Tuesday, March 22, 2011

DnD: A New Approach to 4e Skill Challenges

I've read a lot of posts and tweets about making Combat more efficient in 4e; often frustrated that I didn't really have any good ideas or suggestions to offer. So I began to look at another oft-discussed aspect of the game: Skill Challenges and how to make them easier to manage for DM’s and provide a more organic, in-character experience for players.  

I am very interested in any and all feedback from DM’s and players concerning this approach.
Handling a Skill Challenge
A Skill Challenge is a discreet event that occurs within a role-playing session. They have a beginning, operate across a series of turns until a predefined end-state has been reached; at which point the consequences of the players’ performance is determined. I propose that this structure exists primarily for the benefit of the DM; helping them stay focused and organized as they direct the game.

But what about the players? Frankly, I feel that announcing the start of a structured experience - such as a Skill Challenge or Combat Encounter - takes the players out of the game. Handled carelessly, it is tantamount to saying “Okay, we’re going to stop role-playing now and start rolling dice.” Not only does that interrupt the narrative flow of the game, but I think it tends to put players in a meta-mentality and hurts spontaneous in-character role playing that might have otherwise occurred. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments)

Consequently, I would not recommend announcing when you begin a Skill Challenge. Simply let the party know that there is a goal or objective that needs to be achieved, and that they will be using their skills to do so. If there is someway to impart this information to the PC’s through an NPC or environmental clue, so much the better.

In the same way, DM's shouldn't feel obligated to divulge every reward or penalty earned in the challenge. Obviously results that have an immediate impact on what's happening need to be conveyed to the group, but imagine your PC's surprise when an unexpected ally pops up in a dire situation due to their success in a Skill Challenge a while back - or their dismay when attempts to rally support in a village fall on deaf ears due to their inept handling of a negotiation in another region. Regardless of how a DM chooses to implement this, it needs to plausible.
Complexity equals the number of rounds participants have to complete a Skill Challenge. Example: A Skill Challenge of Complexity 3 lasts 3 rounds; each player will make 3 skill checks. Likewise, if any opposing NPC’s or monsters are working against the PC’s in the challenge, they will also get 3 checks each to negate a PC’s individual success.

Complexity should be in direct proportion to the amount of effort or the number of smaller tasks the PC’s would ordinarily have to put forth in order to accomplish their goal. Note that Complexity is NOT the same thing as Difficulty - which is how hard a task is to complete. A Skill Challenge can be simple and hard, or complex-yet-easy to accomplish.


DM’s decide ahead of time which skills will be Primary Skills. The players WILL NOT know which skills are Primary, nor will they be given any pre-written examples of how to use a skill. Instead, a PC may use any skill she wishes. Primary skills will, naturally, be the most effective; Secondary skills are slightly less effective and take a -1 to their final score; Other skills are a bit of a gamble, but still have a chance to succeed - especially if the player using them offers a particularly clever description of what they are doing; in which case, no penalty should be subtracted.

Primary SkillsNo penalty
Secondary Skills (optional)-1
All other skills-2

You may still wish to implement skills that auto-fail during a Challenge (which almost always seems to be Intimidate). I would recommend against letting players know how the scores are adjusted, but it is ultimately up to the DM.
DC’s (Difficulty)
How hard is it to accomplish some (or all) part(s) of a Skill Challenge?

Each skill listed as Primary or Secondary needs a DC assigned to it; the level of DC’s selected in a Skill Challenge remains the same. See pgs. 158-9 and 126 in the Essential Rules Compendium for details.

All other skills should default to a level-appropriate Medium DC, unless use of a particular skill is especially risky, in which case it should be Hard.
Accumulating Successes
There are two types of success : individual and group. Individual success occurs when a PC meets or beats a given DC in a round. Group success occurs when the majority of a party succeeds in a given round. If there are an even number of PC’s in a party, DM’s should decide ahead of time if an even split will result in a success (nice DM’s) or failure (mean DM’s). Regardless of the choice, STICK WITH IT - at the very least for the duration of the Skill Challenge; ideally for the entire campaign.
Success or Failure of the Challenge
The number of group successes needed is always two less than the Complexity, making things easy to remember. I would not recommend Skill Challenges of very high Complexities; instead, consider where it might make sense to increase DC’s.

ComplexityGroup successes neededComplexityGroup successes needed

Complexity 1 challenges are essentially a single Group Skill Check and thus, not included. A DM could run a Complexity 2 skill challenge, requiring one success - that might be easier to conceptualize as a Group Check with a ‘do over.’
Consequences: Success and Failure
There are four possible outcomes to every Skill Challenge:

1) Perfect: Target # of successes are accumulated with NO failures - The best possible outcome, this should be reward over and above the basic storyline goal of the Skill Challenge - perhaps with a boon or additional advantage to what the PC’s would normal get for accomplishing a Skill Challenge. DM’s may want to leave the Perfect finish off of Challenges of Complexity 1 or 2, since they are so easy to obtain.

2) Normal Success:  Target # of successes before failure - The PC’s did what they needed to do and the story may progress as they hoped it would. If any additional rewards are given, they should be to a lesser degree than they would get for a Perfect finish.

3) Normal Failure: Failing to accumulate target # of success before failing - The PC’s failed to do what needed to be done. The story continues, but now they are at a noticeable disadvantage. Additional penalties may be awarded, but - as with Normal Success - should be to a lesser extent than those awarded for a Critical Failure.

4) Critical Failure: NO successes accumulated before failing the Challenge - The PC’s blew it. Big time. Not only did they fail to accomplish their goal, but they  used up additional resources/goodwill in the process and took a blow to their reputation for it. The PC’s have additional negative results - such as damaged reputation with townsfolk, which causes prices to be higher when paying for goods and services - in addition to the now-altered story.

The consequences for failure should ALWAYS be considered when building a Skill Challenge and not put off until the moment the PC’s fail. The additional boons and penalties for particularly good or poor performance in a Skill Challenge can (and probably should) be generic and easily applicable to a variety of situations.

Example Skill Challenge

DM's Notes
Complexity: 4 (need 2 group successes)
Primary Skills (DC): Diplomacy (Med), Bluff (High), Insight (Med), Perception (Med)
Secondary Skills (DC): Arcana (High), History (Med), Streetwise (High)
* Intimidate will auto-fail
Goal: Keep the infected people on the wagon from entering the city

DM: An outbreak causing people to turn into zombies has begun to ravage the countryside. You three (PC's) must try and convince the guard at the gate to raise the draw bridge before a wagon full of plague-infected farmers crosses into the city. One of the city residents - a relative of the people on the wagon - refuses to believe that they are infected and is arguing to let them in; he will make an opposing check against one of you at the end of each round. The guard will listen for 4 rounds before making up his mind. So, PC-1, you start and we'll go around the table.

Round 1

PC-1: Guardsman! You've got to close that gate - many innocent lives will be put at risk if you let that wagon cross without verifying if those people are infected or not. I rolled a 12, add 5 to diplomacy; 17.

DM: (makes a check mark on a sheet of paper for the success) Surprised, the guard looks at the wagon. 'Really? Infected?' he asks, looking concerned.

PC-2: I climb the wall, granting me a better view of the wagon. It definitely looks like the people are unwell. I got a 16 on Athletics.

DM: (-2 since Athletics wasn't a listed skill, it’s a failure; makes an 'x' on beside the check mark) The guard looks at you skeptically.

PC-3: Sir, you must know that this same incident occurred five years ago in the kingdom to the north. If only they'd taken the extra precaution of stopping the wagon and checking the people, a village could've been saved. History check of 19!

DM: (-1 for a Secondary skill, but it still passes; DM puts a second check mark down) The guard seems to nod his head thoughfully. At this point, the man speaks up angrily.

Man (DM): Those people are loyal subjects of the crown and have every right to enter this city!' (10 for Diplomacy fails the check).

DM: You can tell the guard doesn't appreciate the man's tone. 'I need something else to go on before I can close the gate,'he turns back to the party. (2 successes is enough to win the round - 1 group success so far)

Round 2

PC-1: I can tell you're unsure, maybe even a little nervous about closing the city in the middle of the day - but this is the right thing to do! A ... 12 on Insight?

DM: (No penalty, but 12 is too low; so an 'x' is marked below the first three marks) The guard seems to have taken your words the wrong way. 'Nervous?' he asks, somewhat crossly.

PC-2: Look pal, we're trying to save this city! If you won't raise the bridge willingly, we'll make you! Sweet! Natual 20 for Intimidation!

DM: (A second 'x' mark, as Intimidate auto-fails) The guard takes a step back, but refuses to throw the lever, instead putting a hand on the hilt of his sword. 'Are you threatening me?'

PC-3: Sir, please, I am sensitive to magic and I tell you that the people headed towards this city have been infected by a dark spell! 24 for Arcana after bonuses!

DM: (Takes off -1, but it still passes; check mark) The guard takes in your attire and magical acourtrements and seems swayed.

Man (DM): Oh please! These people are outsiders to our city! Who knows what ulterior motives they have in shutting our kinsmen out like common highwaymen? (DM decides that Streetwise bets fits and rolls 19; a success - which negates PC-3's success; the PC's have been shut out this round)

DM: The guard considers the man's words and turns a cold eye on your party. 'I've nearly made up my mind,' he says, 'you've one last chance to convince me, else I let those people in and report you lot as troublemakers to the city watch.' (The group now has 1 success and 1 failure)

Round 3

PC-1: The wagon is close now - you can see how pale and sickly the people on it are! They do not look well! Perception of 22 after modifiers.

DM: (starts a third row of marks with a check)

PC-2: Have you not seen the fliers around town about the illness that has befallen the countryside? Citizens are being warned to stay in the city; this is common knowledge! Got a 19 for Bluff.

DM: (another check mark) The guard looks around the street. It does seem like an unusually small number of people have passed through the city's gates today.

PC-3: Look! In the sky! Those are vultures circling - they can smell the stink of illness and decay emanating from the wagon. You do not want that in the city. I rolled a 20 on Nature.

DM: (a third check mark) The guard looks to the birds, then to the wagon, then back to the birds. He seems to be considering your words.

Man (DM): Oh come on! Birds!? You're seriously going to consider raising a drawbridge because of a couple birds? I just came here from Gustav's stall in the market; he's not heard anything 'bout no 'dark magic' or 'infections' - and GUstav knows everything that happens around here! (natural 20 on Streewise nets the NPC a victory over one of the PC's individual successes; however, two other individual successes win the round for the PC's)

DM: The guard nods in agreement. 'You're right, I haven't heard anything about it. But,' he starts winching up the draw bridge, 'better safe than sorry! We'll check them out. If they're clean, they come in; if not, they can stay outside.' (There is no need for the fourth round as two group successes net a Normal Success for the party) The people on the wagon are checked and found to be in the process of turning into zombies! The mayor is grateful and asks if the PC's will help direct the city defenses should a horde of undead assault the city (which, of course, they will)

When a large force of zombies assaults the town later that night, the PC's don't have to worry about a sudden zombie outbreak in the town; had they failed they would have been attacked from both sides.

So, there it is! I'd love to hear about any experiences in trying this approach - good or bad. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Art, Misc: Da Vinci and Me

A few years back, I was getting counseling as part of an effort to overcome some personal struggles I was having as a result of my insecurity, anxiety, and undiagnosed low-grade depression. I found myself repeatedly mentioning how I loved to create and to be creative - despite the very uncreative existence I was living at the time - and that my attempts to pursue a 'practical' life was in conflict with the person I was created to be and the life I was called to lead.

red conte on paper, 18 x 24"
"Who is it you want to be?" I was asked at one point. It took all of a half-second to decide. "Leonardo da Vinci," I replied, completely serious. I went on to explain that the man was a genius, fascinated by everything, threw himself into everything he did, and while he didn't produce a huge number of works in his lifetime, what he did finish mattered - he lived passionately, if impractically.

Not to sound arrogant, but I'm pretty smart, pretty good at art - I want to produce all sorts of creative works in a variety of media, and I have the tendency to jump headlong into everything I try ... up until the point at which I'm distracted by the next shiny thing that catches my attention and I jump into that, leaving a dearth of half-finished projects in my wake.

Fast forward to a week ago. I'm taking Advanced Drawing; free classes being one of the perks at the university where I work. Our assignment it to pick a Renaissance artist and copy one of his sketches. Then, produce an original sketch in the artist's style. By now it should be obvious who I picked. And, to be honest, I was pretty proud of the sketch I copied. It turned out well and I got a good grade on it.

However, when it came time to do the second piece, an original sketch in the selected artist's style, I was so burned out from trying to do justice to da Vinci's self-portrait that I honestly didn't care. I approched it like a regular drawing and drew like Paul, not like da Vinci.

pencil and charcoal on paper, 18 x 24"
The grade on the second drawing wasn't as high. Below the class average, in fact. Initially, this bothered me - I like to excel in everything I do and below average is not excelling. Then I started to compare the pictures and realized something: There is more of me in the self-portrait - literally and figuratively, than in my attempt to ape da Vinci's self-portrait.

It's real. It's honest in a way the other picture is not, flaws and all.

Don't get me wrong, there are certainly things I could get hung up on and criticize - the face, for example. But that line of thinking always pits me against myself: "I'm not da Vinci!" I'd gripe as I started to chafe at the differences in skill between myself and a dedicated Renaissance master; an all-to-common conversation, I'm embarrassed to admit.

And then, for the first time, it hit me: No, I'm not da Vinci, I'm Paul.

And I'm okay with that.