Faceless Crimes: Skill Challenge adventures for Fantasy Noir

(do you see a theme developing here?)

In which Jervis “Greywulf” Malloy sets up a scene-based Fantasy Noir style adventure, and shows how to use Skill Challenges to pull it all together to a Sufficiently Exciting Conclusion. Roll up your sleeves and get your coat, folks. We’re going for a ride!

One of the lessons I learned from Tiny Adventures is that Skill Challenges can be used as a framework to hold an entire adventure together. I’ve already covered this before, but it bears repeating, especially as I can use them as a way to prepare a Fantasy Noir session, all at the same time.

This is going to be a 1st level one-shot investigation-based adventure, so let’s set it at complexity 1; this means the players need 4 successes before 3 failures (errata, remember?). If the adventure is going to run over several sessions, I just bump up the complexity accordingly with a 2-session adventure being complexity 2, etc. This keeps the numbers simple, and that’s always a Good Thing. Solving the crime is a Major Quest shared between all the participants (see DMG p122 for XP rewards). If the players suggest any character specific goals, award them Minor Quest XP accordingly if they succeed.

As it’s a single session I’m going to aim for two major combat Encounters, one of which is the climactic final battle where Our Heroes apprehend the murderer. By apprehend, I do of course mean kill. Hey, this is D&D, after all; you know how players are. That means there’s room for one Encounter to fold into the Skill Challenge….. but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Act I, Scene I – Faceless Crimes
“The dame sure was dead. I seen dead folks before, and this was one of ’em. She lay face down, or would have, if she had a face to be down. There were no eyes, lips or nose, just a featureless layer of skin, like flesh had been drawn over an eggshell. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and judging by the body on this dame, it should have been.”

The party have been hired to investigate the strange death of Scylla Black, raven-haired elven songstress from the Blue Dragon Club. She was found in her home by her manager, Lumpy Gherkin the Gnome Impresario, in the early hours of Day One. It’s now mid-afternoon, and raining. Lumpy will pay the party 100gp if they solve the crime, and an additional 50gp is they can keep things quiet. Murder is bad for business.

There’s no obvious clues to how she died – no forced entry or sign of a struggle, and no injuries on her body apart from the strange lack of facial features. It’s a fair guess that she suffocated though. Award 50xp to the first player to suggest it.

The players can learn two things from the crime scene (ie, 2 potential successes). A DC 15 Diplomacy, Insight or Intimidate check while questioning Lumpy will reveal this little snippet about Scylla’s chequered past: “I don’t ask questions about my singers’ history, but I do know this; Scylla use to be a slave. She’s got a slavemark. I saw it once, when she was changing before the act. I never mentioned it to no one though.”

The players find out the same information with a DC 10 Notice check if they examine the body. It’s a brand on the small of her back. Each slavemark is unique and they’ll need to head out to the Slave Pits to find out who this particular mark belongs to.

The other potential clue requires a DC 20 Arcana check. A trip to the local Wizard’s Guild or Arcane Library would grant a +3 to the roll. Success reveals that the only two races known for this kind of flesh transformation are Aboleths and an ancient Doppelganger sect.

If the players don’t make a move, Lumpy will offer to show them Scylla’s dressing room at the Blue Dragon Club as he’s about to head over there to interview new singers. Hey, he’s got a slot to fill and got to make a living somehow, right?

Act I, Scene II – The Slave Pits
If there’s one thing that’s worse than the smell of the slave pits, it’s the fact that you can’t get the stink off your clothes for days afterwards. That’s why the folks employ factors to do their dirty work for them. The players aren’t that lucky.

In the city of Vampyr Point vagrants, debtors and non-violent criminals are sentenced to the slave pits where they are sold into indentured slavery for a fixed amount of time. Their servitude lasts years or even decades, but their slavemark is with them forever. If any crime is committed while they are in servitude it’s the owner who takes the responsibility for not dealing with their “property” properly.

If the players show the pitsman on duty (a half-ogre of a man, but a nice guy when you get to know him) a drawing of the slavemark on Scylla’s back he tells them it belongs to House Klybredes, an old Elven family up on the Hill.

A DC 10 History or Streetwise check shows that the player recognises that name. They’re powerful landowners around these parts, and own the land on which many of the town’s Temples are built.

Act II, Scene I – Battle at The Blue Dragon Club
It’s eerily quiet at the Blue Dragon Club, but that’s what you’d expect of a nightclub before opening hours. Lumpy lets himself in with a key, muttering “stupid gal should be here by now”. Unfortunately, she is – or was. A young half-elf lays in a pool of blood on centre stage. If any of the characters make a DC 20 Perception check (this isn’t a part of the skill challenge!) they spot the ambush. If not, they’ve got one surprise round against these guys before they get their act together. Good luck to ’em.

2 Elf Archers (125xp ea)
1 Elf Scout (125xp)
4 Orc Drudges (44xp ea)
(551xp total)
The elf “archers” are wielding bolt-action rifles that count in every way as longbows.

This combat should trigger a lot of questions. Orcs working with elves?! And who tipped them off that the players were on their way? Lumpy is under obvious suspicion, though he knows nothing. He’s an innocent dupe in the whole thing, and eager to scurry off home to safety.

The dead half-elf was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victim of an Orcish club to the back of the head. If the players start to make enquiries about her, she’s a recent out-of-towner hoping to make her fortunes in the big town. Poor girl.

There’s two clues to be found. The first is on the Elf Scout’s finger, automatically found if the players think to search. It’s a blue emerald ring carved in the shape of three rising tentacles. A DC 15 Dungeoneering or Religion check recognises that as the symbol of Thulu, one of the ancient primeval gods of the sea. There’s something odd about the orcs too. They have strange tentacle-like growths on their chins. Ick. Definitely from out of town.

In Scylla’s dressing room is a letter hidden behind a mirror (DC 15 Perception check to find). It’s a note from Duor’n Klybredes, head of the elven family, instructing her to “…..leave Vampyr Point forever, and never speak of what you saw whilst in our service. If you do not carry out this simple act of obedience, we shall see to it that you will never spy or speak of what you saw, ever again.”

Act II, Scene II – A Two-Faced Killing
If the players haven’t put together all the clues yet (that is, made four successes) and headed for the final act then they get a message the next day from one of the player’s contacts. There’s been another murder.

An elven body was found by the Docks. His clothes (what remains of them) marks him as a member of the Klybredes family, though identification is difficult due to the lack of face. He’s been in the water for some time.

A DC 15 Nature check helps work out where he originated based on the time of day and flow of the tides. This puts him at the foot of the cliffs below the Hill, and his injuries show that he must have been tossed from the top. Clearly, all is not well in the Klybredes household.

A silver locket is around his neck, but it’ll take a DC 10 Thievery check to palm it before the Dock Watch shoves the PCs out of the way. Inside is a curl of raven-black hair – a perfect match to Scylla’s flowing locks.

Act III – Final Act
The players should end up at the gates to Klybredes mansion on the Hill. It’s an imposing place that overlooks the ichor yellow bay far below. There’s several ways to get inside, from opening the gate lock (DC 20 Thievery) to climbing the gates (DC 15 Athletics) or fast-talking the gardener to let them in (DC 10 Bluff – he’s none too bright). Inside the house is musky, the walls oddly damp, as if the building itself has been dredged from the depths of the ocean.

Once inside, The players are greeted in the central hall by Duor’n Klybredes. A DC 20 Insight check (DC 10 for a Elven character) gives the player a hunch; something isn’t right – his movements and mannerisms aren’t……. well, elven. If the players accuse him of the murder(s) he’s crazy enough to immediately attack – and unfortunately, so are his allies.

“Duor’n Klybredes”, Doppelganer Sneak Star Pact Warlock (300xp)
2 Elf Scouts (125xp ea)
4 Orc Drudges (44xp ea)
(726xp total)

This is one tough battle and there’s plenty of floorspace and balconies to make it a doozy to run! If Duor’n Klybredes reaches 0hp he lets out a yell “You’re too late! He’s rising! He’s rising!” before dissolving into a pool of sickly yellowing goo.

The real Duor’n Klybredes is nowhere to be found, and there are still many questions to be answered. But that’s all for other scenarios, another time.

Each scene can be expanded as required – this is an outline, after all – by adding self-contained Skill Challenges or minor combats as time allows. Perhaps the players are being watched by a couple of tentacled Orc Drudges, or the investigation of Scylla’s body and apartments merits a full Skill Challenge. If the players pass that Skill Challenge, that counts as a success toward the main story Challenge.

There you go. One Noir-style Fantasy scenario for 4e D&D, with a healthy dash of Lovecraftian horror thrown in for good measure, all wrapped in an investigation-based Skill Challenge sesame seed bun. Yummy!

See?

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7 Responses

  1. benpop says:

    I’d never thought of using a Skill Challenge overarching the entire adventure. Here it seems to be an adaptation of the X-Act Play, where the PCs influence the direction of the next act even while the plot perseveres throughout the “play”. It’s somewhat like railroading except it’s not. I can definitely see this being a useful structure for beginning DMs (like me).

    I’m also loving the 4e Noir setting more and more. I suggest a fancy PDF at the end of this series.

  2. benpop says:

    I also suggest a Noir tag for this latest series.

  3. Chgowiz says:

    benpop just mentioned something that was going through my mind as I’m reading this.

    Let me preface this by saying I don’t have the 4E DMG, so I don’t know if these questions are answered there but…

    it’s a great writeup, but the writeup itself seems to railroad to one conclusion.

    What if the players don’t get Lumpy to fess up about the slavemark?

    What if they don’t find the envelope in the dressing room?

    What if they don’t make the “Nature check” to figure out that this guy fell from the cliffs (it seems a long stretch that someone on the docks could be traced back to cliffs – on the order of CSI-style soil samples, unless he has a bumpersticker on his ass saying “I visited the Cliffs – ahhhhhhhh….” LOL )

    I’m not badmouthing your adventure, Grey, it reads really nice, but it just … well.. the whole Skills Challenge thing reminds me of a “Pick your own Adventure” except you always have to pick the right thing.

    Maybe what is missing is the writeup of how wrong this *could* go and what could happen.

    Act I Sc I – players completely botch (or are clueless) to what’s going on – they are soon contacted by someone else who threatens them in similar manner to the dead elf “Get off the job or else…” If combat ensues, they find clues that take them to the pits.

    Act I Sc II – players don’t know squat about the family because they honked off the halfbreed, shame that his fist is bigger than your face… but after a crapload of gold and some drinks in a dive with a foul mouthed ugly slave who seduces the best looking PC around, they find out that the singer was connected to a powerful family. Oh yea, lots of gold. LOTS of gold. Better ask Lumpy for some cash up front…

    Act II Sc I – players flee the battle or don’t find squat. Well, now the town’s constables are on the job and they’re asking a lot of uncomfortable questions. They’re wondering why the PCs seem to be getting involved. And who is that strange dark figure that seems to be following them?

    Act II, Sc II – they have no clue where this guy came from or why he has on some really rich clothes, but that attack from several dark figures who shot at them, then fled, leaving the town constables to question them AGAIN is getting frustrating. Someone is gunning for them and they need to stop it. (or they’ve TPK’d and it’s all over.)

    Act III – the players don’t (or can’t) get to the mansion. Now we could deus ex machina this so that they’re kidnapped, or they’re being run outta town and the big whatisname has sent some lackeys to clean up the loose threads. Since this is a one-shot, we could send in the BBEG as well, but it’s going to be him AND the town constables chasing after the PCs as we know the cops have been bought off.

    And why does the high CHA player (who had to be with that really nasty slave…) have an itch down there now…

    NOW, I’m starting to see it better. I just had to work it out. Still, I don’t like the rolls. I’m going to let someone roll if it’s truly up to chance, but this whole thing screams ROLE playing, not roll playing – but I’m probably not the target audience for 4E skill challenges. :(

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  4. Greywulf says:

    Thanks for the feedback, folks!

    @benpop Good idea about adding a Noir tag. Done! I’ll go back and do the same with the other posts too.

    @Chgowiz That’s part of the challenge (so to speak) of Skill Challenges – there is a possibility of failure, even if it’s a relatively small one. Failing means they don’t get the clues/pass the obstacle by the most direct means possible. There’s a fine balance between rail-roading and helping the players to reach the right conclusion, especially when there is (in the case of investigations), only one solution.

    If the players miss both clues in the first Scene then they’re likely to head to the Blue Dragon Club with Lumpy anyhow, but if they choose to go elsewhere, that’s cool too. That increases the likelihood the second body will turn up a per Act II Scene II, and that’s got all the clues the players really need to head in the right direction. Miss those, and I’ll allow an NPC to spell it out for them.

    Either way, the trail should lead to the Klybredes household by whatever means. In the Final Act I’ve suggested a couple of ways the characters could gain entry, but players being players I’m sure they’ll come up with something completely different…….

    I like your suggestions for how things could fall if the players fail the results. That’s the point where I merrily wing the whole thing at the table :D

    Me, I like the Skill Challenges roll-and-reward system. It’s a cool way of bringing the dice into the role-playing side of the game, and, IMHO one of the best innovations of 4e.

    Thanks for the feedback folks!

  5. Anarkeith says:

    Nice scenario, Greywulf! On the subject of failure/railroading, I’m trying to remind myself that players should and will fail every once in a while. In this case they’d be out some gold, Lumpy would be disappointed, and some minions of Thulu would be free to hatch further plots. What’s wrong with that?

  6. Greywulf says:

    @Anarkeith Absolutely. From minor setbacks are mighty stories made. That’s a great trope in the superhero genre, and certainly deserves more airtime and acceptance in fantasy role-playing too.

    Good point!

  7. Chgowiz says:

    You’ve (both Greywulf and Anarkeith) have expressed things that I think are missing from the whole Skill Challenges discussion. The failure gets handwaved because it seems like the only thought is towards success – where I think failure would be far more interesting on a graph. There’s usually far more ways to screw up than to succeed. You should see how fsck’ed a group would be if they failed in my original Vale campaign. Imagine the land of “Reign of Fire” combined with the horror of something like “Event Horizon”…

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