This scenario is designed for lower level characters, however it could be modified to suit higher level groups. The campaign setting is low magic, and powerful magic in the hands of the group will make this more difficult to run. This takes place in and around a small city in the center of a large rural agricultural area. There are several small hamlets and villages within a few days ride of the city.
The party is sitting in their favorite bar/temple feeling bored when the pounding of hooves and the shouts of guards draws their attention outside. Just as they make it out the door, they see a large group (15 or so) of armed riders charge out the nearby city gate, pursued by a small number of city guardsmen. The guardsmen return shortly, and if the players inquire, they can discover that the local tax collector was just robbed and this year's revenue from the annual sheep tax was stolen.
Within an hour or so, a guard captain should start visiting various taverns, announcing a generous reward for the return of the strongbox. The characters should notice that there is little interest among the locals to pursue the fleeing tax monies. Questioning locals will reveal that the thief is a well known bandit that has plagued the town from time to time, He has a fairly nasty reputation and has killed at least 8/10/14/22 men (depending on who you talk to. 6 is the real number).
Once the group decides to actually go for the raiders, they should have little trouble following the trail. It leads straight across country for several days riding. If the characters are familiar with the area, they will realize the trail is leading to a tiny village nearby. Sometime before reaching the village, the party should lose the trail when crossing a river. further efforts to pick it up should prove to be very difficult. Hopefully the party will head into the village.
The party should arrive in the village near dusk and find it to be very deserted looking. The only building that shows any light is the small fortified tavern at the far end of the village. The tavern is a two story affair, with rooms above a common area on the first floor. If they go in, they will find only the tavern keeper standing behind the bar. He will appear to be nervous and occasionally dart glances in the back room behind the bar. He will claim to have seen no strangers in town and try to get rid of the party with the "we close in 5 minutes" bit. Should the characters check the back room, over the barman's protests, they'll discover 3 bandits holding the barman's wife at knifepoint.
The bandits will threaten the barman's wife and one of them will whistle loudly. In short order several more bandits will appear from upstairs and a few more will enter through the back door. Finally a group of 8 or more will enter through the front door, dragging the unconscious body of anyone that was watching outside. The leader of the bandits is in this last group. He is a rather twitchy looking fellow, armed with a rather large bastard sword and chainmail. The rest of the bandits are in either leather, scale or chain. Most are armed with broadswords and short bows. The bandit leader is mid-level fighter (or high enough that the party will not succeed in taking him out without help). Most of the bandits should be low level fighters or thieves. There is at least one with some knowledge of magic. All told there are 15 bandits plus a leader. Quite a group, but they don't look like much. Should the players decide to fight, they should be quickly and mercilessly pummelled into unconsciousness. This is the ideal course ;) Should they not fight, the bandits will chose one or two characters to rough up with the goal of starting a fight. The characters will be prevented from leaving, and eventually, a fight will start.
The characters will wake several hours later with aching heads and bruised bodies. The bandits will be long gone. As each wakes, they will discover that any valuables they had have been stolen. They will also notice 2 strangers in the inn. The first stranger is a lean, hardbitten, cold eyed human wearing dusty riding clothes and a suit of elvan chain. Slung over his shoulder is a bastard sword with a rather unusual blade (dwarven steel, +2 damage due to hardness/sharpness, non-magical). The second is a tall, broad shouldered elf, carrying a huge long bow (probably not anyone in the group that could string it, much less fire it). He is dressed as a noble and looks somewhat out of place. A glance outside will reveal that the characters horses are still there, and there are two large well kept riding horses there as well.
The strangers will be very reluctant to discuss themselves. The human in fact will not give his name. They will ask about the bandits and try to obtain all information they can from the party about their movements. They will head out after the bandits once they have gotten all the info they can from the group. Should the group suggest an alliance, the pair will resist, but will eventually be convinced to let the party tag along. They will make it clear that they are in charge and the bandit leader is theirs to kill/capture. The bandits trail should be clear from the village, and the party will quickly realize that the bandits are headed for an abandoned orchard and farmhouse that lies a days ride away.
The party will arrive at the farmhouse and quickly discern that the bandits are there. There are about 20 horses tied up in the barn and sounds of a large group coming from the remains of the farm house. The elf will vanish into the trees near the farm and the sword slinging human will start into the farmhouse. The party should be forced to act quickly. In any case, mayhem will soon start, as the sword swinger heads straight for the bandit leader, who immediately attacks. The other bandits will spread out and a general melee should ensue. The sword swinger will concentrate on the leader, and the bowman hidden in the woods will do the same should the chance arise, otherwise he will pick off bandits. The party should have their hands full with the rest of the bandits. Should the party prove successful, they will find the tax chest intact (magically sealed), and the two strangers will show no interest in it. They will instead pack the now dead bandit leader and several of his followers onto horses and leave without a word. Should the party inquire, they will be informed that there is a bounty offered for bandit in some nearby city. They will refuse a share of the reward money. The adventure will hopefully end with the party returning the tax chest, the strangers collecting the rewards on the bandits, and everyone happy. Note that the players will find most of their stolen belongings as well.
Behind the scenes:
The sword swinging stranger should be a mid-level fighter. He has the advantage of being very dexterous and very practiced with his sword. In my campaign, he fought as a fighter 2 levels above his current level with his bastard sword. Also in the first round of combat he always gets the first swing. He has the disadvantage of being non-proficient with any other weapon.
The elvan bowman is also mid-level fighter with the additional advantage of having a good dexterity and maximum elvan strength. His bow is a custom design which adds strength bonuses to damage. He gets an additional attack per round with the bow, and is non-proficient with any other weapon.
The bandit leader is specialised in bastard sword. He has the benefit of a good strength and constitution. He is also somewhat insane and enjoys killing.
The strangers are both bounty hunters with personal grudges to settle as well. The sword slinger's wife was raped and killed by the bandit leader, and the elf's father was killed by him. Also the reward for the bandit and several of his band adds up to 3 times the amount offered for the return of the chest.
The players get involved in bounty hunting via the two strangers. Someone tries to stop the players from reaching the city with the chest. One or both of the strangers are sorely wounded and the party decides to help them out.
For more info on the strangers and the bandits, watch "For a Few Dollars More" with Clint Eastwood ;)