Using battlefields as adventure sites

This battlefield at Hastings, England saw the success of William the Conqueror, one of history’s pivotal moments. As a result, it’s much more than a grassy field – and battlefields in your D&D campaign can have the same significance.

When visiting a battlefield, a person is likely to feel a range of sensations and emotions. There is an almost mystical quality to the way battlefields seem to be peaceful, overwhelmingly silent, sad and even unsettling all at once. Given the other-worldly, magical and supernatural forces brought to bear during a battle in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, one might imagine that battlefields in a fantasy setting would inspire the same emotional responses we feel – albeit at a higher level – in addition to other responses connected with the realities of those settings, such as the fact that undead in a D&D world are real. Battlefields are emotionally charged settings that can be pregnant with malice, making them ideal adventure sites.

Before using a battlefield as an adventure site…

There are two basic tasks the dungeon master (DM) needs to complete before using a battlefield in a D&D game. The first is to ensure that the heroes have an idea of what happened at the battlefield and why the battle happened. This task can be accomplished through referencing the site in a player handout detailing campaign setting, having a the battle play a role in a player character’s (PC’s) personal background, or having the heroes hear bards and minstrels sing of legends or prophecies related to the site. If the heroes don’t know what happened at a battlefield, it becomes an inexplicably creepy field, and much of the emotional impact of the site is lost.

The second task before the DM is place customs or circumstances in the game that reflect the special nature of the battlefield, to reinforce the significance of the site to the players. Perhaps magic unleashed during the battle was so strong that natural wildlife won’t enter the place; perhaps the battlefield was a fertile plain, but crops won’t grow there anymore, or maybe locals won’t till the land out of reverence or fear; area residents old enough to remember the battle may tell stories of its heroes, or may display relics from the fight; and roads or trade routes may intentionally circumvent the site.

When the heroes arrive…

Imagine that a battlefield is somewhat like a non-player character (NPC). By making sure that players know a battlefield’s history and placing customs and circumstances that show how the battlefield impacts the surrounding area, the DM has set the stage for the appearance of this “character.” Should the DM describe nothing but a grassy plain before the heroes, the dramatic tension built up thus far is lost. The DM needs to ensure that the atmosphere builds upon the awe, apprehension and/or uneasiness the players may be feeling.

The key to doing this lies in describing details vividly, with lots of metaphors related to cold, death, dying, courage and fear. It helps to write a paragraph or two of read-aloud text for when the heroes first arrive, along with a few short descriptions of battlefield features that the heroes are likely to explore. Presenting the information in this manner is more effective than writing out a page-long narrative of the battlefield, which can bore players and ruin the atmosphere the DM is building.

Just as it is for a full-fledged character, appearance is an important distinction for a battlefield. While historical battles were usually fought on open plains, a DM can employ a great deal of creative license with what constitutes such a site. Cities, farms, caves or dungeon complexes are viable battlefields in a D&D game.

Most battlefields will feature archeological evidence, like half-buried armor and weapons, or perhaps the remains of the combatants. Others may include fantastic features, extant before the fight or created during the battle. Still more might bear the imprint of people’s actions after the battle, like mass graves or pyres, construction of nearby cemeteries, or monuments and shrines built to honor the fallen; spells or rituals may be woven over the site to ensure that the dead of the battlefield stay dead, instead of animating as undead horrors.

What dangers still lurk on the battlefield?

The most commonly expected foe at a place where many died would be undead. Of course, these undead may not be immediately dangerous to the heroes. Perhaps the spirit of a slain combatant(s) cannot go on to the next world until some task is performed, such as purifying a site profaned by invaders; in such a case, the heroes may face a skill challenge to learn what the spirit needs without fighting it. Other undead may present a mindless threat to any visitor, while still more may want to reanimate the defeated side to renew the battle.

If the battle was fought recently, heroes will encounter an array of scavenger beasts, ranging from normal birds and rodents to giant centipedes and scorpions, carrion crawlers or ghouls.

Lastly, the heroes may meet scholars, looters or treasure hunters with their own goals, which may or may not be in opposition to those of the heroes.

Battlefield adventure hooks

There are numerous ways a DM may use a battlefield in a D&D adventure, such as:

  • Just passing through. The battlefield may be cursed or be the known lair of powerful undead who don’t want to be disturbed. If the adventure requires the heroes to cross the site, those undead must be negotiated with or overcome.
  • Battlefield leading to a new quest. Imagine a battlefield, on which a shrine was built to honor the dead; while it isn’t common knowledge, the shrine contained an artifact that powered an enchantment laid upon the site that prevented the dead from rising. If a scholar was to take the artifact for study, the enchantment would fail and the undead could rise and attack nearby towns. Heroes investigating the undead activity would learn – either from someone old enough to remember the artifact or from the undead themselves – that the item has been taken and must be returned in order to stop the attacks.
  • Recover a lost item. The battlefield may have been the last known location of an important item, such as a legendary weapon or lost battle standard; heroes searching the field will inevitably some in contact with denizens of the battlefield.
  • Raw materials. It’s an old adage that necromancers never waste anything. All those bones and rotting viscera found on a typical battlefield are a necromancer’s Lego set, and heroes investigating strange lights and sounds coming from the site are likely to find an undead army under construction. The heroes may even find an unlikely ally in the dead, who are opposed to their reanimation but powerless to stop it.

3 comments on “Using battlefields as adventure sites

  1. I once had wanted to have a character ‘mine’ the battlefields of a vast magical conflict that had ruined part of that campaign world. Unfortunately, the group broke up before the adventure really got going but it has great potential for an adventure setting.

  2. max.elliott says:

    I’d like to also add that “battles” are often a couple of weeks waiting about for an hour or two of bowel-empting terror to happen. So there’s plenty of time for any number of things to happen. A PC could encounter spy’s, raiding parties and scouts for one or both sides. There’s guards and pass-codes, and finding a friend in the camp to vouch for you. Battlefields also tend to spill out into the surrounding countryside and have all kinds of weird environmental impacts. Starving refugees, camp followers, third party factions on the fringes, black marketeers… it’s all fun.

    I actually read the article understood what Alric meant, but a live battlefield is great. There’s also some precedence for a FUTURE battlefield to be fun for adventurers. Prophesy, dreams, portents, time travellers missing their mark. You get the idea.

  3. […] Using battlefields as adventure sites I’ll admit that I’ve only been to one battlefield: Little Big Horn. While there, I was underwhelmed by the senses that I experienced since most of the battle took place away from where the tourist spot was at. While touring Europe in my youth, I did come across quite a few mass burial sites of various types (most of them from the Black Plague era) and the sensation of awe, wonder, respect, loss and grief that pervaded the area was incredible. In a fantasy setting, so much more can be found at ancient battlefields. Lost relics, undead (of course), ancient mysteries, magical items and so much more can be found littered about in the dirt. A GM of mine placed a large field of battle between us and our nearby goal at one point. I think we had more fun exploring the field of ancient dead (despite the constant harassment by the undead) than we did continuing on with our quest. Perhaps if we had made a promise or taken an oath to do otherwise…. […]

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