My good friend Les just DM’d his first game of 4E and had a good time with it. He was pretty impressed with how easily he could mod monsters and put together encounters. I figured I’d share the fun stuff I learned from Iron Heroes about putting together good fight sets, stuntable objects and hazards.
Anything in the encounter space, the fight set, which can be used, by action, to create a tactical advantage or harm the opposition is a Stunt Zone.
This means the bonfire you can shove an enemy into and a bookcase you can topple on foes are equally “Stunt Zones”. A chandelier to swing from, a tapestry to pull over heads, a set of winding stairs to kick someone down, a rope bridge to fall from.
Obviously, while you can think up a ton of stunt zones, your players will probably turn something you thought merely decorative into a stunt zone. That’s good, that’s exactly what you want – that’s creativity.
You can use Stunt Zones to make an encounter that is too strong, merely tough, or one that is weak, into something challenging.
Old school DMs would do stuff like have a Wand of Fireballs in an encounter with 2 charges for the players to pick up, capture, use IN the encounter- to balance things out- it’s enough to swing the tide, but not enough to ruin later or future encounters, particularly if it’s an item above and beyond the normal power level.
You can think of Stunt Zones in the same way- they’re limited or one-shot powers or items that are tied to the location- therefore, if they’re “too powerful” you can easily avoid having the same stunt zone in later encounters without borking up your whole campaign.
This also means players can break out of the limited specialized tactical roles of their character classes- you don’t have to be a wizard for an area attack when anyone can knock over a vat of molten iron. Not only does this give players a chance to play with things they might not normally have access to, it also lets them be useful if their character is suboptimal for the situation – if my character has a ton of fire based attacks, and the target has fire resistance, maybe I’m better off toppling a statue on top of it…
A good stunt zone has to be somewhere, where it can actually get used in play. If you have an awesome thing way off in the corner, it may never get used in an encounter. Think of where the heroes start, where the monsters start, whether one side is trying to hold a position or take it, whether one side is just trying to go from point A to point B, and where they’re likely to have fighting.
That’s where you want to put your Stunt Zones.
If you want to be more advanced, consider having Stunt Zones that affect other areas- if you have a fight on a steep incline with several trails- a duel near the top might be right next to a pile of logs to roll down on the path (and combatants) below- you can set up a lot of interesting teamwork situations for players this way.
The number one thing is that Stunt Zones need to be useful.
I remember running a module where there’s a magic circle that gives a dinky +1 bonus to people standing in it. Everytime we’ve played the module, it gets ignored- because there’s so much more important tactical elements to do deal with.
If you’re going to include a Stunt Zone, it should be useful enough that people would consider fighting for it. (To use it, to not be in it’s damage zone, etc.)
In 4E, damage is useful, but more useful than damage? Conditions. Just about anything worth Stunting should attach a Condition to it. Pg. 277 of the Player’s Handbook gives you a lot of Conditions, Blinded, Dazed, Deafened, Immobilized, Prone, Restrained, Slowed, Stunned, Surprised, Weakened, are all pretty easy to do with common mundane objects.
Attaching Conditions makes Stunt Zones useful against anything, even if they do low damage- a monster that can’t see you, or can’t cast a spell… that’s like buying you and your friends a free round to heal, to run, or to set up the next attack.
Consider whether the encounter is going to include a lot of opponents, and whether area effects would be interesting. Consider whether a Stunt might change the area altogether (“Toppling the Alchemist’s shelf leaves these squares hissing and bubbling with alchemical reactions – 1 pt of damage for anyone who ends their turn in these squares, 1D8 pts of damage per turn for anyone knocked prone here…”)
Easy to Do
Why easy to do? Because odds are most of the Stunt Zones you create will be one-use things- something to knock over, throw, knock someone into, set on fire, whatever, and if these things whiff all the time, players will just stop bothering. The players just tried to creatively engage with the game world, and just got negatively rewarded… how much easier to sit back and drone out, “I do my Basic Attack, again.”
Generally, easy to do means that these things should hit pretty often- the player is giving up a whole set of actions to do this, instead of an attack. Have Stunt Zones attack monsters on their weak defenses- Fortitude, Reflexes, Will – instead of raw AC attacks.
If players come up with a Stunt you didn’t consider, you should -generally- favor them, but if it seems very difficult, go ahead and make it very difficult (“I’m toppling this stone pillar!” “It’s huge! It’s going to be really tough…”) But for anything you design into the fight set? Make it easy to do.
No Double Jeopardy
Never make players have to take two rolls to do one attack. This is where Page 42 on the DM sucks- the example demands both a Skill Check AND a Strength Attack… Don’t do that. It makes failure that much more likely, makes it more work, and doesn’t help play. Don’t punish players for being creative!
Write down your Stunt Zones on index cards. Re-use them. Change the imagery a bit – getting buried under a toppled bookshelf, getting hit with a case of statuettes, having a rack of armor fall on you, these are pretty close in results.
Watch action movies- look for awesome fight scenes in dangerous places- rope bridges, construction sites, the gear room of a clock tower, etc. Jackie Chan’s movies from the 80’s and early 90’s are pretty solid. Swashbuckling movies, videogames… there’s lots of things you can pull from.
It’s in the Basic Rules
Remember- you can have players attack with any attribute, against Armor Class, Fortitude, Reflexes, or Will- there’s lots of ways to play around with stunting. Pick the method used, the type of defense that works, a condition or two, and some damage.
There you go…