I’ve reviewed the benefits and dangers of terrain, and covered a bit about cover, but today I’m going to dive deep into the use of terrain features and Hazards from both an encounter building and narrative perspective.
The important thing to consider is that cover and beneficial terrain represents a fantastic narrative opportunity to enrich a foe. This is very important to understand when building an encounter. Consider an encounter where wild elves skulk in under cover of fog. They have total concealment and are effectively bypassing the varied ranged attacks that could be hurtled towards them, and allowing them to hid their numbers and equipment. That speaks of a cunning and dangerous foe. From an encounter building perspective it means that your party is going to be drawn into melee much easier. It also rewards players who can issue ranged attacks, though it’s clearly very hazardous to fire into a horde of unseen enemies. This also gives the encounter a claustrophobic dangerous feeling, enemies pressing in from all sides, uncertain numbers, it’s tense and exciting.
Contrast that to a horde of goblins dug in atop a hill, hurtling mud and other mud-like substances as well as rocks, javelins and bombs. This encounter speaks of cowardly crude enemies who are lazy and undisciplined. The challenges it poses are polar opposite, melee becomes a dreadful slog uphill (half movement) and through mud (another ½). Only the fastest of characters will be able to engage in melee without flight or the ability to bypass the terrain. Likewise the feeling of the campaign is different, it’s much more comical, nothing is hidden, and the threat isn’t as intense, even if the terrain leaves the players struck by more debris than they’d like. The players are free to take their time, attack from whatever angle they want, they are the attackers and it’s their foes that are hiding and being encircled.
One of the hardest encounters my players ever fought through was built on terrain. Their level six party was accompanied by six bodyguards and a knightly escort as they travelled across country in their carriages as guests of the duchess. It had been raining all day and the roads and marches had turned to thick mud by the time the bandits attacked. Overall it was a CR 5 encounter divided among many low level bandits with bows. But two factors turned it from an easy sweep into a bloody battle. Firstly, the muddy marshy ground was difficult terrain and some extremely difficult terrain making charging impossible and regular movement a nightmare. On it’s own this wouldn’t be so bad, but secondly….my players had no ranged weapons. No one on the party could attack at a distance and I knew it. A hail of weak attacks absolutely bombarded the party andflaming arrows lit the carriages on fire (They’d been sabotaged the night before). All told most of the guards were slain, the bandits were even chased off, and the duchess was murdered by a traitor. But a hard lesson was learned about difficult terrain and range. The players felt unprepared, attacked, and defenseless and I guarantee it’s an encounter they won’t forget.
Whether your fights take place on a narrow beam over a chasm, in a silent bamboo forest, in the villains marble throne room or aboard the deck of an airship, always consider how the terrain makes the battle feel, what it’s like, what it can do for both you and the players strategically and narratively.