Dead Man's End – 1399 Words

Round 4: Design an encounter

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 8 , Star Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

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Dead Man’s End
Flip-Mat: Battlefield
When the Whispering Tyrant reconquered Ustalav, a priestess of Desna built a secret bridge across the West Sellen River to help refugees escape into southern Numeria. The crossing saved countless lives, but the exodus attracted Tar-Baphon’s attention. Instead of demolishing it, the cunning lich dispatched lieutenants to massacre the refugees, raise them as undead spawn, and create a new army on the eastern front. His forces killed the Desnan priestess and captured the crossing, but when they turned on the fleeing refugees the bridge suddenly vanished, dumping mortal and undead alike into the merciless current. Dubbed “Dead Man’s End” by the survivors, the bridge still holds a reputation for disappearing beneath the feet of travelers.

The abandoned bridge is treacherous, but does provide access to Numeria for those who hope to cross the border unnoticed. An inconspicuous escape route like this is a godsend for Baroness Lorylai Makrivas, a minor noble from the Ustalavic county of Varno who was recently outed as a vampire. Concerned that her careless and extravagant lifestyle would draw attention to his own vampirism, Varno’s ruler Conte Ristomaur Tiriac used his agents to expose Lorylai and whip up an angry mob. The Baroness’ butler, Rendel, quickly orchestrated her escape to Numeria across the bridge, confident that its sinister reputation would discourage hunters from giving chase. Though Conte Tiriac is content to let her disappear, some religious leaders suspect the Baroness’ vampirism is not an isolated case. They ask the PCs to intercept Lorylai at the crossing, learn what they can from her, and destroy her.

Holy Highwaymen (CR 9)
The West Sellen River churns and spills over its banks, swollen by the steady rains that continue to drench the countryside. A ten-foot high, crumbling cobblestone bridge looms over the violent current, its wooden guardrails rotted and broken in several spots.

Lorylai got a head start, but her abhorrence for off-road travel allows the PCs to reach the crossing first by cutting through the wilderness. Without interference, the PCs arrive at the bridge 1 hour before the Baroness, 3 hours before daybreak. Clever PCs can further delay Lorylai’s arrival by turning the environment against her. Each attempt to slow the vampire down costs the PCs 30 minutes of travel time, and each success delays Lorylai by 1d2 hours. Some options for slowing Lorylai’s travels are included below, but GMs should reward players for thinking outside the box.

  • Animal crossing: A successful DC 25 Handle Animal or wild empathy check allows the PCs to herd hundreds of farm animals from the surrounding pastures into the road, impeding all transit.
  • The road less traveled: A successful DC 25 Knowledge (geography) or Survival check allows the PCs to identify and sabotage key road signs and landmarks guiding Lorylai to the bridge. If the PCs fail to cover their tracks by succeeding at a DC 20 Stealth check, the coffin guards discover their mischief and suspect an ambush; the PCs lose any chance of a surprise round and Lorylai’s retainers use their combat gear to prepare for battle before arriving at the bridge.
  • Wayfaring strangers: The PCs can convince a troupe of Varisian performers to entertain the hedonistic Baroness with a successful DC 25 Bluff or Diplomacy check. The DC drops to 15 if the PCs fail to mention that she is a vampire, but once they realize they were deceived they warn Lorylai about the PCs in an effort to divert the Baroness’ wrath away from themselves (see above for response to a suspected ambush).

Once the PCs reach the bridge, they can use their remaining time to cast spells, set traps, and prepare for Lorylai’s arrival.

Creatures: Lorylai’s retinue includes herself, her butler Rendel, and two coffin guards. A horse pulls the light wagon carrying provisions and the Baroness’s coffin, an intricately carved mahogany casket featuring several pipes that allow her to attempt Perform (wind) checks from within. If encountered at night, Lorylai uses her dominate ability, spells, and combat gear to neutralize as many PCs as possible, while Rendel heals her and the guards attack anyone who resists her charms.

If the PCs delay her arrival until daybreak, the Baroness remains in her coffin while Rendel parlays with the PCs. His negotiations are a ruse designed to distract the PCs while Lorylai summons reinforcements with her children of the night ability. Once combat begins, she uses her bardic performance to inspire courage while her guards attempt to drive off the attackers. If the PCs kill both coffin guards, Rendel opens the casket (requiring a full-round action) and uses his scroll of protective penumbra to shield Lorylai from the sun, allowing her to flee and seek shelter.

The horse is skittish, but cannot escape its harness. It avoids combat as much as possible, but defends itself if attacked. A creature holding its reins can attempt to drive the wagon (Ultimate Combat 183, see Ultimate Combat chapter 4 for vehicle rules).

Baroness Lorylai Makrivas, Vampire Seducer CR 6
XP 2,400
hp 61 (Monster Codex 239)
Skills Perform (wind) +14 in place of Perform (act) +14

Coffin Guards (2) CR 3
XP 800 each
hp 38 each (Monster Codex 238)

Rendel, Weird Butler CR 4
XP 1,200
hp 31 (Monster Codex 238)

Horse CR 1
XP 400
hp 15 (Bestiary 177)

Haunt: The restless spirit of the Desnan priestess still haunts the bridge, causing it to disappear beneath the feet of anyone attempting to cross, living or undead.

Vanishing Bridge CR 4
XP 1,200
CN haunt (10 ft. square at the center of the bridge)
Caster Level 5th
Notice Perception DC 25 (to hear the shrieking of terrified refugees)
hp 8; Trigger proximity; Weakness tricked by hide from undead; Reset 1 hour
Effect When the haunt is triggered, the bridge suddenly turns ethereal, as if affected by a blink spell. Any creature standing within the area of effect must succeed at a DC 20 Reflex save or fall 10 ft. into the river (see below).
Destruction Descendants of refugees saved by the priestess must return to the bridge and spend 24 hours in ceremonial prayer.

Hazards: A steady rain has fallen in Varno for over a week, bringing the temperature close to freezing at night and filling the river to the point of overflowing. Each hour they spend waiting for Lorylai to arrive, unprotected PCs must succeed at a Fortitude save to resist the effects of cold weather (Core Rulebook 442). The rain reduces visibility by half, resulting in a –4 penalty on Perception checks. It has the same effect on flames, ranged weapon attacks, and Perception checks as severe wind (Core Rulebook 439).

The excess rainwater makes the river’s current far more dangerous. The swollen river functions as stormy water (Swim DC 20). Those trapped in the current are swept downstream (east to west) at a rate of 60 feet per round (Core Rulebook 432).

The bridge’s guardrails are rotted through (hardness 2, hp 5) and can be burst with a DC 12 Strength check as part of a move or bull rush action. The rain softened the road to mud, turning all road squares into difficult terrain. The dark green areas to the north, southwest, and southeast of the bridge function as light undergrowth (Core Rulebook 426).

Development: If all of her guards are killed or captured, Lorylai surrenders, confident that she can use her noble title and natural charm to negotiate her release. She doesn’t object if her captors wish to restrain her, since her gaseous form ability allows her to escape if things go sour. The Baroness doesn’t know that Tiriac is a vampire, but she does know two of his allies who are: the nosferatu Ramoska Arkminos, the Conte's advisor who hasn’t been seen in Varno for some time, and Kvarric Lorinska, seneschal of the Conte’s estates west of Corvischior. Lorylai only talks if she thinks it would help her escape; if the PCs attempt to destroy her or her coffin, she fights to the death.

Rendel and the coffin guards are loyal thralls, and fight to the death as long as their Baroness survives. If Lorylai is destroyed, they fight on for 1d4 rounds before realizing they are free. The guards know nothing of other vampires among Varno’s elite, but the butler suspects that Kvarric Lorinska knows more based on letters his mistress received from the seneschal.

RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut, Contributor

Nick! Welcome to the Top 8! All your hard work has paid off for you, and now you find yourself on the cusp of having a shot at the top prize. From here, you've got a major opportunity to really impress a lot of folks and secure yourself some bonafide freelancing opportunities, not just with Paizo but other third-party publishers, as well. The trick lies in putting forth your best work to show us that you belong. By this point, you should have learned a lot of lessons, and now, we need to see how well you've incorporated them and how well you've learned to apply them. In fact, encounter design is the primary precursor to adventure design, since it incorporates your storytelling ability, how to synergize your idea with a playable map, your stat-block ability, and a host of other elements of game design which really start to bring it altogether. So, let's go through your encounter and see what you've got.

Name: Naming still matters, even at this stage of the game, and you've gone with Dead Man's End for your location, a fitting enough moniker for a bridge to nowhere...and Holy Highwaymen for your encounter, which seemed less accurate to me, unless you're referring more to the role the PCs get to play in stopping a group of vampires than the nature of what they'll face.

Creative Ideas: I thought the notion of a vampire using a wind instrument built into her coffin was pretty creative. And, overall, the whole idea of getting drop on a bunch of traveling vampires as they attempt a bridge crossing is an interesting spin on the usual encounter using such creatures. So, the setup was fairly creative. Good job. The part I didn't like (or understand) as much was the haunt that turns the bridge ethereal, dumping everyone into the water. As-statted, it sounds like there's no way the vampire could have expected to use this route without her wagon falling into the water. And, given the age of the bridge and local legends, it felt odd to me that an ageless being like Lorylai wouldn't know the danger it posed to her escape. A bit more of “why this way?” explanation might have helped.

Writing Ability: I thought everything flowed very nicely. You have a natural ease and readability to your prose which will serve you well.

Mechanics/Gameplay: As-written, it's a CR 9 encounter, which means you're probably looking at an APL of 7th level for the PCs. Generally, you'd want a standalone overland encounter like this to be around APL+2 to make it challenging enough to tax the PCs, because they probably won't be facing much else before they get a chance to rest and recover, might as well push them as hard as you can. Plus, with a vampire seducer like Lorylai, it sounds like the type of encounter you'd want to make as memorable as possible for the players. Thus, within the CR 9 breakdown, you've placed one CR 6 vampire who doesn't enter the fight except via her bardic abilities...and those are used to enhance two CR 3 coffin guards and a CR 4 weird butler. Collectively, these guys aren't likely to push 7th level PCs very much, even with the bardic boost. In a playtest, I'd be curious to see how it all plays out at the table. In many ways, this is kind of like two encounters in one...the first, more of a speed bump...and the second, acting more as the main course. Of course, you've included a CR 4 haunt in there, too, but I didn't real get a sense of how it'll play a major role in the encounter (though, clearly, it's meant to). Proximity pretty much triggers it into making the bridge ethereal, which will drop everyone and everything into the river...and that's probably a worse outcome for the vampire than the PCs. I think it would be stronger if the haunt reacted in a different way and posed less of an impediment to crossing the bridge...otherwise, no one would ever use it.

Professional Polish: I thought you did a really great job here. You've obviously got an eye for how everything is supposed to look in a professional write-up for an encounter.

Recommendation: While I've got some CR concerns for this encounter, I like the premise behind. There's a bit of interesting storytelling that flows both from the background of the location and the current encounter situation. Writing is clean. Professional polish is on display. So, I DO RECOMMEND this designer to advance to the next round. Let's see what kind of adventure pitch you've got in mind.

Paizo Employee Developer , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8

Hey Nick, congratulations on making it to the top 8.

I am the developer of Pathfinder Society Organized Play and the Pathfinder Society Open Call, which means I see lots of short adventures and self-contained encounters over the course of a year. It’s a developer’s job to read through, revise, and fact-check pretty much everything, but I have attempted to distill my feedback into several major headers. Essentially, I’m approaching this round like I would a scenario turnover, which involves marking up a copy of your encounter and providing feedback on what you did and how you might improve.

My Criteria:
As a developer who works on many adventures, I’m always considering how much I would need to work on an encounter to develop it and prepare it for publication. It’s certainly important for a contestant to create something that wows the judges with creativity and flair, but a submission can tip into the “recommend” or “don’t recommend” depending on how much editing and general revision is necessary.
Setting: Does your encounter fit in Golarion? Is the CR appropriate for the setting and the encounter? Is it clear how a GM might use this encounter? Have you clearly explained or referenced existing rules for any hazards and terrain features included in the encounter?
NPCs, Creatures, and Traps: Do the foes you selected contribute to the encounter and its theme? Do they feel natural or forced? Do your NPCs fit the location and provide enough context for a GM to run an encounter from start (a hook) to the end (when the PCs question any captives)? Do any traps or haunts fit the encounter? Do they add to the encounter?
Numbers: Are all of your statistics and calculations correct? Are your skill check DCs reasonable?
Style: Did you watch Paizo’s styles, both in terms of writing and formatting? The more closely a writer can match Paizo’s styles in the turnover, the easier it is for me to develop. The easier it is for me to develop, the more eagerly I assign that author more work.

Off to Ustalav! I’m on board with your backstory, which does a nice job of referencing some major regional players (The Whispering Tyrant and Conte Ristomaur Tiriac) but then focuses the story on the much more manageable side-stories created by this movers and shakers. I especially like that Lorylai’s actions might threaten but do not outright spoil the conte’s true nature; that’s a strong move in an encounter because it plays into some good canon yet doesn’t try to resolve a major plotline to which we might prefer to dedicate a larger module.

On my first read-through, I felt discouraged that the reason for the bridge’s strange disappearance wasn’t clear. I’m now more at peace with it, acknowledging that there are some mysteries in Golarion that don’t have a clear answer—yet.

The hazards here are simple but effective. Rain-choked rivers, rickety guardrails, and undergrowth give the PCs some toys to use but aren’t especially complex.

NPCs, Creatures, and Traps
I’ll start first by addressing the approach to the encounter site. I’m a big fan of including some simple ways to adjudicate clever PC plans to waylay the wagon and delay the ambush until the sun is up. It’s unclear to me quite how the PCs can drive animals to block the road without being particularly close to the convoy, but the other two are great. I especially like that there are hidden repercussions for approaching these with deception and having others see through the ploys.

Good work using the Monster Codex, which is easily overlooked during a competition like this. Having said that, I would have liked to see more variety in the encounter beyond pulling premade stat blocks intended to be combined and combining them. That’s not to say the encounter isn’t effective; it’s just not telling me a lot about your ability to make your own creature combinations as a contestant. I appreciate the coffin pipes, which let Lorylai participate without emerging from her coffin.

Your encounter’s strength is really in its setup and solid application of pretty familiar themes. Thank you for including ways to learn more about the background through interrogation and foes that don’t necessarily fight to the death.

Depending on how the PCs handle it, that haunt might actually help them in case they wait for it to trigger on the wagon and dump the whole coffin in the river.

These check out. By the book, it’s a little tame for a CR 9, but the environmental factors should help in that regard.

From your stat blocks to your parenthetical references, your submission looks pretty clean. I would prefer to see some of the in-combat decisions made by NPCs move from the Development to the creatures’ tactics in their stat blocks.

Final Thoughts
This is a clean submission with some really good attention to (and handling of) Golarion canon. The pre-combat opportunities to gain an advantage work to the encounter’s advantage, even if the very straightforward creature choices (almost duplicating a sample encounter in the Monster Codex) doesn’t give me the best sense of what else you could design. Nonetheless, the overall effect is potent.

I do recommend this encounter for advancement to the final round.

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16 , Star Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 8

Awesome per usual! Bring it home brother!

Dedicated Voter Season 9

Dead Man’s End:

Background (Dead Man’s End):

The bridge’s explanation is engaging and well laid out. The explanation for the party’s presence, while engaging, is less well laid out; it is reasonable to assume-even given your description of events-that the mob/Conte Tiriac’s agents would have pursued the Baroness as far as the border.

The premise is not good for a module; it assumes that all the key actions to date are taken by NPCs—this is acceptable for a top 4 submission, 3 of you will go on to write PFS scenarios after all, but it falls short of Superstar.

Encounter (Holy Highwaymen):

Your encounter premise has more railroading; it is better design if you leave the PCs with the option of following along the road, or cutting through the trees-you missed a chance to fledge out Ustalav, providing a town for the PCs to acquire mounts and supplies to make a forced march in pursuit of the countess instead of making the forest trek (which should have its own plot points).

You actual implementation is instead reminiscent of Gargamel and his henchling Muttley from Wacky Races. While I’ve never liked the premise in that setting, it works here since daylight is your ally. I must point out once again however, that if the party is following the road to harass the vampires, then they are not an hour ahead of her from cutting through the woods.

Given that the Baroness has an innate darkness SLA, and prefers to summon creatures to fight on her behalf anyways I’m not sold on your suggested tactics for the scenario. Further I don’t see why she’d stand and fight if she can summon something to distract the party while she runs away. Since it’s clear from the description that the bridge only vanishes when travelers are actually moving over it, this should be her first course of action. Which would ultimately be her doom of course, since the bridge drops undead into the water, and Vampires are critically weak against that (1/3 max hp dmg per round + true death).

The cold, stormy weather description is well written; It should really go at the front of the encounter description to set the scene. BIG ISSUE: cold stormy weather clouds sunlight; your vampires won’t be impeded by the dawn.

This is an NPC thing; try to tie in the party.

On to the Grading Rubric:

Is the general premise interesting and believable?

Interesting somewhat, believable no.

Does the setting description bring me into the gameworld, so that I see the encounter through my character’s eyes (or the NPC’s eyes if I’m the GM)?


Do I have adequate descriptions of all the different setting pieces to run the game without a hitch (objects, setting, NPCs, enemies, traps)?

Does the encounter draw the party into a conflict on their own terms, give them agency up to the climax, and allow a conflict resolution ideally setting up or concluding a larger plot-arc?
• Are the conflicts leading to the climax varied in nature?

No; they’re variations on the same theme (delay), the flexibility is nice but in all it’s not too creative.

• Are they thematic?

Yes; delaying a vampire fight until daylight is out is a time honored tradition.

• Are they difficult enough to entice players without overshadowing the climax?

No, but they’re fun in a campy way.

• Is the climax appropriate?

No, generic fight; not much of interest for the party to do.

• Does it encompass (and/or respond to) different avenues pursued by the players?

No, although I think you intended it to.

• Is it challenging?

No; for one the bridge will fall out under the Vampire, automatically killing her in three rounds. For another your enemies only come to a CR 8; short of your CR 9. Factoring terrain into account the party is heavily favored if the fight occurs on the bridge, dropping the encounter to (potentially) CR 0; on land the terrain is not inherently favorable to either party.

• Does it set the tone for a memorable resolution?


• Is the resolution thematic and appropriate to the challenge (both difficulty and nature)?

No to difficulty.

• Does it encompass (and/or respond to) different avenues taken by the players?

Not meaningfully.

• Is it fulfilling (to the plot, to the characters, to the players, to the NPCs and setting)?


Are the NPCs, Monsters, Traps, Enemies and Allies introduced in a way which supports the overall encounter and leaves me interested regardless of being player or GM?
Yes, although a closer read reveals significant holes.

Are the maps well labeled (clarity/concision)?

No, you don’t engage the map past making an encounter dealing with a bridge.

Does the description support/is it appropriate to the map?

Marginally, as there is a bridge mentioned; no other portion of the map is utilized.

Is everything organized well, so that I can find anything I need in a moment and figure out its placement in game?


Does the encounter teach me something new about Golarion, and the encounter’s specific setting?


Can I play through and enjoy it without extensive background knowledge; if not is this knowledge included for me?

Does the encounter inspire me to do better in my own games and if so is it easily adaptable to them (as Player, GM, and Designer)?


Did the encounter surprise me (good or bad)?

Yes, bad.

Does the environment play a part of the encounter, and is it well integrated?

Yes, No.

Effective use of tactics and morale?


Takeaway: You’re an excellent writer who needs to practice encounter design.

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Champion Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9 aka GM_Solspiral

This year my intention is to give a first impression on each encounter then run them with a few friends to see if my impression of the encounter changes.

Also I'm not reading any other comments before hitting this with my first impression write up. I'm partly curious how it holds up to my later impression and what the pros have stated.

I'm going Good, Bad, and Ugly with a tentative grade. I'll post final grade after running.

First impression:

The Good Okay high marks for all the delay options as it displays outside the box thinking and makes the PCs earn their advantage (or disadvantage.) Smart choices account for the disadvantage of daylight so seriously kudos there this is solid encounter design.
The Bad If this happens during the day the encounter is way too easy.
The Ugly Only a party of morons are getting caught in that haunt if they hear the legends. You ambush the vamp before the wagon steps on that bridge...
Overall I want something more sinister like a few innocent bystanders to threaten, maybe have them fall into the haunt forcing the party to rescue a few innocents something. My tentative grade is an A This is the best encounter thus far (and I have only 1 to re-read)

I see some potential balance issues, but it's imaginative, and this entry stands out to me as the one where it's really clear how to run the encounter. I think the vampire's servants could use a little more flair-- if not unique stat blocks, then maybe some memorable description.

I only ever vote for one, and this one has my vote.

Star Voter Season 6, Dedicated Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9

Congratulations Nick!

Definitely deserving the Top 8 slot, meaning this is a keeper already. Now just to decide how much.

Story: Yes, and a good one :)
Character: OK. Her motivation is to leave, she has a bit of aristocratic (& vampiric) confidence. Her thralls are just thralls.
Player options: Quite a few, though many of them are technically before this encounter.
Mechanically right: Looks good to me. I do have to wonder how much different the Night/Day variants play out.

Still a keeper, well done! :)

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9

I was a little confused as to why the bridge turned ethereal in the backstory. But this is still well executed enough to get one of my votes. Great Job! and good luck

Dark Archive

I too was a little confused as to why the bridge turns ethereal, as no clear explanation is given for that particular manifestation of the haunt.
This is a good, solid, well built encounter, but it doesn't feel as inspired as some of the other entries this round. It feels like you stayed on safe ground, as opposed to reaching for the stars.
With only two votes this round, I now need to decide if I'd rather vote for a well built but more mundane encounter, or a somewhat flawed but more creative encounter. Either way I decide, I wish you good luck!

Sczarni RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32 , Champion Voter Season 6, Champion Voter Season 7, Champion Voter Season 8, Champion Voter Season 9

Just realized I forgot this one...

The haunt kinda ruins this one for me. I have to admit, I am picky about haunts and the backstory letting this one form, seemingly immediately, after the priestess' death irks me. And why is it limited to only a 10 ft. square? Easily jumped and not much of a hassle at all. The whole bridge would have been cooler and more cinematic. If she knew about the bridge, why would she come this way in a wagon? She should know it would be pretty hard to get the wagon across. You should have altered the Rendel's list of spells to add hide from undead or given them a scroll to let her party bypass the haunt.

The delay tactics for the animal crossing and road less traveled need some polish/work. 30 minutes for 4-6 players to herd hundreds of cattle? Unlikely. And if the party cut through the wilderness to get ahead of her, how are they able to alter road signs? Plus the coffin guards would probably know the route (based on default skills) that changing road signs would not affect them. Plus they likely have a map, because who trusts road signs anyway? Any bandit can easily alter them on less traveled routes like this one.

Besides the haunt and delay tactics, I enjoyed the rest of this encounter. Using a vampire and then playing on the NPC's character flaws to alter the encounter time is nifty. This encounter also has one of the better development sections. I do like the ability to delay her, just think the delays could have more polish.

Liberty's Edge Star Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9

This encounter feels lackluster to me. The introduction is quite good and the whole story is solid, but it does not amaze.

And some disjointed points weaken it too :

- How can the PCs even think about delaying the carriage, much less using the very specific tactics you mentioned ?

- Why would anyone want to use the bridge when it systematically disappears ?

- The haunt feels especially lackluster to me, including its destruction condition : it feels rushed.

- The current is supposed to be merciless, but even here in particularly strong conditions, I am not sure it is a very lethal hazard for PCs of this level.

See, I think that this is EXACTLY what an encounter should be. There is a clear plot, a clear goal, and a cut and dry reason for doing it. This leaves the PCs free to find the means to the ends. It explicitly states that players have free creative reign to slow her down or capture her however they want. It allows so much room for creativity.

This is what I feel is missing from a lot of the other proposals and from a lot of published encounters in general. So many of them read as, here is the situation, the PCs have to do x by completing y to achieve Z. And yes, there is fun to be had in that, but it leaves very little to the imagination. This encounter basically plays out like real life. Here is where you are, here is what you need to accomplish, how are you going to do it? This is why I play DnD. To get the feeling of how awesome life could be if I had magic powers. I could summon a swarm of bees to attack her, or a could STAMPED A HERD OF SHEEP AT HER. I love this!

Harp Rose wrote:

See, I think that this is EXACTLY what an encounter should be. There is a clear plot, a clear goal, and a cut and dry reason for doing it. This leaves the PCs free to find the means to the ends. It explicitly states that players have free creative reign to slow her down or capture her however they want. It allows so much room for creativity.

This is what I feel is missing from a lot of the other proposals and from a lot of published encounters in general. So many of them read as, here is the situation, the PCs have to do x by completing y to achieve Z. And yes, there is fun to be had in that, but it leaves very little to the imagination. This encounter basically plays out like real life. Here is where you are, here is what you need to accomplish, how are you going to do it? This is why I play DnD. To get the feeling of how awesome life could be if I had magic powers. I could summon a swarm of bees to attack her, or a could STAMPED A HERD OF SHEEP AT HER. I love this!

Agreed. I'll admit I thought the haunt was weird, but the plot is good, the goal is clear, and there is plenty of opportunity for the PCs to call the shots. The way I see it, this round is about showing us what kind of "scenes" the writer is going to give us in an adventure. As a player, I don't want scenes where the GM tells me what's happening and what I have to do to stop it, whether I like it or not. I want scenes where I know what's happening, and then I choose how I'm going to participate. That's way more fun than just having the story told to me.

This entry definitely has the most consideration for player choice, and that's what I want in the advetures that I play in. Strong vote from me

Sczarni RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9 aka Arkos

I really like that this encounter is actually more than just one combat. There's potential preparation and a plan to ambush a devious and deadly foe. I'm a huge fan of giving player's choices during encounters, so this hits home for me! Learning about the bridge and using it as part of the trap... so much fun. Let the chaos begin.

I'm worried that players would choose to make this event happen during the day, since that seems so much easier. I would try to avoid that, and make the stalling tactics a method of getting more time to ambush. There could be a solid mini-game there rather than allowing dawn to totally make this easy.

This encounter was an easy choice for one of my two votes. Great work!

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 8 , Star Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

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Once again I would like to thank the judges for their insightful feedback, the commenters for outlining your rationale behind choosing whether or not to vote for my encounter, and the playtesters for verifying whether or not my choices worked at the table. And of course, my deepest thanks to the voters who gave me your trust and support!

As part of my RPGSS experience, I'm hoping to revisit all of my entries and provide a short narrative explaining the thought process and design choices behind my work, as well as addressing questions or critiques from among the comments. With the matianak I waited to answer everything at once and that ended up being a bit of a project, so this time I tried keeping a continuous response on a word document as the comments came in, so I could post it all at once when the voting closed.

Since the provided maps offered seemingly limitless potential at the expense of being truly unique, I felt that in order to stand out, I would have made a map work in an original way without seeming too forced. Ultimately I decided that the best way to do this would be to tap into the most original, creative resource available to a GM: the players. Rather than force a bunch of gimmicks into an encounter to make it unique, I left it up to the PCs to create their own gimmicks and use the environment to their advantage. To me, Dead Man’s End was my chance to showcase my ability to reward clever PCs. By taking ownership of the map and its hazards, I felt the encounter would feel more rewarding to PCs who could successfully hamstring their enemies. Additionally, I thought the players with a sense of irony would appreciate the fact that this setup let the PCs be the “random encounter” that they would usually face on the road.

With that goal in mind, I decided to use vampires because A) the Monster Codex already has several stat blocks dedicated to vampires, and B) the existing encounters with vampires, in my opinion, fail to showcase the breadth of their monstrous features. Vampires possess numerous abilities and weaknesses that never see the light of day (pun intended) because vampires don’t risk exposing themselves to sunlight, running water, etc., leaving the PCs to rely on a stake more often than not. I wanted an encounter that could potentially showcase every ability and weakness a vampire possesses, and gives PCs a chance to catch a dangerous monster in a vulnerable position.

With vampires as my focus, Ustalav became a natural setting and the escape from Conte Tiriac fell into place. Originally the bridge was just a dilapidated bridge, but I felt a random crossing did not have enough character to resonate with voters. I gave it more history (built by the Fifth Army of Exploration), but the disjunction between a Taldan bridge and an Ustalavic encounter seemed too confusing. Eventually I decided to bet the farm on Ustalav, and rewrote the history to include a haunt (which struck me as more Ustalavic) and incorporated the Whispering Tyrant into the backstory. Ultimately the haunt’s role was to supplement the flavor, though it also provided another chance for the PCs to exploit the vampire’s weakness to running water (or alternatively pose a problem if the PCs want to take her “alive”). I also figured the haunt could be another mini-encounter when the PCs first encounter it upon reaching the bridge (the 1 hour recharge period would allow the PCs to trigger the haunt, then still use it in the combat encounter). I know it was a bit stuck-on, but I thought the haunt did more good than harm, so I left it in.

With that in mind, I’ll try to answer the questions posed by the commenters:

Neil Spicer:
The title “Holy Highwaymen” was meant to refer to the PCs, not the vampire. The PCs are driving this encounter (they are the “random monsters”), so I figured the title should reflect their actions.

Concerning Lorylai’s ability to recognize the bridge as a bad option, I imagined that she would have been around long enough to know that some folks do successfully cross the bridge (after the haunt was triggered prior to their passage), and thus suspected she could “trick” the bridge into letting her pass (perhaps by sacrificing a coffin guard to activate the haunt, then crossing during the refractory period). Even with the potential risks, I envisioned an egocentric vampire like Lorylai falling into the all-too-human “it could never happen to me” mindset.

Indeed, the CR is a bit mismatched, but that is meant to reward the PCs. The players know they are dealing with a dangerous vampire, but clever planning allows them to make the encounter much easier (just the coffin guards, the butler, and the children of the night buffed by the bardic song). Even if the encounter doesn’t tax their resources as much as one would expect from a CR 9 encounter, I expect PCs would feel good about their decisions to delay the encounter until daybreak. If I were running this with my group, I’d feel okay throwing this at an APL 6 or even 5 team, since I know my players would take advantage of the opportunity to fight in the daylight. If the encounter is easy, it’s because the PCs earned it by playing smart. That being said, more direct players can ignore the preparations and just fight Lorylai during the night, making it a normal CR 9 encounter. I tried to accommodate both options.

The haunt was meant to potentially drop the vampire into the river, for better or worse. Honestly it was mainly designed for backstory purposes, so I’m not married to the setup if developers could think of a better way to let the haunt interact with the encounter.

John Compton:
I apologize for not being able to more completely explore the bridge’s disappearance. With more time for revisions I probably could have squeezed it in, but I was pushing the upper limit of the word count and I decided to hand wave some of the details.

I’m glad you liked the preparation mini-encounters. I worried that they may be polarizing, but getting the green light from you really validates my decision. As for the animal crossing, my girlfriend visited rural areas in Ireland and told me that big herds crossing the road can impede traffic, so I figured PCs who got far enough ahead of the vampire could move a flock of sheep into the road.

I stuck with the Monster Codex because I like running encounters where all the stat blocks are close together. I could have used enemies from the NPC Codex as well, but that would have required a whole new textbook, so I decided to keep it simple. While I regret this decision from the perspective of showcasing my abilities, I still think that it makes a GM’s job easier, and that makes it a worthwhile decision.

Indeed, additional plot points concerning mounts, gathering supplies in town, or PCs choosing to follow the road would have expanded the options for this encounter, but since I only had 1 spare word I decided to focus on the components that, in my experience, were most likely to significantly impact battlefield preparation. I tried to cover my other bases by encouraging GMs to reward PCs who make other decisions, but there’s only so far that can carry an encounter.

The point about the daylight being obscured by stormclouds is very astute. I assumed that it would not be sufficient to render Lorylai immune to the sun (just as a person can still get sunburned when it is overcast), but I should have clarified that point.

I appreciate how thoroughly your rubric picked apart my entry, but unfortunately I can’t meaningfully modify my entry based on yes/no characterizations. I’m afraid that without more insight into your rationale, those complaints may simply be a matter of taste.

Frank Gori:
I really like the idea of adding innocents to threaten. As I mentioned in my response to Neil, I expected Lorylai would be smart enough to sacrifice a follower to activate the haunt, and then be over the bridge and on her merry way by the time it recharged. I originally considered having her sacrifice a coffin guard to activate the haunt, but a dominated innocent civilian is a much better victim, since it would force the PCs to divide attention between killing Lorylai’s guards and stopping the innocent from wandering over the bridge to die. I would probably implement that idea in a revision.

I agree, the vampire’s servants (and frankly the vampire herself) could benefit from more character depth and fleshing out. Unfortunately I simply didn’t have the word count to make that a reality.

I’d love to see how the night/day alternatives play out as well; here’s hoping playtesters explored both options and share the results!

My original thinking was that when the Desnan priestess was killed and her refugees about to be slaughtered and raised as a new undead army, her spirit went nuclear and decided “If my flock can’t cross this bridge safely, then NO ONE CAN!” That didn’t come across very clearly (both of the judges echoed your concern), so in a rewrite I would devote more words to clarifying that point.

I apologize that my encounter didn’t come across as particularly inspired. In the final round I will try to make my proposed encounters more dynamic and interesting.

Thomas LeBlanc:
It seems like the haunt was definitely the weakest point of the encounter. I originally had it as a trap where the dilapidated bridge would collapse if subjected to excessive weight, but I thought the haunt was more Ustalavic and apparently failed to convey the proper atmosphere. The 10-ft. square was a limitation of designing a CR 4 haunt, and the wagon was necessary because should couldn’t carry her coffin on foot. Adding hide from undead to Rendel’s spell list is brilliant, and I would definitely add that to a rewrite.

A lot of the delay tactics came from the idea that the PCs could travel more or less as the crow flies, rather than take the winding road. That would allow them to reach key points faster, and thus muck up the road for Lorylai once she caught up. I didn’t really consider the coffin guards’ inherent navigational skill because I assumed a haughty and self-important leader like Lorylai would insist that her way was correct, regardless of the rangers’ superior knowledge of the terrain. Ultimately the offered delay tactics were merely suggestions made with the assumption that the PCs’ sabotage would be adjudicated by the GM. It was a bit open-ended, but I think I got the point across.

The Raven Black:
Good point about prompting the PCs, I should include that the religious leaders may suggest trying to stall her until daylight, in case the players don’t think of it on their own.

I addressed a lot of the problems with the haunt in my earlier responses, but concerning the intent to use the bridge I assumed that Lorylai thought she could trigger the haunt, wait out the duration, and cross in the refractory period. It was risky, but then again her whole situation was risky, so it didn’t strike me as particularly short-sighted.

As for the current, its danger is entirely dependent on whether or not the PCs invested in the Swim skill (which, in my experience, is rare unless the PCs expect to swim a lot in the campaign). It was also meant to be more dangerous to Lorylai, giving the PCs another potential tool to exploit a vampire’s unique suite of vulnerabilities.

Harp Rose/Wolf Spirit:
I hadn’t considered using bees, but now that you mention it I like that alternative. Out-of-the-box thinking like that, as well as player choice for how to approach the ambush, was my goal with this encounter, so if it got you thinking that way I consider that a success. (^_^)

Rich Malena:
Solely extending the ambush time would have been my go-to for any other monster, but I wanted to include the daylight option as a way to highlight the vampire’s weaknesses. If I were designing this encounter for publication, I probably would use it against an APL 5-6 group, or increase the number of servants to make the fight very challenging in the dark. That way all but the most headstrong parties would prefer to delay Lorylai’s retinue. Unfortunately I was already working at the upper limit of the round’s CR range, so I had to work with the options I used and accept that it would be pretty tame for an APL 7-9 team.

Dedicated Voter Season 9

Irrespective of Grading Rubric:
There is a decided difference in my thinking between storm clouds from a system large and strong enough to cause widespread flooding coupled with poor travel conditions and an ‘overcast’ sky; regardless, vampires are only affected by “direct sunlight.” What that means exactly? Expect table variation.

I thought you missed an excellent opportunity to build the priestess into a holy relic/shrine, instead of a non-thematic haunt (Priestess of Desna, goddess of travel, should certainly travel onwards to the afterlife and certainly would not persist in a vengeful state to block travel), whose resting place could be a point of interest for the party to explore and exploit in building their defense for the Vampiress’ arrival. Desna, Goddess of Stars and Travel, would certainly have the power to negate a storm, or at least guide the passage of a sunbeam down to the party at the appropriate time.

Then we go further to the haunt itself, and discover that by crossing the bridge the Vampiress is committing suicide; regardless of anything the PCs do she gets dropped into the river where she dies permanently 3 rounds later. I’m left wondering what’s the point of the encounter? Or worse, she circumvents the haunt, and then why include it at all?

The grading rubric in a *hopefully* more useful manner:

Your premise is reminiscent of Dracula, with pitchfork and torch carrying peasants right from a novel. I found this interesting, and was left wondering how you might showcase your own personal touch on this time-honored theme. What I found was disappointing since it does not explain why the PCs would be around, why they’d want to get involved, or set up an interesting conflict. The setting is reduced to a travel hazard with little direct player input; the PCs in every example needing to rely on NPCs to do their dirty work; certainly making the checks showcases some of their individual strengths, but there’d be more drama if you’d suggested sending in the bard instead of the wayfaring strangers. While it is suggested that the PCs create defenses or traps at the bridge, there’s no incentive to do so since the setting solves itself. The Vampire drives onto the bridge, and the bridge kills her.

The description of events was good; a little ‘Snoopy-esque’ with the dark and stormy night atmosphere, but it was appropriate to the theme and set the tone nicely. I would enjoy building the scene as either player or GM. The wacky races style delays tied into this nicely since they gave the players some agency towards building this scene, and would be a fun thing to adjudicate as the GM. I wish they were better/more believably integrated into the plot, were meaningful in that the setting didn’t resolve itself without PC input, and required some sort of tradeoff between trap-prep time at the bridge vs delaying the Vampiress until dawn or some more activity from the PCs. Their involvement is entirely too passive. Remember, encounters are their chance to actually play the game; to leave their impact on the gameworld.

“Does the encounter draw the party into a conflict on their own terms, give them agency up to the climax, and allow a conflict resolution ideally setting up or concluding a larger plot-arc?”

This is the big question, and you do reasonably well here. No you don’t draw the party in on their own terms, in fact their motive in this is largely a mystery; I’m left attributing the pathfinder society, which is a very weak character motivation. This is forgivable since the submissions are without larger context, and so a few had this same issue. The development from there is less forgivable as there’s little building of Ustalav and/or Lorylai; look at Bracken Moor Bridge for an excellent example of setting building - the background tells us all we need to know of the major NPCs, their plots and history, and seamlessly pulls the PCs in by a major player based on his motivations. The players are then left to play detectives (or not) as they wish and uncover all the juicy tidbits surrounding the encounter. The setting for that encounter is integral to running it; by contrast yours is completely tangential - you tell us why the NPCs are hunting the important NPC and then suddenly they’re not. From there you have this fun little interaction for the PCs where they can slow Lorylai’s escape down, but undermine your hard work with railroading: regardless of what they do, the Party will outrun Lorylai. The climax is similarly disappointing since when she arrives at the bridge she will engage them in a disadvantageous fight and die or they’ll let her go over the bridge - where she dies. And then there’s no resolution. The PCs aren’t even given the motivation of a reward for their actions.

Anywho, congratulations on making the top 4; looking forward to your round 5 pitch.

Just a quick congrats from me. I could not be any more proud of you and your work.

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