Terrain to Challenge Epic Characters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 23, 2013

a-to-z-letters-tWhen creating encounters many DMs, especially rookie DMs, focus first and foremost on the monsters. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach. However, just as many DMs will regrettably spend almost no time creating interesting terrain to flesh out the encounter. They’re so concerned with finding the right balance of monsters that the locale is nothing more than an afterthought.

Good encounters should have interesting terrain features. There should be things that will make the combat more interesting; anything from obstacles to hide behind, to hazardous areas to try and push your enemies into. You character will engage in lots of battles and even though the monsters may change the combat doesn’t really. The right terrain makes any mundane combat encounter more interesting.

At low levels terrain features need be nothing more than a deep pit, a campfire, a few tall trees, or a meandering stream. But by epic level none of these terrain features will be significant. Feel free to add them for flavour, but they certainly won’t challenge the PCs or change the outcome of the battle. Epic terrain needs to be as grandiose and diverse as the PCs. Today we’ll share a few ideas on how to create terrain that challenges epic characters.

Throughout April Dungeon’s Master is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge is to write a new article ever day in April, excluding Sundays. That’s 26 articles over the course of the month. To make things even more interesting the title of each article will begin with a different letter of the alphabet. Today “T” is for terrain as we explore its need to change and evolve as the PCs become more powerful.

Scaling Terrain

At first you might think that terrain becomes less important as characters become more powerful. After all, environmental damage is less likely to do anything more than slow things down. But when my home campaign began rocketing through the epic tier I’ve realized that this is not the case. Terrain is always important in 4e D&D; it just needs to scale with the power base of the party. So in epic tier the terrain features need to be epic as well.

Typical terrain features won’t work. Pits and chasms are easily bypassed by characters with incredible Athletics scores, powers that allow heroes to fly or teleport, and even if they do fall they can likely shrug off all but a fall from the havens with high Acrobatics checks, items or feats. If they do take damage it’s unlikely to kill them allowing the leader to heal them back up to full easily enough. DMs need to be creative and realize that at epic levels nothing is off limits. You’re playing a fantasy game so you have to make the terrain fantastic.

Remember that when epic level characters engage in combat the outcome will have significant consequences. Every encounter that challenges them will be huge. So if you feel the need to include a rushing river through the battlefield it needs to be significant. Assuming that some PCs will be able to fly, teleport or jump over it, it needs to be there for a better reason that to force an Athletics check. Personally I’d include monsters that reach up to grabs PCs who attempt to jump over it, or a mist that slows (and thereby reduces the number of squares they can cover).

Different Battlefields

Dungeons and closed corridors will usually give melee characters an advantage while gimping ranged attackers. Conversely wide open spaces will play to the strengths of ranged attackers and possible make things less interesting for melee combatants. You should use both extremes regardless of what kind of party you’ve got. Obviously you should give everyone a chance to be the star by creating terrain that plays to one or two PCs’ strengths each time, but don’t feel that you have to make every encounter and all terrain conducive to every PC.

There will be times when characters that require mobility simply get trapped or locked down and can’t move. Ranged attacks may need to risk opportunity attacks from shooting while an enemy is adjacent. Melee combatants may find that they take fire from the enemies for a couple of rounds before they can even get to them. Variety is key so keep changing it up.

Get Them Moving

In my party we have a lot of ranged attackers. This often turns elaborate maps into nothing more than a pretty picture. There have been battles where the archer doesn’t leave his initial square during the entire fight. Any obstacles or hazards the DM had in store are useless against PCs who stay put. So when this happens (and it will) be creative and give the PC a reason to move.

To move stationary PCs, you can always use monsters that can push pull or slide, but that can often seem like a cheat. Instead create maps with obstacles that the ranged characters can’t see through or can’t shoot through. Get rid of wide open spaces. Put massive, immovable obstacles right in the middle of the map. Rocky outcroppings, impassable trees, an obelisk all work equally well. Just remember that these obstacles should work both ways. If the PCs can’t target the monsters then the monsters shouldn’t be able to target the PCs either. Dungeons usually have lots of twists and turns reducing the effectiveness of ranged attackers, so mix up the outdoor and indoor encounters to challenge everyone equally.

Lock Them Down

Sometimes the opposite happens and a party is composed of all melee combatants. These PCs need to get up close and personal to be most effective. When this happens terrain can give even the most hardened PC a reason to stay where they are, at least for a few rounds.

Go big! Include vaporous clouds of necrotic, acid or cold that shift with the wind, deal crazy damage, and block line of sight. Have really bad things happen to anyone that finds themselves inside these clouds on their turn. Of course monsters shouldn’t be completely immune to the effects, but it makes sense that they’d have some resistances, especially if they pick the location for the attack. Controllers shine brightest when they can force the enemy into some of these bad areas. Just because the baddies know that the pit is there doesn’t mean they can avoid it if pushed over the ledge.

When they do finally decide that it’s time to move, introduce terrain features that will challenge an epic level PC (see my river example above). The most obvious solution may not be possible. Sure the PCs can jump vast distances, but they can’t change direction in the air. They can climb over large structures, but they likely can’t see what on top until they get there. Without certainty on how to overcome your epic terrain the PCs will hesitate; take advantage of that hesitation.


Some terrain and hazards are practically mandatory in D&D combat. The pool of acid, the roaring fire, or the necrotically charged altar. These will all hurt a PC who enters or touches them and should be avoided at all costs – at least at lower levels. As the PCs advance some of them will gain resistance to acid, fire, or necrotic energy and when they do these simple obstacles become ineffective.

By epic level every character is likely to have some resistances. Between items, feats, utility powers, and paragon path features it’s safe to say all PCs will shrug off some damage, no matter what kind it is. However, it’s unlikely that everyone in the party will have the same resistances. The trick as the DM is to challenge the party, including the PCs with resistances, without being overly punitive to those PCs without that type of resistance. It’s a fine line and may require some trial and error testing.

One way to counter a party that has a lot of resistances is to combine more than one energy type into a particular environmental feature. A cloud that is cold, necrotic and psychic is bound to hurt at least one PC. Just make sure that the combined energies make sense for the environment and in your head. Combining fire and cold seems off, but fire and radiant seems plausible.

No Limits

When designing epic terrain make it truly epic. Nothing should be off limits. In a recent epic encounter we’ve suffered ongoing damage from environmental conditions that started at 10 and gradually increased by 10 every round to a cap of ongoing 50. The DM threw this kind of environmental effect at us a bunch of times during that campaign arc. In each instance at least two PCs had resistance in excess of 30 to the relevant damage type and the other PCs found ways to overcome it.

By epic the PCs should have that kind of resistances or have ways to mitigate damage. If they don’t have the exact resistance then they should have a consumable, a power or a friend that can help. In our party we had the benefit of a controller who could bestow resistances upon the party and we had a super-cleric who could heal any damage we didn’t resist. Throw in a couple of PCs with resistances, and ongoing 50 damage every round from the environment became almost negligible.

However, coming up with the right resistances and healing the wounds does expend resources that the party may not be able to get back easily. This can become extremely problematic when the heroes have to go thought multiple encounters without an extended rest or sometimes even without a short rest.

Another extreme and unexpected challenge we faced was combat without oxygen. At epic tier even the worst Endurance score in the party was still decent so initial checks to hold ones breath wasn’t a problem. As it turned out the heroes came up with exceptionally creative ways to overcome this challenge. You’d think that not being able to breathe would kill a typical PC but at epic it didn’t even slow us down.

We discovered that by epic level it’s practically impossible to kill the party. With that in mind, DMs shouldn’t hold back at all when designing encounters. This goes for the terrain as well as the monsters. Think grand, think fantastic. The more challenging the terrain, the more creative and resourceful the heroes need to be, and the more fun they’ll have when they overcome it.

What other tips and tricks would you recommend when it comes to terrain features that challenge epic PCs? What are some of your favourite examples you’ve thrown at PCs or experienced as a player?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Svafa April 23, 2013 at 1:54 pm

One technique I like to throw at the players is using a combination of two monsters or monster and trap that work together to override resistances. Typically I go the route of giving the PCs vulnerable to an element and then using it against them. For example, I had one fight where respawning minions had a basic attack that did no damage but gave the PC vulnerable shadow (save ends). Then the big solo they were fighting would shoot two or three of them with bolts of shadow each turn.

That’s a more reliable build for the strategy, but I’ve also switched it up to use traps or terrain instead. For instance, having a terrain feature grant vulnerable fire and then the monsters using a fire blast ability, or reversing it and having the monsters give the vulnerability and the terrain dealing the damage. The difference between the two in my games is typically that terrain/trap abilities have a high chance of hit (if not always hit), while the monsters can be avoided. So a terrain/trap that gives vulnerability likely does little or no damage, while a monster that does almost always does normal damage. In these scenarios, I also recommend giving the monsters AoE abilities that target any creature, so that the players can turn the terrain/traps against the monsters.

2 Philo Pharynx April 23, 2013 at 4:02 pm

I agree with Svafa – creatures or terrain that grants vunlerability is very useful. It makes the resistant normal and really gives a reason fro the nonresistant to avoid that. As with anything, overuse can cause backlash.

Moving terrain can be useful – airships and flying platforms are one example. At epic, flight is common enough, but if the speed is high enough you’ll have to make the characters work to not be left behind.

Making breakable terrain can be interesting. If the players need to spend actions to break things for their goal, then any moster that sows them down is an annoyance. Perhaps the McGuffin is buried fifty feet under the ice.

Breakable terrain can also work the other way. Imagine a fight in a tunnel under a lava lake in the abyss. The tunnel is supported bya field emitted by magical glass spheres. If the spheres get broken, the lava begins flowing to that part. Acidic lava. Acidic lava infused with necrotic energy. This limits burst and blasts that affect all targets.

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