It’s been a while. Determining how best to break this down has taken a bit of work, but I think I’ve gotten it. Thanks for waiting!
Previously we discussed how skill challenges are made interesting through the proper use of choice. Now we are left with the question: how do we design choice? We build meaningful choice through the use of branches and nests.
Nesting will be covered in a later article. For now we will discuss branching.
There are two types of skills or actions in any skill challenge you make. Foundation skills contribute to the completion of the challenge. Supporting skills contribute no successes or failures to the challenge but either open up new avenues to pursue or give bonuses to those foundation skills already ‘in play’. A simple skill challenge uses foundation skills exclusively, where more complex skill challenges use a combination of foundation and supporting skills. An example of a foundation skill is Thievery in a lock-picking or trap-disabling challenge — you’ll need to make some successes to complete the challenge. A supporting skill in the above challenges would be Perception — maybe your rogue notices some peculiarity in the lock or trap mechanism that gives him a bonus his next Thievery roll.
You can build very engaging skill challenges with these elements. But how to go deeper? We differentiate the qualities of our foundational skills by offering different mechanical feedback into the skills used. In our simpler model above, which uses just foundation skills, our list of skills was flat. Each skill was the same as another because each produced the same result — a success or a failure. But if we say that use of Thievery gives the player a healing surge, while use of Intimidate forces the player to lose a healing surge, then we have mechanically split the skills. They have branched out into separate entities, and the player now has a real choice to make.
But, as discussed previously, this choice is not so great as far as gaming goes. One of these choices is obviously bad, and the other is obviously good. What we want is for the first level of choices, our foundation, to offer several different options to our players, each varying in quality, with few or none that are clearly bad. It’s ok to have one or two options that are less than desirable, but whenever players are presented with obvious paths, they will take them. Dead-ends that you place in your skill challenge will be ignored and bypassed as soon as they are revealed to your party.
In designing skill challenges, you want the players to feel that the whole story and mechanics of the challenge could be different if they chose other skills and actions. To do that you must consider what the skills you chose as foundations mean within the context of the challenge and develop sensible feedback that relays the context of those skills back to the players.
Let’s illustrate with a sample skill challenge. The PCs must navigate through a dangerous forest filled with wandering undead and necromantic energy. The energies suffused within the forest make it not only a physical effort, but a mental trial as well. It’s a complexity 2 challenge, so they need to accumulate six successes before three failures. Your foundational skills are:
Nature — knowledge of the outdoors and flora and fauna will help navigate through the forest.
History – you know the history of the woods and know what markers and locales within the forest you can use along the way to guide you.
Endurance – the mystical energies of the forest are draining, and the players must resist the enchantments that drain away at their life energy. You’d want to make one or two of these checks mandatory, with some negative feedback for failing the check.
Perception — you keep careful track of where you are, and are able to keep the party traveling in circles.
Arcana – could be used to detect spots of intense necrotic energy to be avoided.
Stealth – used to avoid the undead that lurch beneath the forest’s canopy.
Again, with the simple model we can rely on narrative improvisation to move the players through this scene quite enjoyably. If they fail, they could have an encounter, or be lost for a few more days. But keep in mind that, as it stands, this challenge is mechanically flat. Each skill, with the exception of Endurance, produces the same effect as the other skills.
Let’s branch out.
Nature — succeeding at nature can allow the finding of some rare or unknown plant, or opens up the possibility to use athletics to hurry things along or traverse a particularly treacherous path. On failure, we could leave it as a simple failure or expand feedback. You could say that the first failure in Nature prevents the failing PC from using it again (“Guess I didn’t know the woods as well as I thought!”)
History – success can lead the players to some other locale or site of interest, taking the PCs on a side quest. Taking the PCs to another part of the game, a game within a game, is also a prime example of nesting.
Endurance — this is fine because it already has a different effect, the potential loss of healing surges or a change in status.
Perception — perception causes the players to become lost when they fail at it, resulting in a penalty to their next Nature or Perception check.
Arcana – success at arcana give the players some information as to the magics that are surrounding this place. These details weave back into the main story at some point later.
Stealth –if PCs fail, they have a chance to stumble into some of the undead. Success shaves off some of the travel time, or allows the PCs to get an automatic surprise round on the creatures if they choose to attack anyway.
It would only take a few checks for the players to see that each choice has a unique effect. The only skill that leads to an inarguably bad result is the Endurance check, but that’s fine as it seeks to bring the “look and feel” of this dark forest to the players’ attention.
You don’t have to make a separate effect for each skill, however. Branching on just a few of the foundation skills is acceptable, and even encouraged, as a skill challenge can become quite unwieldy if you don’t limit these mechanical options. In the skill challenge above, for example, I might leave Nature flat, with no special feedback to be considered other than narrative feedback describing what happens. The skill challenge is then simplified but still wrought with meaning and more importantly, choice.
In our next article we will discuss nesting, the game within the game.
- Skill Challenges: City Ablaze
- Skill Challenges: All in the Cards.
- How To Design a Skill Challenge #3 Part 3: Nesting