It’s no secret that great D&D combat involves more than rolling attack and damage dice. Adding dynamic terrain components has been suggested by everyone that’s shared their tips on tabletop combat. Without examples, this platitude often falls flat for new DMs looking to spice up their game. Let’s explore some different examples of terrain elements you can use in your D&D combat.
Elements of Terrain Building
You need to consider where the fight takes place. What is the environment?
Most characters breathe and fight in air. Taking away this natural comfort will instantly change the dynamics of combat.
If your combat is underwater, now players need to worry about breathing, which can affect their positioning as they surface for air. Spellcasters also need to worry about casting spells with verbal components underwater, as it will exhaust their breath.
If you don’t feel like submerging the party, consider submerging the monster. You can’t hit what you can’t see! In order to keep this from becoming just another “underwater” battle, use a strata that is inhospitable or impossible for the players to enter. For example, you might want to use a red dragon in lava, a black dragon in acid, or the classic burrowing bulette.
The shape of the terrain will dictate how the battle unfolds.
The High Ground. Whether in ranged or melee combat, it’s no secret that having the high ground can grant advantage. Whether this takes the form of an uphill charge or fighting enemies on a precipice, it’s the first step to fighting outside an open field.
The Pinch. Being cornered can take many forms, but its always bad to have your back against the wall. Typically, the party will find themselves in such a circumstance upon the sudden accusation of a diplomatic rival. But, you can also pinch the party in a dungeon with a difficult doorway. Either a vertical descent or the ominous door-slams-behind-you can put the parties in a pinch.
The Squeeze. In the squeeze, the party is confronted by enemies at a chokepoint where they need to “squeeze” through a gap smaller than 5 feet. You can make the squeeze as long as you want. If the players can’t see through to the other side, it will build more suspense. Combat in the squeeze works best when the party is confronted by tiny-sized creatures who can move freely in the space. A small swarm of insects or vermin can serve as a nice harbinger of bigger nasties hiding on the other side.
The Plank. The plank shows how dangerous a hallway can be when you replace walls with falls. You’ll most often see this terrain element at the end of a cliff. You’re going to need to chase your players out to a plank or lure them there with a MacGuffin. At which point, the bad guys should block their return. This can also serve as a fun place to fight a flying creature. Be sure to incorporate environmental effects, like strong winds that may force saving throws, in order to increase the tension.
The Bridge. The bridge incorporates many of these fun effects. You have cliffs on both sides. You can scale the danger of the fall by putting water (or lava) at the bottom. A rope bridge may force the players to squeeze across. A plank may be effected if one end of the bridge becomes damaged or ignited.
Terrain can give rise to additional challenges that the party must endure or resolve. These may force saving throws or apply time pressure. Take hints from the environment of the encounter to see what effects to apply:
- Closing walls
- Rising water
- Falling rocks
- Earth tremors
- Creeping lava
- Acid geysers
- Gusting winds
- Lightning surges
Putting It All Together
The trash compactor scene from Star Wars: A New Hope does a wonderful job of mixing these elements to create a meaningful encounter. The party is trapped in a chamber where the walls reflect their weapons. There is a Dianoga (a trash-munching cephalopod) lurking in the sewage of the compactor which the party can’t see. The Dianoga attacks Luke and takes him out of his natural environment by dragging him under water. Then, you have the walls closing in, mounting pressure on the party to resolve the encounter quickly.
The party would have no problem meeting the Dianoga in an open field. It’s the use of different strata, shrinking shape, and dynamic elements that make this encounter one to remember.