The Design Demon and the Amazing Technicolor Enviornment

"Don’t prep plots, prep situations." - The Alexandrian a decade past.

This is part IV in the Design Demon series, part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here. The Design Demon series is about how to philosophically approach the design of the game. The players drive play, but the play they encounter should be deliberately designed. Let's continue:

Your space is flat. Not only literally, it's dull, dull, DULL.
I'm weary of it for you.

You can design a room as an encounter, and that's. . . fine. It's ok. Lots of people do that, and you shouldn't feel bad if you do that. I mean you have to start somewhere. Sure. The bottom is as good a place as any.

Repetition ad infinitum of I attack, I attack, I attack—the fights been joined and then all the players  do is attack. That isn't happening in my game, and it's not because I'm some crazy savant that can magically conjure enough words to make combat seem more exciting.

I make combat exciting with deliberate design. Will what I do work for you? Let's find out!

Finding out!

The map displays where the encounter happens, and yet the map is not the environment. You must think on this.

Why is your map flat? Do you desire a flat space, or is it because paper is flat? Your will is stronger than the shape of the paper. Seize your will, and put it to the task of designing the space.

We design space ready for action—not space with an encounter. The encounter may be prepared ahead of time. The particulars of encounters engaged is left to fate. Bodies do not stand, arms steepled over sacrifices, checking their watch impatiently for the players.  How the players draw near this dynamic situation within the space determines the specifics of the encounter—the players choices determine the outcome.

The space contains features which drive emergent play.

The emergent play is organic and complex, because it arises due to the unforeseen interactions between the environmental components. We play to find out what happens. Every outcome the players can connect to their choices is a sense of ownership, every outcome out of their control or dictated to them removes that ownership and engagement.

Dynamic Spaces

Verticality: You are disgustingly reliant on flat spaces. Place a platform, stairway, depression, archway, pit, bannister, half-size barrier, arched ceilings, or multiple vertical platforms every twenty to thirty feet in rooms and chambers, and every fifty to sixty feet in corridors.

Liquids: Including one liquid per small environment or two for larger environments, such as a temples main floor or other large adventure space.

Water is most common. Other liquids include oil, acid, sludge, ectoplasm, magma/lava, jelly/slime, sand(ish), rivers of souls, elemental energy, et. al. Approximately every fifty feet there should be a basin, pool, river, waterfall, standing liquid, dripping liquid, spraying gouts of liquid or liquid spout.

Barriers: Liberally distribute, mobile or not. Mobile barriers include tables, boxes, barrels, wooden dividers, shelves and benches. Solid barriers provide cover from light missile fire and disrupt the line of effect magic needs to function. Transparent barriers provide a bonus versus missile fire, and protect from straightforward melee attacks as well as preventing line of effect from functioning.

Barriers may also be knocked over, either offensively or defensively.

Terrain abnormalities: Difficult terrain is the beginning. Notice it simply doubles movement. This use of terrain shapes mobility on the field and is the most direct method.

Another common terrain is grease—save to avoid going prone, or move in a straight line and exit on the other side of the grease. It's also flammable. Ice is as grease, non-flammable, with falling ice making the terrain difficult.

Fog eliminates visibility, changing the fight. Ground mist obscures anything knocked or on the floor.  Severe enough mist provides obscurities short characters. Vegetation is difficult terrain for most creatures that provides both partial physical and visual cover. Fighting in partial vegetation against creatures that are not affected by it increases the difficulty of the encounter.

Consider your setting. Salt may affect spirits or elves in unique ways. You have tactical infinity—do not include everything. (q.v. vectors) Think about what you are designing. Design towards your theme. Terrain can include dead magic zones, ley lines, unstable ground, wind channels, conveyor belts et. al. Terrain itself may be invisible, from magic pathways in the air,wind mazes or force walls on the ground.

Do not limit yourself to these, consider well the following.

The terrain should be consistent. It should have a known effect non-diegetically explained beforehand. Terrain should always be open information the players have. This does not mean that there can't be hidden information. This just means the players have an understanding of how the hidden information works, like fog, obscurement, or the invisibility spell. As long as the players understand the terrain, situations may exist where different people in the conflict can be in or out of phase or time of reality, different people are in control of different bodies, or doppelgangers run amuck as long as it's consistent and presented ahead of time to the players.

Do not use terrain that requires a successful check to act. This creates a terrible experience. Players randomly losing turns sounds way better than the way it mechanically works out at the table. Being able to act is core to the economy of gameplay, and restricting that randomly makes for a terrible experience, not an exciting one. No one wants to check to see if they can play.

Consider the themes, common monsters, setting, and player abilities when designing terrain for your group. Consider archetypes when designing terrain.

One final note, be sure to describe the mechanical effects clearly. Allow access to the what. Consider the following. Explain the 'why' and it embodies exposition, exasperating players. If why is discovered from player desire, engaging play is the result. There should a rational presentation of even a metaphysical space, i.e. even if the shape is a tesseract and modrons portal in from one place to another, players should understand the mechanical underpinnings of the mechanics.

The upper reaches: What hangs from above? Consider ropes, chains, catwalks, stones/stalactites, lanterns, burning coals, clothing, vegetables, tools, hooks, bodies, meat, curtains, beads, et. al. Do not forget cave fishers, giant ticks, piercers, and other 'monster hazards'.

Periodic state changes: These should be environmental effects that occur in a predictable fashion. A pillar that shoots any substance on intermittent rounds, sections of terrain subject to falling debris, pits that open or close, walls that move, obstructions that sequentially block sections of the battlefield, ancient sorceries, wards, and leys, energy that arcs, reverse gravity fields, unstable terrain that pushes anyone on it in a changing direction, rotating poles that fling chains about, lava coming up through grates, bolts that fire in certain changing arcs each round.  fountains of acid that spray at regular intervals, giant pendulum blades, and magical beams that make things grow or shrink, et. al.

Objects: Every room should have one to three objects within it that can be used by the players. Consider sacks of potatoes, shovels, chairs, torches, metal buckets, et. al. Chambers should contain one to three objects attached to the walls; spears, shields, monster heads, plaques, paintings, curtains, tapestries, plants, ceramic figures, shadow-boxes, et. al.

Secondary Goals: Once your players begin to fear your encounters less, upon reaching superhero levels, goals beyond winning the combat should be combined in the spaces. Keeping in mind the suggested vector limit below. Secondary goals include innocents to be saved, prisoners to be freed, people hanging saved from being dropped into something, destroying an item, preventing an item from being destroyed, activating a mechanism, stopping a disaster, et. al.


These features can drastically affect the outcome of the game. This is intentional, and is why the players must know the meaning of the environment, in the same way you understand it, so they can leverage it. It is this player skill that makes high lethality combat enjoyable and manageable. Not through large hit point pools, but instead through dynamic control and utilization of the fictional space within the game.

Keep in mind that adding platforms and putting mages and archers on them is synergistically more powerful than either feature alone. This collection of features and expansion of goals is key to how middle to high level characters are challenged.

No more than nine vectors should be used simultaneously, no less than 5, and seven is ideal. More and some players will lose the thread. Less and the game is straightforward and less interesting. Vectors include any factor relevant to the encounter. When resolved, explicitly removing the vector from the situation, new factors should be introduced organically.

If you don't know the difference between a room and a chamber, do a favor and download my free Tricks, Empty Rooms, and Basic Trap Design guide from drivethrurpg. Over 100,000 downloads. Way over. Check it out.

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  1. Great post. On the topic of verticality, I feel a lack of it is one of the reasons why thieves often come off as so useless at low levels. The one thief skill that they are impressive with at the start in climbing sheer surfaces, but the typical graph-paper dungeon gives them nowhere to use it. If you design an environment in three dimensions, even a 1st-level thief is now able to move like a queen in chess while most everyone else is a pawn.

  2. Good thoughts. Saving this post for future reference.

  3. Corrected link to part 2:

  4. Wow. This read is so worthwhile. Need to share among my RPG tabletop group!


  5. Excellent guide for designing a "vibrant" adventure site. Great post! :-)


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