Most of the local terrain around my house is flat. This part of north central Illinois is prairie — flatlands in every direction.
It’s no surprise, then, that the dungeons we design around here are flat too. The grid paper we design dungeons on is flat. The coffee tables we gather around are flat. The footmaps and map tiles we buy are flat. The minis we use certainly stand up better on a surface that’s flat.
Flat, flat, flat.
Breaking free of flat thinking is hard to do. But a good DM must find a way to do that because presenting varied terrain is a neat way to spice up encounters, especially if you use miniatures in your D&D combat.
A balcony, a cavern shelf, a watch tower, a hilltop rise, a roadside bluff. These are all examples of high ground that can dramatically alter an encounter.
Ranged attackers love high ground. For PCs, this is good news if you can position your archer on a shelf. The same tactic can be employed by a devious DM, who’ll place ambushers there.
Don’t overlook sturdy trees as elevated ambush spots. Moreover, a tree’s branches and leaves should provide a goodly amount of cover.
Don’t forget the crunchy bits: Review the rules for Cover and Concealment, and note that a defender behind cover gets a +4 to their Armor Class against melee and ranged attacks. Cover also grants a +2 Reflex save bonus in some situations. Concealment grants a 20 percent miss chance. (For varying degrees of concealment, consider rendering the chances in eighths so you can use a d8 or in 5 percent increments to use a d20, if you wish to avoid using a d100 for the roll.)
A pit, a well, a (mostly empty) pool, a depression, a wadi, a culvert. Low areas provide hiding spots for sneaky attackers or they can be kill zones for those unluckly enough to be trapped in them.
One way to effectively utilize such depressed terrain is to present it to the PCs before an encounter. Let them survey it, looking for things they can turn to their advantage. Give them time to set snares, traps and devise tactics. Later, come back to the area, enabling the PCs to fight on their own terms.
Too often with the set encounter mentality of published adventures, PCs aren’t given an opportunity to make a stand on “home turf.” Most of the time encounters are entirely reactive in nature. Turning that around every once in a while helps PCs hone their combat tactics.
Don’t forget the crunchy bits: Characters caught in a depression might be cowering, in which case there is a -2 penalty to Armor Class in both melee and ranged situations and the defender also loses their Dexterity bonus to AC. If the depression is narrow, they might also be squeezed, in which case there is a -4 penalty to AC. An attacker who is squeezing through a space also suffers a -4 penalty to melee and ranged attacks.
Slopes, slides, ladders, ramps, and of course, stairs. It is perhaps the most brutal and game-changing tactical terrain. Indeed, ever since Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood sword fights on stairs have been a staple of cinematic combat — and judging by the new Indiana Jones film, stairs figure prominently there, as well.
The fun thing about inclines is that the side with the advantage in a battle can change faster that a token can slide back in a regular game of Chutes and Ladders. The give-and-take of inclined combat makes it a challenging and rewarding experience.
Don’t forget the crunchy bits: Melee attackers on higher ground gain a +1 circumstance bonus to their attack rolls. On a Balance skill check, an incline adds a +5 to the Difficulty check. And don’t forget, falling damage is 1d6 points per 10 feet fallen. Ouch.
Iron Heroes variant
Iron Heroes is a variant player’s handbook that presumes tactical encounters will take place in varied terrain. In fact, some of the variant character classes gain advantages in the form of tokens when they utilize abilities that take advantage of those tactical situations. If your’re a DM looking for a d20 game with a gritty combat mechanics and an opportunity to build those types of encounters, Iron Heroes might be worth taking a look at.