I just started to DM. I want the players to get to a bandit camp, but I want them to look around for it. They will have general directions like "Somewhere over the hills", but I can't think of a way to get them there without telling. The party consists of a Ranger, Fighter, Monk, and a Sorcerer. The camp will be west of the city, which is a hilly area. We are playing D&D 5e.
Bandits have to raid sometimes, that's what they do. If the party can find the site where one of these raids happens, they can find a trail to follow back to the camp. If they manage to catch them in the act, the trail will be pretty fresh!
Nature and Survival checks are usually the primary means of tracking people down. Your Ranger is likely to be helpful here.
If people in the town are aware that the party is actively hunting the bandits, you could have a caravan offer to hire them as guards, with the understanding that if (when) the bandits attack the party will be chasing them down rather than continue with the caravan to its destination.
The best answer to this question depends a lot on why you want your player characters to have to look for the camp instead of just finding their way there.
If you want to challenge your players...
...as opposed to challenging just their characters, you have to give them a degree of agency in locating the camp. This could mean getting to choose between approaches: do they wander the woods cautiously, looking for tracks, or perhaps try to attract attention? Maybe they can lure out a group of bandits, beat them in battle and interrogate one of them for directions. And this being DnD, various detection spells can help the players discover the camp too.
To give the players agency, three things are important:
- The players need to have such choices to make
- Those choices need to have an impact
The players must have enough information to make informed choices.
This means you, as the GM, had best play fair! If the players get lucky or come up with a clever way to locate the camp without hours of trudging through the mushy mosses of the forest where the camp is hidden, you should let them have it. If you try to short-change your players by having the defeated bandits suddenly resist interrogation at superhuman levels or not remember their way back to the camp, they won't feel accomplishment upon finally reaching the camp - they feel they've only won because you finally let them.
If you want plot, combat encounters or both to happen during the search...
...don't really stress that the camp's location is very vague in the first place. Put it in terms like "it shouldn't be too hard to find once you're close". Once the players depart for the camp, have whatever combat encounters or plot events you had planned, after which can simply narrate that they catch the tracks that lead them to the camp.
If you simply think it should be as hard as it is in real life...
...well, you don't really need to make your players suffer for it. You could do something like make them roll Wisdom (Survival) to see how well they can find signs of the bandits in the wilds and determine whether they take two hours or two days to find the encampment, but that's about as much rolling as I'd recommend if your goal is only to portray the hardships of searching the wilderness. You can simply narrate the resulting travel time and experiences: if the party rolls well, explain how they find the tracks in dried mud and can follow them to camp. If the party rolls badly, they can get lost in the wilds, and only find the camp by being ambushed by a patrol guarding the bandit camp's perimeter.
While it is tempting to have them roll often as to test their characters' explorer skills, it's not very exciting for a player to repeatedly roll the dice just for being in the woods - rolling the dice is less of a player action than an invocation for a random number generator, so your players would be mainly spectators until they got lucky. If you want lots of rolls, you can always make it interesting by also giving the players lots of choices - see the first part of this answer.
A couple of different tricks I have used.
Have them see a foot print (with some special mark on the sole of the shoe) from a bandit attack, then tell them have a similar type of foot print show up on a trail and have them follow that trail.
Have campfire smoke go up from the bandit camp in the middle of the woods.
You list a ranger, if they have a pet have it track by smell or sight.
I'm sure there are other more creative ways.
Making people do what you want? That's just a question of motivation! Now, how to motivate people? Carrot and stick this is! Either promise to give them something so they want (carrot)... or promise to not give them what they don't want (stick). Ok, so much for the generalities.
Finding a location without telling them where a place is is a task of searching, hunting or pursuing, but then you need to give them a good hint what they are looking for. Some examples:
- The group is on the hunt for the white deer they heard to be roaming in the Worchestershire forests. The typical result should be them searching through the forest and tracking for deer prints.
- The group was in the bank when it was robbed. They see the culprit running, so they pursue it. They don't know where the hunt will lead, but they have a clear indicator where the target is at the moment.
Another way to get players to go somewhere specific without giving them the specific target is to either give them a good why or a very general where. Some examples:
- The Duke of Worchestershire wants something nice to dine and sends his best (wo)men out to hunt - they meet the white deer in the forest and might choose to hunt it for him.
- The group is out on patrol through the wildermarsh. They don't know that there is a fresh bandit camp, but they will stumble over it.
- The group is out to find a bandit camp that is located somewhere. When the bandits were last seen they came from the western hills. With that clues they should track the way of the bandits backwards.
- The group is sent out to map the uncharted region and will have to discover everything.
Since you did not mention it, I'll assume they are new or fairly new. Every adventure should always include a motivation for adventure: whether the pursuit of fame, money, a lost love, or something.
As a GM, you cannot control your PCs directly, but you can (and should) influence them through NPCs, their actions and attitudes towards them, their words, and their feelings. Local lords, merchants, and peasants interact with the PCs telling them where to go and what to do.
Questions to ask yourself as you come up with your adventure:
Who hires them?
What does that person know about it? (publicly and secretly)
Why doesn't that person resolve the problem themselves?
What is the preferred outcome for that person?
What is that person willing to offer to get it done?
Every adventure is different and how you answer these questions will get your PCs into the hills west of town.
A lot of good answers have already been given. However here is how I could have handled this:
If you think your players are fine with this, you could make them being captured by the bandits. The adventurers are probably living in the town you mentionned nearby the bandit camp and the bandits probably have spies in this town. making them going to the town is easy: make it so it's the only town nearby so they will naturally come to it for provisions/work/other stuff.
Now we have to different paths of action:
- The adventurers know the bandits are there and want to attack them. They may have been vocal about this (like bragging in a tavern) but even if they are not, they are probably making some preparations. Either way, the bandit spy learn about their intentions and can set up a kidnapping.
- The adventurers don't know about the bandits but the bandits have a long "tradition" of kidnapping. The adventurers will learn about it and with enough motivation (city council reward ?) they will start to investigate about it. And the spy will learn about it!
About the kidnapping: Make them being drugged in one way or another when they are distracted (it needs to be sneaky so it does not make the city guard come). After that:
- If they are all drugged, they are now in the bandit camp and it's time to escape ! I find escape scenarios to be nice if you don't use them too often.
- If one or several of them resists: they have the possibility to capture a bandit and question him about his atcivities thus leading to the camp.
Final point, you need to find a motivation for the bandits to keep prisoners. They could need some workforce for some reason or the bandit camp is the cover for a demonic cult that need sacrificies or they want to sell slaves ... A lot of possibilities exists.
Here's what I always try to remember in these situations.
Not finding the camp is boring and searching grid by grid is often just as boring. Don't make either of these things an option. If the characters know that there are bandits and that they are "somewhere over those hills" then that is enough. Allow them to roll a relevant skill to find them; tracking, survival, whatnot. If the skill succeeds then give them a nice bonus upon finding the bandits. If the roll fails, make the encounter more challenging.
As an example, in one of my games the players had come across a small caravan that had been destroyed. After examining the mess they thought a dragon had attacked. They, being stout-hearted adventurers, wanted to track the dragon down and deal with it.
They wanted to find the dragon. I wanted them to find the dragon. Not finding the dragon was boring and not an option. I had the Ranger roll to track the beast. If he succeeded, they got to start the encounter with the dragon with surprise. if he failed, the dragon got to surprise the party. The skill roll was now relevant and important without failure bringing the whole thing to a grinding halt.
In your situation, I'd likely do something like the following. I'd have one of the characters roll a relevant skill (with others giving aid, as appropriate) and make the stakes of the roll something like this. If the roll succeeds then the party finds the camp without being noticed and they have the opportunity to scout it out. If the roll fails, then they stumble into the camp and the encounter starts without them getting to scout and plan out a course of action.
Anyway, unless the search itself is somehow interesting, I'd blow past the search with some narration and move on to the interesting stuff involved with actually finding the bandits.