by Mike Shea on 24 February 2014
If you've played any action RPG recently, like Diablo 3 or Path of Exile, you're quite familiar with the idea of altars of power. These strange bits of terrain invoke all sorts of interesting new abilities onto your character for short periods of time. They change gameplay just enough to keep things interesting and give you bursts of excitement as your character surges in DPS and hacks down foes.
We Lazy Dungeon Masters can learn a lot from these altars. If we can build the right set of them, we have another interesting variable we can drop into any combat encounter to change things around and keep the next battle interesting.
This concept also spans across tabletop game systems. Whether you're playing 13th Age, Dungeon World, D&D 4e, D&D 5e, Pathfinder, or Dungeons of Fate, you can use this same idea with just slight mechanical tweaks.
In today's article we'll build a toolkit of these altars you can keep on hand and use during your game whenever you think a battle needs a bit of spice.
Each game system will handle the mechanics of these altars differently. Fate would use them as situational aspects that can be invoked or compelled and offer flavorful boosts when successfully invoked. 4th Edition D&D would add status effects, attack, or damage boosts based on the DM Cheat Sheet. In Pathfinder, these altars would mirror spells of the appropriate level, giving a nearly endless list of potential interesting effects. 13th Age has its own damage per level chart on page 319 to help fuel the altars. It's yet unclear how D&D Next will handle scaling damage per level but we can hope it will have guidelines as well.
When it comes down to it, you'll have to improvise how these altars will work in your system of choice but with some simple guidelines on hand, it should be very easy to work them in.
The following is a list and description of five potential altars you can drop into your game. The first of them, the Altar of Elemental Power, can actually be used with a variety of different elements, thus resulting in even more flavorful options.
Altar of Elemental Power: This altar is tied to one of the elemental planes or another outer-planar energy source and funnels this energy into the world. Creatures who stand near the altar can attempt to tap into this energy, adding damage of the elemental type to their attack. If they fail in their attempt, they find themselves damaged by that element. Elements can include fire, cold, lightning, poison, acid, necrotic, unholy, radiant, and shadow. Tweak this list to fit your system or come up with your own interesting elemental effects to shake things up.
In d20 games, these altars would add damage to a character's attacks on a successful skill check with the appropriate skill or inflict damage to them on a failure. Because human beings are generally risk adverse, the damage inflicted to them should be much less than the amount of extra damage they might gain.
Altar of Accuracy: This is an easy altar to sprinkle around your more complicated battle spaces. When a character stands adjacent to one of these altars, they gain a bonus to accuracy on attacks. In d20 games, this would be a +2 bonus to attack. In games like Fate, this would be a free +1 mini-boost. Altars of Accuracy may be anything, from crystals of clarity to special mirrors to sets of ancient arrows stuck into the ground in a high point infused with the spirits of the ancestors. These altars are great ways to keep battles more dynamic by offering an incentive to players to move around the battlespace and gain the bonus. Because the benefit isn't huge, you probably don't want to put a detriment on these. Let PCs who reach them use them without worry.
Altar of Advantage: This is a bigger deal than the altar of accuracy. Characters who attune themselves to the altar gain the ability to roll twice on their attacks and take the better of the two results. This works easily with any d20 game. Fate-based games may want to simply keep this altar around as a scene aspect that can be invoked. Because it is more powerful, you'll want to put a detriment on this one. An easy one is to offer the advantage to the PC that accepts it but any attacks against that PC have the same advantage. Thus those who attack one who uses this altar may likewise roll twice and take the better result. This is a nice way to increase the overall threat of the battle, speeding things up without reducing threat. This altar may be any physical object or might even be a gladiatorial circle on the ground or an ancient battlefield.
Altar of Rage: We all know the truth about extending critical hits but this is the one big exception. An altar of rage extends the critical threat range for those in its area of influence. Like the altar of advantage, this turns into a "king of the hill" situation where all of those within the influence suddenly become a lot more dangerous. This extended critical hit rule works fine for all d20 games. For Fate, you'll want to find an alternative or again simply treat it as a scene aspect to be invoked or compelled with maybe a free boost for both sides.
Altar of Empowerment: By drawing on the wisdom of the ancestors, PCs can attempt to recover a used limited spell, power, or ability. Failure results in psychic feedback damage. When designing this altar, you will want to be clear what sort of ability the PC can recover but generally recovery of a single used ability is a nice way to keep the PCs going when the going gets rough.
Altar of Healing: An easy one, this altar gives each creature who drinks from it some healing. For d20 games, it is the equivalent of a healing potion of the appropriate level. For Fate, it lets them recover a mild or moderate consequence. This is another altar that keeps the PCs going if they need a bit of a boost. You will want to limit to one use per PC to ensure they don't just recover all day long at the pool. It probably shouldn't have a detriment on it if you want people to use it.
If you're looking for some inspiration and burned out all your decision-making mana, consider rolling 1d20 and consulting the following list to add an effect to your next interesting battle. Note the non-damage altars have more than one listing to have them come up as often as the elemental altars.
We call these things altars but they can be any object or location in your game. Instead of an altar of rage, it could be an ancient battleground where heroes were slaughtered. That unholy altar might be Bhaal's ancient throne. Take full liberty in re-flavoring the effects of these altars to fit the scene in which you place it.
Sometimes you want these effects to be subtle but many times you want them to really matter. The nice thing about these altars is that they are single-use. You can experiment all you want with them, turning the dials up to 11, and see how they work out. As long as they don't end up killing the PCs, it's all good. You don't have to worry about them being too overpowered since they will simply disappear after the battle is over.
Likewise, you can use these altars to tune the difficulty of a battle by putting the bad guys within the aura of the altar to begin with. Now the PCs must not only battle the monsters but they must take over the effect of the altar to turn the tide.
Another way to turn the dials is to roll twice on the list above and combine two altars into one. This will have a large effect on a battle but can work well if you have a clear set-piece you want a battle to center around.
There's a lot of power in these altars but you won't want to use them all the time. Not every battle you run has to be a big set-piece battle with tons of weird effects. These altars are best added when you think a battle needs a bit of extra spice to separate it from the other battles you've seen. Give it a shot.