Man, I love me some skill challenges. As the logical extension of the “complex skill checks” introduced in Wizard’s “Alternity” and later adapted in “Unearthed Arcana” they make for exciting scenes where the players overcome adversity with detailed description, role-playing, a little knowledge of the ins and outs of “how stuff works”, and of course, a great deal of begging and pouting. I especially love them for representing grueling overland travel – a thing that is present in a lot of fantasy fiction but had little mechanical support in earlier editions of D&D
This Skill Challenge was originally adapted for a 4th ed conversion of a 3rd ed adventure (If you bought the Player’s Handbook for that edition you might remember this adventure being on the character builder CD that came with the book. CD’s in books!? The past was the future!) called The Dead of Winter. Though I never ran the conversion I always liked the idea of player characters hoofing it through a frozen wasteland.
Unlike other skill challenges, this one does not require a set amount of successes to overcome. Instead, successes help the PCs achieve an inevitable goal (navigating to their destination) more safely, incurring less injury and hardship along the way. It should be interspersed with a combat encounter in the middle and capped with another combat – when the players are their most tired, hungry, and worn down.
The journey is supposed to take 4 days overland. Snowfall has made the trade road all but indiscernible and there are no rest stops for miles. To make matters worse, a blizzard hits just past the halfway point, adding another two unanticipated days of travel to the challenge. Beginning either with initiative rolls or by going clockwise around the table (the order in which players go should matter little) the players will make Primary Skill rolls to contribute to the journey – using their wits and resources to do anything to increase their survivability, make the journey easier, or mitigate disasters. Succeeding at a Primary Skill roll grants a +2 bonus for the group on their endurance check. Failing a Primary Skill roll instead imposes a -2 penalty as the player wastes time, miscalculates, or aggravates conditions. Worse yet, if at least one player fails, roll randomly on the disaster table and that complication occurs. Only one disaster chart roll is made per day of travel. Once all the players have made a roll (essentially their efforts during one day of travel) they must all make a Hard Endurance check: losing 1 Healing Surge for failing.
Its important to note that players do not get healing surges back when resting during this skill challenge (thought they can regain daily powers). The rationale for this (other than having a resource to risk) is that sleeping under a quickly raised tent on the frozen tundra is anything but comfortable, and the characters aren’t getting good and proper rest out in the elements. Combine this with hours of grueling physical activity, brisk pace, and pounds of gear lashed to your back and you have some tired adventurers. Without a warm secure bed to sleep in and a few hours peace, the mortal body just can’t refresh itself adequately.
During day 2, the players face a combat encounter (of moderate difficulty). On the night of day 3, a terrible winter storm hits. Let the players know this will extend their remaining journey by a few days, but it’s hard to say exactly how long. When they are within a day of arriving, let them know. Just before completing the challenge they are beset by foes for a final combat encounter (of hard difficulty). I suggest two such encounters below but mix it up as fits your campaign and available monster guides.
Endurance – Hard DC: At the end of each round (representing a day of travel) each player must make this roll. Failure results in one lost healing surge. If at least one player fails, roll on the disaster table. Roll only once regardless of how many players fail. You may apply the results randomly to any failing player.
Primary Skills – Successes will repeatedly contribute a +2 bonus to the endurance check made each day by all players. Each skill only applies once per day; if two players wish to roll a single skill it is treated as the “aid another” action. The exception to this would be players using the same skill in a very different way (for an example” see the entry for ‘History’ below. Each skill lists its DC and a suggested means for it to be applied to the situation – however encourage the players to explain how they are applying their skill and reward them with bonuses for specificity.
Acrobatics (Moderate DC) – Your nimble feet let you scout ahead of the group and find safe routes through treacherous areas and rough terrain
Athletics (Moderate DC) – The character climbs over hills, down valleys, and through rough terrain and then aids the party along, letting them bypass cliffs and pits that they would otherwise waste time maneuvering around
Bluff/Diplomacy/Intimidate – (Moderate DC) The character keeps spirits high or cajoles his fellows into keeping pace and taking heart
Dungeoneering (Hard DC) – The Character’s knowledge of underground geography helps them locate the likely places where caves and overhangs will provide the party cover to rest and recuperate in safety
History – (Moderate DC) The Character has poured over maps and think they can discern a clear path with few landmarks
Has read accounts of other explorers in this area and their insights in regards to navigation and survival are invaluable
Insight (Moderate DC) – The Character keeps an ear to the grumbling and gauges everyone’s stress levels; suggesting times to rest, and giving an encouraging word or sharing a burden here and there to keep the party focused
Nature (Easy DC) – The character is a survivalist. Mastering the subtle tricks of living out in the wilds. Foraging, keeping dry and warm, avoiding hazards – this character has it covered
Whether it was disaster or poor planning you do not have adequate food and water. For every 4 + Level you get on a single Nature check, you find adequate food and water for 1 medium or small sized creature
Perception (Moderate DC) – Keeping an eye out for pitfalls and shortcuts the character helps his allies avoid danger and speeds the journey around obstacles
Stealth (Moderate DC) – Keeping away from the eyes of would-be predators, hobgoblin raiding bands, renegade orcs and worse threats is no small feat but the character covers the party’s tracks and conceals all signs of your encampment well
If at least one player fails their Endurance roll during a day, roll on this chart and apply the calamity. If it is player specific, decide randomly among those that failed the roll. Roll 1d8
- Spoiled Supplies (Group): Poor storage, a dropped bag, freezing or scavenging animals – regardless, you have lost 2 days worth of rations (Players who failed a check mark these off first)
- Lost (Group): An outdated map, a wrong turn, perhaps you mistook some goat trail for the main road? Regardless , you waste time going the wrong way. Nature, History, and Dungeoneering checks for all player characters are made at a -2 during the next day
- Snow-Blind (Individual): Sunlight glinting off fresh fallen snow is hurting your eyes. You take a -2 penalty to perception checks and a -2 to initiative during the next day. This condition will not abate unless you spend a day doing something other than using perception checks to aid the group.
- Malaise (Group): Despite your relationship with your allies and your drive to succeed, the strain of travel and the constant cold have worn down your patience and caused irritability among your allies as well. All players take a -2 to any Aid Another attempts during the next day
- Fall Through The Ice (Individual): You are soaked in freezing water before being yanked out by your companions. Lose one Healing Surge. You do not gain the benefit of winter clothing for the day
- Twisted Ankle (Individual): All Primary Skill checks are made at a -2, with any Athletics, Acrobatics, or Stealth checks made at a -5 penalty until a Hard Heal check is made.
- Frostbite (Individual): Roll 1d4 – Odd: Your toes are freezing, and you are at -1 speed until you can spend an extended rest in a warm place. Even: Your off-hand is frozen and cannot be used until you can spend an extended rest in a warm place
- No Shelter (Group): Though sleep here is uneasy, a night in the open has left you even more worn than usual. All party members take a -2 to their Primary Skill checks during the next day.
Cold Weather Clothing: Any character not adequately dressed for the cold takes a -2 penalty to their endurance check
Survivalist Tricks: Reward the players for bringing any of their own knowledge about arctic survival to the table, even if it may not directly apply to a skill. For example, if a player suggested using their 50 feet of hemp rope to tie the party together at the waists to prevent getting lost in storms or from falls, go ahead and reward Athletics rolls with a +2 bonus, or perhaps grant the player an automatic success for that day
Cold Resistance: Any player with a “resist cold” of 5 or more gains a +5 bonus to their endurance check.
Challenge Level: To make this journey even more grueling, consider setting the challenges level (And thus, the DCs) higher.
Skill Challenge Outline
One roll per player = 1 Day of travel
-Each player rolls a Primary Skill during their turn. Success – +2 to Endurance roll Failure: -2 Endurance roll and one roll on the disaster table
-Each player makes an endurance check at the end of the round (day) at the same time
Day 1 – No event
Day 2 – Combat
Day 3 – Storm
Day 4 – No event
Day 5 – No event
Day 6 – Final combat and arrival at destination
Day 2 Encounter
- x4 Gray Wolves (Monster Manual pg. 264)
- x1 Dire Wolf (Monster Manual pg. 264)
Day 6 Encounter
- x1 Wraith (Monster Vault pg. 284)
- x3 Ice Warrior Raiders (Dungeon Magazine 159)
- x3 Ice Warrior Icicle Hurlers (Dungeon Magazine 159)
Day 2 – It is getting towards dark when you hear the first howls. They are close…too close. The wolves approach from all sides, encircling you and gazing down at you with intent eyes and snarling fangs. These creatures look gaunt and mangy. It has been a long while since they have eaten and the hunger has made them bold. Just then you hear the loud, menacing cry of the pack’s alpha. It’s not the hunger emboldening them. It’s their leader: a dire wolf.
Day 3 – The signs were there during the day and while you did what you could to prepare, short of arriving at your destination there was no adequate resolution. The storm starts off slowly with soft but intent snowfall. Then the winds pick up, getting hard and violent quickly before disgorging a torrent of snowfall. The cold bites hard into your body and every step is an ordeal. Your journey was arduous before but after this blizzard, you can expect to add a couple days to your journey given the hard going through such high snows.
Day 6 – Spirits are lifted as your destination comes into view. The road becomes even clearer through the snow, a further indication that you are on the right path. It will be miles yet before you are safe but the goal is near! Suddenly, shapes in the snow start to move. Clumps of ice begin to take on a humanoid shape, and three stocky figures swing what appear to be mauls made of solid ice and rock. As they approach you, you can hear a heart stopping shriek come from nowhere and everywhere. These ice warrior elementals aren’t the only thing attempting to ambush you.