Random Rumor Tables FTW

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 21 April 2010

Given my nature, it's really hard for me to withhold information from my players. This leads me either to share too much or too little with them. Either way, the end is the same, the players aren't quite sure what to do and I feel the need to nudge them in a particular direction. For this week's game, I wanted something a bit different. During the previous session, the players revealed that a character they had heard very little about, Robert Haskins, was pretty deeply involved with the kidnapping of the Darkmagics. Hoping that he would have information on where to find Sirius Darkmagic, the PCs wanted to track Robert down and interrogate him.

This sounded like a perfect skill challenge to me. Fortunately, Jeff from the Tome Show already had asked me to do a segment on skill challenges with him and Mike ( @slyflourish ). The thought was that they would help me build a skill challenge for my game. So I sent them a quick update on where we were in game terms and we recorded a 15 minute conversation about the topic on Monday.

Originally, I was thinking there would be one, well-prepped, event where the PCs could run into Robert and attempt to capture him for interrogation. At some point, someone, I believe Mike, suggested that maybe there would be multiple opportunities and the other skill challenges would help decide which of those opportunities the PCs took. This would help the whole challenge feel a bit less linear. With that in mind, I came up with a list of three possible end scenarios.

Depending on which rumors the PCs get, they may attempt to talk to the different NPCs to gather more information/develop a plan. There are three main ways the PCs can attempt to accomplish their goal. The first, and by far the hardest, is to break into Robert's study during the party and attempt to find information about Sirius' location in Andernach. They can exploit the information about the cake, extra staff and special delivery in order to get themselves into the party without trouble. What happens once they are inside is anyone's guess.

The second, would be to leverage the information about the mistress to either extort Robert or get her to set up a meeting with Robert. Since she operates out of the seediest part of town, if it's the latter, he will have a fair number of his guards on him, but not as many as the 1st possibility. For the former, who no one ever goes to these sorts of meetings alone.

For the third, they can attack the night of the guard's birthday bash. If they get too rowdy, the town's guard will probably deal with the drunken ones, leaving just Robert, the disgraced guard and perhaps 1 or 2 more guards in the house. To help make sure the party doesn't end early, they can help the distributor get more beer.

Right away I thought it was a really good idea but I also wanted to give it a twist. Why not start off the night with a random rumor table. They were going to be seeking out information anyways and the information in the rumor table could help me show, not tell, them their options. So I thought about some rumors that could help them figure out the scenarios and easily came up with 10 of them.

1. Robert's 10-year anniversary is coming up soon and he has the finest baker making him and his wife a cake.
2. Robert has been seen leaving his home late at night and heading to the Pete's Tavern, a tavern in the seedier part of town..
3. The head of Robert's guard has a birthday coming up soon and his friends are planning a huge bash.
4. Robert and his wife's anniversary is coming up soon and his staff will be hiring some extra help for the festivities.
5. Robert's senior guard have a weekly card game at the Painted Pony.
6. There are whispers that Robert has a mistress who works out of Pete's Tavern.
7. For their anniversary celebration, Robert's wife is having a gift brought special from her homeland.
8. Robert's guard own the Painted Pony because they've been thrown out of every other bar in Newham.
9. Robert's wife is highly jealous of her husband. While Robert's family may be the richest in Newham, her family in Jesery is far richer.
10. The last time the head of Robert's guard had a party, the whole group of them ended up in the brig after drinking their favorite drink, BlueMoon Ale.

From the rumor table, I created a list of likely NPCs. I tried to give them some very basic background and traits to cut down on the amount of improv I would need to do at the table.

Aiden - Being an arrogant SOB, Robert hires his guardsmen based on friendship rather than skill. His head guard has been his friend since childhood, as have most of the rest of them. He's not incredibly bright but he is overconfident in his abilities. (Easier to bluff than intimidate)

Lady Alexa - Known more for her "specialties" rather than her looks. (Easier to bluff than intimidate, although she's quite "knowledgeable")

Horace the Black - Robert isn't completely stupid. One of the Darkmagic's former guards was fired when Aurora Darkmagic went missing a few years ago. It wasn't the guard's fault and he's been looking for a way to get back at his former bosses for years. He's an excellent guard even if Robert keeps him in the lower pay grades. Knowing Robert's plan to get back at the Darkmagics is payment enough.

Merton - Robert is ordering a rather large cake. Ordering is not quite the right word for it, a better word might be extortion. The flour alone is putting the poor guy out. (Easy to both intimidate and bluff. Oh and easy to bribe)

Gordon - The distributor of the (in)famous BlueMoon Ale. He is low on product however, and needs more if he's to fill the order for the big birthday bash the guardsmen are having.

To start of the session, I had them do something slightly different. Everyone got to roll a d10, with those trained in Streetwise rolling an extra d10. After giving them the corresponding entries from the random rumors table, I told them that they could additional streetwise checks if they wanted. Finnan, the halfling rogue decided to go for it. His check was over 30 so I gave him 3 more rumors.

With the rumors passed out, the players started planning how to use them. This put the story in their hands which was great. Like any group would, they went through several versions of the plan before settling down on something they felt comfortable about. They really liked the idea that most of the guards would be at a birthday party and drunk and/or locked up for the night. However, they put their own twist on the story, saying if most of the guards were off-duty for the night, Robert was more likely to visit his mistress, the Lady Alexa. I had not thought of that option but it made a lot of sense so I went with it.

From there, they decided to do a few little tasks that would make success in their overall plan a bit more likely. They forged a letter from Robert to include with the beer encouraging the celebration. One of the party, the male dwarf paladin, played by my female coworker, went into the den of iniquity to convince the mistress to help the party. In the end, the paladin convinced Lady Alexa, with money and diplomacy, to tie up Robert and leave him for their interrogation.

As a whole, they did really well with their skill checks and the skill challenge wasn't that challenging. To be honest though, that wasn't the point. We had a night where we spent 2.5 hours gaming and 1.5 of them were spent role playing. The loose framework of skill challenges in general but of this one in particular gave me easy tools to organize the game and keep it moving along. The small mini-challenges provided a way to spotlight a few of the characters while keeping that time fairly brief. Overall, it was a huge win and everyone, including myself, had a ton of fun.

Oh and they thought of the perfect end scenario for themselves. They left poor Robert tied up in the tavern, bereft of possessions including his wedding ring. That they sent to his jealous wife with a nice little note on where she can find her husband. Then the party decided it was time to leave Newham.


Number 6 is not risque! :)

It's true, there is a few of euphemisms going on there. By mistress I mean dominatrix and by tavern I mean brothel. Lady Alexa is pretty rough. She even has a rug that gives 3 temporary hit points to creatures who start their turn standing on it.

Earlier versions of Traveller had random rumors table. The results were like "Misleading Clue" and so on. I used to have a lot of fun with these and more than one adventure has been spawned by characters following a rumor.


Yeah, I felt this went down much better than a regular old skill challenge.

Though it did leave me feeling like the Fighter in a 3.5 session with no combat... not many skills = not much involvement. There wasn't much use for Arcana, Stealth, or even Intimidate the way it wound up playing out.

I think this is part of why I feel like skill challenges should be slightly more transparent than they typically are in our group - running them in initiative order per DMG (or in seating order, per common sense) means everyone gets an equal shot to try SOMETHING rather than favoring the players with the most obviously applicable skills or the most vocal plan.

Re: the Fighter out of Combat syndrome, I think one solution is for characters to make checks with skills in which they aren't trained. Sure, you might not be trained in Diplomacy (for example), but why not give it a shot? It might not work, but it'll certainly be fun! I think it's helpful to step out of the maximizer mindset when playing 4e. It's an easy trap to fall into to assume that you would only attempt a skill check in a trained skill, but there's no real reason to box yourself in that way.

I think that the main reason that the dc's where reduced from their original values was to encourage the use of non-trained skills in challenges

Ironically enough, this is exactly why we don't use initiative order at our table for skill challenges. Those players who don't feel they have anything to contribute or those players whose creativity is simply tapped out hold up the flow of the skill challenge as they flail around trying to hit on something, anything they should be doing.

I much prefer the more organic way, where those who want to contribute, do, and those who prefer to stand guard or lay low, can.

As far as not much use for a given skill in a situation, most of the time that's limited by the player's imagination (unless you have a particularly hard-line DM).

For example, in a recent skill challenge I ran, the players had to restart the still heart of an old, stone golem. I had players using heal checks to compare the golem's anatomy to more organic creatures, and drawing parallels to figure out the best way to bring this golem back to life. Of course, those players were both healers by trade at one point in their careers, so of course that's how they'd think. Sometimes thinking of a skill to use is just about getting into your character's mind and trying to figure out how he'd solve the problem.

Or there's always the method of not using a skill, but taking an actual action. Rituals and powers can both be used in a skill challenge to effect change.

I'm looking forward to playing in an ongoing 4E campaign as a warforged runepriest for this reason. I'm fairly certain that his most highly trained skill is going to be sarcasm, which I foresee solving quite a lot of his problems. ;)

I'm reluctant to discuss the matter further as I've already talked about it with SD and don't wish to reopen that can of worms. But folks' thoughtful replies do merit some response.

First caveat: I think that the frustration I felt as a player may have been overestimated by others who were present and have commented here or in their own blogs about the situation. In spite of myself, I do a lot of things that frustrate my DM and my fellow players, and when you feel a certain way about a situation, it's easy to read that feeling into others' responses.

Second caveat: mea culpa on the init order/skill challenge thing. I gave up following errata when 4E released and WOTC's site was redesigned, and I was not aware that DMG2 contained a complete rewrite of DMG1 content. I tend to (wrongly) assume that if a rule I need to know about changes, the DDI character generator will tell me...

So with that said, I think the source of my frustration was not in how SD ran this mini-skill-challenge or that one, but instead came from a sense of being lost in the ambiguity between game and meta-game, between out-of-character planning and in-character action, the disordered flow of decision making and role playing and mechanical action.

I do not offer this as criticism - the style of play I'm describing here works well for this group; it's just one that I have difficulty coping with at times. I do my best to roll with it, though, because a good D&D game is hard to find. Sometimes there's friction; sometimes I get put out, sometimes I do something that makes someone else feel put out. But I have to assume everyone is coming back to the table for the same reason I am: SD runs a wicked fun game.

I'm sorry you didn't have as much fun. I know we talked about this a bit last night but I did have some tips I wanted to share with others.

The DMG gives one way of running Skill Challenges that involves announcing them and running them in some sort of initiative order. However, DMG2 added more information that expands the guidelines on how one might run them. I try to run them in a way that makes the most sense for the story and the group. For the game on Wednesday, we were running a series of mini Skill Challenges and the overall success or failure determined what sort of encounter (if any) you guys would have at the end. Going in initiative order would have broken that because the person who went first would have had incredible control over the direction of the story, which isn't fair either. I really think people wouldn't have worked off each other so well if we had provided further structure to it.

You often mention wanting to get a bit more immersed at the table. The challenge presented that night would have been a great opportunity for that. The group went out, got some information, and then decided to plan their attack. There is nothing uncommon or particularly meta about that. And then the group negotiates with each other about what their attack should be. I didn't hear anyone mention an idea that didn't fit with their character and I'm not really sure there is much of a role for me in arbitrating intra-group negotiations. Of course, I'll ask that they remember to include everyone and speak up if anyone goes over the line, but I'm also reminded of some of the advice Chris Sims had in a recent article. Sometimes players need to play boldly. So speak up and offer something fun. Yeah, you may not be trained in a skill that's critical right then but that's fine. I'll end this with a quote from his article.

Don’t play to make others sad. To adhere to this point, you have a simple creed: when in doubt, just do something. Whenever possible, make that something audacious, cooperative, and entertaining. You won’t regret it.

Sorry about my misunderstanding re dmg1/dmg2.

As for Chris Sims, I don't know who he is, but telling an introvert to learn to act like an extrovert is like telling a gay guy to look at Playboys until he's straight.

(which is to say, ignorant and backward on a lot of levels, and perfectly acceptable to may people's way of thinking.)

First of all, Chris Sims is a former developer for WotC, who worked on 4e. He's fairly well-known in the hobby. You can check him out here: http://critical-hits.com/author/chris-sims/. He's fairly awesome.

Or in other words: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=chris+sims+d%26d

Second of all, that's a fairly offensive comparison to make.

Yeah i knew that i was out of line about 2 minutes after i clicked 'post.' in my outrage at (the larger social ramifications of) Mr. Sims' remark, it never crossed my mind (nor was it my intent) that I was implicating the person who shared it. Until it was too late to delete it. And the comparison was a stretch (not to mention insensitive to the GLBT community). Further proof that person + Internet = jackass.

Interesting. I didn't find anything particularly bad about his remarks. And given that you're fairly extroverted, I'm not sure what the issue is.

wait, do I know you IRL?

Yeah, it's Fred. Sorry, forgot that you might not recognize the handle.

There were tons of things Anka could have done in that situation. She could have scouted out the area around Pete's, used a divination ritual, investigated some of the other rumors... Although once we came up with a plan, there we only really need two people to pull it off. Thankfully I think we mix up who those people are. One of the tough parts with 4e is that with 6 players we have redundant skills and combat roles: it was a little tough to follow the discussion with the marking...

But I think we need to make less optimal decisions to keep everyone involved. Also I wonder if skills should have specialities. For instance maybe Anka should get a +2 to Arcana on checks dealing with the shadowfell or cold magic and Skamos could get +2 to Arcana when dealing with divination and history, that way we don't have to always fight about who should make the Arcana check.

I don't think changing how we structure the challenges will help in the situation where volume affects plan-making influence. That's going to take an evaluation of our play styles and personalities.

Then the party decided it was time to leave Newham.

The only thing missing from this sentence is "…just ahead of a hysterical mob of locals." ;)

I think this is a great post, and provides a great mechanic. Thanks for sharing with us.

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