When you run a skill challenge, give players choices beyond which skill to use.
Skill challenges provide a way to engage the entire party in something other than combat. A well-formed skill challenge can pull quiet players out of their shell, and they can also provide a structure in which more dynamic players can still thrive. Giving your players choices beyond which skills to use in the challenge makes the entire process feel more authentic and enjoyable for everyone at the table.
In my most recent game session, the players decided to kill off the chief of the gnoll raiders in the forest near their frontier capital. The players specifically wanted to find the primary camp of the gnolls and stage a raid so they could lure out the chief and kill her. Since I had made a detailed hex map of the area, I decided to put it to use as part of the skill challenge of finding the camp.
To begin with, I provided a map to my players of the frontier province they were exploring. Areas of note included a swamp containing friendly trolls and the path they walked to enter the forest. Each hex is about two and a half miles across – a reasonable area to inspect fully in one day.
I set the following requirements for this skill challenge:
Timeline: The heroes have fifteen days of supplies with them. If they cannot find the hex containing the gnoll camp within fifteen days, they must return home.
Relevant Skills: The following skills were of use on this challenge – Intimidate, Nature, and Stealth, each at a medium DC.
Inspecting a hex: Inspecting a single hex takes one day, and the players may choose any hex to inspect on that day. Going once around the table, the party (five players) must pass each of the skills once in order to determine if the camp is located in that hex.
Failure: Failing at one day’s checks gives no progress and increases the encounter level against the gnoll chieftain by one, since the gnolls perceive the heroes as a threat.
Success: Passing all three skill checks with the five rolls from the party reveals if the camp is in that hex. Passing for all three skills with one additional success also lets the party reveal if the camp is in either two adjacent hexes or one non-adjacent hex. Passing for all three skills with two additional successes (a full party success) also lets the party reveal if the camp lies along a specific border or allows five hexes of the players’ choice to be revealed. The first full party success will reveal the half of the province in which the camp is not located (by either and east/west or north/south split).
Special Choices: The path the heroes followed into the province could be inspected two hexes at a time, since they had already covered some of that ground. The players could also choose to inspect two hexes in a day, but that would increase the difficulty from a medium to a hard DC. Trolls allied with the PCs let them know that the gnolls were not based in the swamp.
I chose to be upfront with my players about their timeline, the minimal results of passing, the possibility that more successes would yield greater results, and everything in the special choices section.
On their first day of searching, they chose a hex to the southeast of the hills, and they passed with flying colors! With their first full success, I immediately let them know that the camp had to be to the west of where they were searching. Using PowerPoint, I marked off the hexes they knew did not contain the camp.
I should point out that allowing the players to decided where to search almost cut this skill check short. On the first day of searching, they players were strongly debating inspecting the hex that contained the camp. While this would have ended my skill challenge before it even really got going, it would also have given the players the thrill of “beating” the DM at his own game. We all love that feeling when we play, so I wasn’t about to deny it to my players if they managed to luck out on this one. Thankfully, they instead chose an “empty” hex.
A couple days of decent success let them eliminate most of the path they had traveled into the province, and a failure made the gnolls less afraid of the heroes. This allowed me to telegraph that failures would make the gnolls harder to defeat in the end.
It is another full-party success, and the heroes chose to reveal if the camp lied along the southern “river” border of the province. A few smaller successes helped to fill in more of the area. At this point, I expect them to find the camp at any point.
With another full-party success, the players decided to fully inspect the northern border.
Another couple of failures increased the threat of the encounter with the gnoll chieftain by another two levels. At this point, when they do find the camp, the combat there would be much more of a challenge. A full-party success on day fifteen allowed the heroes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and locate the gnoll camp at the base of the hills.
This challenge went smoothly, but failure was possible even with the luck of the dice on the players’ side. This type of challenge works best when a complete failure really does not mean a dead-end for the story. In the case, failure to assassinate the gnoll chieftain would only make it more difficult when the heroes eventually march their army into this province and try to bring settlement to the frontier.
In this case, when the payers succeeded, they knew it was in part due to the choices the made, not just their luck at rolling a d20. That type of empowerment is a great thing to hand your players, since it helps to reinforce the idea that their decisions really do matter and they are active participants in the story.
Credit Where Credit is Due
While the mechanics are different, I stole this idea for a searching-based skill challenge with a component of human decision from my friend Ian’s Dark Sun game, where he had us Templars kicking down doors in Urik as we tried to find a prison escapee. He used MapTool to show our party’s position on an actual aerial view of Baghdad, which was just fantastic.
How do you incorporate player decision making into skill challenges? What types of tools, like the maps in this challenge, do you use to show progress? How have you varied your skill challenges from the norm to add a little spice to your game?