Bandit Lures


Dante and Virgil in the 9th circle of hell

Let's talk about bandit encounters. Specifically the way that bandits will often enlist the assistance of a "non-combatant" to lure an adventuring party into an ambush.

Disclaimer: This is inspired by the game of D&D 5e I played in last night. My DM is new, and doing a great job, especially dealing with a miscreant like me as a player. He's running a pre-written module, which is also 100% ok, and "my beef" is with the way it (imo) isn't giving the DM what he really needs at the table while running the game. The story is good, the RP is good, the VTT work the DM is doing is amazing, and we're all having a very good time. 

DM: "As you walk along the forest path two commoners come running down it screaming 'Help! Help! Help us! Help us!'
One of our party members, a local minor landholder (Yttervag) asks: "Do I recognize these commoners? We're close to my home."
DM: "No, they're in nondescript shambles of clothing."
Yttervag rides forward to intercept them (we're on horses), pulling out a handaxe and looking for an enemy: "What troubles you?"
DM: "Bandits! Chasing us. Please. Please help us."
Y: "Why would bandits chase you? These are lean times and you look even leaner."
Y: "Where are you from?"
DM: "We come from our farmlands, we have little food... please."
Y: "Take us to them."

The commoners would not go in front of the party. All "this is a setup" senses are tingling. It's snowing heavily. Visibility is terrible. Then, thwack! A sapling tied down and buried by the snow pops up, spooking Yttervag's horse. He tries to stay mounted but is thrown down, the horse starts to run off but Yttervag manages to catch it by the reins and (nat 20) get back up on it, as bandits begin emerging from the trees.

My character, ranger, archer, (Väsen): "What are the commoners doing right now?"
DM: "Everyone is surprised by Yttervag falling into the traps and regaining his horse. They have a sort of 'I can't believe it worked that well' shit eating grin on their faces. But now, 'oh no, we're like a dog who's caught a car, now what do we do?'"
Väsen: I shoot one of the commoners.
DM: "You shoot a commoner?!"

Absolutely, 100% I shoot the commoners. If "commoners" lure adventurers into a bandit ambush, they're not only valid targets, they potentially deserve death even more than the bandit ambushers themselves. 

The lowest circle of hell is reserved for betrayal and so many "bandit lures" operate by preying upon the natural(?) inclination to provide aid to those in need. It's always bothered me that the story of "The Good Samaritan" is called "Good" and when I think it should be called "The Brave Samaritan". The moral seems to be frequently distorted to "he stopped to render aid" instead of "he stopped to render aid despite the risk." 

Somewhere in the digital pits on my computer I have a dash cam video I wish I could find for this post. There's a car crash on a the curve of a road. Or at least it looks like it might be. If I recall correctly, it's a small hatch back. The back is open or a door is open, and there are articles of clothing all over the ground, pink and white in the headlights, and a body, or two bodies? Thrown from the vehicle? The car with the dash cam begins to slow down, and then the people on the ground stand up, and someone comes out from behind the car, the driver gets the hell out of there. It's one of the spookiest and most visceral things I've ever seen.

Doing a quick search online to see if I could find that video to link here, instead, the top link on google for "Fake car wreck attempted robbery" was an article from the UK, dated February 6th, 2022 (only 60ish days ago): Man Injured in Attempted Robbery at Scene of Fake Crash

The victim was driving along Branksome Road, St Leonards when he saw a person lying in the middle of the road with a white crash helmet on and a moped on the ground next to them.

Two other people, wearing black or dark coloured crash helmets, were stood in the road nearby.

To bring this back to fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons, one of the easiest and quickest ways to handle the moral nuance of an ambush situation is to make the lures (anglers?) bandits too. In the car crash examples, because all the participants in the ambush were "passive"/lying in wait (and they were using props to attract attention and show they needed aid) it seems clear that all people at the crash scenes were going to actively participate in the ambush.

But there is room for many more layers of nuance. Not only should pre-written adventures provide that nuance, they should also make it easy for a DM to communicate it to the table, under fire from player's questions about the encounter currently unfolding in the game world. It can be very difficult to come up with these things on the fly as a response to distrustful players.

Here are two example frameworks to keep your lures squarely in the non-combatant camp. Bandits are hidden off the path at a ruined structure/a curve in the road/a water crossing.

The Innocent

The bandits have a lookout, scouting for likely targets. Not far from the lookout is an innocent lure. An easy setup is 3 brothers, probably farmers. The older brother is the lookout and working for the bandits. The two younger brothers don't know the older brother is doing this. The younger brothers are actively working. The older brother is scouting. When the older brother sees the party, they leave their spot and take a short cut to where their younger brothers are (this is an opportunity for a stealth vs perception check situation to give your players a way to completely circumvent/change the encounter). 

The older brother then gives the younger brothers a lie. For example: "Jessup! Gilfroy! Bessie kicked down her fence and ran down into the holler. She's had her calf down in that pit and can't get out. I've got to get to her and keep her calm. Can you stay here and if you see anyone with rope send 'em down to help? I don't have enough to get her out."

Now, the two younger brothers have been setup as lures. They have a "McGuffin" that they don't know is a lie. And they have an action/need. They are a truly innocent hook for your bandit ambush.

As the party approaches where they're working you can have an interaction like this:

"You see two boys stacking hay in a field. Maybe 7 and 11 years old. The little one sees you and waves, then points and gestures to his older brother, saying something you can't hear. They both run over to the road. 'Uhh, hi Mr. My brother Jessup seen you had that coil of rope there. Our cow got out and stuck in the holler nearby. My brother Mark's with her now, she just had her calf yasee, but he don't got enough rope to get her out. You mind helpin' us a bit?' The smaller boy nods emphatically throughout. 'Please sirs? Should be quick. She's done this afore.'"

The next part here's important. The boys lead the party to the holler. They know where to go and provide a role playing and question asking opportunity about local issues and other stuff. As they get to the spot where the cow has been stuck before, Mark steps out of the bushes bow drawn, arrow nocked. (Opportunities for perception check type stuff here to muddy up the next part, but that's likely even better than my version)

"Jessup! Gilfroy! Get over here!" (feasible since they were leading the party)
"What are you doing Mark? Where's Bessie?"
"I said get over here! Now!"

More bandits emerge from the brush.

Roll for Initiative.

And now, instead of having a combat you've got a cluster fuck. What's the party going to do? They had opportunities to interact with the kids. The kids are innocent. They don't know they were peddling a lie. They've just discovered it though, so how will they react? This should be obvious to the players. And it should also be obvious that Mark is their sibling, so what are you going to do? Kill him in front of them as an act of self defense? And if your campaign has been layering on destitution in the area due to famine/blight/endless winter it makes it even more of a mess. It's easier (for me at least) to perceive them as people and not a pre-determined bandit ambush encounter consisting of "bandit_01, bandit_02".

The Leveraged

The bandits have leverage of some kind over the lure. Easy answer: The bandits have kidnapped the person's child/wife/family. Or the bandits have blackmail over the person. Something.

Similar setup as the Innocent. A scout is looking for targets. They spot the party, tell the lure to engage the party, and run off to the ambush site. Again, opportunities to disrupt the ambush before it starts depending on how this part plays out.

Since this person knows they're lying, and knows what's about to happen, there are many more opportunities for lies/insight checks/emotional tension, etc. They're more likely to hang back than lead the group. They also have the opportunity to make a judgment call and see if maybe the party can help them be free of the bandits, but it's risky depending on what the leverage is.

The critically important part though is that a pre-written adventure needs to provide the leverage and put it into context in the world/situation. It needs to provide the lie they're telling the party, as well as the truth. It could be resolved with distrust + insight checks. Or it could even do something like list a few "triggering words" that emotionally break the leveraged lure and get them to reveal everything. 

If it's not revealed before hand, when the ambush happens I'd break the lure regardless. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. They have my daughter. *weeping*". Or have them try desperately to give some subtle sign before the attack happens to signal that the party is in danger and they're under duress.

One of the biggest things though, perhaps, is the inherent meta struggle caused by Virtual Table Tops (or physical table tops). As soon as the map gets pulled out, the players know (suspect strongly) there's going to be a combat, so keep the map out of sight until after initiative is rolled and the trap is sprung.