Canoe Ambush

20 May

This encounter is intended for five players of 4th level


Not dissimilar to sitting ducks

Every D&D nerd does it. Be it in film, video games or literature. You see something cool and say “What are the stats for it.” I distinctly remember watching Legolas fire arrows in quick succession on screen during Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” saying to myself – “Clearly, someone spent that 3rd level feat on ‘Rapid Shot!'” But it goes further than just trying to fit game rules into everything (The traditional “Stat Me” thread you see in every gamer forum). I find a lot of inspiration in the scenarios heroic book/film/video game characters run into. Those plot twists and moral dilemmas are ripe to be stolen and planted right into your game.

After all that’s the beauty of the tabletop RPG – all those times you sat helpless screaming into your book/screen “Don’t trust Lord Murderhavoc! Listen to his name, he’s clearly the villain, just stab him now!”- when that situation comes up in-game you have control over how the character acts. A courtroom trial, a hostage situation, the classic “save your partner or save the mayor, choose one,” all these classic scenarios that could be solved a hundred different ways, now get solved your way.

It’s an awesome experience and no other medium really manages to capture this level of choice.

I wanted to tie together a few travel and ambush encounters (The carriage attack was meant to be one) but largely abandoned that plan. However one of those ideas gnawed at me. One inspired by the film version of Fellowship of the Ring. I was smitten with the scene where the fellowship was under attack by Uruk-hai as they were paddling their way down river towards Mordor (One does not simply walk in, I know. But paddling is a whole other story).

I tend to feel that travel related challenges get overlooked in contemporary editions of D&D and other roleplaying games. In part that’s because travel issues often break down into boring bookkeeping (Did everyone mark off their rations for the day?) But it also means a lot of scenes like the river bank attack from Fellowship get overlooked. Of COURSE they were paddling along in boats – that’s a quick way to travel in ye dayes ofe fantasye. Why does that kind of scene never get played out at the tabletop!? I felt it was a missed opportunity.

In writing this encounter I answered my question – chase scenes or any combat with relative movement is hard to orchestrate while keeping the frenetic energy the encounter needs to fit the scenario. Too many rules and you bog things down, not enough rules and the encounter seems unrealistic or silly. Way too many rules and it seems too arbitrary. After approaching this is encounter in several terrible and overly complicated ways in my head, I abandoned the usual tactical micromanaging that is 4th Edition’s forte for something much more abstract and fast. This is a very different way to run encounters than what I usually present and it isn’t for everyone. Consider it an experiment.

This encounter combines a skill challenge with combat to give the players a feeling of being divided between two complimentary goals – fighting off their attackers and getting out of range of attacks entirely. The PCs will be struggling to get their boat downriver fast while enduring the spears and arrows of a vicious tribe of goblins.

A battlemap of sorts won’t hurt here merely to let the players get their bearings and keep a count of their opponents – but any complicated movement and tactics won’t be necessary.

Abstracted Combat
This chase scene plays out differently from the “Stagecoach Ambush” in that the time frame is much longer and the precise maneuvering unnecessary. A critical assumption here is that the normal round lasts much longer than in regular combats – the precise time is whatever you need it to be, but roughly 1 minute per round in general. Somewhere between the fast pace of combat and the montage pace of a skill challenge.

This messing with the time frame causes some logical problems. Assume that rather than attacking only once a minute, the characters are taking potshots back and forth. Consider having ammo dependent characters expend 2d4 ammunition per attack to represent this. Their attack roll represents that one “clear shot” they get to make a decisive attack. In this case, scoring an attack is more about taking the time to line up a shot, or waiting for that goblin to come running out of the underbrush and give a clear line of fire. Let the extra seconds account for the messiness of fighting on the run. As for encounter or daily attack powers, presume the rest of the minute is filled with unsuccessful ranged basic attacks. This time frame works a bit bizarrely with the 4th Edition mechanics but it’s one-time adoption will make the scenario make a bit more sense, and will hopefully provide your players with some fun narrative leeway in describing their actions.

Since the players are relying on their vehicles for movement, and even in an expanded time frame it would be impractical to keep switching between oars and weapons, they’ll need to make a choice between spending their action paddling or attacking. For melee combatants who are put out of range, that choice might end up being pretty easy (and not a punishment – seeing as how these characters usually have the primary skills needed to contribute to the associated skill challenge).

The goblins will stay within 10 squares of the players at all times in order to make ranged attacks without penalty (consider them to be 15 squares away if they begin falling behind in their pursuit). The goblins are spread out, but their positioning will vary – in order to represent this, any player making an area (or similar burst) attack may target 1d4 goblins + 1 per square beyond Burst 1.

The goblin hex hurler will function a bit differently in this encounter. “Vexing Cloud” will instead hamper all PCs in one canoe with a -2 to skill rolls for one round (unless they are capsized, in which case the penalty persists until they succeed a check to move forward the skill challenge). For the purpose of “Stinging Hex” PCs are considered to be moving if someone in their boat succeeds at a skill check for the round.

Skill Challenge
Complexity: Special – 1 Success per canoe each round minimum / 10 Successes total to end the challenge – OR defeat all enemies

In this challenge the PC’s are attempting to evade their goblin pursuers while navigating the perils of the river. Skills will be used to keep the canoes moving at a steady pace, find shortcuts to travel faster, and to avoid any hazards that might be up ahead on the water. This skill challenge is a bit odd in that it has a primary goal to reach, and also incremental goals by round (similar to how many overland travel challenges treat group Endurance checks).

  • At least one character in each canoe must succeed with at least one of the skills associated with this challenge. If this is not accomplished, no successes count towards the overall goal during this round – the faster canoe must wait for the others to catch up or risk splitting the party! (Unless – that’s their plan! If so, roll with it! Count the successes but make the slower canoe the target of all attacks until they can succeed on 2 skill checks – thus “catching up” with their disloyal companions)
  • After 10 total successes, the goblins break off their attack – the players have traveled into terrain too rough to follow and the angry little creatures are exhausted from their pursuit anyway.
  • In short – The players need 10 successes, and must have at least 1 successes per round per canoe.

Likewise, the goblins will need to be making rolls to keep pace with canoes. The players might be able to defeat them by speed alone! (Though certainly filling them with a few arrows will slow them down considerably). The primary skills that contribute to this challenge are listed below. As always, a good player suggestion for an unusual skill is immediately applicable to this challenge as well.

  • AthleticsModerate DC – You row hard and fast, jetting the canoe along
  • AcrobaticsModerate DC – Your impeccable hand-eye coordination help you keep a steady and smooth pace, making it much easier to steer the vessel
  • Endurance Moderate DC – It’s hard work being the man-power for a vehicle but you hang in there and do not tire, stroke after stroke
  • Nature – Moderate DC – Traveling the wild lands means taking to the water at times, and your experience in rowing makes piloting this canoe old hat
  • Secondary SkillsHard DC – As always in a skill challenge, allow inventive and feasible uses of unrelated skills (For instance, an Intimidate roll to keep the goblins at bay or a Perception check to find a quick tributary concealed by underbrush). Should this come up, allow only 1 success towards completing the overall skill challenge from this particular use of the skill.

Goblins Keep Pace
Your goblins will have skill rolls of their own to make in order to keep pace with the boats! It’s assumed they are jogging alongside, taking pot-shots when they can.

For each round that both canoes make successful skill checks, make an endurance check for the goblins (See the chart below for DCs). If a goblin fails its first skill check, it is falling behind and takes a -2 to all of its attacks during the next turn. If it fails this roll two times in a row, it loses the party, and gives up its pursuit to catch its breath. This goblin is considered defeated.

  • Players fail their skill challenge during the round: Easy DC
  • Players succeed their skill challenge during the round: Moderate DC
  • Any canoe had three PC’s using their actions to row: Hard DC
  • The goblin took a wound during this round: -2 to skill roll
  • The goblin was knocked prone, slowed, immobilized, restrained, or otherwise had its movement hampered: -4 to skill roll
  • The goblins bloody or drop a PC to 0 HP: +2 to skill roll

Gently Down the Stream
Each canoe can hold 3 humanoid passengers, a reasonable amount of equipment, and a few pounds of cargo. Each is assumed to have three oars on hand, though they don’t necessarily all need to be in use for the canoe to move. Remember that the players are traveling downstream, and in the best of circumstances need only to steer as the current will keep moving them towards their destination at regular pace.

Depending on your party’s size, the players will likely need 2 canoes. Adjust the numbers dependent on the number of players you have (Or consider giving them a longer canoe to accommodate a party of only 4 players).

The biggest threat to the PC’s progress is their canoe tipping. If you’ve ever actually been canoeing you know it isn’t that difficult to get one to spill it’s contents – especially if said canoe is getting arrows fired at it.

Capsized PCs are in the water and next to their canoe. They must succeed at a group skill check Hard DC (any skill used in the overall skill challenge is applicable as a primary skill and can be used as an aid another, even if it is not the same skill – for example, an Athletics check with a Nature check to aid another) to turn their boat over, get back in safely, and recover their oars. Failing this roll indicates the PC are stuck in the water for this round. During a round in which at least one boat is capsized, no progress can be made toward ending the overall skill challenge. An non-capsized boat assisting grants a +2 per occupant helping (using oars to push over the capsized boat, holding up drowning PCs, etc).

While capsized, PCs grant combat advantage.

I always advocate upping the ante in any encounter – and providing some natural river travel hazards in addition to the goblin artillery will let tour heroes truly feel heroic and under the gun. Or whine about things being too hard. Or both.

Assign a hazard to appear up ahead at the top of the initiative stack on round 3 and round 5. In most cases be upfront about what the players see ahead and perhaps even read the descriptive text as box text (the exception is the “hidden obstacle” which will be subject to perception – most likely passive – checks). You can roll randomly for these hazards or simply assign the ones you think fit the scene best. If the PCs are having trouble already, consider only using one hazard (ideally at round 3 or 4).
Roll 1d8

Rapids: DCs for navigating the river become Hard during this round.

  1. Rapids: DCs for navigating the river become Hard during this round
  2. Tight Curve: If at least one PC takes damage this round, those in the boat must make a group skill check (any skill used in this skill challenge is applicable and can be used as an aid another, even if it is not the same skill). If the roll fails, the boat capsizes
  3. Hidden Obstacle: Passive perception checks (Hard DC) reveal that sharp rocks are up ahead. Succeed at a second skill challenge roll or the boat capsizes (Succeeding at the passive perception check grants a +4)
  4. Low Branch: Attacks against each PC in a canoe +3 vs. Ref Target is knocked out of the canoe. An ally must make an easy Athletics check to rescue them. Failing that roll capsizes the canoe.
  5. River Monster: Attacks against all capsized PCs this round +7 vs. AC 2d4+4 damage
  6. Thick Brush: Goblins gain concealment for this round
  7. Dense Forest: Goblins gain cover for this round
  8. High Bluff: Goblins gain combat advantage this round


  • x3 Goblin Sharpshooter (Monster Manual Pg. 137)
  • x8 Goblin Snipers (Monster Vault Pg. 152)
  • x1 Goblin Hex Hurler (Monster Vault Pg. 155)

Round-By-Round Breakdown

  • Round 1: Goblins are waiting in ambush for the PCs and do not need to make endurance checks
  • Round 2: No Change
  • Round 3: First Hazard
  • Round 4: No Change
  • Round 5: Second Hazard
  • Round 6+: No Change

Special Considerations
Using the Canoe as Cover: It might dawn on your players that they are much safer by getting underneath an overturned canoe and paddling past the ambush underneath their vehicle. That’s not a terrible plan but runs into a few problems: for one, any gear not on a character will fall into the river and possibly be lost. Secondly, the PCs will have limited air in the breathable bubble their canoe forms. If your players opt for this plan, give them 3 free successes towards the completion of the skill challenge, before it becomes apparent that their air is running low, and they’ll have to risk the goblins fire. Alternately, you can get them out of shimmying their way past the fun by having the blindly-guided canoe smash into an obstacle. They’ll need to come out from underneath to flee the vessel, and that means enduring the goblins projectiles once again.

The trick here is to reward the players for clever thinking, but to let them know that no plan is foolproof, and they’ll need to adjust their tactics. Clever ideas should always grant an advantage (maybe even a significant one!), but not serve as an “I Win” button.

Deflecting Arrows: Frustrated melee combatants might get it in their heads to attempt to deflect incoming projectiles with their oars. While there isn’t much in the way of existing rules for this – it is also AWESOME. I would allow a player attempting this to make a melee basic attack roll (weapon proficiency bonus +1). Since these rounds encompass roughly a minute, that’s plenty of opportunity to deflect arrows – Any incoming arrows with an attack roll lower than the deflecting PC’s attack roll fail to find a mark. This only applies for the canoe in which the deflecting PC is a passenger.

Again this is a very on-the-fly ruling and certainly not appropriate for an across the board rules modification. If this doesn’t sound right to you, use your best DM judgement. Its very likely your players might not even think of trying this!

Canoe Stats: You’ll be unlikely to need strict vehicle stats for the canoe’s in this encounter, but should it come up, some fan-made stats for canoes in “Gamma World” would certainly be compatible.


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One response to “Canoe Ambush

  1. sinclairvox

    May 22, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    Superb! Sounds like an excellent encounter. There’s a lot going on at once for a DM to keep track of, it seems. I’d be very interested to see what kind of stumbling blocks you run up against should you playtest this.


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