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Tomb of Annihilation is half giant jungle hex-crawl and half dungeon-delving. The hex-crawl features several mini-dungeons, and is littered with random encounters.

The adventure recommends 1-2 random encounters per play session, but I expect that to take several days of in-game time. That leaves each random encounter with a full long rest before and afterwards, meaning players shouldn't be afraid to blow all the tools at their disposal in those encounters. This could have the side effect of making the encounters a breeze, rather than the terrifying, deadly, deep-jungle survivalist feel I'd hope to accomplish.

Options I've considered for upping the ante include :

  • Alternate rest system of 8-24 hour short rests and a weeklong long rest. This would make long resting nearly impossible, however, given the urgency of the campaign, and would be entirely the wrong pace for the later dungeon-crawls.
  • Smashing all the random events into a single day. This feels unrealistic, however, since the randomness is all condensed. Players might also feel like I'm cheating them if I stack the deck like such.
  • Making random encounters significantly difficult. This is a risky option, since it might mean players are much more likely to die, but if encounters are a lot stronger, it could prompt the feel I'm looking for.
  • Make more random encounters. This could include both combat and non-combat encounters, but if they're too easy and the party can dump all their resources into any fight they get into, it still might not provide the survivalist feel i'm hoping for.

Which methods have been used effectively to add difficulty and terror to random encounters, especially in a time-sensitive hex-crawl?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I haven't get got my hands on a copy yet so I'm hesitant to post this as an answer, but I've come across comments online suggesting that the time limit posed by the Curse is pretty tight. If that is accurate, then one solution could be to make sure the players know this, then the characters will probably avoid resting unless they have to. \$\endgroup\$ – tardigrade Oct 6 '17 at 12:44
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Make the adventuring day of variable length

The adventuring day is the length of time between long rests during which resources are expended (such as HP, spell slots, etc). As you mentioned, the resting variant rules in the DMG present one way that the length of the adventuring day can be different from the length of an in-game day by adjusting the required length of short and long rests. The length of a long or short rest need not remain the same throughout an entire campaign. If one of the variants presented is appropriate for part of your campaign, but not another, then you are free to use that variant for only the appropriate part. In your example, you can use 8 hour short rests and weekend long rests while traveling, and standard rest lengths while in dungeons. I have tried this and it works.

I have, however, found something that works better for me. Rather than changing the lengths of rests, I explain to my players that the game is more fun when it is challenging, and get their buy in to deny their characters long rests whenever I see fit. Weather, insects, or even earthquake activity provide in-game justification for why the characters don't gain benefits from an attempted rest. This gives me more complete and satisfying control over the length of the adventuring day without having to actually change any rules to do so.

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There are a few ways that I would add tension to otherwise ho-hum encounters (random or otherwise!):

  • Oftentimes the random encounters in ToA are not necessarily meant to solve by fighting. Sometimes role-playing the encounter leads to situations where the party could easily destroy a group of creatures, but has to spend resources or effort to help them instead. For instance, there is a random encounter with another group of explorers that are starving. Solving that problem doesn't necessarily involve fighting, but instead giving them food, supplies, etc.
  • The party is very often dependent on NPCs or animals that are not that tough. If the monsters target an NPC guide, then the party might have to break ranks to save that person. Maybe the ghouls really like Dino flesh and attack the party's Hadrosaurus that carries all the supplies and loot.
  • Combine the rolled encounters into one running battle! Sometimes you see this in video games as "second phase" boss fights. For example, in ToA there is an encounter with "Terror-folk" and it says that the monsters will wait and watch until the party has another encounter, then swoop down and attack after they are weakened. This wouldn't work for every encounter, but it is sure worth including at least once. :)
  • Usually, when I roll the random encounters, If the encounter lands on the third die, then the party is attacked at night, when they are sleeping. They are caught off guard if the character on watch doesn't notice the monsters approach. They have no armor on, no weapon in hand, etc. That one surprise round can add a lot to the feeling of hopeless terror that you are looking for.
  • Also, specifically to ToA random encounters, it is worth noting that they are not balanced to level. So, a group of 5th level adventurers will necessarily be able to defeat with ease most encounters. But, a low-level party will be surely risking a lot by entering the jungle.
  • Lastly, if the encounters become to easy and are just a waste of time, the adventure gives guidelines for reducing the chance of encounters (15% and 5% as opposed to 25% normally), or just eliminating them altogether.
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The 15-minute adventuring day

You have encountered the 15-minute workday problem - Google it and be overwhelmed with advice.

How many encounters?

Your expectation that 1-2 random encounters will happen over "several days" is wrong. If you use the method detailed in the module and the Binomial Distribution the chance of a given number of encounters per day is:

0: 42%, 1: 42%, 2: 14%, 3: 2%, The mean number of encounters in a day is 0.75 but the median number is 1 (i.e. 50% of days will have this or less, 50% this or more).

A party that blows all their resources on the first encounter has a decent chance of being unpleasantly stretched.

Notwithstanding, based on the figures in the DMG (pp.82-84), an adventuring day should consist of 6-7 Medium encounters, so, even at the upper end you are not seriously going to stretch the PCs.

The Sandbox

The above assumes a normal sort of distribution of encounters, say 50% Medium, 25% Easy, 25% Hard and Deadly saved for major milestone encounters.

However, this is a sandbox - some of the encounters will be beyond Deadly for low level parties.

Consider the last random encounter that starts with "G". Assuming that you roll an average number of enemies, this is a 2,000XP encounter (if you roll the maximum its 3,150): for 4 PCs, this is a more than Deadly encounter for levels 1-4, Medium for 5-8 and Easy after that. A low level party that encounters that and survives is going to feel like they've been put through the wringer. A high level party gets to feel awesome about themselves, particularly if they are the same party having the encounter a second time.

Add in the fact that due to the particular circumstances of the module the stakes of losing are much higher and every battle is a challenge.

Things look different on the other side of the screen

I have given up trying to judge which fights will seem like a challenge and which will seem to be a cakewalk to the players. As a DM you have access to all the information, you know how close the monsters are to dying and the players don't. Therefore, their perception of the risk can be wildly at variance from yours.

I have run battles where I have been sure we were heading for a TPK but talking to the players afterwards they felt they were in no danger and I have also been at the other end where what I felt was a trivial encounter they perceived as a desperate struggle for survival.

What are the encounters for?

You are assuming that the purpose of the encounters are to challenge the party in a life or death sense.

Consider that the purpose of the encounters may be to provide interactive scenery for the players. The encounters are very evocative and thematically linked to where the party is in the wilderness. Yes, the party may blow through them without braking a sweat but it tells them what's going on here in a much more interesting way than death by DM narration.

Enough frame challenge: what's to be done?

  1. There is no reason why your rest cycle cannot be different for wilderness versus dungeon crawl. Outside in the tropical heat you just can't rest as well as when you have shelter and shade. Wilderness: Short Rest 8 hours, Long Rest: 1 full day, Dungeon: Short Rest 1 hour, Long Rest 8 hours.
  2. The 3 "slots" for random encounters feel artificial because they are artificial. If instead you determine the time to the next encounter using an Exponential Distribution (using \$\lambda =1.33\$ if you want the same average number per day) then your players will not know if the next encounter is days or minutes away. Any spreadsheet can do this for you.
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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree with the frame challenge. The module recommends limiting to 2 random encounters per session, and if PCs are traveling between locations, they'll have several days of travel to use those 2 random encounters. Where in the module does it present a method of determining when a random encounter occurs? I don't see it in the random encounter appendix. \$\endgroup\$ – inthemanual Oct 5 '17 at 21:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do agree that removing that artificial limit of 2 encounters per session could help with the problem, but I'm not certain that would be an enjoyable experience for players, if it seems like they're just constantly grinding out encounters. \$\endgroup\$ – inthemanual Oct 5 '17 at 21:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ A “session” is a real world thing while a “day” is an in game thing. They have zero relationship to one another. One session can be many days or one day can take many sessions to play. Your own idea of pacing should dictate who quickly in both sessions and days you want to move thru the module. Single minded parties who focus on progress can minimize both, exploration driven parties could take much, much longer. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Oct 5 '17 at 23:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Who says traveling between locations takes only one session: it could take 10, or none (“you arrive”)? Two encounters will take 1 to 2 real world hours - how many you can fit into a session depends on how long you session is and how much you focus on play instead of flagging around. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Oct 5 '17 at 23:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't disagree with any of that, but I don't think it addresses my concern. Could we take this to chat? chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/66684/toa-encounters-discussion \$\endgroup\$ – inthemanual Oct 5 '17 at 23:27
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Nighttime Predators

Roll for random (combat) encounters while sleeping, except when sleeping in a secured portion of a mini-dungeon. If they get jumped in the middle of the night, that nights' sleep doesn't count as a long rest. Definitely cranks up the feeling of insecurity.

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    \$\begingroup\$ RAW, long rests can be interrupted by up to an hour of strenuous activity and still "count" \$\endgroup\$ – inthemanual Oct 5 '17 at 20:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @THiebert yes, but given that the potential solution-space described in the question includes things like "long rests take an entire week", it seemed like shortening the interruption time would be relatively minor. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Oct 6 '17 at 13:18

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