If you’ve ever walked through a dungeon door, trespassed in a moldering cemetery, or explored the depths of your local crypts, you’ve likely run into this scenario.

The chamber is dimly lit by guttering torches. Amidst the flickering shadows you spy humanoid forms in alcoves lining the walls. Their eyes are dark and staring, but they make no move towards you. As your eyes adjust to the gloom [“I have dark vision!” “Shut up, Steve.”] you soon realize that they are only the desiccated remains of long-dead warriors. The figures are little more bone and tattered leather, and their eyes are the empty pits of skulls. The pommels of the skeletons’ weapons, however, glint gold in the firelight.

At this point, you and I and Steve all know that there’s a 99.9% chance these skelemans are preparing to animate and attack. As The Evil Party so ably demonstrate, you’ve got several options for dealing with this situation. And debating them out loud can be surprisingly useful.

My all-time favorite take on this trope came when the roles were reversed. It was an Exalted 2e game, and the party of sneaky shapeshifting lunars were trying to infiltrate the Perfect of Paragon‘s palace. The dice were not with them. Wards were triggered, inquisitive guards approached, and the heroic pack of hulking beastmen had to hurriedly stuff themselves into a nearby scrivener’s office. You can guess how well their Dex + Stealth checks went.

After the botches were tallied, it was plain to all and sundry that their attempt to hide looked a little something like this. They could only hope that the guards would pass them by without opening the door. It played out a little something like so:

The door creaks open. A sliver of light falls across the room. The expected screams do not follow. You might just have got away with this one! Then you hear the voices of the guards in conversation. They seem oddly strained.

“Um, Guard #1?” 

Yes, Guard #2?” 

It does not look like there’s anything of note to be found in here.” 

“No. It certainly does not, Guard #1.”

“Seeing as that is the case—the decided absence of terrifying monstrosities partially concealed beneath yonder bureau I mean—I propose that we return to the Captain and inform her that this was a false alarm.” 

“Capital idea! Let us do as you suggest with all speed.” 

The door shuts again. You can hear the sound of iron-shod feet ringing on the marble floor outside. Oddly, what starts as a steady patrolman’s amble soon becomes a hurried walk. It shifts by degrees into a hasty trot, grows into a full-on run, and finally culminates in a panicked sprint. When the guards’ clanking footfalls finally leave your earshot, some moments of silence pass. And then you can hear the sounds of a great many more iron-shod feet hurrying in your direction. 

At this point, my players finally decided that waiting and hoping was no longer an option. They burst from their hiding place, ran the phalanx of palace guards a merry chase, and soon found themselves crashing through a rooftop cocktail party. The city’s dignitaries were not pleased.

Any dang way, my point is that when you’re not sure exactly what you’re dealing with, putting the onus on the other guy to act first has real tactical advantages. By doing a bit of the ol’ talky-talk in earshot of your foes, you may just save yourself from ambushes, traps, and suddenly-animate skeletons of all kinds.

What about the rest of you guys? Have you ever applied this kind of child psychology to an NPC? Did they take the bait, or did you have to walk up and trigger the “very surprising and totally unexpected ambush” the hard way? Tell us your tale down in the comments!


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