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1st-level characters in the adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak have 3 quests available to them, and one of these is the Umbrage Hill Quest. This pits the players up against a single enemy, a CR 3

Manticore.

The deadly encounter XP threshold for 4 level 1 PCs is 400 XP. The adjusted XP value for this creature is 700 XP. Just looking at the stat block shows how deadly this could be to PCs with 7-13 hp each:

  • It has 68 hp, which is a lot to deal with.
  • It has 50 ft. flying speed, and an effective ranged attack
  • It has Multiattack and can attack 3 times per round with +7 to hit, doing an average of 7 damage per hit.

This thing could easily shred through 4 first-level characters, even if it doesn't just snipe them from the air.

Also note that the party can't buy healing potions, as they are locked behind this quest.

Should I just hide the quest until the characters are 2nd-level?

Note: I realize that there is a possibility that the characters could resolve the scenario peacefully, but my players seem to enjoy combat more than social interaction, and I don't want them to feel railroaded onto a specific course of action.

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3 Answers 3

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The manticore need not immediately go to shred the whole party

In addition to David Coffron's excellent answer, the manticore itself can behave in a way that gives the party some insight into what they're up against.

The manticore can choose to not immediately attack with everything it has

The description of the manticore says:

When outdoors and outnumbered, [the manticore] uses its wings to stay aloft, attacking from a distance until its spikes are depleted.

When the party comes up to the stone windmill, the manticore could take to the sky, to throw some spikes and assess the new foe. After all, the manticore doesn't know that it can shred the party, but it knows it's outnumbered. And it has plenty of spikes, but they're a limited resource. Maybe it's used up some already today and only shoots one or two while sizing up the PCs.

That gives the party a chance to assess what sort of foe they are up against, and perhaps choose to take evasive action, such as get cover in the windmill.

In addition, the manticore can talk to the party. From the manticore description:

A manticore isn’t particularly bright, but it possesses a malevolent nature and the ability to converse. In the course of attacking, it denigrates its foes and offers to kill them swiftly if they beg for their lives. If a manticore sees an advantage to be gained by sparing a creature’s life, it does so, asking for a tribute or sacrifice equal to its loss of food.

And the adventure gives the players (and you) a way out

As David Coffron notes, the adventure says:

Characters can fight or negotiate with the manticore, which ceases its attack and flies away if given at least 25 gp in treasure or a few pounds of meat.

This is an excellent opportunity for you to some time in the future have a return engagement with the manticore, since the adventure says:

If it’s not killed, the manticore could return with its mate to make more trouble in the future.

Scary is good

If the PCs realize they're in over their heads, manage to negotiate way out, and then get to come back another day and win victoriously, that can be a lot of fun, more fun than just always taking on level-appropriate challenges that never feel risky.

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Try to show them that the encounter is too difficult

In order for a world to feel alive and not like it levels with the party it makes sense for their to be encounters that are too strong for the party to handle with combat alone.

A vital skill for DMs is to be able to demonstrate (ideally through narration, but out of game discussion can work as a last resort) that these encounters are too challenging.

A vital skill for players is to learn to pick up on these hints and find noncombat solutions to these encounters or avoid them altogether until they are stronger or have a suitable plan for dealing with them.

There are a number of ways you could show the party that this is too challenging to fight head on:

  1. Rumors in the town about how deadly the creature is (this might feel strange as the quest card doesn't mention this creature specifically).
  • "A buddy of mine lost his leg in a manticore attack a few months back. There were 11 of us on the hunt, and we could barely hold it off long enough to get away"
  1. A character with a suitably high passive Nature skill could be told how dangerous the creature is.
  • "In your time spent in regions similar to these, you read/heard about these creatures and know they aren't something you can easily bring down like a bear, but perhaps they can be dealt with another way."
  1. You could narrate the creature as more dangerous than the party can likely handle (although the party might not get the message).
  • "The creature tears through the iron gate more quickly than even your strongest thunderwave could before barreling towards the front door."

Any of these options and more could get the message across that the encounter should be handled without direct combat.

As a last resort, don't kill the whole party

While stakes in a game are important, this encounter does have specific clause that you could use to end the encounter.

the manticore, which ceases its attack and flies away if given at least 25 gp in treasure or a few pounds of meat.

If the party does face the encounter head on, and finds itself losing, you could have the creature leave after downing an opponent narrating that it takes a large chunk of meat out of the party member before flying off.

Since the creature is largely there for a meal after it was forced out of its home, this doesn't seem that out of place, and the stakes can still be high as the party member needs to have first aid applied before they can recuperate.

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Players will likely have this as their first or even only encounter of the day

Umbrage Hill is balanced for “3rd level or lower”, and as it’s on the way to another of the starting quest locations it’s quite likely to be the first place the players go, as was the case when I ran this adventure. This party of four included a wizard, a cleric, a fighter and a bard, and they fought and killed the creature at the mill as Level 1 characters. They had access to all their resources - full spell slots etc - but didn’t use them all. They brought it down with eleven successful attacks, though IIRC a couple of the characters were knocked unconscious and revived.

This makes sense, because although it’s a deadly encounter, and even though it does have some pretty gnarly advantages over a low-level party, it still uses up only a bit more than half of the daily XP budget for a party of 4 1st level characters: 4 x 300xp = 1,200xp. If the characters aren’t having a full “adventuring day” of many encounters, they are much more able to deal with something this dangerous. If they’re taking even a short rest afterwards, and taking advantage of the potion given to them as a reward (and buying more from the character who lives here), they should not just survive but be okay to head on to the next quest.

And, of course, you’re not obliged to make the creature a master tactician who always takes the smartest move. From memory (and this is four years ago now), I had it fly around for a while shooting spines at them, but when it was wounded, and had hurt one of them, it got angry and came down to use its close attacks, giving the now revived fighter a chance to hit it with bigger attacks. Having two healers in the party helped as well, but I remember they did pretty well.

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