Battlefield Design Tips For D&D 3.5

From Jake Robins, Edmonton, Alberta

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0276

A Brief Word From Johnn

Battlefield Design Is A Game Within The Game

“Dread Pirate” Jake Robins’ article, while catering to D&D folks, is a good lesson for all GMs who run combats. The primary take-away tip is to pre-plan your battlefields and to design each with purpose and care, time permitting. I am guilty of not pre-planning key battlefields in my current campaign, so I’ll be taking Jake’s tips to heart.

Jake’s advice is a great example of an oft-repeated tip in this e-zine: have more fun GMing by creating a game within a game. Designing a cool and challenging battlefield is its own game. The object is to craft a combat environment configuration that gives players and enemies more choices, provides opportunities for PCs to use their skills and abilities (in new ways, if possible), and gives the whole group a fun challenge. If you enjoy designing and thinking about tactics, and if you like making maps, then battlefield creation is a fun and enjoyable solo pastime.

Review of the Roleplaying Tips GM Encyclopedia

Salroth The Chronicles website has posted a review of the GM Encyclopedia. You can read it here: Salroth The Chronicles

Have a game-full week!


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Battlefield Design Tips For D&D 3.5

It’s a common GMing standard that running the best combat encounters involves having the most epic monsters. GMs will pair up different kinds, give them nifty magic items, and devise the most malicious tactics out there. However, there is often one aspect of a battle that I’ve seen many DMs gloss over: the battlefield. Proper use of the battlefield enhances the way your monsters can and will function.

When combat erupts, many GMs throw down their grid map and just put monsters on it. What could be more boring than a flat, wide open space with two teams facing off? Most roleplaying games are not gladiator matches, and even when they are, a DM can do better than that. The aspects of each battlefield can make or break a combat, and it can come down to the whether either side can take advantage of them to attain victory. When battlefields offer so much, encounters with lowly orcs become devastating.

A key aspect of a battlefield is the physical terrain. Are the PCs battling orcs in a heavy forest? Maybe they’re fending off badland nomads in a harsh desert? They could be battling minotaurs on a steep mountain cliff high in the air. There are innumerable possibilities for combat encounters; they are limited but by your imagination. The DMG for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 can also help you. It lists everything you need for all types of terrain (pages 87-93). If you feel like expanding outside of these, the tips below list of the most common types of terrain enhancements worth considering.

I suggest that DMs pre-plan their combats (I pre-draw maps when possible), to keep the pace flowing. Players love it when you throw down an exquisite map and start combat before they have a chance to analyze it.

When running your monsters on maps of your design, consider their intelligence as well as their familiarity with the terrain (do they live there?). If they are familiar and intelligent (or any combination of such), they would likely use the terrain to the best of their advantage. Ambushes can be particularly deadly.

Create Movement Impediments

Movement impediments can range from thick underbrush to rubble to snow. This reduces movement speed by certain degrees (usually doubling or tripling the amount of movement one must “expend” to pass into the square). Remember, in the d20 system, one cannot “five-foot-step” into squares with impeded movement, nor can they charge or run through them. This can limit what combatants can accomplish, or how they accomplish it.

Forcing the participants to move around such spaces, or take the hit and plow through them, can change the way a battle takes place, and most importantly, causes PCs to think about what they are doing.

Remember also that Tumble checks can be harder to accomplish in impeded terrain. Movement impediments usually help archers and spellcasters and hurt melee combatants.

Create Cover

Cover can be anything from low walls to rocks to trees. Cover provides most of its benefits to ranged attackers and those being attacked by them. The d20 system lists many types of cover.

  • Standard cover is provided by something that occupies a whole square (thus you cannot pass through it, such as a thick tree or a large standing stone). It provides +4 AC and +2 reflex saves.
  • Soft cover (one provided by another combatant) is similar but does not provide the reflex save bonus.
  • Low cover (such as a short wall) provides cover only to those within 30? of it (and the attacker can ignore it if he’s closer to it than the defender).
  • Half-cover (a smaller tree) does not occupy a square, and the attacker can fire from it with no penalty. However, it only provides half the bonus of normal cover (+2 AC, +1 ref. save).

Tip: Mark down AC, hardness, HP, and any climb check DCs associated with the cover (on the map square(s) themselves, if it doesn’t bother you).

Note that combatants cannot execute Attacks of Opportunity against anyone who has cover, and combatants can also use cover to make Hide checks. Cover usually helps everyone equally, and makes the combat last longer (less hits). I have always been of the opinion that fights are better when longer.

Create Places Of Concealment

Concealment can be provided by anything from shadows to thick vegetation to smoke. It can provide a 20% miss chance to anyone attacking a creature with concealment. It is best to designate squares that have concealment on the map and make all participants aware of them.

You can bump up concealment to Total Concealment (complete darkness, for example), making the miss chance 50% and negating the chance for attacks of opportunity. You could also make middle ground concealments (miss chance more than 20% or less than 50%) should you desire.

Creatures can use concealment to make Hide checks. It tends to help spellcasters and archers as much as it hurts them (a spellcaster could cast without provoking AoOs in Total Concealment, and archers could shoot without provoking them, but their targets could be harder to hit). It usually hurts melee types.

Use Slopes, Ledges, and Higher Levels

Slopes can provide combatants higher ground bonuses (+1 to hit on melee attacks), as well as cost more movement to ascend. This makes for exciting combats where the enemies all vie for the higher ground, moving the combat continually up a slope.

Throwing in a narrow ledge can make for an interesting and exciting fight, causing the combatants to make Balance checks to stay up. Putting this ledge over a high fall, or a pool of lava or acid can double the fun!

Having multiple levels (such as raised plateaus or tables) can also make for additional higher ground bonuses that are harder to achieve (climb checks might be required). Also, combatants can bull rush enemies over the edge of higher levels.

Add Props And Special Features

The second thing that makes a good battlefield is props and uncommon special terrain. Here is a sample list of interesting features:

  1. Furniture (tables can be overturned for cover, stood on for higher ground)
  2. Fire (if big enough, it could provide concealment to those opposite it; fire damage on a bull rush)
  3. Bodies (many DMs ignore these, but they can definitely count as impeded movement)
  4. Piles of trash (slippery to climb and fight on)
  5. Broken wood floors/bridges (chance to fall through, impeded movement)
  6. Water (impeded movement if shallow, Swim checks if deep; drowning)
  7. Flowing water (swim checks to avoid being moved)
  8. Steam vents (Reflex saves to avoid random outbursts of hot steam)
  9. Spiked ground (impeded movement; damage on a move through it; consider bull rushing)
  10. Deep mud (impeded movement, Reflex save to avoid getting stuck)
  11. Ice (Balance checks to avoid falling, impeded movement)
  12. Blowing sand (concealment, maybe even choking hazards or blindness hazards)
  13. Collapsing buildings (Reflex saves to avoid falling rubble)
  14. Cramped spaces (fighting while crawling is bad, especially when your enemy is Tiny)
  15. Rocking ship on water (Balance checks to avoid falling, worse in a storm)
  16. Weather of all sorts (DMG provides all sorts of effects of rain, snow, wind, and so on)
  17. Intense light or sound (blindness/deafness, concealment, spell failure)
  18. 18) Acid or lava pools (bull rushing; maybe bubbling to splash combatants)
  19. Vertical battlefield (a combat between two sides hanging from cliffs on ladders or ropes)
  20. Moving floor tiles (imagine a shifting floor that send combatants off in random directions
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This should be enough to spice up your battlefields and enhance and compliment your monsters’ actions. To make the combats special and more challenging, try to match the monsters to the battlefield so that they are less affected by it than the PCs. Alternatively, you could make it so neither combatant has an advantage, and it comes down to wit to see who can utilize the battlefield the best. Happy gaming!

[Thanks for the great tips Jake. If any readers have more battlefield design tips, for D&D or any system, whether rules related or just in general, e-mail them to [email protected] for inclusion in the e-zine.]

Expeditious Retreat Press Garners 2 ENnies Nominations!

Expeditious Retreat Press is pleased to announce their two nominations for ENnies 2005 Awards, the official Gen Con RPG Awards. In celebration of the nominations, XRP offers A Magical Society: Beast Builder (nominated for Best Adversary/Monster Product) on sale at and Don’t forget to pick up A Magical Society: Guide to Monster Statistics, nominated for Best Free Product or Web Enhancement.


They are BACK! New updated version of the Pound O’ Dice from Chessex. One of our all time best sellers has returned with an all new mix and includes several dice from many recent Chessex sets! Horde them yourself or split them with friends.

Pound O’Dice at RPG Shop 

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks

The National Geographic Atlas For Modern Maps

From Anne Erkhart

I’m a new subscriber and a new GM – I love the newsletter and all the helpful tips. I’m a somewhat obsessive organizer and planner (which is why my husband asked me to learn how to game and then to GM for him and his friends!) and so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find good sources for maps online that can be used in a D20 modern setting. I’ve noticed there aren’t as many sites with info and tips for D20 modern, so I thought I’d share my favourite link:

The National Geographic Atlas.

You can get maps from all over the world, and the best part is if you can click on “basic” and it removes most of the name labels in a map. In the state and world maps you can also choose to get rid of the borders. You can then click to get a gif you can save to your computer and edit with Paint or whatever to put in your own labels.

I’ve found this really helpful – there’s no need to have a map of a completely new geographic setting when there is an entire planet of unfamiliar places to choose from. Now I’m on the lookout for something that does the same at the city and town scale!

Anyway, I hope you find this helpful.

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Game Table Tips

From Dwayne al’ Trawick

  1. GM at your own house if possible. GM in the room you think up all your game ideas if possible. The more comfortable you are the better you will be and the easier ideas will flow.
  2. Keep the game table clean and tidy and make sure it’s been wiped clean before all your friends show up to cover it with their valuable character sheets, papers, and books.
  3. Consider staying away from large quantities of caffeine on game night. I personally drink either water or orange juice when I GM. Caffeine might keep you awake, but it can be bad for your creative powers and it can make you hyper, which kills focus.
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Music For Your Games

From Fanagann, Poland

If you are searching for background music, then you should check out this website, which provides music from the Final Fantasy series:

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Community Building Rules

From Geoff Skellams

re: Tips For GMing A ‘Local’ Campaign
Roleplaying Tips # 237
Roleplaying Tips #238

It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention the community rules I created for Sword & Sorcery’s incarnation of Gamma World, which first appeared in the GW Player’s Handbook and were later expanded on in “Cryptic Alliances and Unknown Enemies.” I was later asked to rework them for a fantasy genre, and those rules appeared in the “Advanced Player’s Guide”, also from S&SS.

Community life – basically the local campaign you’re describing – was a centrepiece of Bruce Baugh’s vision for the D20 Gamma World. Bruce was very keen on capturing the idea that the PCs belong to a larger group of people and they have to work together to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. So, I worked out a system for describing communities in a fashion similar to PCs, with stats, skills, and feats. I also included a “behaviour map” for tracking events and their effects on the community.

The main focus of the behaviour map was to allow GMs to introduce events into the game that would force the PCs to act on behalf of their community. Those events would then have flow-on events that would change the social dynamics within the community and would perhaps require further intervention by the PCs.

For the most part, my community rules have been very well received. One of the guys on the Mortality Radio show was particularly enamoured with them (you can download that particular show at: although it’s a 28MB file

Anyway, if you haven’t checked out the community rules, I’d really like to suggest that you do, as they could come in handy for you in your current campaign.

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Characters Cannot Own The World

From Garry Stahl

Some valuable treasure you simply cannot take with you. In one game, I placed a cubic foot of gold sitting on a short pillar. It weighted over a ton and the characters could not move it, though they did shave some of it off. In another case, it was a decorated grotto, hanging plants, and beautiful, mosaic fountains. A lovely area of peace and tranquility. Well, once the PCs had stripped the area, removed the artworks and what looked to be gold, it was a barren, dark cave, and they had destroyed the magic that made the place what it was. Total gain, nothing.

It can be good to remind players that their characters cannot own the world. There will be treasures both great and small that cannot be moved, no matter what the effort.

Official D&D New Release: Stormwrack

The third in a series of beautifully illustrated supplements focusing on play in specific environmental climes, Stormwrack contains rules on play in watery environments. Not only are rules for sea campaigns offered, but rules for including water environments in land-based D&D campaigns and dungeon adventures are also covered.

Included is extensive information on lakes and rivers; hazards such as exposure, storms, and waterspouts; races, including non-aquatic races associated with the sea; equipment, including detailed deck plans for ships; monsters; magic, including psionic elements; skills; feats; and more….