RPG blogger Chatty DM made an interesting Twitter post last week about solving the 4E end-of-combat grind that happens when everyone’s down to their at-will attacks. His idea is to increase the efficacy of improvised weapon attacks to the level of “page 42″ damage rolls for terrain-based effects.
Interacting with the environment is something I encourage DMs to make use of. One of the big things in 4E designer Mike Mearls’ earlier works Book of Iron Might and Book of Iron Heroes was the use of attacks or skill checks to interact with the environment, such as swinging from a rope or pushing over a boulder. Even Mearls’ contribution to the Age of Worms adventure path, the third edition adventure Three Faces of Evil, features a precariously-balanced statue which can be pushed over to form a bridge.
Clever use of terrain has been extremely popular in video games that support it. You only have to look as far as Worms, considered by some the greatest Amiga game of all time. Your units in this game can use their environment to take cover, bounce grenades from walls, swing from “bat rope” style grappling hooks, drown opponents, dig trenches for safety, even make difficult shots using the wind to advantage. They can really affect the environment and the environment can really affect them, and that’s just the ticket for an engaging and dynamic game experience.
I spotted a similar rule set in 2009′s Dungeon Master’s Guide II, called Terrain Powers (page 62-63). This formalizes what I think DMs have been doing since the early editions of D&D, and that’s rules for attacking with the environment. There’s a rope bridge attack, for example, where you make an Athletics check to shake the bridge and knock people prone or off the bridge. Strictly speaking you don’t need these rules (and you should be able to rule terrain attacks on the fly as your players come up with clever ideas), but the examples given are an excellent benchmark for balance. This is especially important if you want to publish your own adventures including terrain powers.
Now I love the idea, but one thing about this bothers me. The powers scale with encounter level, so a terrain power that requires a moderate DC Athletics check at level 1 will still require a moderate DC Athletics check at level 25. Your problem is that this gets absolutely ridiculous with some terrain powers.
Take Table of Combustibles, a table you flip over with a difficult DC Athletics check to send fire and poison gas everywhere. At level 30, you’re still struggling to flip over the tables you encounter. What tables are these that require a DC 37 Athletics check to flip over? Giant adamantine tables studded with diamond? Is it bolted to the ground with expensive magic? I’d better get to keep the table as treasure.
Or Swinging Rope or Vine, which requires a moderate DC Athletics check and rewards you with some quick movement. A regular dungeon vine at level 1 asks no more than DC20, but the level 30 vines that Orcus keeps around take superhuman ability to grab hold of. Don’t high level black dragons keep any regular vines around? Are they greasing up all the vines in their lair as a defensive measure?
However, I do like Ruined Wall, which you can push over onto people. I imagine that by level 30, applying an Athletics check to any nearby wall will make it fall whether it was ruined or not to begin with.