Combat Hazards – I

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0474

A Brief Word from Johnn

Happy Holidays, Happy New Year

Next issue of Roleplaying Tips will hit your inboxes in early January 2010. So this is my only chance to wish you a great holiday season before Santa rolls climb checks a billion times.

I hope you have some good times and great memories from time spent with friends and family during this year’s holidays. Hopefully you have a chance to get some RPGs played too.

Dropbox is Perfect for My Game Files

My boring and practical side can’t help but slip in a reminder in this last issue of the year to backup all your game data.

I now use Dropbox for a lot of my gaming data. It’s a free service that stores your files on their servers. You install the Dropbox application on any computer (Mac, Win, Linux) or use their online service to open, edit and save your work.

Because your Dropbox files are stored online they are automatically synched between any computer you access them from. Free accounts receive 2GB of space and you can upgrade for more.

While I do not store personal data, passwords or sensitive data in Dropbox, it’s perfect for my gaming stuff and makes a nice backup solution too because files are stored on your computer(s) plus on their servers, for great redundancy.

Anywho, check their website out for details and other features I haven’t mentioned: Dropbox

War of the Burning Sky Official Trailer

War of the Burning Sky is an epic adventure series for D&D 3.5/4E produced by the EN World publishing team. You might recall that the adventure has supported Roleplaying Tips in 2009 with ads and contest prizes.

I received an email this morning that promoted a new video trailer for the adventure path.

I have not seen a video trailer made for a pen & paper adventure before, and this one is pretty good. I love the idea of our hobby and games getting this kind of promotion and treatment. Long live RPG.

If you are interested in checking the video out: Morru’s Unofficial RPG News

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 battle map, 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 limbs.

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 battle map. 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 battle map that are full of gravel and are thus difficult to stand upon.

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.


  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 artifacts (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 defenses)
  • 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 renovation).

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.

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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 guessing.

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The second batch of long form contest entries will appear in Roleplaying Tips in 2010.

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

There are also more contests planned, so be sure to keep an eye on the Brief Word section in each issue to learn when a contest starts – some will only run for a short period of time.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

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 3×5 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 matters?

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Wise PC Hooks Advice

From Shane H.

If a character’s background is well detailed, sink your plot hooks into it, but never destroy something totally in the background unless it’s a gateway to something bigger and better.

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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.

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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 a while the PC gets slammed in the face leaving monster residue dripping down their lips.

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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.