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The "ambush in the night" is a staple of adventure fiction: Arrows fly through the night, but the heroes can't see who is shooting. I'm interested in recreating such a scenario in D&D 4e, but the rules for stealth and invisibility are notoriously complex, and I don't understand all of them just yet.

How can I recreate an "ambush in the night" scenario in D&D?

Attacks seem to cancel out any benefit gained from being hidden. If this is the case, how can I maintain a sense of danger and unseen attackers within the limits of the D&D rules? The Rules of the Hidden Club state that "Everyone knows where everyone else is, at all times, period." Does this mean it simply isn't doable without house rules because it violates a central concept of D&D combat?

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The Hidden Club greatly amuses me. –  mirv120 Aug 12 '11 at 16:11
    
+1 for The Hidden Club link... –  F. Randall Farmer Aug 12 '11 at 20:49
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6 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

If it is dark enough attacks cancel out the benefits of being hidden (enemies not aware of your position), but they do not cancel out the benefits of concealment and cover (or total concealment of superior cover). This is where most of your benefit of an ambush comes in in 4e. Also If your monsters have total concealment (such as from complete darkness and no one with low light vision or dark vision in the party) they can make a check to hide following a move action. So my recommendation for ambushing a party would be the following:

  • Surprise your party (say they forgot to set a watch, or didn't have a fire or something)
  • Shoot at them from distance
  • Move
  • Hide

This way if your party does not have an immediate light source they are out of luck for a few minutes (until they remember the sunrods in their packs, then they should be able to see, so make sure you have at least some cover that your enemies are hidden in so they can retain their hidden quality for that first round).

This should give you at least 2 rounds with a feeling of ambush (combat advantage/to-hit penalties for PCs) until it becomes an all out skirmish.

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I recently conducted an ambush on my PCs using drow, whose Cloud of Darkness racial power can give them total concealment. I mixed this with a homebrew flash-bang to really give the attackers the drop on my party. So if it's night, and a drow uses Cloud of Darkness, and one of the drow throws a Blinding Bomb (AV p.26 or roll your own), you are most of the way there. I was only going for a one-round salvo where I gave the PCs a good scare and showed them things were stacked against them; there were enough other terrain problems that I didn't feel the need to pile on.

You could add the Cave Fisher Angler's "Sniper" trait (MM3 p. 28 - ranged attacks that miss do not reveal the shooter's position) and you're really getting into a stacked deck. A variety of low-level creatures can shift as part of their standard action ranged attacks, which will let them fire from a given position, and shift behind total cover and make a stealth check, and then expend a move action to further displace themselves.

If you have a DDI Compendium Account, look for creatures with the words "shift" and "ranged" or the word "mobile" in their monster cards. The Drow Adventurer from Dragon 370 is a nice template, but I find the monsters from the magazines are often overly complex. Take the parts you like and roll up some MM3-compliant creatures. Base them on Lurkers or Skirmishers (DEX based attacks, typically includes Stealth training).

Lastly, if you do it too well, your PCs are likely to get very frustrated for lack of targets. Remind them that they can drop prone to increase their defense against ranged attacks, and they can delay-or-prepare actions to take advantage of the few moments when the enemy are exposed. Let them make PERCEPTION checks as minor actions to ferret out a stealthed enemy.

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A way to make it seem that it is a surprise is to muffle the d20 roll and if it doesn't hit, don't say anything about it. If it does hit say "_____ feels the sharp pain of an arrow" but don't tell where it's coming from. I would say that you should not give any bonus to hitting, unless the attacker has dark vision or lowlight vision. This should lead to a pretty fun battle in the night.

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That would probably work, but it seems to go against the D&D rules (for example, the ability to remain hidden after missing an attack is exclusive to just a few monsters). I'm primarily looking for solutions within the ruleset. –  Jakob Aug 12 '11 at 7:55
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I tend to be of the school that if you’re going to ‘suspend’ rules, then make the suspension obvious. By this I mean, make it always clear you’re not ‘cheating’, instead, actually plot out some well-thought-out exception to any rule. An artifact, some natural feature (fog), creatures who by their very nature ambush well, etcetera. Then, and I think this is equally important, whatever you implement, have it impact play outside of the incident. For example, if an artifact, have it be part of some overall plot. If part of the area, make it a legendary feature of the area and bring it up again (in songs, lore, whatever). This is to allow the players to feel part of the story and less like passive supporting characters in ‘your personal movie’.

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I really like Wax Eagle's answer, but had another thought...

One way to create this ambush is to use a large number of minions (3x party size?), spread out starting with Total Concealment.

As per @Wax's answer, if they have surprise - great. That's a free round of arrows. Also move back into Total Concealment and (attempt to) Hide. But with so many minions, it doesn't matter so much if they succeed.

Also, these are "monsters", so you can add an single-use power:

Raining Death Trigger: [monster] makes basic ranged attack during a surprise round Effect: [monster] makes a second basic ranged attack as a free action.

With a standard sized party, this is 30 arrow attacks in a single round, all with combat advantage. Scary!

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I think that ambushes and mysteries go really well together. You should think about why the ambusher is ambushing, how they get their supplies and how they cover everything up, etc. Then, you could leave some clues behind and have your characters unravel the mystery.

If you want to set up an ambush, you should draw a canyon or something, and then turn the walls into forest or field, or whatever you want the ambush to look like. Ambushes traditionally take place on paths and roads, even if they happen in the forest. So, make sure that your caravan is 'following a path'.

Not only do ambushers have to know where their quarry is going to be, and the time they are going to be there..., they also have to be creative in their means of overtaking the enemy. Draw out some clever characters who use things like bombs/TNT, traps, and other clever devices which serve to disable and pin down. I always thought a caster who could make everything in a radius happen in slow motion, or envelop everything in darkness, would be great for a tactical ambush.

Make sure the people doing the ambush are covering their identities. Maybe one die hard guy in the ambush is stupid enough to go in without a face mask, but he would have to be suicidal if there's any form of law in your realm. People don't like to go head-to-head with the lawful good when they don't have to. The only reason someone would take his or her mask off would be to call the heroes being ambushed out, directly.

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