I'm planning an encounter where a mid level party would be assaulted by a a large number of lower level characters. We've all read Tucker's Kobolds, but what makes this kind of encounter actually work? Tactics? Terrain? Annoyance factor?

How can I plan an encounter for a 6th level characters that will truly challenge them using mainly 1st to 3rd level NPCs?

Note: while this question is for Pathfinder, I'm open to more general answers on how to make this sort of thing work.

For those interested, the party assaulted a foreign dignitary's hotel room, in an upper crust district of a large city. I'm preparing for the possibility that they won't be able to talk their way out of it, and are assailed by the city guard.


4 Answers 4


Teamwork, resources, environment, and planning.

Defenders have a tremendous advantage. They don't have to carry stuff in. They don't have to scout. And they have reserves.

Defenders with an established structure have all sorts of capital:

  • Human Capital
  • Infrastructure
  • Temporal capital

Human Capital

Human capital is the first trick. An adventuring party is fundamentally limited in the number of people they have. These people have relatively limited resources attached to them. There are expenditures, but the nature of adventuring life is that most resources are dropped into incredibly inefficient gear because of the number of hands available to hold it.

By breaking away from the adventuring life and investing in people, you fundamentally get more actions per round. Now, while at much higher levels a capable tier-1 caster laughs at a horde of underlings, there are many things to be feared from a structure that communicates.

At the end of the day, hiring guards based on their ability to Use Magic Device and issuing them all wands of Magic missle is a huge advantage. You don't need to worry about accuracy, and 4 people with a wand of magic missle are far far cheaper than a high level wand.

More to the point, by having purely-defensive people in place and allocating them their own resources for defense means that you don't even need to worry about defensive measures for your offensive folks.

What's even better is that these resources sit around. From the relative cost scales of higher-level gear... if you need to use these resources, you'll probably capture more than their value from the idiots you're using them against.

As a means of insurance, having spells to take care most of the more common problems (adventurers being top of the list) you can amortize the risk and therefore the cost of adventurers over weeks and months, instead of having to pay for the acute cost of repairs.

From a technical point of view, you want to invest in level 1 stuff for most of your mooks. One shot potions, poisons, and wands are absolutely fantastic for this sort of thing. They sit around until they're needed, and there's no worry of "should I save it for later."

Details on loadout:

  • Wand of Magic Missle
  • More


Infrastructure is a kind of investment that is nominally impossible or not particularly useful for adventurers. There are different roles for structure, but protection and subdual is the critical aspect here.

The critical thing here is to allow them an "out" so that they aren't forced onto deadly ground. Instead, the architecture should make it harder to go to important places and easier to go to exterior places.

Of course, these exterior places, not being frequented by the public, can have various man-traps (sally ports and whatnot) to thereby contain adventurers in a safe (to the infrastructure) location for handling. But giving them an escape route into this area is critical so that they don't stick around and damage important bits.

Therefore, infrastructure is something that can take as muh money as you want to put into it, and will repay the hotel handsomely.

Features of infrastructure are a function of the role that you want the infrastructure to play

Roles of infrastructure

  • Client Protection
  • Aggression channeling
  • Disturbance containment

Temporal capital

There are two types of temporal capital. Planning and the action economy. The greatest luxury that your environment will have is the ability to have a very short OODA loop. With a plan, the reactions of the opposition will get inside the adventurer's OODA loop leaving them with the feeling that they just need to di di mau because things are simply moving too quickly and the opponents are too well organized.

By having quick reaction forces in place with plans and alert signals, the hotel will completely violate the adventurers OODA loop and social construction of "dungeon." (as the idea of dungeon does not have mutually reinforcing and escalating waves to force people along a desired path. Because fairness.)

Temporal investments

  • Signals
  • Plays
  • Graduated response

Use the maxims of a party against them;

  • Hit them from surprise. The guards attack the party when they're asleep, when half of them are out shopping ("Bob didn't come back from the alchemist, and Fred is still at the armourers...")
  • Split the party up (Drop a portcullis between them as they go through a gate, roll a wagon between them, use the 1st level mist spell so they can't see anything)
  • Target the healer (Penny Arcade has it right)
  • Block their escape routes (Directions that lead down a dead end, vehicles in the way, blocked doors)
  • Drug them (The tavern keeper slips something in their drink while they're resting, poison darts)
  • Use their allies ("This note says they have your mother Bob, that she's begging you you to turn yourself in")
  • Stun them with sheer numbers (HOW many guards are outside the building?)
  • Make the party fight itself (Charm, Offer one of the party a get out in they turn in the others "It's your only option to survive")
  • I am the god of hellfire (Burn them, burn them good; get them in an expendable building over a tempting job offer; nail the building shut (or hold portal it) and BURN the place down, smoke, flames, arrows waiting for them if they try to get out... nasty nasty)

And low level doesn't mean that spells can't help of course; there's plenty of really nice low level spells to buff the guards and scare the hell out of the party; obviously with a level difference you want to choose ones that don't give the party a saving throw as they'll make that save pretty often; Here are some suggestions from first level:

Cleric spells:

  • Murderous Command A really nasty spell to spam into the party, only takes one failed save...

  • Ray of Exhaustion The beauty of this spell is even if they save, they are still Fatigued

  • Bless Target is caster and All Allies within 50 feet, even at first level this spell is a no-brainer for a host of guards.

  • Summon Monster After all, the guards would rather NOT die; this ups the odds and brings them in some variety for no-pain; back to the burning building again, they can just be summoned inside the building with the panicking party!

Wizard/Sorcerer spells:

  • Hold Portal Medium range means they can't duck out of doors even if they find them.

  • Grease They fighting in a confined area? Oh they'll love you for this one.

  • True Strike Give an elven wizard a bow or anyone a crossbow; their AC really won't matter any more, great Ambush starter!

  • Charm person Massive long duration and again an easy one to spam in and turn the tide of battle.

  • Ray of Enfeeblement Low duration but even saving it gives half effect; this will really peeve the fighters.

And useful low-level magic items that guards could typically use:

  • Thunderstones: A great way to mess up the mage and slow down the whole party; DC15 fortitude or -4 initiative and 20% chance to miscast.

  • Tanglefoot bags: Great crowd control, and even with a successful save the character can only move at half speed.

  • Splash damage weapons: (acid, fire) Everyone takes damage so casters need to make concentration checks to cast.

That should give a few things at least to keep them busy :)

  • \$\begingroup\$ You're focusing on purely hostile ambushes a lot. While not wrong in general, the particular situation mentioned in the question, or a similar one, is barely covered at all, because a) there's no oportunity for a surprise moment, as the PCs would just have failed to solve the conflict by talking, and b) the low-level NPCs, in this case, are willing to kill the players if necessary, but would rather not unless they have to. \$\endgroup\$
    – Egor Hans
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 9:56

The key is to run the NPCs or low level monsters with a brain (assuming they have one, of course). They're not just sitting there waiting to be attacked. Ask yourself - if the PCs were in the NPC's shoes, what would they do? They'd set up traps, strategies, lies, etc. - all for the purpose of succeeding at their task and surviving.

If you ever want a good example of this, have someone play the NPCs as their characters. I had a GM that would do this occasionally when friends would be visiting. Instead of giving them a character, he'd let them run some of the monsters we were fighting. We hated it because inevitably it meant that the NPCs would be played with the goal of actually winning and surviving, rather than just to be fodder for the players to hack down. Monsters that normally would give us little trouble suddenly became very difficult to overcome. Any and all concern for the PCs safety that the GM might have shown went out the window.

So in your case, maybe the town guard might not confront the PCs. Perhaps they just let them think they talked their way out of it, follow them back to the inn they are staying at, and hit them with overwhelming force when they arent expecting it. Just because an NPC is first level doesnt mean they are stupid :-)


This suggestion might not be quite what you have in mind if you don't want an instant TPK, but a "challenging" (APL+1) encounter can easily murder an L6 party using only level 1's.


Your budget for NPC's with player class levels is CR7 for a party with APL 6.

NPC's with PC class levels count towards CR at one step lower than their number of levels, for L1's this means they are CR 1/2, so you can have 14.

14 wizards - level 1, cat-fearing wizards..


Their WBL is 390gp each, or double this if your setting is "high fantasy" (20 point point buy). Either way, they can comfortably afford a level 3 scroll each. Let's say all Fireball for simplicity (you could go for a much more nasty mix).

The DC for them to cast successfully is a poxy (DC = scroll's caster level + 1), and they all have a +1 to the check as they are L1 casters - they need to roll a 4. Therefore, they each have a 17/20 = 85% chance, meaning you will get on average 12 off successfully. Make sure everything else about their build is geared towards extra initiative. Improved Initiative feat and the elven trait Warrior of old would be a good start giving +6.

Fireball cast from a scroll has a 520 foot range (CL3), so make sure all your mooks are 100-500 feet away from the party at the start of the encounter and really well spread out. They can just calmly encircle the entrance... or just spam the Fireballs through the room window come to think of it.

How well will the party deal with an alpha strike of 12 fireballs? My guess is not well.

Obviously the mooks can all focus fire plain old magic missile from spell slots at any smouldering survivor who lives and gets within 110 feet.

I'm not saying do this, it would be terrible GM'ing, I'm just pointing out that all the complex McGuyver stuff in Tucker's Kobolds is pure fluff. Any CR appropriate encounter set up by a character who is not retarded (i.e. whoever decided to hire guards) with time to prepare can (and logically should) totally annihilate the party entirely within RAW, this method was simply the first that sprang to mind. Of course, logic is not always your friend when trying to tell a story.

I would also add that if you didn't have the defensive measures in place written down you before even told the party about the hotel, retconning anything "clever" after the fact is pure bullshit. If you making it up on the fly, you should roll the guards randomly or something.

In response to Drew's comment:

Drew: I guess the gist of my suggestion would be that you can mix in some cheap (in terms of CR) NPC's with level 3 and 4 scrolls, giving you access to a more interesting range of spells with higher DC's.

Confusion, Fear and Haste would probably be my top choices from the level 3 Wizard list. The first two would have a DC 15 will save, so there is a reasonable chance of someone failing.

Deeper Darkness from the cleric list could synergize well with L2 Barb guards with the Scent rage power. Make sure you read the rules on light levels carefully.

I'd probably go with two L2 Barbs, an L4 Barb guard commander, a couple L1 Clerics with L3 scrolls and a couple L1 wizards with L3 scrolls.

Hasted raging Barbs with Scent after dropping the PC's into a couple areas of supernatural darkness will make for a tough encounter, and also be somewhat interesting.

I would have the casters up on a balcony or something if possible, or on rooftops at a decent range if the encounter happens once the party get outside. Also remember that deeper darkness from a scroll will last 3 minutes and is cast on an object, so could comfortably be cast before combat starts if the guards know the PC's are coming or know where they are and move in to attack. You can shove it on the guard commander's armor. The encroaching wave of darkness spilling along the corridor as he and his underlings approach could be a nice descriptive element.

You can also legitimately have two follow up 'normal' encounters after the first 'challenging' one, which will hopefully burn off party resources.

Splitting the party is a good idea if possible, but dropping a portcullis by GM caveat seems a bit cheap since there really isn't anything the party can do about it. Having guards have keys to all the doors in the building and locking a door be a standard action seems reasonable (closing would be a move, the same as opening). If the party happen to get themselves on opposite sides of that big ballroom door and a guard can get to it and then next turn use a move to close it and a standard to lock it with the key, the party are unlikely to feel that you made something up not covered by the rules. You could use Bull Rush to good effect to reposition a PC or two to allow for this, and Bull's Strength cast from a scroll will mean those raging Barbs are hideously strong (and again it lasts 2 mins and so could be cast as the party approach or as the guards approach the party). Presumably the guards' cheif mage would have been Scrying the VIP, and should make an attempt to Scry one of the party immediately.


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