In Part 1 we discussed two fundamental axioms of running skill challenges. When running skill challenges, one needs to understand that “skill challenge” is another term for “structured roleplay.” It is also vital to understand that the fundamental unit of skill challenges are really actions, not skills.
With that being understood, there are a few more thoughts I’d like to offer regarding improvisation and scene setting. But first I need to share a little tip I’ve learned with you:
The Purple Die of Failure and the Pink Die of Success
I stumbled upon this while running my first several challenges. I decided to track the PCs successes and failures with a score of pink six-siders I had on hand, and to track failures with some purple six-siders. When a character takes a successful action, I drop the pink die on front of the screen. I plunk a purple die down when a check is failed. While I am still looking into better tokens to use for this, tokens are definitely a nice aid when running a challenge.
Tokens let you start a skill challenge seamlessly:
PC: “So we’re going to need to scour the city looking for the kobold’s master. Streetwise to find some word?”
PC: “Got a 15.”
GM: ” You’re not going to find him in the cushier neighborhoods, which quickly becomes apparent. So you search in the city’s underbelly. There’s a few places of ill-repute which would be good places to start checking.” <Drops a pink die of success>
Once you drop that token, the players are made aware that they are in a skill challenge. The PC also knows that he’s garnered a success. You’ve slid into the skill challenge ninja-like.
Tokens are also great because you don’t have to interrupt the immersion in a character to indicate failure or success. Take this example from an actual session, where the players have disguised themselves as cultists of Orcus and are attempting to have a discussion with a skull lord named Raxxamun to find more information on the cult’s plot:
Raxxamun (GM): “…Your goal is to claim as many sacrifices to the Black Tree as possible. To that end you have done well.”
Kalil (Dragonborn Warlord): “But Lord Raxxamun, this Black Tree…how does it serve the glory of Orcus? What will we gain from it?” I’m rolling Diplomacy… a 10. blech.
Raxxamun (GM): “Living one, it is not your job to question me! You will serve because I have said, and you will remember your place if you wish to die and come back to serve our lord!” <drops a purple die> -2 on your checks from here on out, folks.
Arctana (Half-Elf Warlock): Uh-oh. “Of course, your lordship. We did not wish to lose sight of our positions. Truly you are a lord of death, a scourge of life. We can only hope to die and serve as well as you.” Uhm, Diplomacy as I try to sweet-talk him?
Raxxamun (GM): Sure.
Arctana (Half-Elf Warlock): I got a 20.
Raxxamun (GM): Skull lords don’t blush, but his posture has changed somewhat. “Good. See to it that your friend knows this as well, or I’ll leave him in the clutches of the Raven Queen for eternity. Now we must discuss our next plot for sacrifices…” <drops the pink die>
It seems like a small thing, but I found that I like using the non-verbal tokens for skill challenges to maintain flow and give indicators to the players. It’s something I recommend you try. You might even find better colors.
A Night at the Improv
What will excite you (and drain you!) the most with skill challenges is the amount of raw improvisation demanded. I confess that I’m a bit of a sadist for improv during sessions, but this may not be your cup of tea.
The call for improvisation does not have to come in the design of skill challenges : I’ve shown (hopefully) with the skill challenges that I’ve designed that you can prepare a skill challenge with some effort. The call for improvisation will come from when players are thinking outside the box and taking actions that you hadn’t thought of but which may or may not work. You’ll need to come up with both roleplaying and mechanical feedback for the player, on the spot.
And yes, sometimes you will need to conjure up a skill challenge out of whole cloth. This isn’t as hard as it seems, and I’ll discuss that in-depth later with my skill challenge design series.
What you need to know at the outset is that improvisation for roleplaying is a) not that hard and b) very fun. A book I’ll recommend is the terrific Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley. It’s a quick but productive read to get your head in the proper space for improvisation.
Mechanically, “The GM’s Best Friend” and the post-errata DCs will get you through. Again, I’m going to defer that discussion but promise to go in-depth when we arrive at this topic.
Part 3 will provide more detailed advice on the “props” of skill challenges, and the use of time.
- How To Make A Skill Challenge Fun, Part 1.
- Is it a Fight or a Skill Challenge?
- How To Design a Skill Challenge #3 Part 3: Nesting