Last time I showed how easy it is for a party of players to turn a half joke roleplay adventure in a blood soaked murder fest. So this time around I figured I'd show how sometimes expecting your players to be good little murder hobos can really surprise you. Here's a small random encounter for when the party is traveling through the woods, but thanks to my players once again going off book from what I expect of them it turned into an entire adventure of it's own.
This one is about as simple as it gets. The party, after decided to take a dubious short cut off the well worn trade routes, has taken up camp in an abandoned cave. Any GM that's been running games for a fair amount of time knows this is the PERFECT time for a random encounter. The only real question is from where. The two simplest options are to have something either hiding in the once thought "abandoned" cave or to have something return "home" that night. I decided to go a slightly different route, but still just as cliche. Yes the party found a safe cave and yes it is in fact abandoned, however what they forgot to think about was their horses that were tied up outside.
The party has a wizard that already proved to love his "alarm" spell so I knew this wouldn't be an ambush so I didn't even worry about something sneaky or slick. Instead I figured they deserved a bit of fun and gave the area a group of Ogre brothers that just love the smell of horse meat. It all still felt a little dry as my regular group are pretty seasoned gamers and while bumbling brutes are fun and squishy they are also predictable. So I figured to add the smallest of wrinkles in the story that the oldest of the brothers is actually a Level 1 Barbarian. Nothing too massively different, but definitely strong enough to be able to push around his two siblings. This both added a rougher leader within the group as well as an opportunity to really let the other two shine as the bumbling oafs they deserve to be.
So at the end of it all we have a small single encounter story of 3 Ogres that dare to try and eat the party's horses. There's some character to the monsters, but all in all its a group of thugs looking for a beating. Alright let the dice roll and the blood fly.
So, the first part of everything goes just as planned. The player on watch easily notices the two bumbling brothers as they come looking for the horses they smell, the wizard wakes up the moment they enter his alarmed area, and (once woken up by the player on guard) the barbarian immediately rushes in to bash some skulls. First of all I have to say I'm happy I decided to add a barbarian of my own to the mix as through luck of the dice the player barbarian crits with a power attack and rolls almost max damage right out of the gate. If he had by chance picked one of the weaker brothers to rush they would have been out for the count before anything even started. I have to say it's fun to see my players go against enemies with the same class as them. First just the image of a barbarian roaring in the face of an ogre that just roars right back with the same fire in its eyes. Then there's the satisfaction for the players as they now know they aren't just the party barbarian, but such a bass ass one that even ogre barbarians fall at their feet. But this isn't about me patting myself on the back for an adventure well done, this is about my players throwing wrenches I never saw coming and this one had y head scratching for a minute.
So, like I said, the fight started out exactly as I had planning. Right down to one of the idiot brothers crit failing his perception roll when everything kicked off and wandering off to chase a bunny for the first two rounds. It was even a decent blood bath as the ogre leader fell to the combined might of the party working together. The two brothers flee of course after seeing their tough big bro fall and just like I was hoping the barbarian takes chase to leave no survivors. What I didn't see coming was the paladin healing up the ogre leader (giving him class levels I figured it only fair for him to have death saves just as the heroes do) to only 1HP while having him pinned. With the reliable barbarian running after the two remaining ogres I didn't have the bloodthirsty player around to predictably crush heads. Instead I have a paladin that thinks he's cleaver (and to be honest it's not hard to be more clever than an ogre) that wants to negotiate.
The easy answer would be "well he's a barbarian.. FIGHT TO THE DEATH", but this guy was a leader. Someone smart enough to at least get some training. Sure he was a barbarian, but he wasn't in a rage anymore and that means he knew he could die. Now this simple "beat up the monsters" random encounter has turned into negotiations. The ogre was alive but being pinned and at 1HP he was about as close to death as you could get and he knew it. The paladin wanted him to escort them the rest of the way to town figuring a thuggish brute like him could scare off any basic threats and, since it was his home, would also know the safer routes. For now I decided to play ball and had the ogre shamed into agreeing. I figured this would show at least some honor and give, what I was starting to fear would be a long time companion, some depth.
Then it hit me. The journey would definitely take more than a day (leaving the ogre time to heal) and he DOES know this forest. The party made a big assumption. They were at least smart enough to keep an eye on their new "friend" expecting him to possibly kill them in their sleep. They figured he was smart enough to not get into a fight he couldn't win, but they didn't think of him getting them into a fight just tough enough for him to slip away. Ok, I shouldn't say NONE of them thought of this, as some of the party was suspicious of any place he would take them, but they were still keeping him alive and following him and that's all he needed.
Now for my back up plan to fail too, but this time on purpose. So after some thought I figured the woods also held a group of Gnolls, nothing vast, but also enough of them to make things interesting. The ogre's plan was to offer their cave for camp and when fighting broke out to get out of dodge as fast as possible. Yes it isn't the most elegant plan, but I didn't want this guy to be a genius, just smart enough to see an opportunity and do his best. The party instantly smelt something was up (as they should) and wanted to sniff around to make sure everything was safe. When the wizard crit his perception he could smell "wet dog" coming from the cave and that's all it took for suspicions to be confirmed. Everyone wanted the ogre to go in first, well everyone but the ogre of course. He argued that he was being a friend and he would get them wood for a fire, bascially doing anything he could to not panic and either run or start swinging. He wasn't smart enough to get a better lie, but he was clever enough to not want to die. It all felt like a clumsy Mexican stand off until the barbarian decided to push him around.
That's when playing into the weaknesses of a creature came into play. This ogre WAS smarter and tougher than his brothers, but he was also a barbarian and when you push a barbarian they push back. He roared into a rage (also alerting the cave on gnolls) and went right into the party. This threw the new challenge of a battle on two fronts for the players and actually added a lot of suspense to what could have easily been a simple encounter. I'm sure this isn't some lost secret of DMs, but not everyone out there is a veteran to the hobby and sometimes it's easy to forget how much a simple encounter can take on a life of its own.
This is pretty a straight forward set up with small groups of pretty common enemies.
For D&D have 3 ogres, giving one a level in barbarian. If it looks like he or his brothers are about the die without chance of victory have the leader try and strike a deal. Then use 6 gnolls and a gnoll pack leader for the second cave.
For Savage Worlds also use 3 ogres, but make the leader a Wild Card and give him the Berserk edge. For the gnolls I just use dire wolves with the Two Fisted edge (instead giving it to their bite and a spear or sword) and equip them with long bows for range. The leader is also a Wild Card, but with the Command edge.
I decided to write about this adventure because I think it gives a lot of in site into remembering motivations for monsters. Even the dumbest brutes don't want to die as long as they are thinking straight. A dumb guy can still make a simple plan. And most importantly, if a player decides to treat a creature as more than a mindless killing machine, give them more than a mindless killing machine. This doesn't mean they will do as their told or fall in line with what the party wants, but anything with at least some consciousness should have a chance to be reasoned with. Obviously exceptions about such as mindless undead or constructs, but that's for another time.