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I'm once again turning to the good folks at Stack Exchange for help regarding my non-magical campaign. I've written several encounters in which the PCs fight the main bad guys and their followers (mostly men, elves and dwarves), but I'd like to have some side-encounters here and there throughout the campaign, just to break up parts of the main story line when there isn't a lot of combat.

The problem is, I've created a country where it's really hard to do that. The "creatures" of the world are basically the five races and plain old Earth animals. There aren't were-anythings, kobolds, goblins, etc. I can only do "a group of bandits has overtaken a small village" so many times. I can have the PCs fight a group of bears or wolves, but there's a good chance they won't want to.

Does anyone have any ideas for interesting one-off encounters that don't involve magical or "fantastical" creatures?

Update: The crux of my problem is that I'm short on ideas for creating interesting side-encounters, specifically in terms of "bad guys," in the simple country I've created. There are no "monsters" in this country, just men, elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and animals that we find here on Earth. So, the question is, does anyone have any ideas for making interesting one-off encounters, which do not relate to the main plot, considering the above limitation?

Note: I realize how lame this country sounds. In my defense, once the PCs succeed here, they will journey across a huge desert and finally be ready for some magic and more familiar D&D monsters.

No, I do not want to have some monsters show up who came from across the desert. That sounds like a major red herring for my PCs.

Update to the Update: Thanks everyone for the great answers. I'm going to flat out steal some of yours, but they've inspired some new ideas or tweaks of my own, too. Again, greatly appreciated, everybody.

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Given the totally different directions that Brian and I have taken in interpreting this question, it's probably a good idea to edit the question, and be more specific in what you are asking. –  Simon Withers May 16 '12 at 2:56
    
Thanks, will do. –  Lechlerfan May 16 '12 at 3:05
    
@Lechlerfan was my answer at all useful, or is simon's more in the direction you want? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 16 '12 at 3:31
    
The 'homebrew' tag was removed? I thought it covered rules AND settings - this question clearly seems to be about the latter. –  GMJoe May 16 '12 at 4:56
3  
This country doesn't sound lame -- at least, it's no lamer than the real world, and I think that place is awesome! –  Joe May 17 '12 at 20:59

8 Answers 8

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Think about the real world

There are many conflicts in the real world, for many reasons. Look at news or a history book if you need inspiration. Not all of them are combat encounters, many might be detective work and exploration.

  • Which church is allowed to tax/get the tenth in a village? Help the priests of Pelor against an attack by Asmodeus' children (insert $LOCAL_DEITY).
  • Are there racial tensions between the races? Calm the mob of elves wanting to burn all halflings.
  • Who illegally hunted a deer in the baron's forest? Free the arrested farmer or help prove his innocence so he won't be executed for his crime.
  • A landslide destroyed the crop in the neighboring village, and they are running out of food. But giving them food from this village might lead to starvation in winter.
  • A Party member is unfairly accused of theft. The punishment is cutting off the left hand. Fight the guards? Escape the guards (Skill challenge?) Prove innocence (How?)?

But much more important than the exact back story is in my eyes:

Make combat encounters diverse

It's not (only) the creature selection that makes an encounter interesting, but how you set up the battle. Let me make an example, with the same old 'bandit take village hostage' in three variations. I'm sure if you run it like that, the players won't complain it's always the same.

Devious, planning ba...ndits

The bandits have obviously heard of the wandering band of do-gooders and are prepared. First, they send in the dogs. Use skirmisher dogs that charge + make the enemy prone. Feel free to give them half HP or make some of them minions in order to make the battle shorter, but use enough different dogs they can't be locked down.

The dogs are backed by ranged attackers on the roofs behind chimneys - that means ranged attacks from cover, plus potentially combat advantage if they hid well. To get on the roofs, require at least a move action + athletics check. You can also make them minions, or at least some.

After two rounds, when the party is likely to be softened up, send in the Hog-Brothers, two large, burly fighters, brutes that will focus on the same target to make it go unconscious...

Trees are fun

Bandits have taken over the village, but the village is on a hill. When the party approaches, the bandits roll logs (trees) down the hills. That's a nice trap against Reflex that damages, secondary attack against Fortitude that slows. Once the party is up the hill, use charging brutes that push them down again. As always, use cleverly distributed archer minions to make it more dangerous.

Hostages

Again, bandits take over the village. Everyone is on the village square. When the party arrives, two bandits in the center threaten the peasants that were rounded up. Can the party lock down the two bandits and prevent an all-out slaughter, while fending off the other bandits? If you make the villagers run around frightened on the battlefield, you have another nice restriction: non-friendly area attacks kill peasants.

Build up a villain/villains

Don't worry too much about 'same backstory' for side encounters, it doesn't really matter as long as the fights are interesting. And you could build up a gang of bandits that terrorize the area... every session there's another gang-related side encounter. With time, the bandits also start hunting the party. This could tie diverse and interesting encounters together. Build one or two lieutenant for every side fight that has special capabilities (not magic, but either some leaderish/controllerish powers or a especially hard brute/soldier.

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This is a fantastic answer and well written. Under the think about the real world category, let me point out that a fair variety of animals were used alongside humans. This answer mentions dogs, horses are obvious, but don't forget about war-elephants. And the strategy for fighting a phalanx is very different from the strategy for fighting skirmishers. You could also play up the differences between different human tribes. Vikings for instance are almost always depicted as tall and large. That can add to the storytelling and might even reflect in attributes for variety. –  TimothyAWiseman May 16 '12 at 16:37
    
Thanks. Love the "Build Up" idea. –  Lechlerfan May 17 '12 at 23:48

I'd say to stop calling them random encounters. Make each random encounter have an effect. Weave a story together from a number of threads by having a range of different groups or factions who each control some resources (land, units, trade goods, technology, etc.) then decide why they might conflict. Instead of an encounter table, roll for a faction, look on the map for what they could be doing and decide how they would, with the resources they have, try to complete this action.

In some cases, the faction could even hire the PCs. The main point is that there is a whole world, but there are underlying threads that tie it together.

Example factions:

1) Elves who try to protect the forest, and don't hesitate to kill woodcutters etc. who they feel to be destroying the natural world (think eco-terrorist).

2) Some very superstitious, conservative gnomes who want to destroy all technology as it may fall into the wrong hands (witch-hunts on alchemists, for example)

3) Dwarves who run a series of surface quarries. They often have cave-ins, and when someone gets stuck and the only access is unclimbable for them, who do they ask for help?

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OK, you got plenty of ideas from the other answers and I personally like having human encounters (possibly with a plot, because if you are ambushed by a group of trolls you know immediately that they are enemies and you start slashing without a second thought, while if you are approached by a group of greedy tax collectors with the colours of Lord Falquart... well... you don't know... if you kill them because they may look morons and thiefs, then you may make an enemy in Lord Falquart that didn't know that his men crossed the line pretty often...).

An option to spicy up the encounter is to have high numbers on the other side, so you need to be a bit tactical on how you move, or you may want to avoid but not kill that villagers, because they just misunderstood the PCs for bandits or similar...

Another alternative is playing with more or less "natural traps", like fires, cataclisms, tornados, avalanches and similar, that you can turn into geometrical riddles (or you can create a geometrical riddle and then dress it up as an escape from a number of avalanches closing up on the party while it's crossing Wyleslaw Pass).

If you want to stick to "wandering monsters" label, I'd go again for numbers instead of exotic names and look maybe at swarms (wasps, scorpions, rats, bats, red ants....). An enemy that as a single is weak but has the power of numbers often forces you to think alternative solutions and is a symmetric alternative to the "usual" boss fight where the enemy is strong on a one-to-one basis but gets knocked down by the co-ordination of the players.

As a last resource, have a look at the "right" literature of the time for inspiration. Another answer mentions King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (assuming that your setting is reasonably fit with that...): you can lift plenty of side encounters from that, and all human...

EDIT: I forgot that maybe some undead (like ghosts and similar) may be suitable for the kind of campaign you described and may be OK as a "wondering monster style" encounter (camping near graveyards may turn out to be an encounter opportunity + a night of good rest spoilt...)

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How about a Will-o-the-wisp? would it fit in your setting? This is a "proper" wandering monster... –  Yaztromo May 19 '12 at 8:20

Situations can put the players in positions where they need to do something, ultimately what you need to do is grab their attention with a detail and then lead them on with this to a problem or combat situation; you don't need monsters for this:

  • The players smell smoke when they're in a forest, what do they do? It can be a forest fire (reverse chase scene! Escape or get burnt!) Some enraged peasants burning down a "witches" house.
  • Fake tax collectors demand a toll.
  • Bridge is down at a crossing, how do they get across? Or around? Or fix that old raft?
  • The village they were going to stop at has plague/food shortages/a mad mayor who's taken over.
  • Strange monster footprints lead off into the forest (faked prints as a lure).

Humans on their own should be able to provide more than enough situations to keep the players busy; and with the classes available to them can provide as much diversity of challenge as any monster.

Mundane beasties can give problems/situations too:

  • A bear that's gone mad from an infected wounds attacks the party.
  • A pack of wolves worrying sheep/attacking travellers.
  • One of those deer could make a tasty meal.
  • A riderless horse gallops past the party.
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+1 for the riderless horse. It's a treasure, a plot hook, and an ominous warning rolled into one! –  GMJoe May 16 '12 at 8:16
    
I love this answer! Rob, care if I steel all of your ideas? Mala's answer is similar, but too ... social - my players do not care about helping. Your answer provides situations that directly require to be dealt with. If you could expand more, or maybe everyone expand this answer in the spirit of haw it has been started ... –  Vorac Oct 23 '12 at 8:02
    
Please steal away; Each one has multiple possibilities; when I make encounters I rarely script past a single sentence and then adlib the rest as per the situation. For example the riderless horse could be a) The horse of a noble who's fallen off when hunting b) The horse of a tax collector killed by bandits c) An escaped horse from a nearby wagon train d) A wild stallion from a nearby herd e) A warrior polymorphed into a horse by a enemy wizard who's panicked and lost his mind at being a horse now f) An horse from a caravan that's been attacked by bandits and so on :) –  Rob Oct 23 '12 at 10:11

Look at the characters for inspiration.

Obviously if your characters have deep, complex backgrounds you can find hooks to introduce side quests and subplots, but even if your characters are little more than "Name + Class + Race + Mechanics" you should be able to compel some plot out of them.

Use default assumptions about what matters to a character. A cleric has a church or temple, a thief has a fence or a patron, and so on. Put that person, place or thing in danger.

  • A person can be accused of a crime they did not commit (or did they?) and the PCs need to figure out the truth.
  • A place with sentimental value can be scheduled for destruction in the name of progress.
  • A thing can be stolen. Or needed to pay off some debt. Or require transportation from location to location.
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+1 for looking at the characters; this tells you what they'll be interested in –  Rob May 16 '12 at 7:40

When I am low on ideas for bad guys or interesting plot hooks. I tend to hit the newspapers, books, movies and real life (you be surprised how many plot hooks you can get at your local mall). IMHO the key is to engage the players and make them feel they are affecting the world around them. They are heroes (or villains after all).

I like to keep the PC's guessing and sometimes making the hard choices. Such as this example. PC's ride into a village and are approached by some of the more well heeled personages. They explain to the PC's that someone is stealing their gems and they will pay well to see the person responsible is hung in the town square.

However the PC's found themselves in a pickle when that person doing the crime was not stealing the gems per say. They where eating them (they had pica its a disorder that causes a craving for non-foods). So the hard choice was the person was technically stealing the gems however they could not control themselves.

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I would recommend the answer which urges you to look to history. In particular I would recommend some none-fighting side quests, since it sounds like the players have enough of that in their main quest. The possibilities are endless:

  • power of suggestion 1, the players encounter a person in power (probably someone with soldiers or some other power or alignment preventing the players from using force as a solution) which having his mind set on something that will lead to disastrous results for someone. The players will have to convince the person the errors of his ways, perhaps even try to find a solution that will prevent the person from loosing face.
  • power of suggestion 2, same as earlier but with a more rushed approach for a quicker encounter. E.g. the person is on his way to kill his fiance /friend for some betrayal, the characters need to prove him wrong to convince him/her otherwise.
  • An opportunity too good to miss, the players stumble upon a golden opportunity either to steal or retrieve stolen property. But the forces are overwhelming so a failure will be fatal or lead to a hasty retreat.
  • Too grateful, the players rescue someone, resulting in a grateful fan following them around. While being a good /resourceful character he/she have no notion about being careful/tactful/quiet so the players will have to find some good way to get rid of him before he get himself or the party killed.

I could go on like this for ages but I think you got the idea.

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You don't need to have orcs, goblins, etc to have conflict and drama. Just look at real earth history!

Don't have generic 'bandits' attack a village, have it pillaged by the minions of Baron Vladric, the renegade ruler of a remote mountain castle that terrorises the neighbouring countryside. He has a contingent of knights (as tough as any PC) and recruits barbarians from the far hill tribes, paying them with loot. He has some obscure hereditary claim on the throne which he uses to justify his depredations, and fences much of his loot through contacts in the local aristocracy that aren't above profiting indirectly from his activities.

Look at Game of Thrones. No goblins, orcs, kobolds or Halflings (well... almost) yet bags of conflict, character and adventure.

Every time you catch yourself thinking in terms of 'bandits' or 'monsters' thinks abot who these people are, who are their leasders, what are their long term goals, why is this happening? Put names to the faces.

I'm starting a King Arthur Pendragon campaign at the moment. I'd highly recommend picking up some of it's supplements for an alternative look on how to run a 'medieval' game that's radically different from anything the D&D world has to offer, but many of the basic ideas could be easily ported back into a D&D campaign.

+1 to Simon Wither's post too. There are more than a few ways to skin this cat.

Simon Hibbs

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+1 for looking at monsters goals and Pendragon reference :) –  Rob May 16 '12 at 8:22

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