Side-Scrolling Combat

Concept: Side-scrolling combat
Tested in: Delve Night and The Great Tower of Oldechi

What it is: D&D’s combat map has always been top-down, since before it was even D&D. It is, after all, a tabletop game, not a wallside game. Everything assumes you’re fighting on a mostly flat surface, perhaps with other flat surfaces around at different elevations. Underwater combat and flying enemies are a hassle because there’s rarely a good way to represent them, especially with physical miniatures, and everything from spells to fire breath to weapon reach is expressed in terms of how far it affects the world horizontally. Normally this is fine, but when you want an usually vertical combat, the rules sort of give up.

By taking the map and turning it sideways, we turned the top-down game into a side-scrolling game. Measuring vertical distance became trivial as it was exactly the same as horizontal distance. Mobile characters, like those who could jump or fly or teleport, got to use the full breadth of their abilities, and even slow, stable characters benefited because we made every walkable surface only five feet wide and there was no longer an easy way to get around them. Flanking was harder because there were only two spaces around a character instead of eight, but few other powers needed significant changes, especially in 4E where every area effect is a square.

What we wanted: Movement-heavy, swashbuckling combat where players jumped and climbed and dropped to get from one place to another, with the ever-present danger of falling (or getting pushed) off a high platform.

How it went: As expected, the initial cognitive load was high. Even when we turned everybody’s minis on their side to represent a side-facing viewer, we still had to regularly remind players of their limitations (“You can’t see that person right above you, because they’re standing on a platform and that platform blocks line of sight.”) and options (“If you want him out of the way, you can always try to bull rush him. If he falls, he’d take 5d10 damage and land right in front of the fighter.”). In one of the combats we also had a map that wrapped on the edges to represent a round tower, which meant the players couldn’t even trust their eyes for horizontal space, and the whole thing was altogether confusing. But once everybody understood what was happening, they really got into it. They didn’t resent the change in space and instead looked for ways to exploit it, like targeting blasts above them so they missed all allies but hit creatures hanging off a wall. Players enjoyed it enough that we used the mechanic in another, higher-level campaign, where it went even better than the first time.

What we learned: It’s not a good idea to have a full side-scrolling campaign unless you’re going for a very specific feel, like an 8-bit platformer. But it’s a better way to represent vertical combat than using dice or props to track elevation. As long as platforms are only wide enough to support one character at a time, everything is exactly as it appears and there’s no fooling around with the Pythagorean theorem. Given how much math went into the last post, I feel like “this variant rule involves no math” is a welcome respite.

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