Do you have a party of player characters that hit a dungeon like a well-trained SWAT unit?
This is a party that moves through corridors and chambers like a well-oiled machine, muscling past lesser challenges and traps with speed and efficiency. These folk blow down doors and don’t stop to loot the place until the big bad is dispatched.
While that level of competency is to be encouraged and applauded, a good GM shouldÂ prepare a counter to this tactic if there is a story need to slow down or stall the party’s advance.
Consider an assault on their senses.
Bright lights, big city
Hit the players with bright lights, which either blinds them (even temporarily) or otherwise obscures their vision.
One good tactic is to have an opposing force carry bullseye lanterns. The lanterns’ bright light, contrasting with the ever-present dark of a dungeon, can be blinding. And even if it isn’t debilitating – in game terms, anyway – it should be able to obscure the nature of the advancing force. Ever try to make out details of a person walking toward you with a flashlight? It’s much the same thing.
Flares or torches that emit light of a specific color can also be useful. It’s a means of camouflage.Â A room bathedÂ in red or green light may make it difficult to perceive opponents that blend into that part of the color spectrum. A gung-ho party might run past assassins hiding this way, and be susceptible to a sneak attack.
Likewise, flashing strobes and a light reflected off a spinning mirror ball (or a dancing lights spell)Â canÂ be disorienting. Ever tried to make out faces on a dance floor? It can be like that.
Don’t overlook the possibility thatÂ the casting of light-generating spells by allies and enemies alike might have a debilitating effect. The wizard’sÂ flaming sphere cast in a dark room produces bright light that might forceÂ other PCs to shield their eyes. Perhaps the GM may require PCs in the vicinity of a lightning boltÂ to cope with the after image of the flash. There would be spots in the eyes, at least.
I’m particularly fond of the power of divine light to inflict damage. The cleric whose holy symbol emits a sacred flame can inflict radiant damage.
Sound and fury
Don’t overlook the impact noise can have on combatants. Even those groups trying to fight stealthily might be surprised how much noise they are making even incidentally. A chair knocked over, the scraping of an old door or screech of rusty hinges can alert defenders of a party’s approach.
Better yet, though, are things that go boom! While it is true Hollywood movies overstate some sounds for dramatic effect (clashing swords don’t have that clear ringing sound and Indiana Jones’ Navy revolver doesn’t sound like a shotgun blast when fired, for instance), other elements in a the party’s arsenal are potentially deafening. Combustible alchemical bombs and thunderstones, for instance, add more than a little pop.
And don’t forget the noise some of the monsters are likely making. The big ones, especially, must howl, roar or growl to tremendous effect.
And sounds seem all the more jarring when they break a longstanding silence.
Unleashing those sounds, if they don’t outright deafen some party members – making verbal communication impossible – it might leave them stunned and otherwise unable to speak or move from the shock.
Consider: Does a wizard’s force spells (such as magic missile) make the piercing noise of a “Star Wars” blaster when unleashed? Is the aforementioned lightning bolt followed by a crack of thunder? Does the air crackle with electricity when shocking grasp is called forth? Does a spiritual weaponÂ appear accompanied by soaring chorusÂ of angels?
Those are just a few suggestions on how a fantasy battlefield might raise the decibel level. And if you have any doubt that noise can create confusion or hinder communication, try talking on a cellphone (or the person next to you, for that matter) during a programmed fireworks display.
So, don’t be afraid to unleash your descriptions of special effects, whether they be sights or sounds. It might be just the thing to put a confident party on its heels – and make an otherwise ordinary clash with bugbears memorable.