July 26, 2013

Easily Replacing 4e Combats with Skill Challenges

Alternate Resolutions
I’ve called for more alternate combat resolutions.  Now I’m going to tell you how to pull it off in a 4e D&D game.

This post describes quick 4e Skill Challenge equivalents that let you convert a combat into a skill challenge in a snap if your players think of a way to “win” the encounter without resorting to spell and sword. 
Technically, a 4e combat can be converted to a skill challenge using the XP system:

One Combat of Level L for C Characters = Complexity C Skill Challenge at the Level L of the Combat

That is, holding levels the same, one “complexity” = one “monster.”  But we don’t want to hold levels the same, because this formula only generates high complexity skill challenges, which we don’t want to run! 
The basic problem of skill challenges is high complexity challenges.  They take forever and, statistically speaking, are harder.  With the Essentials rules, high complexity challenges require more planning:  The GM has to invent “advantages” that have both an in-game explanation and provide a mechanical bonus to help the skill challenge along.

Another problem with skill challenges is that the skill difficulty (DC) ratings are low.  Normally this is a good thing; you want to let the players’ creativity do the work in your skill challenges.  The real challenge is for the players to come up with a way for each of their characters to contribute.  They do worse, all else equal, by choosing to do things they’re not good at.  So their plan (and I’ll get to this part) really matters.

Here is my 4e Combat Replacement Skill Challenge formula…

One Combat of Level L for C Characters 
Equals one Skill Challenge of level L+2 
Requiring 2*C successes before 3 failures

The math behind this works.  A combat of Level L for 5 characters is worth a little more XP (5-25%) than a skill challenge of L+2, with a Complexity of 3 (9 successes before 3 failures).  My formula requires 10 successes, which makes it slightly harder; and any extra XP can be considered bonus XP for the PCs being creative. 

It’s pretty easy to put together a skill challenge.  First, listen to the players talking in character as they make their plan.  (If they just start describing actions without a plan, pause the action for a second to ask them what their plan is OOC.)  Then use their plan to make the skill challenge for it:

  1. Make a tracker for successes, and one for failures.  I just make a mark of O or X for every skill check they make as I go.
  2. Pick two to three Easy skills based on the PCs’ plan and three or four Moderate skills.  Every other skill use either doesn’t contribute successes  (but can give bonuses to other PCs’ rolls) or is against the Hard DC.
  3. Decide what happens when they fail 3 checks.
  4. Decide if anything happens at each failed check.

You don’t have to tell the PCs that they’re in a skill challenge.  Let them start enacting their plan.  As they start describing their actions, call for rolls as they go along.  Just make sure to call for 2 checks per character (more if they start failing checks, of course).

What if one player seems to be doing everything?
This happens a lot with Rogue types.  Stealth and Thievery tend to fall on the Dexterity character, and often nobody else has them.  And on-the-fly skill challenges don’t always include everyone’s best skills.

The solution is easy.  Throw unexpected challenges and opportunities in.  These unexpected events make skill challenges interesting, and you should use them about two or three times in every skill challenge.  They don’t always have to be bad things, either.  Set the check DC based on whether your event is an unexpected opportunity or challenge:  If your unexpected check is a potential opportunity, make it Easy.  If your unexpected check is an unexpected challenge, make it Moderate.  Either way, a success counts toward the success of the whole challenge; and a failure counts toward failure of the whole challenge.

Say the rogue is sneaking along, making Stealth and Perception checks to scout a corridor that they think will get them around a combat encounter... 

“A whiff of air from the corridor has an odd scent to it.  Wizard, make a Dungeoneering check against [Easy DC].”  This shifts the spotlight.  The wizard might be able to guide the party better than the rogue, despite his scouting skills, because of the smell of some alien dungeon fungus or whatever.  This constitutes unexpected good luck, so make the check DC Easy.

“The earth shakes and you slide down a small chasm.  Rogue, make an Athletics check against [Moderate DC] to get back out.”  Since it’s an unexpected danger, the DC should be Moderate.  If the Rogue fails the check, the other PCs might have to come rescue him, making Athletics checks, for instance.  This brings in the fighter or whoever else has Athletics.

Can I convert boss fights to skill scenes, too?
No, do not use this formula for converting boss fights to skill scenes on the fly.  Boss fights are defined as party level +3 or +4 combats against monsters who are special to the story, and often special in game mechanics (e.g. solos or elites, unique creatures, monsters carrying and using magic items, etc.).  My formula would create a short skill challenge with DCs that are too high (level+5 or +6).  For a “boss fight” there also tends to be a plot reason to actually battle the boss.  And when there isn’t, you should have designed the alternative resolution skill challenge ahead of time.  More, you want a longer encounter when it’s the climactic boss fight, so a short skill challenge?  Not so good.  If for some reason you still want to convert a boss fight to a skill challenge on the fly, use a Complexity 4 challenge of the party level +4.  Add the following Advantages:  A) The first time someone rolls the Hard DC when attempting a task with [very appropriate skill A] in this challenge, it counts for two successes.  B) Once during the challenge, a character can attempt a Hard check using [very appropriate skill B] to erase one failure.  Failing this check doesn’t count for the party’s total failures and succeeding doesn’t count as a success.

4e is very combat-centric.  How do I start using more skill scenes in 4e?
It’s easy.  Take a look at The Angry DM’s blog.  LINK TO http://angrydm.com/2013/07/how-to-build-awesome-encounters/  He explains how to use an encounter hook for even the simplest “there are deadly monsters in this room” encounter as an offer to the players to try alternate ways around. 

In sum, what he says unless it’s an ambush, present the scene and let the players choose what to do about it before calling for initiative.  Always make clear what the actual dramatic question of the scene is, not just the potential fight.  Instead of “There are kobolds in the next room.  When you enter, they look up and yip in surprise.  Roll initiative.” try “you see some kobolds in the next room; they stand between you and the exit on the other side.  When you enter, they look up and yip in surprise.” 

The players could start with “We have surprise!  I charge the nearest one!”   Or they could try to intimidate them.  Here’s how I would convert the scene into a skill challenge for that:

Level 1 encounter for 5 PCs: Four Kobold Dragonshields (Level 2 Soldier, 125xp, total 500xp).  Convert this to a Level 3 Skill Challenge, “Force the Kobolds to Surrender” requiring 10 successes (five PCs) for the same XP.  On the fly, decide two or three Easy skills and three or four Moderate skills.  Easy:  Intimidate, Bluff.  Moderate:  Religion, Diplomacy, Insight.

What 4e House Rules would you suggest if the proportion of skill scenes goes up?
A milestone is two encounters.  Since skill challenges are encounters, the PCs will build up AP faster if you don’t give them something to do with AP during skill scenes.  I suggest you allow players to use an Action Point in a skill scene to re-roll a failed roll, so that they have something to do with all the AP they earn from milestones resulting from skill scenes. 

You can’t hold up the plot because the players failed a skill scene, so usually the stakes aren’t that high in skill scenes.  They’re rarely life or death. 

To raise the stakes, add an element of danger to skill scenes:  Failing a check could potentially cause the character damage (loss of a healing surge, or 1d4 surges, etc.) or status effects (slowed and weakened for the first 2 rounds of the next combat encounter, or until an extended rest) or greater danger (add monsters to the next encounter for every failed check).   

Rituals, Daily powers and Encounter powers can also help skill scenes.  I usually let Rituals help a skill challenge.  Have the activation roll for the ritual count as the skill roll, using the ritual’s DC instead of the skill challenge DC.  A success counts as a success in the scene.  I usually let Daily powers grant an automatic success regardless of tier, as long as they’re relevant to the skill scene.  And there are Encounter powers that could grant bonuses to skill challenge rolls, such as skill powers (PHB3), utility powers, and even some Encounter attacks (such as ones that let you gain Phasing, Invisibility, a Climb speed, or Teleportation temporarily).  Use your judgment.  With Encounter powers, be stingy and make them have a very good justification for why it would help, since they’ll use it every skill challenge from now on if you’re too permissive.