What I Had Planned
So this was going to be the last session that we had before the holidays. I was really trying to make it a big one. As it turned out the group was about to embark on a tremendous endevour - a journey to the Undred-Undred Teef to rescue what they believed to be 10 missing vessels from their Dynasty's fleet. A successful rescue would mean that the Explorers would now actually have a fleet of ships, not just a single frigate.
The set pieces I had planned out were:
1) A fateful meeting with a lost vessel - one of the Holocene Dynasty's lost ships. And a chance to spotlight the Seneschal and Rogue Trader.
2) An interactive cutscene.
3) Big space battle where the PCs had to get their ship into position against a large number of ork vessels. It would feature ork ram ships which would be raiders who attempted to just ram the PCs ship over and over.
4) A vehicle battle where the PCs would deploy vehicles onto the hull of a giant space cruiser and fight across the hull to get to a particular point.
5) A boarding mission to get to a critical part of the ship.
As I type this up, I can see now that this was entirely too much to try to cram into one session. Well, live and learn.
The Tau and a Warning
As the Explorers set out for the Undred-Undred Teef, the passed by the Lucin's Breath system and there learned that the Tau were performing massive excavations of the planet that they had raided, evidently looking for something big and buried in the ground. It wasn't hard to make a connection to the hidden alien vault on Vedic.
The Rogue Trader himself spent his time while traveling to the Undred-Undred Teef aboard the allied vessels of the rag-tag fleet they had assembled. Basically consorting with the other captains, making preparations for the raid, coordinating plans, etc.
Then, deep into their journey, they suddenly ran into a strange vergence in the Warp. A massive, rapidly expanding bubble of psychic energy. Large as a supernova, and rolling across parsecs of space.
The crew's Astropath was skilled enough to basically function like a lightning rod and ground the psychic phenomenon - preventing the entire crew of the Ferral Wolf from going mad. However, as I told the players, the other vessels following them into the Undred-Undred Teef might not be so lucky. After a few rolls, I determined that they had lost some of their allied ships had been lost.
That's when the Seneschal's player said, "Wait. Which vessels were lost? Remember, the Rogue Trader was on one of them."
I let the players make a luck roll...and they blew it. Which meant that the Rogue Trader himself was on one of the vessels that had been lost. Not only that, he was on the Nihontu, a statted-out NPC vessel. Captained by Lady Kitsune. (Both the Nihontu and Lady Kitsune [appearing as Lady Sun Lee] appear in Lure of the Expanse.)
I inwardly winced. I liked that NPC and that ship. I had had plans for it. But, for me, part of the fun of roleplaying is dealing with the unexpected. Dealing with loss. Wrestling with stuff that throws your plans to hell.
Madness Aboard the Nihontu
What happened next was a desperate, off- the-cuff adventure. The Rogue Trader himself was aboard the bridge of the Nihontu when 50% of its crew suddenly went mad with the power of the psychic disturbance. The ship's Astropath was able to prevent the other 50% of the crew from succumbing to insanity, but that was sadly not enough.
As comrades and even family members turned on each other, Lady Kitsune made for way to the Navigator's chambers. I had the Rogue Trader basically make a Skill Challenge roll to see if they could fight their way there. (Basically, I had him make a series of tests, needing X number of degrees of success total.)
He failed, so I ruled that in the ensuing battles to get to their goal, he took some wounds. 3d10 worth. I rolled the dice and the wounds were enough to actually put him in critical wounds. He went unconscious. When he woke up, their was Lady Kitsune, barely alive but disemboweled. There was nothing to be done for her. For me, this stung again because she was a named NPC who I had some plans for. But, I thought to myself, if you're going to have a player roll and that player fails, there needs to be some tangible consequences.
To honor her, the Rogue Trader made his way to the room where the Nihontu's Warrant of Trade was kept, intending to give it back to her Dynasty. There, he meant the Nihontu's own Arch-Militant, deep in the throes of madness and singing to his own power sword.
Now, the Rogue Trader found himself with Critical Wounds facing down an unscratched arch-militant in power armor and wielding a power sword. Fortunately for him, the arch-militant was quite mad and not fighting his best (he neglected to parry or dodge), but all the same, a single hit from the power sword would easily have cleaved the Rogue Trader in two. The Rogue Trader did have an edge, however. The Luminous Reproach - an artifact weapon the crew had gained in a previous session.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Explorers made a mad dash to attempt a rescue of their captain. I had them make a Skill Challenge test and they passed it to find the Nihontu, and then I had the Arch-Militant of the Ferral Wolf make another one to see if he could get there in time. Patrick (the AM's player) blew his test out of the water, so I let him describe how the rescue attempt went.
He proceeded to describe his great, hulking character plowing through the walls of the Nihontu itself, shearing away bulkheads, and power-fisting through beams to save his lord and master. Upon their arrival, they came upon the Rogue Trader who had just put down the rival Arch-Militant with two solid strikes of the Luminous Approach. They took the Warrant of Trade from the Nihontu and left to return to the Ferral Wolf.
Thoughts on Using Skill Challenges
While Skill Challenges are not in the Rogue Trader rules specifically, they are hinted at in the form of Exploration Challenges in the game. They also appear somewhat in the form of Social Challenges from Into the Storm.
The whole Skill Challenge thing came about with 4th Edition D&D and has been quite controversial every since. There are some who praise it for allowing more free-form, free-flowing storytelling; but others decry it for being used to throw dice instead of roleplay. (Some cool comparison of 4e vs. Rogue Trader skill challenges here.)
Unfortunately, I have seen it used far more for the latter rather than the former. Stuck in a swap with your buddies? Skill challenge! Okay, you're out. Need to sneak out of a city? Skill challenge! You're out!
In my case, what I've tried to do is to use Skill Challenges to fulfill some of the core themes of Rogue Trader. This is one of the harder aspects of running a Rogue Trader game - capturing the spirit of the game itself. The game that is implied in-between the lines of text in the core rulebook. One of the ideas that I gleaned from the Rogue Trader Core Rulebook was the idea of "fast-fowarding to the good stuff".
The whole idea of an Endeavour (collapsing large, board actions into a simple card or list), really points to the idea of campaigns in which you can participate in world-shaking events such as conquering a planet, but each of these Herculean tasks is only supposed to take a portion of your campaign.
To that end, I've often used Skill Challenges - not to bypass the cool roleplaying in the game - but to essentially fast-forwards to the most exciting and climactic parts. For example, I could have rolled out the battlemaps and allowed the Rogue Trader to move his mini up the hallway, fighting as he went, and then the rest of the players could have watched him for over an hour. And then he could have sat idly by while the rest of the party marched down the miniatures map in an attempt to rescue him, all the while fighting crazed crew members. Such an encounter might actually have been very cool with the proper maps and figures. However, it would have also taken the entire session and most likely the next one as well.
Instead, I used the Skill Challenges to get to the good parts of the story so that all of the players could move on to get to what they were aiming for in the first place...the Undred-Undred Teef. In the end, it seemed to work out well for us. Everyone had a good time.