Excerpts Archive | 8/31/2009
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Excerpts: DMG2 Ch. 3 Skill Challenges
Dungeon Master's Guide 2

In today’s Dungeon Master's Guide 2 preview, we venture into the third chapter, with an examination of the skill challenge system -- and ways to make them even more challenging!

Skill Challenges

Skill challenges are a versatile tool in your DM’s toolbox, well suited to modeling a wide variety of tasks the player characters might undertake in the course of an adventure. From disabling a complex trap to negotiating peace between warring nations, skill challenges take complex activities and structure them into a simple framework of skill checks. They should never replace the roleplaying, puzzling, and ingenuity that go into players’ approach to those situations, but they place that effort into a defined rules structure so you can more easily adjudicate them and players can more easily understand the options available to them.

This chapter supplements the material in the Dungeon Master’s Guide that introduces the rules for skill challenges. The start of the chapter repeats the fundamental rules for creating and running skill challenges, since they’ve been updated since the first printing of the DMG. From there, the chapter continues with lengthy advice for creating skill challenges that are engaging and exciting for every player at the table.

Here’s the content of the chapter in a nutshell:

  • Skill Challenge Basics: The basic rules for skill challenges, updated and all in one place, along with an example of a challenge in play and a discussion of ground rules for creating a compelling skill challenge.

  • Skill Challenges in Depth: This section highlights five key elements of successful skill challenges: time frames, allowing a variety of options, preparing for failure, progressive challenges, and branching challenges.

  • Skill Challenge Examples: A series of examples round out the chapter. Some of the material in this chapter originally appeared in the virtual pages of Dungeon Magazine at www.dndinsider.com. Ruling Skill Challenges is a regular feature in Dungeon, highlighting advice and examples for DMs wanting to make better use of skill challenges in their games.

Branching Challenges

Sometimes you might want to construct a skill challenge in which the characters can succeed in one of two ways, making use of different skills or otherwise taking different approaches to the resolution of the challenge. When the possible outcomes include a variety of possible successes, you can create a branching challenge.

For example, in a diplomatic talk, failure in the challenge might mean the breakdown of the talks, leading to violence (and a series of combat encounters). Success, however, can mean one of two possible outcomes—one favoring each party involved in the negotiations. Over the course of the skill challenge, individual characters might contribute toward the success of one side or the other, or the group might coordinate effectively to ensure victory for one side.

In a branching challenge, each possible successful outcome has a target number of successes depending on the challenge’s complexity. Each time a character scores a success with a skill, that success counts toward one of the two possible outcomes. The target that is reached first determines the outcome of the challenge.

A branching challenge can be a great way to allow for some conflict within the party of player characters, without that conflict growing too disruptive. The characters can disagree on the approach to take or the goal to pursue while still working together to avoid failing the challenge entirely. However, if you expect the characters to split their efforts between two goals, it’s best not to set the complexity of the challenge higher than 3. Otherwise, you’re asking the characters to achieve too many successes, assuming that they get more or less the same number of successes toward each goal.

War by Other Means

—Robert Donoghue

The town of Parsain has long been contested ground between the Duchies of Hallber and Yranes, with each having a list of historical reasons for their claim. Until recently, the town had been under threat from nearby monsters, and neither was willing to press their claim and get entangled in local matters. However, after a group of heroes (perhaps the player characters) freed the town from the threat that loomed over it, both have taken an interest in reestablishing old claims. Each has sent a representative and a body of militia intent on making that happen, and tense negotiations have begun.

This skill challenge represents the player characters’ efforts to oversee and perhaps influence the negotiations as they try to keep matters from devolving into violence. It works best if the characters have a strong interest in the fate of the town (perhaps because they were the ones who freed it from the monsters’ yoke), but good reasons to support both sides of the conflict. In this branching challenge (see page 89), the characters can contribute their successes to either side of the negotiation, with the intent of either helping one side achieve its goals or finding a balanced and equitable resolution.

The negotiations stretch over a number of days. Each day, each player character can attempt one skill check as part of the challenge.

Hallber’s Representative: Hallber is represented by Sir Anders Petrus, a soldier in the duke’s service. He’s a large, burly man with a great black beard, a booming voice, and a brash demeanor that makes it easy to overlook the fact that a cunning tactical mind lies behind those eyes. He views Parsain as a military holding, a place to secure a weak point on the duchy’s border.

Before negotiations begin, or sometime during the first day of the talks, Anders approaches one or more of the characters who appear to be neutral or willing to favor Hallber and attempts to gain their support. The offer is this: Support Hallber throughout the negotiations, and if Hallber decisively wins the challenge (which means Hallber wins and Yranes gets fewer than 3 successes), the character will receive a reward—a magic weapon or implement of the character’s level. If Anders is called out, he will of course deny that any such offer was made, and if the character acts against Hallber, the deal is off.

Yranes’s Representative: Yranes is represented by Dame Venna Las, a half-elf wizard who has the practiced polish of a long-time diplomat and the well-concealed heart of a snake. Parsain is a commercial interest to her, and she has an eye on building some roads to and through the town.

Before negotiations begin, or sometime during the first day, Venna approaches one or more of the characters who seem to be neutral or willing to favor Yrane and attempts to gain their support. The offer is this: Support Yranes throughout the negotiations, and if Yranes decisively wins the challenge (which means Yranes wins and Hallber gets fewer than 3 successes), the character will receive a reward—a neck slot or arm slot magic item of the character’s level. If Venna is called out, she will of course deny that any such offer was made, and if the character acts against Yranes, the deal is off.

Level: Any.

Complexity: 2 (requires 6 successes before 3 failures).

Primary Skills: Diplomacy, Dungeoneering, History, Intimidate, Stealth.

Diplomacy (moderate DC by level): A character can step in as an advocate for either side and argue on that side’s behalf. A failed check suggests that the character didn’t do very well at this task.

Alternatively, a character can use Diplomacy to try to keep negotiations on an even keel. If the character generates a success with this use of the skill, he or she can save it rather than applying it immediately to the skill challenge. At the end of a day of negotiations, the character can assign the success to whichever side has fewer successes. If the two sides are tied, the character might choose either side to receive the success, or choose not to apply the success at all.

Dungeoneering (moderate DC by level): One of Hallber’s main arguments is that Parsain needs better defenses. The character can take the day to plan out defenses and make a case that Hallber’s reinforcements are unnecessary, or use this study to underscore Hallber’s arguments. A failed check means the character’s disagreements with other experts leaves the issue muddied and tempers frayed.

History (moderate DC by level): The character makes a historical case for one side or the other. These arguments are well treaded, but a successful check brings some fresh detail to light. A failed check means the character’s point does not hold up to examination and opens the door to a more devastating counterpoint.

Each time this skill adds a success to one side or the other, the History DC for adding another success to that side increases by 5.

Intimidate (hard DC by level): Openly threatening the diplomats might not be the best approach, but there are more subtle ways to use this skill. The character whispers in the ears of the diplomats of one side, reminding them of the recent dangers facing this town and the likelihood that they’ll return, perhaps making it seem a less desirable prize. A failed roll means the diplomats see through the character’s actions.

Stealth (moderate DC by level): The character spends time eavesdropping on one side and shares that information with the other side. A failed check indicates that the character passed on misinformation.

Secondary Skills: Endurance, Nature, Religion.

Endurance (moderate DC by level): The stakes are high, and when matters are most heated, the negotiations stretch into the wee hours of the night. When a day’s negotiations end with the two parties either tied in successes or with 2 failures accumulated, the characters must make a group Endurance check. If at least half the group succeeds, the characters’ ability to stay in control of their faculties serves them well as fatigue shortens tempers and frays nerves, and the characters can negate 1 accrued failure. If less than half the party succeeds, someone has snapped, perhaps even one of the characters, and the side represented by most of the characters who failed their checks accrues another failure.

Nature (moderate DC by level): Haggling over discrepancies in their respective maps, both parties agree on the third day of negotiations to send out a surveying team to iron things out. If a character who is trained in Nature has not antagonized either side, the character is offered the opportunity to lead the expedition. If that character makes a successful Nature check, he or she can subtly influence the readings to favor one side or the other, granting that side a success. If the character does not choose a side, the side with fewer successes gains a success. On a failure, the mission reaches no consensus, and tensions run that much higher. The party can attempt only one Nature check in the course of the challenge.

Religion (moderate DC by level): On the second day of the negotiations, the town celebrates a holiday, and the townsfolk ask one of the characters who is trained in Religion to offer a few words at the ceremony. A successful Religion check can add 1 success to either side by couching subtle nods to that side’s position in the address, or a speech on the virtues of understanding and fellowship can negate 1 accrued failure from either side. The party can attempt only one Religion check in the course of the challenge.

Success: If Hallber accumulates 4 successes, the negotiations end up favoring that duchy, and it lays claim upon the town. On the other hand, if Yranes accumulates 4 successes first, then the duchy of Yranes gains the town.

The winner gets ownership of the town, but the more successes the loser has, the more concessions it can demand. If Hallber has at least 3 successes, it earns the right to leave a garrison in town. If Yranes has at least 3 successes, it sets up warehouses and a mercantile post in town. Ultimately, the town will benefit most from the fairest arrangements.

If the arrangement is particularly equitable (which is to say the other side got its concession), the town thrives in the future, and the characters can expect to have a safe haven there. If the arrangement is imbalanced, then the winning duchy eventually absorbs the town completely, and the citizens will have no great reason to remember these events fondly.

Failure: If negotiations break down, war is the only option left on the table. If either side has fewer than 3 successes when the challenge ends, fighting breaks out immediately. Otherwise, the negotiators withdraw and the war proceeds more formally. In either case, the town of Parsain suffers as the battlefield for this conflict.

Excerpt Schedule

Monday Friday

August 17

Ch 1. Group Storytelling

August 21

Ch.1 Companion Characters

August 24

Ch. 2 Advanced Encounters

August 28

Ch. 2 Terrain

August 31

Ch. 3 Skill Challenges

September 4

Ch. 4 Customizing Monsters

September 7

Ch. 5 Adventures and Rewards

September 11

Ch. 6 Paragon Campaigns