Deathmatch Design: Terrain Power Complexity

This post is the first in an ongoing series where I will share some tips, tricks, and insider secrets into building a killer D&D Deathmatch map. I'll be going through the past, present, and future: showing you where we have fumbled with bad design, what we are doing now that works, and some insights into future maps and D&D Deathmatch in general.

D&D Deathmatch is an ever-evolving medium, and is constantly looking for new ways to stretch the boundaries of the game's realities. This advise is not law. If you've got a good design, don't be restricted by what we say here.

Lastly, these discussions, while drawing on the information gained through the Play-by-Post matches, will not specifically address any issues brought up by that specific style of play.


There's a limit in Deathmatch map design in terms of terrain power complexity. D&D Deathmatch is a fast-paced, frantic rush of adrenaline. Having too many terrain powers, hazards, and other effects results in the them being ignored. Terrain powers serve to enhance the map and provide an interesting tactical advantage or unique experience. A good rule of thumb is that each map's terrain powers, not including easily printable and modular cards, should be able to fit on one side of an 8-1/2x11 sheet of paper at 12pt font. I've included a few examples below to illustrate some of the Terrain Powers sheets I've recently made for this month's Live Events.

These sheets are clear, easy to read, and feature a small complexity level that a typical D&D player can read it over once or twice and get the gist of everything. The terrain powers also try and be as intuitive as possible, allowing for mnemonic shortcuts during play. This rule of thumb has served me well, allowing me to create maps with multiple short terrain powers, as well as maps with a monolithic beast of an effect; but protects the dungeoneers from having to deal with the headache of both at once.

Going by this self-imposed rule, I've had to make some very hard decisions in E1M3. While many of the maps's powers I was able to keep under the guide of cards, tumblemines recently got the axe. Although I had a certain bit of nostalgia for that one, I'm looking forward to seeing a mean, lean E1M3 in action. I think the map will benefit from it in the long run.

Lastly, you'll notice that terrain powers tend to have only one or two die rolls, if any. The more die rolls that are needed for an event, the longer it takes. Rolling a few extra d20's may seem trivial at your usual gaming table, however literally every second counts at deathmatch. If the Dungeon Master needs to make an extra damage roll where a flat number would suffice, that is taking time away from the dungeoneers and slows the pace of the tournament.


During GenCon 2011, the Secret Map was revealed as E1M3: Tomb of the Iron Lich. One of its faults, and there were a few, was it's long laundry list of terrain powers. As designer, I was trying to cram half of a Paragon-tier adventure into a deathmatch map, when really I should have been looking at only one or two encounter's worth of effects at most. I was trying to create too literal of an interpretation of the source material, when I should have gone with a more gestalt approach. The terrain powers themselves were too punishing, as well, prompting the finalist teams to ask if they could ally against the Iron Golem instead of fighting among themselves.

Here's where good Fourthcore adventure design diverges sharply from good Fourthcore Deathmatch design. In an adventure, the designer has an implicit goal of making the dungeon deadly enough that the dungeoneers can never afford to think of turning on each other, they need to band together just to survive! In deathmatch, however, it's just the opposite. The terrain powers of a map should not be so brutal that the dungeoneers feel as though they are struggling against the map. The focus of D&D Deathmatch is killing thy fellow man in new and inventive ways, not on surviving the dungeon.


One of the ways I'd like to push the boundaries of D&D Deathmatch is not so much to stretch the upper limits, but to instead see how small we can get and explore a bit of a microcosm. Soon, I will post my newest map (E1M6: Dead Simple) which aims to feature the least possible number of terrain powers and the smallest possible map, while still being a functional and obscenely fun map.

I look forward to your comments, not just on this specific topic, but on any topics you'd like to see covered in subsequent Deathmatch Design posts.


  1. It is such a hard balance; as a designer I want to go absolutely bonkers with crazy effects that stretch the limit, but as experience is teaching us, keeping things simple keeps the pace rolling and the excitment high.

    I've scraped so many ideas for my next map simply because I can't seem to reconcile these two design goals.

    I'm intrigued and anxiously awaiting Dead Simple!

  2. I'd agree with this. With a map as complicated as E6M1, it's not too bad running via PbP, but in an actual tournament it would be exceptionally difficult to run (which is why there will be some edits incoming for that map).

    The Map needs to feel like a misstep could kill the PCs, but the PCs shouldn't need to feel that the map is trying to kill them.

    I'd also agree with the comment about rolling for terrain powers. I would argue that a good map shouldn't require any rolling on the part of the DM (except, possibly, on the DM's turn for certain random effects). Naturally, there will be some exceptions, but players are out to kill each other, not killed by the DM.