Last time we played, the players said they were going to go catch the cart of loot from Greenest.
I've got to figure out how to do that since, at this point, we're in full sandbox mode.
Time to break out the hexmap.
Now, there are lots of people on roads, not just cultists. (Although a cultist-road sounds great for a wilderness encounter.) So how does that work? We need road encounters.
This presents the question: what is a road encounter?
One: they're not caravan encounters. For those, when they're actually traveling with a caravan, we'll just use the encounters from Hoard of the Dragon Queen chapter 4.
In other words, what kind of fictional happening is worth spending time on in play?
If a road is deserted, any kind of social interaction is meaningful. But, in this scenario, the roads are just, you know, pretty much normal. They'll be getting less so as the cult gains power, but we should assume that seeing people on the road isn't of much consequence.
So let's focus our road encounters on interesting things:
- cult caravan
- lead to dungeon
- village siege
At the start of each wilderness turn, roll 1d6. On 1, if you're on the road, roll on the road encounters table above.
If the party knows a certain thing is in a hex (a dungeon, a cult caravan) from a rumor or bit of lore or what have you, still check for a random encounter that will happen in addition to the known encounter.
Optionally the following table for flavor text to narrate as a transition into the encounter. E.g., "You pass a row of thirteen crosses. Only one of the people on them is still alive, a young man with his nose cut off and his legs broken. Then, as the road turns, you see …"
- heap of charred bodies by the road
- row of real crosses by the road
- people buried up to their heads in the road
- A procession of snakes across the road
- Vultures circling above the woods to the east
- A stream running red
- Torn clothes and trinkets littering the road
- Scorched or frosted or melted stones by the road
- An army fresh and in high spirits
- An army retreating screaming and bloody
1 Cult Caravan
The party has fallen in with or otherwise observed a caravan and has spotted cult activity in one of the parties. What so they do? Here are some tables to flesh that out.
- Generate caravan
- Caravans have 1d20 parties. 1 of those will be the cult if the cult is present.
- Each party has d12-2 guards, with default cargo value = 100gp/guard. 50gp unguarded. 10x value for cult party.
- 1/6 chance of interesting cargo seller who might part w for coin or service.
- 1/6 chance of bard.
- Identifying cult party
- Cultists will give themselves away by:
- Ritually murdering people and creating suspicion and/or physical evidence
- Having cult periphernalia in their belongings
- Wearing concealed cult insignia
- Trying to convert other parties
- Being super creepy and secretive
- Retiring to a quiet place to perform:
- Sinuous dances
- Poison eating
- Sibilant chants
- Snake adoration
- Typical approaches to identify cultists:
- Just hang with the folks. They will tell you without prompting if weirdness has been going on.
- Spy on a party
- Rifle through a party's stuff
- Talk with a party to get a feel for them
- Complications and red herrings (1/3 of the time or as seems good)
- The cult knows you're there and is simply waiting for a time to strike
- The folks informing on the cult? ARE the cult. They hope to make you shed innocent blood, then kill you
- Venomous snakes in your stuff
- Poison in your drink
- Not a cult party, just a greedy merchant trying to use party to elimate a rival
- Not a cult party; just a jilted lover trying to get revenge
- Cultists are actually trying to get out of the cult
- Cultists are actually mercs who've had enough
- Cultists are actually faction members
- Cultists are members of the lawful good Conservators faction of Tiamat's cult; they will only fight in self defense and have stolen the goods from the rival Stormfront faction
- Not a cult party, just weirdos
- Not a cult party, just a poor desperate family who found the goods among the inexplicably dead cultists (they died from a wandering apothecary's dubious elixirs; he is a serial killer; add him to random encounters table; if asked family remembers bottles of cloudy red glass; the apothecary still uses such bottles)
2 Lead to Dungeon
Throw in a dungeon that contains a dragon mask, a wyrmspeaker (with dragonmask), a wearer of purple, an awesome magic item, a dragonslaying item, or some other campaign-specific prize.
3 Village Siege
Use my previous besieged village generator post. Its besiegement is visible from the road, either because it's on the road or because the you can see/hear the smoke/screams/refugees/massing attackers.
When you get the special result:
- cult assassins
- faction member
Cult assassins (5 of them, always) wait until the party is most vulnerable, then strike.
If striking from surprise, they attack with advantage and hit critically and force death saves. Keep making the saves until you get 3 failures or three successes.
They have five approaches which will correspond to the primary or accent color of their clothing. You can fake out the players by having innocent parties dress in similar colors.
- ambush on road (blue)
- open attack on road (red)
- poison by putting snakes in belongings or by poisoning food/drink (green)
- murder while sleeping (white)
- disguise (black)
Ambush on road means that you make the surprise attacks and then have the cultists run off unless they are confident of victory.
An open attack on the road means that five guys show up and straight attack; party has time to prepare, no surprise.
Poison means they will attempt to poison food/drink without being detected by the players.
Murder while sleeping is like that scene in Bree from Fellowship of the Ring.
Disguise means the cultists appear to be a different special encounter (roll or choose again), and then they use one of the other approaches when they are in an advantageous situation.
Monsters means you show a monster attack:
- having recently happened
- in progress, PCs stumble on it
- happening to PCs right now
- about to happen, but PCs might prevent it
In any case, the monsters can be tracked to their lair in this hex. Treat as a lead to a dungeon (see dungeon rules above). The tracking roll should mean wasted time on < DC 12 and an encounter before the lair is found on < DC 18.
Bandits 2d8 of them are the same as monsters, but only 1/3 of the time will they lair in a dungeon. The other 2/3 of the time it's just a small camp.
They are risk averse and primarily want money, supplies, food, and fancy clothes. 1/3 of the time they want something worse. 1/3 of the time they are professional bandits; the others are deserters from one army or another and still have the modified regalia. Heads of such bandits are valuable to army commanders.
Bards traveling alone are desperate. They're running from:
- the law
- a creditor
- a monster
- relatives of someone with whom they've had a romantic disagreement
Having a a bard in your camp means you get +1 on all HD rolls in camp if you listen to his songs or stories and after a long rest you start with your proficiency bonus in temp hp.
You should use bards to ask the PCs dramatic questions and to provide alternate perspectives. Award inspiration if players make or accept an overture to bond or become more intimate with a bard (or any character). Bards make overtures wanting:
Bards also have a 1/6 chance of knowing what's up with any bit of lore. "Oh I know what that word means."
Give each bard a style. Just think of a band or musician and clone them.
Merchants have special stuff for sale. They may be running from something as a bard or may be part of a caravan (50/50 cult presence).
What they sell is special: cursed 1/3, amazingly campaign-relevant 1/3, otherwise very useful 1/3.
What they want is: a trifle as they have no idea what it is or think that it's cursed 1/3, a ton of money 1/3, a favor 1/3.
Their favors are from this list: kill, kidnap, humiliate, recover, escort, procure, convert, perform.
Faction members may be running from something as bards, but they want to join and help you. They know the location of a nearby dungeon, cult stronghold, urban cult hideout, or village soon to be under siege.
Refugees are running away from armies or cultists or destroyed villages.
They are pitiful and need your help. Use them to just see what the players do and to drain their resources and to ask them dramatic questions. Can also be used as red herrings if they behave or dress a bit like cultists.
1/3 of the time their village is still under attack and is nearby.
They are fated for disaster unless the party takes steps to care for them. If they don't, show the party the grisly outcome.