I kick sand in his face!

In the previous post I’ve discussed a method to make environmental effects and terrain powers more engaging to the players, making the battlefield itself matter. Still, those are somewhat big things, and it’s not always easy to come up with an appropriate terrain effect to a given encounter. And not every encounter needs them. All too often, a battlefield doesn’t have any major features to it: it’s just a forest clearing or a tavern or what have you. Sure, there are moss-covered stones on which people could slip or furniture to be thrown around, but it just doesn’t seem significant enough to warrant a terrain feature. The DM has enough to work on as it is, so if a terrain feature doesn’t immediately spring to mind, they’re probably better off concentrating on something else.

Why not let players bring the scene to life? It’s a roleplaying game after all, shouldn’t they do their part in making terrain interactive by, well, interacting with it? Unfortunately, while every now and then someone at the table comes up with a flavourful explanation of how a particular power worked out in particular surroundings, most of the time everyone’s too preoccupied with what the game says matters: mechanics. It doesn’t really matter how you managed to achieve a given effect, as long as you have a power to do it. Tactical combat is complicated and enjoyable enough, and with no reward for thinking about anything other than powers and positioning inherent in the game, we prioritize. Battlefield becomes decoration.

This leads to an interesting phenomenon: if an object on the battlefield can not be easily assigned an existing mechanic, it is discarded as fluff. Those moss-covered stones are nice and flavourful and forgotten by round 2. This is why terrain powers exist: they draw player’s attention to set pieces. For everything else, the game has simple, robust mechanics: difficult terrain, hazardous terrain, concealment, etc. Their simplicity is their enemy, however, as after a while liberally spreading rubble and lava across the battlefield loses its novelty. Rubble = overgrowth = piles of stuff = difficult terrain = background.

How do we get players to invest in battlefields, making them more than meaningless backgrounds in the process? Easy: have them gain a bonus by doing so. Don’t fight the incentives offered by the game, use them. Here’s an (as of yet) untested variant rule:

By describing how they interact with the terrain and any other element of the encounter, a character may gain any one of the following benefits:

  • Shift 1 square as a free action on your turn.
  • Stand up as a minor action.
  • One target of your power that causes forced movement falls prone after that movement.
  • One target of your next attack is also pushed 1 square.
  • Sustain a power as a free action that can normally be sustained as a minor action.
  • Gain combat advantage against a single target for the next attack.
  • Provoke no opportunity attacks with the next Ranged or Area attack.
  • Increase the size of your next Area or Close attack by 1.

This benefit can only be gained once per encounter.

Feel free to suggest other benefits! Also, I’m not sure about that last line, though it seems that limiting this ability’s use is a good way to avoid players fishing for *something* to gain a bonus every round. We’re after interesting uses for terrain, after all.

Following are a few examples of how characters may rely on their power sources in this context:

Martial classes are the most straightforward: they physically manipulate their surroundings to gain any advantage they can over their enemies. The thief splashes beer from his mug in the face of an attacker, gaining combat advantage. The fighter pushes the enemy onto the moss-covered rocks, watching them fall.

Arcane classes manipulate energy, drawing it from cosmos and their surroundings. Poisonous gases rise up from the bog, feeding the wizard’s stinking cloud and sustaining it for a round. Fire in lanterns up and down the street is blown out as the warlock’s adversary stumbles back, enveloped in flame.

Divine classes gain power from their divine patrons and the strength of their conviction. With sun blazing above him, the cleric of Pelor knows he will not be harmed (by opportunity attacks). “St. Vincent didn’t falter in the face of the dragon, and neither will I”, thinks the paladin, pulling himself up (as a minor action).

Primal classes are animists – the ever-present spirits of nature support them. Wedged deep in a tree is an ancient flint arrowhead; the barbarian doesn’t know whose hand fired it, but he can feel the black anger coming off it. “Soon, you will drink blood again”, he promises, driving his enemy to its knees. “Help me, brother tree”, utters the druid, and the tree’s roots shudders, moving him away from danger.

Shadow classes channel the power of Shadowfell – a place of dark reflections and cruel illusions. Once, the old oak was a hanging tree. If you know how, you can still see the shadow of the noose underneath. And there’re a lot of things an assassin can do with a shadow (like gain combat advantage).

Of course, this is not exactly a new idea, and players occasionally ask things like whether they can kick sand into enemy’s face. However, by providing an explicit framework for handling such requests, as well as a permission to introduce new elements, past events, inspirational teachings of saints, whatever they can come up with as long as it enriches the scene, we encourage players to get involved. Does it work for you? Let me know!

7 thoughts on “I kick sand in his face!

  1. With all due respect, your efforts to bring more details into the simple system will eventually destroy it. It’s DnD4 – it’s “a thing in itself” like most of DnD products.

    The fun (besides other sources) comes from winning in combats using strict simple rules. Introdusing of arbitrary bonuses/hidrances from the battle map destroys part of that fun.

    It’s like armor modifiers vs. piersing/slashing/bludgeoning weapons in AD&D2. I could never make players actually use this rule, because there were just too many details for this system to handle.

    1. I think you got me wrong here. This isn’t about detailed simulation of the effect of every rock on the battlefield. Just the opposite: instead of writing up the effects of sand kicking or beer throwing, I try to motivate the players to come up with a cool description for the powers they use. And by using a number of pre-defined options, rather than going “Hey, come up with something cool and you’ll get some bonus”, I keep it from becoming unpredictable and arbitrary.

      1. You sound like you’re playing DungeonWorld mag, I think bringing more of that to D&D will save it, not destroy it.

  2. I like the idea and kinda use it already. My players know that they can skip some rules by describing swashbuckling actions in combat.
    Right from the beginning I told them that if the strike lacked ~2 points to hit target or monster has some HP left after damage was dealt, but the description was good, I can bend the rules and make them succeed. Also it is good thing to assume IMO that powers and skills are the same thing – powers are fixed stunts and you can achive similar results with skill roll. It’s riskier, but gives more flexibility.

  3. I am just starting as DM for a group of total 4e noobs, and i think i might try to
    encourage this kind of thing by demonstrating such things with the monsters.
    smart monsters may get an advantage, while dumb ones may try and fail, but all
    will illustrate the point.

    This goblin be throwing sand in your face, whacho got homie?

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