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The Importance of Terrain

Design & Development

by Stephen Radney-MacFarland

The Design & Development article series premiered on the D&D website back in September 2005, and has been a staple ever since. With the approach of 4th Edition, and our designers and developers focused on the new edition, this column will be the primary vehicle for 4th Edition coverage. We’ll not only give you peeks at what’s forthcoming, but also the “how” and “why.”
Keep in mind that the game is still in a state of flux, as refinements are made by our design and development staff. You’re getting a look behind the curtain at game design in progress, so enjoy, and feel free to send your comments to

A proper command of terrain wins battles -- generals from Sun Tzu to Norman Schrwarzkopf have known this to be true. There's a similar relationship between encounter design and terrain -- a canny use of terrain can transform good encounters into great ones. One of the goals of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is to help the Dungeon Master perform just such transformations, which includes providing a bunch of evocative terrain types and advice on their placement and use. Since the book doesn't come out for a while, let's illuminate some of the basics of terrain in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
While it might seem elementary, let's first examine what we mean by terrain. Terrain is not just what litters the field in an encounter; terrain also forms the dimensions and tactile experience of the encounter itself. Knowing that, there are some things about 4th Edition D&D design that you should keep in mind when building encounters.
First and foremost, not only does the standard 4th Edition encounter tend to have more combatants than in 3rd Edition, both PCs and monsters are more maneuverable as well. This means that the 10-foot by 10-foot rooms of yore have gone the way of the dinosaur (actually that happened in 3E, but that's not relevant to this discussion). Likewise have the 20 by 20 room and even the 30 by 30 room as the sole encounter areas. In fact, the minimum amount of space you typically want to have for a standard encounter is one of those large 10-square by 8-square dungeon tiles! That's 50-feet by 40-feet for all you still counting in feet. Just hold on before you start chucking all those 2-by-2 square dungeon tiles in the garbage -- you'll still need them!
Any DM worth her salt knows that dynamic and interactive stories are more satisfying than railroading narratives. The same is true for battle areas. Larger spaces with interesting terrain that both the PCs and their enemies can take advantage of -- or be foiled by -- is infinitely more fun than a small and relatively empty room that constrains combatant choice to a small set of dreary moves.
But here's the rub -- large areas of interconnecting chambers, complete with alcoves, galleries, and antechambers, are far more exciting than just plopping down a 10 by 8 tile and sprinkling it with rubble. Creating a network of interconnected areas creates numerous avenues of conflict and creates the possibilities for a series of evolving fronts that metamorphoses same-old encounters into tactical puzzles that'll sing like legend to a gaming group. See, you're going to need all those smaller pieces!
Then, once you have the main layout done, populate it with furniture, shrines, rubble, pillars, or maybe even the occasional lightning column or patch of doomspore where needed (and where appropriate), and you've got yourself a pretty vibrant encounter area for your combatants to interact with.
Oh, here's a bit of sound advice that'll keep you out of trouble. Be careful with pits and other steep inclines, and leave 100-foot (or endless) chasms for paragon- or epic-level play. Some of that increased maneuverability of the combatants in 4th Edition comes from attacks that can move foes against their will -- which is all fun and games until someone loses a character!
That aside, D&D is more than just a tactical skirmish game; it's also a game of storytelling and heroic adventure. When designing adventures, you're doing more than just placing interesting terrain pieces for the battle that (let's admit it) will most likely occur; you are also setting the stage of your story. A canny eye toward terrain set up can also help you communicate story elements to your players quickly and without the need to say a single word. Just put down some sarcophagi, and the players will know it's a crypt. Put down an altar, and you've just communicated that it's a temple. Put down piles and piles of bones in front of a yawning cavern, and the players will know their characters are likely in a world of trouble … or you've seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail one too many times.
What the Heck is Doomspore?
Isn't it annoying when those know-it-all designers and developers drop an Easter egg in a preview article and don't back it up with any description? Yeah, I hate that too -- unless I am the one doing it. That said, I empathize a little, so here's the doomspore (or at least a recent version of it).
Doomspore (Any)
Usually found in large, natural caverns, this fungus takes the form of a clump of toadstools, some of which reach a height of about 3 feet tall. A square of doomspore is difficult terrain and provides cover to anyone standing within.
If any creature enters a doomspore's square (or uses a standard action to kick or poke at it, if within reach), a doomspore releases a cloud of spores that provides concealment to all creatures within its own and adjacent squares. Furthermore, a bloodied creature in the area of a cloud when created, who moves into the cloud, or begins its turn in the cloud, is subject to a Fortitude attack (+10) that deals 1d10 points of poison damage on a hit. In addition, a target hit by a doomspore is weakened and takes ongoing poison 5 (save ends both conditions; creatures with immunity to or resist poison 5 are immune to the weakened condition also).
This cloud (and its effects on a bloodied character) persists for the remainder of the encounter (or for 5 minutes). Once the cloud settles, the doomspore can't produce another for 24 hours.
Placement Advice: More than one doomspore in a room may give an advantage to creatures immune or resistant to poison. Intelligent undead tend to cultivate doomspore, and this debilitating fungus can often be found in caverns infested with zombies. It absolutely inundates areas of the Shadowfell as its growth thrives in the presence of undead flesh that has been shed from its host.
As for the lightning column -- well, you'll just have to wait for that one. I would say I am sorry … but you know I'm not.
About the Author
Born on a stormy Christmas day, in our nation’s capital, during the Nixon administration, the stars were definitely wrong when Stephen Radney-MacFarland came screaming into the world. Spending most of his impressionable years as a vagabond and ne’re-do-well, Stephen eventually settled in the Northwest to waste his life on roleplaying games.
Once that RPGA guy, Stephen is now a developer in RPG R&D where he doesn’t create the traps … he just makes them deadlier. He also teaches a class on roleplaying design for the Art Institute of Seattle, molding the minds of young and upcoming designers. Be afraid. Be very afraid.


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