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RPT Newsletter #1,180 | 5 Ways To Warn Players Of A Deadly Challenge

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
5 Ways To Warn Players Of A Deadly Challenge

From JohnnFour | Published November 17, 2021

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1,180

Brief Word From Johnn
We received our first blanket of snow this week, indicating perfect gaming weather is upon us!
Why not turn on the lantern and tell tall tales by its flickering light to keep the cold, snow, and darkness at bay?
That's right. I challenge you to Save vs. Gaming!
Meantime, I wanted to call out a cool mapping competition Roleplaying Tips is sponsoring over at DungeonFog.com called Mapvember.
You get a daily prompt for creating a 5 Room Dungeon map.
A great way to improve your mapping skills!
But what if your design is deadly?
We don't want a Total Party Kill on our hands.
At least, not without warning our friends first. :)
Which brigs us to today's tips.
Without further ado, here's....

5 Ways To Warn Players Of A Deadly Challenge
By @JonGraHar, sojournersawake.com

Many times the threat that presents itself to characters surpasses their abilities to defeat it.
The encounter is not easy or even difficult, it’s deadly.
Without a warning label, your players may be unfairly surprised that you designed a deadly encounter for them.
To avoid that frustration, here are 5 ways to warn your players of a deadly encounter.

Describe Light, Sound, And Movement
Use character senses to paint vivid descriptions that telegraph the threat level to your group.

Before landing, the dragon flies over you casting a shadow, blotting out the sunlight. Your knees buckle and you risk suffering fright.
Around the corner, the necromancer thrusts his staff into the ground and thunder booms out and you risk losing your hearing.
Within a split second, the giant leaps across the ravine and lands in your path, blocking your way. The ground shakes and you risk collapsing to the ground.

Describe The Foe’s Powers
Note the fantastic abilities and powers of the PCs' foe.
Then stage your encounter so those powers are on full display as your warning to the party should they engage.

Describe the foe controlling the wind and how loose items of not-inconsiderable weight are being lifted off the ground.​
Describe the antagonist instantly slaying a powerful creature with one strike, displaying that one successful attack might be all it takes to bring a character to death.​
Describe the enemy summoning a horde of creatures that are about to overwhelm the party.​

Forewarn Through Character Powers
While the foe telegraphs danger from their side of the battlemat, weild character traits to further warn players of the great threat the party's about to face.

The ninja has a feature that helps them see through enemy weakness.
You witness this power and learn that in this place, this monster has no visible weakness.

The warrior has a feature that allows their ancestors to speak to them before a fight.
Your ancestor speaks up in your consciousness, “This foe is beyond any of you!”

The hunter has a feature that increases the proficiency of their general awareness.
Your animal whimpers in fear, your heart pounds, and you sense fatal danger is near.

The magician has a feature that grants them foresight.
In a flash of a second, you see the lifeless and bleeding bodies of your party scattered in the den of this creature.

Describe The Characters' Awareness
Tell players exactly what is at stake so they can factor in the possibility of death as they progress through the encounter.
One method I love using in my games is calling for a dice roll from each player to help me measure which character notices the threat first. It’s a lot like calling for a roll for initiative.
The player who rolls the highest will be told the clue through the lens of PC's their skills, knowledge, or abilities.
It goes something like this:

“Everyone, please roll a perception check. The highest number gains the clue.”​
I then describe implicitly that this villain has the power to kill very quickly and may even say “this is a deadly encounter.”​

If your player characters are paying attention to the world you created, they most likely are watching for dangers. Take advantage of that story.

Describe the NPC Voices
A helpful NPC voice can be the game master’s warning and gently guide the players away from a deadly encounter.
This works well if the party is invested in the NPC's life.

The NPC calls out the lore of the monster and informs the player characters it is too powerful for them.​
The NPC simply runs away in fear and encourages the player character to do the same.​
The NPC begs during combat that the encounter is favoring the villain over the characters. This can be done more implicitly by speaking through the wisdom, foresight, or cunning of the NPC.​

Everyone wants to have fun playing RPGs, and this includes a deadly encounter every once in a while.
Use these tips to send out a fair warning to your players before they charge headlong to their potential doom.
May your story continue!
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Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Tips From Your Fellow RPT GMs

Narrative Red Herrings

From RPT GM Patrick R

One of the most fun things I've done was during Strahd, where my group was fighting the druids on top of the mound, and there was this huge gnarled up oak that loomed over the entire combat.
One of the players early on stated they were keeping an eye on the tree, so every round I made sure, during the middle somewhere to state, "and the tree holds its action."
The group freaked out over this, and as they whittled down the druids to fewer and fewer numbers, they grew increasingly nervous about the tree, which eventually did......NOTHING.
To this day, if I mention a tree in an encounter, they STILL wait for a tree to do something. It's been 5 years now. :D

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Creepy Dungeon Idea
From RPT GM Valen

Have you heard of the game, The Night Cage? I got it from a Kickstarter campaign by Smirk & Dagger last year.
You are part of a separated group wandering in hallways that disappear after you move far enough away that they are no longer visible in the light of the candle you carry.
You must find keys for each player that opens an exit gate that also has to be found.
Oh, and you have to do this before the candles burn out.
Trust me, it is nerve wracking, but fun.

You could apply rules like this to a dungeon.
The party finds an ordinary-looking door that requires some moderately difficult puzzle to open.
Beyond the door is a circular chamber large enough that the entry and exit door will be too far apart to see once they reach the middle line between them.
As they approach this midline, the shadows grow darker.
The shadows then "swallow" the walls as the party reaches chamber center. (A nice added touch is to have their own personal shadows disappear into the growing gloom.)
In essence, this room is a gate, with the only exit through a trapdoor in the center of the room (that they have to figure out how to open).
If they do what most parties do, they will follow a wall around in circles for a while.
If they take out a compass, it will be unable to determine a stable direction.
Now they have real reason to fear because they are in a world with rules that might not obey the physics of the game that they would expect. (Interestingly, rangers and trackers might quickly realize that they are walking in circles.)
I haven't fleshed out the rest of the "rooms", but it is a really creepy start.

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
The Worg
From RPT GM Lars Buch

Hi Johnn,

I always try to give stories a twist when it is something outside the rules, such as at a time where dwarves could not be paladins and a player wanted to try that combo.
I made the twist that the Dwarf Paladin was from another age and raised by the dwarven god to do something.
The player was not knowing what (me as well) but he had a mission with his Undead Lawful Good Dwarf Paladin

So I have another take on the Worg story.
The player wants to have the Worg as a charmed companion to the small party he is in, as far as I understand the story.
This makes me think about twisting the Worg into a side story.

The Worg Twist
In a typical setting, Worgs are higher than animal intelligence monsters.
They are typically having more hit dice than the goblins that ride them.
So why would the Worgs accept to have goblins around?
If we give the Worg same intelligence as the goblins that surround it, we can give the Worg a little twist.
The reason the Worg accepts the goblins is that the goblins are the stronger Worg servants.
The Worgs gives the goblins security.
In exchange, the goblins provide heat in the winter, armor for the Worgs, collect bedding for the Worgs, and in hard times the weak goblins provide food for the Worgs.
This is why the Worgs herd the goblins around. The strongest of the goblins becomes Worg riders as their weapons (shortbows and spears) enhance the Worg fighting capabilities and gives the stupid humans, elves, and dwarves targets that are not Worgs, thus keeping the Worgs alive for as long as possible.
As the Worgs are intelligent they can talk with difficulty (I am thinking a very growly voice) but understand several languages including Worg and goblin, maybe even common.
Alignment is probably same as the goblins.

The Particular Worg
The Worg has kept itself a bit back from the fighting. It is a bit old and slower than the others, so it is easier to catch.
The Worg keeps back as it is the tactician and strategist leading the others and would understand surrendering when its guard has been taken out or is injured.
He might be the Worg tribe shaman/cleric and have some levels in Cleric aside from the normal monster levels.
He might also just be a badass fighter that has become old. Or he might think of the players as an upgrade from the goblins in his older age where he has more difficulty having a rider.
There might be a reason for him to stick around after the "charm monster" has worn off.
He will guard his ability to speak, but might have the flaw of speaking in his sleep.
He knows how to form friendships and connections and will go out of the way to save the party members.
This will make the particular Worg a much more memorable member of the party and would give the players a (somewhat unreliable) helper for the small party.
We might bend the rules a little but this is because the humans/elves/dwarves has not understood the Worg and goblin connection.

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Lars, this is a tremendous and wonderful impact on goblin - worg relationship. I love it! Thank you!
Now, I really want a worg for my goblin character. What do you think, @John B ?

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
The topic of the newsletter is again spot on.
I usually approach this topic a little bit differently though, I believe.

First some comments:
1. Describe Light, Sound, and Movement
I'm surprised you limit it to those aspects in your title, while you just shift to a scenastic description technique to show how the stakes have risen. For me, this is my main technique. I make certain, the players notice the shift in description density, description vividity, and the rising threat level. I either do this suddenly, when they are surprised by the creature, or gradually, when they reach its den or wherever from they are approaching the scene. Here are already a lot of hints for the players to catch up to.​

2. Describe the Foe's Power
Also a classical approach. Show the players the power and how it will be played out during the game, even if they theoretically know that this creature has the ability.​
The ogre sniffs in the air and then suddenly reaches through the thick stone wall. Shattered peaces of the stone wall scatter everywhere. As he pulls back his mighty hand, a feebly squeaking rabbit frantically tries to get out of his grip, but to no avail. His arm is dust covered by else unscathed. "Yummy," his booming voice echoes through the cave, as he squeezes his fist shut with a small splash and savores his afternoon snack. You look over to your improvised barricade and realize that it will never help to hide from him or be of any protection to you.

Quietly, you sit at your fireplace and enjoy the meager soup. Cael, you have the impression that you see some dust falling in front of your eyes. Only a moment later, there is a pebble, then another. Now all of you realize, that it may not have been the best idea to camp just beside this steep mountain side. Alarmed, you quickly step back. Not a moment to late. A split second you see a big, dark shadow falling quickly down towards you. The next moment, the boulder lands directly in your fire. The ground shudders, your fire is extinguished, dust is all around you. Luckily, nobody was hurt, you think, while you cough and squint your eyes. And then, from the top of the boulder you see red gleaming eyes and you hear a throaty voice chuckling "Got ye!" With a still broken leg the slender troll hops off the huge shattered stone and right into your midst. Already, the splintered femur cracks back into position and the wound on his forehead slowly closes. In the darkness of the still shimmering fireplace, you see him grinning at you with needle sharp teeth. "Now let's have real dinner."

3. Forewarn Through Character Powers
I usually don't do this. I give the PCs the chance to notice things beforehand, like foot prints, vibrations, huge dumps of feces, scales, webbing, the absence of prey, screems in the night, or even left-over bones, maybe even a half-eaten horse high in the tree, but I don't force them to notice like with a vision or such. That is too direct for my taste and doesn't underline the setting and danger, but rather gives an out-of-game tip instead, I feel. It's not good for the immersion, I believe.​
4. Describe the Characters' Awareness
That is what I was describing under 3.​

5. Describe the NPC Voices
In case the PCs mention their travel goal, there might be NPCs who warn them beforehand, or even a passing traveller who comes into their direction might warn them. Mostly rumors and such, never detailed.​
I like to use NPCs for this. Also, during an encounter, I might have NPCs flee. If the goblin companion flees, it's because he is always scared. This will not have any impact. Unless...​
As your goblin companion Droop hurridly runs away, he stumbles over his own feet, trying to carry all his equipment at once. Only once he looks back and his big eyes seem to be growing even wider. He then realizes that you don't follow. In panic he cries out to you: "You schtupid? That much bigger than you. Goblin survive because know when to flee. Long live the goblins!" And he continues his run for his life.
Behind you, something is rising to his complete height, its shadow plunging you into sudden darkness and chill. No breeze seems to stirr in that moment, as if the whole world stops to breath and is waiting for your decision.
This should make the players rethink their behavior.​
Also, when above traveller is a battle-ridden knight, things are interpreted differently from my players' perspective. That will not be a terrible bear, this is more like a dragon.​
Also, a nice technique is to destroy opponents before the battle begins:​
You are suddenly surrounded by orcs on big wolves. The biggest of them approaches you with resentment. His face scarred and golden rings hanging from his ear. His muscled body protected by a plate mail chestplate. A clanking sound makes you look at his belt, as the huge direwolf he is riding approaches growlingly. And indeed, at his belt you see three skulls clattering against each other with a hollow sound. "We got you, humans!" Chuckling and approaching growling all around you.
As you prepare for a challenging battle, suddenly a shadow falls upon the war chieftain. With a horrid crushing sound a huge foot steps right into the scene burrying the orc chieftain under it. The ground heaps and shifts for a second. High above you, you see the smile of the cyclops broaden. And with a booming voice he says "We got you, humans! Chieftain, attack!" As nobody reacts, and he shifts his foot, he realizes what that crunching feeling had been. He shruggs. "New chieftain, attack!" and the orcs around you scream for battle.

Addition 1. Describe escape routes
I noticed that when you describe possible escape routes or the lack thereof (blocked until repaired or whatever) before the PCs reach the threat, they already take a mental note that it may come to a situation they should (or their PCs need to) flee. In my impression, this helps players a lot in evaluating a threat level.​


RPG Therapist
Staff member
Adamantium WoA
Wizard of Story
Creepy Dungeon Idea
From RPT GM Valen
You are part of a separated group wandering in hallways that disappear after you move far enough away that they are no longer visible in the light of the candle you carry.
You must find keys for each player that opens an exit gate that also has to be found.
Oh, and you have to do this before the candles burn out.
Trust me, it is nerve wracking, but fun.

This reminds me a LOT of the computer game The Dungeons of Daggorath.
Made in 1981-1982 for the Tandy Color Computer, it looks like a standard "move around a 3D maze" game.
But there are a few touches that made this game stand out - which also made it play much like you describe here.

Dungeons of Daggorath only gives you "one life" and you either win or fail on that one life clearing 5 levels of a large underground maze.

The Dungeons are all underground so your only lighting is a Pine, Lunar, or Solar torch.
Each torch type has increasing light distance and burning time.
The dungeon is shown with fading lines in the distance which also fade more as your torches burn down.
Eerily effective as is ... but the best is yet to come.

The game's hit points are not shown - only a beating heart that speeds up as you exert yourself or take damage.

Each of the monsters makes a unique sound, growing fainter or louder with changing distance from you.

From these ingredients - you get a fantastic game that was a large step above its peers and influenced many games to come.

The perfect example of what happens:
Your torch burning down and the dungeon is getting fainter to see.
You speed up a little trying to cover more ground in the dwindling time.
Speeding up increases your heart rate AND puts you nearer monsters more quickly.
Then the torch finally burns out and you're wandering an underground maze in the dark with monsters all around.
In the dark, the sounds of the monsters get louder and louder as they approach.
Without you knowing it - one or more corner you and attack.
So, here you are in the dark, heart pounding, monsters roaring, swinging blindly HOPING to kill something that will drop a torch that you must grab and light as fast as possible and get back to fighting... or game over.

The scenario above happens over and over when you first start playing and wandering the dungeon mapless.
I've lost count of how many adventurers I've lost in that dark hole of despair.

The closest thing I can think of now like that is maybe the scene in Pitch Black where Paris P. Ogilvy dies alone... wishing he was dying in France.

Anyway - a great game and a great RPG scenario / premise that can and should be played to the hilt at least once in every adventurers life.