4e Terrain Powers 7

This post came to mind while thinking about responses to Stands-in-Fire’s post about melee and ranged balance issues in 3.x and 4e. I’ve also been thinking about the most important things that 4e does right and other games should lift from it, thanks in no small part to Sarah Darkmagic’s posts examining 3.x/Pathfinder from her decidedly 4e-based perspective. I think that one of the best things 3.x and other games (hell, let’s include MMOs here) could make a bigger part of gameplay are terrain powers, as described on p. 63 of the DMG 2.
If you haven’t read the DMG 2 for 4e, it is honestly one of the best resources yet written for encounter design. 4e thinks about encounter design differently from previous editions of D&D; it’s really more like Spirit of the Century than 3.x in this regard. GMing advice that talks about letting characters suggest cool stunts is nothing new – Mutants and Masterminds, Iron Heroes, 7th Sea, the list goes on. Any GM worth a damn in any system is going to uphold cool, cinematic player use of terrain, as it represents exactly the kind of mental engagement with the encounter that we always hope to evoke – but having some rules to suggest the actual game effects of such heroics helps. In its initial release, 4e took a strong first step in this direction with the DC scaling and damage expression scaling tables of the DMG. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a certain subset of players saw this for the stunts system that it was, but it didn’t get the emphasis that it deserved to make that system central to gameplay. They gave this idea further emphasis in the DMG 2 with terrain powers.
In SotC, players get bonuses by either realizing things about their environment or by changing their environment. This calls on the GM to decide ahead of time what kinds of Aspects this scene contains. From what I’ve seen, SotC doesn’t give these Aspects all that much further effect on gameplay, but the +2 bonus that players can pick up from them makes a big difference – and with an Athletics roll, I guess it wouldn’t be too hard to change that bonus into extra movement if necessary.
4e handles this with its fantastic terrain types (many of which represent flashier magic than I prefer in my games) and (as of the DMG 2) terrain powers. In surprising contrast to the all-pervasive magic of fantastic terrain and many of the trap types, the listed terrain powers are strictly nonmagical. On the other hand, with all the different ways PCs have to push, pull, slide, or teleport NPCs, just about every trap in the game could indirectly become a terrain power if the PCs detect it in time. This wasn’t really a part of previous DMGs, because encounter design didn’t go much past “here’s the map, and here’s where the monsters are when the PCs show up.” But now we’re thinking about what kind of fire you need to avoid standing in or what kinds of interesting toys the setting of the fight might represent (toys usable by one side or the other… or both at once).
Bringing all of this back around to Stands-in-Fire’s post that I linked above, I would like to see more terrain powers written into a boss’s abilities in a boss fight. I understand perfectly well why the Monster Manuals don’t do this – I mean, they’re not writing the scenarios, so how are they going to know what kinds of terrain powers should be available? (For all I know, WotC design has already incorporated this – I haven’t read their adventures.) The idea for a terrain power that set me on this wide-looping tangent was thinking about how some WoW encounters threatened the ranged DPS and healers without including melee characters. The first thing that came to mind was Gruul the Dragonkiller, who had a real fondness for making the ceiling fall on my head. (He did some other things to screw with the ranged characters as well, but Cave In is the one I care about right now.)
Why not give a solo, especially one that is going to wind up being a load-bearing boss if he loses, a terrain power in his stat block? Because you’re defining the map ahead of time, you can use non-standard area effects for this – “from this hash mark to the back wall of the room” is perfectly valid. Obviously the solo doesn’t want to get caught in his own collapsing building, thankyouverymuch, so he would only use this ability while on the other side of the room. With the melee attackers. (Hint: don’t bother using this encounter if your party consists entirely of melee combatants.)
Cave In   Single-Use Terrain
This is not meant to minimize or make fun of the plight of actual miners – please do not try this in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Chile. Void where prohibited.
Standard Action
Check: Characters of Large size or greater may attempt an Athletics check or a Dungeoneering check (moderate DC) to stomp or strike the wall to create a tremors. Such characters may do so regardless of where they stand in the room.
Success: The cave ceiling collapses in the pre-defined area (probably half of the overall size of the room).
Target: Each creature in the defined area, possibly including the attacker.
Attack: Level + 3 vs. Reflex
Effect: Defined area becomes difficult terrain, as it is covered in rock shards.
Hit: Target’s choice: either Limited High damage expression, or Normal High damage expression and dazed until end of next turn.
Miss: Target is knocked prone.
Special: As a free action at the start of the encounter, any character may attempt a Dungeoneering check against a moderate DC to recognize the cave’s weakness and places that are particularly dangerous.
And for a more magical terrain power, Bolt Stone Ruin (cf. Bolt Stone, DMG 2, p 58):
Bolt Stone Ruin   Single-Use Terrain
The enemy channels thundering magic into the bolt stone, causing it to explode in a shower of lightning-infused rock. OR The enemy hurls a massive object at the bolt stone, causing it to explode in a shower of lightning-infused rock.
Standard Action
Check: Characters with an available power (at-will, or unused encounter or daily), or with a ranged bludgeoning attack, can make an Arcana check against a hard DC to use that attack just right against the outcropping of bolt stone. The character must be within 10 squares of the targeted outcropping to make such an attack. If the character relied on an unused encounter or daily power for this effect, the power is not expended.
Success: The bolt stone explodes. This particular square of bolt stone is no longer dangerous.
Target: Area blast 3 from the bolt stone, or area burst 1 centered on the bolt stone
Attack: Level + 3 vs Reflex
Hit: Normal High damage expression (lightning damage) and push 1 (this attack has the weapon and implement keywords)
Miss: Half damage and no push
Also, I’m thinking about posting some scripted encounters (in the MMO sense of scripted – you know, adds that spawn, that kind of thing) that can be relatively-easily slotted into an existing campaign. I’d be going for a kind of complexity that is entirely manageable, but can’t really be written into a Monster Manual. Particularly for people out there who run 4e games, is this something that would interest you?
For my own future reference, this is a handy link to a WotC article on terrain powers.

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7 thoughts on “4e Terrain Powers

  • Kainenchen

    I really like the single-use terrain powers, and I think that I will use something similar in the lower parts of my Dungeon. Will think on't more.

    Incidentally, I'd really like to see some scripted encounters also– the possibilities for good setups are pretty broad, and figuring out good numbers, the Xp values notwithstanding, are sort of… hm, overwhelmed by choice. So if you wanted to do some either easily scalable ones, or say… 5th level ones, well… 😀

    The other thing I'd like to see more of is terrain possibilities and effects in other games… Zones, in particular, are really awesome to me, and things that make the ranged people have to be more careful about where and how they stand are esp interesting to me.

  • Shieldhaven

    I'm happy to help with that, especially if you can suggest a few items you'd like to use as terrain/dungeon dressing that I can tart up with a single-use terrain power.

    I have an idea for an "Eye of the Storm" type of power such as Stands-in-Fire mentioned – in this case, a creature that has increased resistance or defenses to anyone not in its aura.

  • sarahdarkmagic

    Thanks for the mention! If you haven't seen Quinn Murphy's World Breakers yet, you should take a look. I love stunts and terrain powers. Like you mentioned, they help the characters interact with the world in fun and interesting ways. I try to put in elements to my combat encounters, particularly the big ones.

  • McL.

    I am sure this comes as a shock to you, but inducing movement to utilize a room is something I really like. Especially if it makes those lazy ranged people get off their bums and move.

    One of the models I am particularly fond of is the Suppression Room model. You have constantly spawning effects and minions that the players can shut down by fiddling with various levers and gadgets. The sewer fight in the Planescape game I ran is a simplistic example of it.

    Minions are really, really fun to just mow through from time to time, especially if you are doing other things. You don't have to try and max your damage, and you can focus on tasks and "doing the fight right" and then still killing things when you feel like it. If stuff gets ignored for too long, it builds up and overwhelms the party.

  • Shieldhaven


    I recall the sewer fight – and the boss fight with godawful rats that followed it – as some of the most harrowing low-level play I've seen, and the most scared I have ever been of minions.