RPGing and imagination: a fundamental point

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
Kind of like how defining X exists in your campaign world when you first brainstormed the setting 7 years ago is no less arbitrary than deciding that it exists 7 seconds ago, amirite?
Actually, what I’m getting at is that none of this is arbitrary in any meaningful sense of the word.

Oh wait, sorry, I forgot. Defining something seven years ago, even if it's boring and of no interest to the players, is "adhering to the living world" and is always "good GM-ing," while deciding something seven seconds ago that's of major interest and relevant to the players is "pandering" and being a "pushover" and "bad GM-img."
I’m sure someone somewhere has said that. I haven’t. I imagine someone somewhere has advocated for smacking their players with a ruler when they aren’t paying attention. I don’t advocate for that either.
 

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FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.
I’m just using it the same way people that call d&d’s resolution arbitrary use it. ;)
The Skill Challenge framework, is a system that determines how many success are going to be needed. By the fact it has a system, means it isn't arbitrary "based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system".
Its a system that once you have determined the number of successes…

The method one determines how many successes isn’t systemic or the way one determines if something should be easy or hard isn’t systemic. To make that decision you have to make the same kind of decision as a DM does that just relies on skill checks.

I don’t think either of them are arbitrary, but if one is goina call skills checks arbitrary based on that then skill challenges are no better.

Now you might claim the GM is being arbitrary in their decision that defusing an nuclear bomb is complex, rather than a simple task, but I would say it is more likely they used some amount of reason to decide that.
Yea - like their total lack of knowledge about defusing nuclear bombs ;)
It the DM rolled a dice "1-3 it's complex, 4-6 simple" that would be arbitrary, but most DM's put a bit more thought into it than that.
That would be systemic. Random does not equal arbitrary.
 

Deciding X before Y doesn’t make X non-arbitrary…
I think it's unproductive to use this sort of thinking here. What in life is not 'arbitrary' by some extension of this logic? Only by distinguishing on the basis of articulable and principled reason can we distinguish. 4e lays out reasons for SC complexity and reasonable answers are forthcoming as to any such given instance.
 

Actually, what I’m getting at is that none of this is arbitrary in any meaningful sense of the word.


I’m sure someone somewhere has said that. I haven’t. I imagine someone somewhere has advocated for smacking their players with a ruler when they aren’t paying attention. I don’t advocate for that either.
I agree with you that many things are not arbitrary. However I think when we establish systematic processes which are more binding we are likely to get less arbitrary results. A GM may easily fall into a resort to preference for a single check, but they're unlikely to fudge an entire SC! it's also a lot more obvious and likely to be noticed.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
I think it's unproductive to use this sort of thinking here. What in life is not 'arbitrary' by some extension of this logic?
Exactly my point.
Only by distinguishing on the basis of articulable and principled reason can we distinguish. 4e lays out reasons for SC complexity and reasonable answers are forthcoming as to any such given instance.
Same with skill checks.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
I agree with you that many things are not arbitrary. However I think when we establish systematic processes which are more binding we are likely to get less arbitrary results.
Why? As long as there is sufficient reason to deviate from the process then that wouldn’t be arbitrary at all.
A GM may easily fall into a resort to preference for a single check, but they're unlikely to fudge an entire SC! it's also a lot more obvious and likely to be noticed.
I don’t see how any of this bears on arbitrariness of the skill check itself.

Noticeable definitely doesn’t matter to arbitrary, neither is it clear that skill checks have a greater propensity toward arbitrary decisions than skill challenges. A point wholly unsupported by your post.
 
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Pedantic

Legend
I agree with you that many things are not arbitrary. However I think when we establish systematic processes which are more binding we are likely to get less arbitrary results. A GM may easily fall into a resort to preference for a single check, but they're unlikely to fudge an entire SC! it's also a lot more obvious and likely to be noticed.
This assumes the comparison point is the GM determining the impact of each player action declaration on the spot. I don't really see much difference between determining an outcome, and going around the table to call for a variety of different checks and then tabulating the successes, or simply calling for one. Except the number of rolls and attached descriptions involved, the fundamental structure is the same, the GM is still making a judgement call about the absolute value of each action declaration. The real disagreement is about how involved resolution should be. I suspect that generally, SCs devalue each action declaration relative to a GM making judgement calls in the moment, with notably exceptions where a GM will devalue some specific actions even more.

What it is fundamentally different from is a system with specified actions. If the list of available actions is known ahead of time and doesn't fluctuate in relationship to any particular goal, then their resolution can vary in a way that is impossible in a SC context. More or less action declarations might be necessary to reach the desired goal, depending on player action declaration and (if relevant) fortune in resolution.
 

This assumes the comparison point is the GM determining the impact of each player action declaration on the spot. I don't really see much difference between determining an outcome, and going around the table to call for a variety of different checks and then tabulating the successes, or simply calling for one. Except the number of rolls and attached descriptions involved, the fundamental structure is the same, the GM is still making a judgement call about the absolute value of each action declaration. The real disagreement is about how involved resolution should be. I suspect that generally, SCs devalue each action declaration relative to a GM making judgement calls in the moment, with notably exceptions where a GM will devalue some specific actions even more.

What it is fundamentally different from is a system with specified actions. If the list of available actions is known ahead of time and doesn't fluctuate in relationship to any particular goal, then their resolution can vary in a way that is impossible in a SC context. More or less action declarations might be necessary to reach the desired goal, depending on player action declaration and (if relevant) fortune in resolution.
Nah you will simply have the same argument over fictional positions, etc. If you want to play boardgames that's fine but ALL RPG PLAY will come down to some determination in respect of fiction!

SCs DO increase the internal integrity of game process by comparison to free checks. They also allow players to reason about the process AS A GAME and more consistently get adherence to defined stakes etc.
 

Pedantic

Legend
Nah you will simply have the same argument over fictional positions, etc. If you want to play boardgames that's fine but ALL RPG PLAY will come down to some determination in respect of fiction!
There is obviously a difference between an action that has a defined fictional impact and one that doesn't. 5e's "climb at half speed, the DM may design an athletics check to allow for faster" and the 3e climb skill's fixed speed outcomes are not identical. I pointedly reject the notion of unlimited action space as the essential quality of an RPG. Practically speaking, generic resolution system like a SC or single-check resolution already consists of a discrete set of declarable mechanical actions regardless of variance in the attached fictional description. Even in my push for more bespoke actions, the set of things likely to be proposed in most games is significantly smaller than the "you can do anything!" that routinely gets suggested, especially once you start putting constraints of genre and tone on the game overall.

Instead, I think the defining quality must live in the evaluation of victory. Board games are closed, with defined end points established before they begin and established victory/loss conditions. RPGs allow the players to set the victory/loss conditions they'll be evaluated on, and allow play to continue past that evaluation with a new set of conditions.
SCs DO increase the internal integrity of game process by comparison to free checks. They also allow players to reason about the process AS A GAME and more consistently get adherence to defined stakes etc.
Technically true, but they aren't a very good game. The optimization cases are (depending on how the GM presents the available checks) either trivial, or effectively random. Plus they have a quite small number of available actions, once you eliminate mathematically identical declarations. I don't think they're a revolutionary technology over free checks in that sense, but any structure at all does allow for more gameplay than the GM deciding moment to moment what actions are available.
 

pemerton

Legend
I don't really see much difference between determining an outcome, and going around the table to call for a variety of different checks and then tabulating the successes, or simply calling for one. Except the number of rolls and attached descriptions involved, the fundamental structure is the same, the GM is still making a judgement call about the absolute value of each action declaration.
I don't see much difference between (i) playing a RPG campaign, in which (at the start of the campaign) the PCs are defending a homestead from marauding Goblins, and (at its end, several years later) the PCs have tamed the god Bane, sealed off the Abyss from the rest of the world, and staved off the Dusk War by exerting their influence over the powers of the Elemental Chaos, and (ii) spending 15 minutes asking everyone at the table to tell us an idea about a fantasy story arc, except that the first involved hundreds of hours of play, with all the fiction, and mechanical reasoning, and ups and downs, and surprises, and stakes-setting, and, and, and . . . of RPG play; and the latter didn't.

A skill challenge is a device for generating action declarations, and prompting action resolutions, in the context of a fiction that confronts the PCs with challenges/obstacles in the way of their goals, that will reliably produce unknown and perhaps unexpected play outcomes, without the participants at the table having to sit around and collaborate on those outcomes. That's it.

Here are three actual play examples that illustrate the point:
Two revelations had the biggest immediate impact. One involved the PCs' principal enemy. This is the leader of the hobgoblins, a powerful wizard called Paldemar (but called Golthar in Goblinish). The PCs learned that in the town he is not known to be a villain, but is apparently well-thought of, is an important scholar and astrologer, is an advisor to the Baron, and is engaged to the Baron's niece. The PCs (and the players) became worried that he might be at dinner that evening. This was a worry for two reasons - (i) they didn't really want to fight him, and (ii) they know some secrets about an ancient minotaur kingdom that he does not, but has been trying to discover. One of those secrets involves a magic tapestry that the PCs carry around with them (because they don't have anywhere safe to leave it).

<snip>

The dinner
The PCs arrived late, and were the last ones there. On the high table they could see the Baron, and his sister and brother-in-law, and also Paldemar, their wizard enemy. They left their more gratuitous weapons - a halberd for the dwarf and a longbow for the ranger - with the dwarf's herald - an NPC dwarf minion called Gutboy Barrelhouse - and took their seats at the high table. Gutboy was also carrying the backpack with the tapestry.

The PCs also noticed a series of portraits hanging behind the high table. One had a young woman, who was the spitting image of a wizard's apprentice they had recently freed from a trapping mirror - except that adventure had happened 100 years in the past (under a time displacement ritual), and this painting was clearly newly painted. Another, older, painting was of a couple, a man resembling the Baron, and a woman resembling the rescued apprentice but at an older age.

About this time the players started talking about the skill checks they wanted to make, and I asked them what they were hoping to achieve. Their main goal was to get through the evening without upsetting the baron, without getting into a fight with Paldemar (which meant, at a minimum, not outing him as the leader of the hobgoblin raiders), and without revealing any secrets to him. In particular, they didn't want him to learn that they had found the tapestry, and that it was in fact 15' away from him in Gutboy's backpack. But it also quickly became clear that they wanted to learn about the people in the portraits, to try and learn what had happened over the past 100 years to the apprentice they freed, and how she related to the Baron's family.

This whole scene was resolved as a complexity 5 skill challenge. It ran for more than an hour, but probably not more than two. The general pattern involved - Paldemar asking the PCs about their exploits; either the paladin or the sorcerer using Bluff to defuse the question and/or evade revealing various secrets they didn't want Paldemar to know; either the paladin or the wizard then using Diplomacy to try to change the topic of conversation to something else - including the Baron's family history; and Paldemar dragging things back onto the PCs exploits and discoveries over the course of their adventures.

Following advice given by LostSoul on these boards back in the early days of 4e, my general approach to running the skill challenge was to keep pouring on the pressure, so as to give the players a reason to have their PCs do things. And one particular point of pressure was the dwarf fighter/cleric - in two senses. In story terms, he was the natural focus of the Baron's attention, because the PCs had been presenting him as their leader upon entering the town, and subsequently. And the Baron was treating him as, in effect, a noble peer, "Lord Derrik of the Dwarfholm to the East". And in mechanical terms, he has no training in social skills and a CHA of 10, so putting the pressure on him forced the players to work out how they would save the situation, and stop the Baron inadvertantly, or Paldemar deliberately, leading Derrik into saying or denying something that would give away secrets. (Up until the climax of the challenge, the only skill check that Derriks' player made in contribution to the challenge was an Athletics check - at one point the Baron described himself as a man of action rather than ideas, and Derrik agreed - I let his player make an Athletics check - a very easy check for him with a +15 bonus - to make the fact of agreement contribute mechanically to the party's success in dealing with the situation.)

Besides the standard skill checks, other strategies were used to defuse the tension at various points. About half way through, the sorcerer - feigning drunkenness with his +20 Bluff bonus - announced "Derrik, it's time to take a piss" - and then led Derrik off to the privy, and then up onto the balcony with the minstrel, so that Paldemar couldn't keep goading and trying to ensnare him. At another point, when the conversation turned to how one might fight a gelatinous cube (Paldemar having explained that he had failed in exploring one particular minotaur ruin because of some cubes, and the PCs not wanting to reveal that they had explored that same ruin after beating the cubes) the sorcerer gave an impromptu demonstration by using Bedevilling Burst to knock over the servants carrying in the jellies for desert. (I as GM had mentioned that desert was being brought in. It was the player who suggested that it should probably include jellies.) That he cast Bedevilling Burst he kept secret (another Bluff check). But he loudly made the point that jellies can be squashed at least as easily as anything else.

While fresh jellies were prepared, Derrik left the table to give a demonstration of how one might fight oozes using a halberd and fancy footwork. But he then had to return to the table for desert.

Around this time, the challenge had evolved to a point where one final roll was needed, and 2 failures had been accrued. Paldemar, once again, was badgering Derrik to try to learn the secrets of the minotaur ruins that he was sure the PCs knew. And the player of Derrik was becoming more and more frustrated with the whole situation, declaring (not speaking in character, but speaking from the perspective of his PC) "I'm sick of putting up with this. I want Paldemar to come clean."

The Baron said to Derrik, "The whole evening, Lord Derrik, it has seemed to me that you are burdened by something. Will you not speak to me?" Derrik got out of his seat and went over to the Baron, knelt beside him, and whispered to him, telling him that out of decorum he would not name anyone, but there was someone close to the Baron who was not what he seemed, and was in fact a villainous leader of the hobgoblin raiders. The Baron asked how he knew this, and Derrik replied that he had seen him flying out of goblin strongholds on his flying carpet. The Baron asked him if he would swear this in Moradin's name. Derrik replied "I swear". At which point the Baron rose from the table and went upstairs to brood on the balcony, near the minstrel.

With one check still needed to resolve the situation, I had Paldemar turn to Derrik once again, saying "You must have said something very serious, to so upset the Baron." Derrik's player was talking to the other players, and trying to decide what to do. He clearly wanted to fight. I asked him whether he really wanted to provoke Paldemar into attacking him. He said that he did. So he had Derrik reply to Paldemar, 'Yes, I did, Golthar". And made an Intimidate check. Which failed by one. So the skill challenge was over, but a failure - I described Paldemar/Golthar standing up, pickup up his staff from where it leaned against the wall behind him, and walking towards the door.

Now we use a houserule (perhaps, in light of DMG2, not so much a houserule as a precisification of a suggestion in that book) that a PC can spend an action point to make a secondary check to give another PC a +2 bonus, or a reroll, to a failed check. The player of the wizard PC spent an action point, and called out "Golthar, have you fixed the tear yet in your robe?" - this was a reference to the fact that the PCs had, on a much earlier occasion, found a bit of the hem of Paldemar's robe that had torn off in the ruins when he had had to flee the gelatinous cubes. I can't remember now whether I asked for an Intimidate check, or decided that this was an automatic +2 bonus for Derrik - but in any event, it turned the failure into a success. We ended the session by noting down everyone's location on the map of the Baron's great hall, and making initiative rolls. Next session will begin with the fight against Paldemar (which may or may not evolve into a fight with a catoblepas also - the players are a bit anxious that it may do so).

This is the most sophisticated skill challenge I've run to date, in terms of the subtlety of the framing, the degree of back and forth (two major PCs with whom the PCs were interacting, with different stakes in the interaction with each of them), my concentration on evolving the scene to reflect the skill checks and the other action while still keeping up the pressure on the players (and on their PCs), and the goals of the players, which started out a little uncertain and somewhat mixed, but ended up being almost the opposite of what they were going into the challenge.
I started my 4e campaign using the old B/X module Night's Dark Terror. That module involves a magical tapestry which, when touched with the appropriately needle and thread, forms a picture depicting the location of a hidden valley.

As I ran it, though, the tapestry was a relic of the ancient minotaur kingdom, and it was not a map to a hidden valley but rather to one of the greatest secrets of the minotaurs, namely, the location of Torog's Soul Abattoir. The Soul Abattoir is (or, rather, was) a location containing metaphysical machinery giving Torog a hold over the souls of those who die in the Underdark. Torog has the souls tortured before they pass on to the Raven Queen, gaining power from that process of torture.

<snip>

Although the Soul Abattoir is described in very general terms in the Underdark book, little detail is given. I located it at the end of icy tunnels running through the Shadowdark, on the far shore of the Soul Slough into which flows Lathan, the River of Souls. The "liquid souls" flowed under the ice and stone to the icy, Vault-of-the-Drow-style cavern containing the Soul Abattoir. The Abattoir itself was a series of buildings into which souls "flowed" in a fashion analogous to rivers. Inside the buildings the streams of souls were directed through Torog's various machines, which extracted soul energy from by way of torture, converting that energy into "darkspikes" from which Torog could then draw power by driving them into his body.

The destruction of the Soul Abattoir was run mostly as a skill challenge, but with a combat a little over halfway through (and some of this is reposted from other threads):

  • The entrance to the Soul Abattoir, at which the PCs had arrived, was an icy tunnel floor, ending at a cliff overlooking the cavern - the river of souls was flowing some way beneath the ice, and flowed out from the base of the entrance cliff into Torog's various machines;

  • The drow sorcerer and tiefling paladin flew to the bottom of the cliff, where the paladin blew his Fire Horn to render the ice more susceptible to heat, while the drow cast Flame Spiral to melt some of the ice, and then cast Wall of Water to block the flow of souls (check-wise, this was an Arcana check by the player of the drow, with a buff from the melting of the ice and use of the wall);

  • The paladin and invoker then headed to the largest building, at the other end of the cavern, while the cleric-ranger on his flying carpet provided archery cover and the sorcerer flew above them maintaining concentration on his wall spell (check-wise, this was an Acro check for the archer and the sorcerer, and an Intimidate check from the paladin assisted by the invoker to make their way through Torog's minions);

  • Once they got to the far building, the paladin and invoker sought the intervention of the Raven Queen to redirect the flow of souls directly to the Shadowfell rather than via Torog's infernal machines (one failed and one successful Religion check; the failure led to damage from a combination of psychic and necrotic energies generated by the suffering souls);

  • Meanwhile, with the flow of souls stopped, the fighter fought his way through the other (lesser) buildings, destroying the machinery inside them (Athletic check buffed by expenditure of a close burst encounter power to fight through the minions from building to building, and Dungeoneering to wreck the machinery);

  • When the PCs had all regrouped at the furthest (and most important) building resolution then switched from skill challenge mode to tactical combat mode, as they stormed the building and fought with Torog's shrivers plus a death titan;

  • After the (very challenging) fight, during which the last machine was turned off by the sorcerer (the player made a successful Thievery check as a standard action once the PCs had finally fought their way along the central gantry that ran above the pool of souls), the skill challenge then resumed as the Soul Abattoir itself started to collapse;

  • The ranger and sorcerer flew out of the cavern (successful Acro checks) while the paladin ran out beneath them, but was struck by falling rocks (failed Aths check, making the 3-person group check a success altogether as a majority succeeded, but costing the paladin damage for the failure);

  • The fighter shielded the invoker (Endurance check) as the latter held off the powerful soul energy while the others made their escape (Religion check);

  • The invoker noticed that Vecna was trying to take control of the soul energy via the invoker's imp familiar that has the Eye of Vecna implanted in it (as GM, I had decided that this was the moment when Vecna would try and steal the souls for himself; mechanically I asked the player to make an Insight check, which was successful);

  • The invoker, having to choose between two of his patrons (he is a very pluralist divine PC) stopped Vecna redirecting the souls away from the Raven Queen, making sure that they flowed to her instead (in play, at this point I asked the player whether his PC - who at this point still had the erupting soul energy under his mystical control - whether he was going to let the souls flow to Vecna, or rather direct them to the Raven Queen; the player though for probably about 20 seconds, and then replied "The Raven Queen"; I decided that, on the basis of the earlier Religion check with no further check required, and I also decided that Vecna in anger shut down the offending imp via his Eye);

  • The invoker and fighter then ran out of the collapsing cavern behind their companions, the invoker being shielded from falling rocks by the burly dwarf fighter (Athletics checks, with the fighter doing well enough to grant an "aid another" bonus to the invoker, so from memory neither took any damage).
As the PCs were flying along, they saw an eladrin hunting party, with a displacer beast pack, below them in the woods

<snip>

the eladrin was a Marcher Baron, Lord Distan. (The PCs and players recognised that name, as someone who had kicked the hags out of their former home 20-odd years ago, leading them to taking up residence in their Tower instead.)

He invited them back to his home, where it quickly became clear that he didn't really want their company, but rather wanted them to help him with a problem - he was expecting a visit in a few days from his Duke overlord, but his special apple grove was not fruiting as it normally would.

This was an adaptation to 4e mechanics and backstory of the scenario "The Demon of the Red Grove" in Robin Laws's HeroWars Narrator's Book. The reason for the trees in the grove not fruiting is that a demon, long bound there, has recently been awoken but remains trapped within the grove, and hence is cursing the trees. Mechanically, this was resolved as a skill challenge. First the PCs had to endure the demon's three cries of "Go Away!" (group checks, with failing PCs taking psychic damage - the sorcerer, who is also a multi-class bard, was the most flamboyant here, spending his Rhythm of Disorientation encounter power to open up the use of Diplomacy for the check, which in the fiction was him singing a song of apples blossoming in the summer). Somewhere during this process the cleric-ranger and invoker both succeeded at Perception checks and could hear the high-pitched whistling of a song bird. And the sorcerer's Arcana check revealed the presence of the demon - an ancient and mighty glabrezu (level 27 solo, as I told the players in order to try to convey the requisite sense of gravity).

At this point I thought they would attack the demon, but they decided to speak to it first, to find out how it had got there and what it was doing there. With successful Diplomacy checks they learned that it had been summoned long ago during the Dawn War ("When Miska's armies were marshalling on the Plain of a Thousand Portals") by a powerful drow who had come into the Abyss, in order to ambush a strong and cruel sorceress. But the sorceress had defeated it and trapped it in the grove. When they asked it the name of the sorceress, it replied that the name had been erased from its memory - at which point the player of the paladin of the Raven Queen worked out the sorceress was his mistress, and the player of the drow worked out that the ambusher must be Lolth. They also learned that it had been woken a year ago by an NPC wizard who was, earlier in the campaign, a nemesis of the PCs, as part of his attempts to learn the true name of the Raven Queen.

They then debated whether to bargain with it, but doubted its promise that "My word is my bond." The player of the invoker decided to use the Adjure ritual - that works on immortal creatures only, so he used it to try and change the immortal magic of the Raven Queen that was binding the demon. Instead of being trapped in the grove, they wanted the demon to instead go forth and fight frost giants and formorians. A roll was made (with help from the paladin, the ranger-cleric (who is also a Raven Queen devotee) and the sorcerer (who hates the giants because they serve evil primordials and he serves Chan, a "good" archomental). Unfortunately the roll was not very high, which meant that even with the bonuses it didn't achieve a full success, so the demon is bound for a week only - and hence was quite cheerful as it flew off to the north to beat up on frost giants.

Overall I was quite happy with the Red Grove scenario as a good introduction to the Feywild, and establishing some suitable flavour within the context of the broader campaign backstory. I had first made notes for running this scenario 3 or more years ago, back when the PCs were upper Heroic/low Paragon, and was glad to finally be able to use it (though with everything levelled up a bit!). Framing the PCs into the situation in the first place - via the eladrin encounter - was a bit harder than I would normally do things, but I knew that the players would be interested in the Lolt/Raven Queen backstory. And the outcome in relation to the demon was unexpected and certainly gives material for future developments. I haven't yet decided how to handle the consequences of the demon becoming free after a week, but it is potentially quite amusing.
 

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