Your Whispering Homunculus—Random Encounters with a Twist (Part 1 of 2)
(So much more than just another bloke in a dress.)
“Was that a stirge?”
“A stirge. I just saw a stirge fly past my window.”
“The city nights are full of strange things, master, and who knows what one may encounter whilst abroad in the dark?”
I’m not sure how many people use random encounters these days.
They used to be all the rage back when adventures took place in dungeons only, and it was great fun to have a group of trolls, bugbears and the odd gelatinous cube suddenly slither around the corner unexpectedly. I don’t use them nowadays, but I do find random monster lists useful in designing encounters.
Not every encounter involves stumbling upon x monster in y terrain at a distance of z, however, and something that can be useful is a list of unusual reasons or events within encounters. This edition of YWH details six potential twists to those encounters and how to run them to give a little something unusual to your adventure.
1. Weaker Monster Being Chased
The PCs encounter a lower CR creature than they would normally expect to. The creature is fleeing an attacker, which is the coming encounter (an encounter with a much tougher opponent altogether). This second creature is a challenge to the PCs.
2. Tougher Monster Being Chased
With the tougher creature, which is a higher CR than the PCs normally face, it is fleeing a group of lower CR creatures and is itself already injured to a point where the PCs should be able to deal with it; however, the injury might not be that obvious at first. For example, a creature might have been wounded by poison and is slowly dying, or is being paralyzed by the poison, or is succumbing to a magic effect, such as confusion, making it easier to deal with.
The chasing creatures should be a match for the PCs, but if you want to make the encounter seem more troubling initially, have more creatures than the PCs would normally be able to deal with but have them injured.
3. Higher CR with Inherent Weakness
In this encounter, the PCs can face any level of opposing creature, but they should be aware that it is too tough for them under ordinary circumstances. The creature suffers from an affliction or weakness that allows it to remain a challenge, but also means that the PCs can deal with it.
Weakness can be a simple sickness (such as suffering from the advanced effects of a disease such as filth fever), or it could be a partial loss of sight that significantly reduces the creature’s attack chances and perhaps gives the creature a chance to miss blows each round even on successful hits. This latter situation replicates the effects of being obscured.
The creature could also be old, and you can choose to lower its hit points while retaining its special abilities, or you could replicate the aging process in a more complex way by following the rules in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook (page 169).
4. Tough Lower CR
The easiest way to have a tough lower CR creature is to max out the monster’s hit points, which gives the PCs a tough encounter with a bull basilisk or owlbear instead of a normal creature. It is also very easy to rebuild monsters. Simple quick changes include tougher hide (increasing a creature’s natural armor bonus), bigger natural attacks (increasing the damage accordingly), or by having the creature be a carrier of disease, which requires those struck or bitten to make an immediate saving throw against the disease carried.
5. The Red Herring
Monsters are not always what they seem. In my side trek Hollow Threats (Dungeon 96), the rampaging dragon turtle that terrorizes the coast is, in fact, a hollow dragon turtle shell occupied by orcs who use megaphones to sound like monsters and always attack in mist. Of course, until the PCs arrive on the scene, no one has survived an attack to confirm this fact, but plenty of people have fled the terrible shape that has appeared through the mist and roared, and they can describe the vast shell shape very well.
You can use rumor and tales to build up an encounter before it ever happens, and that apprehension enables you to put a twist into proceedings. One example would be to have kobolds utilize the remains of a larger creature—say a remorhaz carcass or the remains of a griffon. By using cunning but simple wooden props and simple spells, they can give the carcass life and use it as cover to carry out their own nefarious activities.
6. Bait and Switch
The brilliant 1984 UK Dungeons & Dragons module Eye of the Serpent (UK5 by Graeme Morris) has a wonderful bait and switch trick at the very start of the adventure, where the 1st-level PCs see eagles in the distant mountaintops. The eagles, it soon transpires, are rocs, and they are hunting. The PCs, in the open terrain, are swept up by the rocs and taken to their mountaintop nest, and thus the wonderful wilderness adventure begins.
Not every monster simply growls mnar and attacks; expectant parents are out gathering food and might, as detailed above, bring back live food. An ettin tribe could be away on a long hunt when their trap is triggered by the low-level PCs to start an adventure, or a broody bunch of trollwives might gather up a group of 1st-level PCs, hurl them into a pit nest, and leave them as fodder for their children. Of course, if the PCs attack the troll young, these younglings begin squealing and risk bringing back their angry mothers.