Today’s encounter is an awesome guest contribution from Lxi. We can’t thank him enough for sending this along (he even playtested the race! Notes at the bottom). More on Lxi:
Lxi is a dedicated DM and a father, crafting dynamic and exciting D&D adventures for family and friends. His goal is to minimize repetition and avoid slogfests, ensuring each encounter is as engaging as possible. (But to be honest, some of his ideas are dumb.)
Recommended Party Level: 1st to 10th lvl (the final encounter has options for different level ranges)
Meeting the Mayor
As the adventuring party arrives at the farming village of Guillermo, they are invited to meet with Mayor Bess MacAlister in her office.
“Our town is in a predicament and we would like to ask for your help. Let me explain,” the mayor begins, her voice steady and eyes focused on you. “Things have been good for us here for a long time. With little to occupy us, we decided to build a playground for the children.”
She points towards a window overlooking the playground. “But when it was completed, a detestable old man claimed the spot, scaring the children away. He threatened anyone who approached him with a pitchfork, declaring that the playground was his.”
She taps her finger on the desk, a firm resolve in her eyes. “When Ofelia, our Guard Captain, and her sons attempted to remove him, he retaliated. He used some form of dark magic and turned them into rocking horses.”
Looking directly at you, the mayor lays out a proposition. “If you can help resolve this issue and rescue our guards, we’re ready to reward you. 100 gold coins each.”
She stands, extending a hand in agreement. “And, you’ll have a lifetime of bed and breakfast service at our village inn at your disposal.”
Talking to the Devil
When the adventurers approach the children’s playground, an ominous haze shrouds the area and the squeaking sound of the swing punctuates the eerie silence. They see a grumpy old man in the swing, slowly swaying back and forth. They will also see rocking horses, an equal amount as there are characters in the party. (Each gets to ride one, later.)
The man is stubborn and impolite, and will start a conversation by telling the adventurers to mind their own business. (If your players can take it, they can use very harsh language as well.) They look human, but spells like Detect Evil and Good reveal that they are a fiend. Within his shadow, you can occasionally catch a fleeting glimpse of a tail or horns, but upon a second glance, they’re gone.
If asked to move, he says: “The contract is a contract. This is my place and I won’t leave.” He hands the adventurers a looong parchment with small writing, saying, “Read it.”
It becomes clear that the man is Baron Arkham and he owns these fields, and the village has rented them from him. The contract was signed by the former mayor of the village a hundred years ago.
- The contract states that if the fields are used for anything other than farming, they will revert back to his ownership.
- The contract also has a clause that if someone sleeps in the field, their soul will become the property of the baron at midnight (hinting that the baron is a fiend).
- If the players wish to spend more time to decipher the legal jargon, with an Investigation check DC11 the players will discover that the contract also contains the following clause:
- Changes can be made to the agreement on the condition that one declares the change, and then defeats the baron in a competition, which will be held in three disciplines that he gets to name.
Exorcizing the Playground
Players are free to get creative looking for solutions. If they are at a loss, the Devil will give a hint at Option 2 saying: “Now leave me alone to play in this merriest of playgrounds”, muttering under their breath: “but I’m growing bored of the slide and the swing and the endless sandcastles.”
In any case, if they’ve found a way to get the Devil to leave, saving the Guard Captain and her sons will involve the Riding Competition, which is a chase/combat encounter. In Option 1 this is baked into the third round of the competition.
Not An Option: Trying to Fight
It should be obvious that facing the Devil in head-to-head combat is not the solution. If the players decide to try this, their weapons turn into rubber chickens (the squeaky kind) and all offensive spells are mirrored back at the caster. Practically, the Devil has immunity against all attacks.
Option 1. Competing with the Devil
If the players examine the contract and find the clause to change it, they can challenge the Devil into a competition. The Devil will select disciplines which have to do with games in the playground:
- Highest Swing: contested acrobatics check, best out of 3 to win. (The Devil rolls with +7 Acrobatics)
- Fanciest Sand Castle: contested performance check. (The Devil rolls with +7 Performance)
The third competition will decide the winner of the competition. If the players win the first 2 or one of them, the Devil says “if you win this final round, you win the competition.” If the players lose the first two rounds, the Devil laughs and says “That’s pathetic! I’m so much better than you at playing. I will give you one more chance, if you win this final round, you win the competition.”
“The final round is a riding competition against my riders!” See Riding Competition below.
Option 2. Constructing a New Playground
Talking to the Devil it also becomes obvious they love the playground and that is why he doesn’t want to leave. (He might have conjured the whole contract in a whim.) But you will also find out that the Devil isn’t completely satisfied with the playground, and he wishes that someone with more imagination would have designed the place. If the players suggest building a new, more imaginative playground, he will be happy to move there.
The players will need to provide a plan for the playground (ask them to draw it!) and at least 3 successfully built amusing things to play with. When the plan is complete and they attempt to build the playground, ask for a suitable ability check to build each play thing (DC for genuinely creative ideas from the players is 10, but very usual or using the same ideas as in the original playground, DC 15). The players need 3 successes to make the playground appealing enough for the Devil to move. For any failed parts, the Devil will destroy the play things he doesn’t like with acts of frightening violence such as casting fireballs. The players need to come up with more ideas and try to build them successfully to satisfy the Devil.
When they succeed the Devil says: “Wonderful! I will remove myself from this playfield and enjoy the next. But to free the guards, you will need to win them back in a riding competition!”
The Devil announces the riding competition, saying: “Whoever catches the Rabbit, wins. Be it one of you, the guards will be transformed back to their original selves, and I will be gone from this realm for good. But be it one of my riders, your guards will remain rocking horses forever, and the playground stays as mine. Teleporting is not allowed!” The Devil laughs for a while, then he shouts a command: “Cavalry, mount horses!”
When the players mount the rocking horses, they transform into live animals. Each player gets to choose what their mount looks like (but for the mechanics of the chase, they are all large sized animals and not able to fly). A giant sized pink rabbit appears and darts off. The horses react immediately and gallop into a chase. Each player needs to roll an Animal Handling check DC15 or they are off balance, which means everything they attempt on their next turn will be at disadvantage.
At the same moment, the Devil will summon his riders. Depending on the level of the adventuring party, the Devil will summon the following monsters and the chase/combat encounter will take place:
- Levels 1-3: each of the PCs is chased by a Bearded Devil (with one added javelin as ranged attack, +5 to hit, d6+2 piercing – ignore infernal wounds with glaive attacks) riding a Warhorse Skeleton
- Levels 4-6: each of the PCs is chased by a Bearded Devil riding a Hell Hound
- Levels 7-10: each of the PCs is chased by a Barbed Devil riding a Hell Hound, except their leader, who is a Horned Devil riding a Nightmare (If the Nightmare falls, the Horned Devil will take flight and continue the chase, but will fall 15 ft behind. For shenanigans, buff the Nightmare with the ability to use Ethereal Stride as bonus action so they can blink into existence and attack on the same turn.)
Note! Ignore the actual Speed given in the statblocks of these monsters, the chase speed is treated in a special way.
To track distances, it is recommended to use miniatures or tokens on a grid, where each square represents 5 feet. At the beginning of the chase, the player characters are side by side, the rabbit is 30 feet ahead of them, and the devil’s riders are 30 feet behind them. Roll initiative!
Encounter setup with tokens: each medium-sized rider is on top of a large mount.
Movement in the chase is special: everybody is galloping forward like crazy, but movement is tracked relatively to the Rabbit. At the beginning of each round, every player rolls an Animal Handling (Wis) check. Consult the following table for each combatant to determine their movement on this round:
The Devil’s riders are catching up and move up 10 ft forward every turn. Note: if any of the player characters use spells to create difficult terrain, on that turn the enemies’ relative movement is zero (move them back 10 ft).
On each combatant’s turn, there is no other movement (the steeds are fixated on the rabbit and will not move sideways), except if the rider decides to slow down to get closer to others behind them. The maximum is 30 ft movement backwards per turn, and if you go past any enemy chasing you, they get an attack of opportunity. As actions and bonus actions, players can choose to attack and cast spells normally.
If a player with a high level character attempts to shut down the chase by e.g. casting Wall of Force, the Devil interferes by making his riders ethereal for a while so they get past the obstacle or avoid a fatal Area of Effect spell. But if this happens, one of the Devil’s riders will always hit the obstacle, so that the players will get partial benefit and satisfaction of watching an enemy get demolished. Teleportation spells will fail.
On their turn, the devil’s riders will use any ranged attacks on the players if they can. If they catch up to melee range, they will use melee attacks to kill the heroes. Dropping to zero hit points means falling off the mount and landing unconscious (but stable) on the field. If any of the devil’s riders get the opportunity to ride ahead to catch the rabbit first, they will do so.
The Player Characters’ mounts are magical, and cannot be targeted with spells or slowed down, and they are immune to all attacks. Also, they do not have any attacks and will only gallop forward.
If anyone reaches the Rabbit, the race ends.
If the devil and their cavalry win, the player characters will gain back all their hit points but receive one level of exhaustion. But the devil’s riders form up into a Voltron-esque construct and the devil, in a much deeper voice, shouts “foolish mortals, be gone from my land. If you set foot on this devil’s playground again, you will suffer the consequences.” The townsfolk watching hang their head and leave, disappointed that their tax dollars now support a demon. Mayor Bess pats the party on the shoulder, thanks them for their attempt to help, but must be on her way to dig through some more paperwork as the playground was not initially zoned for fiends.
If the party is successful, the cavalry disappear, the mounts turn back into the guard and her sons, and the devil doubles over in frustration. “I, I can’t believe you bested me. And on my own land for that matter. The zoning district will hear about this. This won’t be the last time you see Beezlecreebus!” The devil explodes into a cloud of smoke and all the haze over the playground disappears. The skies lighten and all is right with the town once again.
Mayor Bess congratulates the party, noting she’s never seen anything like what transpired and will hold up her end of the bargain, granting the adventurers 100gp each, a lifetime voucher to stay at The Dancing Doppleganger, and a Monkey Bars Maul.
- 2d6 Maul that doubles as an extendable ladder or horizontal ladder for climbing across gaps. Can stretch up to 30 ft. At 10 feet it halves the damage, at 20ft it reduces to 1d2 and at 30 ft it cannot be used as a weapon.
Appendix: playtest notes from the Author (Lxi)
As the DM my goal is to create balanced encounters and play them out according to rules with little or no adjustments on the fly. I always roll monster dice openly and be transparent about what monsters can do: when a monster uses an ability, I explain the mechanics to the players. I want to run a fair game, and if a PC ends up dead, it is not by DM fiat, but the decisions they made and the Dice Gods.
To be able to run this way, the encounter balance becomes very important. The CR system in D&D helps, but I’ve never trusted it to give me real information on whether my scenario is something the players can beat. The only way to know is to test it! This is what I did for the Riding Competition as well, and here are the notes:
I took pregen characters from Wizards of the Coast and created a party of 4 for the playtest. A fighter (champion), cleric (life domain), rogue (thief) and a wizard. Then I set the board, rolled initiative and played three complete encounters of the riding competition. The whole process took about 2 hours of time.
Lvl 2 party vs. the first tier enemies
Players got wiped on round 3. But this was fun and actually quite exciting as the cleric raced up and almost caught up with the Rabbit. Others were left behind and got hacked down by the chasing riders. The party managed to drop two enemy mounts, but the remaining cavalry eventually took down the last man standing. It’s clear that focusing fire on the skeletal horses is the winning tactic for the players. (The rogue is almost useless in this scenario! No way to get sneak attacks and cunning action does nothing.)
Changes to the scenario based on my learnings:
- enemies catch up 10ft every round (originally also the monsters rolled for movement)
- adjusted the animal handling DC thresholds to catch up with the Rabbit (these were too tough, grinding without moving is not fun)
- gave the devil’s riders one ranged weapon each (javelins)
- removed bearded devil’s glaive attack’s “infernal wounds” (we don’t need more damage here)
Lvl 5 party vs. the second tier enemies
Epic win by the player party, in 2 rounds! Wizard survives hell hound’s breath and two attacks by a bearded devil, manages to line up the enemies for a second lightning bolt and wipes the mounts. (The “players” here were wise enough not to try fire attacks as both the rider and mount are immune to fire.)
Lvl 8 party vs. the third tier enemies
- Disallow teleportation spells
- If a spell or effect used by the players causes difficult terrain, the enemies affected will stay in place and not catch up for one round
- Drop disadvantages to the animal handling check every round: the challenge is complex and hard enough without those (originally getting damage would also mean disadvantage to the roll that determines your speed)
- Boost the leader, see below:
The players demolished the hell hound steeds and the cleric banished the Nightmare, making it… too easy a win. (Took 5 rounds, though.) I couldn’t find more powerful steed monsters, so this requires a bit of creativity. Also, the Sword Wraith Commander I had assigned here is not menacing enough when they reach melee range. The leader shall be a Horned Devil (CR 11). And if they lose their mount, they take on wings and continue the chase flying (but fall 15 ft behind when the steed is lost).