Hello everyone! We’ve spent a good bit of time talking about it, so today I’d like to post up an actual encounter I designed and ran following these principles.
Our group consists of a Goblin Totem Barbarian, a Halfling Moon Druid, A Human Fighter Archer, a Human TWF Hunter Ranger, and a Tabaxi Archer Gloomstalker Ranger. Tons of HP up front with some pretty squishy folks in the back with absolutely no real magical support.
By the way, I’m running Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden for them, but this encounter is entirely my own design, so you don’t have to worry about spoilers.
So, let’s talk about tips on designing encounters in this week’s How To DM!
First, I wanted to add a little horror and inspire some fearsome creepiness. I picked Dougan’s Hole because it already had a solid “Lovecraftian” feel to it. If I got one good WTF! Moment out of this thing, I’d be satisfied.
With a party composition like that, my players were steamrolling through most of my encounters. They don’t negotiate; they certainly don’t run.
With no magic of their own, I just felt like loading up the enemy with spells was deliberately designing against them.
So, I rewrote Dougan’s Hole and brought in some monsters that I knew they wouldn’t recognize no matter how long they’d been playing – the Wendigo.
I pulled the monster’s stat block from Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos which is a fantastic book that I highly recommend. This book is set up for 5e with great rules for putting some horror into your D&D campaign.
The premise was – the poor town of Dougan’s Hole has resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. They have all succumbed to the influence of the Wendigo spirits.
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t design encounters with a “I’ll get you my pretties for walking through my monsters!” mentality. I don’t need them to die; I just need them to believe they’re going to die. The PC’s were in Dougan’s Hole to intercept a bounty target. The innkeeper was super-friendly. Gave them great prices on rooms and bowls “of the brown” (and yes…it was Chef Boyardee with extra chef included). After a good old time, the PC’s set out to look for good ambush spots.
All they had to do was figure out a way to survive the incoming blizzard until daybreak. The encounter didn’t start until they stepped outside Dougan’s Hole’s tiny little tavern.
The tavern door will be bolted behind them. Just at the edge of the lamp light, the entire population of Dougan’s Hole – men, women, and children – will be standing silently in the frigid cold, armed with whatever they have…just watching.
I didn’t even bother to assign these people hit points. Their purpose was to rush in in a maddened frenzy and distract the PC’s (there were some jokes about how easy this was going to be). Just so I could bring the Wendigo in after 2-3 of combat.
I didn’t even bother to decide how many Wendigo there were. I brought them in slowly in small groups, had them attack and them fly off into the darkness.
However, Wendigo fly. I introduced them by having one just barely fail a check to grapple a PC and carry them off. That was a nice WTF moment, and my one warning that the PC’s were not going to be able to stand there and fight it out. They’re fighting in the dark, snow swirling with only the two whale oil lamps outside the tavern to provide weak light.
So, now they’re going to have enemies on the ground that they recognize, and enemies above that they don’t know.
The villagers will attack and then suddenly rush off to the north. The Wendigo swoop in trying to carry PC’s off. One will land and attack in melee, but Wendigo only attack targets that are farthest away from the lamps as a hint that Wendigo are vulnerable to fire.
I want to guide the encounter so the PC’s end up running through the blizzard-choked streets. If they stop, they’re attacked. If they try to duck into a building the villagers start chopping at the doors, or a Wendigo crashes through the ceiling.
I want to drive them into the Speaker’s House which is the largest and best-constructed structure in the village. Of course, there is a suitably horrible tableaux inside, and – after some super-creepy dialogue – the Speaker will commit suicide in front of them by smashing lamps on the oil-soaked floor. This releases the final Big Bad Wendigo, but the fires will negate its regeneration ability, so they’ll have a fighting chance.
At this point, I want them desperate and confused. I switch targets as needed to not focus-fire a particular PC. I will leave this Wendigo locked in melee so they can kill it.
In the morning, the village is half-burned down, the entire population lies dead in the snow, there’s no loot, and they’ll all be barely alive.
Now. Here’s a beautiful thing that happened when we actually got to the table. A fellow DM’s table had most of his players no-show, so I invited them to mine. So instead of having 5 players…I had 9. But…because I had a purpose in mind…it was very easy to elevate this encounter to accommodate such a large group on the fly.
I got my share of WTF moments. My PC’s told me after how confused they were; some were already thinking of what character they would roll up next. All told…a success!
What tips, tricks and advice do you folks have? Put them in the comments below, so we can all share in the info. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next week for another installment on How To DM!