Encounter Design: Cinematic Destruction

As a general rule I don’t put much stock in cinematic trailers for video games. I am mostly interested in gameplay trailers because it presents the actual meat of the product. With that said I really enjoyed the Urn of Sacred Ashes trailer for Dragon Age: Origins. It show-cased four party members (and their abilities) fighting a horde of Dark spawn and, of course, a massive dragon. What I loved about this video was that it promoted the pace of the battle through great use of terrain. The video starts off with a barely dodged surprise attack on a cliff side then moves on to a more open field liberally populated with ruined walls and boulders, then finally the fields open up to a wider space with taller walls, stairs, and ruined arches. Magic is lobbed about like artillery, the dragon lumbers around like an armoured vehicle, and stuff blows up everywhere.

Combat is Fun When Stuff Blows Up

The interaction between people, monsters, and terrain is staggering and feels very dynamic. I’ve used plenty of low walls in my campaigns before but the -2 to attack rolls are more of a nuisance to players than anything else. I feel that cover, in particular, could be improved if it changed drastically throughout the encounter. I looked at the Ruined Wall terrain power in the DMG 2 and it covered what I wanted, but I feel that doing numerous dice rolls to reflect something simple (like a crumbling wall) will bog down a game. A person or monster being thrown into a wall or a big spell blasting a foe and architecture alike should be implemented simply and quickly to maintain that crazy, chaotic feel common in movies or video games.

Mr. Dragon, Tear Down That Wall

Like the Ruined Wall terrain power, walls will remain as standing cover until they topple over and become difficult terrain. Stripping away the attack and damage rolls  and making any damage taken from the wall as a single roll will be much easier. If a wall falls, it will hit everyone within 1 square of it. PCs and NPCs will take whatever damage expression is appropriate for their level and be knocked prone. They can also be thrown/pushed/slid into a wall, incur damage, and be knocked prone. A wall can also be pushed over with an Athletics check (hard DC) just like the terrain power or by a non-at-will burst or blast power (if at least one square of the wall is within range of the power). People can be thrown through a wall by a big monster, a wall can be pushed over with a feat of strength, or it can burst apart from a big spell, similar to a mortar shell in a war movie. I think this will increase the danger of an encounter without going overboard because of how situational it is.

Simple Mechanics + Lego

While some people might dislike auto damage abilities, I think the ease of use for this kind of terrain will keep things running smoothly and get players excited over combat. Turnabout is fair play and the players can use this as an opportunity to damage their enemies. A DM will need to use some powers of description to make destructible terrain exciting and cinematic. Lego is a great tool to use for creating dynamic visual terrain, it can be used to better determine who has cover and line of sight as well as the positions of difficult terrain when the walls fall over. Additionally, choosing some walls to be structurally weak and others to be resilient will create interesting options in an encounter, especially when gaps and bottle necks can be created by destroying certain sections of walls.

Questions or Comments? Email me at shiftykobold@gmail.com and follow me on twitter @shiftykobold.

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