So when it comes to skipping steps on the encounter budget staircase, a great way to counterbalance your “rule of cool” is within the environs that characters are going to be playing in. After all, why should it only be epic monsters that get lair actions? I’ve always found that one of the best ways to offset players being outmatched is by giving them tools in the world around them that allow a turning of the tide or even changing “unbeatable” encounters into quite manageable ones. Players get to walk away feeling clever and awesome, and the GM doesn’t have to spend ages constantly re-tweaking encounters or fudging dice rolls to get through it.
Sometimes the best tools you as a GM can give your players are inadvertent ones—or only semi-planned ones where you just leave the ingredients to a recipe for fun lying around leading up to a big encounter. For example, maybe strewn throughout the areas leading up to your imbalanced encounter there happen to be some empty bottles or jars of some sort, and in another area, a leather tanning station happens to have some volatile chemicals lying about. All the players need to do is rip up some cloth and they’ve got firebombs! These are fun because it can really be a surprise to both the players and the GM. Just because you lead a horse to water doesn’t mean it will drink though; these things aren’t always going to make magic happen unless you’re really going to beat the players over the head with hints. They don’t always have to be so synergistic either. You can easily have locales contain seemingly mundane items: in my last adventure set in a swamp, there were abandoned rowboats, block and tackle, rusty spears, and bags of crocodile bones. They might prove useful one way or another, but they don’t have to.
Again, you might surprise your players and yourself! In my anecdotal example above I wound up with players later using those rusty spears to bar a door shut along with wood from the boats while they immolated a den full of undead inside with the tanning chemicals. Shame the crocodile bones didn’t get used! Anyway, the ingredients were there, and they made something fun out of them, but it doesn’t always work out that way. You don’t necessarily want to rely on your players being MacGyver in order for their characters to survive. I do enjoy metagaming, but leaning on an aspect like this too hard in order for characters to succeed is something perhaps too risky to be reliable.
The other and better way to do this, of course, is to pepper your environments with actionable items. No, not those actionable items your boss has been asking you about ever since last week’s meeting about TPS reports. Actionable items are things like steps that crumble when walked on, ballistae, moving platforms, chandeliers to swing from, runic circles of power to stand in, and the list goes on forever. I like to put these things in a few categories: boons, hazards, obstacles, and traps. There are also a few others I like to use like banes and gambits, but we’ll save those for our next segment on risk vs. reward.
For now though, let’s further break down these actionable items. What are they, and how do characters actually utilize them?
Boons/Blessings. These are purely beneficial elements within a scene that only or largely benefit the player characters, such as a weapon their oafish enemies couldn’t fathom operating, an ancient barrier that prevents magic from passing through it in a single direction, hallowed ground where spirits of past fallen adventurers whisper advice into their ears, a cracked yet still workable orb that casts magic missiles (unlikely to be taken advantage of by a horde of zombies), and so on. The method of interacting with these is simply for characters to use them.
Hazards. Hazards are typically natural environmental effects such as poisonous gas emanating from a cluster of mushrooms, bedazzling bioluminescent lights from creatures clung to a darkened ceiling, pits, pools, perforations, and other more conventional hazardous terrain. The methods of interacting with these things are typically avoidance, mitigation, or nullification. With the right moves of course, foes can be forced into these hazards while the characters play it safe!
Obstacles. Different from hazards, obstacles are large environmental objects that may hinder or alter characters or their enemies’ movements depending on who is currently navigating them. Things like climbable scaffolding for a height advantage or for accessing an exit or boon, a mass of brambles for smaller characters to hide within and attack from, a chasm bridged by a single fallen (potentially crumbling) pillar, or a deactivated golem that just might animate if the right words are spoken. The method of interacting with obstacles is usually either traversal, avoidance, or destruction.
Traps. It may seem odd to differentiate traps from hazards and obstacles, but traps are truly their own beast. While 5th Edition hasn’t exactly given them the focus they deserve yet, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them liberally. You should. They can be anything from complex pendulum blades to rolling marble statues to convoluted series of buttons and levers that force parts of the environment to move, disappear, or otherwise vastly change how combat flows or how characters make decisions. The main ways to interact with these are avoidance, neutralization, triggering, or destruction. Also, traps don’t always need to be aimed at the players; some of the best traps are the ones the kobolds set for the adventurers only to have triggered on themselves.
Generate Some TPS Reports
Making things interesting for your players can be as easy as having the encounter happen near an abandoned yet functional bolt thrower or as convoluted as involving several moving platforms, each of which possesses a sigil that grants a different boon that aids in defeating their enemies. You should take inspiration from your favorite films, books, and movies. It’s worth noting that most of those stories from your favorite media aren’t designed to be “balanced encounters” either unless of course you’re reading RPG fiction, which in the past has often been notoriously “guided” by publishers so that the writer is describing scenes that could actually be mechanically legal if carried out in-game. So other than that big yikes, most other non-game branded fiction is going to contain absolutely bonkers odds. You should give your players some of those feels when you can. Sure it can incorporate a lot more moving parts than your usual ho-hum initiative count of players and monsters, but it’s very rewarding when your players still talk about that absurd encounter with the beholders and the mirror pillars that caused its eye beams to bounce around the room like an 80s night club.
When you simply give players the tools to be creative or turn the tide of a battle, truly unique things begin to pop up. I’ve seen sarcophagi lids used to build makeshift barricades, surf boards, and even a bridge. Turns out sarcophagus lids are basically the Flex Tape of RPGs. I once had a party get themselves out of a pit by using adhesive to stick gold coins together to make handholds which they glued to the walls in order to escape because they were out of spells and had lost their grappling hook. Afterward they were poor but alive! Anyway, think of all of these action items like little toys, little badges you can pin to your encounters. How many pieces of dungeon flair are you using tonight? Next time we’ll be talking about risks and rewards worth (maybe) dying for.