Villainy with a shadowy purpose: Rogues that strike out from dark alleys. Monsters that lurk in the dark spaces beneath the stairs. Creatures of smoke and raging spirits.
The 4E Monster Manual has an outstanding selection of opponents of dark purpose. Here are some heroic-level encounters you can spring on the unsuspecting.
(The target encounter XPs are for 5 PCs of each level).
Level 1 Encounter
Following the trail of blood and fur had been difficult, but finally the twists and turns of the sewer opened up into a drainage vault and a set of stairs leading up to another level. At a glance, you can tell it’s the perfect spot for an ambush.Â Â
2 dark creepers (level 4 skirmishers)
1 dire rat (level 1 brute)
2 giant rats (level 1 minions)
Encounter Level 3Â
At the end of the vaulted chamber lay the crypts, the final resting spots of the ancient king and queen. Is your search at an end? But you’re wary. Would the ancient king, who died by a treacherous hand, not guard his resting place in the afterlife?Â
2 phantom warriors (level 4 soldiers)
2 shadowhunter bats (level 3 lurkers)
4 decrepit skeletons (level 1 minions)
Encounter Level 5Â
This back alley was supposed to be the meeting place. The deal had been negotiated, a price set, all that remains was the exchange. Apprehension runs high in the stillness. The old man warned us: a doublecross is always a possibility.Â
1 doppleganger sneak / shadowborn stalker template (level 3 elite lurker), 300
3 human bandits (level 2 skirmishers)
1 human mage (level 4 artillery)
1 Whirling Blades trap (level 5 obstacle)
Encounter Level 7
Low chanting seems to come from the chamber ahead. What kind of dark worship service would be conducted in this fell place? The way is only dimly lit, and long shadows obscure large sections of the floor.
1 shadar-kai witch (level 7 controller)
2 shadar-kai chainfighters / bodyguard template (level 6 elite soldiers)
1 tiefling heretic (level 6 artillery)
Encounter Level 9
You hear an eerie, gutteral growl. But no earthly big cat could create such a noise. What manner of great feline faces us? You look around quickly, scanning the nooks and crannies of the vast hall.Â
1 spectral panther (level 9 lurker)
2 quickling runner (level 9 skirmishers)
2 shadar-kai warriors (level 8 soldiers)
I absolutely agree. What I miss is being able to find creatures by location – mountainous, icy, desert, underdark, etc.
Also, I enjoy making encounters with twists: The characters come into a room in the temple of Moradin, taken over by goblins. A 30’x10′ crevasse runs up one side. As the characters move into the room, three goblin sharpshooters enter quietly on the other side of the crevasse via secret door and begin to fire. The sounds of conflict draws two shadowhunter bats out of the crevasse. Do they attack the goblins or the PCs? Whomever is closest!
It’s also fun to “nerf” a higher level creature. A chuul is too powerful for 6 level-2 characters but… what if it is in the middle of a fight with orcs when the PCs come upon the scene? (So I say it’s bloodied and worth 3/4 xp, but there are orcs also to contend with.)
It’s a fun way to change up what players expect from encounters (ie, it’s not always Us vs Them… sometimes it’s Us vs Them vs Other Them) and it also allows you to use higher level monsters that fit the situation thematically while making them conquerable.
I’ve done that before, Rafe, but found that if you don’t monkey with the statistics of your overpowered critter you’re either going to extinguish the threat yourself (in your example the orcs would have to overpower the Chuul), or your Chuul is bound to kill a PC, or two, or three.
Neither situation is very satisfactory for the DM or the players, who I’ve found just feel like they’re being shown this cool world without getting to contribute. Or they’re dead, which is also a bummer.
I love the idea of world in motion without the PCs there to witness it, and weaker and stronger versions of monsters should be available at all times IMO, but you’ve got to let the players deliver those final blows to feel heroic.
Fun article, Troy. I think I’ll do a similar excercise just to get myself more acquainted with the 4e encounter-building rules.
Rafe: Forgive the pro wrestling jargon, but you’re right, a “run in” by another monster — even one hampered with an injury — is a great way to liven things up. I should add that as a parenthetical if I ever use it: Run in: 1 Mummy Lord. (Evil, maniacal laugh is optional).
One thing to keep in mind, 4E encounters have very little wiggle room. Adding even one monster is an ulta-fast way to overpower a party.
Fortunately, the 4e MM has rules for leveling up monsters. It works pretty well in reverse to dumb them down, too. I’ll have to see if I can recreate my “Low Calorie Black Pudding” from 3.5…