Skill Challenges: All in the Cards.

Skill Challenges:  All in the Cards.

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The biggest problem with skill challenges for many DMs is developing a narrative that doesn’t become forced or strained or (worst of all) come to a dead stop. Narration sometimes comes to a standstill because players lack developing feedback during the skill challenge process.   Having players constantly throwing themselves against the same construct or prop becomes stale quickly. The challenge to the GM is to evolve the feedback of the narrative naturally to create interest  and keep things flowing.  It’s not always easy to implement in practice.

I’ve got countless tricks that I use to get around, but here’s something you can use in your game immediately: a deck of cards.  You know what a particular skill challenge is going to be about, so you can create a deck (a chart works too but I like the feel of cards) that contains micro-situations that players react to and focus on.  Go through  several of the situations and you have a skill challenge with a built-in narrative.  In a second I’ll detail how I use them, but first:

The Thing is not the Thing.

By this I mean that if you run a stealth skill challenge, the worst way to look at it is as a scene *about* stealth.  The scene is really going to be about ways that the players clear obstacles to using stealth in the encounter.  Stealth will be rolled eventually, but that roll will be the result of the other skills used in its place.  The basic pace we use is that everyone makes a secondary check first, and then they make a group check.  It’s slightly unconventional but I’ve had success with it.

Failures are penalties.

There’s no ‘X before 3′ here. If the group falis the group check, what you are going to do is assign them a penalty.  This isn’t the right methodology for you if you want to make a skill challenge where there is a definitive good or bad ending.  It is perfect when you have a skill challenge that is a hazard, that taxes or delays the players.

So if you’re using this approach you’re going to make each failure have some basic penalty.  The players lose some resource -time, healing surges; you name it, you  can take it.

So let’s start:

Make a deck of at least six cards.

On each card, make a complication.  An evocative title will do. Decide what skill is the primary, and pick a difficulty (moderate is usually best).  Pick a few skills as secondary and set DCs.  Put all that info on the card.

Running the Challenge

Flip over a card.  This is the current challenge facing the players.  The primary skill is the group check  that they need to make. They make that check second.   The secondary skills are what players can use to get a bonus on the skill check roll.  Each player narrates what they do and makes one check to help themselves or another player with the group check.  A successful check on the secondary skill grants a +2 bonus too a check.  A character can use a secondary skill that is not on the card, but they might raise the DC by 2 unless they have something particularly clever or breaking.

An important rule here:  No double-dipping!  You can’t use endurance to help you with a primary skill endurance check.  Again, the thing is not the thing.

Go around to each player in turn, and discuss how they are helping themselves do well on the primary skills.  They are using the secondary skill to help them out.  Anyone who passes their secondary test gets a bonus to their primary skill check.  If the group passes the primary skill group check, then they get the success result for the challenge.  Otherwise, they get whatever the fail result is.

It’s simple, but it works really well for many different basic types of skill challenges; overland skill challenges in particular. Overland travel skill challenges notoriously become these grinding mills of enduring the same thing over and over again. But using this concept, you can add diversity and interest back into it — the players encounter one difficulty and then another.  If you make a big enough deck you can use the deck repeatedly for different situations.

These skill challenges will never take the place of a set piece encounter but they are a strong way to add some more challenge or drive to a scene. They also work great for skill challenges  on the fly, or to mechanize scene types that are common to the campaign and therefore important , e.g. desert travel in a DarkSun game rather demands that you have some challenging desert travel.
So in summary, you will use this as follows:

  • Decide length of the challenge (3 draws from the deck is usually good)
  • Draw card, narrate situation. Let them know that they are first using a helper skill for the primary skill of the challenge.
  • Players narrate the use of a secondary skill to help themselves or their allies.
  • Make a group check on the primary skill, narrating success or failure.

…Just another word for Chart

I’ve talked about a  deck but you can easily use the technique as a chart and roll.  As a matter of fact, I’ve got a skill challenge in this format that do just that.  Try it out as a deck or in chart form and see what you think!

Skill Challenge: Desert Overland Travel

This challenge deck is used when you must travel through the desert.  Obviously this works great in Dark Sun, but any desert  world could use this.

Suggestions for Failures: players lose a healing surge; players lose rations and survival gear; players lose time; desert creatures attack. Basically, decide what the challenge is stressing.  Are the players trying to make it somewhere on time?  Make each failure increase the travel time. If it’s just survival, healing surges and the like are better.  Customize the penalties and rewards to your game.

1 – “Siltstorm Maze”

A blinding sandstorm; Endless rock formations obfuscating the path.
Primary: Nature
Secondary: Perception, Athletics, Endurance

2 – “Blazing Heat”
Searing heat; A merciless sun bearing down on the adventurers.
Primary: Endurance
Secondary: Nature, History, Stealth

3 – “Deadly Mirage”
Shimmering illusion leads to unknown dangers
Primary: Perception
Secondary: History, Insight, Bluff

4 – “Broken Land”
Cracked soil and treacherous dunes; dangerous precipices and cliffs.
Primary: Nature
Secondary: Athletics, Acrobatics, History

5 – “Predator and Prey”
Stalking creatures from the waste; escape in harsh terrain.
Primary: Athletics
Secondary: Nature, Perception,Insight, Stealth

6 – “Without Water…”
The desert steals precious water magically; survive dehydration
Primary: Endurance
Secondary: Nature, Perception, History

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About the Author

A Jack of All Trades ,or if you prefer, an extreme example of multi-classing, Gamefiend, a.k.a Quinn Murphy has been discussing, playing and designing games straight out of the womb. He is the owner and Editor-in-Chief of this site in addition to being an aspiring game designer. As you would assume, he is a huge fan of 4e. By day he is a technologist. Follow gamefiend on Twitter