A River Crossing With a Tiger
This encounter can be dropped into any overland travel through the wilderness. It features a colorful one-off villain who can easily become a recurring miniboss if you so desire.
A lot of people know the villainous tiger Shere Khan from the 1967 animated Disney adaptation of the Jungle Book or from the 2016 live-action Disney remake. I watched the former obsessively as a kid and have not seen the latter, but my first exposure to the beast who considered himself the rightful lord of the jungle was reading Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book short stories much younger than I should have.
The book version of Shere Khan is one heck of a villain. He’s a vicious, hateful predator with a suite of glaring weaknesses that somehow only make him scarier. He’s petty, cruel, arrogant, cowardly, and furious that anyone would consider him so. He’d be pathetic if it weren’t for the fact that he could easily kill almost any other character in the books. Even clever, dangerous Mowgli – an amoral princeps civitatis of the jungle – is only able to kill the tiger by trapping him in a ravine and stampeding a herd of buffalo over him. In the books, Shere Khan enjoys hunting humans for sport, and is furious that he was denied the opportunity to devour Mowgli when the man-cub was a baby.
In this encounter, the PCs are traveling overland through the wilderness. For this section, they have a guide. The identity of the guide doesn’t matter, except that she speaks the language of the creatures of the forest. The past few days have seen torrential rains, and all the streams are on the edge of bursting their banks.
You head west, through the rain. The dead leaves underfoot do not rustle, but make wet, squishing noises underfoot. As you pass a hilltop menhir, the guide turns to you. “We pass now through the hunting grounds of the tiger Shere Khan. Be on your guard. He and I share a mutual respect, but it does not extend to my traveling companions. When men other than me enter Shere Khan’s territory, he does not let them leave.”
(Give the players the opportunity to change their behavior in response to this information.)
You come to a rain-swollen stream. It has spilled well over its banks, the current strong and turbulent. The guide does not seem perturbed. “Ordinarily, this place is a ford. We shall have to swim.”
(Give the players the opportunity to make a plan to get across the swollen stream.)
A tiger pads out of the brush on the other side of the stream.
(Let the players react)
Shere Khan emits a long, wet growl that goes on for some time. The guide translates. “He says that because you are traveling with me, he will not hunt you today. But because you are men, as you try to cross the stream, he will try to drown you. Once you are across, you will be safe. It is a fair offer, and I have agreed on your behalf.”
Swimming across the swollen stream requires succeeding at three opposed Athletics checks. The stream rolls against you. The difficulty should be tough but achievable. Every time a PC fails a check, she takes an appropriate amount of damage from exhaustion and swallowing water. Failing a check also means you fail to make forward progress. PCs who fail several Athletics checks are pulled downstream. When they eventually pass a total of three Athletics checks (assuming they don’t drown first), they reach the far shore, but well downstream of the rest of the party. The guide doesn’t make checks because that’s boring. Shere Khan doesn’t make checks because tigers are naturally strong swimmers.
Every round, Shere Khan targets one PC to swim underneath. He grabs her leg in his jaws and pulls her down, under the water. The wounds he creates are superficial – his goal is to drown the PC. When Shere Khan targets you, the stream gets a serious bonus on its roll.
Strong swimmers can swim over to struggling PCs and pass their half-drowned comrades some portion of their Athletics modifier. Of course, that makes it likelier that the strong swimmer will herself drown. It’s hard swimming while dragging someone else.
If anyone attacks Shere Khan during the crossing, she earns his ire. He will attack her in earnest. He will not attack any other PCs. His quarrel is with the one who violated his offer. Attacking Shere Khan instead of focusing on swimming earns you a penalty on your Athletics check. Delivering a kick here or there while swimming earns you a small penalty, while all-out attacking with weapons should earn you a large one.
At your discretion, if any PCs die in this encounter, they may merely be swept away downstream unconscious, to be deposited on a sandy bank in some forgotten corner of the wilderness.
The real killer here is the water, not the tiger. Shere Khan is a formidable opponent, but he is canny and cowardly. He knows he can’t go up against an armed party of PCs and win. His goal is to turn the stream from a speed bump to a lethal obstacle. If he gets into combat with a PC and she makes it to the other side, he won’t pursue her. He’ll keep trying to drown PCs in the stream, then slink away. If you like, he can return later in another time and place of his choosing. If he does, it’ll be another place like this one, where the terrain and circumstances favor him as completely as possible. He won’t attack unless he’s confident he will win.