Another session done this weekend. After the previous session, my players decided to abandon their original plans, and try to figure out the connection between the halfling gangsters and the goblins outside of town.
They started by interrogating the prisoners they had taken last session, which I did as a sort of skill challenge. I’ve been constantly trying to modify the way I use skill challenges to fit with what I think they’re good at doing, and how they can fit into the group’s play style. I was intrigued when I heard Mike Mearls on the latest D&D podcast give some advice that I had already deduced on my own: don’t let skill challenges become a substitute for roleplaying, and don’t use them to quash good ideas that the characters have.
To that end, I’ve started structuring the skill challenges in my games a little differently. They are rarely all-or-nothing affairs: I hand out some benefits after a certain number of successes, some more benefits after some more successes, and the last (and usually greatest) benefit if the test is successful. With failures, I either dish out a little grief with each one, or just stop giving benefits when the challenge fails. But I also let the players do an end run around the skill challenge if they come up with a good idea.
So, for example, I had three minor skill challenges set up in this session. The first one was interrogating the prisoners, the second was casing the business locations to spot the runners making their pick-ups, and the the third was following the runners back to the counting house. I also worked up a few combat encounters in case my wiley party of adventurers got spotted or took a more active approach to gaining the information.
The interrogation worked well, and they got two out of the three businesses with direct ties to the organization, deciding to stake out the brothel first. They weren’t very subtle about that, and wound up fighting the brothel’s guards in the night streets*. Only the tiefling heretic managed to escape, using her magic cloak, and wound up negotiating with the characters from the window of a building. The party agreed to leave the brothel alone if the owner would give up the name and location of the organization’s number two man. This was acceptable, and off went the heroes to beard the lion in its den.
I wanted the location for the gang hideout and counting house to be something kind of interesting, but still fitting in the theme of the fishing town. I came up with the idea of a boat house and fisherman’s warehouse built out over the water, with the pilings underneath having given way some time ago, sinking most of the building below water level. Only the upper floor is above the water, and the windows are boarded up and lined with blackout curtains. There’s a nice ten-foot gap between the pier and the building, and inside the ceiling is only about five feet above the plank walkways and platforms that let the inhabitants move above the water level**.
This fight went on a long time, due mainly to the movement restrictions imposed by the terrain. Again, the stealth approach failed the PCs, and they wound up having to fight their way into the building, then along the plank walkways over the water, all the while being pelted by sling stones and harried by halflings****. Splitting the party did some bad things to them, and they almost lost the cleric, but they triumphed in the end, and it was a neat fight. At least four of the combatants went into the water, which was fun, and Big Sid, the halfling fighter, got to put some real hurt on the warlord*****.
Now, with Big Sid captured and interrogated, the party has found out about a scheduled meeting with the goblins a couple of nights hence, where Jemmy Fish’s gang was going to by some loot from robbed caravans. The meeting place is a small stony beach below some cliffs called Aylsa Crag. I’m guessing there’s going to be some disappointed (and probably dead) goblins.
*I used the Rackham Reversible Gaming Tiles for the battle map. The nice thing about these (besides the beautiful art) is that they have the area in daylight on one side, and a night time version of the same scene on the reverse.
***Apparently, BC Products, who made Tact Tiles, has gone out of business, which is a real shame. They made a damn fine product.
****Sounds like a Gloom card, doesn’t it?
*****The party reallyhates halflings now. There was some talk about burning the halfling boat neighbourhood to the waterline.