What, When, From Above

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0791

Let’s say there’s four goblins in the forest waiting to ambush the PCs.

Wait, that’s boring.

Let’s say it’s six goblins lead by an NPC with a grudge against the party.

That’s a bit better.

What if the NPC is a guard who was exiled from The Keep because they failed to stop the PCs from breaking into the Castellan’s secret room?

The guard’s husband took the kids and shacked up with the guard’s best friend. Cliche, but man, you gotta feel for the guard. Who can resist the wizard’s charms, right?

So, the guard whistles as the PCs tramp along the tail and the goblins leap out an attack.

Wait, that’s boring.

The guard screams, “Charm this, dung-eaters!” and the goblins fire their small bows and leap to attack.

That’s a bit better.

But what if the PCs befriended the stablemaster in The Keep? What if the stablemaster was the one who shared the secret about the Castellan’s weird room and how the guard there is always drunk and half-asleep?

And what if the stablemaster is now full of arrow holes and hanging high up above from a study branch?

As the PCs pass under him, a drop of blood falls on the wizard’s hand.

The wizard looks up, makes a successful perception check, and recognizes the party’s buddy from the stables. A gruesome death.

You describe the scene, but leave the identity as the last detail. As the big reveal.

And as you surprise your players with the twist, you immediately transition into the ambush.

“The punctured corpse is your friend Ned, the stablemaster! And just as you gaze up into his unblinking eyes a voice screams from the forest. ‘Charm this, dung eaters!’ The twang of arrow strings makes you wince as a barrage of arrows descends upon you!”

That’s a bit better.

But wait. This is still a goblin grind.

So the guard steps into the path on round two, dragging the pleasant tailor — who made such a cool black and pink velvet jacket for the halfling rogue  — by the throat, and screams again. “Put down your weapons or he bleeds out now!”

The guard’s husband pleads with the characters to put their weapons down and to stop fighting their children, anguish in his eyes.

Another drop of blood the stablemaster’s blood, carried by the breeze hits the wizard on the neck.

Thanks to everyone who added an idea to the What Falls? spreadsheet.

I saw one entry, “A drop of blood” from reader ungooglable.

And I wanted to share with you a tip about timing. How and when you reveal details to the players can change the entire complexion of an encounter.

Last night, while doing an adventure consultation, I shared the notion of building a standalone story into as many encounters as possible. The story does not have to be complex. A simple revenge plot, for example.

So today’s Musing hopefully shares an example of how to build story into a single encounter, use timing of detail for effect, and add in the oft-neglected dimension of “the above” to make an encounter sing.

Find some time today to rework one of your upcoming encounters. Add a story. Play with detail timing. And have something fall from the sky. Let me know how it goes or if you encounter any stumbling blocks!