So the players go to a city (as opposed to a village). Here's what you do.
I apologize for having only 6 real encounters. I'm trying to get something written up quickly before tomorrow's game. I'll revisit this and update it with more content.
Cross off each entry as you use it, then replace with a new one of your own devising. Each encounter should present and risk and/or reward (tailored to the campaign, in this case Hoard of the Dragon Queen) or a dramatic situation.
I'll expand in later posts about what I mean by "cult lore". For now, just treat them as rumors—leads to risky reward or simply reward.
By "transition" I mean, effectively, a cutscene or establishing shot. Something brief that establishes where we're resuming the fiction, what's around, and what it looks/feels like.
- begin turn (I use 6 hours)
- ask the players what action the want to take (hit taverns for rumors, for example)
- check for random encounter (1/6)
- transition into encounter, preempting or interrupting action
- resolve encounter
- if players wish to change action, fine
- transition into action
- resolve action
- end turn
- A hurrying porter drops a book without realizing. It's a freshly copied codex containing 1 item of actionable cult lore (q.v.).
- The most observant PC notices an elderly man watching them intently, then looking away.
- That's it. Proceed with the action.
- For the next turn, if the players say they're looking out for trouble, or are otherwise taking precautions against ambush, they spot an ambush of 3 cultists and can react normally when they attack.
- Otherwise, DC 15 Perception check using the best stats among the PCs.
- On a failure, 3 cultists surprise attack a single PC (the weakest looking or most exposed, or randomly). That PC needs to make 3 death saves.
- The cultists retreat to a safehouse (for instance, Jotan's Jewelers) as soon as possible unless they're positive they can finish the job.
- A three year old girl (named Faun, faded flower-pattern dress, yellow ribbon in hair)
- yells "Mommy" or "Daddy" and runs up and hugs one of the PCs
- then looks up to realize it's not Mommy or Daddy. Collapses in sobs.
- A kind-hearted priestess (Aster, shaved head, missing eye) rounds the corner,
- says "Oh, Faun," tries to pick her up and hold her, but Faun resists and cries on ground.
- Aster: "I'm sorry; she's always getting out. She thinks she's going to find her parents."
- She's not. Her parents were killed by the cult.
- Aster: "The orphanage is over that way. I hate to ask everyone, but we could really use some money. And if you could come by and tell some stories or play some music or whatever you can do, I'm sure the kids would appreciate it."
- Proceed with play.
- In a few days, if no one has gone to talk with Faun, present this encounter instead of a random one: Faun, half-hidden under a dirty blanket, dead by violence.
- If, before then, a PC does go to visit her, have her be unresponsive.
- If the PC remains patient and genuine, Faun will want to sit on the PC's lap and will ask for a story. This will be relaxing for her.
- She will cry and not want the PC to go and make the PC promise to visit her again. If the PC doesn't, the party will find Faun dead as above.
- If the PC does visit her again, she will be responsive to what the PC says, will grow up and have an ordinary but mostly happy life, taking over Aster's duties, unfailingly loyal to the PC and holding resolutely to the PC's ideals and attitudes.
- A pair of cult thugs shaking down a merchant for protection money. Can be tracked to their hideout (say the Silver Horn tavern's basement), where 2d4 of their fellows reside.
- A busker like Bob Dylan. No one pays attention to him, but he unknowingly spouts a piece of cult lore. He doesn't know anything about it; it's just a story his mother used to tell him.
- Three fancy cultists at a mask vendor.
- They're being real jerks, asking to look at every mask. "No, something with horns on it, don't you have something with horns on it? I was told you have something with horns on it. Anything blue, then?"
- They're trying to find a lost dragon mask.
- If the PCs wait to eavesdrop, the fanciest hatted one provides his card to the merchant: "Bertram Wooster, Solicitor—Inquire at the Barded Heifer"
- The Barded Heifer has a locked upstairs wing containing a cult safehouse as well as storage for three wyrms (Alien-ish chestburster leech-things that turn people into kobolds, who later turn into halfdragons) in suspended animation, courtesy of as many vats of amber jelly