Combat rating 11
1 Bone Devil (CR 9)
2-4 Minotaur skeletons (CR 2)
1 Giant scorpion (CR 3)
Combat rating 13
1 Bone Devil (CR 9)
1 Bulette (CR 5)
2 Umber hulks (CR 5)
Combat rating 16
1 Bone Devil (CR 9)
2 Air elementals (CR 5)
2 Earth elementals (CR 5)
1 Manticore (CR 3)
2 Bone naga (CR 4)
Combat rating 18
1 Bone Devil (CR 9)
2 Chimeras (CR 6)
2 Clay golems (CR 8)
How to Use – Combat encounter 1 (difficulty 10)
Suggested terrain: A dessert wilderness, with tall peaks of rock jutting up on both sides of the path. Or you can just use mountain walls on one or both sides.
The bone devil’s preferred strategy will be to lie flat on top of the columns, and use its long reach to hassle the PCs without [most of] them being able to strike back. Lying flat against a column high up should count as at least half-cover, plus the fact that it’s prone gives ranged attacks against it disadvantage.
I would argue that the bone devil should not take a penalty to its movement due to being prone, at least not when it chooses to lie prone. After all, it has wings and flies. Looking at its picture, do you think lying on its stomach should give it disadvantage? Even if you disagree, or are adamant about following rules, thirty feet of flying movement should still be plenty for whatever you need.
If it has a polearm, it will pick up the victim and hold him between itself and the other PCs. This gives it near total cover, and should logically cause the prisoner too take friendly fire damage if they try to hit the bone devil anyway, and miss.
(Before you can do that, you’ll have to decide if this type of friendly fire is a thing, and you’ll have to tell your players of the possibility. It is not fair to only tell them afterwards, when their characters should know and when they might rightfully be assuming that there is no such thing as friendly fire. Plenty of videogames have no friendly fire, after all.)
The bone devil won’t remain in the same position for more than a turn or two. Afterwards, it can fly down the far side of the column or the cliff face, and then prepare to ambush the players from a new position. With its white coloring, it blends into dessert sand quite well, and it can’t easily be seen when it’s on top of a spire or rock face, anyway. It will have to spend a turn on taking the hide action, though.
Other tactics it could use include having small amounts or rocks piled up before the players arrive, so that it can catch them in small rockfalls. Or it could just use boulders lying around naturally. It will also seek to weaken, or to find weakened, area of the rock to lie on. That way, if the spellcasters target it with area spells, the rock face might/will collapse, damaging and burying any PCs standing around underneath.
If you like, you can add a place or two where the road has collapsed, and the players have to somehow jump over. Ideally, have the bone devil poison one or two players as they reach there, and then trigger a rockfall right where they’re standing. The players see the rocks beginning to slide, and they know that they have one turn to escape. If they stay, they’ll be buried, and if they retreat, they’ll be cut off. Their only chance is to jump. Unfortunately, they’re poisoned.
Too add a touch of urgency, have this scene be taking place in the morning hours. Dessert travel demands that they be off the road, in somewhere sheltered, by the time the day’s full heat arrives, which means they won’t have the option of camping out and waiting. (Actually, dessert travel takes place entirely at night. I took a bit of liberty with the time.)
If you want to increase the difficulty, have archers ahead of them to force them to keep moving. Skeletons might work well here. A different way would be to place a time limit, they have to escape the area within a number of rounds because on an imminent sandstorm, flash flood (probably not in the nine hells), or pursuing enemies who will show up soon. I didn’t feel that it fit this fight so well, (I’m also leery of suggesting the same thing too many times) and so I left it out. I’m mentioning it here because you have the right to disagree with me.
Combat encounter 2 (difficulty 10)
The bone devil is in charge of anywhere from 50 to 200 prisoners. When the PCs show up, it orders them to attack the PCs.
You can use the commoner statblock for the prisoners. If you like, you can give them weapons, to increase the damage output, but you don’t have to. (Yes, the bone devil will allow its prisoners to carry weapons. They can’t hope to use these weapons against it.)
The prisoners will move slowly, lethargically. Most probably, they won’t move more than 10-15 feet a turn. It’s possible that they’re chained together. The bone devil will definitely make a thing of keeping them together, so that individuals don’t use this opportunity to escape. The challenge to this encounter is that the players will [hopefully] not want to kill the prisoners.
If you’re in doubt as to whether your players will just kill the prisoners, I suggest that you give them the motivation before the combat starts. Have them stumble across a starving escaped prisoner, his clothes in rags. He probably doesn’t believe that they’re friendly at first, but after a few reassurances* he finally accepts that he’s safe. Then, he begs them to rescue his friends. He tells them how the other prisoners covered for him, but how it will mean their lives when his escape is discovered. With an introduction like that, the players probably won’t just kill the prisoners.
* [emphasis on a few. D&D players get impatient, and they don’t know how to reassure properly. Nor, in fairness, do most DMs play the part of a prisoner needing reassurance properly.]
The bone devil will spend most of his time [and his rounds] forcing the prisoners into the battle, but in approx. every three rounds [not exact. He shouldn’t be predictable] he’ll come out himself, using the range of his attacks to hit the PCs while remaining out of their reach himself.
Because he’ll be flying low over the prisoners, they won’t have an angle to shoot at him. Area of effect spells have a real possibility of hitting the prisoners. Frankly, taking down the bone devil should be quite a challenge.
After the battle
The after effects of this battle are that the players are going to end up with a large number of former prisoners on their hands. The solution is that they’re going to have to help them get to safety.
In the material plane [the human world, or the default world] that will mean bringing them to a city. (A medieval city would not have the resources to take care of a hundred starving prisoners, but a medieval city wouldn’t have clerics capable of casting Create Food and Water, either. I don’t think that anyone is capable of working out what a city in D&D world would actually look like, but medieval appearance with [mostly] modern moral standards seem to be the common default. In this case, that means social workers by a different name. Temple clerics of a good-alignment deity, probably.)
If your campaign takes place inside the Nine Hells, you’re going to need to give the players an item or ability that lets them teleport out. Either that, or have them discover a portal out shortly before rescuing the prisoners.
If using an item, I would suggest it only being able to affect any person once being a good way to stop your players from abusing it. Aside from helping them with the prisoners, such an item would be a good way to let them return home at the end of the campaign, and might provide in-game justification for them to decide to enter the Hells in the first place.
If you want to make it somewhat hard to use, you could have it only be usable from certain places, at certain times of day, and/or to take a large amount of time to activate, as in ritual casting. It would make sense for it to help you figure out the time or place where it can be cast, if you’re using those ideas.
If you’re running Descent Into Avernus, you’re not going to want to give them such a capability. The main goal of the campaign is to rescue the city Elturel, and if they can teleport people out, why don’t they simply use that to win the campaign? Fortunately, you have a different solution available. You’ve got an entire, lawful-good city right there. I’m certain the people would be willing to take care of them, and they can get rescued at the end of the campaign with everyone else.
(If you’re running a different escape the Nine Hells campaign, you probably don’t want to use a prisoner rescue situation. If you like, I have read a fantasy book that had a magic stone that could put a large amount of people into suspended animation, and then bring them back out when that option was activated. [I’m being vague because of copywrites and spoilers.)
While all this is a large interruption to your planned campaign, it isn’t actually as bad as you might think. You can do it with just a single combat encounter on the way, [and preferably a few descriptions] to give a feeling of time traveled. (In order to give a feeling of time traveled is the main reason that mundane traveling involves random encounters.)
Alternatively, this can give an opportunity for some special encounters, of a type that you’ll never manage any other way. I’ll be including a few ideas down below, both of combat and non-combat variety.
(If you really don’t want to do this, you can have a captured adventurer or two be among the prisoners. Perhaps you can even introduce them as people the players characters already knew, and therefore trust. Either way, they’re in slightly better condition, not to mention more used to hardship, and they’ll volunteer to take the former prisoners to safety.)
The plus side to this is that you’ll have a large source of NPCs of all types. Once they recover, they can be slotted into many different roles. There is always a use for NPCs with connection to the party.
Combat Encounters [While Leading a Group]
- The monster come from two directions. In order to protect the group, the players will have to split into two groups. [I would recommend that you keep the fight fairly simple, as you’re going to be running two groups at once.]
- The monsters are charging at the group. The PCs need to intercept them. [You’ll want melee-based monsters, more enemies than PCs, and you’re probably better off with unintelligent monsters.]
- If the trip to safety takes more than a day, or possibly even more than a few hours, they’re going to need a place to sleep through the night. This means that the players will need to fortify a place, and then fight off enemies during the night. Fortifying a place requires that you give the players a place that can be defended, with only so many entrances, and items that can be placed as barricades. At the same time, you probably don’t want to make the place too easy to defend, or to give them too many resources with which to build defenses. This way, they’ll have to be somewhat creative.
- The night attack itself will require them to spread out somewhat, to defend from multiple directions and to cope with limited visibility., even with darkvision. They might recruit some of the escaped prisoners to serve as sentries and give warning, but said prisoners will be a liability as well as a help. They have limited fighting skills, and their captivity has left them sort of weak, short of stamina and HP.
- If their enemies have a fortified position ahead, they’ll have to take it down so as not to be attacked while passing. This can be a proper base, a barricade, or even just a lookout point. While not so different from a normal campaign goal, this gives you a case where you can let them sneak up on an enemy without having to worry that they’ll just evade fighting the enemy entirely.
- You can give a scenario where the enemy gets the drop on them. They can’t fight the enemy, because then too many of the prisoners they rescued will get killed, so they have to negotiate and/or trick the enemy to get them away from the former prisoners. While this isn’t a fight, it can easily lead to a fight.
Non-Combat Challenges [While Leading a Group]
Being in charge of a large group of non-combatants also provides several non-combat challenges that would not be found elsewhere. Some ideas include:
Challenge Idea 1: Crossing any river, climbing over any mountain, or otherwise traversing any obstacle is a very different experience when you have civilians in tow. While the PCs can swim or ford many rivers, or can use Fly to ferry each other across, this isn’t practical for a large group of people, many of whom have no particular physical capabilities.
Just make certain that the obstacle isn’t too difficult, and that they have sufficient resources to find a solution. For example, the best solution to the river would be to build a temporary bridge, but they’ll need wood for that. (In general, it’s always good to have at least three possible solutions available for any problem that you plan to throw at the players.)
Challenge Idea 2: Feeding the people will be another problem. Hunting is a solution, but the players won’t be able to do it by themselves. They’ll have to find a way to use the people they’re leading, without putting them into too much danger. [Herding the animals into a trap, or surrounding them seem like good possibilities to me.]
Raiding a warehouse belonging to the enemies is another solution. Here too, they’ll need to recruit people to help them carry away the goods, which can be very tricky if there are guards that they need to hide from.
Challenge Idea 3: Having a group also gives you a chance for special magical challenges that wouldn’t work with players. Have bushes that give off a smell that gives the people nearby temporary amnesia. You’ll exempt the PCs, on the grounds that their stats are high enough to make them immune, but how do you get an entire group of people through when they can’t remember who you are, and have no reason to trust you. [This is one example, but there are many possible ideas.)
Challenge Idea 4: Having a group also gives you opportunity for scenes where one person falls off a cliff, and is clutching the side for dear life, and needs to be rescued. Or is trapped on a rock in the middle of the river, after falling in. The fact that the NPC is terrified means that he doesn’t necessarily act in the correct manner, and won’t follow instructions properly. You can have the players discover a cave in the side of the cliff, or a strange symbol on the rock, that will have relevance now or later, if you want to make the scenario even more interesting.
An idea I am not suggesting is where there is some danger, such as bad weather, and they need to figure out how to survive it as best they can. The reason is because the penalty for failure will be the death of NPCs, and that isn’t a very acceptable type of penalty in my opinion.
I also would not set up a challenge where the NPCs refuse to listen to the players, or challenge their authority. Since players do not know how to properly handle that type of problem, [nor do DMs know how to run it,] it will simply result in the players telling the NPCs that it’s their way or the highway, and who rescued them anyway. Overall, an entirely unsatisfactory result.