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Anatomy of a Skill Challenge

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Hey, everyone! There has been a lot of discussion lately about Skill Challenges, which originated with 4e D&D. Back when I was running a 4e PbP campaign many years ago, I had created several unique skill challenges that went over very well with my players. Since I have some free time on my hands while recovering from knee surgery, I've decided to share these details with the ENWorld community for those looking for some ideas, inspiration, or free advice.

Please note, I am not claiming to be an expert on the subject. It has been many years since I ran this campaign. There are some things I might've done differently when I look back in retrospect, and I may even point out as I discuss this. Although I ran these specifically using 4e rules, they can easily be adapted or converted to other editions or similar systems using similar skills. If this is of any interest to you, please feel free to comment, question, or even critique, as long as you can do so constructively and respectfully. And I will do my best to respond in kind, medication willing.

This will be a fairly long post and will require a lot of formatting on my part, so for simplicity's sake I will break this into several posts over several threads. (Assuming there is interest and positive response, of course.) Each thread will consist of a single Skill Challenge so the relative discussion can focus on each individual example. At least, that is the hope.

I will begin with the very first skill challenge I created for a major combat encounter that took place in the middle of a town's market square. I will present the setup for the encounter as well as attach the battle map here. The skill challenge itself will be presented in the next post, followed by a quick summary and retrospect. Enjoy!

Encounter WICH 1-02: Taking the Market Square

SETUP: The characters have been instructed to defend the market square and to prevent the goblins from running it over. If the monsters should succeed in gaining control of the area, they will obtain a strong foothold inside the town and possibly turn the tide of battle for them.

When the party arrives at the market square, however, they find many of the town's people are hiding about or lingering in the area. This makes it difficult for the group to fight effectively in the large area and dangerous for the bystanders still hanging about. The characters must use their skills and abilities to help get everyone out of harm's way so that they can better focus on defending the area and the people from the attacking monsters.

The group will need to defeat several waves of monsters while attempting to clear the area of any non-combatants by completing the Skill Challenge: Out of Harm's Way. Until the skill challenge is completed, the characters will suffer a penalty on their ranged or area attack rolls, and the party will not be able to take a short rest between waves of monsters. See the Skill Challenge below for more details.
Area Features
Illumination: Bright light (Early morning and overcast)
Note: There are a lot of symbols and details on these maps, but I'm not detailing every unique piece or feature with a specific set of rules. If you want to improvise an action using what you see on the map, then I'll do my best to adjudicate with the circumstances involved. The features most commonly found on the map will use the following standards provided here.
Difficult Terrain: Squares marked with an open triangle symbol are considered difficult terrain.
Obstacle: Squares marked with the other symbol contain obstacles that obstruct movement, but can be negotiated with an Acrobatics check. A character who succeeds against a DC 10 as part of their move action can move through the square as if it were difficult terrain. If the character fails the check, however, he or she immediately stops moving and falls prone in that square. Monsters will not attempt an Acrobatic check to go through these squares.
An obstacle also provides cover for small creatures, or medium creatures that duck behind them. (Minor action to duck down, and a minor action to get back up.)
Skill Markers: The battle map features a number of Red and Gray skill markers that can be used as part of the Skill Challenge described below. To activate a skill marker, the character must be standing in a square that borders the appropriate marker that they wish to use. The Red markers are for Athletic checks, and the Gray ones are for Stealth checks. A White skill marker indicates that the marker has already been activated and is no longer available for use during the skill challenge. For more information on how these skills are used during the skill challenge, refer to the details provided below.

Special
Crowded: The market square is full of innocent bystanders. Until the party can successfully complete the Skill Challenge, all characters receive a -2 penalty on attack rolls for ranged and area effects, and the party will not be able to take a short rest.
 

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Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Out of Harm's Way
Successes: 8
Complexity: 3
(8 successes before 3 failures)​
Failures: 1​
You must clear the market square of any innocent bystanders before your group can rest. Protect the people of Witchcross, help them avoid the monsters, and cover their escape while defending against the goblin horde.

The PCs must use a variety of skills and tactics during an ongoing battle against waves of frost goblins and their allies in order to protect the people of Witchcross from the monstrous horde. The townsfolk are a distraction for the characters, which consequently prevents them from taking a short rest between encounters during the long fight. Each PC can contribute once per round, or once between waves of goblins while the challenge is still ongoing. Most attempts require a minor, move, or standard action, but a few also require the character to be adjacent to a specific marker indicated on the map.

Once the characters have helped enough people to escape the area by succeeding this challenge, and have cleared the market square of all enemies, then the party will be able to secure their position and take a short rest before the next encounter.

Primary Skills
Acrobatics, Athletics, Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, Stealth

Other Skills
Heal, Nature, Perception, Streetwise

Acrobatics
DC 12 (1 success, no maximum; move action, or no action if done as part of a move action, combat only)
The character performs a bold and daring maneuver to intercept or trip a monster that is chasing a fleeing person. If successful, one or more monsters will join the current battle on the next round of combat. This skill can only be attempted during combat.

Athletics
DC 15 (1 success, only 1 attempt can be made for each Red skill marker on the map; standard action, combat only)
The character attempts to push or knock over a large, obstructing object to impede the movements of an oncoming group of monsters. Characters attempting to perform this action, or aiding another character in this task, must be standing adjacent to any square containing an active Red skill marker. Once an attempt is made for a particular marker, the marker becomes inactive and can no longer be used for this challenge. Any squares that contained the marker now become difficult terrain. If successful, one or more monsters will join the current battle on the next round of combat. This skill can only be attempted during combat.

Bluff Maximum success achieved.
DC 13 (1 success, maximum 1 success; minor action, character must be able to speak Goblin fluently)
The character convinces a group of goblins that there is a great treasure hidden in another part of town. The goblins leave the area and ignore everyone until they find the treasure.

Diplomacy Burgell and Seraphina gained one success
DC 12 (1 success, maximum 1 success per character; minor action)
By shouting words of encouragement and instructions, the character assists the frightened and confused people with morale support and direction to find their way out of the market square.

Heal
DC 12 (no successes; standard action)
The character aids a fallen or injured person, tending their wounds so that they can leave the area. The character must be at least 3 squares away from any threatening monsters during combat, or out of combat in order to use this in the challenge. A success can not be gained in this way, but it does eliminate one failure gained during the challenge.

Intimidate Berenthor and Burgell gained one success
DC 10 (1 success, maximum 1 success per character; minor action, combat only)
The character attempts to scare away a group of monsters, forcing them to ignore their pursuit and flee the area. If the character rolls less than 15, however, the creatures turn their attention towards the party instead, in which case one or more monsters will join the current battle on the next round of combat. This skill can only be attempted during combat.

Nature
DC 10 (no successes; minor action) Berenthor and Burgell have used this benefit.
The character recalls useful knowledge regarding the nature and behavior of goblins. The character grants a +2 bonus for the next ally who uses Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate before the start of the character's next turn for this challenge. Allies must be within 5 squares of the character when he or she makes the skill check, and can only gain this benefit once on their turn. Only one ally can gain this benefit each time this skill is used, and each character can only gain this benefit once during this skill challenge.

Perception
DC 12 (no successes; minor action, combat only)
By taking a moment to aim carefully, the character reduces the attack penalty on his next ranged or area attack by 1. This benefit can only be used once during the same round that it is gained, and it must be used before the start of the character's next turn.

Stealth
DC 14 (1 success, only 1 attempt can be made for each Grey skill marker on the map; move action, or no action if done as part of a move action)
The character uses his expertise and experience at evading notice to hide one or more people in a place where they are not likely to be detected by the monsters. Characters attempting to perform this action must begin their turn or end their movement on or adjacent to any square containing an active Grey skill marker. The character cannot attempt this skill check if any threatening monsters are within 3 squares of the character. Once an attempt is made for a particular marker, the marker becomes inactive regardless of success or failure, and can no longer be used for this challenge.

Streetwise
DC 10 (no successes; minor action)
Familiarity with the urban landscape gives the character insight on how to use his current surroundings to his advantage. The character gains a +2 bonus on his next skill roll when he or she attempts to use Acrobatics, Athletics, Perception, or Stealth for this challenge.
 
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Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Design Notes

This was my first skill challenge design, but I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to do when planning for this game. This was essentially the climax for the 1st level adventure which brought the group together for the first time. The skill challenge was intended to last for multiple combat encounters that would take place consecutively on the same map as the party defended the town's market square against waves of frost goblins and their cohorts. The players, however, smartly focused on completing the skill challenge as quickly as possible and was successful before the end of the first combat.

I chose a number of various skills so that every player would feel their character would have a chance to contribute meaningfully. The descriptions provided a general idea of how a skill might be used, but players were free to come up with their own descriptions if they choose. Keep in mind a lot of us were new to 4e and PbP at the time so there was a learning curve.

I also introduced markers on the map to make the skill challenge more a part of the battle than just abstract flavor-dressing. Since the battle map is a big part of the combat (and the 4e experience), this gave players more tactical ideas on where to maneuver on the board than just finding their next target.

Coincidentally, I designed the skill tests to incorporate specific actions during combat, such as standard, move, or minor. This added another layer of tactics as players would need to decide on attacking an enemy or attempting a particular skill for the challenge.

In Retrospect

Overall, I think there was a good spread of action types, skill choices, and risks vs rewards choices that heightened the beginning of an already exciting scenario. The players absolutely loved it, which I measure as the only bar for success when running my games. :)

What do you think? So how would you design a similar scenario? What other ideas can you think of to make this work in a similar (or different) combat encounter?
 
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It isn't bad. The only real criticism I have is that there is no PLOT. There is a story, but the situation doesn't materially evolve in a narrative sense. Qualitatively, once a PC achieves a success the situation is as it was before.

Now, there's combat action going on (though honestly I am not sure I understand how and when combat fits into the SC yet) and you have a LOT of primary skills and different locations where they should be used. I think it is a workable SC, despite the plot shortcoming.

In the sorts of games I run now I would probably consider opening up the framing more and making the SC less tactical. Maybe expand the goal to 'get the people out of danger' and have that involve several related obstacles and choices/opportunities, with the final outcome being escape from the goblins, or not. However, that would leave less room to introduce outright combat, unless some fights were embedded inside the SC, which could be done. That would require more design work and turn the whole thing into several encounters worth of action though, which might not fit well into the larger story.

Anyway, I think the way the athletics and stealth checks are localized and limited, and made into a tactical 'terrain' is clever. Some of the other skills might get spammed a bit, but at least not by the same character every time.
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
[MENTION=82106]AbdulAlhazred[/MENTION] Thanks for the feedback! I'm not sure I fully understand what you mean by this:

It isn't bad. The only real criticism I have is that there is no PLOT. There is a story, but the situation doesn't materially evolve in a narrative sense. Qualitatively, once a PC achieves a success the situation is as it was before.
If I'm reading this correctly, you're suggesting that the situation should change, or at least "evolve in a narrative sense", each time a PC achieves an individual success. Is that correct? Could you elaborate? How would you change the situation at least seven times before winning the challenge?

Now, there's combat action going on (though honestly I am not sure I understand how and when combat fits into the SC yet) and you have a LOT of primary skills and different locations where they should be used.
I think you are looking at this from the inside out. The SC is embedded in the combat encounter, not the other way around. The encounter itself was only average difficulty before introducing the complications of the skill challenge. The idea was to introduce more tactical options where the players had to weigh risks vs rewards. If they focused on the skill challenge, they could complete it sooner and make their next combat easier. But doing so means ignoring the immediate threat of monsters in combat. Such is the decision most real heroes must make.

One thing you don't see in this snapshot of a skill challenge in play is the consequences of failing the skill challenge. Had the party failed, the next encounter would have been different. The party would have to deal with different penalties as their morale takes a major hit for failing to save more innocent people during the fight, and the enemy would have been bolstered by their apparent strength.

Admittedly, my own perspective has the advantage of seeing the larger picture and behind the scenes that may not be obvious to everyone reading this so apologies for that. But I will do my best to fill in the details as they come up. And I am genuinely interested in hearing similar ideas and different approaches as this is just one example that could have been so many different ways. I hope that this discussion will help others to come up with their own ideas and invent new challenges of their own. :)
 

pemerton

Legend
If I'm reading this correctly, you're suggesting that the situation should change, or at least "evolve in a narrative sense", each time a PC achieves an individual success. Is that correct? Could you elaborate? How would you change the situation at least seven times before winning the challenge?
I haven't read the main posts yet, sorry, but saw this.

In terms of rules/guidelines, that advice - that each check should change the situation - is found in the 4e DMG2. In practical terms, [MENTION=386]LostSoul[/MENTION] was probably the earliest proponent of it on these boards and (like at least some of us) was influenced, I think, by experience with other systems that use similar "closed scene" resolution methods.

Managing the fiction so that it can evolve with checks but neither success nor failure is foreclosed until the end is (in my experience, at least) one of the big demands in GMing a skill challenge. Here's a link to one of the ones that I think I did OK with.
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
I haven't read the main posts yet, sorry, but saw this.
Really?? Then how do you know your comments are appropriate, or even relevant to this discussion? Let's see.

In terms of rules/guidelines, that advice - that each check should change the situation - is found in the 4e DMG2.
Well I see reading for context is a challenge, so let me explain what you missed since you're going by the book.

That rule you're referring to comes with a caveat. Its in the paragraph before where it says on page 83 (underlined for emphasis):

Here are two rules that are related to rule 4. They arise when you embrace the idea of a skill challenge as working on a different time scale compared to a fight.
If you had read the main posts, which incidentally describe the skill challenge and encounter in detail, and form the subject of this particular discussion, you might realize that the skill challenge is working on the same time scale as a fight because it is actually part of one. So not every success needs to evolve the situation, as the book clearly states when read in context.

However, that doesn't mean you can't design it that way, which is why I asked AbdulAlhazred to elaborate if he had any ideas on the matter so I can understand his perspective a little better. Maybe he sees something that I do not. But I also know he read the main posts and understands the design I ran, so his input carries more weight with me.

Apologies if this strikes you as being rude. You may be honest about not reading the main posts. But it really makes me wonder why bother responding at all, thinking you might have something I need to read when you cannot be bothered to read what I have written. :erm:
 

@AbdulAlhazred Thanks for the feedback! I'm not sure I fully understand what you mean by this:


If I'm reading this correctly, you're suggesting that the situation should change, or at least "evolve in a narrative sense", each time a PC achieves an individual success. Is that correct? Could you elaborate? How would you change the situation at least seven times before winning the challenge?
Well, yes, though I understand it can seem difficult to have changing elements '7 times'. As I suggested in the same post that might be indicative of a pretty narrow 'framing' of the SC, it only covers one particular situation. One answer might be to use a complexity 1 or 2, which obviously relieves you of some of that burden.

However, I think you could incorporate some 'state change' within the SC. Maybe one situation leads to the starting of a fire, and the PCs have to sort that out, or can use it in some fashion. Maybe they take up a position in a certain location, and a failure means they get outflanked and have to change their strategy a little. These would work within the SC, and TBH it is hard to say they are or are not present simply based on the write up.

IMHO it is very hard to write up SCs. Because they are a highly narrative tool they must inherently owe a lot of their unfolding in play to the issues driving the specific PCs, details of the story which may not be surfaced or knowable to a 'module' writer, etc. In truth I think this is why WotC hasn't been keen on them. As a publisher of adventure material they're not really good fodder for module developers. A module writer has little idea of the specific motivations, character, or even possibly means available to specific characters. They need to write something that will be fully utilized in play (IE no big 'dead branches' of story that don't get used) and they need things to relate to the locations and plot lines they have written. So it is HARD to really write effective SCs! That being said, it is not so hard to write ABOUT effective SCs that we have been in, which is pretty useful.

I think you are looking at this from the inside out. The SC is embedded in the combat encounter, not the other way around. The encounter itself was only average difficulty before introducing the complications of the skill challenge. The idea was to introduce more tactical options where the players had to weigh risks vs rewards. If they focused on the skill challenge, they could complete it sooner and make their next combat easier. But doing so means ignoring the immediate threat of monsters in combat. Such is the decision most real heroes must make.
:)
Yeah, that makes it a little bit more clear. You didn't lay out the parameters of the encounter exactly so I didn't really understand that a specific combat was the overarching context. I kind of assumed smaller fights might 'break out'.
 

Tonguez

Legend
I suppose it may have been achieved via your skill markers on the map but my only thing while reading it was to add a sense of movement and plot by maybe adding three 'milestones' in the market square to show the movement of the townsfolk out of the scene.

I'd set them up as "Barricade" - "Panic in the Square" and "Out of the Frying Pain"

'Barricade' aligns directly with your Athletics test of impeding the goblins by creating difficult terrain, whereas your 'help the crowd' tests (Diplomacy, Heal) fit in the 'Panic if the Square' milestone,

so yeah I might just be rationalizing what you already did with the markers

so last question - what was the follow up consequence of getting the towns folk out and holding the square against the goblins?
 

pemerton

Legend
You may be honest about not reading the main posts. But it really makes me wonder why bother responding at all, thinking you might have something I need to read when you cannot be bothered to read what I have written. :erm:
I was being honest, but don't worry - I won't bother with reading your posts or respondoing further in this thread. Sorry to have wasted your time.
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
[MENTION=82106]AbdulAlhazred[/MENTION] and [MENTION=1125]Tonguez[/MENTION] Both of you suggested some excellent ideas! It goes to show there is more than one way to design these. I certainly could have elaborated mine for such an epic event, but probably not at the time. It was our first skill challenge with a lot of new players, and we were (or I was) still figuring out the best way to execute it within a PbP format. If I were designing a similar scenario today with more time, I'd most likely develop something more complex along the lines suggested. ;)

so last question - what was the follow up consequence of getting the towns folk out and holding the square against the goblins?
Hmm... I thought I had a simple answer for this, but after giving it some thought, I realize there was a lot more going on.

The towns folk did not occupy the battle map, only in the abstract "theater of the mind". This was simulated by a combination of narrative description from myself as well as the players, and imposing a -2 penalty for all ranged and area attacks until the challenge was completed. The latter expressed the characters' intentions not to harm innocent people caught in the middle of a battle. Getting the people out of the area would clear up the battlefield and remove the penalty.

Thinking now, I could have allowed the players an option to ignore the penalty at the risk of hitting towns people by accident. But it wasn't that kind of campaign and they were not that kind of players. And it never came up.

Another consequence, the party would not be able to take a short rest until the people were safe, and another battle was imminent. In 4e, a short rest meant recharging your encounter powers and spending healing surges to regain hit points. But an army of goblins running through town would frighten a lot of folks who would look to others for protection. So regardless of the characters intentions, if towns folk were trying to get out safely and spot the one band of heroes fighting goblins huddled together trying to catch their breath, they might plead/pester them for help.

As far as holding the square, this was just a narrative way of saying "I got this huge, cool map of a town square that I'd like to use for at least the next few encounters." I did all of the battlemap updates on my computer with a paint program using tools, layers, and custom tokens. I had a lot more time on my hands back then. :)
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
I was being honest, but don't worry - I won't bother with reading your posts or respondoing further in this thread. Sorry to have wasted your time.
Well, it might not be wasted if you wanted to read the original posts and join the discussion. But if you choose not to bother, I can respect that you made an honest choice. Have a nice day. :)
 

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