Skill Challenge Design, Part Two

I’ve been posting a lot lately about the work I’m doing on skill challenges, and now that I’ve had a chance to run two of them by my players, I’m posting about what I think worked and, more importantly, what I think didn’t work. Fair warning – this gets a bit navel-gaze-y as regards my own creative process. Since several of them read this blog, I couldn’t post details ahead of time, and perhaps they’ll contribute their own comments as to how I could have improved the presentation. The first skill challenge was Alchemy, which I’ve already posted in full, and the second was an Investigation, posted below. Note: if you’re one of my players and having the curtain drawn back on the whole challenge is going to make you unhappy, just go ahead and close this window, this is not the post for you.

The PCs were hired to find out which of the reeve’s guards in a certain area of the city were corrupt, particularly those on payroll for the crime bosses Alcande and Hyrzade. The NPC hook gave them a list of names (see below) and a small amount information. We rolled initiative, and then proceeded more or less according to that order – except that after Fate’s first turn, the players could rearrange their initiative however they liked. Each round of actions was an in-game day.

Following a successful skill check (most DCs were between 11 and 15, as I decided at the time), the player’s “damage” roll was d6 + relevant stat modifier. The track to which they applied damage was “Evidence,” and they needed to do about 60 points of damage to that track. Realistically, though, the damage rolls was there to give me a relative measure of the degree of success I wished to narrate – how clear of evidence the player received. This damage was additive against a single target – a few weaker efforts against a single target would certainly have gleaned as much evidence as one better roll. I didn’t have anything hard and fast here – this part was mostly ad hoc.

The PCs faced two threats, one of them handled with a hit point track, and the other without. The former was the danger that the PCs’ activities would exhaust the reeve’s patience; I envisioned a loss here leading to the PCs getting called into the reeve’s court and taken off the case as she bawled them out for being loose ballistae or whatever. I wish I had given them badges she could take away. Anyway, this track was about 30 hit points long, and damage to this track came from the Fate table. The latter threat was that the crooked watchmen would find out about the investigation and either hide their activities more effectively, or just attempt to kill the PCs. This did eventually happen, through a more unusual turn of events, and provided the climax of the session.
My DM-side notes on the skill challenge, with some Plot-speak:


Fate Table

Roll a d20.
2 or less: Extra attack this round, and roll twice
3-4: Advantage on this round’s attack, and roll again
5-6: Some of your evidence goes missing, apply damage to the PCs’ evidence track.
7-8: The guardsmen complain about your interference in their work: apply damage to both tracks.
9-10: You run into some townies who don’t like adventuring mercenaries like you: Charisma save (with Bluff or Persuade) vs DC 12
11-12: Someone in the party has skeletons in the closet that have been anonymously brought to the Reeve’s attention.
13-14: Increase the damage of Fate’s next attack by 1d6. Bonus is lost on a miss.
15-16: Increase the damage of Fate’s next successful attack by 1d6.
17-18: One of your witnesses turns up dead. Damage to evidence; heals Reeve’s goodwill by an equal amount.
19-20: The provincial governor is now breathing down Mara’s neck about the whole thing. Damage to goodwill.
21-22: One of the suspects challenges one or more of the PCs to a duel. It’s an easy chance to kill the target, IF you’re sure enough about him, but getting approval for the duel from the Reeve or the Prince may waste a lot of time.
23-24: NPCs catch wind of your plans and are now on guard against you (one specific PC). All of your skill checks for the rest of the challenge (or until you redirect attention off of yourself) suffer disadvantage.
25+: This action can only happen once, and only occurs if both tracks are in a “bloodied” state. An arsonist attacks your evidence storage, or attacks you openly in the streets; if the attack against your security is successful, you must hand in your accusations immediately, but the ill will of the guards for having little evidence is reduced. This triggers an effort to track down the arsonist and bring him to justice, certainly culminating in another fight.

Alirio Dauvenni – works (legally) as a night guard at the local shrine
Desiderio Marquez – guilty, runs unlicensed gambling and pit fighting
Silvano de Gamba – badly overworked
Lorenza Cardenas
Sola Batista – guilty, takes money to cover up smuggling operations for Hyrzade.

Prokelo Kingsmill – guilty, takes money to harass anyone who makes trouble for Hyrzade, abuse of power accusations
Ramjin Firesail – seeking transfer out of Fallows
Veralta Kingsmill – guilty, takes money along with Prokelo
Sorcha Vintner – pretty much clean


What Worked

Well, first off, the players continued through the whole scenario, and succeeded in their goal, correctly identifying the four dishonest people out of the list of nine. There was a clear point in the narrative in which things could get worse for our heroes without it being explicitly arbitrary. (Whether or not it came across to the players as arbitrary is another matter, but for my part I allowed myself to be bound by the Fate rolls.)

The rather skeletal notes that I had on each of the guards were useful, though insufficient. I’ll come back to this in the What Didn’t section, but the notes did help me to keep my thoughts together.

With four players present, some definitely had more skills that readily applied to this situation than others, but all players contributed. There are elements of What Didn’t Work here as well, but the only penalty for failure was not making progress on your turn, and forfeiting your turn would be still worse, so everyone stayed involved. There was one Help (that is, Aid Another) action used to grant advantage on a roll, but otherwise people were cooperating without specifically working on the same thing. The players approached a wide variety of tasks; there was little direct repetition from round to round, except where they had failed and wanted to try again. The PCs perceived it to be worth their while to spend a little time “healing” damage to their failure track; had they not done so, they would have brushed very close to getting a bawling-out from the Reeve. I’m not sure how satisfying this would have been as an outcome, but then it’s awfully difficult to have a satisfying failure in any game.


What Didn’t

The primary thing that didn’t work was that I needed to invest a lot more planning in the plot to make it come together cleanly. I’ll posit this as a guideline, though I may have to edit it upward in the future:

If it takes you x amount of time to plan a combat or exploration encounter that will occupy y duration of the session, filling the same y duration of the session with a skill challenge (particularly an investigative or social challenge) will take approximately 8x preparation time.

This assumes you have to write the combat stats yourself, from scratch, rather than using enemies taken/modified from the Monster Manual, and that you make a point of including interesting terrain features or battlefield effects that the players can interact with – that is, a full-production encounter, not something made up at the last moment like many of us often do. Motivations and connections take time to plan out and make consistent – ask any LARP-runner about how much time it takes to compose useful briefings for talky NPCs.

Getting back to my point, I needed to plan more about each of the people under investigation. I also needed to have fewer people under investigation. When the skill challenge hit its “natural” end, as indicated by session pacing, the players had not yet asked investigated one or two of the suspects. Had they been guilty, there were points earlier in the challenge when I might have steered the players toward them. I suspect that 6-7 suspects, of which three were guilty, would have been a better fit.

I also needed to plan out more initial leads for the players to examine. This completely failed to occur to me, because I didn’t mentally explore how the players would start to dig into the challenge. This kind of problem is common to my creations – I often forget that I need to drill down to that level of detail in planning, because it’s haaard and I subconsciously assume that players will work that out on their own. This turned out okay in the long run, but I think it provided an initial note of confusion and frustration for the players that combined with an early string of poor rolls – a rocky start, but one that smoothed out as things went along. I was fortunate that the second Fate roll was an 18, which turned out to be the murder of someone the PCs had just talked to – this gave them a fresh lead to investigate and, since poison was involved, gave the party’s alchemist something to examine, which led to an unplanned-by-me incorporation of the Alchemist’s Guild and local apothecaries.

Talking about Fate rolls brings me to a whole list of other problems. The first of these is that the Fate table I had written for this challenge is not very cool and simply does not function.

  1. When initially dreaming up outcomes for the table, I intended to create a mechanic for bonuses and penalties to the roll, so that results could be below 1 or above 20. Then I forgot to create said mechanic, after I had placed some of the most interesting results in that undiscovered country. It puzzled the will and made us rather bear those ills we had than fly to others that we knew naught of.
  2. The table makes some assumptions about how the investigation will proceed; it then did not proceed in those ways. I assumed there would be some kind of physical evidence that could be destroyed or misplaced on a roll of 5 or 6, but one of the two times this roll came up, there was no such object. The system needs a general rule for what to do when the table spits out a result that stymies the DM or is clearly narratively inappropriate.
  3. Giving each table result two faces of the d20 (rather than one face per result, as in the Alchemy table) was a mistake, as it increased the probability that a result would recur. Overall, this was not a desirable outcome to me because I think a meaningful part of the fun here is something new and different happening each time. In the future, there are different approaches to the Fate table that I could use that would guarantee unique outcomes each time, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
  4. Many of the results on this Fate table are sort of “internal maneuvering” without clear story outcomes. This is a mix of good and bad. The bad part is that it doesn’t suggest any narrative outcome to give the players. The good part is that, well, not every day of investigation should have a Big Dramatic Event. Investigations in fiction are made into montages specifically because sometimes a large span of time passes without anything dramatic occurring.

The “damage” roll – the way the PCs make progress – didn’t feel quite right. The d6 felt arbitrary, and PCs who were already rolling outside of their characters’ highest stats were twice penalized. The high-Charisma sorcerer and the high-Dex spy, on the other hand, got to kind of double-dip. I knew going in that this would be a problem, but I did not – do not – have a solution for it. Since all but one character in the group were first-level, I didn’t really want them to roll their Skill Die for damage. I might, in retrospect, try “twice your skill die,” just because 2d4 at least feels respectable, even if the hit point value is a bit larger so that the challenge takes approximately as long as the DM wants it to take. I’m reluctant to base damage on margin of success – at the moment I’m not convinced that benefits for high margins of success are useful to D&D the way they are in other systems. Fate’s damage roll was a flat d6, though my first Fate roll was a 15, so my next roll (the death of the witness) dealt 2d6 damage.

It’s the nature of systems with any large number of possible skills that some characters will have skills that are more useful than others. The party’s cleric with the Sage background – that is, all of his trained skills are Lores – mentioned afterward that he didn’t feel particularly well-suited to the situation. I didn’t think about that when designing the skill challenge because when I wrote it, I didn’t know which players would be involved. (I’m running Aurikesh with nine players, and every session has a different roster.)


For Next Time

The first thing I know I want to change about the whole system is calling it “Doom” rather than “Fate.” For one thing, the name of this blog strongly suggests it. For another, were I ever to publish a book of skill challenges, I would not want readers to think I was attempting to profit off of the fame and fortune of the worthies of Evil Hat.

Secondly, the handling of the Fate table. Approaching it with a d20 + modifiers roll is one valid approach, but as discussed above it has a strong probability of generating repeat results. Some challenges want this, and some do not. To guarantee that there are no repeat results, I can either make the blanket statement that the DM should treat repeated rolls as [some default behavior], or the nearest not-yet-rolled result, or I can drop the use of the d20 and try something new. As Showlinfunk suggested, the process could be a d6 or 2d4 (or whatever) roll, in which each round adds to the results of the previous round. Using the above table, I might roll a 5 on the first round and destroy some evidence, followed by a roll of a 6 on the next round that gives a result of 11 (skeletons on the closet), and so on. This would make a big difference in the tone of the table, as higher-numbered results can be slanted toward occurring later in the investigation.

My original intention for the system was that the number of players involved would explicitly influence the outcome, as a way to code scaling difficulty into the challenge. Since that initial thought (that, as mentioned, I did not implement), I’ve played rather a lot of Elder Sign, which has effects that are clear cognates of the Fate roll. (I like this game enough that it deserves its own post, but…) The scaling mechanic there is that lingering Mythos effects hit and new Mythos draws occur every day. A day is four player turns, so as a single-player game the player acts four times; as a two-player game each player acts twice; as an eight-player game each player acts every other day. A similar approach could work for skill challenges, since Fate’s action is just as much a source of Bad Stuff or Complications as Mythos draws are.

In a future Investigation challenge (not currently planned, but reasonably probable), I would want to spell out more leads right off the bat, and give a lot more thought to the various stages of the challenge. While the system is far from perfect, I think the only problem in the system’s architecture is that I still don’t know how I want to handle damage values.

This post is certainly long enough as is, but I want to comment briefly on the first pass of the alchemy system. The alchemist PC created a healer’s kit, and something volatile blew up and caused him a pile of damage. I forgot to roll Fate after every action (or at all), but his own rolls and having to zero out Volatility in the end was sufficient to make the process interesting. There might be more time- and Cost-balancing that needs to go on, since he got that healer’s kit for 20% of its cost, with four days of work. I don’t yet know if I’ll like this range of outcomes in the long term, but I probably won’t change it until the player has gone a few more rounds with it. I suspect that I’ll want to shave 2-4 points off of all DCs. I still need to come up with good rules for laboratories, formulas, rare components, and assistants.

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