The Skinfin Murders - Nicholas Hite

edited July 2018 in DesignFinder Chat

The Skinfin Murders

People are disappearing on the sleepy island of Ebot’s Hollow. When a surgically altered body washes ashore, the townsfolk seek aid. The band of adventurers investigate a nest of horrors in the island’s cavernous bowels. The Skinfin cult feverishly works to warp the inhabitants of the island into twisted aquatic forms for surviving the prophesied sinking of the island beneath the waves. Within the caverns the adventurers face treacherous footing, eerily intelligent sea-creatures, impassioned cultists, and the palpable madness permeating the very stone around them.

The Skinfin Murders is a Pathfinder adventure module for four 6th level characters. By the end of the adventure, characters should reach 7th level using the medium experience track.


Norbert Easeman is a friendly, exuberant man, born and raised in the tiny fishing village on Ebot’s Hollow. As a youth, Norbert nearly drowned in a boating accident. While he lay unconscious, he thrashed and shook so violently that he had to be restrained. On waking, he told of the dreams that had haunted his fevered mind—dreams of their island home swallowed whole in the enormous jaws of a dark god. Norbert’s ravings fell on deaf ears, the townsfolk assuming the trauma of his accident had addled him. Though he gave up persuading the townsfolk, his convictions never left him. He would take any steps to save his people.

Neither Norbert nor the townsfolk know that his dreams were caused by his boat capsizing near an unholy site of Dagon, and that his prophetic dreams are real.

Norbert studied medicine on the mainland, then returned and joined the monks of the cliffside Embracing Bower monastery. Unbeknownst to the townsfolk, Norbert’s obsession with saving the people of the island has taken a dark twist, and he now feels the only way to ensure their survival is to forcibly adapt them to living in the sea. He has spent the recent years suborning the monks to his cause—swaying many with his enthusiastic charm, and using the dissenters as subjects to further his experiments into aquatic adaptation.

The remaining monks are true believers and receive successful surgical alterations. They abduct their friends and neighbors and forcibly grant them Norbert’s “gifts”. After all, it is for their own good.


When a humanoid body washes ashore with the feet cracked apart and skin sewn into hideous flippers, the townsfolk send to the mainland governor for help. The governor gives the adventurers two weeks to discover what has been causing the disappearances and put a stop to it as expediently as possible.

Chapter 1: Canvas the Village
The PCs arrive on the island and investigate several points of interest. They are invited to view the rotted remains where Heal and Knowledge (dungeoneering) checks reveal information about the body’s human origin and how recently its owner perished.

They may visit the site where the remains were discovered, where Knowledge (geography), Knowledge (nature), or Profession (sailor) give an approximate distance the body may have traveled via currents.

Diplomacy checks to gather information from the townsfolk reveal that the monks of the Embracing Bower have been less hospitable than they once were. If the PCs are perceptive they notice that one of the townsfolk has mysteriously acquired webbed feet and a memory gap he cannot explain.

If the PCs take more than two days to investigate the monastery, another villager goes missing in the night of the second day. When they investigate the most recent location of that villager, clues point them toward the monastery.

Chapter 2: Investigate the Monastery

Players approach the Embracing Bower monastery, ostensibly dedicated to a nature deity, and question the monks. Sense Motive determines that the monk’s rituals are half-hearted and Perception shows that some of the monks have oddly-shaped bodies. If the questions become too pointed, the abbot insists that they must retire to their prayers. If the players return that night, they find the monastery deserted. If they do not return the same night, two of the monks attempt to kidnap one of the players while they sleep at the inn.

Searching the monastery reveals the abbot’s notebook hidden in his locked desk that describes the secret passage behind the great tree carving. It does not mention the sleeping gas trap on the secret door.

Chapter 3: The Grotto

The cultists are monks and the abbot is a cleric of Dagon. All have the Skinfin Initiate template. Norbert is an alchemist (vivisectionist) with the Skinfin Master template.

The Skinfin Initiate template grants a swim speed of 30 ft., water breathing, and improves all aquatic creature’s attitudes by 1 level. The Skinfin Master template has the previous benefits, improves all aquatic creature’s attitudes by an additional level, and grants a bite attack appropriate to the base creature’s size that deals bleed damage equal to the base damage of the attack.

*Aura of madness
Upon entering the grotto, and each hour thereafter, the adventurers make Will saves versus Wisdom drain. After the first point of Wisdom drain, they receive visions of the island being consumed by darkness.

Encounter: Bridge 
Upon reaching the bottom of the ladder the players see one cultist loading a skiff. He attacks with a staff and attempts to knock anyone who crosses the bridge into the water where sharks swim.

The Library: New spell
The library door is locked and trapped with a ringing alarm. Triggering the alarm will summon the abbot and the two monks from the sacrificial altar area and the surgical theater. If encountered in the library, the cultists attempt to subdue the PCs for their experiments, rather than kill them. Norbert remains in the surgical theater and begins consuming combat-enhancing extracts. Exploring the library yields many books revealing the obsession of Norbert Easeman. Journals lay out his dreams in detail, and half of a preserved gillman floats in a tank in the corner. Laid out on the table is a large text. Anyone skilled in Knowledge (arcana) can identify that this is an ancient spell that grants aquatic adaptations and control over aquatic creatures. Prepared arcane casters who study the tome may scribe the transmutation spell Visage of Dagon. Norbert has clearly been attempting to permanently replicate the effects of the spell with his experiments, although he is unable to cast it.

Encounter: Refuse Tunnel
If the players hold their breath and swim the offal-filled submerged passage they are assaulted by a crab swarm. If they defeat it they find a sunken chest containing The Maddening Fin. This unique dagger inflicts lesser confusion on targets with a successful strike. After successfully using this ability, the wielder may immediately roll a Will save to negate one mind-affecting effect on themselves. This tunnel also serves as a back entrance to Norbert’s surgical theater.

Encounter: Sacrificial Altar
Proceeding past the library, the players enter the sacrifice hall. Here they find the abbot and a cultist hauling a the body of a failed experiment to a stone altar thrust up from a deep saltwater pool, where a giant octopus awaits its grisly meal. Interrupting the feeding causes all three to attack. The abbot summons water elementals and attacks with a light crossbow poisoned with blue whinnis, while the cultist and the octopus attempt to grab anyone crossing the slippery stones. The cultist follows any PCs that fall into the water and assists the octopus in drowning them.  Every round the PCs are within 10 feet of the sacrificial altar they attempt a Will save against Aura of Madness. PCs with 1 or more points of Wisdom drain must also succeed a Will save or be staggered for 1 round.

If the PCs did not stop the kidnapping in chapter one, one cage contains the kidnapped villager, awaiting surgery. The other contains another missing villager, unconscious and recuperating from Norbert’s modifications.

Encounter: Surgical Theater
Norbert, assisted by a cultist, is sewing gills into the chest of an unconscious villager. If interrupted he will beg the PCs to allow him to continue his work—offering them treasure, as well as the opportunity to undergo his procedure, if they will only leave him to his work. PCs who have taken Wisdom damage from Aura of Madness are particularly inclined to accept his offer, and must succeed a Will save or be affected by charm person. If they accept his offer and remain with him for two weeks, each will gain the Skinfin Initiate template, provided they don’t die on the table.

If the PCs refuse his offer he will reveal his shark-toothed grin and attack, using the tight confines and numerous alchemical vats in the theater to control the fight while he and his minion attempt to get into flanking positions to deliver sneak attacks.

After defeating Norbert, the PCs travel to the mainland and receive payment from the governor. Months later they hear rumors that the island of Ebot’s Hollow has mysteriously vanished.


  • edited July 2018

    Hi Nicholas; congrats on getting to the final round of DesignFinder. I'm excited to check out your adventure pitch and see what we think.

    The Title: This is the only adventure that doesn't feature some alliteration, but -- despite that ;) -- it works well, I think. Murders is always a good word for gaming purposes and skinfin I think is an intriguing enough word to draw GMs and players in (I think it hints at water and strange/twisted surgery, but I may be influenced by the use of the phrase in Round 3).

    The Plot: This seems like a clear plot, finding out the cause of a strange death and then taking care of the cause of it.

    The Details: I'm going to go through the adventure and give some running commentary as I go, things I like and things that may be problematic.

    * I like the intro to the pitch a lot: "palpable madness" is a great description that really grabs me and makes me want to read more.

    * This feels like a strong villain to me; he's not evil for the sake of being evil, but rather something that's intricately connected to his history and with a motivation that he can reasonably feel is for a good purpose. Yes, he's clearly a villain, but you can certainly see how he's the hero in his mind. I hope PCs will get a chance to learn all this.

    * The hook's fine, though I think there are certainly some other ones that could rely on the PCs being in town or having a friend who goes missing there. I don't think it needs the two-week timeframe. There's no real cause for it, and if the PCs ever need to rest for a bit (say to recover from ability damage), it can be problematic. I "soft limit" ("I'll pay you a bonus if you get it done in two weeks because of reason Y") could work if you really want this, but I don't think it needs a hard deadline.

    * Canvassing the village sounds like a solid start. I might want to throw a little combat in there -- perhaps something's taken up residence at the site where the body was discovered? It might not be necessary, but I think it might break up a slight feeling of "this is the investigation/skill" section of the adventure, and then the second half is the "dungeon crawl/combat" section. Having another villager going missing is a good way to keep feeding clues to the PCs if they don't pick up earlier clues.

    * Chapter 2 feels fine, though I think it should also take into account that the PCs may choose to simply attack the monks right off. That's not a huge issue -- they're the bad guys, after all -- but something that'll need to be kept in mind. I wasn't sure I liked the idea of the monastery being abandoned, but it was a small building and that might add a creepy element to the adventure. I do think it would need maybe a couple more traps or something to give the PCs something to do during the exploration. I also would like to see some other way of PCs' finding the secret door; having the monk just having it written down feels ... forced? It requires the abbot to be sloppy/careless, which diminishes him as a villain. Maybe he refers to the caves below, and the PCs then can keep searching for the secret door or approach from the water (meaning there are multiple ways the final dungeon could be tackled).

    * I don't know how usual it is to grant new templates (which should be lowercase) in an adventure, but these don't feel like they're game-breaking. They allow the villains to be more of a threat for this adventure while not having a big game-breaking/world-altering effect beyond that, so I think they work in place of a new monster (which wasn't a requirement for this challenge, but which a couple pitches did include).

    * I'm not sure how effective the aura of madness will be. Will PCs really spend much more than an hour in the grotto? I like the idea, but Wisdom drain -- especially since it's based on a Will save so would potentially get harder and harder to deal with -- could be pretty punishing if multiple saves were to be required. I like the visions aspect, but I might otherwise suggest changing this slightly. Maybe a shaken effect accompanying a vision as soon as they enter, with a compounding fear effect. (This could force them to retreat and come back a few times, which could let the cultists prepare for them and/or mean more people are kidnapped while they recuperate. Perhaps even an attempt on their lives comes into play.) Ah, I see later that it could be more frequent checks later on but that remains concerning to me as while it's a small area, it's some pretty punishing effects that could easily compound.

    * New spells also aren't super common in adventures, but I think that could be a neat bit of treasure. It'd be interesting to see if any of the PCs tried to use it, concerning the rather troublesome name that could give them pause.

    * The Maddening Fin is another interesting bit of treasure. I don't know that I would let it do lesser confusion on any single strike, but if it were just once a day (or maybe 3x), I think that could work.

    * Sacrificial altar: This looks like a good encounter, though keep in mind my concerns about the aura of madness effect. One other note: The pitch seems to expect the PCs to travel in a specific direction/manner through the dungeon, but the published module should make keep in mind they may choose to approach in different ways. Design work can make sure they end up not hitting a later encounter too soon, but it also shouldn't just be a straight line that doesn't allow at least some illusion of choice.

    * I'm a little concerned that the surgical theater might feel slightly anti-climactic if PCs arrive there after the sacrificial altar. Considering that's got the aura of madness effect, it just feels like it could be the bigger challenge. I think instead of a cultist, something more impressive here might be needed. I might suggest a new monster, but with new templates, spell and item, that might be too much, so maybe a variant skinstitch (Bestiary 4) or something along those lines? Or perhaps a haunt from all the creatures that didn't survive the experimentation? While hopefully some of the previous exploration will tout Norbert's major role, I just don't want him to get lost as the big villain of the piece, and think care will just need to be taken to make sure his role is prominent throughout.


    I think this would be a fun adventure that would allow for a variety of play styles and could fit in the space allowed. Adventures involving water bring a less-used element (no pun intended) that I think players like. I think it would need some minor changes, as mentioned, but nothing overly drastic. I do recommend this be considered for the inaugural DesignFinder contest winner.

  • Note for readers: I added links to the contestants' work in previous rounds in each of the pitches.

  • Hi Nicholas, and welcome to the final round of DesignFinder! My comments will be briefer than Neil's and Jacob's and will hit the highlights and my overall recommendation.

    Your adventure starts with a strong hook and drives the PCs right into the adventure. They have to spend time investigating the body and discovering its origin, with some urgency thrown in by having a second villager disappear. The investigation takes them to the monastery (some GMs may have to push the PCs in the monastery's direction for parties incapable of diplomacy or those with unlucky rolls), and there are plenty of opportunities to discover something is amiss (I would have included Knowledge [religion] along with Sense Motive to widen the net, so to speak). You introduce two simple templates, which won't eat up word count, so kudos for that. The new spell is interesting (and new spells are rare in published adventures) and its mere name will make most players balk at using it. The set pieces for the encounters add a nice level of dynamism.

    Wisdom drain is a steep punishment for PCs at 6th level. They won't have easy access to restoration spells, so multiple PCs suffering from Wisdom drain will hurt the party considerably. The maddening fin would need some adjustment, because even lesser confusion on every successful hit is too much (I do like the additional effect of potentially negating a mind-affecting effect). I think the refuse tunnel could inflict disease, which wouldn't have an immediate effect, but might deter parties from attempting to retreat and return with all their abilities intact.

    I view the above as minor adjustments, and I recommend this be considered as the overall winner. I give this a slight nod over Joe Kondrak's Into the Widow's Web (so I've probably cursed you). 
  • Nicholas, well done. The hook is fantastic drawing readers into this mystery with horror overtones and impending doom. From a publisher standpoint a strong hook and adventure summary can be crucial especially for new authors. The title is easy to pronounce and leaves just the right hint of curiosity. The plot draws the reader further into the story while creating a variety of outcomes. I personally like what you've done with the investigation part and I really like the multiple options and urgency that builds. The encounters really look fun and exiting. I love the Aura of Madness and how it is applied via template to the PCs later. The twist at the end is an added bonus and really makes the villain a complex character. I feel the write up is solid, the mechanics sound, and the overall storyline intriguing. All the criteria most sought after in an adventure. Therefore, it is an easy choice to recommend this as my top pick. 
  • Hey, Nicholas! Welcome to Design Finder…the spiritual successor to RPG Superstar, a competition that’s always been near and dear to my heart. I haven’t been able to follow along with every round of the competition so far, so my feedback on your adventure proposal will be as succinct as I can make it (i.e., without a lot of looking back at what you did in prior rounds…though, I am aware the rules required you to reuse some elements of your other submissions). So, without any further ado, let’s get down to brass tax, shall we?


    The Skinfin Murders

    Title: An okay name for an adventure. The use of “skin” and “fin” coupled together lends aquatic overtones, and the fact that we’ve got “murders” taking place puts an immediate emphasis on a potentially compelling mystery for PCs to figure out. Aside from that, we don’t get any major hints as to the location or villain. But, the location is presumably going to be near water. And you don’t really want to give away your villain if it’s a mystery to be solved. So, moving on…


    Villain: There’s some interesting stuff here. As a Dagon-inspired alchemist trying to “save” his people, Norbert comes off as the kind of misguided/tortured soul that can make for a memorable antagonist. To squeeze the maximum amount of “juice” from him, you’ve got to find ways for his backstory to play out over the course of the adventure, and thankfully, you’ve given a handful of ways to do that. Overall, he’s a compelling villain storywise, however, one element that felt like it needed more embellishment was the reason for his “madness”…yes, he fell unconscious after nearly drowning, and he received these disturbing visions inspired by Dagon…but, that alone doesn’t seem like enough to push him over the edge into the kind of madness that drive him to “save” people by grafting all these aquatic enhancements onto them. So, in terms of his motivation (to become this evil), I guess I was looking for a stronger catalyst for it. If you go on to win, I’m hoping you can punch this up a bit more. Aside from that, however, the actions he’s taking practically beg for heroes to come and stop him…and that makes for fun roleplay.


    Locale(s): You’ve got a fair amount going on in the adventure, but it seems like it would all fit within any map allotment (i.e., between 1 to 1-1/2 pages or so, I imagine). The village itself could use a map (but it doesn’t necessarily have to have one). The monastery does. The grotto, as well. And there are a handful of areas you describe as “encounters” and I’m assuming they’d all just be chambers within a single map. Meanwhile, the surgical theater becomes the locale for the big showdown against Norbert and his cultists. And that could be a fun fight, depending on what kind of additional terrain/tactical options are available there. In fact, I think you could have elaborated more on that to make the adventure pitch a bit more appealing.


    Plot: The story seems pretty tight with a logical progression from scene to scene and chapter to chapter, but there are a few elements that bothered me at times…instances where I expected you to “zig” when you “zagged” instead. Canvassing the village is fine…it’s basically a skill-based encounter with some roleplay opportunities. Most good mystery adventures would start with that kind of approach and you don’t disappoint in that regard. I think this section could use something a bit more memorable in terms of NPC interactions, though…i.e., other stories woven into the plot through the GM’s characters which can also serve to ratchet up the tension if one of them goes missing due to monk's continuing to abduct victims for Norbert's surgeries (or even as sacrifices to Dagon). A small element like that will get the players even more heavily invested in the plot and spur their attempts to solve the mystery.


    Later on, the heroes also get a chance to investigate the monastery, and I was looking for a tad bit more here, as well. This scene should present an opportunity to raise the tension, and mostly, it comes off as just a set piece to arouse a few suspicions…and then, if the PCs don’t put two-and-two together, you’re hitting them over the head with the abduction attempt by the monks so they'll track their way back. It feels a bit railroad-ish because of that, and I thought you could have introduced some more elegant (and memorable) interactions and clues to make it feel even more mystery-like in terms of the plot. For instance, maybe an escaped (but crazed) creation from Norbert’s surgeries appears at the monastery…frantically trying to warn the PCs about what’s going on, but unable to communicate before dying like a fish out of water…or maybe, it’s just a straight up combat, where the monks themselves try to cover it up by passing it off as a strange creature that emerged from the ocean to attack their peaceful congregation (and they're thankful that the PCs helped put an end to it)? These are just ideas…but I’m bringing them up more to illustrate how and why the plot seemed less powerful than it otherwise could have been for me. I’m not sure it’s a big deal…because I generally like the themes you’re introducing anyway.


    Meanwhile, the grotto is where the story really heats up. From the library (with the excellent insight into Norbert’s motivations) to the sacrificial altar (where you can explain the Dagon angle), this is where the PCs truly start to put together the reasons for the mutilations and murders on the island. They also get a chance to rescue some of the kidnapped victims (a much-needed heroic act). And, of course, they get to mete out some righteous judgment on Norbert to put an end to things. All in all, a satisfying crescendo of potentially epic proportions if you can deliver the goods in your final write-up. And judging by the overall structure of your plot elements, I feel confident you'd pull it off with the right direction and collaboration with your developer.


    Minions: Mostly, the monks-turned-Dagon-cultists are Norbert’s footsoldiers, and that’s always a cool angle for demonstrating the fervor behind such an evil plot. They appear throughout the adventure (potentially while canvassing the village…again at the monastery…and then throughout the grotto/lair), and that’s what you want from them. They even have a lieutenant-level leader of their own in the form of the abbot, and that gives the minions a moment to shine at the sacrificial altar alongside the giant octopus and water elementals to back them up. So, this was a solid piece of design in your proposal.

    Rewards: I didn’t see anything that really rocked my boat here (pun intended). The PCs get paid by the governor for resolving the mystery. There’s a new spell they can obtain in the library (but it doesn’t sound like one the PCs should use very often if it’s tied to Dagon). There’s the maddening fin dagger with its lesser confusion ability (which may be a bit overpowered if it inflicts that on every attack). And, I guess there’s the potential Skinfin Initiate template, but that whole “offer” by Norbert at the end seems unlikely to come to fruition. The odds are pretty low that the entire party would fall victim to his charm, and even if one of them did, the rest would likely end the alchemist before he could ever perform such a procedure. So, it seems ill-contrived to include that. And, as a result, the potential rewards in this adventure fell a little flat for me. They’re present, just not super-inspired.


    Recommendation: Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you. Generally, there’s a lot to like in your proposal. Everyone loves a good murder mystery. I think you still need to refine each section to give it the maximum amount of tension for a big payoff at the end. But, if I were a developer receiving this pitch, I feel confident I could work with you to turn this scenario into something potentially epic. As such, I DO RECOMMEND this adventure for consideration as the winning proposal for the final round, and I would go so far as to say it’s probably my favorite out of the four. Good luck in the voting!

  • Thanks very much!
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