Posts Tagged ‘Skill Challenge’

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!


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: , , ,

Investigating the Fire

Encounter Level 4 (350 xp)

Skill Challenges are not supposed to stop the characters from progressing in the story but rather make it harder for them to do so if they are failed, and in this skill challenge it is important that the PCs gather all the information that is available, and so the question arrises of “why a skill challenge?”. The answer to that question lies in the fate of an NPC, and future effects on the game rather than on the initial outcome of the skill challenge. If the PCs succeed in this challenge an NPC’s life is saved, if they fail he is killed as the perpetrator and other events must transpire to reveal his innocence leaving the PCs (and other NPCs) to resolve their feelings over putting an innocent man to death, along with the actions of the NPCs allies in seeking revenge.

As with Something’s Burning! this skill challenge is adapted from the Paizo  3.5E adventure path Legacy of Fire and so only names and key facts are included to give direction on how to adapt the information from that module into a skill challenge. Being that this challenge is mostly one of talking to people it is heavily dependant on social skills, so this may result in only a few characters being good at achieving success during it, which may require your adjusting it for your party.

Investigating the Fire – Sill Challenge

Level: 2
Complexity: 2 (6 Successes before 3 Failures)
Special: This skill challenge is divided into scenes which can happen in any order theoretically, except the “Judgement” scene which must be last.

Scene 1 – The Burnt Wagon
Perception or Thievery (DC15): The character(s) search the wagon and learn that there are no obvious signs of a struggle, or of forced entry into the wagon.
Heal (DC20): The PC cannot find any signs of injury other than fire on Eloias’ body and can conclude the fire or smoke killed him.
Special: The characters can get 1 success from this scene. If they gain all the information they gain a +1 bonus to rolls in Scene 5 – Judgement.

Scene 2 – Questioning Almah
Special: Almah has authority over the PCs and cannot be intimidated, be sure to mae this clear to the characters before they start talking to her.
Diplomacy (DC12): The PCs are able to learn that Almah hired Eloias because having a “psychic” “felt right”. She readily reveals that she spent a lot of time with Eloias, and denies any romantic involvement with the man. She will also, should the PCs bring it up agree that the time she spent with Eloias could have made Dashki jealous.
Insight (DC 17) (No Success or Failure): The character realises there is more to what Almah has to say about Elioas than she has said so far. This allows the PCs to make more discrete enquiries.
Diplomacy or Bluff (DC17): The PCs convince, Almah one way or another of their trustworthiness and they are able to get her to reveal that Elioas’ readings had been becoming more grim of late and that the portents pointed to something called the Legacy of Fire.
Special: The characters can gain 1 success from this scene. Even if the PCs fail the DC12 Diplomacy check they should learn the information it reveals, if the check is failed though they get a -2 penalty on checks in Scene 5 – Judgement. If they succeed on the DC 17 Diplomacy or Bluff check they gain a +1 bonus in Scene 5 – Judgment.

Scene 3 – Dashki Knows Something
Diplomacy or Bluff (DC 12) (No Success): Dashki says he knows nothing about the fire, only protesting his innocence.
Insight (DC 12) (No Success): Dashki is hiding something from the PCs, his attitude is nervous a sure sign he knows something he isn’t saying.
Diplomacy or Bluff (DC 17) after Insight or Intimidate (DC17) at any stage: Dashki reveals his infatuation for Almah and that he was spying on her when the fire started. He is sure it was started by a creature called a Pugwumpis.
Special: The characters can earn 1 success from this scene. If the PCs succeed they gain a +1 bonus in Scene 5 – Judgment.

Scene 4 – Questioning the Camp Members

  • Camel Drivers: Nature or Diplomacy (DC17) (No Success) : They reveal or confirm Dashki’s infatuation with Almah and name him as prime suspect, along with revealing his past as a Gnoll Hunter.
  • Mercenaries: Streetwise or Bluff (DC12) (1 Success): They state they were all around the fire and that Dashi was not with them. If the PCs succeed by 5 or more than they reveal that they think Dashki was spying on Almah, and suggest he might have killed Eloias to remove competition for her hand.
  • Almah’s Guard: Diplomacy or Bluff (DC15) (1 Success): They were all busy doing their duty, but one recalls seeing Dashki trying to hide behind a nearby tree to get a look into Almah’s tent. This places him far from the wagon when the fire started.
  • Zastoran: Arcana, Religion or History (DC12) (1 Success): Impressed by the PCs knowledge  Zastoran reveals that he liked Eloias, and he has a low opinion of Dashki and believes Dashki is capable of the crime. He also confirms the Mercenary’s story that all 6 were at the camp fire, but that Dashi was missing.

Special: The PCs can earn a maximum of 2 success from this scene, and once they have done so cannot earn further failures. If the PCs gain all the information of this scene they gain a +2 bonus during Scene 5 – Judgement.

Scene 5 – Judgement
Special: The PCs can have a maximum of +5 to their rolls in this scene earnt through the other scenes.
Skills: Aracana, Bluff, Diplomacy, History, Religion and Streetwise can all be used at DC12 to argue the case. Thievery, Acrobatics and Athletics can be used at DC17 to create demonstrations.
During this scene the PCs make their case for the cause of the fire using the information they have gathered from the other scenes. As long as they have not accumulated 3 Failures they may continue to make their case until they have the 6 successes needed to succeed at the skill challenge. Once the PCs have either 6 total successes or 3 failures Garavel and Almah have made their decision about Dashki’s guilt, though the PCs should be allowed to finish making their case.

Ending the Challenge:

If the PCs succeed then they have proven Dashki innocent for the moment, and with nothing else to go on, they are asked to see if they can find the creatures Dashki names as responsible.

If they have failed at the skill challenge then Dashki is killed for the crime, only to be proven innocent when more ill befalls the camp due to the pugwumpis forcing the PCs to go and investigate them anyway. Further Dashki’s allies will come to take revenge for killing their brother.

Categories: Heroic Tier 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).


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: , , ,