Flip the Mat

NOTE: The werespider previously featured here is now part of my Pay What You Want DMs Guild product Arachnids, Wraiths, & Zombies.

Sometimes you just want to shake things up. You need to spice up combat and add a few hazards to keep players on their toes. Sometimes you want to go further and do something really crazy. In keeping with Sam Van Der Wall of RPG Alchemy‘s Blog Carnival theme, “The Combat Experience,” I’m going to show off one of my favorite encounters. One where I turned the battle mat on its side. Keep reading. You’ll see what I mean.

Mario and Luigi

When we play Dungeons and Dragons with a battle mat and miniatures we are usually dealing with two dimensions, just like most old Nintendo games. Often in D&D those two dimensions are an overhead or bird’s eye view like in The Legend of Zelda.

We see Link and octoroks as if we were above looking down on them.

Yet many other Nintendo games had a side view like Double Dragon.

We see Billy Lee kicking some butt as if we were standing to the side.

I began to imagine what a battle in a side view might look like on a battle mat. In order to get the most out of the map, I’d need the battle to have a lot of vertical levels, otherwise the encounter wouldn’t be very dynamic and all of the non-flying creatures would just hangout at the bottom of the grid. I also wanted the encounter to be contained on the battle mat. When flipping things from bird’s eye to side view, it becomes very easy to run out of map space as creatures move around. The map doesn’t follow you like a camera in a video game.

There might be a few of you who remember the old Mario Bros. game. I’m talking arcade style before the Marios were going into castles to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser. I’m talking two dudes facing off in the sewers trying to kick over as many koopa shells as possible to get some points to win a game. If Mario ran off one side of the screen, he appeared on the other (which solves my running off the map problem). It looked like this…

I’m sure the older gamers among us remember.

Well that game inspired an encounter with my players that I designed and we throughly enjoyed.

The Ladder of Insanity

The PCs had to make their way to the Underdark via a massive column known as The Ladder of Insanity. The huge column plunged miles underground and its face was marked with crumbling 5-foot wide ledges and stairs, which are just wide enough for a creatures to travel single file.

The characters found the further down The Ladder of Insanity they got, the more ruin and disrepair became obstacles. Whole sections of ledges and staircases were missing or ready to plunge into the darkness. As the PCs negotiated these hazards, a crew of drow bandits lead by a werespider appeared and attacked. The battle mat looked something like this…

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 5.44.45 PM
Behold! The Ladder of Insanity!

Now I made that map in Roll20 and used digital tokens for the PCs instead of their beautiful array of bird’s eye view digital miniatures.

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Miniature on the left, token on the right.

I recommend using tokens instead of minis in a side view encounter. You could use miniatures, but they are made specifically for bird’s eye view encounters. It is going to be more difficult for your players to wrap their minds around a side view encounter with miniatures unless you place them on their sides, but that could damage some more delicate minis.

After the map was created I wrote down a few quick mechanics for the battle.

  • The map wraps around the column. So if PCs ran off one side of the map they would appear on the other. It works just like Mario Brothers of Pac Man.
  • The column is curved. A creature is granted half cover from attacks made by any creature more than 20 feet away, three-quarters cover from any creature more than 30 feet away, and total cover from any creature more than 40 feet away.
  • Climbing the walls at half speed requires a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check. Creatures who fail this check by 5 or more fall onto the platform directly below their space and land prone, taking fall damage as normal.
  • Jumping up and grabbing a higher platform works as normal. In order to pull itself up to the new level a creature must succeed on a DC 10 Strength (Athletics) check or end its movement in the first space it entered on the new, higher level.
  • At the end of a creature’s turn if it is on one of the platforms it must roll a d20. On a roll of 1, the ground beneath its feet crumbles. The creature must make a DC 10 Reflex saving throw to jump to an adjacent unoccupied space of its choice. If it fails it falls, landing prone and taking fall damage as normal. Wherever the creature ends up after rolling a 1 it must roll another d20 to see if the new ground beneath its feet crumbles and repeat the saving throw if it gets another 1. This continues until the creature rolls a number other than 1.

Bam! There you have it. The mat is flipped and a fun encounter is had by all.

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