How big of an impact does environment play in your games? I frequently think of it in hindsight or halfway through a battle when it seems a little late to suddenly introduce a potential hindrance. When it comes to dungeon delving the environment can be such a huge factor, yet I often forget to enforce the environmental surroundings.
The Rat Warren
In a Dungeon Crawl Classics session I ran earlier this week the environment turned a battle with giant rats into a very deadly affair. Deadly to the point that a 3rd level wizard lost his life to the rats in their warren. None of the rats encountered were anything spectacular. Averaging around 4hp and doing 1d4-ish damage and a relatively low disease save. Their AC sat around a 13.
What made the rats a challenge was the terrain. The rats were defending their warren, a network of small tunnels, only 3’ high in most places and several squeeze points that required Agility checks to squeeze through. This led to characters being able to only get people into the tunnels in single file. Sometimes they would get stuck, while the rats could squeeze right through. Once a place was stuck they could spend the next round trying to work themselves free, but it took a full round to do so. The rats would relentlessly attack.
In this case the characters tried to be smart and clear out the rat tunnels with a choking cloud. But as fate would have it, the spell failed and was lost. Figuring it was only a few rats they headed in (they needed a key the rats made off with). Soon the wizard was two squeeze points in and stuck. A rat came up behind the wizard and began attacking. Between a combination of poor rolling by him and good rolling by me, his character was dead. The party worked quickly to save him, but the healer was on the other side of the squeeze point. The groans were audible by the players while they tried to figure out whether to risk an agility check by the healer or try to get the body to the narrow opening for the healer to reach through.
The environment made this encounter with a handful of giant rats much more challenging than if it had occurred in an open cavern or tunnels of normal size. Granted it was a series of bad rolls that ultimately led to the wizard’s death, but the terrain made the encounter memorable.
Other Environmental Challenges
The above was just one example of how the environment really helped make an encounter exciting and more than just “I walk up to the rat and attack it.” I frequently neglect to take environmental conditions into account when running games. As the session earlier this week proved, I need to get better at enforcing enough of the environmental challenges to spice up encounters.
For example, light sources are huge in underground romps. In many games certain character classes lose the advantage of even having darkvision or infravision if the GM forgets to apply the disadvantages from the lack of light. Many times it comes up as an afterthought, “okay, who has the torch?”. A character answers they had the torch, even though they were just firing a bow one round ago making holding the torch difficult. Torches and lanterns might help shape what weapons are carried or even closer attention to who is where during exploration.
Terrain height or terrain difficulty can have a big impact on encounters. Maybe the cave floor is slippery or full of rocks and boulders. Movement is slowed. Perhaps the encounter here has the enemies on ledges with greater mobility as the party tries to pick their way through. If the GM forgets about terrain the group is in it becomes a completely different encounter as the PCs move effortlessly across the cavern floor – instead of picking their way across while avoiding the arrows of their enemy.
Remember the Environment
There does come a point where getting too lost in the minutia can slow things down, but forgetting it altogether changes a major component of the game. I need to work on finding the in-between to help make dungeon crawls I run a little more exciting. Playing up the environment effects can really help bring a dungeon or cave to life. It can make what are normally typical encounters into something memorable.
The next time you run an encounter, highlight some of the terrain and environment features that might give it a distinct feel. Play those up during the combat. Watch your players and listen to them. Does it build up the excitement? Does it get them thinking of how to work in those confines? If so, you will have seen how remembering the encounter environment makes for a more exciting encounter!