Safety Nets for a Skill Challenge Finale?

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The finale of an adventure involves going through several groups of enemies and halting a death cloud that threatens to wipe out the adventurers' allies. I want halting the death cloud to be a skill challenge instead of a combat, but I am wary of the party "failing utterly because we rolled badly 3 times".

If I were vicious, I'd make it so that failing 3 skill checks does indeed result in the complete obliteration of the PCs' allies, but I suspect the combination of losing almost all of their allied NPCs and rendering their previous efforts ultimately futile ("Well, you successfully fought off all the invaders but failed the skill challenge, so all your work is moot!") due to a few bad dice rolls would utterly demoralize the players. I think it'd be a better idea to set up a few safety nets so they're almost guaranteed to stop the death cloud, but leaves how far they have to go to do it up in the air.

Here's my ideas:

1. Give them extra leeway in succeeding by letting them use action points or taking damage to get more rolls.
Using action points to reroll failed checks seems like a no-brainer to me. I could also give them the option to take damage (from proximity to the death cloud) to make more rolls; they can still eke out a success if they're willing to risk death to do so. Do you think these are good ideas, or do you think allowing rerolls or extra rolls-at-a-cost would make the challenge too easy? (Note: This is the first skill challenge they've had for the entire campaign, so they haven't taken any items or utilities that let them reroll or improve skill checks.)

2. Reward their earlier preparation.
The party went out of their way to learn the enemies' plans ("The redeemed blackguard told us it involves a necrotic ritual of some sort") and prepared accordingly ("A dozen resist necrotic potions, please"). Should I give them some more leeway in failures because of this (or lessen the damage they take for extra rolls that I suggested earlier)?

3. Let them pull off a desperate plan if they fail the challenge.
Looking over the relics they have, I can think of at least one way they can sacrifice one of them to banish the death cloud. If they come up with a similar plan after failing the skill challenge, should I make getting that to work another skill challenge? Or should I just let it succeed to reward their clever thinking and willingness to sacrifice a relic to save their allies?

4. Let one of them make a heroic sacrifice.
This would let them change the fail state from "PCs live, allies get obliterated" to "one PC volunteers to die". Should I allow this? If so, should I let them go on a sidetrek to revive said PC, or should I make it permanent so the loss isn't cheapened?

5. Have an NPC they saved earlier make a heroic sacrifice.
If all else fails, I could have the fallen paladin they redeemed earlier sacrifice his life to stop the death cloud. It would lessen the impact of failure while still retaining some sting (they were very determined to save said paladin as a favor to a friend) and reward them for a smaller act they succeeded at earlier (akin to how sparing Gollum let the Fellowship of the Ring succeed later). Does that seem like a reasonable result if they fail to stop the death cloud? Or should I just let the death cloud obliterate everyone if the PCs can't handle it themselves?
Pretty much the only thing required for a skill challenge to be good is for failure of the skill challenge to be as interesting as success. Ideally, failure is even a little more interesting than success. The game continues, but with some not-easily-irrevocable change that spurs further adventures. The players never "fail utterly," because the failure should lead to something else, even if it's just revenge.

Right now, you've got stakes that you're not comfortable following through with, and that's got you in the position of figuring out how to keep the PCs from failing. That's not a great position to be in, because it makes players feel as though they can't fail, and while the players wouldn't necessarily want to face the failure the DM has set up, they don't necessarily want to be saved by the DM.

If the players come up with ideas to obtain more rolls or remove failures, or to snatch victory from defeat, then say "Yes, and..." to those ideas and use them to help the players achieve the outcome they want. This can apply to your first 4 ideas, as long as it's not you solving the problem for them.

Idea 5 is not good for the reasons you mentioned, and because it will be most obvious to them then that you weren't prepared to let them fail.

Better than any of those ideas, though, would be to change the failure to something that you are willing to allow to happen. What you have now is fine, except that you fear it would demoralize the players. So, how could the characters fail and the players still not be demoralized? If you're not sure, talk to the players and find out what failure would be interesting to them. Then you can go ahead with it and if the characters don't succeed on their own merits then they fail - but the players are still interested in the game and where it's going.

Make it clear that you're trying to make the encounter challenging, and that they really might fail. It's possible that they're not interested in any failure in this scenario, in which case you might be better off just narrating it as a group until you reach another point in the game at which failure would interest them.

Good luck.

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

Pretty much the only thing required for a skill challenge to be good is for failure of the skill challenge to be as interesting as success.



yep, if success is the only option then there really is no point in even running a skill challenge, don't even have them pick up dice if you aren't prepared for the possible negative consequences

Better than any of those ideas, though, would be to change the failure to something that you are willing to allow to happen.



right now you would have to force it a certain way, if the stakes are too high, too permanent, then adjust them
Better than any of those ideas, though, would be to change the failure to something that you are willing to allow to happen.



Yes, this. And if you're willing to let it happen but aren't sure if the players will be upset about it, ask them about it ahead of time.

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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Pretty much the only thing required for a skill challenge to be good is for failure of the skill challenge to be as interesting as success. Ideally, failure is even a little more interesting than success. The game continues, but with some not-easily-irrevocable change that spurs further adventures. The players never "fail utterly," because the failure should lead to something else, even if it's just revenge.



This might be a problem. It's so late in the campaign their failure would not change the plot arc at all. If they succeed, they have to immediately confront the Big Bad. If they fail, they have to immediately confront the Big Bad anyway, except now they don't have most of their allies and what would be a happy ending has turned into a downer one. ("We stopped the evil forces, but the people we were trying to save died anyway...") They wouldn't even have the satisfaction of killing the henchmen who set it in motion because he's a lich, and thus death is only a minor setback to him. There's no time left in the campaign to let them hunt down the lich's phylactery and kill him once and for all (for revenge) or travel the planes to figure out how to bring back their allies (to make up for their failure).

Is that failure interesting at all? Or is it just demoralizing?

As a sidenote, one of the PCs tried to stop the death cloud before it began by warning the people the lich would poison to create it. That automatically failed (due to the lich poisoning them 15 minutes before she set out) because letting it succeed would throw a spanner in the plot works (giving two enemies a reason to cooperate and completely throwing off the lich's plan for the death cloud). However, now I'm wondering: is it fair to the players to make their previous attempt at stopping it automatically fail and then demand they succeed at a skill challenge to stop it now?
This might be a problem. It's so late in the campaign their failure would not change the plot arc at all. If they succeed, they have to immediately confront the Big Bad. If they fail, they have to immediately confront the Big Bad anyway, except now they don't have most of their allies and what would be a happy ending has turned into a downer one. ("We stopped the evil forces, but the people we were trying to save died anyway...") They wouldn't even have the satisfaction of killing the henchmen who set it in motion because he's a lich, and thus death is only a minor setback to him. There's no time left in the campaign to let them hunt down the lich's phylactery and kill him once and for all (for revenge) or travel the planes to figure out how to bring back their allies (to make up for their failure).

Is that failure interesting at all? Or is it just demoralizing?

I don't know. You really need to talk to the players about how they would like to fail. It may be that "the people we were trying to save died anyway" has to come off the table. Since that's been set in motion, if they can't stop it failure means something else, perhaps one of the possibilities you suggested. Perhaps the players sacrifice themselves in some way. They prevent the deaths but are themselves doomed. Before their deaths however, there's one final scene in which they can strike back at the enemy, and maybe take him with them.

But that's just an idea. Talk to your players to figure out ideas along those lines, and then make them the failure mode, so if they do fail it's fun, and if they succeed it's also fun. There's no limit on what you can do, if you have buy in from the players.

As a sidenote, one of the PCs tried to stop the death cloud before it began by warning the people the lich would poison to create it. That automatically failed (due to the lich poisoning them 15 minutes before she set out) because letting it succeed would throw a spanner in the plot works (giving two enemies a reason to cooperate and completely throwing off the lich's plan for the death cloud). However, now I'm wondering: is it fair to the players to make their previous attempt at stopping it automatically fail and then demand they succeed at a skill challenge to stop it now?

It's okay for things not to happen or be impossible, but really only if you have the players' buy in with that. In this case, if a player realized that you had simply decided that their idea would not work because it would disrupt your story I would expect the players to become very distrustful of you in the future. They'd have reason to think that any good idea they might have can always fail if it complicates your story, and that's not a situation that encourages player engagement and creativity.

But like I said, anything's possible with by in. If you can't see how to make the players' idea work, be up front with them. Maybe they can see a way that they can get their way, but the story can still be cool and challenging. Or maybe they'll agree that the story is cooler than their idea and cause their own idea to fail. Or maybe both success and failure can be made interesting and they can roll for it, and take what comes. Don't decide unilaterally that certain things cannot happen.

In general, if you're going to plan something, plan for it not to work the way you want. If you can't figure out how to have fun if it doesn't work, or for the players to have fun if it does work, then you need to rectify that or come up with a different plan. I bring my players on board with planning. Last session we decided that their reaching the top of a mountain was a foregone conclusion, so they just reached it without rolling any dice and we got on to the cool encounter. They succeeded in that encounter, but we'd already worked out the interesting circumstances that would occur if they failed.

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

I don't know. You really need to talk to the players about how they would like to fail. It may be that "the people we were trying to save died anyway" has to come off the table. Since that's been set in motion, if they can't stop it failure means something else, perhaps one of the possibilities you suggested. Perhaps the players sacrifice themselves in some way. They prevent the deaths but are themselves doomed. Before their deaths however, there's one final scene in which they can strike back at the enemy, and maybe take him with them.

But that's just an idea. Talk to your players to figure out ideas along those lines, and then make them the failure mode, so if they do fail it's fun, and if they succeed it's also fun. There's no limit on what you can do, if you have buy in from the players.



The players would rather just skip the skill challenge entirely, or make it play like a battle. They hate skill challenges. Their options are limited and their margin of error is so thin they call it "rolling dice to see who screws it up". They have bad memories of losing previous skill challenges (usually from a string of bad rolls), so a pall drops over the table whenever one is mentioned. I've seen players insult their dice, apologize to the group for making the 3rd failed roll that tanked their efforts, and demand that certain PCs step out of the challenge so they "don't screw it up". They don't believe that creative thinking or ingenuity will make the challenge easier or save them from the dice. In fact, it seems like their brains shut down the moment a skill challenge is announced. "Find the key skills we're best at, keep rolling them, pray the dice like us."

It's okay for things not to happen or be impossible, but really only if you have the players' buy in with that. In this case, if a player realized that you had simply decided that their idea would not work because it would disrupt your story I would expect the players to become very distrustful of you in the future. They'd have reason to think that any good idea they might have can always fail if it complicates your story, and that's not a situation that encourages player engagement and creativity.



She didn't react to it well ICly. She was still... well, engaged, trying to save whomever she could, but her PC suffered a nervous breakdown blaming herself for several dozen deaths because she was 30 minutes too late. Having her nervous breakdown demoralize her other allies might've rubbed salt on the wound too much. I could see her PC committing suicide from sheer grief if they fail this skill challenge and several hundred more allies die, or at least having a crushing lack of self-confidence on the eve before the final battle...

The party has never had anything go wrong due to a lack of planning or foresight, but their attempts to plan ahead or subvert the bad guys often fail due to Plot or Drama or are otherwise rendered futile. Hmm, this might be an issue...
The players would rather just skip the skill challenge entirely, or make it play like a battle. They hate skill challenges. Their options are limited and their margin of error is so thin they call it "rolling dice to see who screws it up". They have bad memories of losing previous skill challenges (usually from a string of bad rolls), so a pall drops over the table whenever one is mentioned. I've seen players insult their dice, apologize to the group for making the 3rd failed roll that tanked their efforts, and demand that certain PCs step out of the challenge so they "don't screw it up". They don't believe that creative thinking or ingenuity will make the challenge easier or save them from the dice. In fact, it seems like their brains shut down the moment a skill challenge is announced. "Find the key skills we're best at, keep rolling them, pray the dice like us."

Okay, yeah, do not run this skill challenge. They can work and be fun, but you've lost your players on this point. Forget about it for the rest of this campaign. Talk with us here to get some advice on running them, and then try again later with a new approach.

The party has never had anything go wrong due to a lack of planning or foresight, but their attempts to plan ahead or subvert the bad guys often fail due to Plot or Drama or are otherwise rendered futile. Hmm, this might be an issue...

That is definitely an issue. Plot and Drama are not fair reasons for their ideas not to work, unless the players are in full agreement that it's more dramatic for their ideas not to work.

It's clear that you have a story in mind, and that's fine, but that's not a game, that's a story. You are sitting down with people who are spending their free time on this, and you all need to find out what you enjoy and do that, and what you don't enjoy and not do that. Your players don't enjoy the way you run skill challenges. Don't run them. Don't kill the NPCs. Those are both pretty safe bets. For anything else, talk to the players and work with them on how to proceed.

Good luck.

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

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