Roleplaying Tips Weekly #474

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From Roleplaying Tips #474

Combat Hazards I

A while ago Roleplaying Tips held a contest for combat
hazards, traps and terrain ideas. The first batch is
featured below. Thanks to everyone who entered!

Entries tended to come in two formats, long and short. The
short entries are one-liners and they'll appear in the ezine
in the future. Some of the long entries are what we have
here today.

Hopefully you can use these hazards in your upcoming games.
If you do, let me know how it went.

A Fight In Front Of The Waterfall

At one point, a broad, shallow river flows over rocks just
before a waterfall. The rocks serve as stepping stones from
one side of the river to the other. Between the rocks the
water is an unknown depth because the water is sputtering
and gushing.

The stones are slippery, requiring balance type checks to
avoid losing one's action or falling into the water. Combat
is difficult while in or under water, and cold water could
even do subdual damage.

What I like about this hazard is that it can easily be made
more or less difficult. It is not certain death if you fail
some rolls, and you get the party's fighter out of his armor
and away from his +2 flaming longsword.

Fallen victims have a tricky decision to make as well: do
they try to climb out of the water, or do they stay in the
water, waiting for the other combatant.

Caldera Combat

In a deep mountain region full of volcanic activity, the
residual heat makes combat difficult. Create battle spaces
out of round regions (think small-scale caldera) with thick
rock walls along the edges.

Along the walls, gaps in the rock create walkways and nooks
where foes wait in ambush. Mark various slits in the
battlemap, but do not announce what lies within, just that
there are small openings in the floor.

Anyone passing through the spaces bordering on the 1/2 foot
wide, 5 foot long openings must dive out of the way to avoid
heat damage. In addition, at short intervals, everyone
within 10 feet of the slits must also have fast reflexes or
take damage.

Fill the mini caldera with salamanders and other fire-
resistant nasties and you've got an encounter where the
enemies can lure or push the party into a situation where
they must fight their way out before being roasted alive.

Falling Trees

In a heavily-wooded forest scenario, have fog of war limit
the party's visibility. Sounds bounce against the low
canopy, and the creaking of rotting limbs almost drowns out
the various voices that travel along the branches.

When a battle breaks out, enemies drop rotting tree limbs
about the battlemap, forcing characters to dodge the
overhead debris. Player who elect to focus their attention
on foes on the ground receive a penalty to avoid the falling

As the battle nears its climax, have the trees themselves
fall in various directions in response to enemies pushing
them over, or due to the ground around them being softened
by the active combatants.

The falling trees endanger both enemies and party, as
decided by the GM. These trees help turn the tide one way or
another, making the combat either more difficult for the
party or helping them survive the encounter.

Rough Terrain

Rough areas are one of the more exciting, natural, above-
ground terrains for the party to explore. The lack of arable
land and minimal water sources make large scale, overland
travel treacherous. When combat breaks out, this can be even
more overwhelming, especially when the available areas for
standing are limited.

Rocky terrain can be physically represented by the GM
placing small rocks found on a simple nature walk upon the
battlemap. Decide the amount of cover using the heights of
the miniatures used by your gaming group compared to the
rock sizes.

Remove the rocks when they are destroyed by magical or
physical means. This will encourage players to explore the
battlespace, rushing for cover behind a new rock when their
current cover is blasted by the angry wizard at the top of
the cliff.

To add difficulty, have new boulders roll down steep hills
as the mage animates them or a summoned elemental pushes
them down from the hillsides. Select areas of the battlemap
that are full of gravel and are thus difficult to stand

Giant Discordant Magic Mouths

Magic mouths are placed at tactical intervals along the
halls of the frost giant king. When negotiations break down
(as is so often the case with frost giants), the mouths let
out discordant wails, shaking the walls, and blasting all
those within 10' of their openings, dealing sonic damage and
pushing combatants around.

Properly placed, these mouths can make for treacherous
terrain, even for powerful characters. In the confusion that
ensues, the giants can make ranged and magic attacks against
the party.

Alternately, the mouths might blow frost on the characters,
or a combination of the two might be placed together for a
nasty obstacle.

Steam And Pipes

Using an urban steampunk city, mad wizard's lair, or a
cursed boiling room, the basics are steam and pipes. A big,
humid maze where you can get blinded, burned and deafened.
Or you might just get wet and disoriented by sudden bursts
of harmless vapors. Example:

  1. Players get scared by whistling
  2. Lose direction from steam cloud
  3. Get scalded by a rush of hot water
  4. Get hit by a loose pipe
  5. Get pierced by flying shrapnel, screws, broken pipes
  6. Roll twice for the poor sod

The Museum

  • Balconies to leap off (or throw people off of)
  • Glass cases to smash people into
  • Dinosaur skeletons / stuffed animals to topple (or animate)
  • Exhibits that turn out to be magical artefacts (or ancient alien tech)
  • Pottery to break (ouch, that clay cylinder isn't the prison for a malevolent spirit, right?)

Roof tops (or battlements)

  • It's a long way down....
  • Steam vents, chimney smoke
  • Sloping surfaces, slick with rain
  • Varying building height (providing cover, or slowing down those without good climb/acrobatic skills)
  • Roosting birds (obscuring line of sight when they're disturbed, or shocking the unwary into a stumble)
  • Wind and rain
  • Lightning

The School (or college or academy)

  • The library: books and shelves (bookshelves are heavy and might domino, shelves could be fought on top of, books are flammable)
  • Science labs: Bunsen burners and chemicals (causing chemical burns, blindness, slippery surfaces or *weird* effects)
  • Gym: sports equipment (trampettes, rope, frames, benches, balls, weights)
  • Art room: paint for blinding, canvases to provide obscurement, but not cover
  • Workshop: power-tools, blow torches, cutting/drilling equipment, possibly a forge or kiln

Construction Site

  • Pits
  • Building materials
  • Wet cement, clay or binding agent
  • Scaffolding; frames to climb, swing, leap off, or throw
  • people off
  • Tools (rivet guns, hammers, cutting wheels)
  • Rope and bucket (containing rubble or building materials)
  • Winch or crane (for the dropping of heavy stuff over an area)
  • Power cables (or unfinished magical defences)
  • Sheet glass
  • Construction vehicles (or startled beasts of burden)

Construction Site II

This setting offers varied terrain in an urban environment,
and one glance around any moderate construction site will
set GM minds to plotting. A new site can also be replaced
with the refurbishing of a ruined castle or decrepit manse
with a sordid history.

  • Scaffolding along unfinished or broken walls and balconies
  • A pulley crane supporting a hefty beam or keystone
  • A loaded wheelbarrow or stack of barrels atop a ramp
  • Muddy puddles and uncured cement
  • Ropes
  • Chains and tarps over sand pits and unfinished wells
  • Old boards with nails
  • Teetering tiles and rubble piles
  • Buckets of lye
  • Tools such as drills, axes, files, scythes, saws, picks, hammers, spades and shovels as weapons or traps

Any construction site offers comedic hazards, colorful
swashbuckling conflict, or more brutal antics such as
battering an enemy with a hurled pry bar or toppled pallet
of bricks, kicking down barricades, or literally chopping
the floor out from beneath one's foes.

Picture a haunted mansion under renovation, rife with horror
movie hazards and encounters, or a stone mason's guild with
a large construction project outside town (or riverside

Dwarven Foundry

A dwarven foundry is under attack, but the dwarves have to
keep the machinery running.

  • Every round, random combatants have to be agile or be damaged by the molten metal dwarves are pouring  through channels in the floor.
  • The furnaces are cooled by water. If the pump or pipes are damaged, there is a chance the furnaces will explode, dealing damage from the debris and molten metal inside.
  • Large furnaces can be used as cover, but they risk explosion if damaged.
  • Depressions in the floor are used to cool the metal into bars, and anyone standing over such an area takes damage from the heat.
  • Because the dwarves can see in the dark they don't use any light source, so the players either have to provide their own light or fight in the low illumination provided by the glowing metal.

I ran this with a heat-resistant monster (so it didn't take
damage from the molten metal) that was very hard to see in
the dim light.

Ice cavern

The PCs are fighting inside an icy cave. The floor appears
to be solid ice, but certain areas are pools of icy water
topped by a couple inches of ice. The ceiling far above is
covered in stalactites of heavy ice, dripping down over the
pools on the floor and freezing into extremely slippery
patches covering the pools.

Stepping on an icy patch calls for good balance and reflexes
to stay on your feet. Falling on the thin ice has a chance
of smashing through. Falling causes no damage, but it has a
chance to shake loose some of the icicles hanging above
these spots.

If the ice over a pool breaks, the PC is plunged under the
ice into frigid water that is 1d6+2 feet deep and 5 feet
around. Each round immersed deals subdual damage.

Undisturbed surfaces of these areas begin to ice over after
6 rounds and are two inches thick after 2 minutes. Spotting
the thin, slippery patches takes a search.


Trampolines are one of the most dynamic and cinematic
challenges a GM can use, providing one of the fastest means
of non-magical propulsion within a combat grid, especially
in games that focus on movement rates, facing and maneuvers
for tactical advantage. Mechanics that increase damage from
rates of speed only adds to the principle idea.

Trampolines can result from:

  • The taut sails and rigging of a brigantine wrecked in a sea cave or grotto
  • Slung cargo nets
  • Gigantic mushrooms
  • Lily pads or other spongy plants
  • Pliant rubber tree or bamboo platforms
  • Huge leaf-covered spider webs (or immunity through spells and magic items)
  • Gladiatorial apparatus designed for a deadly acrobatic spectacle

Magic is another option, and repulsion or anti-gravity
fields serve as a viable substitute in high tech settings.

Acrobatic skills can be applied directly for task
resolution, or the GM can use base agility scores or to-hit
rolls for an all-inclusive solution, with more complex
maneuvers increasing the target number.

Rogues and monks will often outshine fighters in this arena,
and even spellcasters, often less physically capable, can
take advantage by augmenting jumps and tumbles through
spells and magic items that increase agility, movement and
luck, not to mention block and sabotage opponents via area
of effect spells and created barriers.

Adding balconies, ropes, chains, masts, scaffolding,
suspended weapons, ladders, poles, platforms and ramps to
the area only increases the swashbuckling fun. Maps and
counters or minis are a must for this one, but well worth
the extra effort.

Low Gravity

This environmental obstacle can be as fun as it is
hazardous. Those traveling through it will weigh less and
can jump farther, but they must also spend more effort to
control their movement or run the risk of collision with
walls, objects and each other.

Agility checks and acrobatic skills can be used as a
default, as can slightly modified swimming rules.

The best way for a GM to prepare players for low gravity is
to expose them to this environmental condition without a
threat first, allowing them to experiment and adjust
tactics. Then hit them full force with a combat encounter
before they become too comfortable.

Another option is multi-gravity. Each side of a room has its
own plane of gravity. The room need not be cubic or
rectangular, although geometric shapes tend to work best. A
person might be able to move freely from one side of the
room to the next, or it may require a specific physical
point such as an archway, ramp, portal or jump pad that
transfers or launches a person across to another side.

Design a magical prison or lunar temple with rooms and
artifacts that generate gravity effects and keep your heroes

For tips on combat hazards, check out the ongoing Hazards of
Combat series I am writing at Campaign Mastery:


Game Master Tips & Tricks

Do you have a game mastering tip to share? E-mail - thanks for sharing!

1. 3 Monster Tips
 From: Aaron Broder

Make Your Own Monster Cards

Avoid thumbing through the Monster Manual during the game by
making monster cards. I know that D&D 4e has official
versions for their minis, but I don't know what they're
like, so I suggest making your own.

Take the necessary stats (leave off anything you don't need,
save room!) and write them down on a 3x5 index card. Then
put them in the order you're going to need them during the
adventure - no flipping through the book.

As a bonus, when you need a random encounter you can just
pull out random cards from the deck.

Remix, Reskin, Recycle

It is a well known fact that 99% of every monster is easily
removable fluff. You can easily strip away that fluff and
coat its crunchy core with another flavor.

For example, turn a poison-spitting lizard into a boar that
just spits.

Occasionally, it might take a tweak or two to the stats (in
the above example, no poison damage), but the changes you
need to make are minimal.

Make It Up

There are some people who might disagree with this (as it
sticks most of its body over the GM fiat line), but in
extreme cases you don't need stats.

My entire first adventure I ever ran (D&D 4th Edition, if
you're interested) was a free 3.5 adventure I had found on
the internet. I knew the two editions were different, but I
didn't care - I made up the stats on the fly. In the end, my
party had fun, and I had fun - and isn't that what really

2. Wise PC Hooks Advice
 From: Shane H.

If a characters background is well detailed, sink your plot
hooks into it, but never destroy something totally in the
background unless its a gateway to something bigger and

3. Size Does Matter
 From: Nate Cain

One thing I noticed last night is that size does matter. I
had been throwing medium sized monsters at the PCs for a
while without realizing it. Then, by chance, I pulled out a
large monstrous spider and they were all saying, "Yes,
something big!"

Try to plan out your creatures according to size and keep
mixing it up. Even have them fight huge monsters and tiny
monsters in the same encounter. The player's strategies will
change drastically.

4. What Does A Monster Taste Like?
 From: Nate Cain

Use the five senses when describing a monster. We always
tell the PCs what the monster looks like and sometimes what
it sounds like (insert growling noises and snarls) but with
the other senses the monster will come to life.

Tell the players how raunchy and disgusting the monster
smells. When it gets close, have the player get a good whiff
of its breath, and maybe even make a save or resistance
check to withstand it.

How does the monster feel when you hit it? Does it squish
with the blow? Maybe the PC feels resistance when pulling
out their rapier due to the creature's tough hide.

Taste is a tough one to use all the time, but maybe every
once in awhile the PC gets slammed in the face leaving
monster residue dripping down their lips.

5. Make One Foe Special Each Time
From: Nate Cain

I find that a hoard of orcs or a group of troglodytes isn't
enough. Even with mixing two or more types of creatures I
like to have just one in the group stand out over the rest.

I tell my PCs they see a mean looking group of orcs, but
they notice one of them looks bigger, meaner, or smarter
than the others.

Then all I do is give that one guy a little boost, like an
extra 10 hp or +2 to his attack.

The one I like best is to give him an exotic weapon, maybe
one the PCs have never seen before. When I do this I see the
PCs start coming up with more strategies than just running
into battle hitting stuff.


New GM Advice @

What's new at the blog of Johnn Four and Mike Bourke:

The Perils Of Prophecy: Avoiding the Plot Locomotive

The Ascended Conflict in my Riddleport Campaign

How many 2009 resolutions did Johnn achieve?

A Grand Conclusion: Thinking about a big finish


Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have
written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your
games and to make GMing easier and fun:

* Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most
popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well,
plus several generators and tables:

* Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not
only expand your game world but provide endless natural
encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

* GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to
crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for
any game system and genre. This book will make a difference
to your GMing.




That's it for this week's issue.

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Have more fun at every game!

Johnn Four

Excerpts from Johnn Four's Roleplaying Tips Weekly
Reprinted with permission.
Copyright 2009, Johnn Four,

All Rights Reserved.

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