Prison Break Scenario Skill Challenges

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While I've seen a lot of discussion on how to design skill challenges, I'm still having difficulty wrapping my head around them, so I thought I'd ask for comment on my current situation.

My players have decided to break an NPC out of a high-security prison. Direct assault is not possible, so they'll have to sneakily break in and out. I'd like for this to be the focus of the next session, and to give the rogue some spotlight moments.

The problem is that I'm not sure how to make skill challenges interesting enough to sustain an entire adventure. It seems like all the published modules I've read have used them as addenda to combat rather than as a central element of the storyline. What I'm thinking is that as in a lot of classic heist movies, everyone in the party will have a particular role to play, represented by separate skill challenges. The different skill challenges will be run concurrently, and I'll "cut" back and forth among them. Hopefully drawing out the resolution of the different tasks will help create dramatic tension, which I think has been absent from the skill challenges I've run before. I'm not sure what the different tasks should be, so suggestions are appreciated (particularly with respect to what the fighter-type characters can do). Also, how do I create a sense of risk while still ensuring that the PCs will probably ultimately succeed in their overall mission? I don't want a string of failures to snowball into an unwinnable scenario, which is no more fun than one where you automatically win.

The other problem is that unlike combat, there isn't a lot of player choice built into skill challenges. Is there a simple way to make a non-combat mini-game that's as fun as the combat mini-game? My first impulse is to literally tack on another game (e.g. Blackjack where you have to succeed in a skill check in order to hit). But I'm curious if anyone has any suggestions.


(Specifics of my scenario, in case anyone's interested: The PCs have recently linked up with an insurgent movement that wants to overthrow the current oligarchic government of their city-state and restore the monarchy. A diplomat from another city has been imprisoned on conspiracy charges. If they can help him escape and return to his city, he may be able to persuade his government to send aid to the monarchists. The prison is a circular tower in the middle of a harbor and extends down to the sea floor. It uses a Panopticon sort of design with a guard tower in the middle and cells surrounding it. There are a host of mechanical guardians and traps which have recently stopped working for as yet unrevealed story reasons. The PCs know the layout of the prison and have learned that there is an underwater access door. They plan to use magical waterbreathing to get inside, extract the diplomat, and get him to a waiting ship.)
The problem is that I'm not sure how to make skill challenges interesting enough to sustain an entire adventure. It seems like all the published modules I've read have used them as addenda to combat rather than as a central element of the storyline. What I'm thinking is that as in a lot of classic heist movies, everyone in the party will have a particular role to play, represented by separate skill challenges. The different skill challenges will be run concurrently, and I'll "cut" back and forth among them. Hopefully drawing out the resolution of the different tasks will help create dramatic tension, which I think has been absent from the skill challenges I've run before. I'm not sure what the different tasks should be, so suggestions are appreciated (particularly with respect to what the fighter-type characters can do). Also, how do I create a sense of risk while still ensuring that the PCs will probably ultimately succeed in their overall mission? I don't want a string of failures to snowball into an unwinnable scenario, which is no more fun than one where you automatically win.



Fighter skill challenge: Prison Shower Scene. (Just kidding.) Your best bet is to look at each PC's list of skills. Each skill challenge should entail 5 skills more or less, most of which they are trained in, some of which they aren't (I'd aim for skills in which they have decent ability score modifiers). Just looking at the skills should give you a fair idea of how to use that set of skills in context. Failure shouldn't result in combat. It would be cool if it could somehow translate to the other PCs' skill check DCs. For example, if the thief fails to sneak into the office and disable the alarm, the fighter will have a harder time getting through the old access tunnels that run underneath the prison. That sort of thing. It's very important that you consider what failure means and keep it interesting.  It probably shouldn't result in combat since you split the party though a couple minion guards wouldn't be the end of the world.

The other problem is that unlike combat, there isn't a lot of player choice built into skill challenges. Is there a simple way to make a non-combat mini-game that's as fun as the combat mini-game? My first impulse is to literally tack on another game (e.g. Blackjack where you have to succeed in a skill check in order to hit). But I'm curious if anyone has any suggestions.



You have everything you need with the skill challenge mechanic. If you define skills broadly and use a little imagination, there are far more choices available to PCs just using their skills and their narrative than in a combat situation.

For any decision or adjudication, ask yourself, "Is this going to be fun for everyone?" and "Is this going to lead to the creation of an exciting, memorable story?"

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Perhaps the fighter starts a drunken brawl at the local saloon and draws some guards out to deal with it. He spends the night in the drunk tank but makes the other characters' jobs easier.
The problem is that I'm not sure how to make skill challenges interesting enough to sustain an entire adventure. It seems like all the published modules I've read have used them as addenda to combat rather than as a central element of the storyline.

Wow, I need to be reading those adventures. What I usually seen are stand-alone skill challenges, and not very well presented ones.

What I'm thinking is that as in a lot of classic heist movies, everyone in the party will have a particular role to play, represented by separate skill challenges. The different skill challenges will be run concurrently, and I'll "cut" back and forth among them. Hopefully drawing out the resolution of the different tasks will help create dramatic tension, which I think has been absent from the skill challenges I've run before.

Excellent. Skill challenges as written already have convenient "beats" at which to cut to another part of the action.

The one issue I've run into with having separate skill challenges is that there are lots of rolls. With a standard group of 5, you're talking about a minimum of 20 rolls (or only 15 if they stink on toast), and as many as 30 - and that's for Complexity 1 challenges. Justifying and describing every one of those in the context of the number of successes or failures remaining can be challenging. You sound like you have a good handle on your layout and lots of the potential challenges, but just be aware of what you're in for.

I'm not sure what the different tasks should be, so suggestions are appreciated (particularly with respect to what the fighter-type characters can do). Also, how do I create a sense of risk while still ensuring that the PCs will probably ultimately succeed in their overall mission? I don't want a string of failures to snowball into an unwinnable scenario, which is no more fun than one where you automatically win.

First of all, failure needs to be an option, because unless you make the DCs impossible to fail, failure is an option. The curve that separates success from failure is very steep in the middle, so it's tricky to find something that feels risky but isn't likely to lead to failure - and that assumes that they're using their best skills at all times and not trying anything out of the ordinary.

Given that avoiding failure is hard, you have to prepare for it. The key point made in the skill challenge chapter is that failure should not bring the game to a halt. I take this to mean that failure should be fun, interesting, appropriate and meaningful, the kind of failure the players themselves might even agree to up front if they knew about it. The kind of failure which, if it happened in your favorite TV show would have you glad that they didn't succeed. That's the ideal, and it's not always easy, but if you can figure out a good failure then nothing else you arrange for the challenge will go too badly, because it's all leading up to an interesting success or an interesting failure.

My approach when I start out is that failure is the same as success, but with a twist. That way, no matter what, the story will move on. This gives you a good baseline, and then you can work from there. So, failure for the overall challenge could be that they get the NPC out, but he's injured in such a way that they can't go to the rendezvous they planned, but must divert to a healer. Or they get him out, but the entire party is made by the warden, who now wants them ALL in his prison (which would be the case in a success, but the warden would have less information about them). Or, they get him out, but they also release several notorious criminals. A twist.

(That last one might involve a choice: They can get the NPC out, but only if they accept the help of - and thereby allow the release of - the criminals. If that's too high a price for them, then they can choose to lose utterly. Give them about 10 seconds to decide while you count down loudly.)

Now, as for the fighter-types: You mentioned spotlighting the rogue, which makes sense. There will be locked doors, guard patrols, guard animals, etc. However, those are only challenges for people who are taking the direct routes. A character with the strength to scale walls and the endurance to climb through sewage pipes, doesn't necessarily need the stealth of a rogue, because he's going a way the guards and engineers don't expect. In "The Great Train Robbery" a character escapes from prison by grabbing onto and climbing along the blades at the top of the wall. Totally unexpected by the guards, so they aren't looking there, and it's not something a light step is necessarily going to help someone with.

Basically, the idea here is that skill challenges don't have to be about what they're about. A break-in seems like it would about about Thievery, but certain other skills can make up for not being able to use the direct-but-subtle approach. Consider The Shawshank Redemption: He used knowledge skills, Bluff and Endurance to make his escape. He didn't pick a single lock.

Another idea for the fighter-types is that one or more of them could be the insiders. The party can arrange for them to be tossed in the prison, knowing their strength and endurance will allow them to endure the harsh conditions long enough for the plan to be put into action. I doubt they could just get hired as a guard, but maybe as a cook or cleaner or something. Fighters have Streetwise which might allow them to (or allow them to help) find out about the guards before the caper. This one's a drunk, this one hates elves, this one is scared of the dark, etc.

The other problem is that unlike combat, there isn't a lot of player choice built into skill challenges. Is there a simple way to make a non-combat mini-game that's as fun as the combat mini-game? My first impulse is to literally tack on another game (e.g. Blackjack where you have to succeed in a skill check in order to hit). But I'm curious if anyone has any suggestions.

There's an RPG called Dread that uses Jenga as a tension building mechanic. You might look into that.

There's another called A Wilderness of Mirrors in which the players compose their plan in real time, timed by the GM. Every 5 minutes, the GM is allowed to add a secret complication. When they're done, the PCs basically just read off their plan and the GM adds his complication. There's more to it, but I'm just saying that there are different approaches one can take. A Wilderness of Mirrors involves some intra-party betrayal, so it would probably need some adjustment for general use.

Other than that, you can build your own choice in to skill challenges by how you describe what's going on. I think of it as the skill challenge "going on the offensive"; instead of just sitting there and absorbing skill rolls, it "does something" that prompts the PCs to consider their "actions" rather than their skills. For instance, in a scene with the rogue, have a guard show up with an animal of some kind. A dog is the obvious choice, but it's a fantasy setting so go wild. Why not a trained ooze? The PC is out of sight, but the animal or creature is agitated and keeps leading toward the PC, or blocking off the route the PC wanted to take. It would appear that Stealth is off the table and the character may be prompted to try some other skill. Maybe with a knowledge check (or a retroactive Streetwise check) he knows something about the creature in question and can scare, trick, or bribe it to go away. Maybe he can Bluff or Intimidate the creature after it sees him but before its handler does. The secret here is that Stealth would still be good for a success, but the skill challenge has a certain "narrative positioning" that implies Stealth won't work the way the PC wants. If he does use Stealth he might have to backtrack, rather than make progress (he still gets the success, but has to abandon part of his plan and come up with a new approach, which leads to different "narrative positioning" for his next scene.)

To bring up failure again, you should give lots of thought to what individual failures look like and how they add up to complete failure. Being spotted seems like it would basically cause utter failure, though as other games have shown us, there are degrees of being spotted. So, I recommend that if a skill failure would lead to them being spotted that they must "take out" the guards. This needn't and shouldn't be full combat, just them describing how they nullify the guards. Whatever they do will complicate their mission (which is what failures do automatically, by increasing the success-to-failure ratio). Certain guards don't report in, leading the others to be suspicious, and requiring that the PC not make many more mistakes. Or however you want to describe it.

(Specifics of my scenario, in case anyone's interested: The PCs have recently linked up with an insurgent movement that wants to overthrow the current oligarchic government of their city-state and restore the monarchy. A diplomat from another city has been imprisoned on conspiracy charges. If they can help him escape and return to his city, he may be able to persuade his government to send aid to the monarchists. The prison is a circular tower in the middle of a harbor and extends down to the sea floor. It uses a Panopticon sort of design with a guard tower in the middle and cells surrounding it. There are a host of mechanical guardians and traps which have recently stopped working for as yet unrevealed story reasons. The PCs know the layout of the prison and have learned that there is an underwater access door. They plan to use magical waterbreathing to get inside, extract the diplomat, and get him to a waiting ship.)

Interesting, but the specifics I would have been interested in are in the last sentence. What are their options for getting inside? What does "extract" mean when the cell can be under constant observation? Do they have more underwater gear for the diplomat?

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Although I know it is probably a legacy way of doing things, I probably wouldn't use a traditional 4e skill challenge for this.  I would use a more role-playing heavy approach, allowing my players to explain their actions and only when there is a dramatically appropriate chance of failure, calling for a skill check.

I remember doing something like this way back in 1st edition (and calling for ability checks, since there were no skills), when the group tried breaking into the stockade in A2 - Secret of the Slavers Stockade

If you can dynamically run the challenge in the background while running the action in the foreground and keep it exciting, that would be best. 

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Although I know it is probably a legacy way of doing things, I probably wouldn't use a traditional 4e skill challenge for this.  I would use a more role-playing heavy approach, allowing my players to explain their actions and only when there is a dramatically appropriate chance of failure, calling for a skill check.

Well, yeah. That's basically the best way to run skill challenges. The mechanics don't prohibit that, though the books could offer more advice on such an approach. My take is that not every action in a skill challenge requires a roll, and not every roll leads contributes directly to the challenge.

If you can dynamically run the challenge in the background while running the action in the foreground and keep it exciting, that would be best.

This works fine, especially with the "failure is success with a twist" approach. They don't necessarily know if they've failed, even at the end of the challenge.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Although I know it is probably a legacy way of doing things, I probably wouldn't use a traditional 4e skill challenge for this.  I would use a more role-playing heavy approach, allowing my players to explain their actions and only when there is a dramatically appropriate chance of failure, calling for a skill check.

I remember doing something like this way back in 1st edition (and calling for ability checks, since there were no skills), when the group tried breaking into the stockade in A2 - Secret of the Slavers Stockade

If you can dynamically run the challenge in the background while running the action in the foreground and keep it exciting, that would be best. 



In practice, the skill challenge is supposed to be run that way, so I wouldn't consider that to be legacy design. How you describe the skill challenge and tell the story of the PCs' actions is really a matter of presentation and pacing than mechanics. The only things the mechanics do are set a hard limit on successes and failures to help the DM properly adjudicate complexity and difficulty.  I also frequently end a skill challenge if it has run its course storywise prior to the number of successes or failures have been met.

For any decision or adjudication, ask yourself, "Is this going to be fun for everyone?" and "Is this going to lead to the creation of an exciting, memorable story?"

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Content I Created: Adventure Scenarios  |  Actual Play Reports  |  Tools  |  Game Transcripts

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I also frequently end a skill challenge if it has run its course storywise prior to the number of successes or failures have been met.

Blasphemer!

(I do that too, but I'd probably only end it in failure at that point.)

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

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