Where to Begin: the Art of the Lead-In

This is a quick idea I’ve used before and wish I used almost every combat. Now, some combats might need to be strict set pieces, especially those with adventure villains, and that’s okay, but sometimes, as a player, I’ve felt like the beginning of a battle is washed over or even arbitrary. I’m calling the idea the Lead-In.

Some published skill challenges suggest adding monsters to an upcoming battle for failure, some might even suggest reducing monsters for success. These aren’t bad ideas, but also consider allowing the characters to simply get the jump on the enemies off the bat, or having less than ideal positions when they do get to the skirmish.

The Lead-In doesn’t have to be a whole skill challenge, it can be a single skill check or group check. Whether the players are being cautious with stealth or bombastic by kicking in the door, each might provide them with a tactic that can easily be translated into a nice little cookie to give to the players to keep them invested and engrossed.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Provide a situation, challenge or opportunity for the characters that could affect an upcoming battle
  2. Keep your eyes and ears open for when players attempt to make opportunities for themselves and ride with their ideas (nothing makes a player feel better than suggesting an idea that the DM endorses)
  3. Simply come up with an appropriate skill check that makes sense for the opportunity and have the player(s) roll it
  4. If the player succeeds on the Easy DC, everything begins per normal. If they hit the Moderate DC, provide them with a small bonus, and if they hit the Hard DC provide them with a significant bonus. Leave failures out of this or keep them in more fleshed out skill challenges, there’s no need to dock your players for a little ingenuity
  5. Keep trying out new Lead-Ins before battle to stir up the creativity and get the players reved up to extend their abilities past what’s written in the Rules Compendium.

Sample Lead-In: Starting Position

Much like the surprise round, a Starting Position Lead-In can provide an advantage in terms of placement and tactics for a group who is good at sneaking, detecting or those strong on their feet. In your module or your notes, determine the starting position by picking a square at a distance from the enemies, usually between 5 and 10 squares away is typical. Set up the situation or opportunity, have the appropriate characters make their checks and then provide them with leeway on that position depending on their checks.

Skill Check:

Easy DC: Burst 1 from starting position square
Moderate DC: Burst 2 from starting position square
Hard DC: Burst 3 (or 4 or 5 for large maps) from starting position square

Skills to consider:

Perception: The players are exploring a dark and open cavern when the twittering of cave spiders begin to surround them beyond the reach of their light sources. Waiting for the right moment to pounce, the creatures are nearly silent in their movement to perfect striking positions, but your heroes are no fools and came to this dungeon just as skilled.

Stealth: The adventurers just cut down an orc search party outside of their camp where they’re to rescue a kidnapped noble. They may not be able to infiltrate the entire site to get to the target and get out, but they can at least get a jump on the first few guards at the watch points. It’s really a matter of how much distance they can close before they’re spotted.

Acrobatics: The mountain pass that leads to the ogre clan is known for being watched over by a den of wolves. It’s the gravel and rocky terrain of the area that give those wolves such an advantage over wandering prey. When the wolves finally howl out and set upon them, can the adventurers make use of the craggy rubble beneath their feet to hold up against the assault?

Where to put the players at the beginning of combat has always been one of the last things I prepare and it deserves a little more attention. Where you begin can really steer a battle, and since I don’t like to tell my players their exact positions after the map has been drawn I’ve found it’s better to just choose a square and tell them they can start in a burst 1 from that square. This gives them the choice of whether to be back, front, a little to the side or right in the middle. With the Starting Position Lead-In, you can take this one step further and offer the group an often missed opportunity to not only make good use of their skills, but make them feel more heroic when they gain a decent advantage over their enemies every once in a while.

At the root of it, Lead-Ins are like a supplement to initiative checks. Where initiative often feels like nothing more than a d20 roll to determine a rather abstract system for the order combatants take to wail on each other, Lead-Ins can provide a customized opportunity for advantage making each combat encounter a more memorable and rewarding experience.

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