Exceptional Low-level encounters
Creating something new and exciting for players in tabletop games can be rather challenging for even the most-skilled game master. Somehow, many encounters become an extended slog of sword-swinging and shield-bashing with an occasional puzzle or riddle to break up the monotony. As exciting as this may be for some, the flavor of the adventure lessens significantly if every get-together is a basic hack-and-slash, dungeon-crawl.
Too often I see players who are used to killing everyone and everything in their path. While battle is not necessarily the exception in tabletop gaming, it should not be the rule! If your players expect to roll initiative every time they cross someone outside of their party, you eliminate the potential for good storytelling. In the end, the story is what will keep them coming back for more.
With that in mind, I am going to share an example of an exceptional encounter to break away from the mindless slaughtering, something that I recently included in a campaign, which received a positive response from the players.
Some sessions ago, the players intervened in a public execution to rescue a paladin from being hanged. As a result, they killed several city guards, drawing unwanted attention to themselves before fleeing the scene. The scenario provided the opportunity to have guards searching for the adventurers. While this was our setup, you could work this concept into a variety of situations where patrols are looking for the players.
The encounter began with the players returning from another adventure. I honestly believe many of them thought they had skirted consequences of their unwelcomed involvement in the failed execution. Upon entering the streets, they quickly noticed several guards interrogating citizens, asking questions specifically about the adventuring party, and patrolling the streets.
The players’ task was to make it from one end of the center city to the other without being detected, using buildings, alleyways, and roads to cross the expanse. I wanted to test the wit of the characters, so I set up several challenges.
- The city itself was unfamiliar to the characters, so they were uncertain exactly how the streets were laid out. Therefore, they could not navigate them from a mental map.
- I limited their view while they moved, so the street behind them disappeared after advancing so far. This meant guards could be sneaking up behind them, and they would not know until it was too late. This provided a great sense of urgency.
- They were aware of many guards in the area due to the clamor but were unaware of the exact number. This kept them from charging into battle and thinking they would survive.
- The guards each had a 15-foot radius of immediate awareness and moved each round. If the adventurer crossed the zone, ended their turn in a zone, or began their turn in a zone, the guards would give chase or attack. So, while the adventurer could end their turn and believe themselves to be completely safe, a guard could easily step out from a hidden alleyway and catch sight of them.
- Magic was illegal in this city and would essentially be a game over for any character casting in the city. However, I did allow cantrips, like message.
Organizing movement during the encounter was tricky. The party was initially able to move with the sneakiest leading them through the alleyways, skirting by guards and navigating the twists, turns, and dead-ends. However, they ultimately cornered themselves [by accident], and had to move in a turn by turn basis with guards on all sides.
When one of the party members panicked and took a shot at one of the nearby guards, the encounter became deadly quick. The patrolling sentries swooped in, calling for reinforcements, and the adventurers had to begin using the terrain to make their escape. This included moving in and out of homes, and barricading doors to slow the advancing enemy. All the while, the party had to keep moving in a direction to get them out of the center city.
Tensions got hot as party members were forced to separate, having to risk all to survive. Some had to wait out guards, others had to make swift blows and retreat, and others had to outsmart the additional sentries entering the area to bypass their way to freedom. While some blows were exchanged, the adventurers primarily had to use their brains instead of their brawn to locate a route to freedom.
The encounter took longer than I originally intended, capping out around two hours. The players did not mind, saying they enjoyed the change in pace and the unique challenge this encounter provided. While there are a few things I would have changed when setting this up, I also discovered many things that worked well.
- Creative: Approach your map like a maze for the adventurers to traverse through. Instead of using only walls, you can use large patrols, buildings, and citizens to redirect the party down alternate passages. The adventurers always have the choice to break through obstacles to reach the end but often will have a significant risk.
- Flexible: Because the adventurers have much of the map hidden from them, you can adjust the NPCs depending on the decisions you see them making. You probably do not want to kill off the whole adventuring party. We would hope they are wise enough to realize when they cannot win a fight, but some players are simply too stubborn. Now, I set up the encounter by informing them they needed to sneak through, but not all parties are willing to follow the game master’s direction.
- Longevity: An encounter like this becomes a learning opportunity for the adventuring party. Not only do they have some long-lasting impressions based on the threat the party faces, but they also are able to work together as a team. To survive this encounter unscathed takes significant amounts of communication and trust.
- Execution: This encounter sets up several wild card scenarios. Like leading a mouse through a maze, you might be able to steer in a general direction. However, if the mouse starts chewing through walls or running in circles, either of you might experience some frustration, which will steal away from the enjoyment of the experience. You must be flexible and quick-thinking to see this encounter through successfully.
- Realism: Sneaking through the city streets is realistic enough, but the physical distance between players and NPCs (whether guards or citizens) can drastically change the probability for success. While the players survived the encounter based on the agreed-upon rule set, some instances during gameplay did not seem convincing (e.g. a player running by a guard at a 20-foot distance without being noticed).
- Pen and Paper: We played on the Roll20 platform, which gives several gaming options to help manage the guards’ and characters’ line-of-sight. If you were playing with Pen and Paper, you would need additional pieces of paper to cover the map to adequately show what the players could see. The game master would need to move the guards on a second map (hidden from the players) and only reveal their location when they entered a character’s line-of-sight.
- Roll Checks: Rolling the dice too frequently could rob the encounter of suspense, but the DM might do well to create a system to help with proximity. Rolling Deception, Disguise Checks, Intimidation, Perception, Stealth, etc. during confrontations with the guards would surely spice up the gameplay.
- Level Limit: As stated in the heading, this encounter is primarily for a low-level adventuring party. Once you get to higher levels, and players have access to flying, invisibility, etc., you would need to match the guard’s capacity (i.e. detect magic). I would personally keep this to a low-level encounter.
If I were to pick one detail to adjust when running this type of encounter again, it would be the guard’s area of awareness. Next time, I might have the first 15-feet be a red-zone without any save, and then have a yellow-zone stretch an additional 15-feet, where the NPCs would roll a stealth check to bypass the sentry. This would have raised the risk, but also it would have added to the realism. In addition, I might have checked whether citizens would give away the NPCs position, or alert the guards.
I hope this provided some insight into what a unique encounter might look like for your own campaign. If you try this out, please let us know what works and what does not work. We look forward to hearing from you.
Joshua and JC
Don’t forget to check our post on Villain Motivations!