Not everyone who takes to the road has the weapons, spells, and magic items of an adventuring party. Sometimes, an emerging threat forces travelers to take flight without food, water, or even clothes durable enough to withstand the elements. The very monsters that the characters seek to defeat could send hundreds of commoners to the road, creating a variety of complications that the characters must handle.
This article presents a few ideas for refugees that you can spring on the characters while they travel to an adventure site or between settlements.
Driven from home by chronic food shortages, refugees flood the roads in hopes of finding a place with more abundant supplies, The characters might feel morally obliged to help these unfortunate victims, particularly if the party includes a paladin or a good cleric, However, these noble intentions can quickly spawn complications.
Starving mobs may demand that a cleric use his magic to create food and water, and the scene could turn ugly if he cannot or will not do so. With potentially hundreds of refugees on hand, a single adventuring party may lack the resources to feed even a handful of them. Those that the party can help might become ripe targets for hungry thieves or greedy bandits eager to spread misery and hoard food for themselves. Even normally good people may turn violent and angry if they feel that the party is holding out on them. Agents of the PCs’ enemies might spread rumors that they could feed and help everyone, but they simply choose not to.
The metallic dragons take flight, one by one leaving the region and flying to the south. Dragons that no one had ever seen or heard of before emerge from hidden lairs and take wing. Surely, something terrible is afoot.
Not all refugees are humans or humanoids. Monsters may leave a region based on trouble only they can perceive or threats that pose a risk only to them. The characters might come across a gold dragon on the road who is badly injured and seemingly frightened. Anything that can scare a dragon is likely to make the characters at least a little nervous.
Encounters with powerful creatures fleeing an area can serve to foreshadow impending trouble. They can also highlight that many different creatures dwell in an area, emphasizing the mysterious nature of magic and the possibilities of a fantasy world.
The threat that causes dragons or other creatures to flee might never pose a danger to humanity, or it could simply progress from striking at the mightiest to the weakest foes it may face, Such a flight could fulfill a prophecy that heralds an impending evil, or it might ignite some other trouble. Perhaps the dragons, elves, or other fleeing races kept many evil creatures in check. Gnolls emerge from the forest to attack human settlements, while chromatic dragons swoop over cities without fear of their metallic cousins.
Evil on the Road
Small bands of orcs strike at villages and homesteads. The duke sends in his soldiers, but they find only defenseless orcs and their children on the road. The warriors are long gone.
The refugees could be evil humanoids driven from their home by an even greater evil, or perhaps by the party’s own efforts. After the characters defeat the goblin king and his army, survivors might spread across the land in search of safe havens. Outlying farms come under attack from hungry, vengeful goblin warriors, while the fleeing monsters burn and loot isolated villages as they fiee the region. The characters might find that they create just as many problems as they solve after defeating an opponent.
In the opposite situation, the nominally evil creatures may flee some threat that could soon pose a danger to civilized lands. A fearsome red dragon might conquer several humanoid tribes and slaughter the rest. As orcs, ogres, and giants flee their mountain homes to avoid slavery, they loot and pillage human settlements to survive. If the PCs simply kill these creatures without wondering why they have entered the lowlands with little equipment and few supplies, the dragon might achieve total surprise when it leads its hordes on a campaign of conquest.
Plague spreads across the land, driving the people before it. With each wave of refugees, a few more infected victims carry the disease to new lands and untouched cities, Settlements at the edge of the outbreak shut their gates in hope of stemming its tide.
Even in a world with a relatively high level of magic, plagues remain a threat. An outbreak in a city might drive many people to flee, with a few diseased individuals (perhaps those with cases that are in the early stages) among them. Villages and towns bar their gates against outsiders, and in some cases fortified walls might defend a ghost town, its inhabitants killed off by the disease.
In this situation, every encounter with refugees could be a tense, trying experience. The PCs, particularly good ones, may want to help, but unless the party has remove disease they might be signing their own death warrants. Against this backdrop of death and misery, apocalyptic cults, opportunistic monsters, and other threats could spread across the area.
Protecting the Weak
As defenseless commoners take to the road, a variety of threats could arise to victimize them. Dire wolves stalk the roads, looking for easy meals. Bandits demand tolls for traveling the roads, while opportunistic merchants charge outrageous sums for their goods, counting on their mercenary guards to hold back any desperate men.
The characters may find that doing too much simply makes them targets for attackers or draws dozens or hundreds of desperate folk to them for protection.
They must walk a fine line between helping those that they can and trying to do too much. They might find that with each good deed, a dozen more problems come to their attention. They might even have to set aside the pursuit of a hated enemy in order to ferry helpless refugees across dangerous terrain.
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
The kindly hermit offers what food and water he can spare to the refugees who come near his cave. What few notice is that each night, more people go missing near his home.
Not all refugees are helpless. Some may use the large numbers of people on the road to move about in disguise. An evil wizard might use magic to cloak his nature and hide amongst the large number of people on the road. Unless the characters stop and question every group of unfortunates they meet, they might never find him. Monsters that are capable of taking a humanoid form, such as doppelgangers or lycanthropes, could openly wander the region, seeking out promising victims and tricking would-be heroes with their cover identities.
The characters could be fooled by a band of monsters or robbers who pose as helpless refugees. If the party stops to help them, they might spring an ambush or lead them to trouble. A group of robbers could poison the food they offer to others, leaving their victims dead or comatose while they steal any valuables they can find. Such “do-gooders” might easily escape the notice of harried characters, who might be so glad to see someone else dealing with the problem that they fail to question them closely.
BY MIKE MEARLS
ILLUSTRATION BY ATTILA ADORJANY