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Old School Roleplay & Skill Challenges

June 30, 2010 1 comment

Today I read (belatedly) @SarahDarkmagic’s article There’s No Role Playing in 4e and couldn’t help but think “that was a skill challenge”. Sarah specifically mentions wanting to make the session based on a skill challenge, but not knowing where to start, she also mentions being inspired by @newbiedm’s Red Box (Basic DnD from the 80’s) game. As a person who started DnD with that red box back in ’84 I can see the thread between those “old school” games and 4E skill challenges, and it is one of the tricks to running a good skill challenge.

What Is A Skill Challenge Really?

Well at its heart a skill challenge is a decision tool for DMs. A handy way of deciding when it is reasonable to move on, be it because the PCs have achieved a goal or failed to do so. That is it at heart. The result of this is you have an easy tool to assign xp to an essentially RP activity.

Skill challenges are definitely not railroads or straightjackets, the way many see them as.

Looking at Sarah’s game and its plot element of “investigate the disappeared” all that is needed to make it a skill challenge is deciding how many successes are needed to have enough information to proceed to the next point.

Let’s say we pick 6.

Winging It Old School

Ok so all we have is a plot, and a number of successes, doesn’t sound too much like a skill challenge yet. Still it is plenty to go to the table with if you know your plot well enough. (Incidentally this is why it is hard to just “write a good skill challenge”.)

So you start the game and the PCs start doing their investigation. Maybe, as in Sarah’s case they split up and do their own thing. Oh no! You only have 5 PCs at the table – that isn’t a problem, just change the number of successes to succeed to 4! No one other than you will know, and you will forget soon enough ;).

So then you can get on with the RP, maybe you call for a roll here or there to help you make a decision, those rolls are the ones that will count for success in the challenge. Now the trick is not to deny the PCs information, let them learn it so that the whole plot can move forward. The key is that you can manipulate time! (And again no one will know other than you.)

So maybe they all get a successes, hey only 1 more and they have 6! So having learnt all they can (in their reasonable opinion) they regroup at the Inn and do some more RP. They interact with the innkeeper and make some social rolls – there is that chance for the last success! Now they have 6 successes so the innkeeper makes a suggestion that will lead them to the next clue.

But what happens if they come back with 3 successes and 2 failures – well the innkeeper still gives that last chance.

What about if they got 3 failures?

Then the innkeeper can still make the suggestion but now when the PCs follow it up they arrive only in time to get suspicious about what is going on, not witness everything.

Now some folks would say that isn’t an interesting failure, but the truth is that running the challenge this way is likely to be invisible to the players, and so the only one who will even realise there was a failure is you!

Summary

So here is the core of it, all you need for a skill challenge is a problem for the PCs to solve and an idea of what is needed to solve it to get the number of successes. Over-thinking it and trying to bolt mechanics to it rather than letting your players dream up the solutions is not only a lot of work, it might well inhibit a fun session of RP.

We used to play DnD with less rules, keep in mind that the rules are only needed to resolve problems and give you ideas. If everyone is having fun at the table then don’t stop that to enforce a rule – go with the fun and call the rule up when it is really needed.

Categories: DM Theory Tags: , , ,

The Challenge of Kings

I have been recently reminded that 4E currently has no way of managing characters running a kingdom (as a group or even as competitors) or leading armies, and in thinking about those things it seems to me that the skill chalenge mechanic is ideally suited to just such applications.

Rulership & Paragons

Firstly ruling a small dominion such as a barony or duchy is a pretty logical thing for characters to achieve in Paragon tier, though there are ways and reasons to do it in the other tiers. In Paragon the PCs are important figures that other important figures ask for help on the level of equals, and a good way to establish that is for the PCs to be rulers, and it makes a clear division between Heroic and Paragon if at the end of the Heroic Campaign arc the characters are rewarded with their own dominions. Now they are Paragons in part because they are rulers of the land, and that automatically gives their new roles a greater scope.

Not Just Numbers, A Story

The first thing to realise as a DM is that the dominion is not just a bunch of numbers, it and the way the PCs interact with it, are a story. Of course as with any other part of the game the DM should be guiding and influencing that story. If the PCs’ dominion doesn’t matter to your campaign it should, the story then also needs to have reasons why the PCs would go on adventures if they are rulers of a dominion. But whole new types of stories open up in the pursuit of a story based around being rulers.

War & Diplomacy

The two most obvious things to do with he rulership of a dominion is fight with other rulers (or marauding monster hordes) and engage in diplomacy with the same. The applications of skill challenges to diplomacy are failry straightforward and are adequately covered DMG1 and DMG2.

The applications of Skill Challenges to war are far less well covered, with Mike Mearls writing two articles on how to put the PCs in a large battle with skill challenges as the only articles on the mater that I am aware of to date. In the articles Mearls provides a general overview on how they can be used (DDI) and then an example (DDI). But it is worth looking at the process in a little more detail, especially when the PCs go from being “part of” the army to “commanding” the army.

The first thing I would do is take a leaf from the Legend of the Five Rings RPG’s battle rules, and decide the outcome of the battle. The advice is sound, as the DM you should decide who is going to win the battle, not leave it up to chance. Keep in mind we are talking battles not the over all war here as well. The outcome and story of the war then becomes much more dynamic and the players can look back and see how they affected the story and outcome over the course of the campaign. Als0 having a decision made about the outcome works much better with the skill challenge mechanic as well, because then your skill challenge is determining the impact your players have on the outcome which makes the distinction between success and failure easier to make.

For example if the story needs the PCs to loose the first battle, then the skill challenge is about how badly they hamper the enemy forces for the next battle. If the PCs are successful they delay the enemy for two weeks, and are able to reinforce their own positions. If they fail then the enemy advances to swiftly and the PCs are at a disadvantage for the next confrontation.

Hopefully it should become clear how using predetermined outcomes will allow the campaign to build towards a penultimate confrontation between the PCs and the commanders of the enemy forces in the last great battle that will determine the outcome of the war for once and for all. It should also reveal opportunities for the PCs to do things that only the PCs can do and intermingle special missions into the greater arc of the war as a whole, and how you can use those specialist missions to determine the outcomes of battles before the battle is actually engaged. (Example: the PCs learn that the enemy has recruited a dragon, so they can go to its lair and remove it from the equation. If they succeed they will win the next battle, if they fail they loose it etc).

Plague, Famine & Civil Unrest

Much like large battles can be well represented by using skill challenges, so can the routine administration of the kingdom. Suddenly those skills like Nature, Insight, Diplomacy, and Intimidate take on whole new meanings in the game when they are being used to get whole dominions to follow the characters instructions. The largest problem is making sure that you are not setting a given character up for failure in these sorts of challenges. The characters need to be able to complete the challenge and so rather than affecting 1 PC’s dominion make problems widespread through their dominion so that each character can bring their expertise to bear on the situation.

This then allows things like strange plagues to spread through the lands, and the PCs can combine their skills to keep the people safe, and search for the root cause of the problem (it is a fantasy world, the root cause should never be mundane) until at last the PCs are able to rally together and personally go and deal with the “big bad” behind the problem. Similar scenarios can be developed for famines (eg The Labyrinth of Gedref episode of Merlin) and civil unrest (eg By Any Means Necassary episode Babylon 5).

Conclusion

While I have not (yet) provided a specific example the above should hopefully give you some ideas on how to manage these sorts of things in a 4E game without having to bolt on new mechanics. The key, as with any skill challenge, is to make it about the story first and foremost, and providing the players a means to influence the story without them necassarily having it left to chance or totally usurping it (not that they might not totally usurp it of course).

Categories: DM Theory Tags: , , ,

What do you do?

Not really part of writing an encounter but a critical part of running one is getting the players to do “stuff”. That can be anything from “use a different attack” to “engage with the skill challenge”.

Now oddly for me this is one of those places my real job has a lot to say about DnD, afterall successful learning needs a whole bunch of things to happen before it starts happening and many of those things should be familiar to DMs.

1. The Players Must Feel Comfortable
Before your players will try things that are risky they need to feel comfortable. They need to be comfortable in the routine physical sense, they need to be comfortable with the people they are with, and they need to feel comfortable about how you will deal with the situation.

2. Players Need to Know the Rules
This might seem obvious, but if the players don’t know how the rules you want them to try work they will be less inclined to try out those things. They will stay where they are comfortable!

3. Players Need to Know the Rewards
At school this is more complex than it is for your DnD game. Educators start talking about “relevance” and exciting stuff like that. For your DnD game it is pretty simple the core reason everyone is at the table is fun – so they just need to know that doing something new in the game will be fun.

Now there are a lot of ways to do this but I’m going to touch on only three:

  1. Incentives – I once played in a Vampire game (Sabbat) where the DM gave an extra xp for the most deranged/macarbe act of the session. Boy did we come up with some stuff! That game is still legend for us 15 years later. Now for DnD I don’t recommend giving xp, but Action Points, an extra use of a Utility power, or having an Encounter power “recharge” etc are all valid options to consider.
  2. Tell them how awesome it is.
    When someone does something cool make a big deal out of it. Give then a high five, raise your voice and say “Awesome!” with a big grin. Be enthusiastic yourself.
  3. Say Yes Nothing dampens a players interest in trying things out like a DM saying “No”. Now sometimes you need to say no, it is part of the job of running the game. Yet if the players are being reasonable and what they want to do seems like fun say yes.

4.Ask Open Ended Questions.
This is the hardest one. Good news is they don’t have to be great open ended questions, just open ended. I ask “what do you want to do?” all the time in my games, usually immediately after describing something I want the PCs to interact with.

For example:
The room is covered in blood, like someone cut the heads off a dozen chickens at once and let them run around. Worse than the sprays over the walls and ceiling though are the pools on the floor. 4 large pools about the size of a child or halfling.

What do you do?

They might run and puke. They might roll around in it. Most likely they will start thinking “Perception check”

Don’t forget the companion question of “how do you do that?”

5. Roleplay =|= Rolling Dice
Ok this should be obvious but it needs to be said as well. Just because a player talks a little doesn’t mean you need them to make a social skill check. The player with the thug might be the leader among the players, while the shy player might have the social monster character – be sure you give the social monster PC it’s chance to shine by giving the shy player a chance to talk.

I’m one of those “player leaders” always on top of the game, knows roughly the abilities of the monsters and PCs etc etc (yes I can be bloody annoying ;)) so I talk to NPCs. I have some characters that are mechanically bad at it (no trained social skills) and I detest being asked to make a diplomacy check for a skill challenge because I asked 1 question. This makes me uncomfortable and so I withdraw from the game while the social challenge is happening.

So remember roleplaying means acting like the NPC not just making a bunch of dice rolls.

Hopefully that gives some ideas on how to get players involved. See also DMG1 & 2

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