There are two approaches to scaling encounters for players when using lower CR monsters. The first is to just add more of the same. The second is to change how they are used, or use them in a way in which they act in concert with another monster type or mechanic.
As you might guess, I am more of a fan of the latter over the former. Changing perspectives or tactics is what “Out of the Box” is all about. Furthermore, I like to draw upon other games or activities as inspirations at times.
The game I would like to call upon this time is one that was a tactical tabletop game that I used to play that involved, well, let’s say giant battle robots with pilots inside. There are a few out there. Pick your favourite as a reference and we’ll call it fair. The game in question isn’t as important as the visual.
Furthermore, the visual from inside this construct isn’t as important as the visual from those facing these constructs.
Looking up at a larger weaponized machine stomping it’s way toward you can be terrifying. It can also be a great hook to gain player investment if you have players at your table who are familiar with this sort of visual based on previous experience with games, movies, comics or other media that contained similar constructs and their style of combat.
I would like to add that games like D&D can add a further element to this concept. Magic. That means that the science or technology required to come up with such walking weapons doesn’t necessarily have to exist. The old “a wizard did it” cliche can be inserted to come up with the “how” and “why”.
All that remains is to pick your starting “pilot” and then you can then scale the “machine” appropriately. There are a few that come to mind immediately. Goblins and kobolds are the classic go-to for wild inventions and such, but are easily brought down, rendering any device inert. That can be anti-climactic. Therefore I would suggest not only changing from that and toward a more impressive foe, but also one you might not expect.
In this case I’m going to really break with convention and use orcs. I have two reasons for this. First, the lowly orc used to appear everywhere in older editions of the game but seems to have gone out of fashion. Orcs can have a ton of diversity when approached as a whole. Considering the input from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, the orc pantheon, as well as numerous other game systems that give orcs more inventiveness, there’s a huge range of possibilities.
I’d like to take of advantage of that and showcase those that are typically seen as a stupid brutes and turn them into the warriors they should be. Are they as organized as hobgoblins or as relentless as gnolls? No. But they understand war and personal success, and outbreed both their rivals. They fight like their gods are always watching, so they’re highly motivated. That adds a religious aspect that justifies where the “battle machine” comes from, and would certainly be appreciated by the orcs in question.
To set the stage, let’s take a page from an old “Out of the Box” called “Auntie Knows Best”. Within that encounter, the players found an item called a “Hag Eye”. In this case, an Eye of Gruumsh finds it, and is tricked into thinking it’s a gift from Gruumsh – a reward for his faith. This “Hag Eye” is now a vessel through which the hag grants the orc “divine insight” on both the construction and use of his undead machine, thereby unleashing more chaos and woe for the hag to revel in. This creates both a current and future villain, possible story hooks, and maybe even inspiration for the DM to take this all a step further…
The party may have been travelling for some time by now. The grasslands begin to roll into low hills filled with tall grass, making the trail difficult to follow when the wind picks up. From in front, perhaps 60 feet ahead, five figures stand up behind long oval shields painted with a large red and black eye. They slam their shields in defiance and then hurl javelins or spears.
These are the Eyes of Blood. They are a fanatical Gruumsh branch that follow their own Eye of Gruumsh as if his words were those of He Who Never Sleeps himself. They can and will launch an initial salvo of javelins from afar. They have disadvantage on their first throw, given the range, but do not care. They will single out targets that are not in heavy armor first – they are not fools. Once they fire this first salvo, they will drop back into the tall grass out of immediate sight.
They have a plan.
Krooshka, their Eye of Gruumsh, awaits with his own bone walker (see below) out of immediate sight. It is currently kneeling below the back of the hillock ahead using the tall grass for extra cover. The orcs have also captured wild quail and have these fowl tied to 60 feet of string, and that string is then staked to the ground.
When a player gets within 30 feet of the top of the hillock, they have a 50 percent chance of running into one of these birds. If they do, the bird will panic when it sees the player character, and will try to fly away. It will shoot out of the grass upward with a loud squabble and then reach the end of its string. This will alert the orcs in the first rank wit the shields where the players might be.
If this should happen, all five will rise and throw another javelin into that area. Because the player character in that area might be covered by the tall grass, they will get the bonus of 50 percent cover, granting them +2 to their AC, but the orcs will be within their short range for the javelins. That means no disadvantage unless other stipulations apply. However, Krooshka will cast bless (Players Handbook, page 219) before they launch, so add a 1d4 to all attacks and saves for three random orcs for one minute.
This will also spring Krooshka into action. His first move action will be to have the bone walker stand fully erect. Even those still at the initial 60 feet distance on the front side of the hillock will see the top of this…thing.
The bone walker can only be described as a headless skeleton, obviously of giant size (Nature, DC:17 – Hill Giant) with logs chained to its wrists and an odd orc sitting inside the rib cage in a makeshift seat of some kind. This orc wears an odd eyepatch of some kind and is either painted or tattooed all over his exposed skin in large red eyes. His voice bellows unnaturally (thaumaturgy) and he charges from the right flank.
A glowing spear appears beside him (spiritual weapon, Players Handbook, page 278) as he closes. Those keen of sight who choose to use a Wisdom (Perception) or Intelligence (Investigation) (DC: 20) to look at this odd orc will note his odd eyepatch. It’s black but glints of gold inlay and has what looks like a glass eye where a normal eye would be. The eye darts about of its own accord. (Kind of like a certain foul tempered wizard’s eye in this story about a boy wizard at a wizard school…)
Krooshka will charge (Dash) in this “machine”, but that will take the machine’s movement, not his. He will run this bone walker into the first target on that right flank, whatever it is. This initial attack is considered a Shove attack (Players Handbook, page 195-196). The intent is to knock prone. The Shove will use the bone walker’s Strength (Athletics) (STR: 21, Athletics +7) in this contest versus the target’s Strength (Athletics).
If the target fails and is prone, so long as they remain prone, Krooshka and his bone walker will make melee attacks at advantage versus that prone target. The Eye of Gruumsh will then try his best to smash a target with his Ram hands. Keep in mind that, as a bonus action, Krooshka’s spiritual weapon will also attack the same target.
Meanwhile, the orcs above will continue to press in melee where they can, and support with javelins when possible, Each standard orc has 4 javelins at their disposal, along with their standard melee outlay.
The entire point behind this encounter serves two purposes: carnage and chaos. It also serves a greater background story because the hag (your choice, but let’s call her Granny Grisley for an example) that crafted this Hag Eye that Krooshka wears allows the hag to watch how each of the players deal with this problem, as well as judging how Krooshka and his orcs use the tools of her “wisdom”.
If the players are defeated, feel free to have them taken as slaves or captives, and maybe even taken before the hag herself. If the player characters defeat the orcs, allow the player characters to witness an orc village in ruins, with the most macabre, horrific B-movie things done to the orcs that were behind. This hag does not suffer failure, and has other greater minions at her call. Krooshka’s people may have discovered that fact too late. Again, this is all about story building.
Orcs (5) – As per the Monster Manual page 246, but carry 4 javelins each in addition.
“Krooshka” – Eye of Gruumsh (1)- As per the Monster Manual, page 247, with the
following additions: He wears the Hag Eye like an eye patch. As such, Granny
Grisley can see what he sees. Krooshka also controls the bone walker, which takes
his action to use every turn, but has its own movement. While in the bone walker, Krooshka has 50 percent cover (+2 AC). Attacks directed at
Krooshka that miss have a further 50 percent chance of hitting the bone walker instead.
Each orc carries 2d10 gold pieces, 3d10 silver, and has a trinket from the trinket table (Players Handbook, page 160-161).
Krooshka has the Hag Eye, as well as a small pouch filled with 5 ivory statuettes (25 gp each), a jade ring (100 gp, and it’s still on a mummified elf finger), as well as a crumpled up hand drawn map leading to the cave where the dead giant was found that was the source of the skeleton. It’s up to the DM where this creature laid and what he or she wishes to do with this subplot. That may even lead to clues about
Granny Grisley if the DM so desires. He also has the bone walker…. 😉
Mind you, this is considered a “Hag Vehicle” that only Krooshka has been gifted the ability to use while he wears the Hag Eye “eye patch”, but if a character is so inclined to gouge out their eye and wear the eye patch, it’s the DM’s call where this goes. The Hag Eye nor the Walker are magic items one “attunes to”, so the players won’t come to this knowledge without some sort of specific hag knowledge or they question Granny Grisley or another hag.
Well, let’s see. The players could truly have a bad go and fall quickly, in which case I would recommend having the orcs take them as prisoners, and then develop an escape scenario. The players could very well come under the attention of Granny Grisley, in which case their lives might become more interesting in a not so fun way. This could have its own set of plot hooks, and she may grow to favor another player character over Krooshka, especially if that player character is particularly ruthless or violent. Feel free to have her send “agents” like talking crows, a quasit, or even a redcap (depending on your flavor) to visit this character and try to woo them to her tasks.
Who knows? A player character may well try to gouge out their own eye and wear the patch to try and control a bone walker, assuming the player characters haven’t beaten this construct into flinders like it owed them money.
I fell into gaming in the oddest of ways. Coming out of a bad divorce, my mom tried a lot of different things to keep my brother and I busy and out of trouble. It didn't always work. One thing that I didn't really want to do, but did because my mom asked, was enroll in Venturers. As an older Scout-type movement, I wasn't really really for the whole camping-out thing. Canoe trips and clean language were not my forte. Drag racing, BMX and foul language were.
What surprised me though was one change of pace our Scout leader tried. He DMed a game of the original D&D that came out after Chainmail (and even preceedd the Red Box). All the weapons just did 1d6 damage, and the three main demi-humans (Elf, Dwarf and Halfling) were not only races, but classes. There were three alignments (Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic). It was very basic. I played all the way through high school and met a lot of new people through gaming. My expected awkwardness around the opposite sex disappeared when I had one game that was seven girls playing. They, too, never thought that they would do this, and it was a great experiement.
But it got me hooked. I loved gaming, and my passion for it became infectious. Despite hanging with a very rough crowd who typically spent Fridays scoring drugs, getting into fights, and whatnot, I got them all equally hooked on my polyhedral addiction. I DMed guys around my table that had been involved in the fast-living/die young street culture of the 80s, yet they took to D&D like it was second nature. They still talk to me about those days, even when one wore a rival patch on his back to the one I was wearing. We just talked D&D. It was our language.
Dungeons and Dragons opened up a whole new world too. I met lots off oddballs along with some great people. I played games like Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Car Wars, Battletech, lots of GURPS products, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Twilight 2000, Rolemaster, Champions, Marvel Superheroes, Earth Dawn...the list goes on. There was even a time while I was risiding with a patch on my back and I would show up for Mechwarrior (the clix kind) tournaments. I was the odd man out there.
Gaming lead to me attending a D&D tournament at a local convention, which lead to being introduced to my paintball team, called Black Company (named after the book), which lead to meeting my wife. She was the sister of my 2iC (Second in Command), and I fell in love at first sight.
Gaming lead to me meeting my best friend, who was my best man at my wedding and is the godfather of my youngest daughter.
Life being what it is, there was some drama with my paintball team/D&D group, and we parted ways for a number of years. In that time I tried out two LARP systems, which taught me a lot about public speaking, improvisation, and confidence. There was a silver lining. I didn't play D&D again for a very long time, though.
Then 5E came out.
I discovered the Adventurer's League, and made a whole new group of friends. I discovered Acquisitions Incorporated, Dwarven Tavern, and Nerdarchy. I was hooked again.
And now my daughter is playing. I introduced her to 5E and my style of DMing, and we talk in "gamer speak" a lot to each other (much to the shagrin of my wife/her mother...who still doesn't "get it"). It's my hope that one day she'll be behind the screen DMing her kids through an amazing adventure. Time will tell.
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