What is nesting? If branching gives us better differentiation between choices, then nesting is a away of expanding our initial array of choices. Normally branching provides some quality of feedback, positive or negative. The feedback that nesting provides is more choice. Option A leads to option A1, A2, and A3.
Before tackling implementation, let’s discuss what makes nesting desirable. The rewards of nesting stem from the assumption that good games offer meaningful choices to their players. Accept this and you can accept that the most rewarding feedback is not positive or negative rewards, but more choices. When we nest in skill challenges, we create depth. Our players will see that we’ve obviously thought things through. They also see that their choices have further consequences. We can’t hold off positive and negative feedback forever; eventually the players need to win or fail the challenge. Deferral of that ultimate reward of success or failure with varied, multiple choices with relationships with each other creates more interest and fun for ourselves and our players.
So what is a proper way to implement nesting? When we nest new choices within one of our skill branches, what we are saying is that not only are our skill options different, they have different options that stem from them. So, each choice in our nest must relate to the branch it extends from. You are saying at that point, because you did this, then you can do these things. So we design the nest with the skill/action that creates it in mind. And always, we create with interest in mind. Some actions are better nested than others. Ask yourself if your players would find it interesting. Some parties might find an expansion of haggling with a merchant scintillating, others might be bored. What the latter group might want to see expanded is a scene where they sneak into the castle.
I’ll use one of my skill challenges as an example. In Prison Break: Caged, the characters have an option to bluff a guard in order to distract him. If the bluff succeeds, the players don’t just get a simple success or failure or some other feedback. They get more choices:
Bluff (moderate DC): You are able to distract the guard, leaving him vulnerable to further trickery. If you succeed at this check, a player may follow up with one of the following checks:
- Thievery (moderate DC): The guard’s keys are right in front of you. You have to take them.
- Knockout (Basic Melee vs 14 + PC Level): You knock the guard out. Counts as three successes. If this check fails, the challenge is automatically failed.
Neither Thievery nor the Knockout can occur unless the Bluff happens. If the bluff works, the players can take a risk, or they can go back to one of the other options.
Another application of nesting is the mini-challenge. This is a true game within a game, or a challenge within a challenge. The mini-challenge will actually be a skill challenge all on its own. It’s best to keep this very short (my preferred mechanic for that is 2 success before 2 failures, but I would rarely, if ever, go above four successes and three failures). When that challenge is succeeded or failed, its results tie back into the larger skill challenge. You can find an example of nesting in Walk Through Dreams. The challenge splits the PCs into their own personal scene (I’m releasing a manuscript of my group’s play of it so you can see how it went). This one in particular is interesting, because the beginning branches are nests themselves. Each character is set to answer some questions about him or herself before actually moving to the group challenge. I keep these mini-challenges short, but believe me when I tell you that setting the scene properly in response to the PCs’ answers creates some intense roleplaying scenes.
To illustrate mini-challenges, we have created a skill challenge where one of the actions the players can choose is to use Thievery to steal something. We could provide simple positive feedback for the success, or we could “drill down” into that action. After the PC steals the item with thievery, the local authorities are alerted. Now the players have to run from the local guard! That initial act of Thievery has now opened up a mini-skill challenge where the players must run from the guard if they are to continue with the overall skill challenge they started with. If they fail, perhaps they are locked up, and have to pay exorbitant bail to get out. But now they are being watched closely, so they suffer a +2 DC on all actions for the rest of the challenge, as well as losing a handsome sum of money.
Next up: The black arts of sequencing and cycling.
- How to Design a Skill Challenge #2: Branching
- How to Design a Skill Challenge, Part 1: Theory of Choice
- How to Design a Skill Challenge Part 5: Cycling.