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August 22, 2013

4e Skill Challenge Example

The 4e D&D DMG and DMK are solid resources for a good game.  But they do a terrible job teaching GMs how to use their skill challenge system.  Without a good explanation, the system, as presented, looks:

  • Rigid, with strict rules and poor adaptability, in case the players do something off the rails;
  • Linear, with skill check successes leading to a single result, leaving no room for player improvisation or alternate resolutions; and
  • Monolithic, with very few alternative ways to use it (the way it looks is everyone makes checks in turn, you keep score, and then it succeeds or fails).
In my experience, it isn't like this.  It's just a structure for balancing what you always did in 3rd edition, and continue to do in Pathfinder and in just about every other game system that has skills!  The point of the system is to make character skills relevant and useful, keep skill DCs predictable, and make players think strategically during a skill scene.

The skill challenge level, skill DCs for that level, and successes/failures mechanic are designed keep the system balanced within fairly tight bounds, and let the GM worry about the roleplay, not the math.  I remember running 3.5 and wondering where to set skill DCs so that there was still tension, but not so high as to prevent most of the party from participating.  Since at level 14, Diplomacy scores ranged from -1 to +29, this was often impossible.  Say what you will about treadmills, the exploding variance we had in the skill points system of 3.5 and have in PF is worse.

The sad truth is, the skill challenge system could have been demonstrated with a game-play example, but they didn't include one.  Here's one for all the GMs out there wondering how to make the 4e Skill Challenge system work smoothly...

A 4e Skill Challenge Play Example

The Cast of Characters…

·         Alfred, and his character Alphrydd, elf ranger
·         Barry, and his character Bear, goliath warden
·         Charlotte, and her character Cara, human warlord
·         Denise and her character Dogfinger, halfling thief
·         Erica and her character Erebus, human wizard
·         Francis, the GM

The Scenario…

The heroes are rushing down the road, trying to catch an assassin who just killed the Baron of Radua.  The assassin has taken the South Road, making for a fairly lawless area near the ruins of Verdidum, a city that was razed to ash and rubble in the war against the invading Empire of Jaskar a generation ago.  The empire of Jaskar was repelled, and eventually retreated back over the sea, but now suffering refugees and hungry bandits fill the area around Verdidum.  The heroes are pressing hard day in and day out, not sleeping but a few hours when they’re ready to drop.  Suddenly, they’re ambushed by bandits…

The Setup…

The setup tells the players what their characters see, what the challenge is, and what the objective of the challenge is. 

Francis:  You come across a fallen tree blocking the road.  Alphrydd, with his keen eyes, spots two humans to his right, trying to remain hidden in the brush, and peering deeper, sees three elves hiding up in the trees above.

Alfred:  I look left.

Francis:  You see two humans to your left as well, and three more elves.  The two humans step out of the brush, and you hear the other two stepping out.  They all carry large axes, and it becomes clear how this tree came down.  Since she’s trained in Streetwise, Dogfinger knows that bandits used to attacking mounted foes usually carry axes or heavy blades to hack at horses’ legs. 

Denise:  I dismount, and signal to the rest group to get off their horses, too.

[The party dismounts.  The GM produces a battlemap and draws out the scene, placing the four human bandits and six elf archers on it, then places the five poker chips representing the horses on it.  The players place their miniatures next to the horses.]

Francis:  As you dismount, one human takes charge, signaling the other three to surround you.  One moves next to Erebus, one moves next to Dogfinger, one moves next to Cara, and one moves next to Bear.  Though he looks a little nervous about Bear.

Francis:  The one that took charge then says “My lords and ladies, I apologize for this, but since the King failed to protect Verdidum, our families have suffered from Jaskari brutalities and the loss of our home.  Food and funds are scarce, so my elven allies and I must ask you to continue on foot, without your purses or weapons.  If you wish recompense, ask your King to repay your losses.  He owes us, and you are the unfortunate deliverymen.”  The elves draw their bows and the four bandits heft their axes, knowing this is where things will either go their way… or not.

Player Agency...

At this point, the players can decide whether they wish to have a combat encounter or not.  And if not, they must decide quickly how they will handle the scene.  The players are used to roleplay, and they sense that because of the tense moment, table talk should be kept to a minimum.

Barry:  Bear looks down at Dogfinger, taking his cues from the savvy thief.  He’s sure Dogfinger must have been in this situation before, from one side or the other.

Charlotte:  Cara nudges Dogfinger, whispering, “Bandits deserve death, but this area was forsaken by King Pasquale   They’re just doing what they have to.”

Erica:  I try to edge away from the bandit next to me.

Francis:  Away from your horse?

Erica:  I suppose that would be smart, since that’s what he wants.

Francis:  The bandit lets you get inside the circle of the other PCs, then he takes your horse’s reins.

Denise:  OK, Francis.  I’m going to try to bluff them.  First, what do I know about these particular bandits?

Francis:  Hold on…

A Quick Conversion…

Francis is ready with my quick conversion formula.

He has designed a level 6 encounter for his level 4 PCs (1350xp in this case – 100 above the budget for 6, but 150 below the budget for 7).  For reference, it uses six L2 Artillery Elf Archers and four L3 Soldier Human Town Guards as the bandits.  The elves are in trees, which would make the encounter hard, except that the party has a bow ranger and a wizard, so it’s no real problem for them.  Francis quickly uses the formula: 

One Combat of Level L for C Characters = Skill Challenge of L+2 requiring 2*C successes before 3 failures

Level L is 6 (the level of the encounter), C is 5 PCs.  So it becomes a level 8 skill challenge requiring 10 successes before 3 failures.  The level 8 DCs are 12 (Easy), 16 (Moderate) and 24 (Hard).  Francis’ level 4 PCs have good trained skills around +12, decent trained skills around +9, decent untrained skills around +6, and bad untrained skills around +2.

Given the plan the players seem to have come up with, Francis sets the Easy (12) skills as Bluff, Insight, and History. 

He sets the Moderate (16) DCs as Diplomacy, Streetwise, Stealth (in case they want to conceal their riches), and Intimidate. 

Anything else he deems inappropriate, and therefore won’t work, or would be Hard if the player comes up with a creative way to adapt it.

Skill challenges 4 levels over the party's level are hard because the Moderate DCs aren't reliable, so they require some luck, and the players need to stick to the plan, so that they're typically hitting the Easy and Moderate DCs with their best skills.  Francis decides that the situation is one where some characters can be more active than others, since the bandits' attention will focus on one or two at a time anyway.  Plus, forcing them to go in turns could make it harder, and it's already going to be hard.  (Keep in mind that the consequence is "not getting to skip the combat" -- so failure is still interesting.)

The success condition is clearly as Denise described it:  She will bluff them into leaving the party alone.  The failure condition is that the combat begins, with a surprise round for the bandits and archers because the PCs would still be focused on trying to talk things out when the arrows started to fly.

The Skill Challenge Begins…

Francis:  OK, sorry.  I had to write something down.  Make a History or Streetwise check.

Denise:  Streetwise, definitely.  [Dogfinger has Streetwise trained, and has Charisma 14]  I got a 19.

Francis subtly makes a check mark on his crib sheet for the first success.  

Francis:  These are The Winston Gang.  King Pasqule’s Seneschal has put a 50gp bounty on each of their heads.  The elves aren’t part of the gang, though.  There’s an elf settlement near Verdidum that has suffered since the razing of the city, so it could be that they’ve made an alliance.

Denise:  I can work with that.  “Mister Winston, I presume?  We’re from Radua.  The only man keeping that pretender Pasquale’s corruption out of our land was just murdered, and we’ve given up.  We’ve come down here to join the rebellion.  We’re going to need our horses and weapons.”  Bluff… oh crap, I rolled a 4…  That’s 13? 

Francis makes another check mark, the second.  He does this behind the screen, and doesn't make a big deal of it.  The players may not even notice a skill challenge is happening.

Francis:  That’s good enough, actually.  He’s a bandit, not a magistrate.  He believes you, but he’s not persuaded to let you go.  “Welcome to Greater Verdidum, then.  History lesson, kid:  Everybody who was born here was born without a copper to his name.  What makes you think you can come in here with fancy clothes, fine horses, and fine weapons when every other new recruit started off with a tattered shift and a cudgel he made himself?”

Barry:  “You’re not being too polite to sympathizers, Winston.  You want to get off on the wrong foot and piss off an armed band who’d make far better allies than… enemies?”  Intimidate.  Rolled a 15, so that’s a 20.

Francis marks a third check.  He decides to adjust the enemy positions as a result of the PCs' success, to give the PCs a little advantage if the fight does break out.

Francis:  The thug next to Bear backs up a little.  The one doing all the talking looks a little nervous.  “We’re not your enemies, big guy.  We just want to spread the resources out.”

Charlotte:  He’s not going to spread the resources out.  I’m giving him a dubious, judgy look.  [Glaring] Judgy!  Judgy!

Francis:  Give me an Insight or Intimidate check.

Charlotte:  I suck at both, but I'm not as terrible at Insight.  Aww...  Rolled a 6.  That’s a 9.  Screw you, purple die.

Francis marks an X for the first failure.

Francis:  He looks pained at her silent accusation.  Cara doubts her harsh judgment for a moment, and she shows it.  He's gained some moral advantage and clearly feels more in control of the situation now.

Erica:  Erebus is also making a judgmental glare, with all the implied hidden wisdom of a wizard.  15, so that’s 22 Insight.  Boom.  I glare lightning bolts at him.  Not literally…  Yet.

Francis makes a fourth check mark.  

Francis:  Great!  You've made up a little of the ground Cara lost.  Give me an Intimidate for Erebus, too.

Erica:  Uh oh.  I suck at…  Oh, 18!  That’s a…  19!

Francis makes a fifth check mark.  He wants to show that they've made a lot of progress.

Francis:  The leader continues, “Well, perhaps your weapons are better off in your hands, if you’ve come to join.  Since they’re the most valuable things you seem to own, you won’t mind leaving your cash and mounts.  None of you looks like cavalry anyway, and the rebellion is going to need horses for messengers and guerilla attacks.”

Denise:  What rumors, if anything, have I heard about this rebellion?   Streetwise, 19 total.  The purple die is redeemed!

Francis makes a sixth check mark. 

Francis:  Not much.  It’s a new development.  You’ve heard that the bandits might all be working together, which sort of signals a rebellion, but nobody’s actually saying the word “rebellion” in the city.  They’ve said that Boss Tabitha is the bandit making all the alliances.  She’s the daughter of the former watch commander of Verdidum, who was flayed publicly by the Jaskar torturers.  It’s said she has a Jaskari arcane codex that was left behind, and her younger sister Daphne is studying the Forbidden Arts to start a Shadow Coven in the ruins.  It’s also said that Tabitha is a monster, has two heads, etc.  Basically anything to make her sound bad.

Denise:  Good stuff…  Hmm…  “We’re to meet Boss Tabitha in less than one week’s time.  What would she say if we turned up penniless and on foot, and explained that the Winston Gang robbed us on the road?”  Bluff…  Natural 1.  What is it with purple dice?  Give me that red one.

Francis marks a second X, and wants to show that the PCs are close to failure.

Francis:  “Tabitha would laugh you out of the Shattered Temple, is what.  You’re not worthy of an audience with her.  Leave your cash and mounts and go home, halfling.”  He laughs scornfully.

Barry:  “You oughtn’t be so eager to test our worth, little man.”  Intimidate.  21.

Francis makes a seventh check.

Francis:  The bandit that’s been talking to Dogfinger backs up five feet.  The other two still next to PCs do as well.  The one who’s been talking glares at you, “We have you surrounded, goliath, and you make an big target for my elven friends.  I wouldn’t be so cocky.”

Barry:  Bear cracks his knuckles and pulls his horses reins to move him out of the way so he can clearly see the talking one.  Then he slowly walks toward him, stopping just one square away.  Intimidate.  19.

Francis makes an eighth check.  While he moves figures on the battle map, he takes time to think about his response.  The PCs are still closer to defeat than victory.  He wants to ratchet up the tension as the scene comes to a conclusion -- either the PCs strategy will work and they'll feel great snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, or it will not work, and he needs to build toward that now, too.  He also wants to show Barry's action's effect, while giving someone else a chance to participate.    

Francis:  Winston flinches back five feet.  Then an arrow shoots into the ground between you and him:  A clear message that while you’ve made your point, any further aggression out of you will start a fight.

Alfred:  Things are getting heated, and all the attention is on Dogfinger, Bear, and Winston.  So I want to use this as an opportunity to disappear into the underbrush.  I think if they lose track of me, it will make them feel like they’re losing control of the situation, instead of controlling it with their threats.

Francis:  That’s a good point.  So far they’ve been acting to keep control.  Make a Stealth check.  But know that if they catch you, it might push them over the edge...

Alfred:  That's OK.  I rock at Stealth.  But...  I rolled a three. Crap.  Uh...  That’s a 16?

Francis makes a ninth check.  Full count!  The next check will make or break the scene, so he wants to turn up the heat even more.  Notice here that Alfred is a player who hasn't contributed much.  If Alfred hadn't chipped in, Francis could have thrown in an unexpected opportunity or challenge to Alphrydd.

Francis:  Wow.  You on a bad day are better than those other elves at their best!  While Bear is stalking up to Winston, you slip into the brush over here…  and when Bear stops, after the arrow shot, the bandit who was “covering” you and Erebus freaks out.  “Boss!  The elf’s gone!”  The leader shouts back, “You were supposed to be watching the elf and the wizard!”  “I had my eyes on the Goliath.”  “Moron.  Find him!”  Everybody seems to get tense, looking around, weapons at the ready...

Denise:  Dogfinger takes advantage of their panic.  “The elf?  You thought we only had one?  Hahahaha!”  Bluff.  Bam!  Go red die!  Natural 20.  Take notes, purple.  That’s a twenty effing nine. 

Francis, marking another check: ten of ten.  The PCs have won, so he concludes the scene.  He moves figures off the map as he narrates...

Francis:  The one near Erebus says, “Boss, I swear I have no clue where any of the elves went.  Hey, our elves are standing down!” ... Winston shouts, “Gwyd!  Get your men back in the trees!”  ...  But the elf named Gwydd shakes his head and makes a hand signal for “fall back.” ...  As the four humans back off, it’s clear who was really in charge in that encounter.  

Charlotte:  As they back off, Cara points at the leader with her longsword.  “One last thing, Winston.  Tell the other ‘rebels’ not to mess with us.  We’re in a hurry, and the next group we meet, we won’t feel as much like talking to.”


With that, the scene is over.  

Note the exposition that happened during the scene.  If the PCs had decided to attack instead of talk, they still would get some exposition, assuming they captured at least one bandit to question him.  The alliance between elves and humans would have cued them to ask about that.  Even if they hadn't, the exposition is optional -- when they get to the ruins of Verdidum, they'll learn about Tabitha and the rebellion.  

Notice that the PCs could have chosen other alternatives.  They could have used stealth and athletics to run away, into the brush.  They could have focused less on bluff and more in intimidate, or even been honest about chasing the assassin, using diplomacy primarily.

It's Fun to Make Up People...

Players build characters to suit their style, and choose how to handle challenges according to their style and character's abilities.  In my example, I envisioned Alfred as the sort of player who likes to break from the group to try something on his own, which is why he played a scout-type ranger.  He waited for a chance to get away to cause mischief   I envisioned Erica and Charlotte as the sorts of players who enjoy taking charge of the scene, with Erica playing more of a silent authority (since she's got a wizard), and Charlotte playing a take-charge leader type (suited to the leader role of the warlord).  I envisioned Denise and Barry as the fairly common, talkative, engaged sorts of players who are always trying to contribute to solving the problem at hand, if their characters were any good at it.

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