by Mike Shea on 27 August 2012
We DMs are always looking for new ways to shake up our encounters. Breaking down our encounters, we find the following components:
Changing up these layers makes each D&D battle unique and interesting. Today we're going to add another layer, another variable, that can change up battles even further: the zone-wide environmental effect.
Zone-wide environmental effects change up an entire battle area. They cannot be avoided and they aren't focused around a specific spot in the encounter area. Instead, they affect all combatants within an ecounter. These effects change up a battle area, adding an additional effect to a battle that might otherwise seem stale. Here's a list of ten:
For a more old-school feel, consider rolling 1d10 to apply one of the effects above to your battle area.
When designing your own effects keep a few ideas in mind. First, any effect should be easy to run at the table. Choose simpler mechanics over complex ones. Try to choose mechanics that don't require die-rolls (yes, I'm aware I violated that rule a couple of times above). For zone-wide effects, keep the mechanics lightweight. You can use heavier and more powerful effects on specific areas of the zone such as magical runed rocks that give ranged attackers +10 lightning damage on ranged attacks. Choose effects that speed up combat and add threat. As much as a grasping roots effect sounds like a good idea, movement impairment usually just slows down the game. For this reason, adding damage onto both sides considerably speeds up combat without reducing the threat of the encounter.
David A., diversionArchitect on Twitter, emailed in a good recommendation. He suggested giving players the ability to manipulate or disable these zone-wide effects as part of a skill challenge built into the encounter. For example, an unholy altar within a chamber may emit the unholy aura. As a standard action, a PC adjacent to the altar can disable the effect with a hard DC religion, endurance, heal, or arcana check.
This adds a whole other variable to the encounter and pushes PCs to actually run into the room and do things rather than hug a door or some other choke point.
The website, Donjon, has excellent tools for building all sorts of random components, including a 4th edition random dungeon generator. Selecting the size of "fine" gives you a great single-session dungeon. Using the zone-wide effects above, you can add an entire additional layer to these random rooms, creating Diablo 3 style challenges for your gaming group when they just want to do some exploration, kill some monsters, and collect some treasure.
If you enjoyed this article, please take a look at Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games. You can also pick up my two favorite encounter-building tools, the Dungeon Master's Kit and Monster Vault.