Handling Suprise

I’m running peeps through the Moathouse (part of the Temple of Elemental Evil) and now that I’ve had a chance to read the adventure thoroughly it seems like a huge majority of the encounters begin with an adversary (monstrous, undead, or humanoid) having an overwhelming chance of surprising the players (50-83%) and then immediately attacking them.

I’m wondering what the best way to handle this is. So far in a single encounter I’ve had a spider leap on one of the players as a twist for a failed roll to search for loot in a tower. That worked well, but I’m wondering if there are other better/different ways to handle this.

Some thoughts I’ve had, which I’d love feedback on:

1a) If the players move into an area without caution, initiate a conflict on my own “Deleran, you see a giant spider leap onto your friend Sixtoe, ready to sink it’s poisonous fangs into his exposed flesh. What do you do?”

1b) If the players to move into an area with caution (looking for a trap/ambush) have them roll and appropriate test and success means discovering the threat before it discovers them. Failure either results in discovering them but suffering a condition (these would be easy to think of) or a twist like a random encounter (there are supposed to be those too), a trap, a threat from another nearby room.

  1. Continue to have ambushes result as twists.

  2. When appropriate, allow would be ambushes to start with some kind of negotiation (totally doable with humanoids, harder with unintelligent monsters and undead).

  3. Don’t immediately throw the players into a conflict, but if an ambush occurs in the fiction, and the players opt to fight, increase the adversary’s disposition for “Drive Off” and give them a weapon in called “ambush” that grants a bonus to the maneuver action. Also, if the enemy is perched in rafters, or otherwise couldn’t not easily give chase, lower their disposition for “Flee” conflicts.


If the players aren’t prepared for an encounter (ie: the encounter is the result of a twist), they don’t get to set the conflict type.
If the players want to scout an area, it takes a turn (which has its own downsides) but they can prepare for a conflict.

On that note, Jared (or others), you mind talking a little about turns? I keep hearing them referenced and generally assume that each time a player takes an action it is a “turn” and that as turns progress, the get closer to becoming hungry and tired, as well as supplies like torches running out, but I haven’t seen it codified anywhere.

Each test takes up a turn — making a test sparked by an Instinct does not take a turn, which is totally awesome. Characters gain a condition every four turns and light lasts a certain number of turns depending on the light source. Some light sources last a long time but require fuel, don’t create enough light for more than one person or are prone to being snuffed out at a moment’s notice. Spooky. I was Hungry/Thirsty. Now I am Afraid.

Okay, so, it seems to me that monsters are there to be either an obstacle or a consequence. I think it’s totally kosher to instigate a conflict as the GM - you can do this with Mouse Guard, too - and that would be a classic ambush. “You walk into the room and a bunch of goblins jump you in the dark. This is a Kill conflict, roll your dispo.” If the characters took the time to check for critters, then I’d probably hold off on initiating a conflict until they tried to use some other means - sneaking past, parleying, whatever - of getting around the obstacle.

I guess there doesn’t really need to be anything special about surprise, then. If you’re getting rushed when you enter an area, it’s not functionally different than having to leap a gorge or climb a wall, it’s just a differently colored (and potentially more deadly) obstacle, yeah?

Yeah, it just seems like a dick move to constantly ambush the unaware party. Then again, said party will probably quickly learn to scout before entering an unknown area.

Thanks Jared. That meshes well with the assumptions I had been making. God, this game is brutal.