Civilization clashes with chaos in the Monster Manual!
Well Frontline Gaming – we’re coming to the end of 2019. And it was a big one for Dungeons & Dragon’s 5th edition library!
We visited the mysterious seas around Saltmarsh, delved into the world of Eberron, and even dared face Avernus’ legions of hellish minions. But we shouldn’t mourn such a productive year, let’s instead launch 2020 with a new ‘beginning’ to start. then we can include this new challenge in next year’s successes wrap-up article.
For the next 8 editions of our these D&D scenario articles, we’re going to continue to highlight random monsters from our 5th edition catalogs – but we’ll also be seeding the groundwork for a small campaign. The ‘small campaign’ is a skill that I’d like to improve on.
Throughout my entire DMing career – I’ve been trying to run campaigns with Lord of the Rings as my roadmap. I’ve wanted my campaigns to be the next Game of Thrones for my players. But there’s an appeal to shorter campaigns with definitive ends. And these articles are as good of an excuse as any to explore the idea!
In the spirit of randomness at the core of these articles, I’ve Googled ‘fantasy book name generator’ and let the good algorithms at reedsy.com dub our new campaign: “The Bones of the Nameless.” Which – you know, is definitely a generic “fantasy book name”. But we can work with tropes!
The best place to start is; of course, the Monster Manual, so after a quick random flip to a page – we’ll be starting our campaign with a focus on Tribal Warriors.
(Monster Manual, Pg 43)
I bet the most common killed humanoid NPC type is bandit (D&D Basic Rules, pg 162)…or potentially guard (D&D BR, pg 163) considering how many stories of ‘party of murder-hobos’ are floating around the internet.
Bandits and guards benefit from being relatively simple to run. Not just their stats; but their purpose is clear. Bandits harass the party in either a dingy tavern or 1d4+2 of them show up as a random encounter when traveling. Guards are around so the PCs don’t declare “I roll to intimidate for a better deal!” on every single store clerk they meet. They are to maintain order in your setting’s pieces of civilization.
Tribal warriors could easily slip into this straightforward train of thought. But we can’t overlook their deep historical and cultural roots that we can use to make their inclusion interesting. Allow yourself to gain inspiration from images of bearded Gaulish barbarians and the distinct cow-hide shields of the Zulu. As implied by their name ‘tribal’ warriors – these hard-living folk are bound to one another. By trial or by blood – tribal warriors have grown to rely on their society. This is even reflected in their stat-block by giving all tribal warriors the Pack Tactics ability.
We’ll use tribal warriors as a vehicle to explore D&D’s law vs chaos philosophical compass points and the flexibility of NCPs to give the warriors goals that are relatable to your players and their characters.
Law vs. Chaos. In D&D’s original 1974 version the only three alignment choices for PCs were chaotic, lawful, and neutral. Even before ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – D&D has been rooted firmly in the conflict between the forces of order against those of freedom. Even our historical examples of ‘tribal warriors’ capture this struggle. The factions of Gauls only banded together to stand against Julius Caesar’s invading legions. Likewise, the Zulu kingdom braved superior technology while defending their lands against the British redcoats. Tribal warriors are enemies of empire and the so-called “civilization” they spread.
Looking ahead to not only today’s mini-adventure; but towards the larger campaign we hope to build – we’ll use this classic “law vs. chaos” theme to begin laying the groundwork and foundation of our story.
Flexibility of NPCs. While we will certainly lean on classic D&D era themes – we are also free to imbue some modern elements of moral complexity into our campaign. It would be an utter waste to use tribal warriors as stand-ins for an “always evil” type of enemy like orcs or hobgoblins. Even though we are painting the tribal warriors’ society as ‘chaotic’ – their stat-line specifies that individual warriors can be any alignment.
We’re free to supplement our chaotic melee skirmishers with the guiding hands of lawful chieftains or even the awe-inspiring magicks controlled by true neutral druids.
The Scenario (Appropriate for Level 1-3 Characters)
King Toreg of Blackcrest has driven his realm towards expansion. Over the past decades, the mighty soldiers of his armies have forced the surrounding minor royal lines to submit to Blackcrest’s authority. Through tireless conquering and diplomacy – the first true empire in a thousand years exists on the isolated sub-continent.
Now, King Toreg’s forces stretch their influence towards the mainland. The end goal is the ancient Yu’thran Empire and the decadent riches held in its geriatric hands. Toreg’s lands are separated from the Yu’thran by a great swath of poorly mapped and rarely traveled forested mountains – which his armies must now tame.
During your group’s character creation or Session 0 process – read the following to your players:
“After conquering dozens of his neighboring warlords and petty monarchs, King Toreg of Blackcrest marches his army northwest towards the wealthy lands of the Yu’thran Empire. Whether by the alure of plunder or conscription – your characters are members of this expeditionary army. “
As a group, the party’s players should answer the following prompt:
“In an army of thousands, your characters have somehow made themselves stand-out to their immediate superiors. What did your characters do to impress their officers?”
Really, it doesn’t matter how the party answers. We’re using the prompt for two main purposes. 1) It encourages a bit of roleplaying and engagement in our campaign world before even the first die is rolled and 2) it will bind the PCs together with some element of common history. I hate when Session 3 or 4 roles around and some player states, “Why is my character even with the party?” Here’s an opportunity to set that answer in stone before the game even starts.
As more of a ground-level recap of the situation, King Toreg and his army’s progress has been slowed by the clans and villages of the High People scattered throughout the navigable passes of the Emerald Mountains. The main bulk of the army has been centralized around the King of Blackcrest himself while splinter groups fan out to harass villages and tribal encampments. King Toreg and his generals hope the action will draw the High People into a single decisive encounter.
The party, along with two-hundred other soldiers and under the command of Knight-Captain Horthon Maxwell comprise one of these exploratory tendrils. A palisade-walled encampment has been identified as the target of this raid. The Blackcrest Royalists have been tipped off by a local woodsman of the area that several High People communities stockpile supplies and food for the winter at this location. The encampment is surrounded by the above-mentioned 10-foot walls on three sides and a deep lake on the fourth.
An initial frontal assault against the main gate was repulsed by the High People defenders and Captain Maxwell has settled into an uneasy siege. He knows that since the encampment serves as a supply depot and has easy access to freshwater – he will be unable to starve-out the tribal forces. And although he has ordered the construction of siege weapons and landing skiffs – this will take time. Reinforcements from other High People warriors is a constant threat…as is disappointing the general staff of King Toreg.
The Knight-Captain hopes to utilize a bit of subterfuge to end this awkward stalemate.
As we have already established – the party has made something of a name for themselves in the ranks of the Blackcrest men. The party is summoned to the Knight-Captain’s tent and he outlines his plan to the group. At nightfall, a diversionary assault will be launched at the walls. During the confusion, the party will take helm a recently constructed raft through the water entrance and gain entry to the settlement.
Once inside, the party will be tasked with locating and destroying the granaries before their presence inside the walls is detected. The docks inside the camp are packed with fishing vessels which can serve as one possible avenue of escape.
The Knight’s plans for the party are not a request. But Maxwell still dangles a carrot before the group anyways. An immediate payout of 50 gold per party member is offered as well as a promise to double the amount of land granted after the end of their war-service.
That night – the plan is enacted. Use their travel across the dark waters of the lake as time to build tension. Perhaps the raft has a small leak due to its quickly constructed origin. Or the stillness of the night is ruined by the sounds of Captain Maxwell’s diversion. Out of view of the party, surely men and women die purely in the name of masking the party’s approach.
There are few true buildings inside the encampment. Rather, nearly a hundred exotic animal hide huts and tents of various shapes, sizes, and means of construction haphazardly surround a single “town square” comprised of three long, skinny rectangular-shaped log-built structures. Each sports a thatch covering roof.
Although the camp is mostly engaging with the Royalist forces’ diversion; and the party can move relatively unhindered through the tent – they should not be allowed to forget they are behind enemy lines. Perhaps the party spots tribal warriors moving through a row of tents towards the encampment walls. Now, with a bit of cleverness, the party should be able to duck behind tents – or in some other way elude this patrol.
But if the party turns to combat – you can include a quick encounter of tribal warriors. The party should outnumber the warriors by at least 2. If you started your party at level 1; you may need to be cautious about this encounter since a single spear-thrust is capable of downing first level adventurers.
Nestled compactly between the three buildings is a square-shaped wooden platform which holds a 15ft-diameter shallow, smooth stone bowl aloft nearly 10 feet into the air. Several well-worn ladders are balanced against the dais. The bowl holds nearly a hundred pounds of an incense; which cooly and barely visible burns atop a soft bed of coals. Up until this discovery, the party – as, indeed, the rest of Knight-Captain Maxwell’s army – had dismissed the sweet, arid smell in the valley as a product of the isolated mountain lake. Apparently, the High People’s bowl of incense can spread the aroma several miles.
If the party uses fire or some other physical means to destroy the nearby granaries – be sure to describe the flames or whatever-preferred-means-of-destruction spreading to the nearby dais. The sabotage will likely ruin or taint the incense in some way. Naturally, the particular type of tree that is required to create the incense is rare and cannot be easily replaced.
While the dais is an interesting oddity – only the three-log buildings seem large enough areas to hold the alleged High People foodstuffs and supplies. Your party is likely to investigate them further.
Two of the lodges are granaries. They hold several months of food. Far much too much for the party members to steal any meaningful amounts. No, the harvests and game meat will need to be destroyed in the name of denying the enemy comfort.
The third lodge contains the remaining incense stores – along with several shrines of gods and notable ancestors. Because of their closeness – any fire set in one structure can quickly spread to the nearby buildings. If the party attempts to destroy the storehouses – they are discovered by a group of High People defenders.
One of the shrine guardians, Sacrovir (acolyte, D&D BR, pg 162) and Touto lead a group of tribal warriors and stumble upon the party. Touto is also a tribal warrior but holds the diamond-shaped kite shield (+2 AC) of a noble Blackcrest cavalryman and wields a Royal officer forged-metal longsword. The High People don’t seem to be in a negotiating mode.
Again, if your party is a group of level 1s, I would recommend limiting the number of accompanying tribal warriors. You could also borrow a mechanic from D&D 4e and make the support warriors “minions”. A “minion” creature is essentially played exactly a normal version would be except they only have 1 HP.
When the battle starts – the party should either slightly outnumber or equal the number of enemy combatants. On the second round – more tribal warriors discover the combat and engage with the party. Depending on how quickly your party is dispatching their attackers – feel free to add 1-4 additional warriors.
Once initiative begins, Sacrovir uses bless on his first turn to buff Touto and as many warriors as he can. For the rest of the rounds, he attempts to stay out of melee range of the player characters and either casts sacred flame or cure wounds – depending on if Sacrovir is injured or not.
Sacrovir and the other tribal warriors will press into the party to create melee threats. The tribal warriors act in pairs to take advantage of their Pack Tactics ability.
If the party lingers either near the tents or outside the ‘town square’ too long – feel free to trigger the encounter with Sacrovir’s band.
The fight ends in either one of three ways:
- If Sacrovir is killed
- 75% of the tribal warriors are killed.
- At the end of 5 combat rounds.
If any of the above conditions are met; at the next initiative count of 20; 3-5 more warriors notice the encounter. One is armed with a hunting horn and a bow. Upon seeing the party – the hunter gives three sharp sounds from the antler horn – which is responded by one shrill horn-blast from the men at the walls. The encampment knows there are enemies inside their walls.
Any surviving High People will fall back towards the hunter and await reinforcements. If Sacrovir was killed or 5 combat rounds have been concluded – this is an orderly retreat. The tribal warriors will not willingly give attacks of opportunity to the party and use their actions to disengage. If the conclusion is trigger by 75% of the warriors being slain – then the survivors are in a rout and move as far away from the party as possible – provoking attacks of opportunity when necessary.
If Sacrovir survives the fight – he calls to the party. “Your king does not know what he faces beyond the Emerald Mountains; there are no soldiers who will oppose his march – only monsters. you are brought to your doom.”
If he is slain – then the above is uttered as his final dying words.
If the party remains – they will be overwhelmed as warriors break off from manning the walls and rush to defend the storehouses and the incense burner. Because parties tend not to consider retreats – you may need to telegraph a bit just how outnumbered the covert operation has become now that the element of surprise and secrecy has been lost.
It might be worth to remind them this is a mission of sabotage and their commander does not expect them to take the encampment by themselves.
The party can escape if they choose to do so – whether it be fighting over the walls or stealing a fishing vessel and disappearing back into the black waters of the lake. Their return back to Maxwell’s camp is met with celebration. Assuming the party burned the granaries – they vomit thick clouds of grey smoke into the air. The King’s forces know the siege will be victorious.
The party is granted their bonus purse and toasted by officers and pikemen alike. Wine cups are thrust to the party at every campfire they visit – and their story of the supply houses’ demise brings cheers and laughter to the soldiery. After such a successful mission – I would allow my party to increase in level.
And for the DMs running this adventure….we’ve planted some seeds. As mentioned before – the incense was being used as a ward. We’ll find out in two-weeks exactly what is being warded against – but you better believe our party will be rolling initiative against one before this arc is over.
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