Stay of Execution

20 Jul


This encounter is intended for five players of 5th level

A conundrum: In order to give a game any sense of tension, the players must feel there is risk of personal danger to their PC’s at nearly all times. That said, killing, maiming, stealing from, and otherwise causing tremendous harm to a character is rarely fun for their player. What to do then?

Do what I do. Threaten their beloved NPCs. No loss to their stats, but a great risk to something they are emotionally invested in.

Now the trick here is to have NPCs that your players (and player’s characters) actually are emotionally invested in. Do this wrong, and your scene has no impact. Do this too correctly, and your players will throw you out the window for murdering their loveable standard bearer. Advice on how to establish a rapport between players and NPCs is a tall order, so I won’t get in depth here, but a good place to start is the character’s background. You did have your players write up a short backstory or fill out some “50-100 questions about your character” questionnaire, right? RIGHT!

All jokes aside it’s an easy resource – these are characters that the players have written, and probably like, though expect them to have no stake in the game. Imagine their delight – and then chagrin, to see that their Dwarf Paladin’s older sister who taught-him-everything-he-knows is now leading the bandit army! It can be a shlocky device at times, sure, but tropes exist because they work and are readable. And I’ve often found that the kind of plot devices that normally get an eye-roll in cinema and literature will play just fine at the game table – because it’s a different experience when you are playing a cliche, and have the opportunity to turn it on it’s head.

And outside of that, it gives the players agency in both the game overall, and the world in particular. Some footnote of their character backstory is now a plot point – their creative work is validated and the other players are participating with that contribution (probably by rescuing that poor contribution from the the umber-hulk’s feeding pit).

This encounter will put a beloved NPC on the wrong side of the (corrupt and abusive) law. It’s inspired by an encounter that I ran many years back with my first regular 4th Edition group. They actually failed to rescue their poor companion – which set into motion a major plot point of the campaign and make for some great storytelling.

Be merciless, but be fair. It may be payback for all those carefully orchestrated mastermind villain speeches the ranger snuffed out with an arrow to the throat, but don’t bask in it. Sure they kill your darlings all the time. By all means, Kill their darlings, but only if they botch the rescue.

The PC’s arrive with a few precious seconds to spare to rescue a beloved NPC. He or she has been wrongfully accused on trumped up charges, and is sentenced to death by hanging. The execution takes place earlier than expected, and the PCs must rush tot he scene. If they don’t rescue their strangling friend within a few rounds, the NPC will be dead. Regardless, they have to contend with the city guard standing on the gallows to ensure the sentence is carried out, and the unruly mob itching for a gruesome show.

The goal here is to rescue the NPC, not necessarily defeat every enemy. If the players can get the NPC to a side of the map, it is assumed that their enemies will not be able to give chase for long, especially with the unruly mob erupting into chaos after the daring rescue.

Plot Text
It can’t be true. That bastard really moved up the execution to today? So much for your plans – the rescue happens now or never. Your boots pound on the worn cobbles as you shoulder your way through crowds and dash around slow moving wagons. You could swear that a minute ago you heard shouting coming from the square, and you are still a long ways off.

Finally your party rounds a corner and the gallows come into view. Too late! Your friend is swinging from a noose tied taught around his neck, as the crowd gasps and cheers, and vomits, and cries, and screams. Standing on the platform and flanking each set of stairs are some nervous looking guards doing there best to keep the mob under control. The burly half-orc executioner stands blankly near the overturned lever, face covered by a threatening black cowl, arms folded over his two-handed axe. And standing next to the hanging body of your sweet friend is the bastard who did this, a grin that would eat shit plastered all over his face. It’s over. He won.

Then the glimmer of hope you were waiting for. A faint twitch in your friend’s leg. He must have been dangling for minutes and lost consciousness, but he isn’t dead yet! Strangulation is an ugly way to go, and you may yet save him only to find his mind ruined from the lack of air, but you have to try. Seconds count, and a crowd, and the town guard stand in your way.

But then again, what are friends for?

Hang um’ High
I’ll not get into the science and specifics behind death by hanging. Even some rudimentary research revealed that the time it takes a person to expire from hanging varies greatly and depends on many factors. The hanging in this encounter is a device for dramatic effect – both a time limit, and a window into the brutality that can be present in the cultures of many D&D worlds. Thus, the following guidelines are hardly a very realistic representation of strangulation. (To make the situation more feasible, the players are arriving after their ally has been dangling for a few minutes, leaving him at the tail end of his chance to survive the ordeal).

Likewise, the NPC is not treated according to the normal rules in order to create a dramatic situation in which he can take a minor wound or two from the executioners before being killed, and the PC’s mission being failed. You want them to have some margin of error – but without the NPC having the kind of deep resources players receive.

NPC                                                                     Level 4 (No Role)
45 (Surge value 10)  Init +0 Speed: 4 (If roused to consciousness)
AC: 12                           Ref 11                 Fort 13                Will 14

  • On initiative 0 of each round, if the NPC is still being hanged, he/she takes 15 damage
  • If the players use an ability that grants the use of a healing surge, he is awakened and regains those hit points
  • If the NPC drops to 0 or fewer hit points he/she is dead
  • The NPC is too woozy to bother attacking, but will move where commanded and shift when he would otherwise risk an opportunity attack
  • Because of the shock of his ordeal, and the fact that he is desperately sucking in air, the NPC is moving slower than normal
  • The NPC can easily be carried by anyone with a Strength of 11 or higher (Lower will require an Athletics Moderate check) but if a player carrying the NPC is attacked and the attack misses, repeat the attack roll against the NPC.

Cut The Rope
The most obvious solution for quickly rescuing the NPC is to cut the hangman’s noose or to even hack down the wooden pole that the noose is attached to. The normal suggestions for attacking objects are a tad unsatisfactory for this unusual circumstance, so I recommend the following:

Object               AC/Ref               Fort              HP
Noose                10/20*                 7                  10
Wooden Pole      8                        10                 18
*(20 for ranged attacks beyond 2 squares)

What the players may not consider (and make it apparent to them, their characters can easily make out the details of the situation even for the distraction of the crowd) is that the fall to the street will likely injure their unconscious companion as well, (since he is unconscious and can’t control his descent) so cutting him down without someone below to catch him is risky. But a short fall might be better than a few more seconds of strangulation!

  • If the NPC is cut down from the noose with nobody to catch them when they fall, he/she takes 1d6 damage.

Features of the Area
    Crowd – The crowds are a mix of the angry, the sad, the bored, and the bloodthirsty. Squares containing a crowd count as partial cover and rough terrain (even to targets adjacent to one another). If combat occurs in or adjacent to a crowd, on Initiative 0 it shifts until the combatants are at least 1 square away from the crowd.
It is worth noting that none of the Town Guards will make an attack against a creature in a crowd for fear of hitting an innocent. The noble, mob, and executioner have no such qualms.

Fountain – Provides partial cover. Vaulting onto it requires no check but costs an extra square of movement.

Merchant Stall – Provides Partial cover AND Partial concealment. Diving through requires an Acrobatics Moderate check an costs no extra movement.

Platform – Recently made of sturdy wood, this platform supports the gallows, and the mechanism by which the victim is dropped and strangled. There is space enough underneath for a medium sized creature to squeeze. The floor of the platform underneath the wooden pole that suspends the hangman’s noose has a trap door in it (where the victim drops). The underside of the platform can be accessed from any square except those that contain the staircases.

Pole and Noose – looming ominously above the platform is the gallows. For some loose rules regarding the gallows and how the players may effect it see “Cut the Rope” above.

The combatants in this encounter are fairly straightforward. The Town Guards will seek to lock the PCs in melee combat, squaring off individually with PCs to keep them from slipping by. The executioner will do his best to flank with an ally and hit as hard as he can. Meanwhile, the noble will stay on the platform, ordering the executioner to make extra attacks when possible.

The Hanging Mob does not appear until one of the following triggers occurs. When they are added to the combat, replace an appropriate amount of the existing mob “terrain” sections with the Hanging Mob swarm. The audience in that section of the crowd goes ballistic and turns on the players, entering the fray. Where they appear is at your discretion, and should serve to make the combat interesting and surprising but not overwhelming. It is worth mentioning to your more Lawfully inclined players that when the mob loses hit points, it does not necessarily represent killing a handful of people – it may simply mean that the thrashing they took has convinced the fickle crowd that its better to slink away home than face an armed band.

  • If the Noble is bloodied, the Hanging Mob appears
  • When 2 Town Guards are dropped to 0 HP, the Hanging Mob appears
  • If the Executioner is dropped to 0 HP, the Hanging Mob appears


x4 Town Guard (Monster Vault pg. 171)
x1 Human Noble (Monster Manual 2 pg. 148)
x1 Half-Orc Scarthane/Half-Orc Executioner (Monster Manual 2 pg. 141)
x1 Hanging Mob

If you’re looking for a little inspiration or further reading for this encounter might I recommend: This dramatic video game cinematic, a “Mythbusters” episode, and that famous scene from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” where hanging rescues are a matter of business.


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