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.

July 23, 2013

Wandering Monsters, Addendum

What do you think of this?

Bringing random encounters into your game is another way to let chaos in a little bit. While some feel that random encounters get in the way of the main story, sometimes those random encounters can become the main story. If you leave a lot of room in your preparation, or avoid preparation completely, those random encounters can turn the entire direction of the story ninety degrees from where you originally intended.
-Mike Shea (SlyFlourish), http://slyflourish.com/build_worlds_not_stories.html

While I've come out hard against wandering monsters as an incentive for players to keep adventuring, I'm not opposed to "random" encounters.  However, I think every encounter, even random ones, needs to serve a purpose.  It doesn't have to serve "the main story," though.

I think some folks like to use "random" encounters to color the setting (see comments on my last post) or throw some chaos into the game, adding that element of the unexpected.  That's intentional, to me.

He's talking about being intentional with random encounters.  Use them for a purpose.  Use them to add chaos and potentially take the story off on an unexpected route.


This reminds me of my favorite GM technique:  "Ah... You've finally figured it out..."

I love saying that when the players come up with a crazy but totally awesome explanation for the events in my campaign that I hadn't thought of.  In that one instant, I gain two big advantages:

  • I get a compelling explanation that ties together several threads in my story that I hadn't bothered to tie together myself.  Or, even if I had some loose explanation, I can replace my sketchy ideas, created in isolation, with the ideas that the players worked out together.  They obviously find their own idea compelling and interesting, and they think it's the best explanation for the events so far.  Honestly, they frequently invent a better story collectively than I can do on my own.  No surprise there -- there are five of them to one of me!
  • I get a huge boost in player buy-in as they feel like they just discovered something amazing in the world.  Their typical response is something like, "Oh...  You bastard!"  Keep in mind that most of the time they figure out a mystery or puzzle in my games, I really had designed that way.  Even though they already know that sometimes I redesign plots on the fly to match their crazy theories, most of what they discover in the world is something I had thought of ahead of time (e.g. villain motivations, secret conspiracies, reasons monsters are there, etc.).  

I usually just smile and nod, and from my devious expression, they realize that either this was what I meant for the plot all along, or I just threw out my notes and wrote down their crazy theory as fact.  And they'll never know the truth of the matter...

July 19, 2013

Wandering Monsters

Wandering monsters are a poor substitute for using actual plot to motivate PCs to take risks and bravely explore a dangerous area despite depleted resources during an adventure.

The intent of using wandering monsters is to add excitement to the adventure by forcing the PCs to press on for as long as they can before they run out of resources.  The motivation to press on comes from the danger that, during the rest, there is a chance that they will be attacked by a random monster.

I've already got a beef.  Random monsters don't advance the story. You're putting off your story for an hour just to make the players feel some time pressure?  You can do better than that.

Now, I define taking a risk in a tabletop RPG as making "a consequential decision based on incomplete information."  This is because of the interactive, socially-constructed nature of the imagined world.  Let's look at that decision...
  • Consequence:  We know that the consequence is a random encounter from the random encounter tables.  Those encounters are usually not too hard.  Much like any other encounter, they vary from fairly easy to challenging, but they're never "boss fight" tough.  In other words, they're as tough as any other regular encounter.  Therefore to prepare for the consequence, adventurers need to rest when they have enough "fuel" left to do one more encounter.  That's the dominant strategy, at least.
  • Information:  While the players don't know that they will have an encounter if they rest, they know how much gas they need in their tank to handle a typical encounter.  They generally have a very good idea how many resources they need to conserve to survive one encounter (hit points, spells, Daily attack powers, etc. -- pick your edition). 

The PCs' degree of caution or bravery will color these decisions.  Cautious characters may want more than an encounter worth of resources (they may stock scrolls and potions and wands).  Brave characters may be willing to press on until they're on their last hit point.  Both fit in almost any fantasy subgenre

What the players' characters decide is none of your business.  

Otherwise, the risk-based decision making that wandering monsters puts on players is about as exciting as when to stop for gas on a road trip.  How many miles to the next gas station?  Not exciting.  

Now what if you use plot instead of wandering monsters?  Adding plot instead of diluting it sounds like a good idea to me.  Plus, wandering monsters get overdone -- every dungeon has wandering monsters?  That's going to get old.  

Here's an example of wandering monsters vs. plot.

We’re exploring the cave system looking for the legendary Talisman of Ioun.  Wandering monsters sent by the lich Rakzadul might attack us, so we can’t just rest arbitrarily.

  • Light on Consequence:  A combat encounter might waste our time, but give us XP.
  • Heavy on Information:  We know how many more combat encounters we can handle so we can make sure we're prepared just in case.

We’re exploring the cave system looking for the legendary Talisman of Ioun.  In two days’ time, the shadow moon will be full and the lich Rakzadul will destroy the talisman in a dark ritual of apotheosis.

  • Heavy on Consequence:  Rakzadul destroys the talisman and could become an evil god.
  • Light on Information:  We have no idea how many encounters are left be before we find the talisman.

There are other advantages of using plot, too.  It doesn't involve looking up tables or involving an additional sub-system.  It doesn't bring in the XP and treasure systems.  It adds story instead of delaying it.  I could go on!

Four word summary:  Use plot, not tables. 

July 12, 2013

Taking Advantage of Levels

Taking Advantage of Levels

D&D introduced character levels originally to distinguish heroes and legendary monsters from regular figures in Chainmail, who died after one hit.  (This is why your "hit points" increase as your level increases.)

In future editions of D&D, the idea of levels supported the idea of a hero's growth.  At level 1, an ogre was an incredible challenge.  At level 3, an ogre was an exciting fight.  At level 5, a handful of ogres is an exciting fight, but one ogre isn't much threat.  At level 10, only a dozen or more ogres could really threaten a party of adventurers.  A single ogre is no danger at all.

So levels still serve a purpose:  As PCs gain levels, they become tougher against the monsters that they were challenged by before.  DMs can highlight this feature of class-level games by threatening the PCs with an ogre at every level, until the campaign ends, at which point, they should be able to fend off a platoon of ogres.  Of course, not every encounter should be ogres.  But if they come up over and over as the PCs level, the ogre will get easier and easier, and they will feel like they're improving.

Is it bad not to offer this kind of continuity? Not really.

Having no continuity at all isn't bad; it just doesn't take advantage of the benefits of a level-based RPG.  If every encounter is a new monster, then the sense of progress the players will experience from their levels is diluted.  You'll get players feeling like you're moving the goalposts:  I have more hit points and I do more damage, but the Cornugon is just as hard now as the Gelugon was three levels ago.

What about a 20-level game?  Can the ogre be any kind of threat at all past level 8 or so?

No.  You have to stop using ogres eventually.  It sort of forces you to have the ogres no longer be a threat to the world after level 8 or 9 or so.  The PCs have to defeat the entire ogre threat by then, or else things will get boring fast.

A tempting alternative is to level that ogre up.  Suddenly the PCs are fighting vampire ogres; ogre barbarians with class levels (if you're playing Pathfinder); and ogre lords (the 4e version).  They would start off facing Ogres as a level 3 battle.  Then multiple ogres or single Ogre Barbarians for level 5 or 7.  Then they see a mix of Ogres and Ogre Barbarians for 9, then a single Ogre Lord as a level 12 battle.  Then Ogre Lords get mixed in with Ogre Barbarians, and then it's a dozen Ogre Lords as a level 25 battle.

This is a bad idea.

It's a bad idea because the sense of progress is gone.  Every ogre fight is just as hard as the last one.  That's even worse than no continuity at all!

So to take advantage of levels:

  1. Choose a non-unique monster to be a recurring threat; ideally a few levels above the PCs' starting level.  
  2. Have the PCs encounter that monster over and over for about 6 levels - at least once per level, but not every fight.
  3. Toward the end, have the plot move toward an epic "End the Monster Threat" quest.
  4. Let the PCs end the monster threat.
  5. If you want to keep going, pick a new monster to be a continuous threat and introduce it either at the end, or as early as step 3, and repeat steps 1-4!