Claim the Highground
by Benjamin R. K. Wegner (PrincessPie)
Using high ground elements to make encounters more challenging - and memorable!
It's hard being a DM, let me tell you. You're trying to keep track of so many things, that it's only natural to forget special case rules and have to homebrew something on the spot.
It's easy to forget that NPC's can take the same actions as PC’s.
Bonus action to down a potion? Check.
Dash away to cover? Check.
Sharpshooter feat? Totally plausible.
Feel free to alter your lower CR critters to give them a little edge if you feel your players are plowing through them like a cleric with Destroy Undead.
But the NPC’s can also take advantage of their surroundings: cover and the like. Let’s call these high ground elements.
The Bandit Attack - an example
Most bandit attack encounters run the same: bandits sneak around the encounter area, spring the trap, pounce, and fight to the death (though some may flee).
Now let’s beef it up with some high ground elements.
- 8 Bandits
- A Bandit Leader (the Captain)
Set the scene:
- Lightly wooded area
- Very few trees along the 15 ft wide road
- A short cliff face about 20 feet high
- A badly maintained low rock wall (3 feet high) running parallel to the road
Look at this like a player while you prepare. Paranoia sets in if you start describing things a little too intricately, such as the exact number of trees. Leave the details to their further inquiries - and definitely make the jumpy ones pick where they look for bandits, so the whole surprise isn’t blown.
Lay your trap
On top of the hill are three Bandits lying prone about 10 feet from the edge of the cliff face ready to crawl up to the edge at half speed and open fire. With their commanding view, they’ll basically ignore all cover unless the PC’s hide behind the wall.
One Bandit will be in a nearby tree to signal the archers on the cliff with a bird call (great opportunity for a Nature check); and to provide support if the party attempts to climb the cliff.
Four bandits and the Captain lie prone about 15 feet away from the wall. If the PC’s try to climb the cliff with the archers, they will move in and flank them. If the PC’s hide behind the wall, they will surprise them from behind.
“Prone? Why would you do that Benjamin?! That means everyone gets advantage on their attacks against them!”
Yes, but only if they're within 5 feet “Otherwise, the attack roll has disadvantage”.
Meaning you have snipers that will be very difficult to hit for lower level players that rely on range based attacks. Not to mention that they’ll benefit from 3/4 cover (+5 AC). The downside to the snipers is they’ll have to use crossbows instead of bows while prone.
I would also house rule that while lying prone you get advantage to stealth checks (but that's just me)
The players inevitably wander into the trap (having a friendly NPC that is innocently distracting them couldn't hurt). The signal is sounded and the snipers crawl up and open fire, that's about three attacks right there.
The tree sniper holds his action until the Captain's signal or if the PC’s move closer to the cliff.
The Captain and his men hold their action until the players move behind the wall.
Now the players could move to the wall for cover. If they do, it puts them within 15 feet of the Captain and his men. Perfect distance even if they're prone (six attacks, one from each bandit and two from the Captain).
And if the players run to the cliff and attempt to climb? Then the Captain and his men move up to the wall, draw their bows/crossbows and open fire on the players from behind. And they’ll have half cover (+2 AC) from that wall.
Then resolve combat as you normally would! Bandits are human beings and would run or surrender in the name of self preservation. What happens if the Barbarian climbs the cliff to the prone Snipers? Good on him but he's 20 feet up and one of those bandits could use the “Shove” action in lieu of an attack.
Other High Ground Elements
Let's look at other elements that your NPC’s can benefit from (or your players, if they can think on their feet).
- Sniper nests: High ledges that could be used by ranged based classes and such.
- Sneak Attack opportunities: Crates, High grass, Closets and the like.
- Creative escape routes/alternative measures: Old crane with cargo and a counterweight.
- Ley Lines: Places of Elemental power, or Wild Magic surges that benefit casters.
High ground elements allow your players to take on something above their level, and vice versa.
The PC’s could drop a crane on a distracted dragon you make up on the spot with Scabard's Dragon Name Generator.
An outnumbered thief near a fort under construction? Grab the rope, cut the counterweight, and she can make her escape while the party tries to avoid the crashing cargo.
Ambushes are not impromptu; they require careful planning. Thieves are accustomed to lives on the run; always knowing where all six exits are (plus the four they can make!). And you better believe that if an Arch-Lich has found a place that amplifies necrotic magic, he’s definitely going to lure the heroes there for the final confrontation.
Remember: you are free to be as creative as your players. And knowing how to manipulate the terrain with high ground elements can change the advantages dramatically. And it will make your encounters more memorable as well.