Out of the Box introduction
There are two occasions when a Dungeon Master might wish to make an encounter something other than an obvious combat encounter. The characters may be wounded or otherwise diminished to the point where combat is a lethal risk. Or, the party of adventurers may be so averse to combat as to wish to avoid such at any cost. The latter can be prevalent when running a game for younger players.
It can be hard to engage the players without endangering their characters. But it’s not impossible. In these times, discovery has a greater value. It can provide gainful input into the campaign or session, and it can promote deeper storytelling. There is a simple trick to this.
Take a known and use it in an unknown way. In other words, take something the players will find familiar, or even something they may have only read about, and use it in a way they do not expect. This can be done in a combat or noncombat way simply by its application. Remember, as DM you set the tone. The tone will determine whether such odd moments become combat or not, unless the DM has a very aggressive “slay everything that moves” group of players. In that case, stick to orcs. Otherwise, we can proceed.
The “known”’ in this case will be fish. However, they will not be standard fish. They will be flying fish. Flying fish tend to be very small, so we’ll make this encounter use larger ones. Flying fish use their oversized fins to escape danger. The ones enclosed hereafter will use them for proper flying — in the air. That’s right, fish that aren’t in the water and actually fly. It’s a magical world, let’s get used to it.
Such creatures need not be aggressive. They could be a noncombat wildlife encounter in a setting where they may be a viable choice. However, unlike deer, seagulls, or other wildlife, it’s very likely this “known becoming unknown” will end up with at least one character wanting to get closer, feed, tame, catch, or otherwise interact with these creatures. I am willing to bet someone will try and ride one. Creating and maintaining a sense of wonder can be a challenge. Twisting expectations like this will make the task a little easier.
Something like this may not even grow into a full encounter, but it may allow you to expand it into something more later on. Establishing creatures like these exist allows them to be endangered, mutated, affected, or otherwise used as a plot hook for something bigger later on. How that proceeds will be up to the DM.
This will be a great chance for the DM to get used to recording the Passive Perceptions of the characters for later use as well. Knowing when to trigger an event can be as simple as letting the character with the highest Passive Perception in the party see something. This will save a die roll and prevent the inevitable, “Can I roll too” chorus.
Wilderness/Grasslands or open glade
Any, but 1-4 is great
Seriously? Players eat this stuff up
Evening begins to settle in. The sky’s former hues of blues and grays shift to oranges and purples. The grasslands stretching before the party gently rise and fall in rolling low hills, accentuated by the swaying golds and greens of tall grass in the cool evening breeze. It will soon be time to stop, so finding the right spot in this sort of terrain is a must.
At this point, take note of the highest Passive Perception score among the characters. If one or more have equally high Passive Perceptions, either randomly determine who sees something or let them all see something. Allow the selected character(s) to notice the following:
“In the distance, over a low hillock perhaps 300 feet away, atop the swaying grass and backlit by skies of orange and blue, you see a fish tail. There’s a moment when you doubt your senses to fatigue and stress, but then it happens again. and again. Then, as if erupting from the horizon itself, you see three fish like creatures, as long as a wagon and bearing four long wing-like fins. Their scales either reflect or possess the evening hues of blue, purple, orange and even green, sparkling as if moistened by unseen waters.”
It is very likely at least part of the adventuring camp will leave whatever they are doing to investigate. Should they venture the distance between themselves and what they thought they saw, they will crest the top of the low hillock to see the following.
There are indeed three large fishlike creatures that look like enormous flying fish. They have iridescent scales reflecting the sunset hues, but also containing other hues of blues, gold, and greens. Their diaphanous fins hold their bodies aloft with little effort, as they appear to swim through the air. They dance and twist through large clouds of flying insects, swallowing vast numbers with each pass. The pests seem drawn to their shimmering scales, and the flying creatures are taking full advantage. These creatures are xocets (ZOE-ketts).
If the characters wish to move closer to the xocets, they must succeed on a DC 12 Dexterity (Stealth) check to approach with 60 ft. unnoticed. Failure means the xocets will Dash upward in flight and move a further 600 ft. away to resume feeding on the insects the dusk brings.
The xocets will rather flee than defend themselves, but if forced, they will attack in flight. They will use half their move to dart downward at ground targets and deliver attack using Lightning Kiss, darting back upward 30 ft. after. They will only do this if pressed. Because of their Shimmering Grace, they will not be open to opportunity attacks.
A xocet might be lured closer with a successful Wisdom (Animal Handling) check, consulting the Conversation Reactions in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. How the creatures start in the index (indifferent or hostile) depends wholly upon the behaviors and approach of the characters. If the characters possess a food the xocets like (they are partial to insects, including giant ones), and the character making the check possesses such, they can make the check with advantage.
Remember these creatures are wild, and so are not inclined to behave as anything other than a normal wild animal might. Taming one will take a lot of time and effort on the part of a character. The amount of time is up to the DM and the character. One might wish to consult the guidelines for downtime activities, particularly the section on training. Since Animal Handling is tied to Wisdom by default, it only makes sense to base any check on that ability score. Training would be like taming, requiring the character to invest weeks of time unless they resorted to magic like suggestion or other magical means.
There are few complications here, short of a character simply trying to kill the xocets out of spite or an irresistible urge to be a murder hobo. Even if the characters frighten away these creatures, they may well appear again. It’s important to make these appearances rare to keep them special. However, if the DM wants to mark a very special occasion, perhaps there might be an unusually large grouping because of migration or mating season. This could mark a change of season, inspire a festival, or other special events.
Xocets are shy and elusive, appearing as enormous wagon-sized flying fish. Their scales are iridescent in shades of purple, blue, green, gold and sometimes orange. They possess four large diaphanous fins that act as wings, and a long graceful tail. Normally peaceful, these gentle giants only attack if provoked or cornered, preferring to feed on large swarms of insects.
Expert Insectivores. Xocets prefer to hunt in the early morning or late afternoon when large swarms of insects are the most active. These times of day provide the right level of sunlight to make the scales of the xocet shimmer and dance, acting like a lure for many species of insects. Partially because of their protective scales, and also partly because xocets appear completely immune to toxins of all kinds, stinging swarms and even giant insects are relatively easy prey. Coupled with the electrocytes around their mouths which shock and stun their prey, they tend to make short work of large swarms.
Graceful fliers. These monstrosities are possessive of a natural grace that makes them deadly predators for ground-based prey like crawling insects, giant or otherwise. Able to twist, spin and dive like animated ribbons on the wind, they can quickly dive and strike prey only to escape just as deftly.
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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.