This week at Adventurer’s League, I decided to use a set piece and make an encounter that would actually be memorable, actually be a little threatening, and would actually give me around in combat for a change. So I put a little bridge in…(disclaimer: Bridge on the River Die is word play I first saw from John Ringo. Wish I could claim it, but I can’t)
I read a thing in my blog trawling of a DM who skipped the wilderness survival aspect and instead, just set up a few encounters along the way to various ruins. It seemed like a decent idea, to actually get some interesting results instead of just rolling crap for encounters on the table, like I had been doing. So I glanced at the map to see what was coming up and lo and behold, we had a river. Rivers are nice terrain features, that you can use to force the players into a very specific set of paths and actions to cross.
I had planned on building a battle map that could convey location, and some of the feel of the challenge, but it did not get done and so I was sketching on a sheet of A4 like a scrub. I need to get on top of that. But, it does mean I can easily show my work like this!
[hopefully a pic of the map… Nope. Forgot to scan it, but I made one in MS paint at work for you! Basically the same thing, right?]
One of the first things I wish I had done at my sketch there is to label and distinctify. I had 2 banks, 2 islands, 3 bridges, and no easy way to communicate where people were in relation to these landmarks. So, if I were to do it again, I would make sure each piece is very easy to talk about. One bridge, for example, could be covered in vines and refered to as the “vine bridge”. Simple enough, but it think it’s important. Island A is a meta term and doesn’t invoke anything. “Dead Tree Island,” However, reinforces the mental image each time you use the name. It also gives players props to work with, which can be loads of fun.
I introduced the scene by making it look like a skill challenge. I wish I had actually jotted down numbers and things like whether you can use Dex instead of Str. But one of the coolest things I did was invoke what I will call Conferrance Mode. After I have done my explaining, the party can discuss for themselves various plans and argue and make cases for lans of actions and I just sit there in the cacophony (remember, my Wednesday night group is often 7 players. If you give 7 players the option to talk it out, they will want to go 10 different direction. This is why scheduling D&D freaking sucks) waiting to here my name. In Conferrance Mode, I am 100% passive, until I hear my name. Then I either answer their question, or enact their action on the world. Because as soon as they say “Matt, I run across the bridge” Then it happens. Any even if everyone else thinks its a bad idea, due to this format it is too late to stop. There is nothing more infuriating than deciding to bypass the groups indecision only to have the beaucracy grab your character and haul them back in to boring discussion. This is based a bit on Planet Mercenary’s Say First Act first initiative, which scares me in a good way.
Part of making this whole scene was due to some number crunching I’ve been doing. First, in ToA, there are rarely more than one encounter a day and in 5e, that makes some classes really powerful Wizards and other casters who assume that they can immediately use their high tier spell slots without consequence make for some short encounters. So we’re back to the 5 minute work day, but it’s on the DM’s shoulders, not the players. That’s just how D&D works right now for wilderness survival.
Also, my players are a level or two higher than they should be. No problem with that story wise, but they haven’t felt challenged by any of the jungle. (Self note: Make sure you balance the jungle for a higher level party if I ever get back to Gothregel)
So what I decided to do was to hit the party with 4 encounter, near simultaneously. First, as they start to cross the bridge, a bunch of cannibals seeking revenge shows up from behind, chasing them onto the bridges. Second, on the far bank as they arrive there, some dinos will menacingly appear from the jungles there, balking them. The a pliesio will rise from the water or attack anyone who fell in the water. Finally, a small flight of pterafolk will seek some revenge.
That was the basic plan, and, basically, it worked out okay. I don’t think I’ve run an encounter where the party had to make some many choices that weren’t actually important, but felt like they were. That was an interesting confliction.
So the party decided to send across the light folk first, meaning halflings and gnomes. I chose to let these 40 lb adventurers had advantage on the Athletics check to move across. I probably should have made it a dexterity check, thinking over it. Its annoying that athletics covers swimming, climbing and running and yet is a Strength skill instead of a Dex. Just more problems with the 5e skill system.
Anyway, the rolls for crossing the bridge were just fail-fishing. I didn’t have any solid numbers for what they needed. I was just looking for numbers where the players would know they deserved to have consequences. It happened once the whole night. I did throw in the threat of rolls to make the bridges only able to hold one at a time, as additional choke point.
So there are 2 making their way across the bridges, one stringing extra rope, when the first wave of cannibals comes in. A Fireball later and they’re mostly gone. A few stragglers, but not the horde they were. The Halfling bard goes across the last bridge, securing the last of the ropes. and runs into some dinosaurs that look at him like he’s really tasty and he runs back to the bridge.
A second fireball takes out the dinos when a plesiosaur rise from the water and does a pitiful attack. I missed with advantage. I hate doing that. Everything is about finished when 7 pterafolk descend from the sky, knock out one wizard and start hauling him off. This one turn with the sudden pterafolk make up about 47% of my damage for the whole night. And yet, somehow, my players felt pressed. That was nice.
So how do you deal with a party member being stolen away? With a lot of hand-wringing, crazy scheming, and effort, to the point of ignoring active threats to try and get the party member back. Fun times. Its a shame I’m going to have to put off abduction encounters in that group for a while, as it had some great results. It also seems to happen to that same wizard a lot. Hmm.
Anyway, they dropped the last of them and with no further interruption, made it across the bridge and probably straight to the foot of Kir Sabal, which I need to do some massive writing for.
All in all, it was a really fun night. It has been a while since the party felt pressed and they definitely did. I spent a bit afterward deconstructing it with one of my players. They were never really in any trouble, mainly because of Fireball, but if they had been, I had structured my encounters in a way that I could stagger the waves, making sure they weren’t to overwhelmed at any point. Got them a boatload of XP, scared the fools, and I think gave them an encounter worthy of a story, which is what D&D is all about in the end, no?