Designing Skill Challenges
Not every encounter requires combat. Sometimes, the players are challenged not by a pack of ravening monsters, but by a heavily warded door accessible only by a narrow stone walkway suspended over a seemingly bottomless chasm filled with a roiling cloud of semi-sentient noxious gas. Fantasy stories are rife with examples of this, where the success or failure of the party rides not on their skill with a blade, or the sturdiness of their armor, but on the agility of their fingers and the cleverness of their minds. This is the domain of skill challenges.
Skill challenges can come in many forms, but below are two major ways of resolving a non-combat encounter. The first method, the group skill check, is the quick-and-dirty method: a single collaborative check which can be resolved very quickly, that abstracts the process of getting past something that cannot be handled with brute force and ignorance. Group skill checks are extremely useful if you don't want to spend a lot of time on a skill challenge, both in prep-time before the game, but also during the game. Sometimes, sneaking into the castle is just a distraction from the main event -- confronting that lich who has been advising the king, disguised as his chief counselor.
Other times, the skill challenge is important to the story, and deserves a bit more attention. The second method, the skill encounter, plays out a lot like combat (and can even include combat), using initiative orders, sequential turns for each player (and usually an antagonist or two, either alive or inanimate), and a limited amount of actions available to each player on their respective turns. Skill encounters require a bit more preparation before a game begins, but can create sequences in a campaign just as memorable and awesome as a fight with a giant squid on the decks of a rapidly-sinking ship (in fact, such a fight could be resolved as a skill encounter).
Many other methods of incorporating skills into a campaign as a dedicated means of challenging the players exist. GMs are encouraged to try new things, experiment, and take risks. Even in failure, such experiments can lead to unique and innovative experiences in a game (and you can try again later, incorporating the lessons you learn).
Group Skill Checks
- Summary: GM declares skill, target difficulty class (usually 'average'), and number of required successes (usually # of participants).
- Any roll which meets required DC grants 1 success.
- For each full difficulty class the roll exceeds the target, it grants 1 additional success (max of impossible).
- Crits don't add bonus successes by themselves, but they do increase likelihood of additional successes from the crit bonus.
- Any roll which fails to meet required DC does not grant a success
- Any roll which fails by a full category inflicts -1 success (reducing total successes gained).
- A natural 1 inflicts an additional -1 success.
This is a handy method for resolving shared tasks, such as the entire party sneaking into a dread fortress, or everyone trying to make it through a stuffy diplomatic dinner without using the wrong fork. In such tests, everyone is in it together. There is no separate success or failure: You all will succeed or fail together. You all sneak into the fortress, or you are all seen. You all get the treaty signed, or you all wind up in a war.
Group skill checks are complimentary to assisted skill checks (see below), but they are aimed at a different goal. Group skill checks are for situations where all the characters are in a shared situation. Assists are for times when one person is doing something (sweet-talking an innkeep, or threatening an orc) where one person is doing the action, but others can 'help out' (either smiling flirtatiously, or pantomiming bloody murder, in the background). The difference can be subtle, but the GM decides which mechanic is used in each situation. Note, however, that group skill checks and assisted skill checks never stack! You do one, or the other, and you can never give an assist in a group skill check.
To resolve a group skill check, the GM assigns one or more skills to be rolled, a target difficulty number, and a number of successes required. The most common group skill check is a shared stealth check, with a target DC of an Average difficulty, based on the CR of the creatures you are attempting to sneak past. To succeed, the party needs one success for each person in your party.
Success or failure in a shared check is calculated very simply. All members of the group making the shared check, both players and any non-player characters, roll a skill check (using all systems detailed above). They compare this check to the difficulty. If an Average difficulty is required, then all rolls must equal or exceed the Average DC for the party to succeed. This only rarely happens. However, in a shared check, those members of the party who are more skilled in a particular skill can 'help out' those who are less skilled. Each character who beats the target DC by at least one full success category (e.g. Challenging, when only an Average is needed), contributes an additional success to the party's total per success category equaled or exceeded above the target. That is, if an Average target is required, and a character achieves an Average DC, they contribute 1 success. If they achieved a Challenging DC, they contribute a total of 2 successes. A Hard DC would contribute 3, and an Impossible check would contribute 4 successes. A natural 20 doesn't contribute any bonus successes by itself. However, the check's result is still modified by the normal +5 for being a critical result, making a higher result category considerably more likely.
A check which fails to achieve the target DC does not contribute a success. A check which fails by one success category or more below the needed success category (i.e. is less than an Easy DC when an Average DC was needed) subtracts 1 success from the party's total successes. A roll of a natural 1 subtracts an additional 1 success, for a total of two successes subtracted. The most that a bad roll can ever subtract from a group skill check is -2 successes (in addition to failing to contribute a success) — one for being one or more success categories below the target success category, and one if the roll was a natural 1.
- Example: Five players and an NPC are trying to sneak out of the NPC's house before his wife spots them. If they fail, their planned evening of partying and sports events will be ruined! The GM decides they need six successes (one for each player and an extra one for the NPC), the target is an Average DC for the challenge rating of the wife (and we all know how tough THAT can be), and they each must make either a Stealth check or a Sense Motive check. Three of the players decide to make Stealth checks, and two players decide to make Sense Motive checks, to guess when the wife will be distracted. The GM rolls a Stealth check for the NPC.
- Of all the rolls, most go smoothly, achieving the needed Average success. However, the group's heavily-armored combat monster fails badly, rolling a natural 1. This counts as TWO failures. To counteract this, the group's highly-skilled roguish 'face' rolled a natural 20 on her Sense Motive, scoring an Impossible success! An impossible success counts as a whopping four successes all by itself! Thus, four players and NPC's scored one success each with average rolls, one player scored two failures with a natural one, but another player scored four successes with a natural 20. Four successes - two failures + four successes = six total successes, and thus by the skin of their teeth, the players slip out to eat delicious tavern food, drink tasty beverages, and watch the arena fights.
Shared checks can be adjusted to any difficulty required, and can scale to as many or as few players are needed. The GM may declare by fiat that more or fewer successes are needed, or otherwise adjust the shared check as they see fit. Very difficult checks (lifting a castle door off its hinges) may require (party size + 2) successes against a Hard target. Very easy checks may require (party size - 1) successes versus an Easy target.
GM's are cautioned, as with any skill check, to consider what happens if the entire party fails the check. Making a group roll a group skill check to hold their breath while swimming through an underground cave, with no idea where the next air pocket is, is fine, but what happens if everyone fails? Just having everyone drown means the campaign is over because of a single skill check — no one is going to be happy about this. Instead, maybe the party loses consciousness, and wakes up on a darkened shore with only 1 hit point each, only to find that several days have passed while they recuperated. Worse yet, maybe they were "rescued" by a group of sahaugin, waking up in a cell somewhere in the Unterweldt, where they will soon be magically enslaved to an aboleth unless they can escape. Keep things fun, and have a backup plan if the dice don't favor the players.
When preparing for a group skill check, you only really need to decide which skill is required, and what the difficulty category (easy, average, challenging, hard, impossible) should be, and how many successes are required to fully succeed (a 'standard' group check would be an average DC with a number of successes equal to the number of party members). If a GM wants to add a little more interest to the check, they should write a note or two about what happens if the party misses the required number of successes by 1 or 2 successes, what happens if they fail by 3 or 4 successes, and what happens if they miss the required number of successes by 5 or more. This only takes a few minutes of extra preparation, and can give players a sense that their actions have consequences (and also reinforce to the GM a sense of what might go wrong with the story if the party fails; plan some workarounds so your story doesn't come crashing down).
Some common uses of group skill checks are listed below:
To determine whether a random encounter occurs during overland travel, have the players make a group Survival check to see if they encounter anything. This group skill check replaces the two skill uses in Survival that allow a trained character to avoid or attract a random encounter. GMs can force this check daily for each day of overland travel, if they want, or less frequently, if they prefer to keep things moving along. Typically, a single random encounter is sufficient to represent the 'you made it through the mountain pass, but it wasn't easy' sense of journeying, but you can have the possibility of more if that sort of thing makes you happy.
- Each player rolls a Survival check versus an Average DC for the CR of the region they are travelling through. The players need a number of successes equal to to the number of party members present (including any NPC's).
- Dangerous Area: If the region is particularly thick with aggressive creatures, the DC should be Challenging or even (rarely) Hard for the CR of the region.
- Mounted: If the party is mounted (or has pack animals), increase the number of required successes by half the number of mounts present (round down). Mounts are big, noisy, and made of tasty, tasty meat.
- Clever Mounts: If a mount knows the Track trick (see Handle Animal), their rider may, if they wish, roll a Survival check for the mount using the rider's skill, and add this result to the overall tally for the party. If the rider prefers the mount doesn't roll (because their own Survival skill isn't great), they can elect not to add their mount's roll into the mix instead. Useful!
- Noisy: If the party is being particularly noisy (e.g. 'having a shouted argument'), increase the difficulty category by one step (e.g. Average to Challenging). Note that 'wearing heavy armor' does NOT count for this purpose.
- Quiet: If the party is being particularly quiet (e.g. traveling at half speed to carefully pick their way through the forest), decrease the difficulty category by one step (e.g. Average to Easy).
- Random Encounter Results:
- Success: If the party equals or exceeds the number of required successes, they pass through the region without any encounters.
- Almost, Not Quite: If the party rolls 1 or 2 fewer successes than the required number, they have a random encounter, resolved normally.
- Moderate Failure: If the party rolls 3 or 4 fewer successes than the required number, they have a random encounter, but any surprise check made is at a -5 penalty to Perception for all party members. In addition, the monsters receive a +5 bonus to their initiative rolls.
- Abject Failure: If the party misses the required number of successes by 5 or more (or simply fail to achieve any successes), they are all surprised (no Perception check) by the random encounter, and the encounter is 1 CR higher than normal.
If you're the sort of GM who hates random encounters, and would rather skip them, you can also abstract this whole process. Instead of running a random encounter when the party fails to achieve an appropriate number of successes, you can throw a penalty at them that affects them as they continue through the story. For example:
- Non-Random Encounter Results:
- Success: If the party equals or exceeds the number of required successes, they pass through the region without any encounters.
- Almost, Not Quite: If the party rolls 1 or 2 fewer successes than the required number, they have arrive at their destination a day later than expected (this day cannot be used for crafting, Self-Improvement, or other Between Adventures activities).
- Moderate Failure: If the party rolls 3 or 4 fewer successes than the required number, they arrive at their destination two days later than expected, and none of the days spent journeying can be used for crafting, Self-Improvement, or other Between Adventures activities.
- Abject Failure: If the party misses the required number of successes by 5 or more (or simply fail to achieve any successes), they arrive at their destination three days later than expected, and none of the days spent journeying can be used for crafting, Self-Improvement, or other Between Adventures activities. Furthermore, everyone in the party arrives diseased:
Feel free to adjust these outcomes whenever you want, to prevent the party from becoming complacent.
If the party wants to sneak into a castle, or avoid guard patrols scouring the city streets by sneaking through alleyways and over rooftops, you can use a group skill check to simulate how well the party performs this feat. Group stealth checks are really handy if everyone must participate (the party doesn't want to leave the paladin behind, despite his very shiny, very clanky armor), and you, as the GM, don't feel the sneaking around part is all that essential to the story, and you just want to hurry things along.
- Everyone in the party rolls a Stealth check versus an Average DC for the CR of the creatures they are trying to avoid (or the CR of the region, if there are no specific creatures to base this on). The players need a number of successes equal to to the number of party members present (including any NPC's).
- Alert Guards: If the creatures guarding the area are on high alert, perhaps because they were told that the party was coming, or because they're guarding someone/something very special (the king is in town, and rarely leaves his castle), the target DC increases to Challenging, or even (rarely) Hard.
- Mounted: If the party is mounted (or has pack animals), increase the number of required successes by half the number of mounts present (round down). Mounts are big, and noisy, and it's really hard to convince them how important it is that they be quiet.
- Clever Mounts: If a mount knows the Sneak trick (see Handle Animal), their rider may, if they wish, roll a Stealth check for the mount using the rider's skill, and add this result to the overall tally for the party. If the rider prefers the mount doesn't roll (because their own Stealth skill isn't great), they can elect not to add their mount's roll into the mix instead. Useful!
- Noisy: Some characters are just incapable of being quiet (won't stop yelling (or singing), wear a cowbell around their neck, etc.). Increase the number of required successes by half the number of such people present (round down). Note that wearing heavy armor, with its armor check penalty, is already penalizing stealth, so it does NOT count for this purpose.
- Careful: If the party is moving half as fast, or taking a route the guardians didn't anticipate (e.g. rooftops or sewers), decrease the difficulty category by one step (e.g. Average to Easy).
- Group Stealth Results:
- Success: If the party equals or exceeds the number of required successes, they slip through the area without being noticed.
- Almost, Not Quite: If the party rolls 1 or 2 fewer successes than the required number, they run into a minor problem — perhaps a small group of drunks spot the party and loudly urge them to join in their revelries. If the party can't shoo these pesky drunks off quickly, they'll draw unwanted attention!
- Moderate Failure: If the party rolls 3 or 4 fewer successes than the required number, they run into a potentially large problem — the king's nephew runs into the party, instantly realizing they're up to no good. His first instinct is to summon the guards. Better act quick!
- Abject Failure: If the party misses the required number of successes by 5 or more (or simply fail to achieve any successes), they walk right into a patrol of guards. Roll initiative! Even worse, one of the guards immediately leaves to inform all the other guards of the problem. Reinforcements will arrive at the beginning of round 4, and the party will surely be overwhelmed and captured if they haven't gotten away from here by then. Finally, win or lose, the guards will be on the lookout for the players after this, so sneaking in is no longer an option.
Once again, these outcomes should be changed up, depending on the situation and also to keep things fresh.
- Instead of running into some boisterous drunks, perhaps the party stumbles onto another crew who is sneaking around, maybe to achieve the same goal, maybe for some completely different reason.
- Instead of running into the king's nephew, maybe they run into a gossipy servant who will be able to describe the players to authorities later if he isn't given a good reason not to.
- Instead of getting noticed by guards and having to fight or run away (or fight AND run away), perhaps they draw the attention of the Chief Inquisitor, who is both too powerful and too connected to simply kill, but now that she's spotted the party, decides to blackmail them into stealing the king's scepter (and perhaps betray them, regardless). Things just got a lot more complicated!
Just remember, the point is to keep your story moving forward, but also to reinforce the idea that the player's actions have consequences. Don't derail your story to inflict consequences, but certainly add some complications into the mix if the party does poorly.
Sometimes the party knows a passageway is full of traps, and just wants to get through them all without dying. Traps are always a tricky proposition for a GM, since they're not actually all that exciting for players, even when they're playing the thief who can actually disarm them. For the thief, it's just a skill check, and for everyone else, their health and well-being hinges on just how good that skill check comes out. Not exciting, just annoying. Instead, make it a group check, after someone spots the first trap, to have everyone try to navigate through this parade of swinging-blade-, poison-dart-, spiked pit-, sharks with laser beams-filled Hallway of Death™.
- Everyone in the party rolls an Acrobatics or Movement check (their choice) against an Average DC for the CR of the traps or area. The players need a number of successes equal to to the number of party members present (including any NPC's).
- Cruel Traps: If the traps the party are attempting to bypass were created by highly intelligent trapsmiths, renowned for their ability to create clever and unpredictable traps, increase the target DC to Challenging, or even (rarely) Hard.
- Sloppy Traps: If the traps were hastily created, or made from scavenged junk by idiots or crazy people (like goblins), consider reducing the target DC to Easy.
- Mounted: If the party is mounted (or has pack animals), increase the number of required successes by half the number of mounts present (round down). Mounts can be really hard to lead around a series of pressure plates in a floor.
- Clever Mounts: If a mount knows the Entertain or Perform tricks (see Handle Animal), their rider may, if they wish, roll a skill check for the mount using the rider's own skill, and add this result to the overall tally for the party. If the rider prefers the mount doesn't roll (because their own skill isn't great), they can elect not to add their mount's roll into the mix instead. Useful!
- Clumsy: If the party isn't really in control of its own movements (because they're drunk, or the trapped hallway is a slope covered in ice, etc.), increase the difficulty category by one step (e.g. Average to Challenging).
- In a Hurry: If the party wants to move at full speed, increase the difficulty category by one step (e.g. Average to Challenging). This includes double moves. If the party wants to run through the trap-riddled murder palace, increase the difficulty by two steps (e.g. Average to Hard). If the difficulty category would ever be raised above Impossible, increase the number of required successes by 3 for each step above impossible. Good luck with that.
- Bypassing Traps Results:
- Success: If the party equals or exceeds the number of required successes, they manage to navigate the area without setting anything off.
- Almost, Not Quite: If the party rolls 1 or 2 fewer successes than the required number, they make it most of the way through, but make one little mistake. They arrive at the end of the hallway Prone, and a stone door closes, sealing off the passage they just came from. The only way out is through!
- Moderate Failure: If the party rolls 3 or 4 fewer successes than the required number, they make it most of the way through, except for that tripline no one saw. The party takes (bludgeoning, fire, acid, psychic, etc. -- pick one) damage equal to the CR of the traps in this area. They can reduce this damage individually if they have ER or DR of the appropriate type.
- Abject Failure: If the party misses the required number of successes by 5 or more (or simply fail to achieve any successes), they try their best, but just keep falling for some new trigger. Multiple traps are set off. Everyone must make a Reflex versus an Average DC for the CR of the traps in this area. Those who fail the save take damage equal to double the CR of the traps in this area and are Crippled until cured. Those who succeed on the save take only half damage and are Impaired until cured.
As with the other examples, these results should be changed up each time, but can be used as a guideline for what is reasonable.
- Instead of landing prone and having the exit sealed behind them, perhaps the party is dropped down 30 feet to a level below where they were (and take 3d6 falling damage), making their retreat uncertain until they can find a way back up. Or perhaps the party is Blind to sight-based senses for a few minutes, and meanwhile they hear large sections of stone moving around. When the blindness wears off, the area has completely rearranged itself.
- Instead of simple damage from a moderate failure, maybe the party's next encounter is an ambush, since they made so much noise getting there that the monsters had time to prepare for them.
- For the worst failures, instead of Impaired and Crippled, any other moderate and weak status condition could be chosen. Coupled with damage, this uses up valuable resources in the party, and makes the next encounters more dangerous, especially if they happen while the party is still trying to recover. Alternatively, maybe the traps only do a bit of damage, but they make so much noise that an encounter occurs right away. Worse yet, the encounter happens when the party's back is to the trapped hallway, and the monsters are smart enough to do bull rushes, forcing the party back into the hazardous terrain if they can.
As you can see, group skill checks are extremely useful ways to quickly abstract part of an adventure when the action might otherwise lag. They're simple to adjudicate on the fly, and can still be exciting for a party if applied well.
Sometimes a GM will want a skill-based encounter to be more of a centerpiece of the game session than a simple group skill check. This will typically be because the resolution of the event is important to the story, but it could simply be because the GM finds the challenge worthy of some extra time and attention. These rules provide a way to run a skill challenge in much the same way as a combat encounter. Namely, players roll initiative, and resolve their turns in sequential order, and are opposed by one or more entities who also take turns trying to stop or oppose the player's efforts.
Skill encounters require a bit more preparation from the GM prior to the game session than a simple Group Skill Check does. However, with some practice, many GM's will find it possible to improvise skill encounters on the fly.
Design: The first thing you must do when preparing a skill encounter is to decide what the encounter is about. What are the player goals, and what stands in their way? The obstacles and complications can be fleshed out later, but setting up an interesting set piece is important. If you look at any action movie, very few fight scenes happen in the middle of a large open space. However, scenes that happen on top of the scaffolding of a tall building that's still under construction, or on top of a Crassus engine that is passing through a nasty ravine with low-hanging escarpments, forcing all the participants to duck periodically or be knocked off... yeah, there's lots of scenes like that.
One critical element to designing a skill encounter is that there should always be more actions available to perform than there are players. This creates a sense of urgency, and allows the GM to enact complications and repercussions based on the actions the players failed to complete in a given round. Skill encounters should be just as tense as combat encounters, providing an escalating sense of risk and a frenetic pacing with no time for careful analysis.
- As a rule of thumb, there should always be at least one more task than there are players.
- Tasks, generally, should require more than one success to complete, but exceptional successes (those one or more categories higher than the DC required) can generate multiple successes.
- The skill check to perform a task is generally a standard action. Players still have a move action and a swift action in which to move up to a task, or do other things, if they want.
- Fun with full attack actions: You can, optionally, allow a player to make a full attack action during a skill encounter. By doing so, they roll 2d20 and take the best result for their skill check that round, at the cost of using both their standard and move actions to do so (instead of just a standard action).
- Note, however, that a well designed skill encounter should generally require a fair bit of running around, making those move actions useful.
A second critical element to designing a skill encounter is to have a timer. (This design practice is also very useful for combat encounters.) A timer represents a known point at which the encounter will end, win or lose. An attempt to retrieve the amulet from within a burning pub while avoiding the zombie hordes within can only last until the roof of the pub collapses. Trying to free the slaves chained to the rowing benches of a sinking ship can only last until the ship completely submerges beneath the waves (or perhaps a round or two after that, if you want, but nonetheless, there's some urgency going on). Creating a sense of urgency prevents people from feeling like they can just systematically approach everything one problem at a time. There's no time for that! The avalanche is almost here!
- The timer tells you how long the encounter should last. Most encounters last 3 rounds, though 2 or 4 rounds isn't unusual. 1 round is too short (you should do a group skill check instead), and 5 or more rounds is probably too long. Your players will tune out if the encounter is going to last this long, unless you have some way to make each round very short.
- Once you know how many rounds the encounter will last, you can calculate a good target number for the total number of successes required:
- Assuming the typical 'success' result will be a Challenging DC for the CR of the encounter, and assuming the CR of the encounter is comparable to the campaign level, you can probably get away with requiring a total number of successes equal to the number of tasks times the number of rounds. Since tasks are equal to the number of players + 1, and the typical skill encounter lasts 3 rounds, a typical number of required successes will be (Number of Players + 1) x 3.
Fun fact: Because skill encounters use the same rounds and action economy as a standard combat encounter, you can easily include a combat encounter within a skill encounter. It is probably good form to establish a way for players to completely avoid the fight if they want to, and the number of enemies should be scaled down to account for the fact that most of the players will be busy rolling skill checks during their turn. Try not to make the combat element so engaging that the players drop everything to dive into battle, ignoring the helpless captives being pulled toward the tentacle-rimmed portal to some chaotic realm of terror. The players should be very aware that ignoring the skill encounter will have consequences that are greater than ignoring the bad guys (who are probably perfectly willing to use the skill encounter as a useful diversion for them to escape).
Creating Tasks: A task should be something that one or more players can attempt with one or more specific skills, versus a specific DC, and requiring a specific number of successes to 'complete'. There should be a tangible benefit to completing the task, usually something that makes one or more other tasks easier to complete. This can be expressed in the following format:
- Unhitch the runaway horses: Acrobatics versus a Challenging DC of 27 (assuming CR 8 encounter); requires 1 success for each of three pins (3 successes total)
- Completion: horses are unpinned from carriage; carriage will roll to a stop 2 rounds after completion. While rolling to a stop, the carriage still travels toward the cliff, but will plummet at the bottom of the 4th round (instead of 3rd). If it comes to a stop before the bottom of the 4th round, it does not fall off the cliff.
- Neglect: If no one tries to deal with the runaway horses, they will plunge the carriage (and any occupants) off of a cliff at the bottom of the 3rd round.
- (Alternative) Calm the runaway horses: Handle Animal versus a Challenging DC of 27 (assuming CR 8 encounter); requires 1 success for each of two horses (2 successes total)
- Completion: the horses are brought under control. If this is the 3rd round, the player must turn the carriage hard to avoid the cliff, forcing everyone aboard to make an Acrobatics check versus a Hard DC of 32 (CR 8) to hang on, or become Splayed. Regardless, the carriage does not plummet off the cliff.
This is one task, with an alternative using a less common skill (with the bonus that it requires one fewer successes to complete). Additional tasks should be added to account for the size of your player group (plus 1 or more). Each additional task should ideally offer opportunities to use different skills than Acrobatics or Handle Animal. Perhaps one player needs to disable an alchemical bomb rigged to explode, while another needs to try to toss a few of the king's corrupt guardsmen from the carriage's rooftops, while yet another player needs to use Might to hold the broken axle in place so the rear wheels don't come off.
Once you've generated the tasks you want to offer to the players during the skill encounter, you should decide what the bonus granted for completing the task, and the penalty for neglecting the task. In some cases, the bonus for completing the task is just avoiding a terrible consequence -- the carriage doesn't plummet off the cliff. That's a pretty good bonus. Similarly, the penalty for neglecting a task might be as simple as 'you have to jump off the carriage to avoid falling off the cliff', suffering a bit of falling and collision damage, but mainly losing the contents of the carriage — it contained proof that the king is really a doppelganger, and a map to where the real king is being kept. Losing the carriage shouldn't mean "everyone dies and the campaign ends". Be very careful about this! Always consider what happens if the players just fail every die roll and just can't seem to get out of their own way. There should be consequences, but those consequences should ideally lead to some new adventure — now the players have to seek out the king's twin brother to convince him to play-act as the real king and try to expose the doppelganger through trickery (since they lost their proof). Of course, the king's twin brother is not the friendliest fellow, and was exiled deep into the Swamp of Forlorn Hope years ago.
It is also very important to tell players what the consequences of neglecting a given task might be, and how long they have to deal with that task before it is considered 'neglected'. While this sort of full-disclosure isn't always necessary, its very important to make sure you're players don't think there's lots of time to deal with those runaway horses, only to become furious at you, the GM, when the carriage goes over that cliff you didn't warn them about. You can, of course, deal out this information over time. Perhaps the players can't see the cliff until the start of the second round. Just make sure that, if you want to slow-reveal critical information like that, you choose to do so for tasks that someone is already trying to resolve; don't slow-reveal vital information for the tasks that people have decided to neglect... If you do, the players won't have time to switch to the other task and complete it before the timer runs out.
Complications: In addition to having more tasks than the players can adequately address, it is useful to have a complication or two to throw at the players on the second and third rounds. You can decide, based on how the players are doing, whether these complications are necessary or not. If the players aren't doing very well, just leave them be, and let them do their best with the tasks they know about. If the players are really knocking it out of the park, consider adding some new problem into the mix:
- The spooked horses have left the road, inconveniently heading for the nearby cliff. Unfortunately, the field they're passing through is dotted with rocks. At the top of round two, all characters on the carriage must make an Acrobatics or Might check to hang on. Those who fail the check lose their move action, as they right themselves from some precarious perch on the carriage. Those who succeed manage to keep their balance. If a character gets an Impossible result, they can help a nearby ally (allowing a reroll).
- A second carriage, full of several more of the king's corrupt guards, rolls up alongside the carriage, and more guards jump across the gap. A clever player might try to bind up the two carriages, forcing them to share the same fate (off the cliff or not), or perhaps this new carriage can be used to escape the doomed carriage, once the evidence has been secured.
Your goal, when designing these encounters, should be to run about 3 rounds of challenging, high-octane tension to the players. If they're a high-skill party, they might take apart your tasks too quickly, so it's useful to have a few tricks up your sleeve if things look like they're going to be too easy.
As far as making things too hard, as long as the target DC's aren't more than Challenging (or rarely, a Hard), the players shouldn't feel you're being unfair. Since you already know what happens to your story if the party fails utterly, it's not necessary to contemplate some deus-ex-machina method of bailing them out if their dice choose not to cooperate on game night. Letting the players fail in a controlled way like this will only make your campaign feel more realistic and high-stakes. Players like it when there's a sense that the risks are real, and that failures have consequences.
Running the Skill Encounter: As previously mentioned, the skill encounter is run exactly like a combat encounter:
- All players roll initiative
- The GM rolls initiative for any elements that will increment the timer of the encounter, or that will react to the players.
- Go through each task you have designed, and decide which of them require an entry on the initiative order. The GM should describe each task every round, and the effects of the players either attempting to address it, successfully addressing it, or neglecting it. This ratchets up tension, and ensures the players are aware of things they should be trying to deal with. No one should be sitting around wondering how they can contribute.
- Using the example above, the carriage, the bomb, and the king's guards would each get their own initiative rolls.
- Since the carriage plummeting off the cliff happens either at the bottom of the 3rd round (or the bottom of the 4th round if the horses are unhitched), the carriage always acts last in each round.
- Turn Order:
- On their turns, each player gets their normal allotment of actions: a Standard, Move, and Swift.
- If they wish, they can use a full attack action (Standard + Move) to roll 2d20 on a skill check, taking the best result.
- When the tasks come up in the initiative order, the GM should describe what happens:
- If a player is addressing it, describe their efforts and how it seems like maybe things might turn out okay if the player can just keep going.
- If no one is addressing it, describe what will happen (or is happening) as a result of that neglect.
- If a task gets completed, be sure to mention that also! Brag about how valiantly the players averted this particular crisis before it could occur.
- Many tasks will 'go' at the end of a round, or the start of a round.
- Complications can also be introduced at the top of a round, but shouldn't 'go' until the players have had an opportunity to react.
- Resolving Skill Checks:
- If a player meets or exceeds the target DC for a given skill, they achieve a success, reducing the needed number of successes to complete the task. Congrats!
- If a player beats the target DC by one or more difficulty categories (i.e. achieving a Hard DC when only a Challenging DC was needed), it counts as two successes.
- If a player beats the target DC by two or more difficulty categories (i.e. achieving an Impossible DC when only a Challenging DC was needed), it still counts as only two successes, but the player also earns the party 1 point of Luck.
- Luck Points:
- If a player earns a point of Luck, that point can be spent by any of the players in the party. Once spent, it is gone. There is no limit to the number of Luck points a party can accumulate. Any unspent Luck is lost at the end of the skill encounter.
- A single point of Luck can be spent to re-roll a skill check result of a Natural 1. You must take the new result.
- A single point of Luck can be spent to add a +2 circumstance bonus to a check result. This bonus is cumulative with other points of Luck; spend as many as you want.
- Two Luck points can be used to re-roll any one roll during the skill encounter. You must take the new result.
- Three Luck points can be spent to make two separate skill checks during a single full attack action, instead of rolling 2d20 for a single skill check. If the player is attempting to operate on two different tasks (instead of the same task twice), they must be in a location where they can reach both tasks.
- Action Points:
- Players are allowed to use action points during skill encounters. Skill encounters are treated as combat encounters, so the action point refreshes as normal before the next encounter.
- Adding Combat to the Mix:
- If one of your tasks includes combat (the king's corrupt guards), you should consider how many "successes" should be required to deal with them. Normal monsters often require several successful hits to kill, so Minion-role monsters are highly recommended for skill encounters — they only require one success to defeat. You can have several of the king's guards present, and still only draw away the attention of one player to handle them (or several players can dispatch them quickly, and then return to the tasks at hand once they're beaten).
- If you want to use normal monsters, just be cautioned that players are conditioned to think combat is more fun and more important than most other things in role-playing games. You are going to really have to drive home the consequences of neglecting the other tasks if you want the party to actually pay attention to them.
- While it is possible for one character to assist another on a skill check during a skill encounter, the players should really feel like there's too much to do to justify this loss of actions. Try to discourage this.
- Things to Avoid:
- Don't let any of your players get disconnected from the action entirely. Continuing with our example, don't let any of the players fall completely off of the carriage, unless they have some way of easily catching up to it (like the ability to fly). In general, this isn't much fun for the player, and it's not really necessary to throw them off to make things more tense. You can charge them a move action if they get 'nearly knocked off' to climb back onto steady footing, but don't allow them to get taken out of the action entirely, unless that is one of the clearly-explained consequences of neglecting a task.
- Avoid using Impossible DC skill checks. These require such a high die roll from even the most skilled player that it's pure luck whether a player will roll it or not. Furthermore, they remove the possibility of multiple successes on a single roll. Given that each player is likely to fail one or more rolls during a skill encounter, achieving multiple successes with a single roll can be vital to the success of the group.
Skill Encounter Examples: Below are some examples of how a skill encounter can be used, as well as all the details for each task. These encounters assume a party size of 8 players (so, nine tasks). If your party is smaller than this (it probably is), you can reduce the number of tasks by removing some of the (optional) tasks listed. Optional tasks can be used as complications, if the GM wants, or if the party seems like they're going to breeze through the encounter.
Each task of a skill encounter typically lists two or more skills that can be used to address that particular task. However, players are encouraged to describe how other skills can be applied to that task. If the GM agrees, that skill can be used instead of the listed skills.
The typical DC, unless otherwise stated, is a Challenging DC for the campaign level, or the CR of the encounter (or locale, etc.; whatever the GM feels is appropriate).
The Classic Bar Brawl
The party is in a bar, filled with a huge variety of types, from the rough-and-rowdy to the effete and refined. Something happens to trigger someone to start throwing punches, and all hell breaks loose. Roll initiative!
Players should be informed of the following possible actions, and also given the option of taking new actions if they prefer:
- Take on the troublemakers: One or more members of the party can try to take on the troublemakers of the bar brawl, attempting to settle this dispute with their fists
- Skill Check: Might check or non-lethal damage attacks (to-hit at -4)
- Required Successes: one per # of party members present
- Success: the party comes out as the undisputed 'winners' of the brawl, demonstrating their toughness to all who remain upright. The brawl aneds, and all party members gain a +2 circumstance bonus to all social interactions (bluff, diplomacy, sense motive) in this bar for the remainder of the night, and a +4 circumstance bonus to intimidate checks.
- Neglect: While the party might remain among those standing at the end of the brawl, they are clearly not the toughest people present. They take a few licks from the toughest present over the course of the fight. Each round, a number of party members equal to the total number of party members divided by 3 (drop fractions) suffers 1d6 points of non-lethal damage per 2 CR's of the campaign level, or CR of the bar.
- Keep Things Civil: Someone taking part in the brawl has decided that it's a good idea to start using improvised weapons, such as broken bottles, or shattered bar stools, to gain an advantage against their opponents. Use of lethal weapons in a bar brawl is not only uncool, it can lead to more serious consequences for anyone involved in the fight.
- Skill Check: Diplomacy to talk them out of going too far; Sleight of Hand to replace that shattered bottle with a soggy carrot.
- Required Successes: 3 successes
- Success: Things remain solidly in the domain of non-lethal damage; if guards appear, there are no calls for murder charges or other troublesome crimes. All party members gain a +1 circumstance bonus to social checks (bluff, diplomacy) with the bar staff for the remainder of the night.
- Neglect: Blood starts flying right away. If three rounds pass with no one trying to keep things civil (or no successes towards it), one or more bar patrons is killed during the brawl. If guards are called, murder charges are possible for anyone present, and manslaughter charges are very likely for anyone, even if they were merely present.
- Keep Things Contained: A few people seem like they'd much rather run away from the bar and let the guards know that bad things are happening than stay and take part.
- Skill Check: Movement to block the exits; Knowledge (Local) to get them turned around about where the exit is; Intimidate to convince them that narc'ing to the guards isn't necessary.
- Required Successes: 3 successes
- Success: Everyone stays in the bar during the fight, avoiding any possibility of guards being directly called to settle the disturbance (though they may still show up if 'Defenestration' is neglected).
- Neglect: Each round that no one deals with this, there is a 50% chance that guards will be summoned 2 rounds later; if this occurs, it happens at the top of the round. See the complications section, below, to determine what happens if guards are called during an ongoing brawl.
- Protect the Band: Some classless lowlife seems like they're about to take a swing at the bard, piano player, or band. Seriously, who does that?!?
- Skill Check: Acrobatics to make the miscreant trip or miss their target; Perform to distract them from their targets.
- Required Successes: 3 successes.
- Success: The band keeps playing, keeping spirits high and ensuring that the fight remains a relatively friendly one (any participant in this task gains a +2 circumstance bonus to all future skill checks this encounter).
- Neglect: If a full round passes where no one protects the band, the music is disrupted, becoming something of a mess. All damage is 50% lethal and 50% non-lethal. If two full rounds pass with no one protecting the band, all damage becomes lethal for the remainder of the encounter.
- Protect the Bartender: Someone has decided to attack the bartender directly, using this bar fight to settle some old grievance.
- Skill Check: Diplomacy to convince them to fight someone else; Knowledge (Religion) to convince them that their actions could awaken the wrath of the gods themselves.
- Required Successes: 3 successes.
- Success: The bartender is protected. Anyone participating in this task gains a +1 circumstance check to any skill when interacting with the bartender for the remainder of the night.
- Neglect: The first full round that this task is neglected, the bottles of booze behind the bar are shattered, scattering alcohol everywhere. All participants have a 50% chance of being covered in alcohol, making them more flammable and making it obvious that they were participants in the brawl to any guard asking questions about it. After a second full round of this task being neglected, the bartender is knocked unconscious. Any remaining bar staff who see this will attempt to flee the bar to seek help from the town watch. If the 'Keep Things Contained' task is still unresolved, add 3 successes to the total required to complete it. If it has already been resolved, it is re-activated, requiring 2 successes to complete.
- Defenestration: Some ruffian is about to toss someone out of the front window of the bar!
- Skill Check: Might to catch the flung victim before they crash through the window; Knowledge (Engineering) to shove something into the path, disrupting the momentum of the flung victim.
- Required Successes: 3 successes.
- Success: No one is tossed through the main window of the bar, keeping the brawl private and contained. Guards are not likely to show up based on circumstantial evidence (though they might still show up if 'Keep Things Contained' is neglected).
- Neglect: If this task is neglected for 1 round, the front window is broken, but no one is tossed through it, leading to only a 50% chance of guards showing up (less in lawless towns, more in highly guarded towns). If two full rounds pass without anyone paying attention to this task, guards will show two rounds later at the top of the round. See complications below to determine how this is resolved.
- Property Damage: Someone is using the distraction of the brawl to smash things up, including the mirror behind the bar, the alcohol bottles behind the bar, and other important parts of the bar.
- Skill Check: Barter to try to redirect their assault against less valuable property; Knowledge (Logic) to convince these miscreants that their efforts are misdirected.
- Required Successes: 3 successes.
- Success: The bar's most valuable assets are protected, and the bartender/owner is grateful. Once the brawl is concluded, assuming everyone is still able to interact, the bartender will offer a round of drinks to the party for looking out for his livelihood, and be more open to sharing local gossip.
- Neglect: Expensive parts of the bar are destroyed. If this task is neglected for 1 full round, the participants in the bar brawl have a 50% chance of being covered in splattered alcohol (or other flammable liquids). If this task is neglected for 2 full rounds, all participants are coated in flammable liquids.
- Higher Ground: Some participants of the bar fight are standing on tables or swinging from the chandelier, in order to gain an advantage in the brawl.
- Skill Check: Might to shove the aggressor off of their higher ground; Stealth to attempt to redirect their efforts into empty space.
- Required Successes: 3 successes.
- Success: The aggressors find that they are unable to make use of higher ground to gain an advantage. Any player contributing to this task gains a +1 circumstance bonus to all offensive skill checks for the remainder of the encounter.
- Neglect: The aggressors are able to make good use of their higher ground advantage. For each round that this task is neglected, the number of successes required for all other uncompleted tasks is increased by +1.
Complications for Bar Brawls
The following are some examples of complications that can be thrown into a bar brawl to make it more challenging. Feel free to throw in a new challenge at the top of each round, if the players seem to be having an easy time of things. If the players seem to be really struggling, you can skip a round or two before throwing in a challenge, or avoid throwing in challenges altogether. Challenges exist to keep the action flowing, and to ensure that the tension of the encounter is unrelenting.
- Bar Slide: Someone has been thrown down the length of the bar, smashing into drinks and bottles as they slide.
- Skill Check: Might to halt the poor victim from sliding any further; Sleight of Hand to pluck your drink from the bar before it is destroyed.
- Required Successes: 2 successes.
- Success: Your drink is saved! You look like a rock star for worrying about such a minor thing during a bar fight. You gain a +2 circumstance bonus to intimidate checks for the remainder of the bar brawl.
- Neglect: Your drink explodes on the head of the poor victim, adding to their suffering. You (and the victim) are covered in alcohol, making you more vulnerable to being set on fire, and making it harder to hide the fact that you've been involved in this bar fight.
- Fire! Some madman has decided that a bar fight is a good time to burn this place to the ground. What a whacko!
- Skill Check: Heal or Survival to pour something over yourself and other potential victims to render the spilled alcohol less flammable.
- Required Successes: 1 success per potentially flammable victim
- Success: You prevent your target from being susceptible to being set aflame.
- Neglect: At the end of the first full round that this complication is neglected, one target who has previously been doused with alcohol (see 'Protect the Bartender' and 'Property Damage' above) gains the Burned condition (determined randomly). Each full round of neglect after the first, two additional targets who have been doused with alcohol gain the Burned condition for each target who is still burning.
- Important Person: Someone in the bar is too important to be allowed to get mixed up in this. You spot them just as they are about to get assaulted by some ruffians. The GM is encouraged to name this person from people relevant to the current adventure, or insert some persona from the local guilds or nobility.
- Skill Check: Knowledge (Nobility) to convince the ruffians of the consequences of assaulting this particular person; Escape Artist to help the important person avoid the worst of the assault.
- Required Successes: 2 successes.
- Success: You help the important person escape the assault relatively unscathed. Anyone involved in resolving this task gains a +1 circumstance bonus to social skill checks (barter, bluff, diplomacy, sense motive) made against this person for the remainder of the night.
- Neglect: After the first full round that this complication is neglected, the important person suffers a fair bit of non-lethal damage from the assault. If they are rescued after this, the circumstance bonus to interact with them increases to a +2 (instead of a +1). After the second full round of neglect, the important person is rendered unconscious as they are beaten savagely. Depending on the person, this assault may result in this bar being closed down, or the participants of the bar brawl being hunted down by powerful people.
- Guards Arrive: If the guards are called, either by a failure of the task 'Keep Things Contained' or the task 'Defenestration', or the task 'Protect the Bartender', they will quickly move to subdue all participants, and haul them to the local jail.
- Skill Check: Bluff to convince guards that you're not fighting, just hiding; Profession (Constable) or Profession (Barrister) to convince the guards that you are just trying to uphold the peace.
- Required Successes: 3 successes.
- Success: You convince the guards that you and your party were calming influences on the fight, avoiding arrest.
- Neglect: You and your party are beaten down by the guards and arrested. If the task 'Keep Things Civil' was neglected for three or more rounds, the party may be subjected to murder or manslaughter charges, instead of simple 'disrupting the peace' charges.
- Bold Burglary: Some enterprising soul wants to use the distraction to scoop up treasure from the local poker game, the bar's till, or the stock room. You spot them sneaking around and shoving things into a sack.
- Skill Check: Barter to protect the most valuable things present from their attentions; Intimidate to convince them that this is a bad idea. Sleight of Hand to get to the good stuff first.
- Required Successes: 2 successes.
- Success: You prevent the thief from profiting during the distraction of the bar brawl. (Alternatively, you manage to scoop up some loose cash that was just laying around.)
- Neglect: The bar is robbed during the brawl. The local thieves' guild (or local mob boss) becomes very interested in anyone who took part in this bar brawl.