So in my adventure, it is possible that my players will travel down a river, on a raft. The river itself is haunted and they will come across enemies.

I already have ideas for some specific enemies that may attack them. Like skeletons on other rafts trying to attack them on their own rafts, or creatures from the water trying to reach the raft, etc.

Now, the big problem I have is: how to make such combat encounters fun? What I mean by that, is that the combat itself may get very stale and boring. The reason being that the PCs are stuck on a raft, in a very small space, they can't move a whole lot, they can't maneuver a lot, same for the enemies that may come on their raft, etc. Sounds like something that will get annoying.

Such concept may sound good in theory, as it would put stress on the players and all that. But in practice... not too sure!

At some point in the past, I had set up a combat encounter in a tight dungeon corridor. It was maybe three or four squares wide on the battlemap. Enemies came from the walls themselves.

When I designed it, I thought it was going to be interesting, but in fact, it ended up being the MOST ANNOYING AND BORING encounter I had ever designed! Everyone was bored, myself included.

So, does anyone have any idea for how to make river combat encounters interesting and fun? Especially for D&D 4e and its more tactical nature. Thanks! :)


4 Answers 4


Give them an objective other than killing everyone and don't make the fight too long

I have specifically run a few similar scenarios to yours, in one game the players were in a canoe type of thing travelling down a river, in the other one they were in a boat on the lake. I have found that the key to making an encounter like that not boring is to a) present them with something unexpected, and b) finish the encounter before they had the chance to get bored with it.

Instead of just having a regular fight, have the enemies go after the boat instead, trying to capsize or damage it, forcing the players to defend it. In one of my encounters I had monsters come up from the water, hold on to one side of the boat to try and topple it over and the players had to fight them off while being careful to keep the boat balanced, in another one I had a monster try to pull a PC off the boat with a tentacle while the other PC tried to hold him down while fending off the monster at the same time. I found that this already catches players' attention since it's not something they get to do on a regular basis but make sure a fight like this doesn't drag on for too long, they either kill/drive off the monster in a few rounds, or the boat gets destroyed, everyone falls into the river and you get to have a cool scene of water combat.

The other thing you can do is make the fighting space bigger, give them an opportunity to get onto the enemies' rafts and to move between them, this way you're avoiding a problem of PCs just standing in one place and the combat getting boring, it's also something I have done, in my case the enemies knew the PCs would be coming down the river so they built a dam over it, the canoe got stuck on it and the fight happened on the dam.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Those are great ideas! Thanks! I will definitely use these suggestions. Now, regarding the mechanical side of things: You say that at one point, some monsters wanted to topple the boat over and players had to keep it balanced. I'm curious, what exactly, mechanically speaking, did the players have to do to keep the boat balanced? What kind of check? Also, you say that at one point, a tentacle tried to grab a player. Again, how did this went on from a purely mechanical perspective? Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Nov 15, 2022 at 22:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KrisSciHist I’m glad you liked them, mechanically for the tentacle I did a grapple attack, with the PCs who were trying to pull the character back then doing opposed Athletics checks against the tentacle (there were 2 of them doing that so I just gave them advantage and had 1 person roll; I had separate but cumulative DCs for just stopping the tentacle from pulling the PC any further and a higher one for breaking the grapple all together; to keep the boat from capsizing they had to do a group Athletics check contested by the monsters’ group Athletics, they had to get 3 successes \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Nov 15, 2022 at 22:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KrisSciHist cont. before 3 fails to keep the boat up, otherwise it would flip over and with each I narrated what was happening to the boat in terms of balance. Mind you, this was 5e, not 4e but I played 4e briefly and iirc it had similar sort of mechanics available so shouldn’t be too hard to port if you wanted to. An incidental bonus was that this made the high Strength player very happy as Strength based stuff is generally quite rare in 5e so he had an opportunity to shine there \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    Nov 15, 2022 at 22:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay, thanks for the precisions! :) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 21, 2022 at 0:45

I have done something somewhat similar-- and in 4e, too!-- so I have at least some relevant insight. But, be warned, I am a thoroughly urban person with no experience of rivers except to drive over them on bridges, so my advice is not very river-oriented.

You've Identified The Problem

You've correctly identified the problem, I think, especially in comparing your corridor dungeon to this situation: Straight corridors, like linear rivers, don't offer much in the way of choices. They can, and probably will, degenerate into railroad-like slogs, just one darn encounter after another without much the players can do about it.

A Frame Challenge: Embrace Extended Skill Challenges

What you should consider doing, here, is making the river itself into an extended skill challenge. What I did once that was similar was model a race from Point A (where a creature was encountered in a forest) to Point B (a location in a clearing that the players already knew of, and knew the creature was heading for to cause mischief.)

I think this was very similar to your case because they didn't have a lot of choice-- they didn't know the forest well enough to plan some alternate route, they were left mainly following in its wake trying to catch up. So conceptually, for that session, they were on geographical rails.

So I modeled this as the biggest Skill Challenge that 4e would support-- 4 out of 7, 5 out of 9, whatever it was-- and came up with an appropriate number of forest-themed mini-chases, with as much of a spread of relevant skills as I could manage. So there was a swift stream that can to be crossed on slick stepping stones (definite challenge to the less dextrous), recognizing the signs of a swarm of hornets that the creature disturbed on its way past (a choice of taking damage, vs losing ground), a section where the path ran off a minor sheer drop (skill checks to see if they get down safely, or a choice of easier skill checks and time loss to rig ropes up, etc.)

The idea behind all of these is that the players/characters could analyze a small situation, propose some courses of action that involved rolling dice and if they did well they lost nothing; if they did poorly, they would typically lose health, some resources, or time. (Remember, this was a chase.)

This was a pure chef's kiss of a session-- everyone was invested, everyone was throwing their skills at the challenges, and they were feeling the time pressure because I would report whether they gained or lost ground.

If you can re-frame your river adventure like this, I think there is a real chance of success. (This does not have to be a chase, by the way, it just be a looming deadline. Or it could be a chase where they are the pursued party, inverting my model.)

If you're intent on keeping combats as part of this, I still think this model can help at least somewhat. But now the idea is that failing those challenges results in combat while succeeding does not. Or, succeeding means an easier fight, or a fight on better terms or terrain. Etc.

The Keys To This Technique

There are two keys to this technique:

  1. Player choice and interactivity. What this technique adds back in to the linear railroad is player choice and engagement. It is still A - B - C - D - E. But at each node in that linear graph, the characters have freedom and agency and the chance to shape it. This is crucial.

  2. The players MUST KNOW in some fashion the results of their successes and failures. If they saved or lost time in a race, you have to tell them that, otherwise they will not know. If they avoided a combat, or made a combat easier (or harder) you have to narrate that, otherwise they will not know.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a really interesting idea! I will definitely consider that! Thanks a lot! \$\endgroup\$ Nov 15, 2022 at 22:30

they can't move a whole lot, they can't maneuver a lot

Quite the opposite. They'll be moving a lot whether they want to or not. Let the combats happen in a fast-moving part of the river. Dangers will be approaching quickly, and someone will need to deal with them now if you don't want to suffer the consequences. And you might not have time to deal with them all.

  • Do you keep the orcs from boarding the raft, or grab an oar (or 10' pole) and push the raft away from an unusually rocky area with heavy rapids?
  • If you don't stay out of the rapids, what do you do if the turbulence knocks someone overboard?
  • There's something in the water that keeps trying to knock the raft over. Do you stay in the middle and try to keep the raft floating, or do you lean over the edge to try to kill it, and hope it doesn't pull you in?
  • There are archers in the woods to the side. There's a bunch of vegetation in between you and them now, but the river bends towards them and in 30 seconds, they'll all have a clear shot for 3 rounds. What kind of cover can you improvise in that time?
  • The enemies have a raft, too, and have to deal with the same problems you do. Do you fight them normally? Try to push them into hazards? (Same questions for the bad guys)
  • You're attacked while approaching a waterfall (with a large but survivable fall), and the enemy is preventing you from reaching shore. (If you don't win in time, everyone goes over and you get to continue the fight at the bottom, while the waterfall continues to drop branches on you)

Don't try to transplant normal combats to the river and find a way to make them work. Think of encounters that wouldn't work at all without the river. The novelty alone should help carry things for awhile. And if it starts to get boring, you aren't obligated to use all the encounters this time. Skip some, figure out what worked and what didn't for the ones you did run, and tweak the rest so you have something better for the next time.

Also, if you have an encounter where the decisions being made aren't happening on a round-by-round timescale, remember that you don't need to use the combat system for everything. Drop into free-form mode, ask what people are doing, and then ask them what they're doing again when either they finish the last thing or circumstances change, rather than every 6 seconds. (I've made the mistake of not doing this before, and nothing turns an interesting encounter boring like confirming that they're continuing to do the same thing every round for 2 minutes).

  • \$\begingroup\$ These ideas sound really exciting! Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Nov 15, 2022 at 22:37

A gaudy railroad is still a railroad

This answer is a frame challenge: my recommendation is not to hide the linear, railroad nature of these encounters, but to avoid it.

These encounters are a railroad with no options or choice for the PCs. They are just hoops to jump through. Even if you dress them up to make them more exciting, this will not change the fundamental nature of this travel experience.

We played through exactly such a scenario as players recently, and our DM tried all the best to make the trip interesting. Skill challenge against rapids here, cave sharks attacking the boat there, assaulted by cloaker from ceiling next, waterfall disgused by an illusion, and so on.

These string-of-pearls encounters were just stumbling blocks keeping us from getting on with the plot. In spite of the DM's best efforts to keep them varied, it was all too obvious they just were there to "spice up" the trip and cost us a few resources, on the way to bigger and better things. And that is hard to avoid, wether it's a river or mountain path, or a narrow dungeon tunnel. Hours of valuable play time wasted on stuff that had no meaning for or bearing on the overall adventure.

Avoid the issue alltogether

The easiest and most straightforward way to avoid this is to skip over these encounters, summarize the trip down the river, and get on to cooler, more exciting stuff. You can do more for the atmosphere of the adventure by using a travel montage approach for that trip, and will free the play time for adventure that gives the players agency as to what happens.

Remove linearity

Another approach is to remove the linear, one-obstacle-after-the other nature of this. There are several ways you can achieve that

  • Do not use a linear river, allow branches so the players get to make some decisions (e.g. the characters hear churning water echo from one, distant screams from the other tunnel)- If you are limited to a single river, insert larger caves with different options -- a lake separated by an island, rapids on one side, a deeper pool with a giant octopus on the other.

  • Have encounters tie in to the larger adventure. Don't just have it be a monster or skill challenge to be overcome. The Sahuagin are raiding the settlement on the next level, and killing them you can free a hostage, which will help you find allies there. The sea hag's treasure chest contains a crude map of the next area, highlighting a secret cave, etc.

  • Have the encounters be not all pure combat or skill challenge, but releate to each other in meaningful ways. For example, the bridge troll of a crossing underground trail is asking you for payment. You can either pay, and he will warn you of the trap the Sahuagin have laid a little down the river, or kill him and learn nothing.

This is more work as you have to write content, but you seem to be willing to put in the hours (or maybe you are good at improvising, that also can work).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Maybe your DM just sucks at River encounters and you’re projecting that onto someone who wants to not suck at river encounters. You’re obviously entitled to your opinion, but this is a very poor answer to this question based on your N=1 experience as a player with a DM who obviously didn’t do a good job. That is no reason to conclude that all river encounters a priori ought to be avoided. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 10, 2022 at 12:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Thanks for the feedback. I‘ll stick with this though. If this is a river or forest road does not really matter. It is hard to disguise the nature of these encounters, and to me such canned „random“ encounters are just a subpar use of play time \$\endgroup\$ Nov 10, 2022 at 13:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Groody the Hobgoblin I think that, rather than saying that it's impossible to have a meaningful encounter on the river and you should skip to the next meaningful encounter, this answer would be better if it offered advice on how to make the encounter meaningful to the plot. I see no reason why this couldn't happen on a river or a mountain path. Basically, I don't understand why, from your premise, you conclude "don't" and not "raise the stakes". \$\endgroup\$
    – DunBaloo
    Nov 10, 2022 at 13:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DunBaloo That's a good point. I just don't understand how the setting of the encounter is what disqualifies it. The problem presented in this answer is obviously about avoiding meaningless encounters, but concluding that the setting is the root problem seems like a non sequitur. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 10, 2022 at 13:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer! I understand what you mean. I don't want to remove the river section entirely, I personnally still want to try, and I think your last suggestions will help me making that river section better! For example, your last examples (like the rapids, or the giant octopus, etc.) will be useful! \$\endgroup\$ Nov 15, 2022 at 22:47

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