Lately, I’ve been leaning a lot on my Encounter Activity tables to provide some opportunity for this (in addition to various neutral procedures, like determining Awareness (Surprise), their Disposition (Reaction Rolls), how far away they are (Encounter Distance). There are a lot of opportunities this way for the encounter to take a different direction if these are used, but my Encounter Activity Tables can fundamentally alter the nature of the encounter from the player’s perspective in an interesting way in addition to adding a little bit of dynamism, etc.
Once the nature of the Encounter itself is established, then I move onto the Battlefield. Furnishings/Terrain/Hazards in the area itself might spark some ideas or tactical options. One really fun thing I’ll occasionally do is crib from Ryuutama and do what my player’s affectionately refer to as a “Build-A-Battle.” It works kinda like this:
YMMV, as it is pretty different from standard “Referee as lens to fiction” play if you’re cool with surrendering a little bit of narrative control to your Players. I’ve done it before with a variety of games and it’s really fun and it really helps with the mental overhead of having to “always be ON and coming up with interesting scenery.”
Basically, after Initiative is determined (and so we know there’s gonna be a fight!) set the scene as you usually would: It’s a dungeon room repurposed as a Kitchen, It’s a Creepy Forest, It’s a Shard Strewn Scree, etc. the Players create some battlefield objects/terrain/scenery that fit would generally be found in a place like this (I think it’s usually around 5 or so total). As Referee, you’re still allowed to veto anything utterly ridiculous of course (“We’re in a Spooky Forest so no bubbling Volcano lip that is conveniently right next to the Goblins!”), but it can be really neat to let your Players help set the scene by giving them a chance to be creative and help “picture” the battlefield with you instead of having to do all the work yourself :).
You can even reward them for incorporating neat/interesting interactive things into their tactics as well. With the Ryuutama combat system, if a player describes an attack as using one of these objects to assist them, they get an Accuracy Bonus, and the object is “used up” for the rest of the encounter. I’d probably stick with that as a rule of thumb. I suppose if you’d like to incentivize creativity in a more traditional-type game, you could give them “advantage” to a roll, or just a minor bonus to various things:
- The Attack roll ( “I swing from that Low Tree Branch that Leslie created to stab the Owl Bear!” )
- Damage Roll ( “I push the Kobold back into the Spikey Statue of a Chaos Warrior that Penelope made up!” )
- Or even a Saving Throw ( “I jump behind that Big Boulder that Steve placed at the start to avoid some of the Chimera’s Fire Breath!” )
The Referee can add stuff too once the ideas start flowing. And keep in mind, these things are all fair game for the monsters too! Then it sometimes becomes kind of a “race” to take advantage of the terrain before it’s all “used up.”
I think the key takeaways are communicating to your players and making sure the fiction/feel is shared as much as possible between everyone. Obvious attempts at “gaming” or abusing it aren’t really the intention here, so there’s some trust involved.
I like to add the limitation “you can’t use something you created” (so another player has to use it, and you have to use something made by someone else…that really ups the ante creativity-wise). I suppose you could even give any boon it grants an X-in-6 chance of actually taking effect or something, just to keep things a little more “random,” but I like my combats to be quick and to the point, so I don’t fiddle with anything like that :).