In my last blog post I began a series in which I will be analyzing and white-boxing some recent D&D encounters I DM’d with a group of friends. Below is my write up for the second encounter accompanied by some visuals of the white-boxed layout.
Encounter 2 – Castle Bridge Ambush
So we rejoin our adventuring party after they part ways with the master illusionist/trickster gnome. The party makes their way through the forest to the abandoned castle and church. They discover that the castle and church are actually located on a sizable island in the middle of a slow moving river that cuts through the forest. The church appears very old, and was most likely built as a safe haven for weary travelers on the nearby trade road. The castle appears to have sprung up around the church later, as the area became a more strategic point for warring armies.
The castle certainly looks abandoned and in extreme disrepair. A bridge extends halfway across the river and a drawbridge, currently down, extends the rest of the way to the island. The castle gate is broken and lies open. Two towers frame the gate. I let the players know that the area feels and looks cursed. Plants look withered, the water unclean, and the sky unnaturally gloomy.
Cautiously the players tie their horses up on the river bank and begin to venture across the bridge. As they reach the midway point, the drawbridge begins to rise up! Two archers appear on the castle towers, and whirling around the party finds that three more bandits with two vicious looking dogs have appeared out of the woods cutting off any possible escape back across the bridge. The ambush is on!
Design Note: This challenge is the party’s first real test in combat. The enemies are actually not meant to be a true challenge for a party of level 7 characters, but I use this encounter as a measuring stick for tweaking the difficulty of future encounters. This encounter specifically will ask the players to deal with multiple opponents, ranged opponents that they can’t reach easily, and lack of movement/hiding options. I would have allowed any quick thinking player to jump to the rising drawbridge and gain access to the archers on the towers easily. Any player with a warhorse would have an excellent opportunity to charge back across the bridge at the bandits and dogs, though my group did not.
After dealing with the ambush the players had to then find a way to lower the drawbridge back down, a simple task for any rogue or fighter to swim across and climb the tower, gaining access to the drawbridge crank. Once that player reached the top of the tower however, they discover that one of the archers is not dead, and a one on one battle ensues. Throughout the group fighting and one on one fight the players are told that the bandits seem unnaturally savage and reckless, with pale skin, bloodshot eyes, and never speaking, only yelling and growling. They appear cursed.
Did this encounter work? Yes. For one it taught my players to scout a bit more, to be more cautious, as any player requesting to scout around the bridge a bit would have noticed footprints that were not their own, warning them of an ambush. The encounter also taught the players that having a ranged attack option of some kind is important, as only one party member had bought himself a bow, and thus was the only one capable of dealing with the archers on the tower. Granted this player was a ranger and was able to handle the challenge with ease. Meanwhile the rest of the party made short work of the enemies on the bank. One player even got creative and knocked his opponents into the river.
The one on one fight atop the tower proved a good test for the party rogue, providing one of those moments when an individual can shine. The rogue also gets a good look at the castle/church layout from atop the tower (to be white-boxed in the next blog post). They catch a glimpse of the next story hook, a hooded ghostly figure is staring at the player from below in the castle courtyard. Then the figure floats off toward the church and right through the closed church doors!
Next time I’ll be doing a layout of the main courtyard and surrounding buildings! Stay tuned!