Designing a Street Fight

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 15 April 2010

When I design encounters, both story and tactics come into play pretty heavily. Since I'm running a homebrew campaign right now, the base layer is always the story. Where do I think it's going? Who might have issues with the PCs actions? For instance, last night's encounter involved a street fight between the PCs and henchmen of a man in town by the name of Robert. Their recent activities have put Robert's plans in jeopardy and he told his men to be on the look out for the group. Since I knew that my group would be shopping, having the encounter occur near the shops made sense both in game management terms, only one map was needed, and in story terms, a back alley behind a bar and shops seems the perfect locale.

When picking the monsters, I try to visualize the scene. For last night's encounter, I also had 2 new players new to town. I figured a few medium level henchmen might approach them and attempt to recruit them to Robert's side. For this, I picked the King's Sword fighters. Figuring that was a good start, my next thought was that the would probably have some lower level guys there as additional muscle to help the process along. A few minions coming in from the outer fringes of the map sounded like a good idea so I chose some human thugs. Wanting someone who was a bit more of a leader, I then chose Rolf the Butcher as the boss. I figured that the swords and the thugs would be able to help give him and each other combat advantage during the fight. Worried that this group would be ineffective against our swordmage and to give our psion some of his favorite enemies, I added a human hexer into the mix. Finally, I added a few archer minions to the roof tops as further support. I won't lie, running this many different monsters is difficult. However, I knew that there were going to be some new people in our game and I wanted to provide a bunch of different monster types to make for a challenging, potentially scary, but winnable encounter.

With the monsters chosen, it was time to draw the map. From my story, I knew some things that would have to be there, a bar, some shops, an alley way and from my monsters, I knew that I needed a place for the archers and entry points for the monsters that would show up in later rounds. Once I added those elements to the map, I started thinking about things my players might want to do. For instance, I could totally see our halfling rogue wanting to go up to the archers and take them out. So I added some crates to make it possible for him to pull an acrobatics stunt to do that.

So there you have it, how I went about designing a street fight scene. I know there is a ton more that I could have done but I think it came out pretty well for the time I had to spend on it. How do you guys do it?


The final three encounters of my current adventure all occur in town - the party is trying to stop a hobgoblin raid. I've gone a bit overboard and purchased a bunch of 3d cardstock buildings and have been busily cutting and gluing all week. It really helps bring home the claustrophobic, 10-15' wide alleys and streets that the fights are going to take place on. Line-of-sight and line-of-effect issues become literal. The buildings have balconies, roofs, windows and other such rogue-attracting elements. It's going to be cool to actually put that mini on the balcony 8" above the grid!

The buildings can be found at

Street fights are interesting because they are usually the most three-dimensional fights to have. In a dungeon fight, the 3d elements can seem gimmicky or grafter on, but on a street, they're very natural.

The most important thing I've found is that players need a lot of urgency and direction. If they need to get past the bad guys, then they need to deal with all the dangerous parts of the city. If they're on the defensive or can be patient, all the things that make a street fight dangerous get turned on their head as the players fall back and use the terrain to their best defense, and at that point they will absolutely MURDER anyone you throw at them. With that in mind, a few other tidbits:

* Figure out the Athletics and Acrobatics DCs for things before hand. Also refresh your memory of how stealth works with line of sight. Rogues are given to using these rules to do "pop up" attacks from behind cover without fear of counterattack.

* Huge enemies (like giants, the kind who can reach rooftops and roads equally well) are surprisingly fun (and dangerous) on city streets. They have fewer options to maneuver, but they also are much harder to maneuver around.

* Enemies who can hover are pretty nasty most of the time, but in a city fight, there are more dramatic ways to engage them. It's totally worth using such enemies if only to force one of your players to try to jump off a building and land on one.

* Adding civilians can add a LOT to a fight, especially if the enemy is indifferent to their fate. They introduce tactical challenges, hard choices and opportunities for heroics.

-Rob D.

I'm a fan of any encounter that takes place outside of a dungeon, so major kudos already. It seems like your planning process was good and sound, and I hope everyone had a blast!

Love that you set up the terrain for your rogue. How about street stall that can be tipped over to create cover and/or difficult terrain? A small bridge between buildings that requires and acrobatics check? Perhaps the archers have single use combustibles for when the PCs cluster?

I don't know if any of these are useful, and as I say I think the encounter is great already anyways. Have fun!

Good mix of foes you've got there. I'm a huge fan of archer minions too :D

You might want to watch those King's Swords - their King's Blade could harm their allies as much as it can the heroes. A cunning PC could capitalize on that and use tactics & Powers to make sure the King's Swords keep being pushed or slid next to Rolf. The image of him being "accidentally" hit by one of his own men is too good to ignore.

Me, I'd replace the Human Thugs with a load of Starved Dogs. They're easier to run (no Mob Rule to have to remember) and help break up the human-centricness (is that a word?) of the encounter. Maybe the King's Swords are their handlers and release their leashes in the first round. Just a thought.

Thanks for all the great comments! It's a bit selfish, but this really helps me as I don't have a bunch of DM friends in real life to brainstorm with. Every time one of you mentions an "and then," I get totally pumped. So keep them coming!

@Dave, that sounds really cool. I want to get more 3D into my games but I don't have the budget, yet, for Dwarven Forge. I was hoping that my lincoln logs might work, but finding flat surfaces is a little hard. I hope to run some special sessions or one shots soon where I can use card stock buildings or some of the cheaper 3D alternatives available.

@Rob, those are a ton of awesome ideas and I'm going to steal them. I'm really looking forward to the party's trip to Andernach. For that city, I'm using the Hammerfast map and a bit of the fluff from it, so I don't have to do as much baseline prep and I'll have more time to work on scene feel.

@esspkay, I like the single use combustibles. The clockwork bomb is a nice possibility especially if I modify it a bit so that the groups can throw it back and forth at each other. Not sure how that would play out at the table, but it could be fun. We haven't done a lot of dungeons since my players miss games pretty frequently. So most things have been above ground.

@greywulf I love dogs! Actually, our halfling rogue has a dog. In the very first encounter I designed, we had ravenous attack dogs. One of them got away and the party went off to find it. After they took care of the dog's owners, he adopted the dog as his pet. I haven't made it a companion character, partly at the request of the player since he doesn't want the dog to get harmed. But I know he's been practicing some tricks with the dog and he sometimes performs acrobatic feats with it. I also love incidental damage. I incorporated the dungeon delve with the feymire crocodile into the campaign. The group pushed one of the other creatures into the water and the crocodile struck. They had a good time, I had a good time, and they learned not to go into the water. :-) At least two of the PCs have the dominate power as well and they love turning the big bad guy against the squish caster.

I like the fact that you are thinking about your party specifically when designing the encounter.. I tend to make my encounters more generic, suitable for uploading to your dungeon delve entries, or such, but I think I may go back an add some specifics for my parties... things like makign cultists specifically the opposite to the priest or paly's diety or as you said, finding enemies that certain classes despise or even have a tough time with... I have to agree with greywulf - something non-human might be good here... and the other possibility (maybe as a back up plan if the PCs go defensive on you and you can't get at 'em) is to have the hexer summon something like an imp or low level elemental to get behind the PCs or drop down from above them.... but, I really like getting a look into the minds of other DMs and gamers and keep up the great work!! (p.s. NewbieDM's link to your site, and then your site's link to "In the Eye of the Beholder's Site" has made my web surfing 200% better!) - Josh

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