Non-Combat Based Encounters that Challenge the Party


Advice


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Hello! I'm running a custom campaign and one of the things the party needs to do is travel to the Crystal Womb Vault of Orv and retrieve a MacGuffin to help a fallen god regain his divine power.

This part of the adventure has a lot of travel and most of it will be underground; cave systems, Nar Voth, Sekamina, and the Crystal Womb itself. A guide (if they are willing to pay her fee) will offer two ways they can go, a longer but safer route, or a shorter but more dangerious one. I have the long, safe route mapped out already with a decent amount of combat, and several non-combat challenges along the way.

However, I'm hitting a brick wall creatively for the shorter, but more dangerious route (if they choose that one). I would like to have some non-combat based encounters that will truly challenge the party. Again, it's mostly underground situations, massive and small caverns, tunnels, underground roads. Some of the things they will experience if they go the long way I can port over and they can have some of the same non-combat encounters, but I would like some more. So, I'm looking for tips or ideas for fun non-combat encounters that may challenge them.

My party is currently level 10 and consists of a kitsune paladin, an elf magus, a svirfneblin alchemist, a human druid (with a deinonychus animal companion), and a catfolk stormborn sorcerer (a thundercat if you will). They're decent in a fight when they're smart, but sometimes make fatal mistakes when they forget to heal themselves or make dumb decisions. They will also likely have a 15th level NPC guide who will be taking them to the Vault. She will be a powerful wizard/fighter. She is knowledgeable of the direction they're going and the customs and ways of the Underdark. She is there to guide them and help them fight or get out of sticky situations, but not make decisions for them.

By the way, this is me planning ahead, it's not like they're heading to the Vaults of Orv next week, so I have time to craft some fun stuff.

Thanks in advance for any advice or tips you would be willing to share.


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Stole this from Book 3 in Kingmaker:

Hot tar pools that each round of contact inflicts 1D6 fire damage. Total immersion does 10D6 fire damage per round. It takes a full round action DC20 Strength check to wade 5' through the tar. Swim speeds do nothing to help when in tar, but Burrow speeds work normally.

Each round after a creature takes damage from the tar, it takes half that again each round for three rounds. A full round action can remove a small blob to shorten the number of rounds this continues, however if someone has fully immersed, the amount of tar can only be removed with universal solvent.

After any amount of tar that has burned for 3 rounds remains on the creature, it hardens, effectively reducing the creature's Dexterity by 4 points. It takes 2D4 minutes to peel off any amount of hardened tar.

To make matters worse, the boiling tar has turned the air in the chamber hideously noxious. Every round a creature breathes the air, it must succeed a DC15 Fortitude save or become Nauseated for one round. Failure of a natural 1, results in 1D4 Constitution damage from the toxic air.


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Have part of their journey be through a perfectly round cave, this may or may not be the wormhole left behind a Bhole.

Bholes are colossal worms, akin to the one in the Star Wars Sarlacc Pit. And at CR17, probably best to be avoided, especially when you are in its territory.

So just the simple recognition of what it might be can be used to make them consider a different path. And you can always punish their hubris by letting them find it if they are foolish enough to go down its tracks.


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Avoid #dangerous encounter by going down a waterfall. But this waterfall plunges 90 feet straight down a tunnel, almost filling it. At the bottom is a pool with sharp rocks and something with a lot of teeth. Going back up is even harder.


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there are various adventures(scenarios) set in the underdark.

I would provide 3 guides with varying skill sets, attitudes, and alignments - let the PCs pick one. Of course competency and cost go together and lessens the risk of getting lost. A cleric or advocate of the old god might be one.

generally, light, food and water, and anything not made of unworked rock are scarce commodities in the underdark. Add 5-10 to survival check DCs.

derro checkpoints that PCs have to Bluff/Diplo/bride to get through.
vermin or rothé drives that cross their path.
vegepygmie tribes.
mongrelmen tribes.
you can smell troglodytes.
just look in the tables in the back of the bestiaries in underdark encounters for creatures that might negotiate rather than fight...

rather than rework encounters, just add to the CR on the hard path and figure out what extra monsters there are.
The easy path should have MORE diplo encounters than the hard path.


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The three different guides is an awesome idea. What they are willing to spend determines what they get as far as the journey goes...

Highest cost = safest/longest route, they are experienced enough to have lived long enough to know better.

Mid cost = I know a shortcut, but we have to travel through a Bhole hole to use it.

Low cost = I know a shortcut, and they don't ever know that it's a Bhole hole.

Additional/classic Underdark enemies that will actually negotiate rather than fight immediately are another great idea. Make the DC's a little harder for surface dwellers in the Underdark, and negotiations can turn into fights, adding to what would have been out of combat experiences.

I still think tar pools fit in if you need pure environmental hazards. But so do fragile crystals hanging from ceilings that require Stealth checks or they come cascading down like crystalline spears of doom. Easy to work in environmental hazards...


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

These are some good ideas, keep 'em coming! There's a lot of Underdark for them to traverse. :-)

I did actually have a plan in place if they wanted to go with a different/cheaper guide (or no guide at all...that would be bad news), but I know my party well enough to know that chances are high they'll go with the expert. They won't like her fee, but they may suck it up and pay it. But I will be accounting for different guides too. I like the idea of different expertise levels and what kind of trouble that may place them in later on, though. I love the idea of some cheap guide who lies about his expertise, and they get down there and figure out he knows very little and end up in so much trouble.

Additional question: What is a good way to handle them getting captured at higher levels? Most parties, mine included, tend to fight tooth and nail when faced with adversaries, but if things go horribly wrong, and they get captured by, say, a group of Drow slavers, what's a good way to capture them, and get them to surrender/stop fighting? At lower levels this is easier, but if there's an opportunity for them to get captured, what are some ways a GM might do that? I feel like it's harder at these levels for a party to actually get caught and enslaved. Is there any suggestions? I'm not planning on doing this unless all hell breaks loose, and they piss off the wrong people, but I would like to have the option available just in case. Thoughts on that?


I would set up encounters that exploit the fact that sometimes they make dumb decisions. This is always the most fun because you can test the players to see just how dumb/naïve they may be. Also. One time I had a GM set up encounters for each of the party members that tested their willingness to follow their alignment. Possibly turning traitor against their own people/race? A paladin choosing a fair fight with unarmed strike because the opponent has no weapons? Something along those lines. I do also like the choice of different guides with different levels of expertise. So many chances for chaos to ensue.


You can always reskin some encounters from other Darklands material such as Rise of the Drow from AAW.


Along this route is the Caverns of Unknown Color. Very dangerous. I've never traveled that route but rumor says the few survivors describe the tunnels as abundant in strange fungi and water, but filled with wild magic that drives even the strongest mad.

There are traces of the Caverns of Unknown Color here, and here. There is a high chance we'll be able to save a week by trying to forge a path through those caverns. Otherwise we'll have to detour around which should be about two weeks. I'm a bit leery about entering those caverns. I'm not fond of the idea of my employers going insane.

The cavern itself contains a fragment of Shub-Niggurath which has seeped into the fungi that run rampant through these caves. The fungi give off a strong violet light which strains the eyes. Seeing past 180' just isn't possible (though non sight perception is not blocked). Exposure to the cave leads to madness, and then an eventual transformation. Creatures that undergo this transformation leave these caves to terrorize the Underdark.

To make progress through the caverns requires a KS: Dungeoneering check every 2 hours. DC 50. The person rolling gets +2 for every other party member with 10 ranks in Dungeoneering, a bonus of +2 or +5 depending on the quality of the guide, and a +10 for each retry of this check. A total of 10 successes finds a route through the caverns. A roll of 1 takes away 1 success as the party goes down a bad path before discovering a dead end.

The entire enviroment is seeped in magic. Detection magic reveals it to be a strong Transformation, Evil, and Divine in origin. Every 4 hours the party must make a Fortitude save DC 30 (+2 to the DC for each previous save) or go one step down the Mental Disease Track, except instead of dying the character begins to transform into a Mi-go (with CR equal to the character's level) which takes 24 hours. If this happens only a Wish can restore this character to normal. Immunity to poisons or magic to protect from gasses gives a +2 to save. Immunity to disease gives a +2 to save (this is transforation magic, not a disease). An application of Heal gives +4 to your next save. Spending the entire 4 hours inside of a magic circle gives +10 to save. Any Protection From Alignment type spell gives +2 to save. True Seeing gives -5 to save per casting. Casting any other divination spell gives a -1 to save per casting. A single survival check gives the entire party a +1 bonus to save for every 10 in the roll. Anti-Magic Field of Shell provides complete protection from this effect for its duration.

Once characters leave the area of influence they begin to recover from the effects. Square the number of steps down the track each person is, that is how many days before the effects are eliminated. So if a person is Weakened (2 steps) it take 4 days to completely recover. If someone has become Deranged (5 steps) it takes 25 days to shake the effects. A DC 30 Heal Check for Long Term Care will remove 1 day, plus 1 more day for every 5 they exceed DC 30. Any spells that curse disease or remove curses will also shorten the duration by 1 day.


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A legendary adventurer, from ages long past, met their fate in one of these caverns and has become a ghost. After many centuries of existing, he has become truly, deeply, bored!

If he thought the party was a legitimate challenge for him, he would provoke a fight that he hoped would lead to his ultimate destruction. Alas, they are obviously inferior.

Instead of destroying them, he manifests and offers a deal. If the group can entertain him for the length of one night (day, or other period of time) he will allow them to pass peacefully AND reward them with any of the treasures he has collected from other passers-by over that he has preyed upon through the long cold, dark years.

While thoroughly evil, he is more interested in the entertainment value and will keep his word if the party succeeds at entertaining him for the duration.

He is well versed on MANY topics and is willing to watch typical entertainment sorts of performances, watch combat, discuss morality and ethics, law, or arcane matters. Any skill or ability on the character list could be used in an entertaining way if the party will just think of it that way. The problem is that he grows easily distracted and simply can't pay attention to anyone/anything that has already lost its appeal.

Any character can make skill checks on any skill they have with gradually increasing DCs. Once the character fails, another character must use a different skill to distract the ghost. Characters can come back in on rotation but no skill can ever be used twice during the night. (Characters could use the aid another action to prolong a performance.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
marcryser wrote:

A legendary adventurer, from ages long past, met their fate in one of these caverns and has become a ghost. After many centuries of existing, he has become truly, deeply, bored!

If he thought the party was a legitimate challenge for him, he would provoke a fight that he hoped would lead to his ultimate destruction. Alas, they are obviously inferior.

Instead of destroying them, he manifests and offers a deal. If the group can entertain him for the length of one night (day, or other period of time) he will allow them to pass peacefully AND reward them with any of the treasures he has collected from other passers-by over that he has preyed upon through the long cold, dark years.

While thoroughly evil, he is more interested in the entertainment value and will keep his word if the party succeeds at entertaining him for the duration.

He is well versed on MANY topics and is willing to watch typical entertainment sorts of performances, watch combat, discuss morality and ethics, law, or arcane matters. Any skill or ability on the character list could be used in an entertaining way if the party will just think of it that way. The problem is that he grows easily distracted and simply can't pay attention to anyone/anything that has already lost its appeal.

Any character can make skill checks on any skill they have with gradually increasing DCs. Once the character fails, another character must use a different skill to distract the ghost. Characters can come back in on rotation but no skill can ever be used twice during the night. (Characters could use the aid another action to prolong a performance.

This is a fascinating idea, I may roll with something like this.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Another question: What is a good way to handle them getting captured at higher levels? Most parties, mine included, tend to fight tooth and nail when faced with adversaries, but if things go horribly wrong, and they get captured by, say, a group of Drow slavers, what's a good way to capture them, and get them to surrender/stop fighting? At lower levels this is easier, but if there's an opportunity for them to get captured, what are some ways a GM might do that?

I feel like it's harder at these levels for a party to actually get caught and enslaved. Is there any suggestions, or should I not even bother? I'm not planning on doing this unless all hell breaks loose, and they piss off the wrong people, but I would like to have the option available just in case. Thoughts on this?

Shadow Lodge

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In general, avoid capture scenarios. Trying this has a good chance of straight up ending your game. There's a lot problems with capturing PCs. No matter how giant and scary the opposition, players will try to combat it because they assume you designed an encounter that they are able to defeat. Heroes in the movies get captured all the time and audiences groan almost every time and point out all the sensible ways the hero could have avoided it if he wasn't a complete moron. In reality, we have a sense of self preservation that makes us surrender when overwhelmed, but we hate doing it. This however is a game, that self preservation isn't as acute, so we fight to the death because we wish we were strong enough to do that. Tabletop role-playing for many of us is a power fantasy. Being captured is the exact opposite of empowering. Some people will see this as a violation of their trust and will get so mad they will storm out the door.

In the end it comes down to knowing your players. Some groups might have a lot of fun with a capture and escape scenario, others will disband because of it. Know that this is extremely delicate ground and you should tread it very carefully.


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A party of mine had just one person in the party captured.

She had to essentially sit out the next two sessions as we rescued her from her captures. We were all literally pisses off about every part of it.

We went so far off course pursuing her, everyone shifted alignment one step due to the things we were apparently willing to do to get her back... like torturing people for information, and killing everyone in connection to her disappearance even if they surrender.

And we proved so aggressive in our pursuit that the GM pretty much backed out of the entire campaign once we found her.

End result: capturing party members is stupid and nobody has any fun in these scenarios.


dot


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VoodistMonk wrote:

A party of mine had just one person in the party captured.

She had to essentially sit out the next two sessions as we rescued her from her captures. We were all literally pisses off about every part of it.

We went so far off course pursuing her, everyone shifted alignment one step due to the things we were apparently willing to do to get her back... like torturing people for information, and killing everyone in connection to her disappearance even if they surrender.

And we proved so aggressive in our pursuit that the GM pretty much backed out of the entire campaign once we found her.

End result: capturing party members is stupid and nobody has any fun in these scenarios.

Agreed, it is very awkward when a PC is captured. Just happened in my game recently, and there just wasn't a plausible means to have them escape right away. I don't have a great answer for this; they would have just killed the character as soon as capture them, and hanging around for hours after your character is killed isn't terribly fun either.


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

@gnoams, VoodistMonk, and blahpers

Those are all fair points. I wasn't 100% sold on the idea myself. I just thought it might be a change of pace that I could hold in my back pocket if things turned sour. But I agree with you, I think it would not end up working and wouldn't be fun.

One of the situations that they will face is one where they will be in an area with a known slaver's route (known if they have a good guide with them, that is) and have to choose to help slaves out, which will piss off the slavers and get powerful people after them as well as allow them to gain some street cred with the slave communities and/or free peoples. Or they can help the slavers, which will give the party a negative reputation with the slave communities and favor with the slavers and (most) of the authorities. Or they can walk away and effectively not choose a side. I have ideas for all kinds of outcomes depending on what they do and how they do it.

But I think I will abandon the capture and enslaved scenario for them.

I did capture a party member several months ago. They were trying to find this group that was known for taking young women and doing terrible things to them in the name of Zon-Kuthon. The party were being paid to look into things by the local authorities.

One of my players was playing a young female character, and the party discussed it and decided to use her as bait to draw these people out. I rolled d% to have this plan work (they were ignoring blatant clues I was leaving for them to go with this plan, they could have found the group with almost no problem had they followed some of those clues, but they felt like baiting them was the best option). The bait worked. But the party made some dumb choices and decided to split the party. She on her own, two other players a few blocks away. Two other players on the rooftops, but a few streets away. Close enough to keep an eye on her, but far enough away that if things went wrong, they couldn't get to her in time, but thought they could. They thought they were dealing with a bunch of hooligans and sickos, not a highly trained and well organized group who were good at kidnapping people.

So, the enemy surprised the girl, magically paralyzed her (failed will save, I think she Nat 1'd), blindfolded her, shoved an invisibility potion down her throat (another failed save on her part), and gagged her. Threw her over a brute's shoulder, then he went invisible himself, and ran for it. All of this in the few rounds before the party could get anywhere close.

Needless to say, they used all their best abilities, attributes, and some intelligence and were able to track them down before they got out of town and were able to fight them off. So she ended up captured for only half the session, and all the while trying to fight off (unsuccessfully due to horrible luck) the paralysis. So there were things for her to do during this track and chase scenario. It ended up being quite fun. Shame though, because after all that, they left no one alive and thus had no new information, and were back to square one and had to follow the clues anyway (I threw them a bone and gave an extra few clues on the bodies).

So, I guess the moral of this is that capturing can be done, so long as a player doesn't sit out for multiple sessions and the party doesn't feel powerless.


A few ideas.

- A deep and wide chasm they need to cross
- Chimneys: more or less tight vertical passage they need to navigate
- Uncomfortably tight and narrow passage where thry need to go one by one, crawling on their belly, pussginh their gear and armor in front of them (or dragging a tied bundle behind them.
- partially flooded passage, essentially a swift narrow river that they must navigate on foot
- fully flooded passageway...same a above, but need to find/reach air pocket
- Toll bridge. Pay the toll or go down a few miles to the left/right and deal with the local dangerous wildlife.
- Unstable cavern, if they are too noisy, or to close to each other, it collapse.
- Shrieker(sp) cave: navigate a cave so thought causing those fungi to shriek and attack something much more dangerous.
- Labyrinth passages. Navigate your way to safety and stay clear of the gelatinous cube or pudding or whatever else lives here.

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