I'm absolutely new to DnD, as my whole group is, and I am the DM. For an easy introduction to the game I chose the H1 adventure (Keep on the Shadowfell).

In the first and second combat encounter the PCs are ambushed by a group of Kobolds.

This may be a silly question, but I am looking for tips and tricks to improve my skills as DM. How am I supposed to play an ambush?

I mean, I read some guides regarding this, as well as side notes in the adventure, but none of them helped me really. As soon as I lay down the battlegrid/map, every player is like "aaah... a map, there will be some kind of ambush...", and that's not what I want them to think.

Is this the way it should be? Should I force them to do insight/perception checks? What if they fail? Should I forbid them to draw their weapons then? Or is there another way of handling such situations? How do you handle them?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Please clarify if you're interested in keeping your players or your players' characters from anticipating an ambush. It's a crucial distinction. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 13:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, if your players are anticipating the combat because you lay down a battle map, maybe you could try laying down the map from the beginning of every session, combat encounters planned or not? Or maybe don't lay down the map until the players have rolled initiative? \$\endgroup\$
    – Brian S
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 16:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ ^This. A key part of being DM is misdirection. Roll dice often between combats, especially d20s, so that your players aren't automatically suspicious whenever you reach for your dice. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dakeyras
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 17:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ I make it a habit to ask my players to hand me their passive perception or insight scores at random times, just to keep them on their toes. Also "How much HP do you have, again?" \$\endgroup\$
    – DampeS8N
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 19:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Among all the great answers and comments so far, remember that maps are not just for combat encounters. You likely should drop a map for any kind of significant (non-combat) encounter/exploration as well. This helps train players not to expect combat every time you pull out a diagram of a road. That said, do not drop a map prior to ambush unless there is a genuine need to determine player/monster position before combat begins. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 14, 2013 at 4:53

6 Answers 6


Well. There is much advice and hints and tips and tricks to be learned. But I will keep on task, and I will help you in your specific situation. You can ask more questions later, relating to any other aspect of running a game that you want.

The Journey

The start of the ambush begins as the players first start on their way. You describe their surroundings, what kind of path, or road they are traveling, you ask them to describe how they are traveling, what things they bring with them, etc... because obviously as the GM you should know what your players are up to, how they are dressed, how they prepare themselves, etc. This lets the players describe to you their preparedness without them knowing they are doing that in preparation for an ambush.

Example: The players are just packing up their camp on their second morning on the road between two towns. You describe the path to them as muddy from the nights rains, and the scattered trees as glistening with rain drops, the breeze is sharp and slightly cold, and the sun is still rising over the horizon, You ask them to describe how they dress, how they prepare, because after all - the journey awaits. The warrior describes to you how he is wearing his armor and cape, but that he puts his bow in the wagon because he fears it getting dirty on the mud if he walks with it, and the wizard explains how since his robes are now soaking wet, he switches to his traveling gear (which incidentally, don't have his secret pocket full of alchemist fire flasks). etc etc.....


Here is an important part of the ambush, you want to check if maybe your players characters can detect the ambush, but you must do it in a way that they do not feel they are about to walk into an ambush. You want them to roll their perception (spot, listen, smelling, 6th sense - whatever) without knowing its for an ambush, and also after the roll, they should be feeling safe and unsuspecting.

Example: You describe to the players how they spot the carcass of a dead deer on the path ahead, and ask them to roll their perception. You generously describe the deer and its surroundings to those with higher rolls, and mention that it poses no threat since they can clearly see the animal was killed by a hunter who took its antlers. The players who may have initially been concerned with a dead body, are now calm and unafraid. And you have their perception rolls for the scene.

The Twitch

Something is not quite right. Some of the players may start to be suspicious, this indicates that the players have caught on to the fact that something may be afoot. Preferably this happens after you have already got everything in place, if not - you need to act fast before the ambush is too expected. Regardless, this is the point that you will be at right before The Reveal.

Example: A player may ask you "Will anything interesting happen here? Why are you describing to us this boring forest as we walk by?" Or "Dude, this is totally an ambush!" (okay, I don't have amazing examples)

The Reveal

This is the moment you have been building towards, it needs to be grand and really make your players feel surprised. Regardless, once the ambush is revealed, your deception is pretty much over, and combat (or fleeing) will begin.

Example: Maybe an arrow suddenly flies past them, narrowly missing them, signifying the start of the ambush. Or perhaps the shouts and screams of a dozen Kobolds suddenly surround them from all sides as they charge forth from the forests concealment.

On The Table

About what you do physically: Only pull out the map after the ambush has been revealed. Until then this is just a normal day traveling the road, and you describing the wonderful scenery. Based on their perception rolls and how they describe their characters, you will judge their preparedness (including their initiative rolls) to see if they can draw weapons, or prepare anything else for the ambush.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ "You want them to roll their perception (spot, listen, smelling, 6th sense - whatever) without knowing its for an ambush, and also after the roll, they should be feeling safe and unsuspecting." - There's an easy way to handle that in 4e: passive perception. If anyone's passive perception is higher than an ambushee's hide check, then he probably sees an ambush of at least 1+ creatures. Otherwise, the party is walking into it and the DM is slapping the map down after the ambushing party already has arrows in the air. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ellesedil
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 15:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another option is to ask the characters to make standard perception rolls during each day of the journey, even if nothing of note occurs. \$\endgroup\$
    – RobertF
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 15:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RobertF In my experience, that just annoys the players. If I do something like that, I sometimes roll for the players myself. Or assume they are at a take 10. \$\endgroup\$
    – Inbar Rose
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 16:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @InbarRose, considering "take 10" on Perception/Insight is the character's passive Perception/Insight... \$\endgroup\$
    – Brian S
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 16:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ The last paragraph is likely the real issue for the OP here. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 16:57

Players only know what you tell them. When an ambush is about to happen, don't tell them that something is about to happen – tell them that something is already happening. Then lay down the map and proceed with the ambush already in progress.

Perception checks (either passive checks made by you before you say anything about an ambush, or regular checks made by them after the ambush is in progress) are appropriate. The effect of successful checks is that they have a slight advantage as the ambush begins (not being totally surprised). If they fail the checks, they are completely surprised, which means they don't get to act in the first round.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Instead of having the players actively roll perception checks, isn't that what passive perception is for? You're traveling along, minding your own business, maybe chatting, etc. I'd let someone roll an active perception check if they request it, but otherwise it should probably be just a comparison of the party's passive perception vs the ambushing party's hide check. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ellesedil
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 15:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Better, is that the effect of a successful perception check is that the 'encounter' starts some amount of time earlier. They roll the check, and the result indicates how far before the actual ambush they get to start. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 17:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or, depending on the situation, move the ambush that much farther down the road from where they are. You are perfectly free to leave off deciding when players get somewhere or where something is, and later decide that they spot the oasis right now or that the ambush they would walk past is located 35 feet ahead of where they are now. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 17:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AJM Normally, yeah. This particular ambush in H1 is a bit railroady, so I'm aiming to accommodate that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 17:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ellesedil Good catch, thanks. It's been a while since I've run 4e. The principle here is the same, but I forgot passive checks were a thing. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 6:14

Hide the ambush in plain sight!

Since you play battle-mat style, I would just put the mat out at the beginning of the game.

When the players start out in the morning (or continue from last week), draw the road they are traveling along. Then ask them to mark where their characters are in the marching order. As the group travels along, describe something interesting (but not unique), like a copse of trees that is showing autumn colors in the middle of summer... and draw it on the map, but it's not the ambush. A while later, draw any of the other feature(s) of the ambush and describe memorable, but otherwise unimportant things in mundane terms.

So, now you have on your mat a road with minis in marching order, and the ambush site already drawn on the board. That early-autumn copse of trees? That's a regular copse of trees with a few kobolds in it and that cliff-face on the other side of the road with a statue to a long dead king carved into it? It's now a regular cliff that has a few kobolds with large rocks on top of them. Since the ambush is fully set up, all you need to do is ask for surprise/perception rolls and have the kobolds spring their trap.

However, don't overdo the misdirection

Sigmund Freud once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar". If you only set up ambushes this way, sooner or later, the players will realize that any time an interesting/different/unusual thing that has no bearing in the plot comes out, it's going to hurt them some way or another later on. Maybe describe 2-3 things like this in a gaming session, but only use 1 of them for an ambush, or let a session go by without an ambush at all (just throw all the clues out there so the players will be paranoid all game). Maybe the final thing is not the copse of trees, or the rock face, or the babbling brook, but the roadblock in the road they see as they come around a corner.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I like the idea in concept. But I think that the counter example is going to come into play more than not, making this a one-shot type of use. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chuck Dee
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 16:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ This would be great, but I worry that not everyone would actually be able to manage doing something like this. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 17:10

Discuss metagaming as group

You've received several good answers about how to hide your intentions from the players. I'd like to add that it's worth deciding (as GM, or together as a group) how much metagaming you want.

Metagaming isn't inherently good or bad, but if you decide that you want players to play their characters based only on what they would really know, say so. As a player I personally find that having my character make a choice that's realistic based on what she knows (but that I as a player know is likely a bad idea) can be part of the fun.

If what you want to do is surprise the characters (and if the group agrees not to metagame) you may just need to gently remind them what their character does/n't know, and to play from that perspective.


If they spot the ambush, they spot the ambush. Let them feel good about it.

Other than that, ask for general marching order. This is something that should be established regardless of an ambush. If a dart trap shoots the leader in the chest, you need to know who that is. If the leader is a halfling and the dart sales over his head, you need to know who was right behind him. When a portcullis falls, splitting the party, you need to know who is on what side.

Anyway, establish a marching order. Establish that you always establish a marching order, so the players aren't suspicious of it. Then ask for perception rolls. Then lay down the board and surround them with kobolds. Either the players spotted the ambush and can react as they like, or they didn't and the kobolds can jump out of the bushes when the party marches in front of them.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is not what the OP is asking about. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 17:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ I disagree. This is how I run ambushes so the players don't see through them right away. If you only do marching order or initiative when an ambush happens, the players pick up on that. \$\endgroup\$
    – valadil
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 18:28

There are 3 really good ways of keeping them from recognizing the ambush. The first is always have the battle mat out, that way the ambush could come at any time, and it always keeps the PCs on their toes. The second is bring out the mat only after they've been ambushed, but to do this effectively, you need to have them specify marching order at all times. The third is do what you've been doing, but as a regular encounter visible from a distance, then when they're close have the rest of the troops jump the characters.


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