Making Terrain Fun

by Mike Shea on 3 May 2010

Often, perhaps too often, we DM's focus on building terrain as a challenge to PCs. In later levels in D&D 4th Edition, it can become hard to keep the challenge and threat high for our PCs and terrain is one way to add that challenge. Too much, however, and terrain becomes nothing but a burden on the PCs. Today we're going to look at changing this idea and considering terrain as a factor of fun for your players rather than a way to keep the threat high. We're going to look at three ways to make terrain fun for your players.

Keeping terrain interesting has a few advantages isn't just about fun. You can use it to design the flow of your encounter as well. For example, advantageous terrain will draw your players into a room when they might just hang out in the back hallway. Useful and fun terrain is the carrot you can use to entice PCs into your encounter environment instead of the stick you'd use to prod them forward. It keeps your battles exciting and dynamic instead of a battle of inches over a single corner.

I Have the High Ground

Want to get the ranged strikers in your group to step a bit further into the room? Give them combat advantage for taking the high ground in your terrain. A clear view of the battlefield gives them a drop on their enemies. Place these high ground positions deep into the encounter area, requiring that these strikers have to fight their way across the battlefield to reach it. Go ahead and tell the players of this advantage, even the mechanics of it, so they'll take advantage of it. If you're too abstract, they won't bother stepping away from their safe corner and into the dangers around them.

If you want to make it a bit more exciting, place some charged radiant crystals on this high ground position. When adjacent to these crystals, a ranged striker gains +1d6 radiant damage per tier in extra damage. Getting to this high ground, however, might be a bit more difficult. The entire platform might be coated in demonic slime, requiring a hard athletics or acrobatics check on top of 5 damage per tier in poison / necrotic horror as they climb to the position.

Baiting the Trap

Another way to give your players some fun terrain is to turn the tables on traps. Instead of the party walking into a devastating trap set up by nasty kobolds, have a trap set up that can easily backfire on the lizardly folk if the party can take advantage of it. Perhaps these kobolds were planning on dropping a series of huge rocks on the party. After noticing this with a perception check, the party's ranger puts an arrow into the kobolds eye. Another perception check could tell the party that one of their members might turn the table on this rock-dropping exercise if all they do is run up to the cliff-side and begin dropping them themselves.

Setting up an environment that the party can take the advantage is a great way to draw them into the encounter.

Preparing for the Siege

Rather than the party acting as an invading force, they might find themselves protecting an area from an oncoming horde of nasty beasts. In this scenario, give them quite a few objects they can set up and build into defendable positions. Defending the city gates, for example, might have them placing their ranged attackers on rooftops while they build barricades of defendable positions.

Consider the final battle in the original Conan the Barbarian. Three men spend half a day arranging ground spikes, spear traps, and weapons everywhere in preparation for the coming of Thulsa Doom's army. How can you give your players an environment similar to this?

An Ever-Changing World

A static environment might end up being pretty boring. Set up an encounter environment that changes as the battle progresses. Better still, give your players a chance to change the environment by collapsing walls, tipping huge pillars, setting fire to stores of flammable dwarven ale. You might even have some advantageous terrain appear after a huge monster has crashed through a wall or smashed down a pillar. The great wyrm's massive tale might smash through a crypt wall revealing an ancient skeleton gripping a powerful magical sword.

With all of these suggestions, the idea is to break away from thinking of terrain as only a detriment to your players and instead offer an environment they WANT to get involved with. Like all things in D&D, focus on fun and the rest will fall in line.

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