Saturday, 14 April 2012

Dynamic Encounters: King-of-the-Hill

Dominic Matte
Looking for ways to keep your combats engaging and exciting? The Dynamic Encounters series will get you started!

A good way to keep encounters exciting is to use special terrain features that change the rules of the battle in a small area. Features that give bonuses will be contested points that everyone wants to hold, leading to frantic races and struggles for territory. 

The terrain features in the Dungeon Master's Guide(s) can do a pretty good job of this, but they tend to be smaller terrain features. If you want an entire battle to be about a desperate struggle to capture and hold a single location, try a king-of-the-hill battle.

In this type of battle, the map is dominated by a large hill with several levels of topography. In the simple map below (please excuse the crudeness of the map), the outer level is the ground, and each ring represents about a 5-foot increase in elevation. To climb up a level, you need to roll a DC 10 Athletics check, but you can still charge up as long as you make your checks.

That's cool, but why should you care? Why not just stay on the ground so you don't waste your movement with potentially low skill modifiers?
Each shade represents a 5-foot step in topography,
with white at ground level and darker meaning higher.
You should care because if you're attacking an enemy on a lower level than you, you gain a +1 bonus to your attack and damage roll for each level between you. So if you're one level higher than your foe, you gain +1 to attack and damage - but if you can get your wizard to the top of the hill, he gets a bonus of up to +5 if he attacks enemies on the ground. Who wouldn't want a big bonus like that? You could make it a little simpler and just say you have +1 to any enemy below you, but that's less motivation to make it to the top.

Here's where it gets really interesting, though. You can use forced movement to throw an enemy downhill, and if you push (or pull, or slide, whatever) someone down a level, they also fall prone! A well-balanced team could do very well if they act aggressively, holding the top of the hill for offensive bonuses and pushing enemies back so they can't get to you.

As a side note, the ease of knocking enemies prone tends to encourage charging: you have to spend a move action to stand up from prone, but charging allows you to move and attack with the same standard action. This means there's potentially a huge amount of movement in this combat, which means the tactic of standing still and shooting will be pretty worthless - you'll have to move offensively and defend proactively. And speaking of falling prone, you could voluntarily drop prone yourself to protect yourself from ranged attacks.

Additionally, remember that you can't fire through the hill, so you could be only three squares from an enemy but unable to attack due to the topography. In general, just follow the simple rule of "if he's on the other side of the hill I can't shoot him".

I ran a king-of-the-hill match as a grand melee in Tyr's stadium in my Dark Sun game, meaning there were about thirty enemies on the field and the rules are simply last man standing. Typically in a grand melee you just have the gladiators attack whoever's closest (with the exception of a few more skilled fighters picking their targets), but with the hill bonuses in play, most of them focused on getting a position before attacking. The large map worked very well for this battle: there was plenty of movement up, down, and around the hill due to the huge number of enemies. If you're running a smaller battle, you might want to try a smaller map. Everyone's going to be focused on the centre anyway, so there's no need to waste space.

In terms of customization, the most significant adjustments are to the top two levels of the map. Less available space at the top means fiercer battles for the big bonus. You could also try adding some longer points, ridges, or valleys to the hill, potentially adding more cover against ranged attacks.

Have you tried a king-of-the-hill style combat before? How did it go? If not, what do you think of the concept?

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