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D&D 4E Running player commentary on PCat's 4E Campaign - Heroic tier (finished)

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Writing Fantasy Gumshoe!
Our schedule got shuffled due to real-life issues. We play this Thursday.

I have been taking lessons on skill challenges from Fajitas, who used to play in my old campaign before he moved to LA and started his own superb group (he's Spyscribe's DM.) In one of the upcoming sessions I'm going to try one that is more explicit and gamist than I'm used to, but which may be a lot of fun. Finally after 25 or so 4e sessions, I may be figuring out how to make the darn things really cool. We'll see.


Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
Any links you'd care to share?
Yeah, request seconded. I've read all of Mearls' articles on the subject, but the one skill challenge I put to my group didn't go over well. The other 4E DM hasn't had any in his modified Rise of the Runelords game I play in, and nobody is missing them.

I like the concept of skill challenges and think that done correctly they should add to the fun factor, but I haven't seen it in play. :.-(


First Post
I look forward to hearing about it. I've not been able to make any non-sucky skill challenges so far :(

PCat's skill challenges up to last night had been mostly behind the scenes. I can't really tell if they were good or bad, as they were largely embedded in role playing in a way that they did not seem like a skill challenge.

Last night changed all that in a BIG way...and it was anything but sucky!


PS: I will let PCat describe it as he has the sheets he handed us describing it and I might forget something.


Writing Fantasy Gumshoe!
It was pretty spectacular. I don't remember the last time I was that much on the edge of my seat, and I certainly didn't expect it to come from a skill challenge.

I'll post the challenges, and discuss them, once Sagiro posts about the game -- I think that's coming late tonight.


Rodent of Uncertain Parentage
Last night’s game -- #13 of the campaign – was extremely exciting despite a complete lack of traditional combats. It was all about the skill challenges! But first, the plot summary:

We had ended the previous game in the Bubbling Fens, one-time gathering place of lizard man forces, and rumored home-base of our enemies Xiras and Aline. Now we cautiously entered the only permanent structure – a large wooden hut up on stilts.

Its interior was way creepy. For one thing, it was unnaturally cold and dark. For another, its central feature was a rumpled, stained bed. Silk cloth hung billowing from the ceiling – as well as a partially-plucked dead duck. Gross. Wardrobes were filled mostly with expensive (and in some cases, centuries-old) dresses, and we discovered an assortment of perfumes. The whole place looked and felt like a nasty lizardish boudoir.

We also found, neatly folded and pressed, the Grey Guard uniforms that had been previously been stolen in the lizards’ “yoink the weapons” ritual. Toiva and Doc Caldwell found some (but not all) of their own pilfered belongings, and we discovered a pair of magic items as well – speaking of “Yoink!”

Beneath the rich carpet on the floor we found a magic circle inscribed with draconic runes. The university-educated Doc read them to us – the wording indicated that we needed an (un)holy symbol of Sklar (the evil Lizard Man god) to open the portal. (It also indicated that non-Sklar-worshippers might be detained in some way…. Hmmm.) The (un)holy symbol wasn’t hard to come by, as Sklar’s symbol is a wet feather from a drowned duck. Caldwell plucked one, soaked it with water from his water-skin, and dropped it onto the circle. The wooden floor warbled and was replaced by a staircase going down into the darkness. (Which was odd, since the hut was on stilts – we should have been looking down at the swamp beneath the hut.) Before anyone could say “check for traps,” Toiva descended. She quickly vanished into the shadows, and wouldn’t answer our calls, so we charged down after her.

Each member of the party found themselves in a tiny isolated prison made from tall weeds. We could hear each other, indicating that our individual prisons were near each other. More disturbing, the air felt wrong – with each breath, we had the sensation that our lungs were about to fill with water. And most disturbing, Caldwell and Toiva, who are more devout that the rest of us in their worship of non-Sklar deities, had taken on the visual appearance of waterlogged cadavers.

Strontium discovered that, beneath the mud of its prison, its perimeter was ringed with runes similar to those around the portal entrance in the hut. After it shouted its discovery, Caldwell, who still had his feather, used it on the runes of his own cell to free himself, and then did the same for the others. We were in a long, dark hallway that contained many of these little weedy prisons. In response to our shouts (in case there were others so trapped), we heard a groaning noise from the end of the hallway. We moved to investigate.

Beyond the prison-hall was a ritual chamber with three magic circles on the floor. One contained a small pile of scrolls, one contained various dragon parts (including the head)... and one contained the feared Dragonborn warrior Xiras, who we had thought was leading the lizard man armies against Floodford.

Xiras, looking horribly emaciated, demanded food. (He licked his lips disturbingly while staring at our halfling companion Yiddin. No, you can’t eat our combat medic!) We were wary of him, given his reputation. Could this be a trap? He claimed that his life-force was being drained and fed to his supposed consort, Aline.

Before freeing him, we scuffed out the circles containing the scrolls and dragon parts. The scrolls went up in flames, and the dragon bits swirled around a bit, but nothing else happened. We searched the rest of the room and found a table in a small alcove, on which rested a number of sapphires and a fancy lidded cup. Cobalt pocketed the gems and flipped the cup open to see what was inside.

Smoke started to stream out of the cup, forming into the massive shadowy form of The Awakening Tide of Sklar, some kind of mighty avatar of the evil swamp god. Oops! It was immediately evident that this towering semi-divine monstrosity was not something we could fight, and that our immediate priorities were a) fleeing with our lives, and b) making sure the Tide of Sklar did not escape to trouble the surface world.

So, we ran. The Tide of Sklar moved slowly but inexorably toward the exit, while slowing us down with rapidly-forming barriers of sharp weeds, as well by tangling us up in seaweed-like tentacles. We shoved through the weeds with brute force, stopping when necessary to free anyone who was entangled. We successfully escaped back up the stairs, and even managed to grab the pathetic Xiras on the way out.

But, when we reached the “safety” of the hut and sealed the portal, the Tide of Sklar started to force its tendrils through the cracks around the opening! We still needed to corrupt the ancient runes inscribed around the portal, and that took some tricky knowledge of nature and the arcane. Some of us concentrated on slashing the tentacles as they thrashed about, while others worked with Yiddin and Strontium to figure out how to seal the portal for good.

We made it, but just barely.

Piratecat ended the session by giving us an out-of-character glimpse at the battle-lines of Floodford. Xiras was leading an army of lizard men against the town, while Aline flew overhead on a headless dragon corpse. It looked grim for the town, when suddenly Aline's mount dropped out from under her, squashing several lizard men where it fell. Not long after, the inspiring and glorious Xiras, commander of the enemy forces, dissolved into a puddle of weeds and leeches. Suddenly demoralized and leaderless, the lizards broke and fled before the resurgent townsfolk. Woo hoo!

Tactical Notes:

- I’m actually going to leave most of this section for Piratecat to explain, since he can provide a more thorough analysis of his skill challenges. (The escape from Sklar and the sealing of his portal were done as a pair of consecutive skill challenges.) I’ll just say this: 1) They were entirely explicit. Piratecat handed out sheets describing every detail of the challenges: Skill DC’s, required successes-before-failures for skill checks, and the ultimate consequences of winning or losing the challenge. They were like little mini-games, and (for me) an entirely new kind of D&D experience. And 2) They were fantastically exciting. The second one was especially white-knuckled, with us finishing up with no failures to spare. For me at least, the mini-game nature of the experience made it more enjoyable.

We did have some ideas for making them more dynamic, after the session had ended. Specifically, the set-up had the effect of making each character focus only on their single best skill. We thought that maybe putting limits on how often any given skill could be used, or how often a particular PC could use a given skill, could make the challenges more interesting. But, regardless, they were an overwhelming success. I’ll comment more after Piratecat has explained them in more detail.

I would like to mention that Cobalt had an atrocious run of luck during the second skill challenge – fortunately while making attacks that didn’t count as failures for the challenge itself. First, needing only a 5 or higher to snap the tentacles with a dagger, I rolled 4, 4 and 3. Following that he used a flask of alchemical fire on all six tentacles, needing an 11 or higher to hit. I rolled (all at once): 7, 7, 1, 5, 8, 7. That’s 9 straight rolls of 8 or less. My chance of failing all of those rolls consecutively was 0.0125%, or 1 in 8000. Argh.

- Skills used this game: Acrobatics, Arcana, Athletics, Diplomacy, Dungeoneering, Endurance, Heal, History, Insight, Nature, Perception, Religion


Writing Fantasy Gumshoe!
Up to this point I don't really think I ran a good skill challenge. I tend to not like disrupting story, so I've been desperately trying to stay away from the artificial, gamist nature of them. This came up when I was talking to Fajitas (my LA-based former player who ran Shara in my Defenders game.) He chatted with me for some time about what he's been doing, and how it's worked out. I took notes and stole blatantly, then riffed on it with the help of the RBDMs -- splitting the one challenge into two separate ones and adding a larger combat component.

Here are the two skill challenges I used once someone had bumped the silver cup. I don't have time right now, so I'll comment on these later.


Skill Challenge: Flee the Awakening Tide of Sklar – 12 successes before 3 failures

Each round, the Tide of Sklar’s essence attacks you as it races for the doorway to your world. If you are hit, you will take damage and possibly be entangled. Entangled characters must be released using one of the Release Skills before the challenge can be beaten. Releasing a character, or using a secondary skill, does not count as a success toward the challenge.

If the you win, you reach the portal before the Tide of Sklar does.
If you lose, the Tide of Sklar escapes into the mortal world.

All skill checks are standard actions.

Primary skills:
Acrobatics - DC 10 (push aside an encroaching curtain of weeds.)
Athletics - DC 10 (rip apart an encroaching curtain of weeds.)
Dungeoneering - DC 15 (slam shut a barrier to block progress. Only usable once, counts as two successes.)
Endurance – DC 10 (keep running!)
Nature – DC 10 (guess where the weeds are about to grow, and avoid that spot.)
Religion – DC 10 or DC 15 (utter a counter-prayer to Demis to repel and slow the essence of the Tide. The lower DC applies to people who actively worship Demis.)
Any melee attack – DC 15 (rip open a growing wall of weeds.)

Release skills:
Athletics – DC 15 (pulls person free.)
Heal – DC 10 (unwind victim from abrasive weeds with minimum damage.)
Religion – DC 15 (make counter-prayer to Demis that releases a victim.)
Any push, pull, or slide power – DC 15

Secondary skills:
Intimidate – DC 15 (draws a second attack that would have occurred to an ally next turn.)
Perception – DC 10 (give an ally +2 on any Primary skill check. Max of two people can aid an ally on any one check.)
Stealth – DC 15 (do not draw an attack next turn.)
Aid another – DC 10 (give an ally +2 on the same skill’s check.)


Weed attack: +5 vs Reflex, 1d10+3 damage and possibly immobilized


Skill challenge: Sealing the Portal - 4 successes before 3 failures

You are back in the hut, having reached the portal through which the Tide of Sklar can reenter the world. You must seal the portal to keep it out. To do this, one or more people must destroy the portal's runes while the rest of the group keeps those practitioners safe from the Tide's onslaught.

At the beginning of each round, six weed minions sprout around the edge of the trapdoor. At the end of each round, any remaining weeds attack PCs who made Primary skill checks that round. Destroyed weeds can not attack.

If you win, you seal the Tide of Sklar back within its prison.
If you lose, the Tide of Sklar escapes into the mortal world.

All skill checks are standard actions.

Primary skills:

Arcana - DC 20 (destroy the portal's magical runes.)
Religion - DC 20 (destroy the portal's magical runes.)

Secondary skills:

Aid another: DC 10 (gives another PC +2 on that skill check, any number of PCs can assist)
Athletics, Acrobatics or Intimidate: DC 15. (The targeted tendril of Sklar attacks you instead of an ally.)
Attack the tendrils of Sklar: AC 15, Fort 15, Ref 15, Will 15. You can use your normal combat powers for this. A successful hit destroys a tendril.


Tendril attack: +10 vs Reflex, 1d10+3 damage


Looks like great fun, guys. I may try out something along these lines for my group in our new 4e campaign. I have wanted to keep some of the obvious mechanics out of site, but none of my players are well-versed in 4e rules, especially skill challenges. Handing them the skill challenge cards could seem odd at first, but is it any more jarring than referencing character sheets during combat?

A lot of the 4e blogs these days have focused in on skill challenges, and I've been able to collect lots of good info. Consider this added to my stack.


Piratecat ended the session by giving us an out-of-character glimpse at the battle-lines of Floodford. Xiras was leading an army of lizard men against the town, while Aline flew overhead on a headless dragon corpse. It looked grim for the town, when suddenly Aline's mount dropped out from under her, squashing several lizard men where it fell. Not long after, the inspiring and glorious Xiras, commander of the enemy forces, dissolved into a puddle of weeds and leeches. Suddenly demoralized and leaderless, the lizards broke and fled before the resurgent townsfolk. Woo hoo!

How do you as a DM justify/explain/rationalize this? I am asking because I have considered doing for a long time, but have been lacking the idea on how to implement it without my players looking oddly at me and asking why I am including cut-scenes in our D&D?


Writing Fantasy Gumshoe!
How do you as a DM justify/explain/rationalize this? I am asking because I have considered doing for a long time, but have been lacking the idea on how to implement it without my players looking oddly at me and asking why I am including cut-scenes in our D&D?
I like cinematic cut scenes. I was considering several non-intrusive options -- a pool of standing water reflecting what was happening in the world, a crystal ball filled with mist that periodically (ie when I wanted it to) showed a scene somewhere else. As it turned out, I finally said "screw it," and asked the players if I could tell them something out of game. "Your characters don't know this," I said, "although youi'll find out when you get back to Floodford. But it'll be more fun if you as players know right now." Then I described the scene.

It was a little awkward, but their looks as they realized how they affected the battle probably made up for it. I'll ask them: hey, players! Would it have been better to save that news until your characters returned to town next game?

Cerebral Paladin said:
Two questions: How did you decide whether a PC was immobilized by a hit in the first encounter?
How did you come up with the DCs?
1. Most people hit by the weeds had a 30% chance to be immobilized (a 1-3 on a d10.) The characters marked by Sklar - anyone with a divine power source and anyone who venerated Demis - had a 70% chance.

2. The DCs are straight from the DMG for easy, medium and hard skill checks for 1st-3rd lvl PCs.

As evidenced by the fact that the first challenge was completed with no failures (albeit with two PCs bloodied), the easy skill checks were too easy. Several PCs could auto-make them each round. I should have raised those to medium or at least made the easiest ones a little bit harder (DC 10 --> DC 12.) Next time I do this I'm likely to describe them as "easy," "moderate," etc. instead of giving actual numbers.

The second skill challenge was fantastic. Real tension and difficult choices, including some mandatory combat. Aid the wizard? Attack the weeds? The fact that the six weeds a round were cumulative -- ignore them and you'd have 12 next round, all attacking the same person! -- meant that the group had to dedicate some people to handle them. One of Stron's skill checks missed by 1, meaning that one more person aiding would have made it succeed. It was a very near thing, and it brought out superb teamwork in the players. I leveled them to 4th level at the end of the game; they deserved it.

One secret to skill challenges is to just hand them out a sheet detailing all of it, and give the players a chance to tackle the problem however they see best; this seems to work better than my previous slapdash approach. The second is to be systematic about going around the table. Finally, I think you should never give the PCs a skill challenge that you can't afford to let them lose. Something awful would have happened if they had lost, but it was fun-for-the-game awful (as opposed to kills-all-the-PCs awful.) I was prepared no matter what happened.

Magical items found were a +2 robe of scintillation (that changed to straps when put on the warforged; apparently it had been made with warforged in mind?) and +2 scale armor of whatever-it's-called, the one that can look like normal clothing. I also dumped all of the level's remaining treasure parcels into this game: antique jewelry, gold and jeweled buttons on the clothes, rare perfumes, the sapphires around the cup holding the Tide of Sklar. The group is almost back to where they should be treasure-wise, even though they're still missing some belongings.

I had several options for combat. For instance, at least one invisible guardian creature was hiding up on the ceiling behind the silk sheets. It was ordered to attack any stranger trying to leave the hut, though (or at least that's how it interpreted its instructions. It wasn't what you'd call a willing guardian), and by the time the PCs left it had been freed from its unwilling servitude.

Digital Matt

First Post
Thanks for sharing the details of how you ran the skill challenge. Skill challenges have been a flat and cumbersome part of my groups games and I cant wait to play around using similar techniques


First Post
Piratecat, judging by the date of the first post here your game started around October 4th. How many game sessions have you played, and how many levels have your characters increased.

Have you read the my character's diary (from the link I sent you)? Our game started on September 16th, and we've played about 25 game sessions, lasting from three to four hours, and sometimes longer. We also took care of a few background issues via email, so our game time was not frequently weighed down with "personal issues and interests".

Our game had three DMs. The first brought us to third level, the second through sixth level. After losing our second DM the game broke up and I joined another game. To keep up with the new group, I had to bump myself from sixth to ninth level. Last week we just reached 12th level, and the DM said that paragon tier advancement would happen every four games.

I'd like to compare notes with your game's wizard, what worked well, and what did not. If that is OK, should we discuss it here, or on another thread?

I can sympathize with all the Sleep misses, but do not allow Sr38 give up on it. It kicks butt when it works. I was rolling so bad one game, that I started casting Force Orb at a tree or into the ground in front of our enemies to assure some damage was done.