What I’d like to address in this article is time.
Time is on your side (Yes it is)
Pacing is an important storytelling tool in every medium. When you GM a game, pacing and control of time is one of your main duties. Time is fluid in RPGs, and you want to keep a game moving at just the right speed. Sometimes you gloss over a week. Other times you drill right down into a conversation, playing everything out in real time.
The use of time in skill challenges is only a microcosm of what you already do in the rest of the game, and the decisions of how to move time forward can change the feel of a skill challenge dramatically.
As an example, Bet Your Life has the PCs locked in a high-stakes (is a soul high stakes enough?) poker match with a villain. Two basic views of time will cover everything we need. We can move time atomically, that is to say we’ll move through as each action is working through the fundamental structure of time (in the case of a poker game, the playing through of a hand). We can fast-forward and poke-in to relevant or dramatic moments, creating a montage of scenes to establish the mood instead of establishing the details.
In the “atomic” model of time, we’re handling each skill check as covering a discrete event, in the mode of time that best represents the nature of the challenge. In “Bet Your Life” that is one hand.
Warlock: I’ll sit down at the table. I glare at Du’Cell. ‘The only thing that would make this better is if we were putting your soul for wager…but I’ll take the information for you just as well.’
Du’Cell (GM): ‘Well, at least wait until you see your cards and lose some chips before making predictions. The gods alone know the future, and the bold…often find themselves on the wrong end of fate. Wouldn’t you agree?’ The gambler shuffles the cards with a deft hand and deals them out quickly. Roll for your hand.
Warlock: You better believe I’m cheating. I’ll palm a card and then declare loudly, ‘You call this a fair game? It’s a game of chance, but even a fool knows his chances are better with right amount of cards!’ Thievery?
Du’Cell (GM): Yep.
Rogue: Getting his meaning, I’ll Aid Another. I’ll try to distract Du’Cell. ‘Surely sir, you can’t expect us to make a game of this without being a fair sort yourself. If this is the sort of cheating you expect to do, it’s not going to work.’ Can I use Diplomacy for the aid?
Du’Cell (GM): Since you’re trying to fast-talk him, yes.
Rogue: I got a 15, so yes. +2 to your Theivery roll. Please make it!
Warlock: Oh yes I do…22.
Du’Cell (GM): ‘Oh. My…mistake, apparently? Here good sir, it was just a simple miscalculation on my part. I can assure you this won’t happen again.’ He stares right into your eyes with menace as he offers that last sentence. You’ve got it, but since you started so early, he’s on the lookout for you in the future. -4 on Thievery checks from here on out.
Warlock: If you’re not cheating you’re not trying, right? I roll my hand…I roll –a one?!?!?!?! All that effort for nothing. Even with a +1 it’s a bad hand.
Du’Cell (GM): That it is…(rolls Du’Cell’s hand secretely). ‘Well, now that we have the correct amount of cards, let’s put the correct amount of chips in the pot, shall we? What are you willing to wager?’
Warlock: OK, so I’ve got a bad hand, and I don’t know what it is he has. This is awful. But, Du’Cell doesn’t know I’m not a complete idiot…’Oh, um sure! How much do I put in? Which chips?’
Paladin: I’ll play along. ‘You mean you don’t even know how to bet? I thought you’d played this game before? A man’s soul is on the line here!’
Warlock: ‘Well, I mean I’ve played it once or twice, awhile ago. I’ll pick it up quick, don’t worry!’ (turning to the GM) ‘Now Du’Cell, help me with the rules just this once, please?’
Du’Cell (GM): Bluff, with one aid.
Paladin: Bluff is not my skill…which is why I get an 8, no aid.
Warlock: That’s fine, because Bluff is one of my skills. And I grab an 18.
Du’Cell (GM): ‘Oh, surely. Despite what you said earlier, I am a man of indisputable honor…in the arena of gaming. We’ll be betting in increments of those blue chips you have there. The minimum will be two of those, or one of your red chips.’ As you place your chips in Du’Cell puts a great deal of effort in hiding a smile. +2 on your next insight check.
Warlock: Getting cocky, eh? Well, I’ll bet and I’ll be looking for that cocky little smile to get me an advantage over the next hand.
Du’Cell(GM): Roll Insight for this hand.
Warlock: OK, I’ve got a 17. The bonus on my roll negates the advantage I just got.
Du’Cell (GM): You drive your wagers up as you don’t see that smile. It actually looks like he’s frowning a bit. He should fold any time now. Except it’s not happening. With the final wager of the hand in, the tiefling is still in it. Now you have to hope he has a hand as bad as yours…which he does not possess. One failure.
Du’Cell(GM): As he scoops the chips : ‘Well, what was I saying? Yes, the gods smile where they will and too often, not on the bold, but on the prepared. Maybe you’d seek a little counsel from your friends on the nuances of this fine and honored game? So we can make a contest of it. A show. Your friend wouldn’t want to lose his soul in a pitiful exhibition such as this, would you?’
The advantages of atomic time passage are that it’s straight up roleplay. Villains taunt, heroes sweat. It’s the most detailed level that time will pass at, but it’s also the slowest. Moving along at this pace, 10 successes could take an hour or more. Which is fine as long as you’re engaging all the players (the taunt from Du’Cell is also an invitation for PCs to get into contest so the don’t sit by and just occasionally aid the Warlock) and that’s what you want to spend the session doing. But what if there are other matters that you really want to address in the session? You need to hurry the challenge along.
Now what we’re doing is moving the passage of time quickly. Every once in awhile we will poke our heads into the scene and drill down a bit, then back out again. Think of this as a montage of the obligatory training sequence in a martial arts film. We’re being shown the rough path the protagonist is taking, and every once in awhile we look at some particular noteworthy incident. Then we keep moving on. In this mode, each skill check represents an aggregate of actions taken.
In Bet Your Life, we’ll say each skill check represents several hands, and we’ll poke-in to see the results of a representative hand. The game has been grueling, so time is going to be measured in hour-long increments.
Du’Cell (GM): The game goes on for longer than anticipated. Du’Cell refuses to squander his early lead he gained, so he bets the minimum and folds every chance he gets. He only goes in on truly big hands. You’ve managed to avoid the biggest traps, though, and have almost suckered the tiefling in a few times. Daylight no longer filters into the room. A starry night is now the backdrop for the game. Du’Cell seems nowhere near to tiring, however.
Warlock: Well, I’m sure I am. Will he allow us to switch players?
Du’Cell(GM): ‘Surely you’re not tiring of the game,are you? Ah well, some haven’t the stomach for a true test of the spirit. My appetite for the game, you’ll find, is quite…limitless. Bring in your replacement, quickly.’ You trade places with the Paladin and now the games continue. Roll for your hand.
Paladin: I’m not cheating, so it’s just a straight up roll…4! Just barely there, but a good hand is a good hand. I’ve been watching this whole time, so I think that I have a good read on what Du’Cell’s about. Over the next few hands I’m going to push him, be aggressive in terms of the hands I’ll play. Not extremely risky, but I want to put him off-balance. I’ll play right up to the line with him. Intimidate?
Du’Cell (GM): Yep.
Paladin: hehe…I got a 20 with the bonus.
Du’Cell(GM): You play questionable hands as strong as you play dominant hands, going after the gambler’s chips with a ferocity that he certainly wasn’t expecting. You lose a few hands, but you make up for that by winning big on several more hands. You have enlarged your chip lead by a little more.
The Poke-In moves much more quickly than an atomic pace. We get a good feel for what’s happening, but the detail-richness and roleplaying that occurs in the atomic view is simply not present in this way of moving the story forward.
Ultimately what you’ll want to do is mix looking at time both ways to get a proper mix of for a skill challenge. Returning to “Bet Your Life”, what you might want to do is look at the first hand in real-time, then expand into a fast-forward montage, and then on a roll that could mean success or failure for the whole challenge, move into real-time again.
Using time effectively will help the pacing and the scene setting of your skill challenge immensely.
More to come! In Part 4, techniques for scene setting.
- Skill Challenges #2: Bet your life
- How To Make A Skill Challenge Fun, Part 1.
- How To Make a Skill Challenge Fun, Part 2 — The world’s a stage.