Sometimes, scenery is everything.
I’m a History teacher by trade, and one of my specialist subjects was the Eastern Crusades by the Teutonic Knights against Lithuania. This was a bizarre form of warfare, completely dominated by the season and the weather. You could only attack in summer or winter, when the swamps and river passages were steady or at least frozen, but you’d only be able to transport artillery or heavy supplies by river at certain times in certain directions. The Ordenstaat’s ability to make war was occasionally dependent on the number of foreign knights willing to come and fight for them. The entire science of war was dictated by the terrain and weather conditions despite lofty rhetoric and crusading zeal.
D&D can do beyond the rural Baltic for bizarre scenery.
The Chain Fight
This fight took place on an enormous chain, the links of which were as thicker than tree-trunks, suspended over a huge cavern in the Underdark. This chain formed a part of a mass of chains lashing a near-dead titan deep under the Earth – the North Corner player’s intention was to claim The Heart of the Last Titan by crossing the chains and entering the Titan’s eye-socket where the chain was anchored to it.
he players were painstakingly traversing the chain. They were intelligent enough to tie themselves together, and I pencilled down a little note of who-was-tied-to-whom. In the event of someone falling, there would be a strength check for the two players nearest them to not similarly plummet downwards. Players tied to each other could never move more than 20” from the comrade they were tied to. The whole escapade took place in perfect darkness. Progress was slow, and dangerous and death a constant possibility….and then they were ambushed by the chain’s ragtag inhabitants.
The fight was against a hodge-podge of weird Goblins. More from the Labyrinth than Dungeons and Dragons, they were primarily armed with bolas* and daggers. There were additional Chameleon-Men and a Wererat, and other small, fast-moving or sticky creatures adept at travelling the chains. The boss was a Goblin Warlock riding on a Giant Spider, another was riding a giant luminescent psychedelic moth based on the slake-moths of Perdido Street Station. The most deadly was a Chain Golem, an enormous mass to writhing chains that simply grappled and restrained characters in an attempt to drop them straight into the Abyss.
Their entire strategy was to try and get the players to fall. Wielding spells like Sleep, Tasha’s Hideous Laughter, Repelling Blast – using their bolas to make them fall prone – hypnotic wings, spider-webs, chain-golem-wrestling – it was a pretty terrifying for the players, and every player that dropped resulted in risk for other players. The players reciprocated, utilising Sleet Storm and Hold Person, using Druid Wildshapes and creative uses of skill checks “I stamp on the goblin’s hands as he hangs on….” or “I tie myself to the chain and bulrush us both off…” The entire tactical playing-field moved away from damage and hit points towards utilising the scenery: something that the goblins were as adept at as our sixth-level heroes.
I think what made this fight fun was the complete change of tactics and the need for thinking outside the box. One of the most amazing D&D moments of my life occurred when a first-time player who’d made her character a debonair, vain aristocrat whose trinket was a hand-mirror insta-gibbed a Medusa with her trinket in her first session: it was such an inventive solution and it told you so much about her character. It might have said ‘Esyld, Half Elf’ on her character sheet but we now knew from the sheer bitchy-shade-coolness of this execution that this was Beyoncé with Bard levels. Encouraging those moments is awesome. There was also a very real genuine risk of character death (the death toll for the fight was one Goliath Warlock) and that tension engages players. If you’re dangling from a rope suspended above a void, and below you your animal companion is in worse nick – and you’re 2 inches of rope from several thousand feet of falling – you’re not going to check Facebook on your phone or chat about work. You’re going to scan your character sheet for a get-out and look imploringly at other players for rescue and follow the action as though its real. +
The meta-narrative here, if you’re curious, was largely about scale: here the chain and the distance were all about vastness and size and stolidity; yet their opponents were physical small creatures using guerrilla tactics and tiny weapons; daggers, darts, bolas. This created a nice dissonance between the world they inhabited and the scale of the Titan. Hopefully this built tension.
*Just 1d6 + 4, with a DC 12 DEX save to not fall prone.