Ambush and surprise

Very much enjoying reading through TB and watching some play online, but due to other gaming commitments I haven’t run a game yet. I wonder how experienced TB GMs would run ambush encounters and/or deal with surprise. I can see that a Scout versus test would be called for, but le’s assume that the group hasn’t a clue that it is about to be attacked, charged, fired at or whatever, what then?

Apologies if the answer to this is all too obvious. I’m a long time role-player but very new and excited by coming across BW games… wish it had happened years ago.

Describe to live.

Describe the environment as best you can. If you’re feeling generous drop some subtle or not-so-subtle hints about how this area would be great for an ambush. Or not.

Then leave it up to the players how they react. Someone may be paranoid and say they’re on the lookout for anything suspicious. In which case they should get a roll. But if no one describes keeping an eye out. Well, they get ambushed because they weren’t paying attention.

Then you can decide what that means in the game and that situation.

There should probably only be ambushed as the result of either a twist or negligence.

That aside, an ambush works something like this:
The GM says “4 bandits leap out of the bushes”
A player says “I talk to them politely”
The GM says “They’re in no mood to talk, their swords are already drawn and they have murder in their eyes.” (Restrictions on conflict type because of surprise)
The party leader says “We draw our blades and make them bleed”
Based on that description/intent the GM chooses Kill as the conflict (though the players could have just as easily tried to flee, drive off, or something else appropriate)
Disposition is rolled and combat begins.

They players still decide how to react and the type of conflict is still based on their reaction. The GM cannot say “You are ambushed by 4 bandits, it’s a kill conflict, roll disposition”.

Thanks guys. The thing is then that an unspotted ambush, either not looked for at all, or missed in a scout check, could then be like a trap, imposing a condition before combat, in a serious case like an arrow sticking out of the warrior’s chest - injured condition.

I appreciate that that would be a nasty GM moment, but other lesser conditions might be appropriate depending on the competency of the ambushers.

A trap doesn’t give you a condition. It forces you to make another test. If you fail that secondary test, then you get a condition.

If the ambushes had poisoned darts then you could do something similar and ask for a health test, failure sick, and then start the ambush. However, it would be against the rules and spirit of the game to hand out a condition without a test that the players failed or the result of a conflict compromise. And any time you do hand out a condition as part of a failed roll has to come with achieving their intended outcome.

(By the way, the intent of a player struck by a sprung trap is generally assumed to be “not die”, so when they fail you give them a condition and they get what they wanted, not death. That only applies to traps and other nasty surprises though. If they are actively trying to do something then the GM needs to respect their intent if he decides to hand out a condition instead of a twist).

Okay, thanks for that.

So, if I may, can we look at a particular scenario? Let’s say that the group is moving through a canyon or a defile; they know they’re in goblin country and a group of goblins are laying in wait to ambush them just ahead. The goblins plan to use bows to pin the party down, kill them if possible, maybe to roll some rocks down and if any characters start up the slopes towards them they’ll try to keep them at bay with their polearms.

  1. How would I conduct the test to discover the ambush? Scout versus goblin nature?

  2. Let’s assume the party doesn’t see the ambush and the first arrow flies. What then? Could this be a test to avoid the first volley for example?

  3. After the moment of surprise then the party states its intentions and we move into a conflict based on their actions. Right?

  1. yep, assuming the players aren’t just chatting obliviously as they walk into the obvious ambush.
  2. it could be, but I personally would rather the conflict related actions, like shooting arrows, be part of a conflict. Also, what would the test be? Fighter wouldn’t make sense, because it isn’t opposed, the players are caught flatfooted. It could be Health for leaping out of the way or shrugging off the arrows, but unless these goblins are skilled assassins with well aimed crossbows I would think the party would have a chance to respond to goblins leaping out and firing arrows, albeit at a disadvantage. You might give the goblins a bonus to disposition or their first action for having a height advantage and the rocks could even be a conflict weapon. If the goblins rigged traps and are waiting for the traps to go off before the ambush starts, then I might resolve the traps first. All of this is just how I personally would handle it though, I don’t think the rules would exclude having some kind of “survive the initial ambush” test before the conflict starts, depending on how unexpected and well-executed the ambush is.
  3. Yeah, if you went with a “survive the initial ambush” test then the conflict would start after that test is resolved based on what the players describe themselves doing after that first volley of arrows.

Thanks Jovialbard,

this been really useful for me.

You could describe the situation - " On your way to xxx you find yourself in a narrow defile. The canyon walls begin to rise up around you.". This break in the game will have the players respond in some way - what they do will determine if they discover the ambush or not.

If the goblins pulled off an ambush you could give them a special weapon (rolling boulders, +1s attack) or maybe let them start with a ‘gain position’ advantage already in place (+2d for their next action only).

Scout test to detect the ambush, so they can act and you then likely declare a conflict type. Failure, you give them a Condition and determine conflict per usual, or use a Twist. Like the party members or forced apart and will have to take an action to regroup or be unable to help each other. Or just add dispo to the goblins with an evil GM factor.

Yep, Thanks, CoCo & Noclue, those ideas sound very reasonable.

I think I probably need to get myself into an online game to experience the system before running it myself.

So I’m watching yet another Sean Nittner vid and a character has just had a green slime drop on them - health versus test failed after what amounted to an ambush. Now he’s been forced into a kill conflict, but a sort of asymmetric one that SN has called a “trapped” conflict, the character can die but the slime can’t it can only be escaped. Where does this hack originate or have I missed it in the book? I’m going to watch now and see how it turns out.

See the Creeping Ooze​ on page 153 of Torchbearer.

Ah ha!! Thanks!!

I suppose that this special conflict might be adapted for other ambush situations if appropriate though.

Just a couple thoughts:

  1. If the players failed a test to detect the ambush (like a failed Scout test), a twist means the only conflict options at the group’s disposal are the monster’s listed conflicts. See Rawr! Monster Twists on page 151. So if you get ambushed by ghouls, your only options are Kill, Trick or Flee.

  2. Keep in mind that the GM chooses what type of conflict occurs based on what the players describe their characters doing. Describe to Live applies here. This means you can use twists from ambushes to cut off options. If goblins trap you in a cul de sac and are howling for your blood, you’re within your rights to declare that Flee conflicts are off the table, even though it’s a listed conflict for goblins. There’s just no way to run away from them without fighting your way through them first.

Yep, thanks Thor. I see that. The more I watch TB played and the more I have questions answered on this forum the more I appreciate the flexibility of the system… I need to run or play a game now I think.