides making great use of three-dimensional terrain, Death from Above is also a stealthy way to speed up combat.  Dealing more damage to both a hero and a major enemy means the battle will end that much faster.

These new terrain powers are a bit more wordy, but they includes any skill checks that are also needed.  I prefer this method because it means I do not need to slow down play by looking up an esoteric rule.  Try using them in your game and let me know how they work out.

Special thanks go to Eric W, who suggested the next set of terrain powers deal with movement in combat.

Do you plan to use these terrain powers in your game?  Have you approached these scenarios differently in your home game?  What themes you would like to see in future articles on terrain powers?


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