My Saturday Night Game returned to the Tomb of Annihilation campaign. It was great set piece of waves of undead and the Wreck of the Star Goddess – a flying ship lost in the jungles of Chult! Adding to the complication was a ticking clock of attackers besieging the survivors of the Star Goddess’ crew.
The DM put together not only a great print off of the battle map but also some painted up yogurt cups for the height elements. I’m a big fan of an encounter that runs at different levels, be it physically with trees and branches and other elements to interact with, or a social one with layers of veiled threats and secret messages. This is one of the former and as 5th level adventurers we had several ways to move between the layers – spells (Misty Step, Thunder Step, Spider Climb, Feather Fall) and abilities (Athlete Feat, Athletics’ rolls to climb / leap / jump at a +5 with proficiency). With a Haste spell and a Rogue using their Cunning Action to dash, there was plenty of movement to climb. And importantly, the adventure came with advice on mechanics for when a creature / PC failed their Athletics check while running along a tree branch.
Marking the height differences worked well for the yogurt tubs and we used some spare dice to track heights for those PCs in between levels. We used a d12 to mark how many ‘squares’ so that covered up to 60 feet. Percentile dice work better for higher ranges, ’00’ for ground level and able to cover up to 100 feet. Rather than cluttering up the limited battle map with the dice, we kept them in front of our characters as needed. It also led me to a really hardcore house rule solution to the immersion breaking of a high level barbarian shrugging off a 100 foot fall. I don’t know if I would use this at my table, but it has a crunchy Grognard feel to it.
For quick and dirty math on ranges at an angle, we used a Pythagorean approximation to figure out the diagonal (1/2 the shorter side of the triangle + the length of the longer side of the triangle, so if it was 60 ft to the zombie on a 50 ft tree we would use 60 + 50/2 = 85 ft, within range for Hunter’s Mark vs. actual math that would tell us 78 ft but close enough for a math hack). I use a similar shortcut on regular 2d maps for determining regular ranges. I tend towards the crunchy tactical approach when a map is before me, like a puzzle waiting to be solved.
This is a great example of a set piece encounter and it would be easy enough to use in other settings. Eberron has flying ships and the Forgotten Realms has had more than a few crop up in recent adventures. It could even be a crashed Spelljammer to be investigated on a distant earthmote. It doesn’t even need to be a sky ship to crash on trees in a world with magic. There’s a Witcher 3 quest that leads to half a boat teetering on top of a snowy mountain top.
Not every encounter has to have something this complex, but its nice to have something more than a static slugfest when there is a whole map to explore and work with. Be wary of having too many moving pieces in a single scene where they might bog things down, but something like layers, an effect happening every 2-4 rounds like explosive hazards in the fire swamp, or even just terrain to duck behind or push over on enemies adds something dynamic to the action.