In the previous post, I talked about planning your battles in terms of the enemies you face. I’m going to talk about the setting of the battle now – both in terms of where it fits into your plot and the actual battlefield.
While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.
I’m going to talk about three things you can mix up to make your fights more dynamic – objectives, terrain, and traps – and give some options you can pick from for each of these. In most cases, less is more – you don’t need more than one or two of these options in each fight to make it interesting, and too many will slow the fight down. In lots of cases, these will make it a more challenging fight for the PCs, too – so you might need to bear that in mind when planning your opposition.
The default fight objective in TTRPGs can often be “kill all these monsters” – and while this is simple and has clear victory conditions, it’s not the most interesting in terms of interacting with your environment – optimal strategy is usually to just avoid dangerous areas of the map and engage you opponents as quickly as you can. Better to think about where the fight fits into the narrative of the game and pick from one of these for at least one of the fights in the session:
- Escort an NPC to safety – you just need to get a trusted NPC across the map. Give them an action if you like, so they can draw trouble to the PCs by trying to ineffectively attack themselves.
- Steal an item from an opponent. The caves may be crawling with goblins – but you just need to get the shaman’s headdress and get out again. If the players want to stealth through instead of fighting, I’d use a skill challenge.
- Traverse the area – maybe all the PCs need to do is get across the map in one piece. Their opposition may be very numerous, but they don’t have to defeat them all.
- Hold the line – the PCs need to defend a defensible position. Again, if there’s cover and support, they can survive a slightly tougher opposition. Of course, this can be inverted – have them assault a position themselves.
There are plenty more options – for more ideas, look to skirmish board/minis games scenarios, who are often really inventive with what the PCs have to do – and provide mechanical support which you can adapt for your game. Video games, too, often have interesting mission objectives you can use.
How many fights in TTRPGs basically take place in featureless arenas? Or, worse, neat dungeon corridors? Mix it up by including some terrain types, and either force or encourage the PCs to interact with them
- Strew the battlefield with “difficult” terrain that hampers movement. If you have a possible path or clearing in it, this gives a place for the opposition to defend – and of course missile combat will be more effective in this fight if the PCs can’t engage enemies as quickly as before
- Provide cover in open spaces, and have enemies use it. Once the PCs notice that the goblins are hiding behind the columns, they’re likely to start using them too.
- Choke points – bridges over rivers or chasms, or routes through otherwise impassable terrain – allow a part of the battlefield to become more important, and give some level of tactics to the fight
- Higher and lower ground. Put archers on the top of inaccessible columns, forcing the players to climb them or try and snipe them from below. Place the NPC that needs rescuing at the foot of a pit so they have to fight their way back out. Height advantage makes your battles more dynamic and interesting.
You can check your rules system of choice for rules for each of these – most trad TTRPGs betray their wargaming origins in covering this pretty well – but feel free to just busk them for the scenario. A simple bonus or penalty to attacks or defence can go a long way to providing flavour.
I’m not a huge fan of the isolated trap, the random pit in a dungeon that is either a slight inconvenience or an arbitrary fatality – but put those traps in a dynamic environment like a battlefield and I’m much more interested.
- Pit traps can, of course, litter the floor – and the opposition will usually know where they are. Arrow tripwires, too, can be used – make sure you allow players a chance to survey the battlefield once one triggers (maybe a good use for a Perception check?) so they can discover them, rather than have them at the mercy of these with nothing they can do about them.
- Random terrain elements that are active – maybe that pit of lava belches poisonous gas at the end of every round, or one of the columns collapses at random as the temple shakes itself apart. Again, offer clues as to what their nature is and allow PCs to mitigate their effects through careful play.
- Man-made terrain and traps – trenches and other siege defences – show that the opposition have been planning for this.
Sources of Inspiration
I’ve talked already about using board games and video games as inspiration sources, but there are a few TTRPG products that add to this.
- A lot of D&D4e scenarios have excellent battle design, as you’d expect for a game that put a lot of effort into making fights fun. Lots of these adapt well, but in particular Dungeon Delve – a series of mini-adventures for a range of levels – has lots that can be stolen and adapted
- For a less map-driven example, the 13th Age Battle Scenes offer a similar set of mini-adventures based around (usually) three fights, designed to offer a dynamic challenge.
- If you want some sci-fi examples, the Wrath and Glory adventures Bloody Gates and On The Wings of Valkyries offer examples of how a battlefield-based adventure can be run and made less map-reliant. Presenting a battle as a sequence of linked scenes is a great approach – see in particular how clearing the minefield is presented in Bloody Gates.
- For another genre approach, the encounter building advice in Sentinel Comics Roleplaying Game is excellent – thinking in terms of environments, challenges, and opponents – most of whom are Minions or Lieutenants – gives some excellent advice for building dynamic encounters, some of which inspired these posts.
I’m sure I’ve missed some off – so let me know what else you’d say is good battle-building advice.