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I'm GMing a game for friends in 5e (first time GMing anything really). Currently, we're running the Mines of Phandelver campaign with pretty good results. However, my players like to test the limits of the campaign on occasion and explore the surrounding areas during breaks in the action. So far, I've only really inserted the occasional bandits and goblins, considering these are level 2 characters.

Most of the players are beginning to get bored and I'm looking for an unusual, possibly difficult enemy NPC to throw at them next time they decide to get sidetracked, any suggestions? I have access to the campaign materials, the player's handbook, and the monster manual

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hey there and welcome! Please take the Tour when you get a chance as it's a useful introduction to the site. This is a good question but unfortunately, as is, it doesn't really fit within the scope of this site. Could you provide more details about what "unique and challenging" is in this context and what exactly you're looking for? Just about every creature in the monster manual could be considered unique and/or challenging to some regard. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Apr 13 '15 at 17:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ You may want to edit your question to include more specific details about what you're looking for. "Interesting" is different for each person - a well-written band of goblins assaulting a travelling merchant for his pants due to their own pants shortage is an interesting encounter, and all it has is one NPC and goblins. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Apr 13 '15 at 17:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @harlandski I'm not sure but I'd think not. It would limit the question sure but there's still the problem of "unique and challenging" being opinion-based without context. All this question really needs is a slight rewording and a bit more detail so it's not asking for opinions/suggestions and fits the good subjective, bad subjective criteria. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Apr 13 '15 at 18:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ This needs input from the questioner before it can be reopened. At present it is completely opinion based, and although we could edit it ourselves, we'd have no idea as to whether or not the new version of the question was asking what the questioner actually wanted \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Apr 14 '15 at 14:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Excuse my frustration, it's a little difficult to come up with a rule abiding way to ask what I want to ask. I feel like this type of question will be better to pose somewhere else, so I guess the question should be closed. Thanks for the advice and guidance \$\endgroup\$ – chaorace Apr 14 '15 at 15:12
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Though you specify NPCs you mention monsters as examples, so I'll make suggestions about both.

Monsters

As you're using Lost Mine of Phandelver, I suggest you use the Wilderness Encounter table on p 27 of the book. It is expressly designed for low-level characters, and will add the variety you are looking for. As a bonus it will add some interest for you as the DM. I've used this table with level 2 characters and it was fine, though the PCs should be careful around the tougher monsters, e.g. the Owlbear.

NPCs

As for actual NPCs rather than monsters, you could make them interesting by linking them with the main and side plots in interesting ways. For example:

A Zhentarim assassin who wants Townmaster Harbin dead but wants to enter town under the cover of being the PCs' friend.

...

A merchant from Neverwinter to whom Glasstaff owes money. If the PCs have killed Glasstaff already he may demand they pay him out of the loot.

...

One of the Black Spider's agents who will befriend the party to spy on and ultimately thwart their every step.

For stats you can either build them using the PHB or just alter the NPCs given in the book or the PCs provided with the game.

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I'd suggest using a pair of cockatrice for a standard encounter, or three for something a bit more challenging. At CR 1/2, they shouldn't provide too deadly a threat for the party, but the petrification effect should add a new element for them.

The good news is that, unlike 3.5, the petrification isn't permanent. Even if a character succumbs, they'll revert after 24 hours (and have to deal with the rest of the party, ticked off for having to lug his statue around, no doubt). Also, you get two attempts at the (dc 11) con save, so, unless the dice gods hate them, a TPP (Total Party Petrification) seems unlikely.

After one fail though, it's amazing how much the rest of (my) party start playing keep away.

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Perhaps the best thing to do here is look at the interactions you can set up for your players. Here are three basic ones which many consider the bread-and-butter for most DnD adventures.

  1. Combat: go and beat them up to achieve your goal.
  2. Puzzles: figure out this puzzle. You need a motivation to solve this, and it can take a while.
  3. Social Events: deal with NPCs. Bluff, intimidate, deceive, and negotiate your way to reach your goal.

It is important to note that different groups of players will enjoy these three things in differing amounts. DnD tends to be a combat-heavy game, so being cognizant of the other interactions and general player-engagement is important. Breaking up the monotony of combat with these other interactions is a really good idea. Changing the fundamental interaction with the game can reign players back into the game.

So, to your question, I would actually recommend non-combat encounters next time they get distracted. It is a change of pace, and you and your players may find it quite refreshing. This is especially true in DnD, because it tends to focus more on combat than other systems do.

Here are some ideas:

  • A wandering merchant who is lost in otherwise hostile territory. Direct or guard the merchant out to a safer place.

  • A wounded ranger, who really needs some healing, is happened upon by the players. Magic healing and medicine checks carry the day here.

  • Some too-powerful-to-fight people are considering the life of a bandit, but they really don't want to fight, and the players could "talk sense into them" without lowering their HP. Too-powerful-to-fight people can be things like an assassin NPC.

  • A wizard needs them to find some herbs or some items the wizard cannot normally acquire, or this wizard wants to gather reagents and enlists the help of the characters. This is especially true if the wizard is not proficient in nature and survival skills.

  • A fey creature (such as a pixie) wants to challenge the characters to a game of riddles, tongue-twisters in sylvan, or a headstand-contest, which isn't fair considering pixies fly.

If you're still set on combat, I recommend something tough, like an owl-bear or a gargoyle. Make sure it's just 1, and if you still think it's too much, you may lower it's HP. Altering HP has always been an easy way to scale encounters. (The other is altering the number of whatever they're fighting.) You can throw hobgoblins in your usual goblin mob mix to give the encounter more lethality. Depending on your players, you can justify a lot of things showing up.

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Hmmm... ok, random interesting NPCs

  • Mirror-version of the group, created when they walked by a shimmering pool. Maybe they are evil and have goatees. They are weak to silver/magic/carrots/whatever, and a wizard is nearby who has been experimenting with such things. He may escape, and later return several levels from now to challenge the party.

That's off the top of my head, but other things are easily found. Searching for npc generators can give you plenty of ideas. Feel free to use the same/similar stats as other appropriate level monsters, but change their appearance and story

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