Breaking off the battle map and onto 3D terrain can bring your combat encounters to the next level.

Astriak the dragon looks down upon his prey. This moment would be far less dramatic on a flat battle map.

A big part of Dungeons and Dragons 4e, and may other RPGs, is tactical combat. Movement, range, zones of control, and areas of effect all play in to making battles that can be both exciting and highly intellectually engaging. Adding a third dimension to the standard combat encounter only increases these advantages.

It is also far superior for immersion by your PCs.

When I came in first in the DM Challenge at PAX East 2011, one thing especially wowed my players and drew onlookers to the table – my final “boss” encounter with the dragon, Astriak. For this encounter, I constructed a large glass flight grid as well as a cliff face and top that was climbable by the heroes. There was no questioning that this was an epic fight.

Once Astriak took to the air and began filling the floor ov the cavern with burning acid, the heroes lost valuable room to maneuver, unless the climbed the cliff face.

To begin the encounter, Astriak stood high above the heroes as he condescendingly predicted their doom. That moment of role-playing worked in large part because the players could actually see just how high above their heads Astriak truly was. That three-inch tall piece of plastic cut a menacing figure when it was placed fourteen inches above the base of the battle map. When combat began, Astriak could actually swoop down in his charge at the heroes. Once he discovered the heroes were a real threat, Astriak again took to the air, directly above the heads of the heroes. As one hero took several turns to climb the cliff face, the player could see the physical progress of his character better than with just using a marker to denote elevation above the cavern floor.

Why would you do anything else?

Well, frankly, the answers are time and money. You can buy ready-made 3D Terrain, like Dwarven Forge, but that is expensive. You can paint your own 3D terrain after casting it or carving it, like many miniature war game hobbyists do, but that takes boatloads of time and a fair amount of skill. If you have lots of time or money, then your solutions are pretty straightforward.

This cavern system was built using the (discontinued) CaveWorks printable terrain set by WorldWorks Games. The “pink” terrain pieces were made before I realized my printer was out of yellow ink.

For the rest of us, however, there are still options. Reasonable doses of hard work and a cash investment similar to purchasing dungeon tiles can get you far. Printable, modular terrain, like that offered by WorldWorks Games and Fat Dragon Games allow you to print, cut, and then glue together impressive 3D terrain. I prefer the terrain by WorldWorks Games because I have found it to be more modular, which I appreciate when reusing pieces. Building paper terrain does have small learning curve, but you can eventually get fairly impressive setups.

Another option is to use pre-printed paperboard terrain, like the Harrowing Halls or Desert of Athas dungeon tile sets by Wizards of the Coast. Really, any dungeon tile set can be used in a 3D environment with a bit of ingenuity. Use wooden dowels, empty thread spools, or anything else you have lying around to set up the tiles on different levels.

My current favorite for 3D terrain, however, is the Terraclips line by WorldWorks Games and Wyrd Miniatures. This is pre-printed, paperboard terrain that comes with clips to assemble large 3D buildings and city environments. There is talk of more sets with more of a nature theme being released in the next few months. I used these in combat for the first time a few nights ago, and I have to say that I was 100% impressed. My players enjoyed the scenario, and it had a very “rumble in the streets” feel to it. Again, this line is modular, so it can be used many, many times over without feeling dull.

In the End

When all is said and done, it does not matter what method you choose, just get some 3D combat into your game. You do not need to use it every time you have an encounter, but it is a great way to jazz up a fight. I took the time to recreate part of the encounter from the other night using only 2D tokens and battle maps. Which would you rather fight in?

Would your players prefer this flat battle . . .

. . . or something a little more eye-popping?

My groups have a clear preference, and I am betting yours will as well.

In future posts, I will help with identifying the small issues that 3d combat can create for people who normally play on 2d battle maps. For now, here are some references to help inspire your 3D terrain plans:

Do you ever use all three dimensions in combat scenarios in your game? What techniques do you use? Can you recommend any other links for the resources list on this page?

Sometimes, ten just isn’t enough. Sometimes, you need to turn it up to eleven.

Shady dealings are going on in the trading house's basement.

My home D&D campaign has two different groups of players making up two separate adventuring parties. I try my best to be awesome to both of them, but the reality is that my Tuesday night crew gets the short end of the stick.

My players arrive between 6:30 and 7:30, depending how work went that day. We always have a home cooked meal before we begin our game, since everyone had has a long day and we all need a chance to unwind. We almost never start play before 8:00 at the earliest, with 8:30 or 9:00 being common. Often, we are just too mentally tired to invest in the game, and we devolve into Wrath of Ashardalon or another board game. This is, of course, not counting the weeks we need to outright cancel because of too many other commitments.

With all of this going on, I just feel bad for my players. We always have a great time, but I generally don’t bring my A-game to the table on Tuesday nights.

Not tonight.

I have had this encounter planned for months, since the holidays forced us to take a break. My normal encounters go up to ten, which is pretty awesome, but tonight’s encounter – tonight’s encounter goes up to eleven.

If technology allows, tonight’s game will be streamed live on UStream. I will post the link if that does happen. Highlights will hopefully be put together to show some of the aspects that I feel make this encounter special. Then again, I am surprisingly bad at multimedia technology, so we will see how that goes.

Do you have a gaming group that suffers due to when it meets? What do you do to craft encounters that feel special, and outside of the norm? What interest do you have in game-session footage or audio as a portion of this blog?


When you run a skill challenge, give players choices beyond which skill to use.

A young boy holds a pair of binocular up to his eyes while looking excited.

Trying to find a specific location in the wilderness is a great opportunity for a skill challenge, especially when you are an overexcited kid with binoculars.

Skill challenges provide a way to engage the entire party in something other than combat. A well-formed skill challenge can pull quiet players out of their shell, and they can also provide a structure in which more dynamic players can still thrive. Giving your players choices beyond which skills to use in the challenge makes the entire process feel more authentic and enjoyable for everyone at the table.

In my most recent game session, the players decided to kill off the chief of the gnoll raiders in the forest near their frontier capital. The players specifically wanted to find the primary camp of the gnolls and stage a raid so they could lure out the chief and kill her. Since I had made a detailed hex map of the area, I decided to put it to use as part of the skill challenge of finding the camp.

The Challenge

To begin with, I provided a map to my players of the frontier province they were exploring. Areas of note included a swamp containing friendly trolls and the path they walked to enter the forest. Each hex is about two and a half miles across – a reasonable area to inspect fully in one day.

I set the following requirements for this skill challenge:

Timeline: The heroes have fifteen days of supplies with them. If they cannot find the hex containing the gnoll camp within fifteen days, they must return home.

Relevant Skills: The following skills were of use on this challenge – Intimidate, Nature, and Stealth, each at a medium DC.

Inspecting a hex: Inspecting a single hex takes one day, and the players may choose any hex to inspect on that day. Going once around the table, the party (five players) must pass each of the skills once in order to determine if the camp is located in that hex.

Failure: Failing at one day’s checks gives no progress and increases the encounter level against the gnoll chieftain by one, since the gnolls perceive the heroes as a threat.

Success: Passing all three skill checks with the five rolls from the party reveals if the camp is in that hex. Passing for all three skills with one additional success also lets the party reveal if the camp is in either two adjacent hexes or one non-adjacent hex. Passing for all three skills with two additional successes (a full party success) also lets the party reveal if the camp lies along a specific border or allows five hexes of the players’ choice to be revealed. The first full party success will reveal the half of the province in which the camp is not located (by either and east/west or north/south split).

Special Choices: The path the heroes followed into the province could be inspected two hexes at a time, since they had already covered some of that ground. The players could also choose to inspect two hexes in a day, but that would increase the difficulty from a medium to a hard DC. Trolls allied with the PCs let them know that the gnolls were not based in the swamp.

I chose to be upfront with my players about their timeline, the minimal results of passing, the possibility that more successes would yield greater results, and everything in the special choices section.

On their first day of searching, they chose a hex to the southeast of the hills, and they passed with flying colors! With their first full success, I immediately let them know that the camp had to be to the west of where they were searching. Using PowerPoint, I marked off the hexes they knew did not contain the camp.

I should point out that allowing the players to decided where to search almost cut this skill check short. On the first day of searching, they players were strongly debating inspecting the hex that contained the camp. While this would have ended my skill challenge before it even really got going, it would also have given the players the thrill of “beating” the DM at his own game. We all love that feeling when we play, so I wasn’t about to deny it to my players if they managed to luck out on this one. Thankfully, they instead chose an “empty” hex.

A couple days of decent success let them eliminate most of the path they had traveled into the province, and a failure made the gnolls less afraid of the heroes. This allowed me to telegraph that failures would make the gnolls harder to defeat in the end.

It is another full-party success, and the heroes chose to reveal if the camp lied along the southern “river” border of the province. A few smaller successes helped to fill in more of the area. At this point, I expect them to find the camp at any point.

With another full-party success, the players decided to fully inspect the northern border.

Another couple of failures increased the threat of the encounter with the gnoll chieftain by another two levels. At this point, when they do find the camp, the combat there would be much more of a challenge. A full-party success on day fifteen allowed the heroes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and locate the gnoll camp at the base of the hills.


This challenge went smoothly, but failure was possible even with the luck of the dice on the players’ side. This type of challenge works best when a complete failure really does not mean a dead-end for the story. In the case, failure to assassinate the gnoll chieftain would only make it more difficult when the heroes eventually march their army into this province and try to bring settlement to the frontier.

In this case, when the payers succeeded, they knew it was in part due to the choices the made, not just their luck at rolling a d20. That type of empowerment is a great thing to hand your players, since it helps to reinforce the idea that their decisions really do matter and they are active participants in the story.

Credit Where Credit is Due

While the mechanics are different, I stole this idea for a searching-based skill challenge with a component of human decision from my friend Ian’s Dark Sun game, where he had us Templars kicking down doors in Urik as we tried to find a prison escapee. He used MapTool to show our party’s position on an actual aerial view of Baghdad, which was just fantastic.

How do you incorporate player decision making into skill challenges? What types of tools, like the maps in this challenge, do you use to show progress? How have you varied your skill challenges from the norm to add a little spice to your game?

Blood, Sweat, and Dice will be returning to a regular posting schedule beginning tomorrow.

I owe all of my readers an apology for the unannounced hiatus. I am sorry. You can find the reasons for the unplanned break in content in my most recent Google+ post. This is a blog about running role-playing games, not my personal life, so you are welcome to check out the explanation there if it suits you.

I want to say, “Thank you,” to everyone who has waited patiently for Blood, Sweat, and Dice to return. I am back.

© 2013 Blood, Sweat, and Dice Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha

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