Now as you know, I love skill challenges a lot. And as I’ve also pointed out, they give me a lot of consternation. It’s always hard determining when to draw the line between using a normal, structured skill challenge; and just plain running the game, rolling for skills as the need sees fit. In general when deciding I use the following criteria:
Skill Challenge: For a scene in which time passes in long chunks (hours or days) and the minutiae of the action would be rather boring but still poses a threat or challenge tot he player (such as overland travel, researching, or building/disassembling some contraption). Any event that should require more than a simple skill roll (climbing a mountain, negotiating a hostage exchange). Scenes in which completion of the goal is not at direct discretion of the players (You walk out the other end of the magical hedge maze when you reach the end, you survive the squall when the weather shifts).
Unstructured Action: Any scene where the fine details matter, and are subject to moment-to-moment circumstances (Breaking out of a prison, crossing a border checkpoint, helping the militia investigate a crime scene). Scenes that have a discrete goal that the players choose to achieve and can be done so tangibly (stealing the gem by breaking into the vault and disabling the spells guarding it, rescuing the informant from the stockade by getting in, busting down the lock, gathering his effects, and leaving).
The problem I see with leaning on Skill Challenges for the later kind of scene is that sometimes the players accomplish the task before the desired complexity of the skill challenge permits. The players may have described a perfectly viable way of accomplishing your 8-successes-required skill challenge with just 4 die rolls. You obviously don’t want to punish them for their good thinking and high rolls, and though the obvious answer is to challenge them by throwing unexpected kinks into the plan – sometimes the plan is just too solid. The best choice would be to cut the challenge early, or give the player’s two successes for a single roll and chalk it up as a reward to their clever planning, but this might feel a little hollow.
Skill challenge structure is there to help you make a scene challenging so that it is rewarding to the players. If that structure gets in the way of that goal, then it isn’t helpful. The system should be there to make things that are boring yet dangerous exciting, and to let the player think in the long term rather than in the space of the several second rounds they are used to.
I suppose that was more of a discussion than a decision, hunh? All in all I’d argue this: use skill challenges where they feel right, and cut them short or extend them if they need to be. If your players want to plan in depth, ditch the skill challenge and just run the scene in that way any table-top game lacking a skill challenge system would, and grant a major or minor quest worth of experience for the doing.
That said, I can tell you the best Skill Challenge I ever ran was a heist in a brothel, and involved a very complicated and elaborate multi-role con to accomplish that just happened to line up with the number of successes I set out for the complexity. It was a great session and a delightful encounter with tension, drama, and ultimately a lot of gratification for all parties. The Skill Challenge is a powerful and valuable tool but takes some getting used to, some insight, and often a bit of luck to pull off right.
Though I might be inclined to describe and encounter at a Duke’s mansion as a scene of its own; I wanted to try framing it as a skill challenge to see how effectively a very free-form scene could benefit from the system’s structure and tangible rewards. Consider this both an experiment and an encounter ready to be dropped right into your campaign.
The Duke’s Ball
One of my first experiences with a handful of dice was during a West End Games D6 Star Wars session in which myself and fellow rebel scum crashed a party held by a prominent citizen and imperial sympathizer. It was a fun session that really helped capture my love of games that really left the options in the player’s hands. There were several optional and potentially random vignettes that occurred during the course of the festivities and reacting to them was a lot of fun (And wouldn’t you know, my smuggler’s cross-species womanizing ended up getting us a friend in a high enough place to help our ship escape after the inevitable blowing of our disguises). It was a formative encounter in my early gaming career.
But enough about my stupid character and my thoughts on game design and DMing! On to the encounter!
The players are on a mission that will involve attending a party held by a noble, rich merchant, or prominent citizen. The specifics are up to you and will change the circumstances accordingly (are they attending a ball at a castle or a birthday celebration held in the city center’s plaza?) but the tone and main action of this encounter will be the same.
I wanted this skill challenge to be malleable to the needs of your campaign, so I’m approaching it as a backbone for an encounter design, fleshing in bits of my specific example encounter will be underlined after the colon ( : that kind, not the fleshy one).
Success and Failure at the Ball
Regardless of the overriding goal of the social event you use in your campaign, the point of failure should be that the players do not achieve their goal (obviously) and quite likely, will be kicked out of the event! The player characters are in almost all circumstances misfits. Even the PC of noble birth has left home to be an adventurer, delving into musty dungeons, getting spattered in the blood of supernatural creatures, and socializing with suspicious characters that most high society members would rather forget existed. Even a grateful patron might woefully turn out his or her bold adventurer friends if they upset too many of the sensitive party guests. Consider using expulsion from the event as the consequence of getting 3 Failures, and permit the players to “patch up” their faux pas to cancel out previous Failures. A system for this is detailed in the example encounter below.
Like all skill challenges, you are working towards a total number of successes, but in this challenge, (more so than most others) it is critical that each successful roll be more than just a tick-mark off the success chart – but that it leave the players with an actual, tangible clue as to where to go next, or a direct benefit for their actions. These should be specific to the kind of skill used (and will be detailed for the example in the skill list):
- Establish a goal for the player to work towards while at the event: Exposing an enemy agent using the party as cover to sneak in to the Duke’s home and spy on him
- Pick a complexity for the skill challenge. Keep it relatively high (Complexity 3 or higher), as this should be a lengthy and important scene. Don’t worry too much about the normal rules for adding advantages to long challenges – the clues you assign as rewards of successful skill rolls will fill this role: Complexity 4 – Requiring 10 Successes
- The event should have sub-locations in which the PCs can ply a variety of skills and must stay alert for various events to transpire. Someone will need to be in the kitchens to see a potboy poisoning the baronesses brandy, or to interfere with a one-sided duel someone must be in the courtyard where it takes place. You may not need an actual map per se, (A Venn diagram will likely suffice) just make it clear that the party has different geographical areas where the tone of events shifts. This will keep things interesting, opens up a wider array of skills besides just the three expected Charisma options, and allows your players to split up to cover more ground while not really splitting the group: Much of the Duke’s manse is open to guests – the dinning hall, lobby, kitchens, and courtyard. The staterooms are off limits and under guard, but who knows who or what might be lurking up there.
- You will probably want to list the major players and their goals. This encounter is doable without well
fleshed out personalities but you’d really be missing out on part of the fun and a great opportunity to anchor this encounter to the plot of your game.
Assign an ally and a foil (at least one of each) to each of the important characters who will be attending. This is a loose guideline – some NPCs might not have any allies present, or might have a more complex mixture of relationships but in general it’s good to have at least two relationship branches so that the player character’s behavior has some unexpected ramifications. Bear in mind that regarding someone as an ally or enemy may not be a two-way street; some characters get more benefit out of an alliance than others, and likewise, enmity can be one sided. This kind of atypical relationship can keep players on their toes, so consider employing it to some extent.
NPCs may not need full stat blocks, but having a their Insight bonus (and any other skill relevant to their personal goals) handy will be a big help: The Duke, A visiting eladrin general, a fat halfling river trade tycoon, and the high priest of the temple of Bahamut (more on them below).
- Make a table (possibly random!) of events or vignettes that can occur at the party (keying them to locations as necessary) that your players may want to react to. These also might be moments are challenges directly targeted at them. These vignettes will probably not determine successes/failures towards the skill challenge, but will instead provide bonuses, open up new uses for skills, provide information, or have further implications on the campaign (the earning of a new ally or a discount with a shopkeeper perhaps). Be flexible, and don’t rely solely on the dice to determine success. Great ideas may require no die roll at all to be considered a success: (See the random vignettes table below)
- Compile a skill list. Get together the skills you would anticipate your players using, and make some assumption about how those could be applied to the skill challenge. This will help you accommodate players who would much rather tell you what their character does, and worry about the numbers afterwards. Don’t forget, in this kind of challenge it is very valuable to assign clues or the “unlocking” of previously “useless” skills as a reward for success: Flushing out a spy means keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior, questioning possible witnesses, looking for surreptitious missives, listening for clues in the cacophony of small talk, and trying not to spook the target before you discover their identity! How to break that down skill wise? (Consider the following to be the “Primary Skills” of this challenge – Nearly all Secondary Skills will account for any skill rolled during a vignette and will be specified by the particular Vignette). It is also worth noting these clues presume the characters can and do take time to “compare notes” and share their insights:
- -Insight (Moderate): Observe “red flags” in your conversations with guests — Clue:Allows the player to know where the next vignette will take place (if you are using random vignettes, roll for it now)
–Perception (Moderate): Watch for anyone behaving oddly or trying to slip out of the designated guest areas — Clue:Narrows down your suspects, granting a cumulative +1 to all Primary Skill rolls-Perception (Hard): Listen to overhear a suspect conversation — Clue:Details of some impending scandal, grant a +2 bonus to the next use of any Secondary Skill
–Diplomacy or Bluff (Moderate): Talking with guests to see if anyone has helpful information — Clue:The player gains some insight into the conflicting identities here at the party: reveal a randomly selected “enemy” and “ally” for two of the major figures at the party. If you are not using major figures, grant a cumulative +1 to the next Secondary Skill roll
–Arcana, Religion, Nature, History, Streetwise or Dungeoneering (Hard): Hob knob with learned scholars, pious monks, servants, notorious explorers or some other kind of guest whose profession entails one of these “knowledge” skills as their primary area of expertise. They might share what they know if you can impress them with your “shop talk” and prove you are “one of them.” — Clue:You have some discretion in this matter, but any of the clue bonuses listed under the other skills (and perhaps one chosen at random!) would apply-Stealth (Easy – requires 2 prior successes): Tail someone acting odd — Clue: Narrows down your suspects, granting a cumulative +1 to all Primary Skill rolls
–Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate (Hard – Used as a Secondary Skill): The player attempts to smooth over previous faux pas, calm frayed nerves, and apologizes or insult and awkwardness. Used in this way, these skills will remove a Failure off the Skill Challenge’s total, but a failed roll will add a failure as normal. A bribe or gift along with the smoothing over of words (Choose a price appropriate to your campaign level, though as a loose guideline 50gp Heroic, 100gp Paragon, 500gp Epic) will grant a +4 bonus to the roll
- -Insight (Moderate): Observe “red flags” in your conversations with guests — Clue:Allows the player to know where the next vignette will take place (if you are using random vignettes, roll for it now)
The important NPCs at the party are the major players and primary (though inform the PCs they are not the only) suspects in the encounter. They could be questioned directly, but not knowing where their allegiances lie can be a cause for potential failures being added to the Skill Challenges track. Certainly sharing suspicions with an ally of your villain should count as a Failure. Otherwise use the major NPCs to add color and an added layer of difficulty to the encounter:
- The Duke: Dark of hair and square of jaw, the duke is a skilled warrior, and competent ruler, even if he lacks a rapport with or deep empathy for his people. Though rough around the edges and not one for nonsense, the Duke is generally fair, or at least level headed enough to know when not to put his boot down too hard. Few love him, but neither can they point to any significant failing with his regime. Insight Encounter Level +5
Ally: General El’Vath – The duke has invited her here in the hopes of solidifying an alliance with one of her noble patrons. They both fought alongside one another many years prior and the Duke has a strong respect for her
Enemy: Griff Bolswaithe – The duke does not appreciate the sycophantic antics of the slimy halfling, and deals with him only out of necessity.
- General Danaria El’Vath: You wouldn’t know she was a general unless someone told you. This short, blonde haired eladrin woman wears an elaborate dress, somehow enchanted to depict moving patterns of flowing water across its surface. She talks warmly and laughs easily, devoid of the haughtiness you might expect from a high-ranking officer in a venerable high-elven military. That said her reputation for cunning on the battlefield is well spoken of and she has a talent for the longsword. The general is cautious of those who ask too many questions. Insight Encounter Level +7
Ally: Griff Bolswaithe – Though a soldier at heart as the Duke is, The General has not lost her sense of mirth and humor, and is amused with Griff’s antics. She is here to have a good time, not to talk brutality and business, and Griff’s attitude is much more in line with her image of what this party should be than her host.
Enemy: Sister Roxanne – The General has considered herself to have an almost supernatural sense for judging the character of a person (this is not actually true, she’s simply perceptive). Something in the Sister’s demeanor seems forced and inconsistent to her. Not to mention that the Sister seems so out of place and doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself at all. The General gives her a wide berth.
- Griff “Burfoot” Bolswaithe: Loud, boisterous, greedy, gluttonous, bawdy, and incredibly friendly, this halfling merchant got rich beyond his wildest dreams by being crafty and charming; and knowing when to turn a blind eye. He will do everything in his power to befriend the PCs (and any other strangers at the ball) and while genuine in his welcome, he is always looking for a scheme or angle to turn a few gold. Griff might take a PC “under his wing” and show them “how we relax here in civilization!” Insight Encounter Level +4
Ally: Sister Roxanne – The sister has generously offered to purchase her local mission’s supplies through Griff’s trade company exclusively. And any friend of Griff’s coin-purse is a friend of his personage. Besides, the challenge of cracking a grin or guffaw out of the serious clenched jaw is just too tempting.
Enemy: The Duke – The ill-will between the flamboyant merchant and steely noble has been ongoing, and despite his normal bravado towards his opponents, Griff has grown tired of the Duke’s hostile attitude and wastes no opportunity to mock or embarrass his host. (Some actions may allow players to learn the enemy or ally of a major NPC, but seeing as how this relationship is secret and pivotal to the plot, it can not be revealed in this way).
- Sister Roxanne The Steelhearted: This silver haired tiefling woman is a ranking priest with the local temple. Though there are shrines to various gods, it was originally constructed by the devout of Bahamut, and the priests and priestesses who keep it are sworn to the exclusive service of the Platinum Dragon. The sister wears a simple grey robe, but has chosen this occasion to wear some rather fine jewelry and has painstakingly sculpted her shimmering hair about her head and horns. Though she is often invited to attend social functions she behaves a bit nervously, stating that she doesn’t wish to make a fool of herself. In truth, she is secretly a spy for a cult that worships Tiamat, and is here to steal missives that the Duke received from various military acquaintances. These letters contain warnings about the Sister’s true masters, and plans and requests for aid in moving against them. She wants to get hold of these papers at ll costs. Insight Encounter Level +3
Ally: Griff Bolswaithe – The sister regards the overly talkative halfling as a wealth of information, and a potential catspaw in her nefarious scheme.
Enemy: The Duke – The sister is the enemy agent sent to spy on the Duke. Her contempt for him will occasionally slip out of her carefully crafted facade of piousness.
Random Vignette Table
Track the skill challenge in turns as per normal for combat. For each round, roll randomly for 2 events to occur. When a PC’s turn comes up, if they are in the location in which the event takes place, describe what’s happening and allow that PC and any others in the location to use their turn to address the vignette (don’t tell them the mechanical benefits it provides but be clear about the implied consequences). PCs may miss certain events, in which case they transpire negatively, though that won’t always effect the PC’s die rolls or situation. Some vignettes have special rules or circumstances. Some grant bonuses, and others are open to interpretation. Read them carefully.
- Lobby or Dining Hall – “I think I’m going to be sick!” A drunk patron expectorates all over another guest – a very unhappy acolyte of the mage’s guild. They begin to argue. This could get bad. Resolving the situation and maintaining the party’s stability will grant the party a +2 on all checks during their next turn, and a +4 on Arcana rolls for the duration of the Skill Challenge. If the PC’s side with the angry mage they will gain a +4 to Arcana rolls from then on, but a -2 to any other skill checks during the next turn. Failure will make the PC look foolish, and word travels fast at the ball, incurring a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the party during the next turn.
- Lobby or Courtyard – “Care to dance, darling?” A rather unattractive lesser dignitary asks for a dance (or three) from one of the PC’s. Through roleplaying or a sufficient Bluff or Diplomacy check to maintain their dignity (in spite of jests and cruelties flung by younger ball patrons) while dancing with their unfortunate looking partner. Charmed, the noble chats excessively with you, letting slip one of the major NPC’s allies/enemies. Failure or a refusal will be seen as unkind at best, and will make the PC a laughing stock among the more merciless patrons for even being asked by the poxy-faced creature. Word travels fast at the ball, incurring a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the party during the next turn.
- Kitchens – Griff Bolswaithe, the halfling merchant is doing his bets to convince the head chef to start purchasing a few new vintages from his trade company. The cook is clearly irritated, having a lot on his hands and very little patience. Intervening on behalf of Griff will earn his favor. Helping the head chef will earn the PC’s some favor with their patron the Duke. The exact benefits of this interaction are up to you – though the least Griff can offer is a few sample bottles of this wine he swears by.
- Courtyard – An argument has erupted between two patrons – well known rivals in the city. It has finally escalated to the point of a duel; and it’s quite clear that one of the nobleman is far more competent in arms than the other. A PC might intervene to champion the more inept noble. Make an opposed attack roll (using the bonus for the PC’s melee basic) vs. Encounter Level + 5. If the PC fails the roll, they take 1d10+ Level damage and lose a healing surge, but may continue to attack again or yield. Two successful attacks will force the opponent to give up (Resolve these immediately and describe them in great detail to avoid this sequence becoming merely a boring trade of die rolls). If the PC succeeds (or finds another means of resolving the conflict) the party gains a +2 to Diplomacy checks during the next turn, and the Intimidate skill may now be used in the same manner as Diplomacy and Bluff. Failure will also make the PC look foolish, and word travels fast at the ball, incurring a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the party during the next turn.
- Courtyard – Some of the Duke’s grizzled militiamen are deep in their cups and discussing old battles and tactics. Earning their respect through roleplaying or a proficient History check will earn the PCs an alert from one of the militiamen on duty. When they need only two more successes to complete the challenge, a militiamen will report to the PCs that he heard about Sister Roxanne being permitted into the staterooms – suspicious indeed. Failure will make the PC look foolish, and word travels fast at the ball, incurring a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the party during the next turn.
- Kitchens – One of the maids is trying to dissuade a man in a uniform similar to the militia’s from entering through the kitchen’s rear entrance. He claims to be on business for the Duke and is delivering an urgent parcel. The maid is unsure what to do. This man is an accomplice to the enemy agent, dropping off a bundle of lock picks to speed Sister Roxanne on her way. If the PCs see through his ruse and question him, all he knows is that he is dropping the package off in the courtyard for a woman. (Note: If you have rolled Vignette 12, this vignette cannot occur – roll again)
- Dining Hall – A few of the officers in the militia and some of the rowdier nobles have started an impromptu game of cards at one of the big trestle tables pulled aside to accommodate the dancing. PCs are invited to try their hand at the game of chance, but the starting wagers are steep. Using a Bluff or Insight check to play, and a Thievery check to cheat, a PC risks 100gp for the chance to win 200gp. If they fail the Thievery roll to cheat, the angry gamblers will keep that PC from entering the Dining Hall for the remainder of the night, and will incur a -2 penalty to all social skill checks for the PCs during their next turn. If the PC suspects other players of cheating, make a Perception roll. Success catches one of the soldiers scamming the game, and grants the PC a +2 on a roll to play the game properly. The roll represents several hands, so only one roll can be attempted.
- Dining Hall – It happens at every party; there is always that crying drunk woman or man sulking in the corner. Comforting this patron will earn the PC the hapless (and talkative, and drunk) noble’s adoration. He or she talks them up for the rest of the party. The PC gains a +2 to all Bluff checks for the remainder of the Skill Challenge.
- Lobby – A drunk and surly nobleman is making disparaging remarks about Elves overall, and the visiting Eladrin General in particular. He claims that she is a traitor and turncloak. The PC’s might consider this to be valuable information but the man is simply an angry racist, spewing his bile to anyone who will listen. And Insight check will reveal his statements as inspired by bigotry and his assertions without proof.
- Lobby – A few members of the temple are discussing piety and politics with the nobility. A grinning young acolyte approaches you and begins badgering you for a donation – right in front of a swarm of expectant nobles, already half looking down their noses at you. Talking their way out, or offering a donation will earn the PCs some favor (+1 to all social skill checks made during the next turn for every 50 gp donated. Any donation grants a +4 on Religion checks, an additional +2 for every additional 50 gp). Simply refusing to donate without a sufficient explanation will earn the PCs some sour looks and a bad reputation; a -2 to social skill checks during the next turn.
- Staterooms – A militiaman quietly enters the very room where a PC might be hiding, dragging in a giggling and quite married noblewoman; his breeches already half unfastened. The pair will accidentally reveal the PC’s hiding place. Both parties have dirt on one another – the adulterer can reveal the PC as a trespasser, but would not like it if the noblewoman’s husband found out about their affair. The PCs word to keep mum isn’t enough for the paranoid paramours. Bluff, Intimidate, Diplomacy, roleplaying, or even a simple bribe could potentially alleviate this standoff.
- Courtyard – There is a pile of dirt from one of the potted plants tossed carelessly on the ground. If the PCs investigate and succeed at a Perception check, they will spot Sister Roxanne walking briskly away from a potted plant. If confronted she responds very negatively and will eventually summon the militia and make a scene. If the Duke is informed, he will ask the PCs to keep a close eye on her. The PC’s gain a +4 to all attempts to root out the spy for the remainder of the Skill Challenge.
Round-by-Round at the Ball
As is often the case, organize this Skill Challenge similarly to a combat by allowing each player one action per round (the order mattering very little in most cases, making an actual initiative roll unnecessary). Like usual, each player describes what they are doing, and you assign an appropriate skill to roll (refer to the Primary Skills listed above for the most likely circumstances but stay flexible).
For each round, roll randomly for 2 Random Vignettes (on the table above) to occur – re-rolling if an event has transpired twice. When a PC’s turn comes up, if they are in the location in which the event takes place, describe what’s happening and allow that PC and any others in the location (they can skip ahead to their turn if need be, strict initiative isn’t necessary) to use their turn to address the vignette. Some vignettes have consequences for sole PCs, others for the party. If one member of the group has separated to infiltrate the mansion or is disguised as a helper, they do not suffer penalties levied against the party, as the patrons of the ball don’t associate them with the Duke’s “pet adventurers.”
The overall plot is thus: An agent will sneak in through the kitchens to deliver a set of lockpicks, hiding them in a potted plant in the courtyard. The spy, Sister Roxanne, will excuse herself to pick up the package. A bit later, she convinces a militiaman to allow her access to the staterooms to seek out one of the Duke’s more comfortable and unoccupied privies as she is feeling ill. Instead, she sneaks through the darkened hallways to the Duke’s study, picks the lock, and enters. There she will steal documents and a few treasures, perhaps even a magic item of some value. She locks the door back, leaves, and returns to the party without rousing suspicion – unless the PCs succeed at the challenge, and follow the clues to her either during or after the ball.
The ramifications for catching the spy are at your discretion (and indeed, the objective at the party in your game may be quite different).
Unlike some skill challenges, there is a lot going on here, so seriously consider granting up to double experience for succeeding at this encounter. In addition to raw experience points, the Duke might happily award the PCs a magic item for their service, and certainly a substantial amount of coin. This success could lead to further adventures either on the Duke’s behalf, or that of a patron impressed with the PC’s ability to handle a subtle and difficult task.