Monday, April 06, 2009

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 9

Whether you're talking about the current 4th Edition or previous versions, "Dungeons and Dragons" gameplay has always been balanced towards combat. Despite this focus, 4E D&D contains rules for "skill challenges," sequences where players roll dice around the table in order to solve a particular problem (whether it's a deadly trap, a tense negotiation with a band of thieves, or trying to research an obscure spell).

A skill challenge involves players rolling d20 skill checks in succession, all with a target number that they have to hit for success. I think designing an interesting skill challenge is tricky, so here are some overall principles that I stick to in my games:

1) Make sure there are several skills that can be used to succeed - The average D&D character only has so many things that they are good at. A ranger, for example, might have a pretty diverse skill set: climbing, tracking animals, stealth, surviving in the wilderness, etc.; all of those skills, however, are worthless when you're trying to convince the leader of a mercenary army to help you ambush a caravan.

Or are they? Perhaps you can use a Nature skill check to remember a terrain feature that might keep the mercenary army safe while the PCs engage in more direct combat. Maybe you can sneak into the leader's room to discover some motivation that you can exploit in the negotiation. The Difficulty Class for those outside-the-box skill checks should be high (after all, the Diplomacy, Insight, and perhaps Intimidate/Bluff checks should be more relevant in social challenges to reward players who train in them), but the important thing is to give players something to do that's based off of their characters' past experiences.

2) The consequences for failure shouldn't be too drastic - A skill challenge is very limited in terms of the tactics and powers that players can bring to bear. During a combat encounter, players can work together on the battlefield, providing flanking bonuses and using all of their equipment to influence the result. Most skill challenges, on the other hand, are basically die-rolling contests; a string of bad luck on the part of the PCs (4 or 5 single-digit d20 rolls) can make success nearly impossible, even given good roleplaying decisions on the part of the PCs.

Typically, penalizing the PCs with the loss of a healing surge or two for a close failure is sufficient. Major failures or sloppy roleplaying might have more drastic consequences, like making the next encounter harder (perhaps the failed stealth mission into a castle drew additional guards from the castle walls, or maybe the terrain itself changes to the PCs' detriment). Only in extraordinary cases should the DM impose more permanent disadvantages, like hard-to-cure diseases or lost opportunities to get treasure.

3) Tailor the length/complexity of the skill challenge to where it is during the adventure - The published 4E D&D adventures typically do a bad job of handling skill challenge length. They require an onerous amount of successes that often makes the skill challenge more trouble than it's worth, especially during combat. After all, in a combat encounter, time is precious, and every round spent fumbling with some trap or arcane ritual is a round that isn't spent attacking an enemy. I just hate it when an adventure requires a half-dozen successful d20 rolls to disable a trap during a fight - it's boring, it's mechanical, and it's not fair in most circumstances.

There are a few ways around the problem. The simplest is to decrease the required successes and failures. Another is to allow the expenditure of character powers in order to make multiple skill checks during a single round, especially for rogue classes. If a rogue wants to blow a daily power or two to disable a dangerous trap quickly, they should probably have that option. Most drastically, you can make it so that skill checks toward the challenge are only move or minor actions, allowing a PC to do something else in the same round.


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