One of the things I was particularly excited about when running my first game of 4e was Skill Challenges. I had heard quite a few negative things about Skill Challenges (and 4e in general) and my experiences with Skill Challenges in the adventure I was playing in certainly left something to be desired. Luckily, I'm a member of the grand tradition of gaming that spindles, mutilates, and folds games until it's the desired shape and so I was interested in seeing what I could do with Skill Challenges.
After pondering the subject for a while, I decided on two main points: I wanted additional mechanics and parameters assigned to social Skill Challenges and I was interested in Skill Challenges where it's nature or "board" on which it is played changes. I'll discuss the former at some future point in this blog; this entry is about the latter, Skill Challenges where elements of the challenge are not constant, but change based on the actions of the player characters.
As I didn't care for the Skill Challenges I'd been through involving gathering information, etc., I decided mine would be about exploration. The first one I came up with revolved around the idea of getting across a cave and the second a ruined bridge that had to be climbed. Both are detailed below.
The first thing I did was create a diagram of squares that represented general routes which might be followed. Each square has a skill and a DC associated with it - that's the skill that needs to be checked to leave the square and the DC required. There are consequences for failure, specific to the particular Challenge. Next I thought up and wrote out other parameters and rules that apply, trying to imagine what the players might do before hand so I could have a pre-determined, thoughtful response as much as possible.
The first Skill Challenge takes place in an underground cave network. I never got to use this one as the players found a different route through the cave system, but I'll share it here. The path the characters would have been following is interrupted by a large cavern. The cavern has no floor - it just falls away to a river rushing through the darkness below. Thus if the characters want to cross it, they'll probably have to climb across it's walls.
The diagram represents several routes through the cave. The top half, the top three rows, represent one wall and the bottom two rows represent the other. The routes all begin on the right hand of the page. Although some have fewer squares, they all represent roughly the same distance. Not all routes are the same, however.
Although they generally call for physical Skills, some routes have more difficult checks. Some are shorter. Some allow you to choose between Athletics or Acrobatics, but some allow for just one Skill to be used. Despite being abstract, the routes are representational. Notice the squares that call for Strength checks. This is an area where a small tree (yes, a tree underground) is growing out of a cleft in the rock wall and weakend to the point where water cascades out from its roots and down into the river below. Thus Strength is used hang on instead of Athletics to climb through those squares.
I can't remember how I decided to handle the player characters trying spy out the routes before moving down them, but I did want them to be able to tell their was some difference between the routes and do their best to select a route that matched their character's strengths.
Here are the pre-determined parameters I wrote out for this challenge. They are in part based on rules I looked up while creating the Challenge. The diagram is below.
Fail check by 4 or more: Stay in square; DC same; square disappears for future characters (the handholds crumble, rocks come away from the wall, etc.)
Fail check by 5 or more: Character is falling; can catch hold, but DC +5; square disappears
Aid Another: Must explain; must be within 1 square of other character
Rope: +5 to checks if square is present, regular DC if not
Light: In dim light, DCs are +2
Distance: Routes in real world are 120 feet across
Moving between squares: Must be adjacent; Athletics DC 15
I took the basic idea of the cave Challenge - a kind of physical exploration where the route might crumble if you did poorly - and incorporated it into my second, much longer and more detailed Skill Challenge. This one takes place on a bridge that has crumbled. There are two ways across the canyon now: jump from ruined support to ruined support or climb down and then back up. This one I was able to run. I had mostly positive feedback, but I think I'd change a few things if I ran it again.
Here's the background and parameters I created for it. The diagram is below.
Challenge at Brennan’s Folly
History – Nearly forty years ago, a priest of Erathis received a vision. The priest, a then humble acolyte named Brennan, dreamt one winter evening that he was to lead a holy mission deep into the hinterlands of the Dawnforge Mountains, bringing an era of civilization and enlightenment to the savage humanoid tribes who dwelt there. After receiving the blessing of the high priest and years of gathering provisions and supplies, Brennan set off to tame the wilderness.
History records his failure. Although he reached the area intact, the locals provided little support for his mission. He was able to found a church high the mountains using few of his funds, but he was not content with a mere chapel. He wished to create an everlasting symbol of Erathis’ grace and might in the area. He decided to build a bridge across a river gorge that connected the valley in which his church sat with other inhabited areas lower in the mountains, hoping to ease the burden of travel to and from his church.
Local dwarves warned that the gorge was subject to frequent tremors and that construction would be long and difficult. Brennan insisted on his bridge. In the end, he paid dearly for it, both in coin and years. It was seven summers before the monument was complete. He had exhausted his resources, his good name, and his standing in the church, but the bridge now spanned the gorge with stony buttresses and a too solid presence.
The following summer, local orc tribes commandeered the bridge, using it as a choke point in its aggressions with other tribes and forcing those who wished to cross to pay tribute. The following spring, a tremor struck the area and, despite its dwarven engineering, the bridge was shaken to pieces.
After it’s destruction, locals took to calling the bridge Brennan’s Folly.
The Challenge – Characters can make Perception checks to discover details about the challenge. Due to the rough nature of the wall and the angles at which it must be viewed, players who succeed at a DC 13 check may either choose to learn if their chosen path continues for two more squares or if the DC of the next square increases or decreases from the previous one.
Rolls are made to exit a square, not enter it.
Those who fail a check by less than 4 stay in the square and roll on the results table.
Those who fail by more than 4 are falling and roll on the results table. (See page 284 of the PHB for more information about falling.) Each square represents a d10 of falling damage. Characters who begin to fall may make an immediate Athletics check DC 20 to catch hold of something. If they succeed, they remain in the square from which they began to fall.
Characters can use ropes to aid in their climb. Using a rope to move down the gorge wall changes all DCs to 8. Characters must still make Athletics checks at this new DC for each square they move through, even ones which were previously impassable.
Using a rope to ascend is more difficult. Characters who do so gain a +2 circumstance bonus to their checks. This does not stack with the bonus provided by a Climbing Kit as the rope is standing in the kit’s stead.
Characters who tie themselves together with ropes may each gain a +2 circumstance bonus to their checks provided they remain within 2 squares of each other. If one of the linked character falls, the stable character must make a Strength DC 10 to cling to the rock and prevent both characters from falling. The DM should alter this DC if the falling character is particularly light or particularly heavy.
Brennan’s Folly Results Table
When a character fails a check to move out of a square, add the amount by which the character failed the roll to 2d6 and consult the table below. (Example: A character is moving out of Athletics DC 10 square and gets a total of 8 on his check. He then rolls 2d6, adds 2 to the roll, and looks up the final result on the table.)
3. Minor rockslide. The character’s frantic efforts to catch him or herself touch off a minor rockslide. Bits of the gorge wall go tumbling down into the valley below, but there is no other result.
4. Minor rockslide. The character’s frantic efforts to catch him or herself touch off a minor rockslide. Bits of the gorge wall go tumbling down into the valley below, but there is no other result.
5. Precarious handhold. The character finds a narrow hand or foothold before he or she plummets to the earth, but it does not provide much leverage or traction. If the character is falling, the handhold crumbles under the character’s weight and the resulting check to catch hold is only a DC 17 instead of DC 20. The character’s next check to exit the square should he or she remain in it, whether previously falling or not, is now made at the listed DC +2.
6. Found a root. The character frantically scrambles for purchase as he or she begins to fall and manages to catch a hold of a root. If the character is falling, the root pulls free from the rock wall and the resulting check to catch hold is only a DC 18 instead of DC 20. The character’s next check to exit the square should he or she remain in it, whether previously falling or not, is now made at the listed DC +3.
7. Nothing but air. The character’s planned route turns out to be a disastrous one. What appears to be a thin ledge of rock offering support is a trick of the light. As the character begins to retrace his or her steps, the character suddenly slips. If the character was already falling, checks should be made as normal. If the character was not already falling, he or she must make an immediate Athletics check DC 8 to catch hold of something before plummeting to the rocks below.
8. Major rockslide. The character’s actions have knocked loose a good amount of stone and gravel, which falls onto his or her companions in squares below. A +5 versus Reflex attack should be made against each character who is in a square underneath the clumsy character. Those who are hit take 1d10 points of damage. Apologies should be made.
9. Major rockslide. The character’s actions have knocked loose a good amount of stone and gravel, which falls onto his or her companions in squares below. A +7 versus Reflex attack should be made against each character who is in a square underneath the clumsy character. Those who are hit take 1d10+2 points of damage. Apologies should be made.
10. Head-sized boulder. The character’s foot brushes up a loose bit of rock and a head-sized boulder falls away from the gorge wall. It drops down onto the closest character below the unlucky one. A +11 versus Reflex attack should be made against that character. If a character is hit, he or she takes 1d10+8 points of damage. Profuse apologies should be made.
11. Whoops! The character is paying more attention to the potentially fatal drop that he or she should. Hands slippery with sweat, the character’s purchase on the rock wall fails and he or she makes a comic yet heart-stopping bid to catch hold of something. The character’s efforts may rewarded, but with a slow crack, previously passable bits of the rocky trail sheer off and fall down, down, down. The DC to exit this square is permanently increased by +3. This penalty may be applied multiple times to the same square.
12. Did I do that? The character touches off a minor rockslide. Pebbles bounce down into the gulf below. They touch off another slide and soon fist-sized rocks tumbling down into the gorge. Those rocks touch off yet another tumult of stone. Crashing rocks obliterate parts of the previously passable squares. Each square below the character has its exit DC permanently increased by +1. This penalty may be applied multiple times to the same square.
13. Disaster! The character has drawn the attention of the gods, who apparently are not pleased. Without much warning beyond a sudden, thunderous crack, a large section of the gorge wall falls away, likely taking the luckless character who was climbing on that particular hunk of cursed stone with it. If he or she was not already falling, the character must make an immediate check to catch hold with the standard DC of 20. But because the gods have now become involved, that’s not all that happens. The square disappears and any efforts to move through it now are hampered by a permanent +7 increase to the exit DC.
Results greater than 13 should be discouraged, ridiculed, then considered to be 13 for all intents and purposes (because rolling a 13 is about as unlucky as you can possibly get).
I hope you have enjoyed reading about my exploration into what can be done with Skill Challenge and especially hope it kicked off a few ideas of your own.