A Twist on the Iconic Bandit Attack
Outside of the Inn, there may not be another iconic start to any adventure than being hired as guards for a caravan. When you look at the nature of most fantasy role playing games this actually makes a lot of sense. Caravans offer several things. One, they offer a chance for the characters to meet. Two they offer a great way to move the characters from location to another. Third, they offer a great way to add a couple of encounters in to either spice things up a bit or increase the party's wealth and experience. For these reasons guarding a caravan makes for a very useful tool in an Game Master's arsenal.
The problem with the entire "You get hired to guard a caravan" adventure hook is a lot of Game Master's overlook a prime opportunity to introduce encounters that are beyond the rather blase attacks by bandits or bands of humanoids. Don't get me wrong here, there is nothing wrong with the tried and true bandit attack. They offer a fairly challenging fight, tend to yield a bit of treasure, and can be a great way to build party identity. However, after about the tenth attack from a band of bandits even the most slaughter happy party is going to want something a little different.
The goal of this article is to give GM's a little help in creating interesting encounters that go beyond the standard bandit attack. The following hooks are designed to be used for a fairly general fantasy campaign and should be easy to adjust and modify how the GM sees fit.
1: Bandits within the caravan.
This encounter offers a slight twist on the standard bandit attack encounter. The number and power of bandits within the caravan should be roughly equal to the party. The number of bandits that will attack at the designated area should not exceed the number of party members and any other friendly combatants the DM wishes to include within the caravan. The bandits within the caravan should be of similar race to the party, but the bandits in wait can be of any race.
Along with the characters a group of would be bandits has hired on for guard duty as well. The bandits intend to slowly take out any other guards. At this point the bandits plan to have another part of their band attack the caravan and kill off all the merchants in the caravan. Once this is accomplished they are free to take over the caravan. It is up to the party to not only learn about the plan, but to find a way to foil it as well.
Hook: The party has been hired as guards for a caravan heading out the next day. When they arrive the caravan master introduces them to the other guards. The other guards are unfriendly and rebuff any attempt a character makes to get to know them.
Line: The GM should use some kind of roll or suggestion to give the players a clue that the other guards may not be all they seem to be. If the party becomes suspicious then allow them to take any kind of action they think will yield them information. Actions that can potentially lead to the characters gaining information could be spying, rifling through possessions, or attempting to befriend the bandits.
If the party decides on spying the GM should set up a situation where a group of the bandits are together at one time (such as at night when they cook their evening meal). Allow the characters to make the appropriate stealth, listen, and perception rolls and reward any success with bits of information. Bits of information can be learning about the plan, when the bandits intend to execute their plan, and other similar things.
If the party decides to rifle through the bandits' possession they they will need to find a way to distract the guards or sneak past the guards. This would actually be an ideal time to give the party a standard bandit attack. While this occurs one or more of the party members can use the opportunity to search the bandits belongings. If the party does manage to search the bandits possessions the GM should give them a couple of clues in the manner of notes, maps of a pre-arranged attack point, etc.
If the party attempts to befriend the bandits the GM should make this incredibly difficult but not impossible. The bandits are secretive and not very trusting but are always willing to take on new talent. If a character or two are adept at social maneuvering there is a chance that they can start to gain the trust of the bandits. However, before the bandits will let the character in on the plan they will likely require some kind of test of loyalty. This can range from committing a murder to stealing something.
If the character carries out this task they will include that character in on the plans. While this would allow for the character to know what is going on the GM should keep in mind that they bandits will be keeping an eye on the newest member. This means that the character might have a hard time relating the information to the rest of the party or even potentially try to get the rest of the party to join up with the bandits (which could make for another interesting situation)
Once the party is aware of the bandits plan it is time for them to decide what they will do about it and how they will do it. While there are a number of different ways a party can approach this, there are a few that are the most likely to occur.
1: The Party Attacks the Bandits Right Away
For combat heavy groups that like direct action this is probably the most appealing action. While there is nothing wrong with this and makes for a rather easy conclusion to the event, it does presents a couple of problems in the aftermath.
First, how does the caravan master feel about the sudden murder of guards in his caravan?
At first the caravan master is likely going to be angry about the death of guards he has paid for. In this situation the characters are going to need to both succeed in some social actions and likely provide some kind of proof. If they have already searched through the bandits possessions then this is an easy task, if they haven't then they will have to hope that there is some way to dig up proof (which depends entirely on how kind the GM is feeling)
Second, What does this mean for the rest of the band lying in wait further down the road?
It is unlikely that the remaining bandits will attack the caravan when it is actively guarded but an enterprising party may decide that tracking the bandits down to their layer is a good idea. This might create a bit of extra work for the GM but designing a bandit layers isn't very difficult. Use a nearby set of caves, an abandoned farm house, or something similar as the bandits base and go from there.
2: The Party informs the Caravan Master
If the party decides alerting the caravan master is the best idea then they are going to have to provide some kind of proof. The caravan master is a shrewd individual and does not believe things simply because one of his for hire guards tells it to him. If the characters have only overheard the plan at this point, then this will force them to find proof and that can be handled as mentioned above with searching the bandits possessions.
If the party doesn't provide proof the caravan master may decide to question the bandits. If this happens the bandits may decide that they have to act early. This could lead to an attack on the party, the bandits getting a message to the rest of their band, or midnight assassination attempts deciding on how the GM wants to deal with it.
If the party does provide proof (or in some other way convinces the caravan master) then the caravan master is likely to order the party to "deal with the problem". The party can approach this any number of ways ranging from direct assault to more subtle means. Whatever the party chooses the GM should make dealing with the problem challenging in some way.
3: The Party Sits on the Information Not Sure what to do
While most parties are likely to decide one of the above options there is always the possibility they feel a bit indecisive. If this happens the GM can move things along by having the bandits become the party knows of their plan in some way. A lot of how this is done depends on how the party found the information. If the party has been spying on the bandits there is always the chance they noticed and return the favor. If the party searched the bandits possessions, the bandits can easily discover their stuff has been messed with. If the party has attempted to befriend the bandits the bandits can decide they don't trust those "in the know" enough and attempt to get rid of them. Finally there is the option of simply allowing things to unfold naturally and having the party navigate a much larger and deadlier battle when the bandits enact their plan.
4: The Party Decides to Join the Bandits
While this is the least likely thing to happen, it is not inconceivable that the party decides to join the bandits. If this happens the amount of challenge to the party is greatly reduced and the GM should adjust any rewards to reflect this fact. If the party does choose this way it can open up an interesting campaign where the party becomes part of a group of bandits. This offers a unique campaign where the party can jostle for a better position within the band of bandits, carry out various raids and robberies and more. While this most certainly would be a campaign for more evil characters, it doesn't mean it can't be fun.
Sinker: Once the party has dealt with the bandits in whatever way they choose the GM should give them some form of reward. It is probably wise to balance this reward with the difficulty of the encounters. It is unlikely that the caravan master will increase their pay, but if they slay or capture the bandits the caravan master is likely to allow them to keep some or all of the gear the bandits possess.
Along with the rewards the adventure can lead to another adventure involving tracking down the bandits hide out. It can also lead to the characters being hunted down by other members of the bandit gang. Finally, the characters should gain some kind of benefit by having done a job well (or by joining up with the bandits). This can include a favor owed by the caravan master, maybe their story being spread by the common folk, or something else entirely.
In the end this adventure should be fairly easy to drop into any ongoing campaign or even be used to launch a new campaign. Feel free to use it how you wish.