Side Trek #1: Mysterious Tracks
A side trek adventure and level 2 skill challenge for four to five characters of levels 1-3
This adventure is designed to be a brief side trek that can be inserted into any ongoing adventure or existing campaign, and it utilizes my own, alternative method for conducting an ongoing skill challenge (see below). It begins with the characters traveling along a little-used trail on their way to somewhere else: where they are headed is up to your players or you. While doing so, they come across a set of mysterious wagon tracks that end abruptly just feet from where they are standing.
Begin the side trek by reading the following to the players:
You are following a little-used trail, making your way through the wilderness. It is drizzling, the ground soft and muddy. An offensive odor assaults your nose. Where it comes from you aren’t sure. As you stop to sniff and figure out what it is, you notice a set of deep wagon ruts. These wagon tracks come straight toward you in the opposite direction, and then, feet from where you stand, suddenly come to a mysterious and sudden end, as though whatever made them disappeared or was teleported away.
Don’t bother keeping track of any skill check failures during this side trek adventure (three failure does NOT result in the challenge coming to an end) and only keep track of actively rolled successes—not passive successes—for experience point purposes (again, the challenge does not end when a certain number of successes is attained). Rather, think of this skill challenge as more of an ongoing series of skill checks and rolls that are woven into the framework of the entire adventure instead of as a mechanic in which x number of successes must be attained before x number of failures. I prefer this to the 4e system of doing things because it seems to unravel the skill challenge more smoothly and in a more natural manner, helping players and the DM to maintain world immersion. “Success” or “failure” is only attained by reaching the end of this entire adventure, and this is the primary way my skill challenge differs from the 4e system. I also recommend making sure you have a quick-reference “rap sheet” handy of all player character’s skills and passive skill levels, so you can look them up quickly and covertly as needed. That way you can refer to the rap sheet without tipping off the players as to what skills you are actually checking until a successful check provides them with useful information (this helps to maintain mystery and suspense). For information on how to award experience for this type of skill challenge, see the section on “rewarding experience” at the end of encounter #1.
Now on to the actual adventure...
First clues (determined by passive skill checks):
As mentioned above, be sure to have a rap sheet handy that provides you with a list of all the player character’s skills. That way you, as DM, can refer to it in secret, while checking passive skills covertly. On the other hand, once the PCs qualify for an extra bit of information using their passive skills, be sure to state what skill or skills provided it.
Using this rap sheet, provide additional clues from the following list for anything the PCs qualify for using their passive skills, and be sure to say who discovered it and how.
1) A passive DC12 perception check results in the PCs noticing four large black birds circling to the east. They are circling about two hundred feet from where the PCs are currently located. A passive DC14 nature result will also tell the PCs that these birds are known to circle over recent animal kills while waiting for an opportunity to swoop down and steal tidbits from other, larger animals that are feasting on the carcasses or to pick over the scraps that are left behind.
2) If they qualify for a passive DC14 perception check they realize something else: the wagon had a team of four horses. Unlike the wagon’s tracks, though, the horses’ tracks do not end; rather, they head in the opposite direction of the birds, to the west, and it appears as though they were moving at a rapid pace of speed and dragging part of the wagon’s hitch and broken-off tongue.
3) If the PCs attain a passive DC15 nature check they recognize the smell as something dead.
4) A passive DC15 perception check finds a bit of broken wagon wheel lying on the ground just off the trail, slightly to the east from where the PCs first stopped. In addition, they realize that the smell is strongest whenever the breeze is blowing from the east, and its source can’t be more than 200 feet away, probably at the location where the birds are circling.
5) A passive DC18 perception check means the PCs notice two other pieces of broken wood about ten feet further into the wilderness from the location of the broken piece of wheel. It also reveals that, at the location where the tracks end on the trail, the wagon or cart suddenly became heavier, and its wheels were pressed deeply into the ground like an immense weight was added to it.
6) A passive DC20 perception check notices a flat oblong object near the road, half hidden in the foliage. Upon closer examination it is determined that it is about eight inches across and red in color. A passive DC14 nature check also informs the PCs that it comes from a large animal, something with scales. A passive DC20 nature check correctly identifies it as a scale from a red dragon.
7) A passive DC20 nature check informs the PCs that the weather appears to be improving, and the rain will likely stop in the next hour or so.
Taking a closer look (determined by making active skill rolls):
As soon as the players say they are examining the site and looking for more clues, or they say they wish to examine the clues they have more closely, allow them to make active skill rolls for ALL the above skill checks listed under “First Clues,” for passive information they may have missed with their initial cursory look, and keep track of those they make for experience point purposes. Again, do not tell them what skills are being used or why they are making these rolls unless they actually succeed, and then only tell them the information they succeeded at gaining and what skill or skills provided it (this helps to maintain mystery and suspense). In addition, ask the PCs to make additional rolls for each numbered piece of information listed below under “active rolls,” but again do this without telling them what skills are actually being used or why, unless they obtain a specific success.
This system works well when PCs announce they are carefully examining an area and previously found objects for more clues. At that point, you can assume they are now on “high alert” and using ALL their appropriate skills, senses, observation, etc. to assess their situation and find anything of importance they may have previously missed. In other words, there is no need to have a PC state I am using such-and-such skill to do something specific. They are now using every tool in their toolkit to examine things for clues, and they are doing their best to interpret those clues. Again, don’t tell them what skills are actually being rolled for, though, or why, unless they actually make a roll that provides additional useful information.
1. If the PCs have found and identified the dragon scale, a DC20 nature roll will now (if the PCs haven’t already figured it out for themselves) inform them that the wagon must have been attacked by a dragon and carried away through the air. They will also realize that the dragon that did this had to have been gargantuan in size, ancient and powerful, and way beyond their abilities to defeat.
Tracking the horses:
It will require three active or passive DC15 perception checks (nature can assist) to track the horses, not too difficult because they are large and traveling heavily across soft ground, but this is offset a little by the rain and how much time has passed since the horses fled (two days ago). If the PCs succeed, they will find the team about half a mile from the trail, to the west, scared, but otherwise in full health. With a DC20 active or passive nature check, they can then sooth them and claim them for themselves, if they wish; otherwise, the horses will bolt whenever the PCs come to within a hundred feet.
Investigating the birds and/or smell:
A passive perception DC12 check by the PCs allows them to take note that the offensive smell seems to be getting stronger as they approach the circling birds.
As soon as the PCs draw close to the birds, within 50 feet, read the following:
The birds are circling over a clearing. It’s not yet apparent why. Grass in the clearing is about as high as your waist and obscures vision to anything shorter than waist-height (if human sized). The smell is definitely caused by something that has died, and the rain has reduced itself to a light sprinkle. The sun has also begun to break through the clouds, creating a rainbow to the west.
First clues (determined by passive skill checks):
As soon as the PCs approach the clearing’s edge, check the following list for possible additional information to give them.
1) A passive DC13 perception check results in the PCs noticing there are several large, sturdy trees near the edge of the clearing that may be used to climb and provide a better, safer view of the clearing itself. Each of these trees—there are four—are between thirty- and fifty-feet tall and stand about thirty feet away from the others. [DM note: a series of DC10 Athletics checks are required to climb a tree]
2) A passive DC25 perception check detects sounds and movement in the grass. Read the following: You hear a slight rustling out in the field and see the tops of some of the blades of grass moving in the distance, as though they have been disturbed.
As soon as the players say they wish to examine the clearing or look for more clues or keep alert for possible trouble, allow them to make active skill rolls for ALL appropriate skill checks listed under “First Clues,” above, for any passive information they have not yet learned. In addition, ask the PCs to make additional rolls for each numbered piece of information listed below, under “active rolls,” but again do this without telling them which skills are actually being used or why, unless they obtain a specific success.
1. If A PC climbs to the top of a tree [DC10 Athletics checks to climb], they can then make an active perception check for the entire clearing and its surroundings. An active or passive DC11 perception check then informs them that the grass in the clearing has been flattened in three locations, caused by three separate objects that are lying near the middle of the field. Each location is roughly six feet in diameter and located about 30 feet from the others, and whatever caused the indentations appears to be there still. What they are, though, can’t be made out from this distance, and the one on the right has something shiny that glints in the sun.
2. An active perception check vs. 16 (the cat’s passive stealth while moving more than two) shows the grass is moving as though some creature is passing through it, and it appears to be approaching one of the indentations. Only a few brief glimpses of the dark creature are seen.
All three indentations are the result of people who fell from the sky during the attack by the dragon. An ancient red dragon attacked the wagon while the wagon was traveling on the nearby trail. That was the day before yesterday. It then lifted the entire wagon and its occupants and contents up into the sky, and while flying over this field, shook three of them loose. Those three humans fell and died. They have been here ever since, moldering and attracting scavengers. The dragon then took the rest of the wagon and its remaining occupants to its treasure trove located in a lair in the mountains near this location. Meanwhile, the wagon’s hitch and tongue broke off during the attack, allowing the horses to flee to the west.
Heading into the Clearing:
Anyone venturing into the clearing who draws to within twenty feet of an indentation and its body will draw an attack from the great cat that is lurking in the field because it is attempting to protect its newest food source (the bodies). If the PCs fail to sneak up on these bodies [requires a stealth vs. 19 (the cat’s passive perception) check] the great cat will attempt to skulk through the grass and either ambush the last member in their party or someone who has moved off onto his or her own. If the PCs succeed in sneaking up to the bodies they will catch the cat unawares and in the process of eating [a DC12 passive perception check determines it is eating a human]. The cat and body are about 30 feet away (if the viewer is human sized), but only 15 feet away if all the viewers are small-sized. Small PCs can only see 15 feet through the tall grass if they are not on someone’s shoulders, unless the objects being viewed are taller than three feet in height.
If the cat is surprised with an attack and hit at least once, it will flee. Noise or otherwise announcing the PCs presence without attacking will cause the cat to growl. A passive or active DC17 nature check (insight can assist) tells the PCs that the cat is protecting its food and likely willing to leave them alone if they leave quickly. A successful DC25 intimidate attempt (nature can assist) will drive the creature off. If the PCs back away quickly and leave, the cat will resume eating and leave them alone. If they don’t back away promptly, it will attack. If at any time the cat is bloodied, it attempts to slink off into the grass and flee. A passive or active DC15 nature check tells the PC the cat will likely flee if it is bloodied. A nature lore roll can also provide other information about the cat, like keywords, role, powers, and attacks (see PHB page 180 and 186).
Level 1 encounter (200 XP)
1 great cat
The great cat will attempt to stay hidden until it can single out one victim to stalk. After that, it will pounce the chosen victim with a combination of charging pounce and quick charge while using its claw attack, attempting to knock the victim prone with combat advantage from the surprise attack, gaining the extra die of damage if combat advantage is attained and following it up with a savage bite if possible, or a second claw attack if it is not. If the victim is still alive the next turn and gets up, it will then use its knockdown swipe as a minor action to try and knock the same victim prone again and finish it off with a savage bite if it succeeds, or another claw swipe if it can't. If the victim doesn't get up, it will simply use its savage bite and save the knockdown swipe for later. If the great cat then fails to keep the victim prone or sustains a hit of any kind during successive rounds, it will use blur of fur to move to a distance and then charge the same victim again, hoping its blur of fur will keep it from getting hit when it does this. It will then continue to attack in this fashion until it is bloodied or it recharges its knockdown swipe for another attempt at knocking the victim prone for a savage bite. It will then continue to attack in this way, switching between both methods of attack, round after round, until it has either killed its victim and dragged it off, or it has been driven off. Typically, a great cat will flee once it is bloodied, relying on its blur of fur and/or feral surge to get it out of trouble.
Once the PCs get into visual range of a body they can determine with a DC12 perception roll that it is a human body (see “heading into the clearing”). Otherwise, if they draw within ten feet they can automatically tell the same thing. They can also tell the bodies are contorted in a strange manner with no signs of visible blood, but heavily bruised and broken.
Closer examination (requires touching and an active roll): a passive or active DC12 active healing check tells the player that the body has been broken in many places from a fall. All three bodies are dressed in common clothing: leather breaches, a chemise and leather tie chords, a short sword, a dagger, and a quiver full of arrows. One of them has a cap, though it lies on the ground next to him. Three bows can also be found on the ground nearby. And one of them has a small leather pouch attached to his breaches that contains 5 SC. The third one, furthest on the right, also has a larger sword lying on the ground next to it (the source of the shiny reflection that was seen from the trees, if someone climbed the tree earlier).
What happens Next:
A passive DC20 nature check informs the PCs that resting or dallying in this location for too long may not be safe because other scavengers, humanoids, and predators in the area may be attracted to the birds. If the PCs opt to leave the great cat alone and immediately leave the area, ignore encounter #2. If they encounter the great cat and drive it off immediately and then leave the area immediately, you should also ignore encounter #2. If, on the other hand, they decide to investigate the bodies and area for more than two turns or opt for a short rest before leaving, proceed to encounter #2, below. And take note that a short rest will not be completed in time to gain its advantages before the encounter. Perhaps, after this, they will realize the importance of finding another location to rest safely.
No matter what, the PCs should obtain experience for either defeating, avoiding, or driving off the great cat (200 XP). In addition, they should also receive experience for completing the level 2 skill challenge; to do this, add up all successful skill checks made so far (only the active ones) and compare it to the “successes” column given in the skill challenge complexity chart provided on page 72 of the DMG. Select the entry that most closely matches the number of successes made by the PC group and ignore the chart’s column for failures. The result is the complexity of the skill challenge. Now times this complexity result by the number of experience points normally awarded for a level 2 challenge (125 XP). This is how much experience should be awarded and divided by the party. Active successes only count for this, and not passive ones, because the PCs do not learn from a task they can do sleep-walking; only when they stretch their abilities to the maximum do they learn something and experience growth.
Encounter #2: Goblin Surprise Party
level 3 encounter (677 EXP)
8 goblin cutters, 2 goblin snipers, 1 goblin sharpshooter, 4 hobgoblin grunts, and 1 hobgoblin soldier
Goblins and hobgoblins have also come to investigate the circling birds! As the PCs finish with the bodies and prepare to leave or rest they will possibly find themselves surprised and surrounded (unless they tell you they are taking extra precautions to hide in the clearing or to sneak out of the clearing). Otherwise, assume the goblins (who are approaching using caution and stealth) know the PCs are there, and they are now trying to ambush them. Likewise, unless the PCs say they are still actively keeping aware of possible sources of trouble, use passive perception to determine if the PCs are surprised or not [passive perception vs. 13 (the goblins’ passive stealth)]. The goblins will approach at slow speed.
The initial attack will be made by the eight goblin cutters attempting to sneak up slowly and capture PCs by knocking them out instead of killing them (two goblins from each direction). Meanwhile, the goblins with ranged attacks will climb trees at the edge of the clearing and attempt to provide support fire by focusing their attacks on magic-users first and artillery units second (the tall grass can provide partial concealment to small-sized PCs who stand and to full-sized PCs who duck down, or total concealment to those who fall prone). After the initial surprise attempt and attack, the four hobgoblins will then approach using a double-line square formation from the west, marching at standard speed toward the PCs, and yell out (in common) that the PCs should give themselves up. If they do, they will tie them up and haul them away, but if they don’t, they will instead attack them and attempt to subdue them with non-lethal blows. Meanwhile, the hobgoblin soldier (their commander) will hang back, hidden, until the hobgoblins have engaged the enemy. He will then rush forward, issuing commands, and hover around the edges of the formation using shift and his formation strike to provide support where he is needed most or to fill in for a fallen hobgoblin. He, too, will yell for the PCs to surrender.
If the hobgoblin commander and at least four of his allies fall in combat, the other goblins and hobgoblins will flee. Alternatively, the soldier will also yell for retreat and flee if more than two-thirds of his force is taken down (eleven total) by the PCs. You can also allow a DC15 passive or active insight check during the battle to provide this information to the PCs shortly before it happens (tell them something like “they look shaken now and possibly if you take down their leader, they may flee” or “if you just take down a few more, you think they may flee”). If you do this, intimidate checks should also be allowed at that time.
The PCs gain experience only for defeating or avoiding the goblins (677 XP)
Where to go from here (ending or expanding the side trek)...
You can simply have the PCs return to the original course of action they were taking when sidetracked by this side trek, or you can expand this side trek some more by having them have another sighting of the dragon and/or finding a living victim of the attack, or you can have them captured and hauled away by the goblins to their chieftain who wants to take their belongings and hold them hostage for additional money or make them into slaves. If you do this, you can even use it as a way to segue into "Escape from Slavery," one of our online posted skill challenges. Or you can engineer a foolhardy and harrowing, death-defying rescue of the remaining humans the dragon took off to its lair by having them meet a survivor who got away, or tempt them with the possibility of treasures from the dragon’s lair (but in both cases be sure to emphasize the size and power of the dragon and that a direct assault will not succeed).