Memorable Gaming: Combat in Treacherous Environments

Brenda Cass
I have seen any number of Ghoul encounters in my time spent running D&D sessions, but one in particular stands out to me. What made it special was that the environment itself was involved in the combat, and had the ability to drastically change the difficulty of the encounter. My players were trapped in the body cavity of an extremely large aquatic creature and doing battle with a number of Lacedons (acquatic Ghouls).
The six Ghouls that my players faced were really no match for my party of five level six characters, that is, until the environment they were in conspired to defeat them as well. The entire party, and their Ghoulish foes, were standing on an overturned ship hull.
The six Ghouls that my players faced were really no match for my party of five level six characters, that is, until the environment they were in conspired to defeat them as well. The entire party, and their Ghoulish foes, were standing on an overturned ship hull. The ship’s hull was covered in a thick layer of digestive slime, which was -- of course -- very slippery. Players that didn’t take a full round action to move had to make a balance check to keep their footing, and failing it, would take a slide into the water.
Now the water was teeming with non-lethal digestive oozes, symbiotes that helped the giant sea creature digest non-organic materials (like weapons). Whenever a player fell into the water she would pick up one of these oozes, and it would latch onto a piece of equipment until forcibly removed; failing to do so would mean the ooze destroyed the item and found a new piece of equipment to digest. Being without armor and weapons made combat with the Ghouls much more difficult, so my players quickly decided to play it safe --take only full round moves-- and avoid the oozes in the water.

Armed with a sure fire way to avoid the water, it seemed like my players had defeated the hazard posed by it, but Ghouls have a nasty ability: paralysis. Any time a player was unlucky enough to fail their fortitude save after getting hit by one of the ghouls they took a nasty, paralyzed slide into the water. The rest of the group had to make a decision: do they take a full round to move over to their immobilized comrade, allowing them to sink further into the water and potentially attracting more oozes, or do they risk falling in themselves by making a regular move and taking their standard action to pull the character out? The Ghouls proved the perfect complement to the dangers in the water.

There are a few factors that need to be considered to make effective use of environment in an encounter.
Probably the most obvious factor necessary in making good use of environmental conditions, there needs to be some penalty attributed to being at the mercy of the environment. It is usually better when these consequences augment the threat posed by the primary opponent in an encounter as opposed to providing a real threat themselves. If my players had gone swimming in the water they would have lost all of their non-organic equipment, but so long as there were no ghouls, there was no danger to the players’ health. Structuring your environmental consequences this way keeps the environment relevant, but not overwhelming.
It is important that all consequences of the environment be completely avoidable through some means. Usually skill checks are a good way of giving players a way to avoid consequences without completely nullifying the threat of the environment. Skill checks also give some characters the opportunity to really shine when one of their skills proves invaluable to the success of the party. In the Ghoul encounter, players were able to use their balance skill to avoid the water. In addition to complete avoidance, there should also be a more reliable way to avoid some of the environment’s consequences.

In the Ghoul encounter, players could use a full round action to move safely across the overturned hull of the ship. Giving up their standard action was effectively a consequence in and of itself, but it gave them a reliable way of avoiding the water. It’s always more engaging when players have a number of benefits and consequences to balance before choosing an action. A reliable partial-avoidance gives players a “safe” option, and should always be penalized in some way.
It is just as important that there be a way to force players to interact with the environment and deal with its consequences. The Ghouls were able to force players into the water by successfully paralyzing them. The odds of it happening should be relatively low, and the consequences of it happening should be the “worst case” for your environment. It is a lot more exciting when at random, a party’s carefully planned course of action can be thrown horribly awry.
Most of the monsters encountered in an RPG are in some way predatory in nature, and predators tend to hunt in environments where they enjoy some sort of advantage. Being at least part-time predators ourselves, humans have an intrinsic understanding of this. An encounter becomes far more believable when the party’s foe uses the environment to its advantage in some way. The Ghouls’ used the environment in the giant sea creature to amplify the consequences of their paralysis. It made the environmental conditions relevant in the context of the encounter, and made the Ghouls a realistic predator in the environment.

Have you made clever use of the environment in your encounters? I’d love to hear about it, let me know in the comments below!