In the last couple of encounters we’ve played through in death’s reach, something has become clear. The rules could do with a pre-combat structure. In hindsight, it’s always been true, so I’m not sure why this came as such a surprise to me. The fact is that there’s always a part of the game right before initiative is rolled, that is mostly overlooked by the rules. Yes, there is a stealth skill, but I think it needs expanding to make it an intrinsic part of the encounter as a whole.
What I saw happening over the last couple of sessions is this; the rogue splits out from the party and goes on a scouting mission. The rest hang back and wait to see what happens. The rogue makes a stealth check, and to be honest I feel obliged to let him pass it, otherwise he’ll get a full complement of opposition in his face and that’s no fun (well, it could be, and there’s definitely mileage in the idea on occasion. Trouble is, who wants it happening the 45% of the time he ‘should’ be failing that single stealth check?). So, he comes back and the party try to take up superior positions from which to launch their assault. Stealth checks for all. On a pass they might get to choose their starting positions and gain a surprise round.
There’s nothing wrong with that set up, but I would like to see it better handled, to be more inclusive of the rest of the party and have stricter consequences. I should point out that this is easily handled in home brew games, and I’d probably have been improvising some infiltrations and tactical scouting ages ago, but I’m playing published modules, and they lack any guidance for this at all. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t considered it before now.
The obvious course of action is the skill challenge. If the goal is to get into combat anyway, just with an advantage, then it should be short and to the point. Whereas, circumventing an encounter completely through cunning, that should be a challenge worth as much (or more) than the original encounter itself.
The primary skill is always going to be stealth, that’s obvious. I’d almost always include perception too. Then the rest are a bit more circumstantial. Nature or dungeoneering take care of the environment. Athletics and acrobatics add a physical component to the challenge. These are the basics, and between them they can be a simple small skill challenge that adds a little tension to a prepared battle.
There should be consequences to success or failure. I think a surprise round for the party is a decent default position if they succeed. A failure? That’s where the DM can get creative. Perhaps the party gets jumped in return, making them the victims of a surprise round. Or maybe the scout gets singled out for a round. Potentially the opposition could raise an alarm and bring in reinforcements early. Or it could be a simple lockdown like a dropped portcullis, meaning the party have to re-evaluate their plans.
Perhaps the party are feeling ambitious and attempt to infiltrate the enemy position completely, rather than just steal a march. This could involve the social skills with diplomacy, bluff and intimidate coming to the fore. I like to picture the scene from Star wars with Luke and Han disguised as stormtroopers with Chewie as a prisoner.
The DM has a little prep to do as well. It’s worth giving a little thought to the awareness levels of the next encounter in your adventure. Are there sentries? Could they know about the previous encounter if it was noisy? Would they send their own scouts out to check it out? Do the starting positions on your map actually fit with the events? (here’s where I learned early on, don’t be a slave to these tagged maps, it never seems to matter much once combat is underway). The essential answer for the DM to ask is this: what happens just before I say ‘roll for initiative’?
Have a couple of answers ready for that, and it might help lessen the gear crunch between the short rest and the next encounter.