I originally started writing this entry talking about manipulatives, which are any tokens, objects or bits of something that is handled and moved around to signify meaning. But as I wrote it, it really coalesced around skill challenges and one manipulative specifically – the Bonus Token.
Don’t go looking in your core rulebooks for this because you’re not going to find it. It’s something I’ve cribbed from other games and ported into 4th Edition D&D. How often have you been adjudicating a skill challenge and one of your players makes a check that goes beyond a simple secondary skill, in a way that is both creative and reasonable but doesn’t directly contribute to winning the challenge? Many times, you dole out a +2 to the next check and go on with it, but as a DM, I found that got really lame really fast. It increases the odds of the next check succeeding by 10% but if it doesn’t help (or isn’t necessary), the player may not feel particularly inclined to come up with another unique idea later and I definitely want to encourage that sort of thinking.
When one of my players goes in a direction with a skill check that I didn’t expect and passes a level-appropriate DC, I throw them a little chip with the word “Bonus!” on it. (I play mostly on MapTools VTT so I can make all sorts of weird virtual stuff). It tells the player that I officially recognize the successful skill check and feel that it was somehow appropriate but have no idea how to incorporate that check at this exact moment. I also take particular care to NOT describe that check in the game story when it’s made.
In this way, I don’t feel like I ever have to say “no” to anything, but the pressure to come up with the result immediately is lifted. Later on in the challenge, players can ‘cash in’ their tokens for other effects related to the skill check. Here’s an example – the players are chasing a thief through a busy town. The primary skills are Athletics, Acrobatics, Perception, Endurance and Streetwise. Your player’s Cleric is not trained in any of these things, so she decides to use Religion; she prays to Erathis, the goddess of law and civilization for help. That seems both creative and reasonable, so upon making her check, you throw her a bonus token. When the thief is caught, the cleric asks “is the thief part of the evil cult we’re looking for?” and waves her token.
If the thief wasn’t already a cultist, but you’re prepared to play it that way you have her return the token and you say “yes, in fact he is and he has the entry password tattooed on his left hand.” Perhaps you don’t want to go just hand your players quite so much information. You could trade that token for “no, he isn’t, but one of the guards that comes to arrest the thief comments that the last couple burglars they’ve caught were dead and marked with a strange sigil in blood.” Now if the PCs were about to botch the challenge and had only one or two failures left, maybe the cleric player could decide to use the token more mechanically, say to add 2 to a check an ally has already failed in the hopes that it would then succeed or grant a new reroll altogether (much like the way the LFR card system works).
However you do it, the purpose of the bonus token is to teach your players that a unique, creative idea will pay out somehow in a meaningful way. A simple +2 bonus may be the DM’s best friend, but after a few sightings, that Bonus Token will become your players’ best friend.
- How To Make a Skill Challenge Fun, Part 2 — The world’s a stage.
- Skill Challenge #14: Give it Back!
- How to Design a Skill Challenge #2: Branching