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Hey, creative people! Help with horror / murder mystery 4e D&D story?

milk ducksmilk ducks Registered User regular
edited March 2011 in Critical Failures
Hey guys, I was wondering if I could get a little help with a story I'm working on.

Next weekend, I'm running my first game with a new group; two of the players are fairly experienced with 4e, and the other 2 are completely new to it (they did play a fair amount of 3e, however). The 1st level party consists of a Human Fighter (Brawler Style), A Kalashtar Cleric (Heavy emphasis on Perception and mind reading, with mostly non-damaging powers like Astral Seal), an Eladrin Rogue (Artful Dodger), and a Human Wizard (Staff-focused).

The story is set in a busy trading-hub called Strasa: a dreary, half-sunken city where it never stops raining. Essentially, Strasa rises up out of a lake; the current city was actually built upon the ruins of the original, which completely flooded out centuries ago. A series of canals flow through the city, and many of the poor folk live in small houseboats, because they don't have enough money to build their homes up when the water rises every few generations.

The area surrounding the city is basically marshland, full of foul bullywugs, warlike tribes of lizardmen, crocodiles, and thieves of all shapes and sizes.

The players have already spoken to me about their characters being part of an adventuring party together. They call themselves "The Raven Watch" (named for Strasa's specially-bred birds, known for their mastery of mimicry, that carry messages through the city), and I've furnished them with a building in a decent section of the city to use as a headquarters for the organization. When the story begins, the PCs will already be fairly well-known throughout Strasa -something like local heroes- and they're well thought of and treated well in a local tavern called "The Brazen Foal".

It will be in this tavern that the story begins.

Basically, the PCs will hanging out, swapping stories, drinking, playing games, etc, because there's one hell of a storm raging outside. It's nice and familiar in the Foal, which is well-known for its spiced bread and ales, which warm you up when it's nasty outside. Hopefully, I'll be able to set that scene up really well, while at the same time, foreshadowing some grisly events.

At some point in time, a perceptive player (or players) will notice, as a crack of lightning streaks across the skies outside, that a shadowy figure is standing outside the tavern window, looking in. It's supposed to be a real "corner of the eye" event, that's over the moment it happens. As soon as the flash of lightning's gone, the figure is as well.

If the PCs try to investigate, they won't find anything (good move, or bad move?) I'd like to play it off as something the player possibly imagined. Once that's over with, I can continue engaging the players with games and stories and whatever else they're interested in. Get them to lower their guard once again, before I hit them with something else creepy, you know?

I'm thinking maybe the wind blows the tavern door open or something. Again, nothing too obvious; just something to make them wonder what the hell's going on. In reality, it really is "just the wind" that blew the door open, but upstairs, where drunken patrons lie asleep in their rented beds, something awful really is about to happen:

Someone (or some thing - more on that later), has snuck in through the upstairs window, murdered a patron or two, and taken some grisly trophies. I'd really like this to be something that just happens, rather than an event that the players can stop, because it's really the catalyst for the whole story that's about to unfold.

Downstairs, everyone's still having a great time, but the blood on the floor upstairs is pooling up, and beginning to drop through the floorboards. At some point, drops of blood will fall down onto one of the players' cards, or plates, or foreheads, or whatever, and obviously, someone will go to investigate.

The story could go in several directions at this point, and this is where I'd like some advice.

As I mentioned before, some of the players are new to 4e, and I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce skill challenges in the form of a chase scene: Maybe the PCs look out the window of the room, and see a figure hurriedly knock over a cart and rush down an alley, or maybe the killer tossed his victim out that window, and when the PCs look out, they see a figure standing over the body, who then takes off as soon as he notices the players.

Whichever way that goes, the person they see is not the killer; just some young thief who saw more than he was supposed to, and figures he's going to get blamed for the murder, so he takes off. If the players chase after this guy, it'll be a skill challenge where the group hounds this guy down through narrow alleys and across rain-slick rooftops. I'd like to maybe make this kid an Eladrin or an Elf, because they're sort of seen as second-class citizens in Strasa, and when the kid runs into the elvish district, I could probably throw a group of elvish thugs at the players for their first real Encounter.

Anyway, what do you guys think?

Where can this story go?

Let's plan some more murders -- the more distrubing, the better.

I'd like the murderer to be a human, although I'm open to some minor deviations. Basically, I want to impress upon this group that this is a world very much like our own, where the villain isn't always some big obvious monster ... sometimes, it's just a dude who's got a few screws missing. I want the villain to be disturbing, but not over-the-top. Just, creepy, you know?

Maybe this guy takes the faces off his victims, and later on, he can assume their identities (basically, build him as a Changeling or something, rather than a Human, but he can only change into people that he's killed). Or maybe he takes their fingers as trophies, or tongues, or something else he feels like he needs. Hell, maybe he's building a flesh golem from specifically-chosen parts, and part of the story can be identifying what pieces this guy still needs, and idendifying and protecting possible targets.

I'm open to suggestions, here. I'd love to know what you guys think.

milk ducks on


  • DarkPrimusDarkPrimus Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    The D&D comic book had the really good idea of a Changling assassin who, after taking the form of someone he murdered, mutilated their face so that he couldn't be identified - thus making sure his disguise couldn't be easily discovered. It's very practical, but at the same time disturbing.

    DarkPrimus on
    Gamertag: PrimusD | Rock Band DLC | GW:OttW - arrcd | WLD - Thortar
  • dorindorin Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    You could also have the person they are chasing blend into a crowd, that will require a skill check to spot him again. If you want to evil about it, have it be raining at night (you already covered that), make the ground muddy, have the roof collapse while they are running on it, have them trip some traps, have them chasing two people and need to split up, and have the target teleport away right as they are about to catch him.

    After you decide what the killer is doing (tongue trophies, etc) don't forget to think of why he is doing it (he takes the tongues of "false prophets" because he is a religious zealot, etc). That will help you come up with targets that make sense, and aren't just random.

    As for making the atmosphere creepy, the difference between horror and fantasy is that the events in horror can't be explained. If a wizard teleports in front of your players, that's magic, and it's not really scary. Bob the eladrin can do that. If a creepy serial killer slowly stalks after your players, while they are fleeing, and he somehow manages to appear in front of them, standing calmly as if he has been waiting for them, that's scary. It's impossible for him to move slower than them and still get ahead of them in the chase, and yet he still did it. Remember to use words like "impossible", "unnatural", "hideous", "infested", etc. where you might normally use a magical description.

    dorin on
  • CarnarvonCarnarvon Registered User regular
    edited March 2011
    A few points I'd like to make, as someone who has done somewhat similar games to this.

    First, as something general for private investigator games, you should always simply let players find clues as a matter of course. All too often do I hear DMs saying that they had a PI game where they had the hidden letter or bloody foot print tied to a die roll just to have the players fail the check and give up on the quest. If you have an important clue somewhere, simply let the players find it if they say "I search the area for clues". This does take out the chance for failure, and I always give my players enough rope to hang themselves, so I tie in 'extra' clues to die rolls to make up for it.

    Second, in a game where non-combat situations tend to be the focus of the game, don't forget to put in combat scenarios. You will most likely have two or even three players who 90% of the time won't have anything to add in the investigation part of the game, and from personal experience that shit can get boring fast. I normally tie this in with the first part and (if the player hasn't had a chance to be in the spotlight) have 'Clever-as-Rock the Barbarian' find the automatic success as he goes to take a leak or raid the pantry.

    As applied to your game, I'd have the first murder exceptionally grisly for this purpose. If your tracker for the skill challenge succeeds, have them follow the thief back to his guild (preferably on a boat or somewhere else he can't escape from) and tell either of the martial classes, with a perception check, that they can tell that their quarry couldn't have possibly been strong enough to kill the man like he did; you could have the rogue see that he isn't stealthy enough to get to the room, or have the fighter notice that he isn't carrying any weapon that could deal the damage done to the body. If they pass this 'extra' clue, they should be able to convince the thief to give up the information without a fight; otherwise they have to fight through whatever thugs the guild has to throw at them. If they win the fight and then decide to kill the thief, you should have them roll to notice that thief doesn't have the [grisly trophy]. If they fail that, then they should think that they have avenged the murder, only to find that the murders continue the next day (or otherwise appropriate time interval).

    Carnarvon on
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