The Architect DM: Give It Some Height

I’m going to clue you guys in to a nifty little secret that I’ve been using for a while now in my RPG encounters – adding height to a tabletop RPG can be one of the best ways to invigorate your encounters. You must be careful, because using something like height in your game can become something of a gimmick or a trick and if overused could become predictable or boring to your players. However, when applied correctly and in the right amount height and depth can create some of the most memorable moments of your game and can also help enforce or dissuade certain styles of play.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of play in tabletop RPGs like D&D takes place in two dimensions, the table or map you’re playing on is a flat surface and even in non-miniature based RPGs I am willing to bet the majority of encounters are mostly flat as well because it’s a heck of a lot easier for the GM to manage things on a single level. If you’re lucky enough to have a GM that often runs things on different levels (height above/below the standard floor of the environment), then consider yourself lucky but even then I still believe the majority of the action is taking place on one surface while there might be some very minor action going on above or below. No matter how your DM or GM runs things, players tend to remember that one encounter that was really cool when the party was split evenly between a balcony and the room below with adversaries to fight and puzzles to interact with on both levels.

Height as a Gimmick

I said early to avoid overusing the idea of height in your encounters, but that just means you should really enjoy using it to the extreme when you can! For instance, the picture above is of an adventure in my ongoing D&D campaign that I ran in August 2010 just after GenCon with many of my regular players and Jared Hindman as our house guest and very welcome jump-in player. For this adventure I took the opportunity of the party facing growing elemental threats and my house’s tendency to collect old soda boxes to throw four huge columns of earth that extended a hundred or more feet upwards into the encounter. Naturally, the fight started out quite normal so that the players were even more surprised when suddenly one or two of them ended up stranded on a tall plinth of rock and facing earth elementals and most terrifying of all an catastrophic earthquake dragon that wasn’t impeded by the height difference.

This encounter often comes up when I talk to my players about what they remember and enjoy about my campaign, and I believe the reason for that is because it is one of the few adventures where I took the normally flat square play space and surprised them by turning it into a cube of playing space. While this is certainly a gimmick or a trick that I would hesitate before re-using, it also served as an excellent way to scare the players, make them worry about their characters more, and to give them a more clear idea of how powerful the enemies they were dealing with had become. The downside is that I most likely produced even more paranoia in some of my players that are already exceedingly set in their paranoid RPG playing ways. Now they are probably worried about drinking too much soda lest the boxes become important terrain again!

Three Dimensions can be Encouraging (and Painful)

I’m writing an entire post about height in Roleplaying Games because it is often unconsciously associated with danger for humans. When you put a cliff, pit, or tower onto a game board the first thing most players think of is either falling off of it or throwing someone else off. In this way most published adventures and DMs use height in the majority of their games without even realizing what they’re doing. One of the primal and core experiences in many D&D games I have played in has been a character deciding whether or not to risk making a jump across a chasm. I also imagine there is no shortage of RPG characters lost to gratuitously long falls (or, rather, the sudden stop at the bottom). Hell, in games like D&D I’m sure many DMs have used the “infinite falling” trick to free more than a few PCs of the burden of dying upon impact (yea, thanks…you’re so nice, my next character is going to be min/maxed to hell as payback).

One of the primary reasons I believe height is under-used in RPGs, especially those that use battle mats / miniatures, is because it becomes quite difficult to keep track of specifics when you begin to overlap elements especially when it comes to messy affairs such as combat. Specifically with miniatures, it is a hassle to worry about positioning when more than one or two individuals start flying or taking to balconies. Running and playing in a game can be confusing enough without having to figure out who is one which level and as a result who can or can’t see the people they’re trying to interact with. All of this led me to a surprise discovery two years ago in the early adventures of my current campaign – height can be an excellent tool at encouraging stealth and intrigue in your game.

Solid Snake & Batman: Your Players Want to be Them

If you want your players to sneak around, stay out of sight, or otherwise follow any kind of stealthy game play then height can be one of your best friends. Balconies might allow bad guys to get a good view of a larger space, but they also invariably create several blind spots (especially if the DM handily designs it that way). Have a balcony run all the way around the room, but with an overhang so that characters can hide beneath it. This means that they don’t have to worry about any guards above except maybe with noise, but they will have to be very careful about any guards across the room on the balcony or guards on the lower level. In this way you’ve simultaneously created a sense of safety and a focused sense of danger that I feel greatly contributes to the stealth style of RPG play.

Along the same lines, height in a location’s design can allow players to discover extremely effective short cuts or to overhear choice conversations from relative safety, both of which add to the stealth and intrigue style of game play. Effectively you’re taking the down sides of having height in a location and turning them into the features of the game and allowing the players to revel in exploiting the environment. Above most other things, I strongly encourage you to let your players toy with the concept of height in your adventures and not simply use it against them. Encourage and allow players to climb, jump, swing, and sneak to their hearts content instead of simply using height as an impassable obstacle, everyone around the table will enjoy it more!

A Valuable Ally, but a Powerful Enemy

Be sure that as the DM you keep all of these ideas in mind when it comes time to turn them back on the players. It’s extremely fun to have a choice NPC overhear the characters planning or have an enemy sneak up on them much the same way they tried to sneak up on someone else. The players enter the villains chamber after planning for several minutes only to find him quite prepared for them, and when they ask why, the villain simply quips, “Perhaps you should check to see if the clerestory windows are open before discussing your plans right outside of my throne room.”

I suppose this post is a partial follow up, or at least in the same vein as my Give It Some Structure post, in that I focus on one generic idea that can be added to your locations to enrich your games. If you happen to think of any other ideas along the same lines, or have questions about them, please either comment here, e-mail me, or use twitter however it is meant to be used! I’d also like to point out an example I’m sure some of you were thinking of before finishing this post, Gabe from Penny Arcade proved how valuable height can be in RPGs by applying his insanely creative mind to D&D adventure design not just for the Elemental Chaos (Part 1 and Part 2) but also when he did a volcanic free-fall combat. This post has been brewing in the back of my mind for months now, and those two encounters he detailed definitely factored in to my thoughts on the subject.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.


  1. The unexpected height change is brilliant! Wish I had thought of it myself . . . though it is now stolen. :p

    I will confess that I both love and hate the third dimension. I love it for the variety it can bring to encounters but hate it for the complexity given the difficulty that often comes with tracking just where the heck everyone is. Gabe’s solution was excellent and I hope I someday have the commitment to pull it off myself — though I am far from handy. That being said, I have been using height more and more — only problem now is that my players are starting to expect it, so will have to back off on it for a bit. šŸ™‚

    Oh and Fanta? Really? :p

  2. Gargs: Steal away! That’s why I write these things in the first place. I wouldn’t be too concerned about backing down on using height, if your players are starting to expect it then it’s probably a good addition to the game so you should keep doing it. What I would suggest is analyzing what aspects of it become difficult for you as the DM and avoid and mitigate those as much as possible. If having pieces above/below other pieces is tough, then use height but don’t allow people to be above/below, like with the soda boxes it was a nice and clean height change because characters couldn’t get below the squares that were up in the air. If things like line of sight are a big issue, then make an agreement with the players that you’ll eyeball things a bit more in the effort of not getting bogged down in the specifics – or just always say yes but if it’s a situation where they probably can’t see someone or it would be tough, apply cover/total cover so they still get to roll a die but the -2/-5 will make it clear they’re trying something difficult. If they get lucky, more fun for everyone!

    What’s wrong with Fanta? We try to get a variety of soda so that usually pops in there.

  3. I started experimenting with using 3D aspects in my games when I was running Gamma World earlier this year, and in this season of D&D Encounters as well. As soon as I added walls and roofs to the street map in Session 3, and the Armory in Session 9, the group started thinking about things differently. In Session 3, the Eladrin Mage fey-stepped up onto a roof to stay out of the melee. I don’t think he would have considered that as readily had I left the map flat.

    I’ve advanced things a lot further since then. If you’re interested, check out my blog.

  4. Bartoneous: Nothing really wrong with Fanta per se, just have a hard time even finding it around here — guess the orange sodas are not as popular here.

    Anyway, I was more referring to I think some of my encounters were getting a bit predictable is all, so I’ll be shying away from that aspect of the verticality. The soda boxes though do really help me cement the idea I had for my end of paragon encounter — I plan to have a primordial emerge that starts messing with the terrain more or less at will. Creating huge pillars of earth should make for a nice twist to the encounter, especially when the ranger has los blocked, or the paladin suddenly finds himself 100 feet above the battle, etc.

    Where I do have trouble is with the flying or free falling scenarios. I love the idea, but it does tend to get messy. Your advice though should help out with that quite a bit. Thanks!

  5. Add me to the queue of people waiting to steal the shifting elevation trick. It looks like it made for a very crazy and entertaining combat.

    I completely agree about adding cover and elevations to promote sneakiness. I started adding those things in when my players went looking for them (so for me it was player driven rather than DM driven – but I’m lucky enough to have a group of stealth minded players). After a while I just started putting them in (as well as sources of light and shadow), since I knew that would be the first thing the party looked for. I can say that adding those elements to the game allowed for some of the most memorable encounters and party planning sessions in the campaign.