Monday, October 6, 2008


Some thoughts on random wilderness/roadside encounters:

Don't you think it's a bit strange that, when attacked by brigands or a humanoid raiding party, most PCs will unthinkingly slay all attackers, then leave their corpses to rot? Here are some ideas that can add realism to your next wilderness ambush, and also remind players that even in a fantasy world, laws of cause and effect apply:

1. Fix Your Tables. If you work from random encounter tables, rework them to include the possibility of encountering the aftermath of a previous encounter. For example, if an encounter occurs, set a percentage -- say, 30 to 50 percent -- that the encounter is with the corpses of victims. When your PCs' overland sightseeing is marred by the stench and decay of dead adventurers, your players might think a bit differently about how they handle outdoor skirmishes.
2. A Glade is Not a Dungeon. In a dungeon, monsters guard their treasure hoards with their lives. In open wilderness, it takes nerve to attack a campsite that is guarded by powerful characters. Think twice about full-on ambushes by intelligent creatures. Unintelligent creatures like the Bulette are more likely assailants. Also, never rule out the possibility that intelligent enemies might have an escape plan, or at the very least, are likely to break up and flee.
3. Think Like a Criminal. If there's one thing you learn on America's Most Wanted, it's that attackers will only target those they feel are weaker than themselves. An orc raiding party mustn't feel overpowered. This is tricky, because good DMing usually requires well-matched enemies. Try catching the PCs at a time when they seem more vulnerable than they usually are. A related idea is having your would-be attackers deciding to not go through with their raid, then attempting to sneak away. If the PC on guard duty spots them at this time, then the PC's party must decide whether to switch roles and become predators themselves.
4. Corpses are your Friends. If the party encounters a group of dead adventurers, you've got several possibilities open to you: You could simply allow the corpses to be found dead, with their gear stripped. You could leave gear that might have been a poor fit for the attackers, like a two-handed sword or plate mail fit for a halfling. You could leave a red herring, like an ethnic craft item that could be mistaken for an artifact or magic item, but which the attackers recognized as being mundane ("Leave it, Ogg. We've got plenty o' those in the cave..."). Try allowing a Ranger to spot tracks leading from the scene of the crime, left by a survivor bent on revenge. Or maybe a Rogue could notice that the bodies were arranged deliberately, as if to serve as bait, but just as he is about to alert the others...surprise!
5. Take a Hostage. Either because a PC carries a coveted item, or to gain the upper hand when the chips or down, an attacker (perhaps with an assistant) may wish to either subdue a PC and use her as a hostage, or threaten to deal a finishing blow to an unconscious PC. Try having the PC carted away. This works well if a regular player can't make it to the session. With the remaining characters tied up in a rescue mission, you've got a way to pass the evening.
6. Lay Down the Law. If the party is travelling on a road, chances are they're under the jurisdiction of a local militia or police order. Should a cavalryman on his rounds notice signs of a recent bloodbath, he would be duty-bound to race up the road and apprehend the survivors for questioning.
7. Encourage Good Roleplaying. Lawful members of the party would be loathe to abandon unburied corpses, no matter how evil they are. Depending on the local terrain, body disposal could be as complex as digging shallow graves, or as simple as dumping bodies in a nearby stream. Of course, there's always the risk of a traveller stopping to take a drink, and just as he raises a handful of clear water to his lips, he finds himself face-to-face with the white, bloated visage of a dead hobgoblin! Would your players want this to happen to them?

Any other ideas? Leave a comment.

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