Hacking Skill Challenges

January 8th, 2009

In my previous post, I mentioned that skill challenges could be adapted to cover even more situations, provided you, as gamemaster, were willing to bend their rules a bit.  There are a few ways of accomplishing this.

Extend the Failures

There’s no reason why every skill challenge has to be based around three failures.  If the PCs are allowed to fail more checks before the challenge fails, the challenge is made easier to pass, all else being equal.

You could simply extend the challenge by proportionately increasing the numbers required.  A skill challenge requiring 8 successes before 6 failures is the same as one requiring 4 successes before 3 failures, but will take roughly twice as long.  This might be useful if you game with a particularly large group (more than 6) — it gives everyone a chance to participate.  It also extends the roleplay surrounding the challenge, so even with a smaller group, you might find this method better if the challenge deals with a major campaign event.

You can also extend disproportionately.  4 successes before 4 failures might be appropriate for a challenge that’s even easier than a typical complexity-1 challenge — that should give the party about a 50% base chance of success, or more with bonuses for roleplaying and skill use.  You can use a more-forgiving challenge like this whenever you feel the party should have a fairly high chance of success.

Change the Numbers

By default, there are three DCs for skill checks in a challenge:  one each for easy, moderate, and hard checks.  You can vary these a little, though.  If the base “easy” DC is 20, you might decide that a certain skill is even easier, requiring DC 18.  Another skill might be a bit tougher, but not as tough as the “moderate” DC of 24, so you can peg it at DC 22.

Customizing a DC or two in this way keeps players who like to memorize the tables guessing.  It also can award trying different approaches — you might make the first check against a given skill 2 DC lower, while raising the level for subsequent efforts using the same skill.  It may feel more realistic to some players, as well.

Changing the DCs can have a major impact on cumulative success rates, though.  The Core Mechanic’s post on success chances shows just how great it can be.  Lowering a DC by 2 is the same as giving a +2 bonus to the roll; raising a DC is the same as a penalty to the check.  Over the course of multiple rolls, even a simple +2 can have a large impact on the final success chance.

Change the Conditions

As one of the commenters on my previous post noted, you can have an ongoing skill challenge, using the accumulated number of successes and failures as a measure of where the target of the skill challenge stands.  This can be a good solution for large-scale, ongoing events in the campaign world.

One other method I’ve used is a mega-challenge, a skill challenge itself composed of skill challenges.  This occurred when my players took sides in a war, and both they and the enemy attempted to influence a neutral third party to their side of the conflict.  The third party was reluctant to enter into the conflict, so this required multiple diplomatic meetings over the course of many game months.  Each of these meetings was itself a skill challenge, and the success or failure of each challenge contributed toward the result of the overall mega-challenge.  A success tilted the neutral nation’s policies in the PCs’ favor; a failure did not; and a catastrophic failure could even cause the nation to tilt toward the PCs’ enemies.

The NPCs made challenge checks of their own during this time, of course, and on several occasions their delegation and the PCs crossed paths, for extra roleplaying potential.  On one occasion, the NPC group managed to distract and sabotage the PCs, causing them to miss their meeting entirely, automatically failing one of the challenges.  The players were out for blood after that!  When they finally got to confront their rivals in open combat, it proved an enormously satisfying encounter for them.

Alter the Paradigm

Bored with running combats?  Or maybe you just want to have an action-packed feel without having to actually run more than a combat or two a session?  Substitute skill challenges for some of them.  No, not diplomacy and persuasion (although you can do that, too), but a combat challenge.

The players describe what actions they’re taking, and you decide what rolls to call for.  Acrobatics, Athletics, Endurance, knowledges, Insight, and Stealth can all play in fairly easily.  The flashy, charismatic rogue might Bluff the enemies to throw them off guard, or use Thievery to improvise a trap while the warlord lures them into an ambush.  A straight attack roll might be called for, too.  Don’t bother tracking hit points — a success kills off a monster in a dramatic manner, or wounds a bigger monster, while a failure causes a wound, noted by the loss of a healing surge.

This is combat from a strategic level, rather than the usual tactical level, and it usually moves quite a bit faster while still keeping much of the feel of regular combat.  The party can expend powers to gain bonuses or even automatic successes.  More to the point, though, they can roleplay in a Feng Shui sort of style, describing elaborate maneuvers and cinematic sword-swinging.  Remember to reward good descriptions with bonuses!

This system works very well for combat against numerous fairly homogenous enemies.  An “army of mooks” encounter can be handled this way in a short time — a small group of giants, a band of brigands, or a pack of wolves.  Once you’ve got some practice setting the DCs, you can even expect it to take a share of resources that’s about on-par with what a tactical combat would consume.

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Related posts:

  1. What Skill Challenges Aren’t
  2. More on Skill Challenges…
  3. War Week: A Harvest of Men
  4. A Harvest of Men (III)
  5. Heroic Effort

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2 Comments

  1. jonathan, Jan. 8, 2009, 1:10 pm:

    moving away from tactical combat, as a breath of fresh air or to accommodate truly huge battles, is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. For players of 4E, using skill challenges to mitigate this is a good solution – but it also brings to bear an important caveat: can character DEATH occur during a so-called “combat challenge”? Moreover, there would need to be degrees of failure: one failure and you all loose 2 healing surges, two failures and someone goes down (but not dead), three failures and someone dies. How would this, in your mind, be handled?

    (on a side note: is there a way to subscribe to comments on your blog?)

    jonathan´s last blog post: Existere – A Map of RPG Blogs & Gaming Cons

  2. Scott, Jan. 8, 2009, 5:04 pm:

    They can, yes. This is one of those things that you can adjudicate as GM. If you stick to the three-failures format, then your suggestion is one way to handle it. If you extend the format, you can have each failure cost a healing surge (the easy but long way), or set up an increasing-damage failure consequence, so that the first time a character fails, it’s one surge, the second is two surges, the third is unconsciousness, and then they make death saves when their turn comes around.

    It’s definitely off-the-cuff, but it can work.

    Comments… I suppose I should add a subscription link for that to my sidebar. There is a feed, of course. This link will take you to it.

    Edit: Got it on the sidebar now. Thanks.

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