Taken by Surprise: Running an Ambush in D&D
A lot of what you do as the Dungeon Master (we call them Quest Masters) is keeping secrets from your players. The element of surprise has massive value in storytelling, and at the end of the day, that’s really what D&D is: collaborative storytelling. With the amount of planning a lot of parties like to put into the encounters they see coming, throwing an ambush at them is a great way to make them think outside of the box and use their spells and skills creatively while under pressure.
Fitting the Narrative
The first thing you’ll need to do when planning an ambush is find a way to fit it into your story. Sure, you can always have some highway robbers waiting to attack your players just to spice things up a little, but there are so many other options available.
Perhaps the party looted a valuable item that someone else somehow knows about and wants to get their hands on. Or, maybe someone from a party member’s past is staging an abduction in an attempt at extortion after the party has become somewhat well-known.
In the end, your campaign will determine what openings you have for working in an ambush. Whatever the case may be, working it into the threads of your story instead of the party simply being mugged can help the fight feel more significant for your players.
When you think “ambush,” you likely envision a group of people jumping out from behind a rock, brandishing swords, and shooting arrows from afar. But you can really shake things up a with a simple trap or two.
If the NPCs ambushing your party know ahead of time where they’re going to be staging the attack, they have plenty of time to set up the area to their advantage. That could mean physical traps, such as covered pits or hidden nets, or magic traps that are activated as soon as the players are within range.
One trick you might consider as a ‘trap’ of sorts is a familiar -- your party may not think much of a cat crossing their path, but as soon as one of them tries to pet it, the ambushing NPC could cast a touch spell through it.
One thing that is important to keep in mind when planning an ambush is that your players should always, always have the opportunity to avert it or discover it ahead of time. While that may seem to defeat the purpose of setting up an ambush, anything else is unfair to your players and unrealistic. Nobody is perfect, so no matter how good your NPCs are, chances are there will be something that could tip your players off.
What you can do is instead of having the players roll perception checks, which would tip them off that there is something to be noticed nearby, use their passive perception. This is something that is useful for you to have on hand regardless of the scenario, as it allows you to decide which characters might notice something without tipping off the players in case they all are too low. Each player’s passive perception is just 10 + their Wisdom (Perception) modifier.
While it can be tempting to preserve the surprise for your players at all costs, it is also essential to honor their stats and abilities and how those interact in the world and story you’ve built. When your players have a high enough passive Perception to pick up on something being amiss, that doesn’t mean you have to tip your entire hand; instead, give them a small clue, like a footprint or a glimpse of movement. Whether they’re able to figure out what’s going on depends on the player and any subsequent Investigation rolls you may have them make.
Planning is Everything
An essential aspect of planning an ambush is precisely that: planning the ambush. That doesn’t just mean the lead-up and the traps; that means the fight itself. If your NPCs have had the time to prepare an ambush, they would have had the time to figure out how to use each of their skills to the best effect, both as a team and individually.
You as a Quest Master (QM) need to take the time to look over each NPC’s abilities and spells -- this isn’t the time to wing it if you want your ambush to feel realistic and threatening. Make a plan for which party member each NPC is most likely to target, and know what their strategy to take them out is.
The goals for an ambush in D&D are for it to be surprising, challenging, and entertaining. With a little planning, you can achieve all three and provide an excellent encounter for your players.
Have you ever planned an ambush for your players? Tell us your best strategies and stories below!