The ruins of an outpost sit abandoned on a hill. They might be an ideal place for travelers and caravans to rest for a night, but stories of ghosts and supernatural fog grow more common by the day. The party now finds themselves at these ruins, and the midnight moon brings with it a blanket of mysterious haze. What they do not see is the band of goblins scampering below the surface.
The most memorable D&D stories come from unique and characterful encounters, but not everyone has time to craft their own. To help you create these moments, we are starting what we hope to become a series of detailed encounter outlines, each designed with a unique twist or quirk. These come pre-baked, with instructional steps for preparing and running the encounter and its characters. Whether found along the road, pulled from a bounty board, or assigned by a superior, these side adventures aim to be fun and memorable standalone encounters.
My design philosophy is always to keep my players thinking about what is happening and why, making use of layered encounters, subversion, and clever opponents. This particular adventure was one I have personally run for my own group. It came as they traveled along the road and closely followed an unfortunate player character death (don’t worry, he got better). I wanted to give them a problem to solve, while not heavily penalizing them if they failed. Conversely, succeeding meant a rewarding moment of levity and fun that we still talk about today.
Setting the Stage
Moving the Pieces
Step one is perhaps the most important: get your players to the encounter. This will, of course, depend on the context of your campaign and the characters themselves. There are, however, several strategies that can be applied more universally. The most obvious is running it as a roadside encounter, which is how I introduced it in my campaign. The recently-dubbed ‘Wornswords’ were trekking south from the city of Lundr when they came across a woman on the road. Her back was turned, and she wore a stained wedding dress. But as they approached, the woman vanished and the dress dropped to the ground. Movement could be heard in the direction of the ruins.
My players had no idea the ‘woman’ was a stack of three goblins that then used an invisibility spell. I knew that their curiosity would prevail, so I only had to lay the bait to draw them into what they believed to be a ghost encounter. And after some argument, it worked. Not every party will be like mine, and it is unfortunately impossible to account for every player type. The key is to know what will and won’t work for your group, and play into that. If they are heroes, have a voice call for help. If they are warriors, perhaps have the sound of combat within the ruins. Even something as simple as rain could push them toward shelter, especially if it appears warmly lit and cheerful voices are heard inside.
Another approach is to use what appeals to almost every player in existence: money. While it will still depend on the party’s motivation, placing a bounty on removing the danger within the outpost is a simple way to force the characters to get involved. My players are part of a larger organization, but yours might hear whispers of the reward having increased. Perhaps more and more bounty posters are appearing, or word is spreading through inns and taverns. If they are not in town, they could happen across travelers coming from the area, or even another mercenary group that tried their hand but were chased away by the resident ghosts.
The Scene Itself
Before plotting the finer details of your goblin encounter, you need a location. The design can be adjusted for a number of different locales, but I decided on an abandoned and ruined guardpost, situated on a hill overlooking forested roads. The purpose was to isolate the party inside the walls, as well as cut the location itself off from assistance. Including the general amenities of a guardpost gave plenty of opportunities for ghosts to manifest, and the damage to the structure funneled the players to set camp in the only area with cover from the rain. Remember that your goblins are intelligent and have chosen and altered their trap to be most effective.
The best examples in our current map library would be either the Castle Walls tileset or the Forgotten Well. Feel free to design your own, if you’re confident or just looking for something different. An important aspect is keeping it contained, which is accomplished by the walls or cliffs. Populate the area with abandoned carts and wagons, as well as crates and barrels that they might have carried. This should give evidence that people were there before, and allows the party to investigate. If they do, the might find clues that show that thieves lurk nearby.
Your setting should also have spaces to encounter ghosts. I chose to have the apparitions briefly continue what they would have done in life. One practiced archery at the range, another made use of a woodcutting stump, and voices were heard in the living quarters. I then turned the creep-factor up when a final form appeared hanging at the gallows. Tailor your objects to fit with the purpose of the structure, to make it feel like it was once realistically inhabited. Just be careful not to scare your party away.
The final detail is the goblin nest. Mine was an underground cave, but you might use a hidden room or basement. The goblins are cunning and have dug tunnels in a network below the ground. Entrances are hidden under crates, behind trees, and within rubble, and the tunnels themselves are just large enough for a small creature. This allows them to move unseen and monitor their prey, as well as appearing and disappearing erratically beneath the fog. Whatever spoils they have stolen may also be hidden deep inside the network.
A handful of options for your surface battle map, whether you want to build your own or use a pre-made one…
Pulling the Strings
Your blessing and burden as DM is to be aware of everything running in the background. And with the party now lured to your map, we get to the hard part. You want your players to remain in the area overnight, while not immediately discovering the truth of that your ghost encounter is actually a goblin encounter. A simple solution is to have them arrive as night falls, perhaps with the aforementioned rain to motivate them further. This is easiest if they have been contracted to be there. For the most part, this step relies on your knowledge of how your party will react.
With the appearance of ghosts, it is almost impossible to have your players relaxed. Fortunately, your goal as DM aligns with that of the goblins creating the ghostly illusions; you both want the party to stay there. The specters should be unsettling, but not hostile. If your party is especially skittish, the ghosts could even be beneficent. A backup plan for my own encounter was having a group of ghosts at a dining table, offering food to the party. They are unlikely to fall for it, but the purpose is to manipulate their curiosity and draw them closer. They will eventually either need to rest or grow complacent over the phantoms.
Playing it Out
Once the characters are in place and as the moon reaches its apex, the trap is sprung. A thick, putrid white fog drifts in, covering and completely obscuring the entire area up to four or five feet high. The goblins in the yard will begin creating hostile illusions, pulling the players into combat. Their strategy is to move the illusions in attacks while casting spells from behind them, using the forms as cover. The spectral weapons will cause no damage and the goblins’ magic will control and disorient their foes. Meanwhile, the goblin leader will be producing the fog from safety while several thieves rummage through the party’s packs and pockets.
While juggling your initiative order and controlling several distinct ‘teams’ of goblins, it is important to keep in mind the capabilities and motivations of each group. They should act distinctly and independently, while still maintaining their collective goal. This will change during the transition from ‘ghost encounter’ to ‘goblin encounter’, depending on the party’s actions and reactions.
The design of this fight means that you are able to use the rulebook stat blocks for goblins, though consider increasing their casting modifier for parties with more powerful save modifiers.
The Sage is your goblin leader. Mine happened to be named Rastoondoot, in a split-second reaction to a player being civil enough to ask. His purpose during the ‘ghost encounter’ phase is to produce the obscuring fog and lead the thieves. This can be accomplished easier if your players roleplay to the extent of leaving their bags behind, and especially if the outpost’s stables have separated them from their horses. The Sage’s group will attempt to remain completely hidden from the party while rifling through their belongings, and the Sage himself will be directing them to the most valuable treasures. They will move quickly, meaning their stealth relies on walls and similar cover to hide them. They will ideally stay close to a tunnel entrance.
Homebrewing the fog gives some flexibility to how you run the encounter. It could be as simple as a version of the Fog Cloud spell, altered and enhanced by an enchanted staff, but I decided to make it the effect of magical crystals in the Sage’s possession. He would take a mouthful of murky quartz, then proceed to exhale a fountain of clouds that smelled of warm breath. The effect would also give form to ghosts, primarily soldiers, who reacted to the current environment as they might have in the final moments of their lives. This freed the goblins in combat from having to manipulate constant illusion spells and also meant that the party walked away with a handful of the crystals as a reward.
When playing the goblins and designing the fog, it cannot be stressed enough that fun should be the goal. The Sage will be the mouthpiece for any conversation, and the inherently silly nature of the encounter means they should be played for levity. If your players discover the thieves, as mine did, feel free to have them be embarrassed and unsure. They are not warriors and might attempt to bargain with gold teeth and small trinkets that they’ve acquired. Why have a standard villain when you can play into them being bumbling, primitive, yet inexplicably overconfident? Enjoy yourself.
Your remaining goblins will be divided between two groups, which we will call the ‘disruptors’ and the ‘thieves’. The former will be the larger group and should roughly equal the number of party members. You only need a small number of thieves. I assigned two to each location being robbed, which meant four in total between the stables and the party’s camp.
Controlling the group of thieves should be relatively simple. They will follow the Sage in rummaging through the party’s packs to find anything shiny or interesting to them, making a mess in the process. Just don’t unfairly damage a character’s items. You might want one thief keeping watch, but I would actually advise against it. Having them caught off-guard by the party makes for a funnier confrontation in the ‘goblin encounter’ phase. If your party’s packs and saddlebags aren’t left lying around, you can repurpose the thieves as pickpockets. Have the disruptors focus on disarming and debilitating the players beneath the fog to allow the thieves to dash in, grab an item, and escape unseen.
Goblins assigned as disruptors will act as the name suggests. They will use the layer of fog to gain total obscurement, moving behind ghosts to hide when they peek out and cast cantrips and spells. Mine had four first-level slots each, but the number is not important as you can always have new goblins duck in and out of the nest. Try to steer clear of damaging spells, while keeping a wide array of options. Gust, Thaumaturgy, and even Message make for great cantrip choices, while Color Spray, Command, Sleep, and Tasha’s Hideous Laughter are perfect example spells to start with. I personally assigned two to maintain Hexes on characters with stronger saves, and the wall between the outpost’s yard and the party’s camp meant they had prepared Snares around the battlefield before the fight. Remember that the goblins are smart and organized, but primarily act as tricksters.
You obviously have no control over the party, but it always helps to understand your players and how you might want to nudge them. Every party and player is unique, so it’s up to you to have some idea of how they react to different circumstances.
From a player’s perspective, the encounter occurs in two layers. Hostile ghosts will be the first threat they see, likely engaging in combat as a defense. The ghosts themselves will do no damage, but also take none. The trick here is to have the goblins acting in tandem with the illusions, casting spells from behind a ghost as it swings its weapon. You are aiming to confuse the players, pushing them towards realizing that something is amiss. Making perception checks will allow them to hear movement beneath the obscurement. My first player to figure this out managed to kill two goblins with some blind Shatters. Feel free to have the goblins use more obvious magic as your players catch. Commanding characters to dance worked for me.
Once they have realized the ghosts pose no threat, you will want to direct your players towards a confrontation with the Sage. How you do this will vary, as some players will take the initiative to get to their bags while others will need more hinting. The party coming face to face with the Sage is your cue to end combat. The goblin leader should call off the attack and reorient to negotiation. You want your party to recognize their intentions and intelligence and avoid them continuing to fight by casting a third Shatter directly at the goblin lieutenant. Change your focus entirely to comedy by revealing details such as the fog’s origin and the tunnels. The characters will be frustrated, confused, but specifically undamaged, so you should be able to move into a mutually enjoyable, humorous conversation.
The Curtain Call
Predicting the exact future is impossible, but it always helps to have an understanding of what the encounter might result in. Consider what the party’s most likely actions will be, based on their general morality and behavior. While your objective is to lead them towards a negotiation, they may choose otherwise. A more violent, reactionary, and less moral-driven group might end up attacking and killing every goblin they see. Meanwhile, other players could abandon the fight entirely, taking time to think and strategize. Try to have an array of options that you can adapt the details of as it plays out.
It is possible for your players to ‘fail’ the encounter. They may leave or the goblins may best them, making off with some of the party’s belongings. My advice in this instance is to not be too harsh. Have the goblins only take select items that they deem valuable. Beyond that, give your players a second chance. Most will want to retrieve the stolen gear, so provide them the opportunity to find clues. Goblin tracks might be noticeable once the sun rises, leading the players to discover the tunnels and hear movement beneath. It will largely depend on the state of the encounter when combat ends, but this gives you a final option to bring out the conversation phase, with goblins now more prideful following their victory.
Some more maps which you might use for the goblin tunnels…
The ideal result is to have the players be rewarded, whether from their first or second chance. This also presents a final creative opportunity in choosing the form of reward. Players often expect gold, but that doesn’t mean it has to be straightforward or regular. My party was ‘paid’ in the form of a necklace of golden teeth that one goblin had accumulated. Interesting items should accompany currency, which is why my Sage also bargained with a handful of his ‘ghost quartz’. This gave the characters something that may uniquely aid them in a future situation and reminds them of this encounter. Consider knowledge as a possible secondary reward. The sorcerer/cleric in my group found that the Sage was also a necromancer when he raised his lieutenant in front of the party. This meant that he actually ended up receiving a night of magical teaching in favor of money.
Once your players have their rewards and the conflict is resolved, you’re done! By this point, the party has hopefully come to an (uneasy) understanding with the goblins, and maybe they’re even friends. Or maybe they just killed everything. Either way, they are now able to get a good night’s rest with some new toys in their pockets. And you get to sit back, toss away the initiative tracking, and take a momentary breath.
That’s it for the first of our more finely-crafted encounters. We’ve loved seeing the reaction to our 1d20 Ocean Encounters, but wanted to deliver some more in-depth looks at fun and unique adventures and encounters. The ‘Encounter with a Twist’ is a series we would love to continue, and we look forward to hearing any feedback you have on it. Maybe you’d like to fit it into your own campaign, or were inspired to modify it into something else. Feel free to let us know what you think, and especially tell us how your players reacted to it!
If you have your own encounter ideas that you’d want to see us adapt, leave a comment. We’ve got a few ideas floating around, but would love to know exactly what you’re looking for.