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I have a lovely quartet of players trapped in the wilderness, at least 10 days march from the nearest settlement, which is their destination.

There is an antagonistic force in the area, and I had originally planned for it to "hunt" them -- bring less than its full force to bear, to drag out and otherwise endanger them throughout their journey. But I'm looking for something to break up the monotony of 10 days of travel plus once-a-day (or so) combat. The PCs are attempting to escort civilians, so "sidequests" that involve diverting from their destination aren't likely to lure them off.

The arc of this part of the story is that the antagonistic force has switched from passive aggression, ("you were tasked with slaying a werewolf by a third party, who fights to defend himself"), to active aggression ("you are being pursued by werewolves"), with the intent to drive home that their foe is collectively canny, intelligent, and not to be underestimated.

Outside of combats, what can I do to spice up the journey, keeping things interesting when they're not being set upon by monsters?

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    \$\begingroup\$ For those answering, please remember that even subjective answers need to be supported. You may have great ideas here, but if you have't tried them out and can talk about how they went, then you're just generating ideas - and that's something we try and not do here. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 9 at 15:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 9 at 16:06
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To wear down players, your werewolves don't have to fight. They just have to make the PCs think they're about to fight.

The PCs are basically leading a retreat. They have tired, worn-out, non-combatants who need rest and who are slowing down the movement.

The savvy enemy works WITH this weakness rather than pushing against it.

  1. During the day's walk, wait until the entire movement has ground to a halt for a rest. Have a member of the werewolves howl somewhere in the distance -- to far away to risk rushing out for a battle, but close enough to keep everyone on edge. Never directly engage the enemy, but always keep them on their toes.
  2. At night, wait until the noncombatants have had plenty of time to get to sleep. The make a great deal of noise somewhere close enough to rouse the group. Fade into darkness. Again, don't engage, just rouse. This has the added benefit of disrupting your spellcasters' required 8 hours of rest, if they can disrupt often enough for long enough. Plus anyone who needs sleep is going to be exhausted from sleep deprivation. Sleepy people make mistakes and get grouchy.
  3. Keep vigilant. If the group ever starts fighting internally, due to sleep-deprivation and frustration, go in for an attack at the fringes, never directly. Pick off one civilian at the edge of camp. Maybe the guy who storms off in a huff, or the guy who wants to stay away from the arguments. He dies and there's no trace of his body. Opportunistic feeding / attacking is low-risk and high reward for driving up the psychological warfare angle. Maybe leave a body part or two, just to prove something bad is out there.
  4. Never get caught. always stay one step away from them. If they try to scout out your location, fade into the wilderness and regroup elsewhere. Keep them under surveillance so the PCs never get the drop on you.
  5. Seek advantage. If you can capture a civilian, do so. Learn what you can if you're able. Otherwise, torture for effect. The distant screams of a village elder can be quite motivating to your villagers.

All of the above, night after night, day after day, will result in spellcasters who have no spells, NPCs who are at each others' figurative throats, and a worn out group of travelers who cannot hope to make good time towards the village.

Play this up like the first act in a horror film, where stuff keeps happening, but the players never quite see it happen directly in front of them. The mystery will fuel the fires of fear: how many combatants do we face? How tough are they? What are they?

If they panic, the NPCs will certainly panic. And even if they don't, the NPCs might panic anyway, say after a particularly grisly attack happens just out of sight. Panicked people are prone to particularly poor decision-making practices. Use that to further ramp up the terror and worry and fear.

Fear is a self-feeding flame.

The werewolves aren't stupid. They know that a full-on frontal attack could well be suicide. But guerrilla combat techniques let them maintain the initiative (er, not the dice-based initiative, though if they're always sniping from surprise...). They aren't going to get trapped, because they know the terrain and are better equipped for this kind of fight.


The above concepts are basically worked out from years of playing and trying to get into the minds of the NPCs rather than looking at the game as a tactical combat board game.

How would reasonably intelligent foes go about their goals? Do they have goals? They should have goals or they're just raging chaos-monsters in a board game.

So see the scenario through their eyes rather than through the GM's all-seeing eyes. They see an enemy trying to sneak out of their territory after having done bad things. They simply must be punished; that's the law of the pack. So how?

They're not stupid, so they know wading in directly and fighting isn't smart. They have magic and swords; they might win and even if they don't they might weaken the pack too much for survival to be assured.

So that's when they get sneaky.

In my experience, both as player and as GM, "how should I deal with this situation" has many potential answers, but when you treat it as "how would this NPC/these NPCs react to this information or situation" then the responses feel less like generic plot points on a story arc and more like realistic events to roleplay with. And really, that's what works best.

I've never had to deal with werewolves hunting PCs -- from either side of the GM's screen. But I have dealt with long marches, PCs having to escape an unseen foe, and trying not to get caught out in a fight. And those events tend to be far more memorable than any combat encounter.

The best example that comes readily to mind was a mass combat at a convention where two teams went head to head (about 20-30 PCs total). Side A's goal was to capture or kill a child because she was politically important (a princess, or the daughter of an important person?). Side B's goal was to save her or secure her escape. So the fighting raged on for a long time and that was cool and all, but it was just dice; just fighting. But the last four rounds or so? That was when Side B realized they didn't have enough surviving people to secure victory. "RUN!" they yelled to the little girl. She ran. Side A went for a full charge, hoping to capture the girl or hit her with an arrow. Side B stood their ground, trying to save her. They died. To the last man on the field, Side B was wiped out. But their sacrifice secured the girl's escape. So while they all died, they won.

And that? That was memorable. Not for the fighting. But for the sudden shift in goals. The goal wasn't winning the combat round. The goal was that NPC girl and her effort to run.

So yeah. Shift focus. That's what can make a game memorable.

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I can see two discrete challenges in the setup:

March in Wilderness

Food that spoiled and need to forage extra, Water lost because of accident and need to find another source, Foraging becoming extra difficult or dangerous, Pack animals that become wounded or lost or diseased, People becoming tired of afflicted with blisters or sunstroke, etc.

The challenge here is to keep the group moving in good pace, within the 10 days timetable.

Escorted Civilians

Tired and Hungry and Thirsty they become irritable and disobedient to the PCs' pressure to keep moving, some of them may be lost to the enemies and their close ones accuse the PCs of ineptitude, others may form circles that think they know the job better and always have different proposals from what the PCs decide, one or two leaders may form and groups that follow one PC but not another (with detrimental effects in following orders), etc.

The challenge here is to keep group coherence enough to be able to repel the pursuers on a daily basis.

Each of the above can provide encounters on its own, but their interplay can be even more challenging.

Combination of the above

Results of Wilderness challenges should affect the Escorted coherence and stance, and the other way around.

For example, should the PCs decide to do away with a wounded pack animal and redistribute the load to the civilians, there will be grumbling and disobedience down the road later. Or, the one civilian that really knows how to forage will not go foraging with the self-serving rude Ranger of the party.

Also, I would definitely connect all of the above to the daily, as you describe, attrition harassment of their enemies.

I have used all of the above proposed challenges and they were very successful in reducing the tediousness of trekking through the wilderness. However, I found that the approach has one disadvantage: while keeping the march interesting, it became also longer - both in simulation time and real time. Use with caution and good measure...

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you talk a little bit more on why those challenges ended being successful? For instance, I'm not sure why rations would spoil, and it's pretty easy to carry enough rations. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 9 at 13:46
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The werewolves stalk them and purposely drive them off-route (which might take longer!) into a dangerous part of the wilderness that has another intelligent monster: a night hag, an angry druid, rust monsters or a dragon (or whatever you can think of).

Now the players have to deal with another threat:

  • the night hag disturbs their sleep, which makes them exhausted during the day
  • the Druid planted Deathvine or Deathbloom and now they must stay on the path to avoid those (and they cannot forage)
  • they have to be on the lookout for rust monsters which they have to fight in a different way
  • the dragon demands tribute (all of their shinies or one of the NPCs)

These are just examples of what I've thrown against my party. The point is to think of all their other resources and states.

Exhaustion is a great state with multiple levels. These will drive some players to just continue traveling during the night (which non-exhausted (N)PC's might not agree to) creating conflict.

Food, water, time, funds are also great resources for conflict.
If food & water is running out, will they risk their lives in the dangerous wilderness for food? Who has the food & water? Is someone stealing from the supply?
Hunting dangerous animals or casting create food/water can limit their spells and/or other daily actions when the werewolves decide to engage in combat.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not denying these aren't good ideas, but we do have a higher standard here where subjective answers still need to be supported. This is likely the root cause of the downvotes, but if you can back up your answer, you should see a change in the voting as well. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 9 at 12:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for editing in a line about your experience! It might help even more to explain in general or specifically, how the results were when you did that! Regardless, welcome to the site! \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jul 9 at 16:00
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Traps

The easiest way to hunt for something is with a well-set trap. Grab your favorite traps from a campaign module, or devise your own with level-appropriate DCs to make it clear that a powerful, intelligent force is trying to hunt the PCs and their companions.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you used traps during a wilderness trek? How did you use them? How did it work out? What was the player response? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 9 at 14:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch I've had traps used against me during such a trek, and they were quite effective at setting up a feeling of danger in travel. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Jul 9 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ You should definitely add that. Although thinking about it, I guess it's really just turning a wilderness trek into a dungeon crawl. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 9 at 15:07

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