by Mike Shea on 23 August 2010
It's hard to come up with a unique encounter week after week. We DMs have to constantly seek new ways to make each battle different from all of the others. Creatures can help to a point but their mechanics quickly become well understood. Environments matter too, but it can be easy to insert staples into our environments that our players begin to understand: "uh oh, pillars, watch out for the pillars. They eat us every time."
Today we're going to look at three battle-changing effects to keep your players on their toes and add some new external mechanics to shake things up. Let's dive right in.
Shifting from Fey to Shadow
This effect wraps around an encounter designed to take the players from the Feywild to the normal world to the Shadowfell. Some powerful magical artifact exists in all three worlds but in the same geographical place. This might be an altar, for example. As the battle takes place, those trained in Arcana or Religion can attempt to shift the world to either the Feywild or the Shadowfell.
Performing such a plane shift requires a minor action and one must be adjacent to the altar. The skill DC is between the medium and hard DCs on the DC per level chart. If the skill check is between the medium score and the hard score, the world shifts to "normal". This would limit environmental effects to standard difficult terrains and cover.
If the check is equal or above the hard DC, the world shifts to the Feywild. Any bushes or foliage becomes grasping foliage that slows any unnatural creatures those who enter it. Any water heals natural creatures an extra 1d6 per tier when they spend a healing surge or allow someone else to spend a healing surge. Further, any power inflicting radiant damage adds an additional 1d6 radiant per tier.
If the check is below the normal DC, the world shifts to the Shadowfell. Any water becomes fetid, inflicting 5 points of poison / necrotic per tier to those who begin or enter. Any foliage tears into those who enter or begin, immobilizing them unless they take a move action Athletics, Acrobatics, or Endurance check to get out. Failing inflicts 5 damage per tier as the thorns tear into them. Further, any power inflicting necrotic damage adds an additional 1d6 necrotic per tier.
These are just a few possible effects. Use the mechanic to add whatever effects you think might be fun. You might also add in the effects found on the D&D Encounter twitter posts.
The psychology war
Standard skill checks are a good way to give players a chance to change the environment, but sometimes its more fun to use an actual out-of-game situation to define what is happening in-game. For example, let's use the attitude of the players.
The characters are battling a nasty group of psionic and psychic enemies. These enemies gain advantages over parties that are generally psychologically negative and lose power when the group is psychologically positive.
Start by making a five point scale. The battle starts in the middle of the scale, with two points of positive attitudes and two points of negative attitudes. The scale can change up to once per turn. As the DM, you should watch the group. As you see negativity; arguing among each-other, complaints about another's actions, even bitching about the choice of soft drinks; the scale goes down. As they complement one another, work well as a group, and generally have positive attitudes, the scale goes up.
You need to make the scale clear and visible to your players. They need to know it is going on and understand why. It will no doubt result in many false complements and overzealous joy, but that's half the fun of it.
You'll certainly not want to use this one more than once in a long while, but it's a fun way to change up a battle and a good way to reinforce positive behavior in your group.
The battle of wits
Remember the old battle of wits game in the Secret of Monkey Island? What about adding that to your D&D game. Like the psychology war, you build a five point scale. A particularly intelligent villain chats up a storm as the battle goes on.
Like the psychology war, the five point scale will start in a neutral position and go up or down depending on how the war of wits goes. If it goes in the villains favor, the villain's damage output goes up and it gains a resistance to damage. As the battle of wits goes poorly for the villain, it loses defenses and its damage output goes down.
While the battle rages, the players can each spend a minor action to engage in a battle of wits, coming up with a particularly nasty insult or tricking the villain with a deft lie. Every success they have, the meter goes down. The villain can likewise make a particular nasty or demoralizing insult and bolster his own defenses in doing so.
This is a fun way to get your group engaging in dialog with a villain while a battle is going on but still have a mechanical benefit for doing so. It is sure to attract roleplayers who enjoy the banter as well as strategic gamers who like the mechanical bonuses.
Keep trying new things
These are just three ways to add an overlapping layer to your battles. You won't want to use this very often, but for a big climactic battle or when your game feels like it has hit a rut, these sort of mechanics can keep your players on their toes and having fun.
If you want more tips like this, take a look at the book Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips.