Battle Surprises have become a staple of my GMing. Battle Surprises are an easy way to add excitement to even the most mundane of combats. One of the best ways to keep combat exciting is to have a Battle Surprise in at least half, if not more, of your battle encounters. All too often battle is set up with one side versus the other, then they charge together and clash until one side is victorious. Just adding a little something extra can really mix these battles up.
Below is a list of ideas that can help you spice up the encounters in your games. This is nowhere near a comprehensive list; rather, it should help to give you a springboard to come up with your own ideas that fit your specific quest or campaign.
Battle Surprise Reinforcements
This is always an easy one to use. Either plan to have an underpowered encounter or add a few more enemies in if things are a little too easy or boring.
For this encounter, leave a quarter or a third of the enemies out at the beginning, and add them two or three rounds in. If you did not plan it, just add the same amount in when necessary.
This is always a fun one and can start a second really fun encounter depending on what the characters want to do.
This is a good option if enemies are overpowered, cowardly, or are just not the kind of creatures that fight until they die. In fact, few things should really have that kind of loyalty. Animals, paid henchmen, or those forced to service will rarely fight to the death.
This can cause all kinds of fun. Fleeing foes can alert others, spreading stories about the group, come back with reinforcements, or any number of other possible outcomes depending on the type of quest you are playing.
This can be a lot of fun too. It often takes the party by surprise when enemies that just tried to kill them suddenly surrender. It can create some interesting moral issues in how they react.
Also, now what does the party do with prisoners?
Battle Surprise Traps
There are lots of different things that you can add to a battlefield to really spice up the conflict. Once you start to limit the battlefield or give the players more to worry about than just the enemies, it can make for a much more entertaining encounter.
Here are some quick examples to get you started.
- A campfire can be a hazard. It limits mobility and you can toss people into it!
- Traps in the battlefield. Just about any trap can be added to a dungeon delve type encounter. Players expect traps in dungeons. Spike pits, weapon racks, or even a loose pile of weapons can be dangerous.
- Liquid hazards can be fun. Things like lava, sewage, or fetid water can break apart an area and cause penalties.
- NPCs having disposable tricks can also be fun. Try tossing out a stick of dynamite with the fuse lit, a grenade, or any number of other devices that can cause the PCs to split their attention.
Terrain Changes or Discovery
Small holes, ditches, and hidden pits and other terrain can enhance battle. These can be both known obstacles and surprise obstacles.
A known terrain obstacle might be a pile of rocks, a deep ravine, or impassible hedge.
An unknown terrain obstacle might be a hidden hole, rotten bridge, or an area covered with spiked vines.
Some fun things that can also be added are tunnels, platforms, or other areas that can be used as an advantage.
Enemies of the PCs Attack Each Other
One that is fun to throw out there is to have enemies that don’t care about killing their own “allies”. This can be a lot of fun if you have a difficult encounter or even an overwhelming one but some of the enemies end up fighting each other. Either because they don’t care, by accident (not smart), or are intentionally trying to kill their competition when they are engaged with the group. This can be especially fun if you have a particular enemy that keeps using the party to thin out their own competition in the ranks of the enemies to gain position themselves.
Battle Surprise Environmental Changes
One fun way to mix up a battle is to bring in sudden and harsh weather. Thunderstorms, hail, rain, fog, wind and more can wreak havoc in an otherwise simple and basic battle. Weather can cause visibility to drop, stack penalties on the party, and even do damage to them. And this is all for natural weather. Magical or other types of wacky storms can offer even more flavor to your battles.
Normally not the best thing to do, splitting the party in a battle can really make your players sweat. It can get complicated and dangerous but when the party is suddenly without a few of their members, they need to get imaginative in their tactics. This can be done in any number of ways. Here are a few examples that can be used.
- A nearby tree falls spitting the party.
- A fissure opens up dividing the party.
- An avalanche crashes in splits the party up.
- A flash flood washes through the area.
- Security doors drop down.
Battle Surprise Overall Idea
This is just a handful of examples that can make even a routine fight tons of fun! This is all encounter type modifications. They modify the situation and keep the party thinking on their feet. These don’t always have to hinder the party either. They can just as easily be used to hinder or mess with your own enemies. Doing so can add a huge amount of fairness to your campaign. Your players will really appreciate it if some of these things happen to their enemies and not just them all the time.
This doesn’t even touch all the cool things you can do with creature and enemy surprises. That is a whole other post or two at least. For now, we will stick with the non NPC related Battle Surprise.