4e adventurers can do a great many things on the battlefield, arguably more than in any D&D edition before. They dart, fly and teleport; taunt, pummel to the ground and plow through. Due to the nature of character powers, they can do so anywhere and anyhow. What works on a swaying ship in a storm will work just as well in a tavern brawl or at the heart of an exploding volcano. Adventurers are, by design, a thing in themselves, a perfect sphere in vacuum.
Which is why we use terrain powers and environmental effects to make encounters truly different from one another. That and enemies, of course. But while environmental effects are cool, they tend to focus on battlefields interacting with characters, not the other way around. Everyone may be forced to make an Acrobatics check at the start of every turn on a ship in stormy waters, falling prone on a failure. As for terrain powers, most of the ones I’ve seen allow characters to spend their actions on something they normally wouldn’t be able to do. Isn’t that what we want? Well, not really. Players have spent significant time on building up their perfectly spherical adventurers. They have likely thought out all sorts of little combos and contingencies. They have picked their powers to cover various tactical situations. They don’t need an option to do something entirely different. This is especially true for standard action powers. The character building philosophy of 4e doesn’t mesh well with terrain powers.
As an aside, many wonderful people have advised introducing skill challenges in combat via terrain powers of a sort, i.e., succeed on 4 Religion checks while adjacent to a column of black energy to dissipate it and weaken the boss. This has always sounded wrong to me. Skill challenges in combat are fine, but using skills in them is, paradoxically, boring. A skill is a single number. There’s very little choice a player makes in regards to a given skill. It’s not mechanically interesting. And so using it instead of any other power just doesn’t feel fulfilling. Plus, having your turn end after a single roll, after waiting for it 10-20 minutes, is not much fun.
I have complained enough about an existing aspect of the game, and now, in the grand tradition of previous posts, I’m going to propose a solution. In this case it’s not a big change, but rather a small shift in design paradigm. Make terrain powers and effects that interact with what PCs already do, instead of offering alternatives. Often enough, all it takes is a slight modification of an existing terrain power. Here are a few examples:
Shallow ice: Step lightly! Whenever a creature makes an attack on a square of shallow ice or walks through a square of shallow ice without shifting, that square breaks once the creature leaves it or ends its turn. Jumping onto shallow ice immediately breaks the landing square. Creatures with icewalk never break shallow ice unless they wish to.
Wall spikes: Barbed spikes protrude from a wall, taking up squares adjacent to it. Any creature entering or ending its turn in a square with wall spikes takes 5/10/15 damage, depending on its tier. If a forced movement effect would move a creature past the spikes and into the wall to which they are attached, the creature is restrained as well (save ends).
Remember Running Man?
Teetering Stone Pillar: When a creature is pushed into a square with the teetering stone pillar, it collapses, doing the following attack against that creature and, optionally, one creature adjacent to it: Level+3 vs Reflex, 1d10+ one-half level damage, and the target is dazed (save ends). This use in in the addition to the one described in DSCC.
Tar patch: Any Fire attack that targets a tar patch square sets the whole patch on fire. Alternatively, a flint or some other source of flame can be used as a minor action while adjacent to a tar patch. While on fire, it deals 5/10/15 fire damage to any creature that enters it or ends its turn there. In addition, any creature adjacent to it may spend a minor action to have its next Melee or Ranged attack performed until the end of its next turn deal extra 5/10/15 fire damage.
Urns of Watchful Spirits: These urns contain ashes of temple guardians, serving the *insert_evil_deity_name_here* even after their death. The exact nature of their service can vary: provide bonuses to the boss, create a necromantic aura that does damage or weakens intruders, spawn minion wraiths, all of the above. The urns have following defences: Level+15 AC, Level+12 Fortitude, Level+8 Reflex, Level+12 Will, 20/30/40 hp, resist half: all but radiant. Whenever a creature deals radiant damage to an urn, or makes a Moderate Religion check as a minor action while adjacent to an urn, the spirits in that urn are pacified until the end of that creature’s next turn. This doesn’t negate their main effect. However, should an urn be destroyed while its spirits are not pacified, they exact final vengeance, making a Level+3 vs Will attack against the creature that destroyed them, dealing Level+8 damage on hit.
Have a cleric with Turn Undead and/or tons of radiant damage? Go you. If not, you may have to sweat. Still, you’re not just accumulating Religion check successes.
I’ll continue riding this train of thought in the next post, where things will get a bit more radical.