This article is a follow-up to Exploring the Wilderness: Navigation and Player Agency. It focuses on "micronavigation," or the ability for player characters to explore small spaces, like encounter areas.
A Journey into the Wilderness
A few weeks ago, I went camping on the Hoh River in western Washington’s gorgeous temperate rainforests. Our camp was deep in the forest, near a dirt-and-gravel road that ran parallel to the freezing Hoh River. On the right of the road was a steep hill filled with titanic old-growth cedars and twisting nets of mossy boughs, and to the left was an equally perilous slope leading down to the rocky bank of the river. There was also an outhouse about 100 feet or so down the road.
As I walked down the road to the outhouse one night, the path lit only by the light of my electric lantern, I thought this would be a perfect place for an ambush. I went on to think about this forest road for the rest of the trip. There were dozens of places along it that would have made for fascinating encounter areas, like a wide open plain of clear-cut forest covered in the bleached-white remains of fallen trees, a set of twisting switchbacks up a hill perfect for rolling boulders down, and so forth.
Each one of these areas were complex and interesting, filled with striking imagery and inventive ideas for combat encounters, but the spot that I kept coming back to was the plain stretch of road between my campsite and the outhouse. It reminded me a little bit of the epic finale of The Fellowship of the Ring, a three-part skirmish in which Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli fight orcs by a ruined hilltop structure, Boromir tries to protect Merry and Pippin from uruk-hai in the forest, and Frodo and Sam flee from the crumbling Fellowship across the River Anduin.
This climax would make a poor D&D encounter thanks to its large party size and how divided the entire cast is. It’s essentially three encounters at once with three different parties. But let’s take a similar situation, but with a typical four-player D&D party. This party is traveling down a forest road. On their right is a steep upward hill leading to a forested shelf, on their left is sharp downward grade toward the rocky bank of a fast-flowing and freezing river. Each hill rises about 15 feet upward over the same number of feet laterally.
Dynamic Encounter Areas
Combat is typically where D&D players have the most agency—a here defined as “the freedom to make meaningful decisions”—because combat affords players with lots of clear-cut choices. What monster do you attack? Where to you move? What spell do you cast, and where do you cast it? But once an encounter starts, all of the navigational agency that we talked about last week falls away; you’re locked into a combat in a specific area. It doesn’t have to be this way! If you want to increase your players’ ability to make meaningful choices in combat, consider creating dynamic encounter areas instead of static encounter areas.
A static encounter area (SEA) should be familiar to all Dungeon Masters. Most published adventures use them for simplicity. Most dungeon rooms are SEAs. They’re any location in which an encounter is expected to both begin in and end in. A dynamic encounter area (DEA) is a location where an encounter begins, but either changes dramatically by the end of the encounter (like a collapsing cliffside, an erupting volcano, or a sinking ship) or is designed to encourage movement between different sub-locations. The forest path I explored by the Hoh River is a three-part DEA. The environment itself isn’t designed to change, but there are three sub-locations within the area: the path, the forest, and the river. All three sub-locations are connected by hills that are challenging but not impossible to traverse. Let’s take a look at this three-part dynamic encounter area.
The Three-Part DEA
Using the forest path as an example, let’s look at the power of a three-part dynamic encounter area. A DEA doesn’t have to be complex and filled with special mechanics. This area only has three mechanics: climbing/falling down a hill, fighting in a dense forest, and being washed away in a river. Here’s how I took notes on this encounter area in my notebook:
Encounter: Goblin Ambush
Area 1: Road
- This area is a 15-foot-wide gravel road with 2.5-foot-wide shallow ditches on either side.
- A 15-foot-tall hill on the east side of the road climbs to a flat forested area (area 2: Dense Forest), and a 15-foot-tall hill on the west side of the road descends to the river (area 3: River Bank).
- Climbing up or down a hill costs 2 feet of movement for every 1 foot moved. A character can make a DC 13 Strength (Athletics) check as an action when it moves, spending no extra movement on a success. If the check fails by 5 or more, the creature falls and takes 3 (1d6) bludgeoning damage. A creature that is moved down a hill against its will must make a DC 13 Strength saving throw, taking 3 (1d6) bludgeoning damage and falling prone at the bottom of the hill on a failed save, or taking no damage on a successful one.
- The six hobgoblins are lurking the undergrowth on the eastern hill, while six goblins are in the canopy directly above the path. Any character who makes a successful DC 17 Wisdom (Perception) check spots either one group or the other.
Area 2: Dense Forest
- The trees here have grown so thick and tangled that it is hard to maneuver. Moving in the forest costs 2 feet of movement for every 1 foot moved, and all creatures in this area have three-quarters cover against creatures in area 1 and total cover against creatures in area 3.
- A creature that makes a successful DC 15 Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check can climb to the top of a tree, allowing it to see creatures in area 3 and granting it total cover against creatures in area 1.
Area 3: River Bank
- A fast-flowing, 60-foot-wide river runs through the forest. A creature that moves at least 10 feet into the river must make a DC 13 Strength saving throw, taking 3 (1d6) bludgeoning damage and 3 (1d6) cold damage on a failed save and be washed 15 feet downstream. A creature takes no bludgeoning damage and is not moved on a successful save.
- The bank of the river is made up entirely of broad, flat stones. A creature that falls prone here takes 3 (1d6) piercing damage.
Your Own Dynamic Encounters
The above dynamic encounter area has a very potent benefit: the monsters can force the characters to interact with the terrain. If your players are interested in making more dynamic choices in combat, but aren’t sure how to do it, or when they can do it, you can use their foes to show them how. A hobgoblin can hurl the wizard down the hill from the road onto the rocks by the river while a goblin snipes from heavy cover in the dense forest. After the enemies making use of the different encounter areas, your players will realize that they can do the same.
Dynamic encounter areas can improve your combat encounters because they can give your players more ways of interacting with the world around them than just figuring out who to attack or where to cast a spell. They can also encourage creative combat maneuvers, like pushing creatures down cliffs or hurling them into a river. DEAs aren’t suitable for every combat encounter; a simple roadside skirmish with goblins like the one at the beginning of Lost Mine of Phandelver doesn’t need a ton of baked-in decision points. But when you’re setting up climactic encounters that you want your players to talk about forever, consider making the environment just as important as the monsters, and finding ways for the players and monsters to use that environment to their advantage.
Do you prefer dynamic encounter areas, or are straightforward static encounters that get out of the way of the plot more your speed?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and is also a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and two little ambushers, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.