Monthly Archives: July 2012

Under Scrutiny

“Yes, I’m aware the dragon was THERE but it was ME and my arcane might they were running from!”

My background is in theatre. I was a theatre kid as far back as middle school – and where I went to school, that meant you were probably also a gamer. It’s a trend that I don’t think is overwhelmingly common but it follows logically. Roleplaying games, at their core, hinge on the notion of portraying a character – their attitudes, gestures, voice, objectives, etc – just like in theatre. Specifically, the freeform nature of the tabletop RPG makes it much akin to improvised theatre; which was, coincidentally, my theatrical High School/College sweetheart (and if you were wondering, we’re still together). There’s such a strong link between the two that the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide even explains the most fundamental rules of improvised theatre as a guide post for how to run your characters well at the table (‘Yes, and…’ Always ‘yes and…’!).

So…what does this have to do with a story encounter, exactly? While working on a really marvelous show during my college days, we implemented an acting exercise that really hit the mark and helped the whole cast hone their characters. That exercise stuck with me as one of my favorites, and recently it dawned on me just how well it could be translated to the tabletop – not just as an exercise to play eith before the dice get rolling, but as a dramatic scene within the actual gameplay.

The point of the exercise is not dissimilar to those “100 Questions About Your Character” questionnaires that you see floating around. your character is more than just a paragraph of biographical narrative or history text-book backstory page. A lot of tiny details can really flesh your character out, inspire illustrative quirks, or add layers of complication in his or her relationships. A question as simple as “what do you have in your pockets” can force you to ask big questions about who your character is…the ones you never really thought about answering until now. That’s the crux of this exercise – to get at the details of your character and ultimately to brighten the broad strokes with the short ones.

This exercise/encounter also plays a bit with meta-game and in-character knowledge. In general I think meta-game knowledge is an unfortunate evil, but in this circumstance I feel it can do us some good in helping the PLAYERS to be active participants in crafting an engaging story, without violating the conceits of the world too much. That sounds vague right now, but it will become apparent as you read through the steps of the encounter.

But anyway, on to the action! (I’m certainly not done talking about the value that theatre has to the tabletop gaming world. And incidentally, video games are also benefiting from the influence of stagecraft).

For the best execution, this encounter involves some particular circumstances. The PCs have been taken in for questioning by a legitimate authority; an organization. This group shouldn’t be an enemy, at least not in any direct way – a suspicious militia, proactive counter-espionage agents, cautious courtiers interviewing those who wish an audience with the duke, stern-faced elven march wardens who are wary of those crossing their borders – any of these agencies would be perfect for this encounter. Do your best to emphasize that lying to these individuals is neither necessary or a good idea. It’s a cheap but effective tactic to explain that the PCs are in the presence of a zone of truth or similar spell, but sometimes preserving the spirit of the exercise is worth the strong-arming.

Whoever the group is, they separate the adventuring party, questioning them in isolation and one at a time.This is not a brutal interrogation, and the investigating group is only trying to determine what side, if any, the PCs are on, so do your best to prevent things from getting ugly. The interrogators are cool and calm, even toward belligerent PCs.

The Interrogation
At this point, have all but one of the players leave the room. Tell the player that when you re-enter the room, you will be portraying the interrogator, and this next scene is entirely in character (as best as can be done). That player should take a moment to think about their character – their attitudes, the circumstances, their past, and respond accordingly. You will then leave the room, and join the rest of the party to explain to them the terms of this exercise.

The remaining players will join you in portraying the NPC interrogators – questioning this busy-body adventurer and finding out if he or she means harm for the citizens they are protecting. But they have a meta-game goal as well: to find out things they did not know about the waiting PC. It’s reasonable that characters might keep certain secrets from their close companions that they might not mind giving to a disposable stranger. Or perhaps the group dynamic prevents a lot of questioning and prying into one another backstories in a logical way. By giving the players a third-party persona, they can ask hard hitting questions, or ask about details their own characters might be unwilling to inquire after.

Regardless, they must do their best to stay in character the entire time as well (an easier goal, as the interrogators are likely to be stoney and aloof).

Once the players (and now fellow interrogators) are prepared, go into the room and begin the questioning. As DM, you are playing the leader of this group, and you will decide when the “interview” is over. Have a few good, hard-hitting questions of your own ready to steer things in the right direction if this prompt doesn’t give your players any immediate inspiration.

Once you are done pick a new player to sit, and repeat the process.

By the end of the exercise, you will have accomplished a handful of goals:

  1. The players understand their characters better, and have developed their personalities further
  2. You have dredged up some good personal plot hooks
  3. Meta details will help steer the group towards interesting conflicts without requiring further meta-gaming. For example: let’s say in our exercise; we learned that one of your players has had trouble in the past with agents of the Raven Queen. Later in the game, the players have a chance to pick between a series of side quests to go on – and one involves exploring a haunted shrine dedicated to the Raven Queen – The players are more likely to pick that quest as it pertains to one of their backstories and will be grounded in personal motivation. It’s a way that a little meta can go a long way in making the game better without getting intrusive

Too Much Meta, and a +17 to Bluff
That all said, it’s not a fool-proof plan. If you think your players will need the extra nudge, remind them that the knowledge they gleaned by playing the interrogators is available to them as players but not at all available to their characters. It’s better this way, as it adds an element of paranoia to the whole situation (did somebody snitch…is there anything they could even snitch about?) Encourage them to have some care when using meta knowledge to steer the game in a direction inspired by this encounter – this information is meant to inform otherwise arbitrary choices, not to allow the players to harass one another about their backstories.

The other potential problem is a likely one – characters not wanting to give up their secrets or much information at all to the interrogators. This makes sense; PCs tend to have shady pasts, criminal backgrounds, or monetarily motivated intentions, and nobody wants to share that information. However this exercise is about sharing information and thinking about characters, and that requires a little honesty.

Split the difference – tell the player that if they feel like their character would be lying to the interrogators, to go ahead and lie, but indicate to the DM and the other players somehow (a raised hand, a wink, etc.) Sometimes the lie itself, or more importantly which answers are answered honestly and which aren’t, can be just as telling about a character.

Similarly, you don’t want to sabotage any secrets you and the player have worked out ahead of time – especially if you are banking on a dramatic reveal later! Use your authority as the lead investigator to belay any questions that or too pressing, or even to broach the secret carefully, setting up a little foreshadowing to its eventual revelation.

Example Questions
Many of your questions will be tailored to the specifics of your characters, but below are a smattering of possible inquires to get your mind going:

  • Were you born in the country you were raised in? As a wanderer, do you consider yourself a citizen of…anywhere?
  • Do you have children? Might you have children you are unaware of? Any heirs?
  • If I told you one of your companions was a criminal, wanted for high crimes, would you testify against them?
  • Do you suspect any of your companions of turning traitor? Which one is most likely to betray you?
  • You’re an adventurer, you raid tombs and ancient places I suppose. Are there any kinds of artifacts you would not remove from a tomb or ruin?
  • Do you find slavery acceptable under any circumstance?
  • If you were to pass a traveler in your journeys, who was beating and admonishing his own child severely, what, if anything, would you do?
  • Is it proper for a captain of a vessel to go down with his ship?
  • If in your delvings you came across an undeciphered text of no magical value, what would you do with it?
  • What of the three is worth more to you: gold, knowledge, or a favor repaid?


1 Comment

Posted by on July 27, 2012 in Story Challenge


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Incidents – Dwarven S&R


A friend of mine and I were discussing his campaign when he noted a lack of “things” for his players to do around town or while traveling on the road. Now sure, there are no dearth of random encounter tables of all shapes and sorts and sizes…but what kind of gamer would I be if I didn’t eschew all those years of painstaking writing and playtesting to jot out my own ideas? Unsolicited I started weaving together a list of “incidents” for his players to run into while en route to bigger and better things.

Don’t get me wrong, I like 4th Edition D&D a great deal. But I sometimes feel that the organized and structured streamlined sexiness of the system leaves out a lot of the excitement of not knowing that is part of why tabletop games are so great. Random tables don’t exist so DMs have an excuse to throw unreasonable challenges at their players – they exist to add a little mystery and suspense to the game. And after all, D&D is in part about exploration, which is all about mystery and suspense. Combat encounters and Skill Challenges are great ways to keep scenes moving smoothly and resolving them in a satisfying way – but sometimes their rigid structure doesn’t account for all the possibilities, or doesn’t encourage the players to really stretch their problem solving muscles. This is primarily where I wanted the “Incidents” to head. Somewhere between a full on encounter and a simple plot hook was where they would dwell.

Well I’ve been sitting on a few pages of them and I got antsy. Not to mention the fact that I feel a tad guilty leaving you all hanging for so long while I penned a fairly rudimentary (if complete!) adventure last month – So I decided to start posting these Incidents halfway through the week as a regular segment, to tide you over till the usual full encounter.

They are a little sparse, and will rarely have much in the way of game stats (making them useful for other editions and other games) but will hopefully give you some inspiration to get your characters involved in the game world beyond “I hit the monster with a sword, then History the crap out of this talking statue.”

Dwarven S&R

The PCs are traveling overland, and near a river.

The players hear loud shouts from upstream. The noise is coming from two dwarf scouts, calling out desperately to their friend. The trio was panning for gold when their partner fell from an escarpment and banged his head, leaving the dwarf unconscious as he is washed down river. The dwarves are shedding burdens and hustling after their companion, but time is short, and the PCs are much closer to the wounded gold hunter.

Possible Resolutions
Though the emphasis should be on problem solving and how to safely remove an injured person from a raging river with the tools available, this situation could also call for a short skill challenge. Given the dire circumstances, you may elect to allow only one failure, or raise all DCs to hard. Regardless, a challenge of Complexity 1 or 2 would be all you need. Suggested skills are:

  • Athletics
  • Acrobatics
  • Endurance
  • Heal
  • Nature

Leader classes should also be allowed to use their minor action heal power or other “healing” keyword capabilities to contribute somehow.

Possible Rewards and Experience
The dwarves are grateful for anyone who could save their friend, though a failed attempt, no matter how valiant, might be met with their distraught admonishment.

Grateful dwarves would solemnly part with some of the gold they found, or perhaps even some gems that came up while searching for minerals. Since they have been camping in the area for a while, they likely know rumors about the region. If your campaign has any major organizations who might employ dwarven scouts, this rescue could be used to curry favor with the group.

This Incident should be worth EXP equivalent to a single monster of the player’s level.



Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Stay of Execution


This encounter is intended for five players of 5th level

A conundrum: In order to give a game any sense of tension, the players must feel there is risk of personal danger to their PC’s at nearly all times. That said, killing, maiming, stealing from, and otherwise causing tremendous harm to a character is rarely fun for their player. What to do then?

Do what I do. Threaten their beloved NPCs. No loss to their stats, but a great risk to something they are emotionally invested in.

Now the trick here is to have NPCs that your players (and player’s characters) actually are emotionally invested in. Do this wrong, and your scene has no impact. Do this too correctly, and your players will throw you out the window for murdering their loveable standard bearer. Advice on how to establish a rapport between players and NPCs is a tall order, so I won’t get in depth here, but a good place to start is the character’s background. You did have your players write up a short backstory or fill out some “50-100 questions about your character” questionnaire, right? RIGHT!

All jokes aside it’s an easy resource – these are characters that the players have written, and probably like, though expect them to have no stake in the game. Imagine their delight – and then chagrin, to see that their Dwarf Paladin’s older sister who taught-him-everything-he-knows is now leading the bandit army! It can be a shlocky device at times, sure, but tropes exist because they work and are readable. And I’ve often found that the kind of plot devices that normally get an eye-roll in cinema and literature will play just fine at the game table – because it’s a different experience when you are playing a cliche, and have the opportunity to turn it on it’s head.

And outside of that, it gives the players agency in both the game overall, and the world in particular. Some footnote of their character backstory is now a plot point – their creative work is validated and the other players are participating with that contribution (probably by rescuing that poor contribution from the the umber-hulk’s feeding pit).

This encounter will put a beloved NPC on the wrong side of the (corrupt and abusive) law. It’s inspired by an encounter that I ran many years back with my first regular 4th Edition group. They actually failed to rescue their poor companion – which set into motion a major plot point of the campaign and make for some great storytelling.

Be merciless, but be fair. It may be payback for all those carefully orchestrated mastermind villain speeches the ranger snuffed out with an arrow to the throat, but don’t bask in it. Sure they kill your darlings all the time. By all means, Kill their darlings, but only if they botch the rescue.

The PC’s arrive with a few precious seconds to spare to rescue a beloved NPC. He or she has been wrongfully accused on trumped up charges, and is sentenced to death by hanging. The execution takes place earlier than expected, and the PCs must rush tot he scene. If they don’t rescue their strangling friend within a few rounds, the NPC will be dead. Regardless, they have to contend with the city guard standing on the gallows to ensure the sentence is carried out, and the unruly mob itching for a gruesome show.

The goal here is to rescue the NPC, not necessarily defeat every enemy. If the players can get the NPC to a side of the map, it is assumed that their enemies will not be able to give chase for long, especially with the unruly mob erupting into chaos after the daring rescue.

Plot Text
It can’t be true. That bastard really moved up the execution to today? So much for your plans – the rescue happens now or never. Your boots pound on the worn cobbles as you shoulder your way through crowds and dash around slow moving wagons. You could swear that a minute ago you heard shouting coming from the square, and you are still a long ways off.

Finally your party rounds a corner and the gallows come into view. Too late! Your friend is swinging from a noose tied taught around his neck, as the crowd gasps and cheers, and vomits, and cries, and screams. Standing on the platform and flanking each set of stairs are some nervous looking guards doing there best to keep the mob under control. The burly half-orc executioner stands blankly near the overturned lever, face covered by a threatening black cowl, arms folded over his two-handed axe. And standing next to the hanging body of your sweet friend is the bastard who did this, a grin that would eat shit plastered all over his face. It’s over. He won.

Then the glimmer of hope you were waiting for. A faint twitch in your friend’s leg. He must have been dangling for minutes and lost consciousness, but he isn’t dead yet! Strangulation is an ugly way to go, and you may yet save him only to find his mind ruined from the lack of air, but you have to try. Seconds count, and a crowd, and the town guard stand in your way.

But then again, what are friends for?

Hang um’ High
I’ll not get into the science and specifics behind death by hanging. Even some rudimentary research revealed that the time it takes a person to expire from hanging varies greatly and depends on many factors. The hanging in this encounter is a device for dramatic effect – both a time limit, and a window into the brutality that can be present in the cultures of many D&D worlds. Thus, the following guidelines are hardly a very realistic representation of strangulation. (To make the situation more feasible, the players are arriving after their ally has been dangling for a few minutes, leaving him at the tail end of his chance to survive the ordeal).

Likewise, the NPC is not treated according to the normal rules in order to create a dramatic situation in which he can take a minor wound or two from the executioners before being killed, and the PC’s mission being failed. You want them to have some margin of error – but without the NPC having the kind of deep resources players receive.

NPC                                                                     Level 4 (No Role)
45 (Surge value 10)  Init +0 Speed: 4 (If roused to consciousness)
AC: 12                           Ref 11                 Fort 13                Will 14

  • On initiative 0 of each round, if the NPC is still being hanged, he/she takes 15 damage
  • If the players use an ability that grants the use of a healing surge, he is awakened and regains those hit points
  • If the NPC drops to 0 or fewer hit points he/she is dead
  • The NPC is too woozy to bother attacking, but will move where commanded and shift when he would otherwise risk an opportunity attack
  • Because of the shock of his ordeal, and the fact that he is desperately sucking in air, the NPC is moving slower than normal
  • The NPC can easily be carried by anyone with a Strength of 11 or higher (Lower will require an Athletics Moderate check) but if a player carrying the NPC is attacked and the attack misses, repeat the attack roll against the NPC.

Cut The Rope
The most obvious solution for quickly rescuing the NPC is to cut the hangman’s noose or to even hack down the wooden pole that the noose is attached to. The normal suggestions for attacking objects are a tad unsatisfactory for this unusual circumstance, so I recommend the following:

Object               AC/Ref               Fort              HP
Noose                10/20*                 7                  10
Wooden Pole      8                        10                 18
*(20 for ranged attacks beyond 2 squares)

What the players may not consider (and make it apparent to them, their characters can easily make out the details of the situation even for the distraction of the crowd) is that the fall to the street will likely injure their unconscious companion as well, (since he is unconscious and can’t control his descent) so cutting him down without someone below to catch him is risky. But a short fall might be better than a few more seconds of strangulation!

  • If the NPC is cut down from the noose with nobody to catch them when they fall, he/she takes 1d6 damage.

Features of the Area
    Crowd – The crowds are a mix of the angry, the sad, the bored, and the bloodthirsty. Squares containing a crowd count as partial cover and rough terrain (even to targets adjacent to one another). If combat occurs in or adjacent to a crowd, on Initiative 0 it shifts until the combatants are at least 1 square away from the crowd.
It is worth noting that none of the Town Guards will make an attack against a creature in a crowd for fear of hitting an innocent. The noble, mob, and executioner have no such qualms.

Fountain – Provides partial cover. Vaulting onto it requires no check but costs an extra square of movement.

Merchant Stall – Provides Partial cover AND Partial concealment. Diving through requires an Acrobatics Moderate check an costs no extra movement.

Platform – Recently made of sturdy wood, this platform supports the gallows, and the mechanism by which the victim is dropped and strangled. There is space enough underneath for a medium sized creature to squeeze. The floor of the platform underneath the wooden pole that suspends the hangman’s noose has a trap door in it (where the victim drops). The underside of the platform can be accessed from any square except those that contain the staircases.

Pole and Noose – looming ominously above the platform is the gallows. For some loose rules regarding the gallows and how the players may effect it see “Cut the Rope” above.

The combatants in this encounter are fairly straightforward. The Town Guards will seek to lock the PCs in melee combat, squaring off individually with PCs to keep them from slipping by. The executioner will do his best to flank with an ally and hit as hard as he can. Meanwhile, the noble will stay on the platform, ordering the executioner to make extra attacks when possible.

The Hanging Mob does not appear until one of the following triggers occurs. When they are added to the combat, replace an appropriate amount of the existing mob “terrain” sections with the Hanging Mob swarm. The audience in that section of the crowd goes ballistic and turns on the players, entering the fray. Where they appear is at your discretion, and should serve to make the combat interesting and surprising but not overwhelming. It is worth mentioning to your more Lawfully inclined players that when the mob loses hit points, it does not necessarily represent killing a handful of people – it may simply mean that the thrashing they took has convinced the fickle crowd that its better to slink away home than face an armed band.

  • If the Noble is bloodied, the Hanging Mob appears
  • When 2 Town Guards are dropped to 0 HP, the Hanging Mob appears
  • If the Executioner is dropped to 0 HP, the Hanging Mob appears


x4 Town Guard (Monster Vault pg. 171)
x1 Human Noble (Monster Manual 2 pg. 148)
x1 Half-Orc Scarthane/Half-Orc Executioner (Monster Manual 2 pg. 141)
x1 Hanging Mob

If you’re looking for a little inspiration or further reading for this encounter might I recommend: This dramatic video game cinematic, a “Mythbusters” episode, and that famous scene from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” where hanging rescues are a matter of business.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Intrigue at The Duke’s Ball


Yes, you will stand out if you choose to wear your full-platemail

Between a request from my artist, and Several – Recent – Resources that I have seen floating around – I’ve had the idea of an encounter at a high-brow social event on the brain.

Now as you know, I love skill challenges a lot. And as I’ve also pointed out, they give me a lot of consternation. It’s always hard determining when to draw the line between using a normal, structured skill challenge; and just plain running the game, rolling for skills as the need sees fit. In general when deciding I use the following criteria:

Skill Challenge: For a scene in which time passes in long chunks (hours or days) and the minutiae of the action would be rather boring but still poses a threat or challenge tot he player (such as overland travel, researching, or building/disassembling some contraption). Any event that should require more than a simple skill roll (climbing a mountain, negotiating a hostage exchange). Scenes in which completion of the goal is not at direct discretion of the players (You walk out the other end of the magical hedge maze when you reach the end, you survive the squall when the weather shifts).

Unstructured Action: Any scene where the fine details matter, and are subject to moment-to-moment circumstances (Breaking out of a prison, crossing a border checkpoint, helping the militia investigate a crime scene). Scenes that have a discrete goal that the players choose to achieve and can be done so tangibly (stealing the gem by breaking into the vault and disabling the spells guarding it, rescuing the informant from the stockade by getting in, busting down the lock, gathering his effects, and leaving).

The problem I see with leaning on Skill Challenges for the later kind of scene is that sometimes the players accomplish the task before the desired complexity of the skill challenge permits. The players may have described a perfectly viable way of accomplishing your 8-successes-required skill challenge with just 4 die rolls. You obviously don’t want to punish them for their good thinking and high rolls, and though the obvious answer is to challenge them by throwing unexpected kinks into the plan – sometimes the plan is just too solid. The best choice would be to cut the challenge early, or give the player’s two successes for a single roll and chalk it up as a reward to their clever planning, but this might feel a little hollow.

Skill challenge structure is there to help you make a scene challenging so that it is rewarding to the players. If that structure gets in the way of that goal, then it isn’t helpful. The system should be there to make things that are boring yet dangerous exciting, and to let the player think in the long term rather than in the space of the several second rounds they are used to.

I suppose that was more of a discussion than a decision, hunh? All in all I’d argue this: use skill challenges where they feel right, and cut them short or extend them if they need to be. If your players want to plan in depth, ditch the skill challenge and just run the scene in that way any table-top game lacking a skill challenge system would, and grant a major or minor quest worth of experience for the doing.

That said, I can tell you the best Skill Challenge I ever ran was a heist in a brothel, and involved a very complicated and elaborate multi-role con to accomplish that just happened to line up with the number of successes I set out for the complexity. It was a great session and a delightful encounter with tension, drama, and ultimately a lot of gratification for all parties. The Skill Challenge is a powerful and valuable tool but takes some getting used to, some insight, and often a bit of luck to pull off right.

Though I might be inclined to describe and encounter at a Duke’s mansion as a scene of its own; I wanted to try framing it as a skill challenge to see how effectively a very free-form scene could benefit from the system’s structure and tangible rewards. Consider this both an experiment and an encounter ready to be dropped right into your campaign.

The Duke’s Ball
One of my first experiences with a handful of dice was during a West End Games D6 Star Wars session in which myself and fellow rebel scum crashed a party held by a prominent citizen and imperial sympathizer. It was a fun session that really helped capture my love of games that really left the options in the player’s hands. There were several optional and potentially random vignettes that occurred during the course of the festivities and reacting to them was a lot of fun (And wouldn’t you know, my smuggler’s cross-species womanizing ended up getting us a friend in a high enough place to help our ship escape after the inevitable blowing of our disguises). It was a formative encounter in my early gaming career.

But enough about my stupid character and my thoughts on game design and DMing! On to the encounter!

Set Up
The players are on a mission that will involve attending a party held by a noble, rich merchant, or prominent citizen. The specifics are up to you and will change the circumstances accordingly (are they attending a ball at a castle or a birthday celebration held in the city center’s plaza?) but the tone and main action of this encounter will be the same.

I wanted this skill challenge to be malleable to the needs of your campaign, so I’m approaching it as a backbone for an encounter design, fleshing in bits of my specific example encounter will be underlined after the colon ( : that kind, not the fleshy one).

Success and Failure at the Ball
Regardless of the overriding goal of the social event you use in your campaign, the point of failure should be that the players do not achieve their goal (obviously) and quite likely, will be kicked out of the event! The player characters are in almost all circumstances misfits. Even the PC of noble birth has left home to be an adventurer, delving into musty dungeons, getting spattered in the blood of supernatural creatures, and socializing with suspicious characters that most high society members would rather forget existed. Even a grateful patron might woefully turn out his or her bold adventurer friends if they upset too many of the sensitive party guests. Consider using expulsion from the event as the consequence of getting 3 Failures, and permit the players to “patch up” their faux pas to cancel out previous Failures. A system for this is detailed in the example encounter below.

Like all skill challenges, you are working towards a total number of successes, but in this challenge, (more so than most others) it is critical that each successful roll be more than just a tick-mark off the success chart – but that it leave the players with an actual, tangible clue as to where to go next, or a direct benefit for their actions. These should be specific to the kind of skill used (and will be detailed for the example in the skill list):

  • Establish a goal for the player to work towards while at the event: Exposing an enemy agent using the party as cover to sneak in to the Duke’s home and spy on him
  • Pick a complexity for the skill challenge. Keep it relatively high (Complexity 3 or higher), as this should be a lengthy and important scene. Don’t worry too much about the normal rules for adding advantages to long challenges – the clues you assign as rewards of successful skill rolls will fill this role: Complexity 4 – Requiring 10 Successes
  • The event should have sub-locations in which the PCs can ply a variety of skills and must stay alert for various events to transpire. Someone will need to be in the kitchens to see a potboy poisoning the baronesses brandy, or to interfere with a one-sided duel someone must be in the courtyard where it takes place. You may not need an actual map per se, (A Venn diagram will likely suffice) just make it clear that the party has different geographical areas where the tone of events shifts. This will keep things interesting, opens up a wider array of skills besides just the three expected Charisma options, and allows your players to split up to cover more ground while not really splitting the group: Much of the Duke’s manse is open to guests – the dinning hall, lobby, kitchens, and courtyard. The staterooms are off limits and under guard, but who knows who or what might be lurking up there.
  • You will probably want to list the major players and their goals. This encounter is doable without well
    fleshed out personalities but you’d really be missing out on part of the fun and a great opportunity to anchor this encounter to the plot of your game.
    Assign an ally and a foil (at least one of each) to each of the important characters who will be attending. This is a loose guideline – some NPCs might not have any allies present, or might have a more complex mixture of relationships but in general it’s good to have at least two relationship branches so that the player character’s behavior has some unexpected ramifications. Bear in mind that regarding someone as an ally or enemy may not be a two-way street; some characters get more benefit out of an alliance than others, and likewise, enmity can be one sided. This kind of atypical relationship can keep players on their toes, so consider employing it to some extent.
    NPCs may not need full stat blocks, but having a their Insight bonus (and any other skill relevant to their personal goals) handy will be a big help: The Duke, A visiting eladrin general, a fat halfling river trade tycoon, and the high priest of the temple of Bahamut (more on them below).
  • Make a table (possibly random!) of events or vignettes that can occur at the party (keying them to locations as necessary) that your players may want to react to. These also might be moments are challenges directly targeted at them. These vignettes will probably not determine successes/failures towards the skill challenge, but will instead provide bonuses, open up new uses for skills, provide information, or have further implications on the campaign (the earning of a new ally or a discount with a shopkeeper perhaps). Be flexible, and don’t rely solely on the dice to determine success. Great ideas may require no die roll at all to be considered a success: (See the random vignettes table below)
  • Compile a skill list. Get together the skills you would anticipate your players using, and make some assumption about how those could be applied to the skill challenge. This will help you accommodate players who would much rather tell you what their character does, and worry about the numbers afterwards. Don’t forget, in this kind of challenge it is very valuable to assign clues or the “unlocking” of previously “useless” skills as a reward for success: Flushing out a spy means keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior, questioning possible witnesses, looking for surreptitious missives, listening for clues in the cacophony of small talk, and trying not to spook the target before you discover their identity! How to break that down skill wise? (Consider the following to be the “Primary Skills” of this challenge – Nearly all Secondary Skills will account for any skill rolled during a vignette and will be specified by the particular Vignette). It is also worth noting these clues presume the characters can and do take time to “compare notes” and share their insights:

    • -Insight (Moderate): Observe “red flags” in your conversations with guests — Clue:Allows the player to know where the next vignette will take place (if you are using random vignettes, roll for it now)

      Perception (Moderate): Watch for anyone behaving oddly or trying to slip out of the designated guest areas — Clue:Narrows down your suspects, granting a cumulative +1 to all Primary Skill rolls-Perception (Hard): Listen to overhear a suspect conversation — Clue:Details of some impending scandal, grant a +2 bonus to the next use of any Secondary Skill

      Diplomacy or Bluff (Moderate): Talking with guests to see if anyone has helpful information — Clue:The player gains some insight into the conflicting identities here at the party: reveal a randomly selected “enemy” and “ally” for two of the major figures at the party. If you are not using major figures, grant a cumulative +1 to the next Secondary Skill roll

      Arcana, Religion, Nature, History, Streetwise or Dungeoneering (Hard): Hob knob with learned scholars, pious monks, servants, notorious explorers or some other kind of guest whose profession entails one of these “knowledge” skills as their primary area of expertise. They might share what they know if you can impress them with your “shop talk” and prove you are “one of them.” — Clue:You have some discretion in this matter, but any of the clue bonuses listed under the other skills (and perhaps one chosen at random!) would apply-Stealth (Easy – requires 2 prior successes): Tail someone acting odd — Clue: Narrows down your suspects, granting a cumulative +1 to all Primary Skill rolls

      Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate (Hard – Used as a Secondary Skill): The player attempts to smooth over previous faux pas, calm frayed nerves, and apologizes or insult and awkwardness. Used in this way, these skills will remove a Failure off the Skill Challenge’s total, but a failed roll will add a failure as normal. A bribe or gift along with the smoothing over of words (Choose a price appropriate to your campaign level, though as a loose guideline 50gp Heroic, 100gp Paragon, 500gp Epic) will grant a +4 bonus to the roll

Party Personalities
The important NPCs at the party are the major players and primary (though inform the PCs they are not the only) suspects in the encounter. They could be questioned directly, but not knowing where their allegiances lie can be a cause for potential failures being added to the Skill Challenges track. Certainly sharing suspicions with an ally of your villain should count as a Failure. Otherwise use the major NPCs to add color and an added layer of difficulty to the encounter:

    • The Duke: Dark of hair and square of jaw, the duke is a skilled warrior, and competent ruler, even if he lacks a rapport with or deep empathy for his people. Though rough around the edges and not one for nonsense, the Duke is generally fair, or at least level headed enough to know when not to put his boot down too hard. Few love him, but neither can they point to any significant failing with his regime. Insight Encounter Level +5

Ally: General El’Vath – The duke has invited her here in the hopes of solidifying an alliance with one of her noble patrons. They both fought alongside one another many years prior and the Duke has a strong respect for her
Enemy: Griff Bolswaithe – The duke does not appreciate the sycophantic antics of the slimy halfling, and deals with him only out of necessity.

    • General Danaria El’Vath: You wouldn’t know she was a general unless someone told you. This short, blonde haired eladrin woman wears an elaborate dress, somehow enchanted to depict moving patterns of flowing water across its surface. She talks warmly and laughs easily, devoid of the haughtiness you might expect from a high-ranking officer in a venerable high-elven military. That said her reputation for cunning on the battlefield is well spoken of and she has a talent for the longsword. The general is cautious of those who ask too many questions. Insight Encounter Level +7

Ally: Griff Bolswaithe – Though a soldier at heart as the Duke is, The General has not lost her sense of mirth and humor, and is amused with Griff’s antics. She is here to have a good time, not to talk brutality and business, and Griff’s attitude is much more in line with her image of what this party should be than her host.
Enemy: Sister Roxanne – The General has considered herself to have an almost supernatural sense for judging the character of a person (this is not actually true, she’s simply perceptive). Something in the Sister’s demeanor seems forced and inconsistent to her. Not to mention that the Sister seems so out of place and doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself at all. The General gives her a wide berth.

    • Griff “Burfoot” Bolswaithe: Loud, boisterous, greedy, gluttonous, bawdy, and incredibly friendly, this halfling merchant got rich beyond his wildest dreams by being crafty and charming; and knowing when to turn a blind eye. He will do everything in his power to befriend the PCs (and any other strangers at the ball) and while genuine in his welcome, he is always looking for a scheme or angle to turn a few gold. Griff might take a PC “under his wing” and show them “how we relax here in civilization!” Insight Encounter Level +4

Ally: Sister Roxanne – The sister has generously offered to purchase her local mission’s supplies through Griff’s trade company exclusively. And any friend of Griff’s coin-purse is a friend of his personage. Besides, the challenge of cracking a grin or guffaw out of the serious clenched jaw is just too tempting.
Enemy: The Duke – The ill-will between the flamboyant merchant and steely noble has been ongoing, and despite his normal bravado towards his opponents, Griff has grown tired of the Duke’s hostile attitude and wastes no opportunity to mock or embarrass his host. (Some actions may allow players to learn the enemy or ally of a major NPC, but seeing as how this relationship is secret and pivotal to the plot, it can not be revealed in this way).

  • Sister Roxanne The Steelhearted: This silver haired tiefling woman is a ranking priest with the local temple. Though there are shrines to various gods, it was originally constructed by the devout of Bahamut, and the priests and priestesses who keep it are sworn to the exclusive service of the Platinum Dragon. The sister wears a simple grey robe, but has chosen this occasion to wear some rather fine jewelry and has painstakingly sculpted her shimmering hair about her head and horns. Though she is often invited to attend social functions she behaves a bit nervously, stating that she doesn’t wish to make a fool of herself. In truth, she is secretly a spy for a cult that worships Tiamat, and is here to steal missives that the Duke received from various military acquaintances. These letters contain warnings about the Sister’s true masters, and plans and requests for aid in moving against them. She wants to get hold of these papers at ll costs. Insight Encounter Level +3

Ally: Griff Bolswaithe – The sister regards the overly talkative halfling as a wealth of information, and a potential catspaw in her nefarious scheme.
Enemy: The Duke – The sister is the enemy agent sent to spy on the Duke. Her contempt for him will occasionally slip out of her carefully crafted facade of piousness.

Random Vignette Table
Track the skill challenge in turns as per normal for combat. For each round, roll randomly for 2 events to occur. When a PC’s turn comes up, if they are in the location in which the event takes place, describe what’s happening and allow that PC and any others in the location to use their turn to address the vignette (don’t tell them the mechanical benefits it provides but be clear about the implied consequences). PCs may miss certain events, in which case they transpire negatively, though that won’t always effect the PC’s die rolls or situation. Some vignettes have special rules or circumstances. Some grant bonuses, and others are open to interpretation. Read them carefully.

Roll 1d12

  1. Lobby or Dining Hall – “I think I’m going to be sick!” A drunk patron expectorates all over another guest – a very unhappy acolyte of the mage’s guild. They begin to argue. This could get bad. Resolving the situation and maintaining the party’s stability will grant the party a +2 on all checks during their next turn, and a +4 on Arcana rolls for the duration of the Skill Challenge. If the PC’s side with the angry mage they will gain a +4 to Arcana rolls from then on, but a -2 to any other skill checks during the next turn. Failure will make the PC look foolish, and word travels fast at the ball, incurring a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the party during the next turn.
  2. Lobby or Courtyard – “Care to dance, darling?” A rather unattractive lesser dignitary asks for a dance (or three) from one of the PC’s. Through roleplaying or a sufficient Bluff or Diplomacy check to maintain their dignity (in spite of jests and cruelties flung by younger ball patrons) while dancing with their unfortunate looking partner. Charmed, the noble chats excessively with you, letting slip one of the major NPC’s allies/enemies. Failure or a refusal will be seen as unkind at best, and will make the PC a laughing stock among the more merciless patrons for even being asked by the poxy-faced creature.  Word travels fast at the ball, incurring a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the party during the next turn.
  3. Kitchens – Griff Bolswaithe, the halfling merchant is doing his bets to convince the head chef to start purchasing a few new vintages from his trade company. The cook is clearly irritated, having a lot on his hands and very little patience. Intervening on behalf of Griff will earn his favor. Helping the head chef will earn the PC’s some favor with their patron the Duke. The exact benefits of this interaction are up to you – though the least Griff can offer is a few sample bottles of this wine he swears by.
  4. Courtyard – An argument has erupted between two patrons – well known rivals in the city. It has finally escalated to the point of a duel; and it’s quite clear that one of the nobleman is far more competent in arms than the other. A PC might intervene to champion the more inept noble. Make an opposed attack roll (using the bonus for the PC’s melee basic) vs. Encounter Level + 5. If the PC fails the roll, they take 1d10+ Level damage and lose a healing surge, but may continue to attack again or yield. Two successful attacks will force the opponent to give up (Resolve these immediately and describe them in great detail to avoid this sequence becoming merely a boring trade of die rolls). If the PC succeeds (or finds another means of resolving the conflict) the party gains a +2 to Diplomacy checks during the next turn, and the Intimidate skill may now be used in the same manner as Diplomacy and Bluff. Failure will also make the PC look foolish, and word travels fast at the ball, incurring a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the party during the next turn.
  5. Courtyard – Some of the Duke’s grizzled militiamen are deep in their cups and discussing old battles and tactics. Earning their respect through roleplaying or a proficient History check will earn the PCs an alert from one of the militiamen on duty. When they need only two more successes to complete the challenge, a militiamen will report to the PCs that he heard about Sister Roxanne being permitted into the staterooms – suspicious indeed. Failure will make the PC look foolish, and word travels fast at the ball, incurring a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the party during the next turn.
  6. Kitchens – One of the maids is trying to dissuade a man in a uniform similar to the militia’s from entering through the kitchen’s rear entrance. He claims to be on business for the Duke and is delivering an urgent parcel. The maid is unsure what to do. This man is an accomplice to the enemy agent, dropping off a bundle of lock picks to speed Sister Roxanne on her way. If the PCs see through his ruse and question him, all he knows is that he is dropping the package off in the courtyard for a woman. (Note: If you have rolled Vignette 12, this vignette cannot occur – roll again)
  7. Dining Hall – A few of the officers in the militia and some of the rowdier nobles have started an impromptu game of cards at one of the big trestle tables pulled aside to accommodate the dancing. PCs are invited to try their hand at the game of chance, but the starting wagers are steep. Using a Bluff or Insight check to play, and a Thievery check to cheat, a PC risks 100gp for the chance to win 200gp. If they fail the Thievery roll to cheat, the angry gamblers will keep that PC from entering the Dining Hall for the remainder of the night, and will incur a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the PCs during their next turn. If the PC suspects other players of cheating, make a Perception roll. Success catches one of the soldiers scamming the game, and grants the PC a +2 on a roll to play the game properly. The roll represents several hands, so only one roll can be attempted.
  8. Dining Hall – It happens at every party; there is always that crying drunk woman or man sulking in the corner. Comforting this patron will earn the PC the hapless (and talkative, and drunk) noble’s adoration. He or she talks them up for the rest of the party. The PC gains a +2 to all Bluff checks for the remainder of the Skill Challenge.
  9. Lobby – A drunk and surly nobleman is making disparaging remarks about Elves overall, and the visiting Eladrin General in particular. He claims that she is a traitor and turncloak. The PC’s might consider this to be valuable information but the man is simply an angry racist, spewing his bile to anyone who will listen. And Insight check will reveal his statements as inspired by bigotry and his assertions without proof.
  10. Lobby – A few members of the temple are discussing piety and politics with the nobility. A grinning young acolyte approaches you and begins badgering you for a donation – right in front of a swarm of expectant nobles, already half looking down their noses at you. Talking their way out, or offering a donation will earn the PCs some favor (+1 to all social skill checks made during the next turn for every 50 gp donated. Any donation grants a +4 on Religion checks, an additional +2 for every additional 50 gp). Simply refusing to donate without a sufficient explanation will earn the PCs some sour looks and a bad reputation; a -2 to social skill checks during the next turn.
  11. Staterooms – A militiaman quietly enters the very room where a PC might be hiding, dragging in a giggling and quite married noblewoman; his breeches already half unfastened. The pair will accidentally reveal the PC’s hiding place. Both parties have dirt on one another – the adulterer can reveal the PC as a trespasser, but would not like it if the noblewoman’s husband found out about their affair. The PCs word to keep mum isn’t enough for the paranoid paramours. Bluff, Intimidate, Diplomacy, roleplaying, or even a simple bribe could potentially alleviate this standoff.
  12. Courtyard – There is a pile of dirt from one of the potted plants tossed carelessly on the ground. If the PCs investigate and succeed at a Perception check, they will spot Sister Roxanne walking briskly away from a potted plant. If confronted she responds very negatively and will eventually summon the militia and make a scene. If the Duke is informed, he will ask the PCs to keep a close eye on her. The PC’s gain a +4 to all attempts to root out the spy for the remainder of the Skill Challenge.

Round-by-Round at the Ball
As is often the case, organize this Skill Challenge similarly to a combat by allowing each player one action per round (the order mattering very little in most cases, making an actual initiative roll unnecessary). Like usual, each player describes what they are doing, and you assign an appropriate skill to roll (refer to the Primary Skills listed above for the most likely circumstances but stay flexible).

For each round, roll randomly for 2 Random Vignettes (on the table above) to occur – re-rolling if an event has transpired twice. When a PC’s turn comes up, if they are in the location in which the event takes place, describe what’s happening and allow that PC and any others in the location (they can skip ahead to their turn if need be, strict initiative isn’t necessary) to use their turn to address the vignette. Some vignettes have consequences for sole PCs, others for the party. If one member of the group has separated to infiltrate the mansion or is disguised as a helper, they do not suffer penalties levied against the party, as the patrons of the ball don’t associate them with the Duke’s “pet adventurers.”

The overall plot is thus: An agent will sneak in through the kitchens to deliver a set of lockpicks, hiding them in a potted plant in the courtyard. The spy, Sister Roxanne, will excuse herself to pick up the package. A bit later, she convinces a militiaman to allow her access to the staterooms to seek out one of the Duke’s more comfortable and unoccupied privies as she is feeling ill. Instead, she sneaks through the darkened hallways to the Duke’s study, picks the lock, and enters. There she will steal documents and a few treasures, perhaps even a magic item of some value. She locks the door back, leaves, and returns to the party without rousing suspicion – unless the PCs succeed at the challenge, and follow the clues to her either during or after the ball.

The ramifications for catching the spy are at your discretion (and indeed, the objective at the party in your game may be quite different).

Unlike some skill challenges, there is a lot going on here, so seriously consider granting up to double experience for succeeding at this encounter. In addition to raw experience points, the Duke might happily award the PCs a magic item for their service, and certainly a substantial amount of coin. This success could lead to further adventures either on the Duke’s behalf, or that of a patron impressed with the PC’s ability to handle a subtle and difficult task.


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

“Summer’s Set” Full Adventure Posted

Yikes. It’s been a while.

I mentioned ages ago that I was working on a full adventure that would be eating up my usual encounter writing time. Likewise I promised to post it here to make up for my brief hiatus. Well now is the time! I’ve finally finished the editing and preparation process and am proud to present you with “Summer’s Set“! You can find it on the new “Full Adventures” page. I figured the temptation to write longer content would strike me again, and it would be best to have a place to keep them all organized.

I didn’t end up getting to run the whole adventure due to time constraints, but the group I was running with seemed to enjoy the early half of the story well enough. The combat moved almost as quickly as I wanted it to, which is good. Fights tended to be a bit on the easy side, not taxing the player’s resources as much as I wished, but that’s in part because I was running with a group of 6 – whereas the adventure is – as per standard – built with 5 in mind. Ah well, fun is the most important thing and this adventure was built to be speedy – and an easy fight ends quick, so mission accomplished I suppose. It was partially an exercise in using some fancy game aids I had lying around as well, and those did not fail to impress.

So take a little time and check it out, even if you aren’t planning on running it (but if you think you might be a player, DON’T LOOK!!!!) I’ve included pre-generated characters and abbreviated character sheets along with the adventure to make running it quick and easy.

And to repeat the bit of Errata; in my haste to post I neglected to add stats for the unique creature featured in the adventure. I knew I would forget something! For convenience those stats are repeated here:


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: