GM Musings: Places Remembered

This edition of DM Musings is a little different because it’s not about a D&D encounter I ran. It is about an encounter I played in, but I thought it exemplified a great premise for a fight. Josh ran the combat that I think was from the Marauders of the Dune Sea module, but he might have added it in himself. Either way, it introduced the simple plot device of having our party face a second encounter in a location we had already been. I had never experienced this in D&D, and I thought it brought out a new set of tactics that I really enjoyed.

After battling our way way through several rooms in a dungeon, we heard a commotion from a door that had  shut behind us a few encounters ago. We really took a beating in the last fight against some ghosts, and we opened the door thinking that there could be a potential ally on the other side (or as mentioned in the past, I just wanted to open every door). It was a competing group of adventurers — a group who felt we were standing in their way. We rolled initiative, and we weren’t ready for the pain they brought.

One of the mercenaries started the fight by striking me in the face with a giant club for something like 26 hit points. Then Josh admitted “yeah, she’s totally level 8.” But despite being outclassed, we had already been in this hallway. Through some tactical usage of our powers and knowing battlefield, we were able to defeat our rivals without a single one of us getting knocked on our ass.

This had me thinking that revisiting locations throughout an adventure, and even a campaign, might be an effective way to build encounters. On one hand, it can build confidence in the players who pay attention to their surroundings, and the players can form bonds with the locations. On the other hand, clever GMs will turn what the players think they know on its head. It would also excuse the DM for reusing the same maps over and over again.

Say the party has been through a room in the dungeon where there was a pit. They took advantage of the terrain and pushed most of the powerful enemies into the hazard, instead of the other way around as the DM planned. When they’re forced to return to the area for an encounter later in the game there could be a cave in. It would make for a trap, as well as changing the player’s expectations of the combat. At the same time, they’ll be familiar with other features of the room, creating a bond with the environment and still allowing for new layers of strategy.

There are a lot of possibilities for this idea, and it can work in any adventure. Maybe a party can be forced to defend the town square several times throughout a campaign, or maybe the lair of a slain dragon has been renovated by orcs. I don’t think this is something that can be overdone or the players will think they never went anywhere, but as a simple narrative device it could be very effective.

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