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Anatomy of an Environmental Effect – Chernobog's Well

by Mike on 24 July 2023

Including monuments with environmental effects the characters can dork with is a great way to spice up combat encounters. It's important to get the mechanics of said dorking correct though, or they can end up being boring or a slog. We can also prepare such environmental effects to have different effects depending on the timing or beats of the encounter.

Here's an example for Chernbog's well, an unhallowed ritualistic circle outside of a tomb to the elven god Bacco from my Empire of the Ghouls campaign set in Midgard.

The Setup

In this encounter, the characters face eighteen skeletons, four skeletal veterans (from the Level Up Advanced 5e Monstrous Menagerie), and a Marsh Dire (from Tome of Beasts 2). The cultists of Chernobog created the circle and animated the dead surrounding the tomb. When the characters arrive, the cultists are gone but the twisted circle and animated dead remain. Given the power of the characters (6th level) compared to many of the monsters (big piles of CR 1/4 skeletons), the monument can significantly affect the whole battle without making the monsters too dangerous.

Effects of the Well

Chernobog's Well gives all undead the following traits:

These effects are powerful but given how much weaker the monsters are than the level 6 characters, it's probably appropriate.

Disabling the Well

To disable Chernobog's Well, a character must be within 5 feet of the well and use an action to make an Intelligence (Arcana or Religion) check with a DC of 15 to pull the unholy energy out of the well like drawing venom out of a wound. It takes three successes to completely close the well. A character can automatically succeed if they cast remove curse or dispel magic on it. A character can attempt to disable the well recklessly by using a bonus action instead of an action. If they fail the check while doing so recklessly, they take 9 (2d8) necrotic damage.

One important note is how the characters learn about the mechanics of a monument like this. Three words solves this conundrum: just tell them. Tell them how it works. Share the DCs. Negotiate with your players when they have an idea they want to try. Don't bury the info – share it.

Balance Effects and Consequences

When creating an object like this, we want the effects to be powerful but not so powerful that there's no choice but to deal with the artifact. Having advantage on attacks, extra damage on attacks, and a damage shield is a lot of stuff but it's survivable even if the characters decide to skip dorking with the well.

We also want to offer options to deal with the well itself. The characters can use normal ability checks or spells if they make sense. They can also use actions to be careful or bonus actions if they're willing to take a risk. They have to get over to the well which gets them moving around — always a good thing — although spells can be cast from a longer range, which is also a nice option.

Add Dials to the Monument

We can even put some dials onto this monument. What if, during play, the well turns out to be too powerful? Maybe we have one or more of the effects go away when only a single check succeeds. Maybe we remove effects behind the screen without telling the players. Maybe only certain undead have the abilities. Likewise, if things aren't enough of a challenge, maybe the effects get more powerful as the rounds go on until the monument is disabled or the monsters are destroyed.

When we look at an object like this, we need to think about it from the point of view of the player. Is it worth getting over there? Is it just a pain in the ass? Is it fun? Is the threat too hard or challenging but doable? We want such a monument to matter but not matter so much that there really is no choice.

Dorking with monuments is a good place for negotiation. Can a character knock out two of the three required successes with a casting of a higher level dispel magic? If two characters use their actions together, can one of them roll with advantage but have it count as two successes? Let the players come up with creative ways to screw with the monument and negotiate with them with an eye towards their success.

An Option for Ending Combat Early

We can also use the monument as a way to end combat early if we want. If combat goes long, maybe all the skeletons are destroyed when the well is disabled. This flexibility gives us another possible end-state for the battle other than just destroying all the skeletons, which, of course, is also an option.

Change Up Combat Encounters with Monuments and Effects

Adding monuments and environmental effects to combat encounters is a great way to add another variable to combat encounters. We don't need them all the time but they're a great way to shake up the situation.

If you're looking for some good generators to spark your own imagination while coming up with fantastic monuments, check out either the Lazy DM's Workbook or the Lazy DM's Companion.

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