Waging Monkey Warfare with Players
I never wander far from my gaming roots. Being a Dunegon Master is often times a thankless job. You spend hours devising intricate and elaborate entertainment, only to have the players plow through it like a wrecking ball or get diverted onto some trivial side-trip away from the real storyline adventure. You want to tell them, “Hey, that’s just some fluff text – keep going to the right…” but they plow off chasing every rustling leaf or sound in the wind.
So, sometimes, I pay them back with a little Monkey Warfare.
Monkey Warfare is like Guerilla Warfare, but far less deadly and more entertaining. It’s doing little things to mess with the minds of the players or put them in situations that are awkward, humiliating, or funny. Many of these are non-lethal, all have the potential to drive your players into a realm of paranoia that is both entertaining and rewarding (for you). Sure it is old school thinking. That’s what makes it work.
The following are some suggestions for messing with players I’ve used over the years. Enjoy!
Pit of Ticks. Sure, anyone can fall into a pit. Pits are fun all on their own. They can fill with water, have monsters in them, have collapsing walls, etc., but nothing says fun like a pit. One of my favorite little tricks was to fill a pit with ticks. Not giant ticks, just tens of thousands of little, burrow under your armor, biting at you, ticks. Now if you get a few hundred of these biting you, you can take minor damage and gave you a minus or two for combat. The real fun was that it made the character have to strip naked to get the ticks off…and the ticks, freed from the pit, start going after the other members of the party. Sure, you guys are all tough-and-rumble, until you’re naked and attacked by even a lowly wandering monster.
Swim. I never pass up a chance to make a character swim. It becomes a logistical pain for them. “So I take my armor off, swim across the river, but how do I get my stuff?” Done properly, a forced swim can be deadly and hilarious, especially if the players don’t have a lot of time to figure out any option other than jumping in while wearing plate mail.
Floor triggers that trigger nothing. You’re on point, you’ve got your trusty 10 foot pole, tapping ahead of you like a blind man trying to get out of a Molly Hatchet concert. Suddenly, on the floor tile in front of you, you hear an audible “click.” You hold the pole on the tile, afraid to lift it up. Yes, you can see the edges of it, clearly a trigger for some diabolical trap. You say to yourself, “I’m fricking Indiana Jones, look at me spotting this clever trap.” Then beads of sweat form as you and the party spend ten minutes attempting to engineer their ways out of this. “For God’s sake Andrew, don’t lift the pole, it will trigger it — whatever it is! But what if the “click” was just there to mess with you? You know what that is – that is funny.
A pile of freshly killed monsters – the bigger, the better. You come across five Frost Giants in a heaping pile, you immediately assume that something big and nasty is nearby. What you want to go for here is raw fear and a dollop of pure paranoia.
Darkness. You have a room in perpetual darkness (as in the spell) and players freak out. Who cares if the spell was part of a ward that was triggered 84 years earlier? They don’t need to know that. You give them a room where a torch doesn’t work in a dungeon and they will go crazy out of fear of something luring them into a trap.
Oil. Oil dripping from the ceiling…a floor covered in a sheen of oil. It doesn’t have to be on fire to make your players contort to assure that they don’t drop something onto it. Start with your characters standing on slippery oil, holding lit torches, and even a lowly goblin can wreck havoc.
Explosive gas. Not “blow up the entire dungeon level like a fuel-air explosive” explosive gas, just something simple like methane will do the trick. The part can set off small pockets of it, no more than 1 hp of damage, and they will start to devise intricate and complex ways to proceed out of fear of hitting a bigger pocket.
The changing hedge. You come across a hedge cutting your path in the forest. You move along it, and suddenly you realize you way back to the path is cut off. The hedge has magically grown to block you. In fact, new openings appear, exits disappear, it’s all part of the fun. The hedge doesn’t have to be protecting anything. It could have been enchanted there by a druid who’s just being a dick.
The Wind Tunnel. You have a part of the dungeon that is a massive wind tunnel with an opposite wall filled with tiny holes to allow the wind to pass. It doesn’t have to hurt the players, but makes them have to figure out how to cross that space. Few things are more funny than a Dwarven thief blown up against a wall, unable to move – with his friends attempting to figure out how to cross the opening and save him. No hit points have to exchange here, just good old fashioned fun.
Fog. Players assume that if there is fog around, there’s something in it. Sometimes, fog is just fog. They don’t have to know that though. Make it billow and swirl – that drives them insane. Have a rabbit hop along under the fog, making noise and a wake in the mist. They will be attacking the fog in no-time.
Non-poisonous snakes. Remember the snake scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark? We all squirmed, it’s okay. Now picture that with just a lot of non-venomous snakes. You can even toss in a cobra or two if that floats your boat. Players see a floor covered six inches deep in snakes, they wig out. You can do the same thing with spiders too…big spiders sometimes are just big spiders. But if you put a lot of them in one space, you can watch your players overreact.
Marbles of doom. I have used marbles to trip up players. Step one, give them a reason to run…a big horrible monster or a giant rolling ball trap, for example. Step two, introduce 10,000 small ceramic marbles in their path. Step three, decrease the distance between the players and the monster. Step four, let the chips (and players) fall where they may. Making players take a disadvantage fighting on tiny marbles is just the DM’s way of saying, “I wanted you to go down the left corridor.”
Mundane (yet irritating) creatures. Magic word here: Skunk. You hose a few players so their stink is so high that the enemy knows their around, and you have a fun game. How about a raccoon that steals form your backpack while you sleep? Or that horrifying noise and glowing eyes you see around your encampment, which lure you into the forest, only to discover it was an owl? I had a guy destroy his backpack and most of his provisions trying to kill a large run-of-the-mill centipede that he saw had crawled in there.
Tar. Remember Home Alone? Tar is a great way for players to lose their boots. Barefoot in a dungeon? It takes only some tiny upright nails or bits of broken glass to make that funny.
Inferior yet enticing weapons. I’m a vicious bastard at times. I enchant things like a bronze sword or copper daggers, copper tipped arrows, etc. Sometimes they just have a spell cast on them to make them glow – that’s the extent of their magical powers. Why? Because they are deliberately inferior weapons. Suddenly using these weapons has become a math problem…”Okay, the sword is +3, but I get a -5 to penetrate armor and if I parry with it, it gets bent. Hmm…” Players cannot resist the allure of using anything they think is magical, and I take advantage of that.
Corrosives on the floor. You don’t need a lot, a thin sheen in four or five rooms, undetectable really. Eventually players get a burning sensation on the bottom of their feet because the soles of the party’s boots are gone. Much like tar (above) it is the gift that keeps on giving.
Obvious traps that force players into hidden traps. “It looks like a stone slab from the other side of the corridor has slammed into the wall, crushing several different monsters there. You see a slightly raised stone that may be a trigger on the floor.” “I jump over it!” “Right into the pit on the other side. Roll for damage. Oh, by the way, it’s filled with ticks (see above).”
Transportation stones. Flat stones in a forest with strange marks on them. You touch them and you are transported into a dungeon. These are feeding stones, put in the forest to transport animals into the dungeon to feed the occupants. Did I mention they are one-way? Nothing says paranoid than finding yourself in a dark dungeon with no bearings whatsoever. Not only that, but that dungeon could be many leagues away.
Super-Booze. One gulp equals ten drinks. If you get the majority of the party so drunk they cannot walk, you can guarantee some fun. “Izzthat guy lookin’ at me? What’s your problem? You wanna fight?” Getting your players mega drunk sets them up for robbery, false imprisonment, other drunks just messing with them, new tattoos, and other fun stuff.
Mild Electrical Shocks. You make a lever or door knob give a player a light shock, they will immediately assume the worst. Little do they realize that all three of the levers have the same shock. They will believe there is a reason for a shock, no matter what the evidence shows.
Insomnia. If you make enough noise a party will never get sleep. Without sleep, they can get some negative modifiers to hit and their judgment is impaired. “Yes, as a matter of fact, you think you saw a shadow move in the next room.”
Starvation. Bugs or rats get into the parties food, or it rots, or has gone bad. Ever eat Bugbear? You can make them eat things they never would if you starve them enough…even other members of the party. “How are you going to raise me Andrew…you’re eating my left leg!”
Non-lethal poisons. A sword handle with a mild paralyzing agent? Oh, that’s just mean. (Snicker) How about an unseen hallucinogenic gas? You can numb body parts, make the players characters throwing up every now and then, or give them some mild hallucinating experience so real they react to it. You don’t have to take away hit points to mess with their minds.
Rabies. Ever see a pack of rabid rabbits or squirrels? Neither have I. My players have though. While they offer no experience to mention, they can take a fuzzy animal encounter and make it a pitched fight to the death. Take any small group of animals and add “frothing at the mouth,” and you have yourself a battle.
Move something from one player to another. It doesn’t have to be treasure. Maybe it’s just a tinderbox or something else small. Nothing pits players against players like a perceived theft, even of something stupid.
Phosphorescent fungi or mold. Your party’s torches make the mold or fungi on the wall glow — for hours. It doesn’t have to do anything other than that. Of course, it provides any wandering monster (over a larger area if the party is on the move) a lit up path to find them…simply follow the glowing walls. Then comes that moment when they are running from a creature and decide to douse the lantern and take their chances in the dark.
My final tip is not an encounter – but just me being cruel:
Just roll the dice. Nothing says fear more than when the Dungeon Master rolls dice, checks papers, then rolls some more.