Spicing Up ttRPG Combats: Local Benefits and Drawbacks
One way to make combat encounters more interesting is to add local features that can affect the course of the battle. Regardless of game system and whether using maps and miniatures, vtts, or theater of the mind, you can make a simple attack by brigands (or mob enforcers, walking tanks, dragons, or whatever lese works in your campaign) more complex and memorable by adding quicksand, tar pits, rickety bridges, vines, dense underbrush, boulders, eldritch altars, holy sites, traps, fog, and dozens of other elements.
Today I am going to discuss two kinds of elements — local benefits, and local drawbacks.
A Local Benefit: Anything that makes the PCs’ easier, but only in part of an encounter or only in limited ways. The most common examples of this in ttRPG adventures are concealment, cover, and holy auras, and those are great places to start. These can be ad hoc ( a pile of rocks that characters can get on top of or crouch behind), or more explicitly set up (an old ruined defensive wall still has a single one-person crenelated tower a archer or spellcaster can take cover within, and only two easily-guarded stairs grant access to it, allowing melee-focused characters to intercept foes trying to reach the tower top). Local benefits can be as simple as having the high ground or an easily defensible position, or as complex as a narrow zone on the map that can be seen by an allied sniper, fighting fire elementals in the rain, or having a space where PCs can set up traps and extra supplies in advance.
A Local Drawback: Anything that makes the PCs’ lives more difficult, but only in part of the encounter or only in a limited way. While things like monstrous spider webs, difficult or slippery terrain, enemies with cover, traps, and unholy magical auras are fairly common in ttRPG adventures, it’s possible to spread well beyond these examples For example, fighting in a cave behind a waterfall can drown out all sound, or fighting full amphibious foes around a deep, black pool they can easily see and move through but the PCs (or at least most of them) can’t.
It’s true that anything that counts as a local benefit for the heroes can be reversed to be a local drawback, but look out for things that seem local but are actually the only location the majority of the action is going to happen. A fight with a staircase on the field might well lead to a few interesting combat moments, but if the fight is focused almost entirely on getting up or down those stairs, they go from a regional effect to the majority of the terrain used in the encounter. There’s nothing conceptually wrong with that, but it can greatly magnify the impact the added element has on both overall fun and the outcome of the encounter
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