Originally posted on September 8, 2009.
There are some patterns I tend to see in RPG combat, particularly regarding enemy behavior. In fact, it seems like most GMs are following a simple algorithm: “If the PCs know about the enemies, the enemies make the PCs come to them. If the PCs don’t know about the enemies, the enemies come to them when they least expect it.” But rarely do I see a situation in which the PCs are allowed to choose their battleground, shape it to their advantage, and then utilize that in a battle. Why not?
One, many systems just aren’t designed to encourage that. Take Dungeons and Dragons: random monsters pop out at you from seemingly nowhere, environmental hazards seem to be designed to make life as difficult for the PCs as possible, and making traps that actually work when you didn’t prepare explosive runes this morning is a bit tricky—and environmental factors throwing the CR of the encounter off six ways from Wednesday doesn’t exactly help matters. Or Exalted—whoever has their scenelongs up first usually wins, and how’s it a challenge if the first ones with the scenelongs are the PCs?
Two, it can be a drain on the GM; she has to figure out what kinds of resources the players are likely to get use out of and whether they’re available (this includes both materials and information), make sense of why the enemy is letting the PCs choose the battleground in the first place (not always easy), ad-hoc the mechanical effect of the various preparations, and deal with the fact that a really clever group of players might be able to turn a challenging battle into a cakewalk if they have the right resources. Even one of these can be a bit of a challenge, but multiples can get downright ridiculous.
Three, it requires the PCs to be both willing and able to work with a scenario like that. Some people don’t like those kinds of fights; their idea of a plan against a foe, regardless of who has home court advantage, is “hit it until it stops moving”, or at least “using basic tactics, maneuver into position and THEN hit it until it stops moving”. Others are good with obvious materials and what’s on their character sheet, but have a little more trouble utilizing the environment; they might think of deadfall traps and loads of caltrops, but not necessarily realize that the freestanding mirror in the far corner can be used to blind the incoming foe or that the morning glories on the wall would make excellent tripwires.
But when letting the players choose their battleground works, it works spectacularly. For players who aren’t too fond of the risk factor or would rather win by cunning than by random chance, particularly the armchair tacticians, it provides a chance to do so. For the GM, it’s a chance to sit back and let someone else figure out all the nitty-gritty of the terrain—and hey, the players might come up with a trick she didn’t know yet. And when the plan is mostly but not entirely complete, throwing a wrench in the works, like the undead abominations coming from an unexpected direction or a third party blundering into the setup at the wrong moment, can require the kind of seat-of-the-pants improvisation the more reaction-forcing situations bring forth without completely invalidating the plan.
So try to set up a situation in which the players have home court and can use it, and see what happens. Who knows? You might see something new.