This has happened often enough: The adventurers breach the door. The hulking whatever (it never really matters, does it?) sitting around in the room bellows, and charges the first poor fool who sticks his head in, and the whole encounter is fought out inside a doorway.

In my experience, this was a common failure mode for 4e fights, but I’ve seen it in zone-based systems as well (namely: my own). Getting bogged down into a state where there’s a whole map and nobody’s using it because everyone’s trapped in a bottleneck is not fun.

How do we avoid this? The trite answer is “don’t draw bottlenecks” and while it’s not wrong, I think it’s incomplete. For starters, sometimes holding a choke point can be tactically useful, or dramatic, or whatever you’re aiming for. It’s a problem not when it’s there, but when there’s really nowhere else.

Here are some things that I think might help combat map design:

  1. Prep maps ahead of time. This is straightforward if you’re working from pre-written material, but I tend to work by the seat of my pants, and so when combat begins I start free-handing the space on a whiteboard. It would be a better idea to think about the kind of areas that we’re going to be exploring in a given session, and imagine what kinds of spaces might get involved in a fight, then work out a basic map up front, and then tweak it to fit the situation if a fight actually starts.
    What this solves: Being put on the spot and having to put something out there, then discovering that it’s not working like you envisioned.
  2. Center the map on the action. If the players start in one corner, and the monsters start right up the hall, or just inside the door, then the action is never going to leave that corner of the map. Instead, bring the starting positions well inside the map – either starting all the actors in the center, or having the middle of the map be the middle ground between their positions.
    What this solves: Being in the middle frees up options (advance, retreat, circle around), which means it gives players more chances to make decisions, which means it’s more engaging to play. Practically speaking, being at the edge of the map leaves you with nowhere to go – either because in the fiction there’s nowhere else, or as an item of play it would involve shifting a lot of stuff around and redrawing to fit the new area in, which slows play.
  3. Give the actors room to fall back. A corollary to item 1, and a useful way to make the fight more dynamic, a side in a fight with a way to fall back can always find a reason to fall back, and now the other side has to respond to a change in a tactical situation. Fun!
    What this solves: When the decision to fall back is available to all the parties in a fight, it means one side can take advantage of it, and force the other to start moving as well. This gives you options as a GM and as a player. It’s much easier to force your enemy to follow you than it is to drive them before you.
  4. Put interesting things in zones. It doesn’t have to be every zone, and it doesn’t have to be every fight, and you don’t have to design clever mechanics for each possible thing. Even if a game doesn’t have aspects, Fate gives the right advice: describe enough of what’s in any given space for the players to interact with, and make interacting with the environment a viable option for expending part of a character’s action economy.
    What this solves: Mix up a hit-hit-hit slog with reasons to move someplace, reasons to stay someplace, and reasons to make actions other than attack rolls (preferably without punishing that decision).
  5. Put interesting relationships between zones. Getting up the slope requires a check, or a full action. In a castle, being on the stairs above the enemy puts the defender at an advantage. From a hilltop, you can fire down more effectively on the monsters as they advance.
    What this solves: Another incentive to force movement, but that works mostly to the advantage of anyone with a ranged attack (unless a zone makes for a good defensive position). This is another way of motivating combatants to move to and contest important ground.

Let’s imagine that I bothered to fish through Art of War to find some clever quote (see: stapling self to greatness); there are plenty that apply.

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