How can I break out of my roll-for-initiative-charge-trade-blows swingfest?
One of the hardest parts of GMing is making combat interesting. The easiest way to do that is to have an objective other than killing the enemy. This is one way to do that.
The characters have all awoken, and are eating breakfast. Someone notices a goblin in the woods skulking about, but not being immediately threatening. If interacted with, the goblin will approach and through conversation try to lead the characters away from their camp. If attacked, the goblin runs. The camp has been surrounded by goblins, about one goblin for each party member. They remain hidden, and will reveal themselves one by one, running away from the campsite in different directions. While the characters are off chasing decoy goblins, the next to reveal themselves gets into the camp and begins stealing whatever they can. Once they’re noticed they take off running, hopefully giving the next goblin in line a chance at pilfering.
What makes the encounter memorable is the goblins can’t be standard goblins, since if they are they would just get cut down, it also allows for a combat encounter with a big share of RP potential. These goblins have very high armor class, moderately high hit points, and a hide skill to beat the band. Their AC should be in the range where the average roll in the party is hitting 25% of the time, and their HP should require two hits on average to kill. At second level they look roughly like this:
Normal Goblin, 22/23 AC, 25 HP, Hide (total score) + 15 , move the same as human
When I ran this encounter recently, I also granted these nasty little buggers regen: 1.
It’s important to remember not to beat the players with cleverness. This encounter should be frustrating for the characters, not the players. At the end of the encounter, some goblins should have survived and escaped, some of the players equipment is missing, but not too much. The other caveat is that this can’t happen too often or you’ll end up with characters huddled under ponchos never taking off their backpacks.
Located in the western reaches of the great desert, local nomads speak of the forest that holds up the sky. Almost as though an illusion, towering trees spring up from the rolling dunes fed by no rivers. Strange noises emanate from the wood, and no local will go near. The rare times something comes out of the forest, it is a beast of horror beyond explanation, and wreaks havoc with the local nomads before disappearing into the sands. What nobody talks about is the civilization hidden within, headquartered in the hidden city of Lloroth.
Since the forest is located in the desert, there’s no weather to speak of on it’s own. For an hour or two before dawn water pours from the canopy above, providing nourishment for all within. The elves collect the water in large buckets for use throughout the day. The air remains temperate and comfortable throughout the day, and crisp and clear at night. Not all is serene, however. The price for such weather is the odd storm. Not rain and wind, but magical bolts bounce from towering tree to towering tree. Crackling energy sets fires where flame will take, while clouds of enchantment inducing vapors waft through the forest. Most fearsomely, the storms will often produce indescribable creatures of unknown origin, who then stalk the woods hunting those foolish enough to find themselves within the creatures grasp.
Lloroth is a small city entirely populated by it’s elven inhabitants. Constructed high off the forest floor and connecting more than 3 dozen of the enormous trees, Lloroth is a city of several layers always shrouded in the dim of the forest. The floor below the city is a wide graveyard filled with graves. In accordance with the cities odd custom, the graves are shallow holes in the ground with the bodies of the departed elves exposed facing skyward. Defacing these graves is not only illegal, but dangerous.
The people of Lloroth are a quiet, earthy group of long lived elves. They spend much of each morning gathering fruits from the treetops and hunting the fowl that lives in the treetops. The rest of the day is spent mostly in repose, the elders teaching crafts to the youth and the adults practising whatever craft they choose. There are specialists in the community who can be relied upon to craft the very best, and there are those elders who are ostensibly in charge, but the city requires very little in the way of management. The exception is when there’s a storm.
The most spectacular and bizarre feature of Lloroth is undoubtedly its graveyard. Shallow holes beneath the city harbor corpses staring upward toward the canopy, each in different states of decay. During the day they reside in their holes, staring upward. At night as the elves above shutter themselves in, the dead below begin to rise. The dead stalk the streets at night, but not to terrorize as much as clean. The strange magical properties of the forest keep the dead active long after their life has left them. Unlike most undead, however, these are the helpful sort. They perform the tasks around town helping out in whatever ways they can. Most of the dead are zombies that eventually degrade into skeletons, but a few of the dead of great spirit reanimate as more mindful undead. Occasionally there are accidents at night, so the elves steer clear. During the day, however, it’s not uncommon to find the elves in the gloom visiting the dead, and on rare occasions, the dead will speak back.
- If the adventurers arrive at night, the drama plays itself out; no adventurer upon seeing a town teeming with undead could help themselves. The morning will bring realization, a court drama, and perhaps an atonement quest. It may even be that the characters have to stand in for the undead as street sweepers and caretakers.
- Not all is well in Lloroth. The characters followed a map / rumors / idle curiosity to discover the Hanging City, but they’re not the only ones. Led by notions sent from his deity, the nefarious necromancer Raelun has moved in, and the beloved lost have not been acting properly since.
- In a sad turn of events, Femir’s betrothed met an early and unfortunate end. In the grip of madness Femir attempted to bring his beloved back, but only succeeded in allowing an alien presence from the Wild Planes into the forest. Now Femir and the characters are all that stand between The Walker and the total destruction of the Prime Plane.
One theme in fantasy games recently is the bringing of non-humans closer thematically to humans. It’s a weird thing, since the draw of playing something that isn’t human is to play something that.. you know… isn’t human. So, for this locale assume that dwarves live many thousands of years. Other differences may come out in descriptions.
The residents of Muddy Hollow are exclusively human, save one. Spanning the range of ages, the elders teach the youth and provide guidance to the adults. A generally jovial people, they very rarely have any contact with outsiders, and very few have seen a non-human (except the one). Any visitors are likely to be met with reserved interest, not in news of the outside but of the visitors themselves. The less human looking, the more suspicion accompanies the interest. Characters that are generally considered monsters (kobolds, orcs, and the like) are treated with fear and will have a terrible time trying to gain the trust of the people.
The area in the center of town is a wide expanse of tough, poorly manicured grass roughly 200 feet in diameter. Used as a recreational center, it is often populated in the warmer seasons by idle lounging couples and small groups of children either learning from an adult or playing games. On rare occasions The Commons serves to host special events like pig chases (usually followed by a roast) or a celebration of the only holiday in Muddy Hollow, Winter’s End.
The buildings surrounding the Commons are all old homes with three wood walls and one stone that faces the direction of the winter winds, making for a strange site as the houses across the Common from one another seem to have been built as mirror images. No one house is within fifty or so feet of another, and there are no shops or taverns. The locals make their own liquor from corn, and there is no concept of personal ownership of property; the locals are bound to react very strangely if the characters offer to buy or sell anything. Coins will likely be perceived as nothing but strange weights that outsiders carry. Attempts at barter can be successful, but the item received must be of some value to farmers (or artful), so items of no apparent value may be highly prized while magic weapons will be valued fairly lowly.
This large building serves as a communal meeting center, and is the focal point of social activity during the colder winter months. The bottom floor one very large room lined on one side with a single long table that can seat almost 100 people, the rest of the room is usually left empty for dancing or other events but can be filled with tables from the nearest houses to seat (crowded) the entire population of Muddy Hollow.
Knowledge (Architecture) DC: 30
This building is many hundreds of years old, and built in the style of an ancient guild of adventurers. In an attempt to legitimize what was seen as aberrant behavior, groups of well armed explorers banned together and formed a charter. The end result of collecting so much power together from people that felt persecuted had the usual outcome. Only two decades after formation a series of ugly battles rocked the guild cities. The guilds were shut down and the buildings dismantle. Why this is here, and who built it, is anyones guess.
As the leader of the community, the dwarf Agrus appears to be an older dwarf, and cares very much for the citizens of Muddy Hollow. Distrustful of visitors he renders whatever aid he can and urges a quick departure. Careful not to arouse suspicion he doesn’t eject visitors but treats anyone that appears to be adventurers with great distrust.
The Story of Muddy Hollow
Many years ago, following the Adventurers Purge the group that helped to found the guild left the cities in horror of what their creation had done, and how the cities had reacted. That’s where they drop out of the history books, but they and their followers came to this unassuming location. They settled down, had families, and eventually died of old age. Their offspring carried on this tradition and Muddy Hollow was born.
Agrus is the dwarven fighter that was a member of that party. He was close friends with all members of the founders of Muddy Hollow, and has lived the centuries watching their offspring multiply. He thinks of the population as the immortal extension of his original friends, and takes any threat to any member of Muddy Hollow as a personal affront and challenge. Angering the fighter of the group that unified all the adventurers in a five hundred mile radius is not a task to be undertaken lightly, though Agrus resorts to violence only after all other options have been exhausted including negotiation and subterfuge.
Muddy Hollow today is filled with humans unaware of the history of the place, they are simply competent farmers with communal mindset. The culture of the community is distinct from whatever culture surrounds it, and is far less inhibited than most adventurers will be comfortable with. Some of the adults refer to everyone in the town as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ but without religious inflection and apparently oblivious to the subtly incestuous tones.
- The characters are headed to fight someone/thing in the mountains and stumble across the scene of horrific violence. Six humans brutally attacked and mutilated. Discovering nearby farmlands brings them to Muddy Hollow. Relating the finding to Agrus sends him into a conniption. Against his better wishes he hires the adventurers to track down whatever did this, offering a moderate gold reward. He can be bargained up to a big gold reward, but the players instantly lose his trust and respect forever. Whatever did it should be expedient for your game and reasonably challenging.
- The characters are researching some undead or otherwise ancient baddie, and discover that this ancient group once contended with the same creature. Their last known location was ‘over there’ and the players go in search of their burial sites in hopes of finding a clue. Imagine their surprise when they stumble across a primary source; even if that primary source wants nothing to do with them.
- This town can be the starting point of a campaign. The characters are ignorant of the surrounding world, but a group that are coming of age don’t believe as Argus does. They leave despite his wishes and get to discover how big the world really is.