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)
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)
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!