If you were to look back over movies over the years, you will see various things evolving, from the cinematography to the writing to the acting styles, but today we are going to focus on the combat. Even without CGI, fight scenes have improved a lot since they were first put into movies. The choreography and complexity of fight scenes has had to change to make the movies more interesting for viewers to watch, since they want something new and original. This video talking about the evolution of fight scenes in the first few Bourne movies is a great example, but you can see this sort of behaviour in films as they come up with new ways to do fights like the wire-fu martial arts. However, a lot of Gamemasters don’t seem to take this lesson to heart when looking at the games they run, as combat is just a ‘here’s some people, fight them’. That may work in a JRPG with their ‘paused combat zone’ side screen command driven fights, but tabletop has so many more options that it can use to make challenges more than just a flat battle terrain.
For example, a fight where the room becomes submerged in water as we see here in this video from Kingsman would include mobility issues and oxygen deprivation so the players would have to conserve their motion to keep from drowning. Another fight with an interesting environment is the droid factory fight in Star Wars Attack of the Clones, as the whole area is chaotic as it is a moving, dangerous place where anything can kill you. These can help make environmental effects in a room be impactful on the combat, either as making it hard to move or plan or by distancing everyone from each other. Perhaps the characters are fighting in knee deep water so their movement is now slowed, or they are fighting in a fog so they cannot see very clearly. Or they are fighting in the dark of a storm with the only source of light is the occasional lightning flash that comes every so often.
Other ways we can make the environment more interesting is to include props to have players and the NPCs interact with, such as this Rumble in the Bronx fight scene, very much like Jason Statham style fights as seen in this compilation. A more artistic version of how the environment can be used to affect combat can be seem on this episode of Samurai Jack of Jack versus the Shinobi, or this version of the standard fighting on bamboo forest as seen in Teen Titans episode “The Quest”. This sort of tactic is usable in any combat, just needs some pre-planning by adding some ruined walls for players to climb like in Shadows of Mordor as they hide behind or climb to get tactical advantage. Add some collapsed tunnels to separate PCs if fighting in a bad area. Lava geysers or water geysers can be other ways to adjust combat so that it is not just charge in and fight like normal. Broken bits of stone can be used as improvised weapons for wizards to fling or strong characters to throw.
Sometimes having multiple and opposing tasks could help. Do you stay and fight and waste time or get to a specific destination. Young Justice has an episode where Kid Flash has to deliver a heart cross country in a short time to make sure it can be used to heal a dying child. He wants to fight and be a hero, but he has mission goals to get there as fast as possible, so he needs to decide can he stop and help people, can he fight any bad guys he comes across in his way or he could arrive too late for the heart to be any good. You could have to keep an important figure alive while fighting through an area as well. You could have to do like in multiplayer games like Overwatch, where you have to get a payload to a specific location and people are trying to stop you (or stop people from getting a payload to an area). There is also holding specific locations King of the Hill style as they are ritual sources that need to be activated in a certain order while the opposition is trying to keep them from completing the ritual.
Any foes with some intelligence could take advantage of the terrain issues, hiding in ambush, using the terrain to dig pits and other such traps and try and maneuver the players to fall into the traps location. Terrain bottlenecks, like having a narrow pass through one or two squares would be perfect as they can pepper those squares since they know where the players are going to be running to. Games like Trapper’s Delight and Sang Froid are perfect examples of this.
The world itself can sometimes be a disadvantage if you start talking about things like wind. This does not usually become much of an issue unless the wind is really high However, anyone who plays games like Scorched Earth or the more modern Shellshocked, they can see exactly how a decent change of wind can affect an attack due to deflecting the shot from wind. There are charts like this one that will give you some effects of weather that could be integrated into games. Another site here is some ways that you could use the integration of elements into your world.
Basically, the key point here to remember is that the enemies in a combat are only one part of it. The terrain can be useful in many ways, from providing hiding spaces and weaponry to ways to get to new combat opponents like with a Shadow of the Colossus climbing style terrain. You could have elements of nature play a play like wind, water, fire or other things set up as hazards to encounter. Maybe the fight takes place on spiderwebs over a multiple story drop and you need to be careful not to break the strands or you could fall. Even if your opponent is not smart enough to put terrain traps in your way, there are times that the terrain should be challenging, such as being attacked while climbing, as seen in this D&D Crafts video. Just take a look at some of the ideas presented in this post for some more ideas using the same methods talked about here to help make combat fun.