Narrow points in a physical environment are often called choke points. If you add a difference in elevation like a ridge line and you have what movies call, “a perfect place for an ambush.” Indeed, choke points are a common trope in the nerdy media we love.
Here are some examples of choke points:
- Stairwells, like the one made famous by a Daredevil fight scene.
- Doorways, like the example from Empire Strikes Back we’ll talk about below.
- Sharp turns in passages, like in a D&D cavern.
- Paths through treacherous terrain or debris, which could be a narrow swath of dry land through a swamp or some other such terrain.
- A bridge, like the one in Indiana Jones.
- A narrow cliff trail, and if it’s snowy like in Lord of the Rings, all the better.
- Narrow canyons, a common ambush point used by Trandoshans.
- Small rooms, as they cram people into close quarters and limit freedom of movement.
- Magic gates or portals, because they are typically narrow and force one or two people through at a time.
As you read through that list you surely know what I’m talking about and I’m sure your mind is racing with example after example from popular fiction where choke points have been used to set up a combat scene or some other such story complication.
Oh, complications you say? Well, below are a few reasons to use a choke point in your D&D games:
- They foil rapid movement.
- They expose single PCs to threats.
- They direct movement.
When else to add? Well, to highlight tactical skill. Dice shouldn’t solve every problem, so cleverly implemented choke points can force players to use creativity, critical thinking, and their imagination to overcome a challenge. Sure, it comes down to dice rolls, but balance those in your favor by strategically thinking about your movement and placing in and around choke points.
But there are also times when you want to avoid using choke points, because they can penalize back-rank characters like spell casters and archers. And you certainly don’t want to emphasize or use the same type of choke point over and over. Variety is the spice of life.
Now, let’s go a little deeper into the tactics that can coincide with choke points, using the Cloud City escape scene from Empire Strikes Back as an example. A full breakdown of the scene here.
That action sequence was littered with a variety of choke points to excellent effect. There were narrow corridors, sharp turns, stairs, doorways, and more. It was a beautiful thing. Again, a full breakdown is here, but let’s look at one instance to discuss how the scene might influence your D&D games.
At one point, the Stormtroopers were trying to infiltrate a doorway in pursuit of the fleeing Rebels. The Stormtroopers had greater numbers, so they should have been able to ‘Dominate the Area’ by creating interlocking fields of fire to overwhelm the Rebels by creating a dilemma via providing different angles of fire.
Alas, the Stormtroopers didn’t do that. Inexplicably, the Stormtroopers would enter into the field of fire one at a time, despite wide doorways that would have allowed for a more overwhelming force. The single Stormtroopers would, of course, be picked off one-by-one by the sharpshooting Chewie.
I see Dungeons Masters too often make this same mistake, despite having a superior number of “minions.” A choke point can sometimes allow for a split team entry, which the Imperials’ finest should have taken advantage of and DMs definitely should.
During a split team entry, Stormtroopers would have positioned themselves on opposite sides of the choke point, which would have given them a greater view of the upcoming hallway and better angles, plus the retreating Rebels would have been put at a disadvantage because Chewie would’ve had to make a decision about which target to engage.
DMs can strategically think about their movement to flood choke points with a buttonhook maneuver, a technique which allows simultaneous entry of two NPCs through entry. Following them would be two more NPCS through the choke point, providing ranged cover fire if they are bow users or spell casters. If a NPC goes down, fill in the gap.
We need to cut the pursuing Stormtroopers in our example some slack. Their religious zealot general was off chasing his long-abandoned son, so they weren’t necessarily getting good direction in Cloud City.
But for DMs in our D&D games, there is little excuse. Think about the choke points in your game and use them tactically to challenge and entertain your players.