Rethinking Brinewall Mystery (Spoilers)

Jade Regent

Shadow Lodge

Since I'm leveling by fiat, I'd like to treat the Brinewall mystery a little differently than "beat a monster, get a clue." I'm thinking that it would run well as an extended skill challenge. I'm always looking for ways to get the skill challenge mechanic in to Pathfinder. I'm doing one with the caravan, for example. I just don't know what, yet.

For this one, there seem to be seven (possibly eight) different clue points, and at each point the characters would make a skill check. Lack of information is enough of a penalty for failure, but each success would reveal not only a clue to the Brinewall mystery, but give a tangible bonus. This is a rough draft, right now, as I'm just working out what I want to happen, and thought I'd post it here as part of the process. Each of these would (obviously) be accompanied by the description of the associated clue.

One success: "The notes and drawings you have found so far are starting to come together to tell a story. The party has a +2 bonus on monster knowledge checks while in Brinewall Castle."
Two successes: "A sliver of information about the fleeing residents leaves you thinking about secret doors. The party has a +2 bonus to find secret doors in the castle."
Three successes: "The fates of the unfortunate people of Brinewall stir your spirit. are starting to become clear. You may reroll one failed skill check or attack made in combat with an undead in the castle." (They wouldn't know that they had this benefit until it became relevant, if ever.)
Four successes: "You've almost figured out what happened to the people, here. By calling on the inner strength this knowledge gives you, you gain a +2 to your Will saves while in the castle." (Usable once.)
Five successes: "You have solved the mystery. You gain a permanent +2 to diplomacy rolls with citizens of Varisia, and a +2 to perception checks against ninjas."

This leaves room for a couple of failures, and doesn't derail the story if the mystery is never solved.

Any thoughts? Maybe another one, early on, involving haunts? (I'm adding another haunt, as well. My group would not deal well with an attic whisperer, so I'm replacing it with a haunt.)

Skill challenges as mechanic were only introduced to formalize a system to award XP for things other than combat. Unless you depend on them to decide how much XP to award at a given time, the mechanic is pretty useless. The only other use is as a guideline of how to handle problems that have multiple ways to solve it and require multiple diverse checks; and with no one check being absolutely necessary to solve the problem.
That's why the caravan or these clues seem a very bad choice for skill challenges. The caravan will go forward, no matter what. Since there isn't a fixed time limit, failures don't matter. At worst they mean more encounters, which means more loot, and that's usually a good thing. Failure gets rewarded. Or the players get bored by many meaningless encounters they don't get any XP for. Either is bad.
There are few places for decent skill challenges. Even escaping the storm with the caravan isn't. The only thing that could fit is the transition of power to Aimiko; if you decide not to use rebellion points for determining the aftermath, you could have that be the result of an extended skill challenge that starts in book four and carries through to the end; making friendly foreign contacts (and maybe foreign allies) in book four, getting kami to accept you and spread the word to their allies, in book five the various social groups (though I'd add a few additional groups like local governments, other provincial leaders, etc), and the various population groups of the capital in book six.

In general skill challenges in AP are a bad idea, because failure will probably mean a dead end that ends/derails the campaign. Or is meaningless and could be just as easily handled as a flat XP award if the players figure something out, either through skill checks or interaction with NPCs.

Looking at your idea, I can't help but feel that it is totally off. A permanent bonus on diplomacy with people who for the most part have no idea what Brinewall is AND a permanent bonus against a whole cultural group because a few of them were involved in an attack at this place decades ago?
Even the idea that a single success could already give a situational bonus seems contrary to the principles of skill challenges in general, and doesn't really fit the situation either. How are minor hints about what happened decades ago going to help you identify monsters living there now?
If you want to handle it as a skill challenge, I'd say three (I believe there were five clues that actually made it in the module) successes are needed to win the challenge and the reward is the +2 bonus to find secret doors. Permanent boni, especially so widely applicable, is certainly well beyond such a simplistic skill challenge. Of course I don't know if I'd call this a skill challenge or simply a reward based on the number of hints found; there's supposed to be a difference and I can't see it here.

A skill challenge to get +2 perception versus ninjas should be something that takes months or years of game time, requires various interaction checks with different ninja clans, visiting the sites of successful ninja attacks, finding enemies of ninjas and persuading them to train you, and maybe catching a ninja performing a kill. A major mechanical advantage should be a major achievement, not a result of some basic checks made on the side.

Shadow Lodge

I disagree with you about the basis of skill challenges. Let's call them "complex skill checks," instead. Multiple rolls are required, and there is a possible degree of success.

Take the caravan. You're right that the caravan will go forward, but if they had been delayed between Sandpoint and Brinewall by more than a day, Ameiko's brother would have beaten them to Brinewall, and they would have had to fight him. The won the checks, so they got there first. I'll always put in a "clock" for them to race, otherwise meandering across the arctic will be boring for everyone.

I'd recommend listening to this podcast. It might change your view of skill checks, open it up a little.

In general skill challenges in AP are a bad idea, because failure will probably mean a dead end that ends/derails the campaign. Or is meaningless and could be just as easily handled as a flat XP award if the players figure something out, either through skill checks or interaction with NPCs.

Not necessarily. It's all about degrees. That's why I used the bonuses. As part of a series of skill checks, which require skills from different characters, the party can get minor, situational bonuses.

Looking at your idea, I can't help but feel that it is totally off. A permanent bonus on diplomacy with people who for the most part have no idea what Brinewall is AND a permanent bonus against a whole cultural group...

This would be a big deal, if they weren't about to leave Varisia and never come back. Instead, it sounds like an awesome reward, but doesn't actually shift the balance of the game at all. And Brinewall is referred to a number of times as a major mystery, the kind of thing that all of Varisia will talk about once it is solved. I see the confusion: I meant "citizens of Varisia," not "the Varisian ethnic group." Totally different. I'll clarify that.

I did tweak them, a little, and I'll put them under a spoiler with some notes.

New check list:
First success: “You have learned a little about how the people here died.” +2 bonus on monster knowledge checks while in Brinewall Castle.

This one has more to do with the fact that the castle is full of corby guano, and other signs of the creatures that live there. It makes no sense to me that the character, after fighting seven corbies, are no mechanically better at killing them than they were when they first met them.

Second success: “You are starting to understand how the castle is put together, and are more guarded.” +2 to Perception checks vs. secret doors and surprise within Brinewall.

I hate the idea that failing to find one secret door grinds an adventure to a halt. Any subtle bonus I can give players to a "keep the adventure going" roll, I'm going to do.

Three successes: "You sense that you almost have it figured out, and that knowledge gives you strength.” +2 to Will saves while in the castle

My party is not built to fight undead, and without a little boost, they'll get killed. Until the witch joined, last session, they didn't have any healing at all.

Four successes: “The helm seems to you to be a powerful totem against the invaders.” If a party member is wearing the helm, then all creatures except Kikonu, Nevakali and Nindenzego take a -1 to attacks against the PC wearing it.

This one is specifically connected to a hat that is somewhere in the castle. I like the idea that a non-magical item can carry strike fear into the creatures who know what it means.

Five successes: "You think that you have more or less solved the mystery, something involving ninjas.”

Six successes: “You have a clear sense of what happened here, and solving the mystery pulls you together as a group.” Choose one teamwork feat, as a party, and take it as a bonus feat, in addition, you gain a permanent +2 to diplomacy rolls with citizens of Varisia.

This is the big change. As far as I can tell, no one ever, ever takes teamwork feats, except the classes that get them for free, and those don't really count. Feats are a precious resource, and it's unlikely that one player will want to waste one of the few feats they get on something that only helps them in concert with one specific character. If that character dies or leaves the game, that feat is dead weight. But if the party gets a teamwork feat at the end of each chapter, that might mechanically represent the increased cohesion of the group.

Seven successes: “You have a thorough understanding of Brinewall’s fate, making you as much the master of the castle as anyone has been in decades.” The party gains a +1 favored enemy bonus to all attacks made to defend Brinewall from invasion.

By the time they get this, it will be super-helpful in one or two combats, then go away when they leave, forever. Unless they come back after the AP is over and set up camp, in which case it won't be a big deal, because the adventure will be over.

The real comedy is this: I got this all prepped, and put the clues throughout the first and second floors, and the party 1) drew most of the corbies to the walls and killed them from outside and 2) went in through the basement.

Consequently, they'll have killed pretty much everything in the castle before they find the second clue.

Ah well, the best laid plans, right?

There is a 3rd party book that has a skill challenge system for pathfinder, I can't remember the name. Once I find it I'll post it here so you can look for it and give it a look.

I've listened to the podcast, and it's one of the reasons I think skill challenges are ill suited for most cases they are employed in and can be better handled without adding any formalized structure.

4e enthusiasts like to point at skill challenges as something new. A series of skill checks with the number of successes determining the degree of success is ancient and doesn't require tracking failures or any of the other formalities that come with skill challenges.

For the race with Ameiko's brother I'd actually look at chase mechanics instead of skill challenges or anything else; if it's really a competition between two parties, both sides should get to roll.

And for the clues in the ruins, you don't really count failures, there's no consequence of failure... it's not a skill challenge according to the rules. It's more a 'traditional' achievement tracking - with a bonus depending on how many points/clues/successes they have. Sure the points come from skill successes, but that doesn't make it a skill challenge.

I think that might be the major misunderstanding - what exactly do we consider a skill challenge. Between achievement trackers, normal skill use, and chases, I see very little room remaining where skill challenges make sense. And in those cases I agree with Jeff from the podcast, you're dealing with very large scale issues. You may of course consider achievement trackers and chases a sub-group of skill challenges; I don't. That might be part of the issue.

Brinewall/Varisia Diplomacy bonus:

It is a major mystery, but I think you're underestimating the number of major mysteries that exist in Varisia; and how well known they are beyond their immediate area. And perhaps how many false solutions of the mysteries make their way through the rumor networks. I just don't see this 'tenth solution' gaining such widespread acceptance and respect. If the players stayed in the area and it would become an aspect of their personal fame, maybe... I guess I have a very different view of the populace that you do. *shrug*

Shadow Lodge

I do see your point, if you consider all the other mechanics. Thing is, I hate the chase mechanics. The one time I've seen them run, they were clunky, obnoxious, and more annoying than the caravan combat rules. I see no circumstances under which I would ever use that mechanic. However, you're right that, for me, they are sub-set of skill challenges, however badly implemented. (That's the thing about skill challenges in 4E, as well: they're a great idea, but badly done across the board. They require a lot of rewriting to make work in either system.)

I'm defining "skill challenge" as "a series of encounters in which successful skill uses build on one another," not "10 successes before three failures which grind the game to a halt." By that definition, you're absolutely right that skill challenges have no place in an AP, or any game whatsoever. Unless you like grinding things to a halt. I do think that the mechanic is more robust than that, though I can see why you'd think that it was so specific. Normally, "skill checks" are one-and-done. "I use history to read the clues and get the answer" or "I pick his pocket." They don't build on each other, and aren't part of a larger system of information gathering. Even "Gather Information." Any time multiple skill checks are required, I like to see some small reward for each one, otherwise my players will stop making them, because they don't like to be jerked around: "I make a history check and get a 32." "How nice for you. I'll make note of it. Next?"

In the "achievement tracker" version, it seems to me that the consequence of failure is that they don't get the bonuses or figure out what happened to Brinewall. If they never solve the mystery, the game doesn't grind to a halt. They just lack information and a potential party teamwork feat. That, to me, seems to be about the same penalty as not getting XP, which puts it in the "skill challenge" category.

That is a really good point about Varisia, though. The teamwork feat is probably reward enough for figuring things out.

I'm actually intending to use the Haunts as my primary clues...and perhaps to add a few. My PCs will be inflicted with some of the memory/emotions of the apparitions as they form, revealing the story and hopefully strengthening their dislike of Kikonu. Meanwhile, the cleric and the paladin will be busy removing fear and neutralizing haunts...hopefully before they encounter the undead captain.

Of course, I may not be the guy to ask - I'm also making the corbies a sympathetic group, who have recently found themselves under attack from below by the troglodytes. Hopefully my PCs will take the hint and thump the troglodytes without bothering the corbies, rather than a wholesale slaughter. (This also puts conditions on their combat situations, placing a higher value, I hope, on precision.)

How did the skill challenge go since I am a big fan of these for certain circumstances (and I play 5e not pf for context)? I especially like them for long overland journeys, navigating a maze or similar.

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