Idea: Alertness Scale

"Sneak Attack" Artwork by Christopher Johnston

Okay, you’re building an adventure that’s pretty contained. It might span a level or two, include a dungeon or lair and effectively have lots of baddies roaming around looking to eat or kill the characters for trespassing. You’ve got some monsters that you’d love to run, maybe some traps you’d like to place, and even a skill challenge or two to keep things interesting during the dive. If the adventure is contained however, you can help keep the excitement up and add a little spice to the adventure by adding this home brewed feature, the Alertness Scale.

It’s pretty simple in concept, but can be variable for whatever your dungeon’s details are. I can see this idea working in several classic scenarios: Escaping from prison, Infiltrating an enemy base, Undercover presence in a dangerous city, Exploration of ancient ruins, etc.

Any situation where you, the adventure designer, could envision there being a lot more pressure on the players the more they attract attention would be perfect.

The Alertness Scale was built for two main reasons: bolstering the risk/reward challenge of the game and providing a nice pitch of things to plug in for simple choices that players make. Because the Alertness Scale alters the frame of the game ever so slightly when certain events occur, you make the players feel like every decision they make is affecting the scenario. This is key to an immersive style of game and can be immensely rewarding if things are communicated well across the table. It also just gives the DM a great little outline of the adventure and a list of things to reference to keep the scenario active and realistic.

Okay, here’s how it works:

  1. Make a list called Potential Actions that you envision the characters might take while on their quest. These can be general actions, like picking a locked door, or taking a short rest; they can also be actions attached to the specifics of the area, like deciding to kidnap the stray guard down the hall, or pulling an unmarked lever, or chopping up the safe that’s built into the wall, or deciding to take a short rest in the witch’s cupboard.
  2. Make another list from 1 to 5 called Alertness Scale that will act as a indicator to how alert the denizens of the area are to the characters’ presence. 1 means the denizens have an inclination their lair has been breached and 5 has all denizens aware, awake and ready for confrontation should they find the infiltrators.
  3. Fill in a condition to the lair or adventure based on each level of alertness. Each level should be additive, so that while the Alertness Scale is at level 5, the denizens gain all five conditions. Some examples are listed below.
  4. Make a final list of Potential Countermeasures that you anticipate the characters may attempt in order to thwart the growing attention they are gathering.

When items from the Potential Actions List occur in the game, you simply move the current conditions of the lair up one on the Alertness Scale. Attempts to reduce the alertness of the denizens on the Potential Countermeasures should always require a ritual or skill check at a hard DC. Failure should also raise the number on the Alertness Scale by one. Remember to give small indications to the players about how they may be drawing attention. There is no need to spell out the mechanical benefits necessarily, but continue to do your job as the Dungeon Master and paint the picture of what’s going on around them accurately.

Example:

Potential Actions List:

  1. Characters take a short rest while within the main compound of the Wizard’s Dungeon
  2. Characters attempt to break into the warded treasure chest in the lieutenant’s bedchamber
  3. Characters trigger a trap in area A, B or C
  4. Characters make no attempt to cover the gnoll guardian corpses from encounters X, Y or Z
  5. Characters attempt and fail to break the Arcane Lock on doors H, I or J
  6. Characters fail the skill challenge “Sneaking Past the Sleeping Purple Worm”
  7. Characters deal any thunder damage in areas L, M or N

Alertness Scale:

  1. Denizens have an inclination something is awry:
    All denizens gain a +2 bonus to Perception
  2. Some denizens have heard or seen the characters.
    All non-sleeping denizens are not distracted and gain a +1 bonus to Initiative
  3. Notice of the characters’ presence has been filtered to elites and lieutenants:
    All denizens cannot be surprised, all sleeping denizens are awake and alert
  4. The Denizens are on high alert and aware they have been infiltrated:
    For every combat encounter add 3 minions of the characters’ level or lower. All traps gain a +2 bonus to hit and the Perception DC to detect them goes up by 2.
  5. The Denizens have mustered their forces and are prepared for anything:
    All denizens gain a +4 bonus to initiative, 5 temporary hit points and a +2 bonus to their first attack in a combat.

Potential Counter Measures:

  1. Character casts a ritual that distracts the denizens, covers up their tracks, or otherwise masks their presence
  2. Character makes a skill check that masks their presence at a hard DC. Failure raises the Alertness Scale by one.
  3. Character forces a lieutenant denizen to surrender (this may play out as the lieutenant revealing a secret about the area to avoid detection, having the lieutenant gather his guards and vacating the dungeon entirely, or something along those lines)

There you have it, an easy and simple method to provide meaning behind all the choices the players make along their quest. As any experienced Dungeon Master knows, you simply cannot accommodate for every action that the players may make along the adventure, and so this Alertness Scale provides a great outline to reference to keep the air of the mission consistent. If a player decides to trash a library looking for clues, pulling every book off the shelves and rummaging through every stack of papers, but that action isn’t accounted for on your Potential Actions list, it would make sense that it would, and so you simply adjust the Alertness Scale up by one.

The best part about the Potential Actions List in my opinion is how you can tailor it so well to what’s going on in your own game. Take off all the conventional actions and apply them to a particular adventure for instance. Let’s say perhaps that the evil rakshasa wizard at the end of the dungeon has several scrying mirrors around his lair. When the players come to a room with a mirror, adjust the Alertness Scale up by one and call for a Perception check. Those that reach a hard DC can be told that they feel like they are being watched. Each time it happens again, adjust the Alertness Scale and slowly indicate that there is something odd about the mirrors. The players may slowly get the idea, attempt to thwart the scrying devices, set up ruses for the wizard, or simply plow through the dungeon, making for a customized dungeon dive according the tactics or whims of the players.

Tailored dungeon diving adventures with a cat-and-mouse element that keeps the players feeling like every decision they make matters? That’s what makes D&D great, and so I hope you steal and enjoy this little convention for your own adventures.

(Special thanks to Christopher Johnston for his artwork “Sneak Attack”. See more of his work here.)

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