The first type of hazard we talked about was Terrain. Another variety of combat hazard is environmental. What are the physical surroundings like? Are there any interesting global effects in place?
My definition of environmental hazard is one that affects everyone. If a hazard is limited to just certain areas of the battlemap, then it is not environmental but another hazard type.
What are the combatants standing on? Ground is the same as default terrain, bit it’s included here to help you get a complete picture of your combat environment. Determine if there are any global features and modifiers due to the nature of the footing.
What do combatants see when they look up? Ceiling? Sky? Perhaps they see large stalactites swarming with bats, a sheet of fire, or black clouds ready to let loose a hailstorm. As with ground, determine if there are any global features and modifiers due to the nature of ‘sky’.
Air or atmosphere
What’s the space like between the ground and the sky? The atmosphere is often overlooked as an entertaining hazard. Thin oxygen makes encounters with undead even more interesting (assuming undead in your game don’t breathe). Dust, airborne particles, and gases can cause choking, sneezing, or limited visibility. Next time a combat takes place in the middle of a boring city street, add smog or smoke to spice things up.
Lighting and visibility are critical to survival for most combatants. If your game system has special rules for limited visibility, such as line of sight or concealment, then consider the lighting a great source of potential hazards.
Imagine a crazy strobe effect caused by a huge fan near a light source. Diabolical game masters might introduce epilepsy rules a couple sessions prior to such an encounter, and then assign a racially modified chance of seizure during such a combat. While you should make the chance very low, the added tension when you ask each player to roll would be momentarily exciting. In addition, the strobing effect might improve stealth skills and abilities during the combat, cause ranged attack modifiers, and so on.
Another example might be a light switch. One side can see in the dark, the other can’t. The switch now becomes an important tactical element to the fight. Does one side need to guard the switch, disable it, or control it?
Sound is another under-used environmental factor. If communication is limited, combatants must resort to poorer coordination or alternate methods to provide status updates, offer ideas, or issue commands. Conversely, if sound is enhanced so you can hear the slightest whisper, it will be hard to keep your foes from overhearing what you say.
An example of a sound hazard is loud machine noise. Pounding, grinding, rattling, and rumbling machines would make casual conversation impossible. You might restrict players to six words each round on their turn because of the environment their PCs are in.
Depending on your game system and genre, this category is for any global or physical surrounding effects that don’t fall into the other environmental categories.
For example, in one campaign I crafted evil ruled the night, and good ruled the day. If encounters took place at night, any evil foes received a combat bonus. If encounters took place during the day, good combatants received a bonus.
Rules should not be the only determinant for environmental effects on combat. Looks for ways to add flavour to your fights with evocative global effects, such as strange lighting or unusual ground.
Be sure to use description to bring out the full flavour of the hazard. You should provide a description before combat starts so the PCs know what they’re dealing with (as much as they can perceive, at least). However, you should also weave in descriptions of the hazard during combat as well, so players don’t forget about it, take it for granted, or get too lost in number crunching.
The best way to continually message your group about flavour and hazards during combats is to roleplay. Have the foes react to the hazards and environment. Even if no special rules are in effect because of the ambiance (especially when no rules are in effect – many players will then stop thinking about it and focus just on buffs and drawbacks) you should have NPCs and monsters interact with the environment.
Inconsequential behaviours and reactions are a great way to roleplay.
“The beast slips on the wet grass but recovers gracefully, revealing its dexterity despite its massive, stinking bulk.”
“The giant bees sway back and forth in the breeze, which brings you scent of the goblin camp you’ve been heading toward.”
“The warrior parries your blow and a sharp ringing sound echoes throughout the canyon, letting all canyon denizens know for miles that blood will be spilt today.”
Another technique is to roleplay, if the foes can communicate. Have NPCs remark to each other or the player characters about the environment. Add elements of the environment into combat challenges and insults.
A related technique is to visualize to improve your descriptions and roleplaying. Pretend you are the enemy. What do you see around you? How does the environment play to your strengths and affect your weaknesses? Are you comfortable? What’s making you uncomfortable (other than you’re in a fight)? Run through the five senses and not only visualize what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, but how you react to each sense as well.
Finally, keep this visualization going throughout the combat, updating it with what’s happening each round. Are you surrounded, hurt, on fire? Can you taste blood, smell fear, feel your attacks sink in, see your foe trip and fall, hear the leader issuing commands? Describe what’s in your imagination during each foe’s turn to bring combat and hazards to life.