Breaking off the battle map and onto 3D terrain can bring your combat encounters to the next level.
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.
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.
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?
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:
- How to build a glass flight grid, by TheSheDM
- For modelers, Benoit at Roving Band of Misfits has several great articles on building battlefield terrain
- Heroscape terrain can be found pretty cheap on Ebay, but you will likely need to gently modify your rules to use it (another future post)
- Torq Stevens at Stuffer Shack has some pictures of inspiring 3D terrain he has built
- On Google+, Mike Amend points out, “. . .what about adding some flavor with home decorations? Fish tank ruins are the perfect size for a table top map. Halloween village accessories at your local craft store is also a great way to get tomb stones, caskets and piles of skulls.”
- Though it is somewhat harder to justify in D&D, Stephen Sanford on Google+ suggests that you just use your entire house and a ruler for a session or two of Honey, I Shrunk the Adventurers. Brilliant!
- TheSheDM has a great, thorough review of the Terraclips line at NewbieDM.com
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?