The encounter status check between combat rounds is more than just a great place to see if parlay or retreat is a smart option for either side, it’s also an excellent place to include all of an encounter’s story and environmental triggers, all in one convenient, easier-to-remember and more smoothly executable place.
Running and resolving global components between rounds is more advantageous than forcing all those rules per turn, which tends to slow all turns down.
Instead, have everyone make an acrobatics check on their turn to avoid falling down and go sliding ten feet across a storm-tossed ship deck on their turn. Otherwise, resolving this effect on each turn means further complicating and extending turns and all the decisions a player already has to make. Handle that event globally instead, as if the storm had its own initiative, at the start of each round.
Here, the DM calls for everyone to make that Acrobatics check together and the storm’s impact on all characters and creatures is immediately resolved. This removes some of the glut of rules and tactical considerations on individual turns while still keeping the cinematic feel and flavor of the encounter event or feature. Quick, clean, exciting.
Dungeon dressing, weather and natural terrain, fantastic terrain and phenomena, and monster waves are the prime components of most combat encounters – and they all make an excellent fit for resolving the encounter status check’s global effects, features and events. And while fantastic terrain and monster waves already have more specific rules on their execution and timing, using them this way makes for a great alternative.
Simple furniture, other constructed terrain, tools, gear, supplies and room decor can be anywhere from difficult terrain to flavor, but what if those lovely elven curtain, tables and chairs were set on fire, and that fire is spreading quickly throughout the inn? Between rounds, expand the fire in a trail one square per tier in a random direction, dealing 5 fire damage per tier to any creatures whose square the fire trails enter.
Weather and Natural Terrain
Make strong winds, driving rainstorms, blinding snow, mud or ice more exciting by including a global skill check between rounds.
At the start of each round, have all creatures make acrobatics check to stay on their feet on sheets of ice or in a slick, muddy pit. Simpler, faster global effects like these make a good alternative to the standard rules for acrobatics, ice and mud.
Similarly, instead of using the standard wind and water current rules on a stone bridge above a canyon, call for athletics or acrobatics checks between rounds to fight the sliding effects of the winds.
Fighting in extremely heavy rain or snow might test the body’s limits: call for endurance checks between rounds, with failures indicating 5 damage per tier, simulating the elements’ fatiguing effects.
Fantastic Terrain and Phenomena
Several fantastic terrain elements and terrain powers are already excellent and engaging, and already include global effects. However, many could also be slightly altered like weather and terrain to “trigger” only between rounds, resolving more quickly. Beyond existing fantastic terrain and terrain powers, flex your creativity and come up with your own fantastic feature or magical phenomenon.
For example, a dark crystal hovers in the air, its many cracks leaking poisonous gas. Between rounds, it expands in every direction, starting as a burst 1, and increasing in size by one each round. Creatures in the area breathe in the poisonous gas and takes 5 poison damage per tier.
Perhaps the simplest and most classic global encounter event, more monsters showing up on rounds 2+ always seems to get everyone’s attention and force some quick thinking and adjustments by the players. Such a dynamic event works with any type of monster, minions or otherwise. For simplicity as far as initiative goes, monsters showing up between rounds actually get their own initiative at the top of the round when used as an encounter event.
A horde of kobold minions crowds and rushes down from the balconies above, desperately trying to save their green dragon master from the wicked heroes who would do their wyrm harm and take his shiny things.
For more fantastic terrain and phenomena to include between combat rounds, skim over monster auras and ritual magic. Imagine ways to convert some of your favorites into exciting and cinematic global encounter elements.
For example, Sending magic might be twisted and amplified, causing a cursed Magic Mouthed door to scream a warning repeatedly into the minds of nearby creatures. Between rounds, creatures must make wisdom or endurance checks or take 5 psychic damage per tier.
Perhaps a misty hall filled with medusae and basilisk statues emanates ancient petrification magic, protecting generations of fey champions and their beast guardians. Between rounds, call for endurance checks, with failures resulting in invaders being slowed, immobilized if already slowed, or petrified is already immobilized.
Tutorial: Terrain Powers by Mark Monack takes some simple dungeon dressing and terrain like rugs and tables and gives them some flavorful and mechanical impact. These are great for players and creatures who want to smartly and creatively use the environment itself as tools. Though not generally global in nature, the common thread with this article is that the environment matters and can be quite cinematic.
Cinematic Terrain by Glimm also has some inspirational and cinematic terrain ideas, including an outstanding D&D take on the frozen lake scene from King Arthur. Be sure to check out all of Glimm’s tremendous Cinematic Combat series.