What happens when your PCs make a choice that takes your adventure 180 degrees away from where you intended? Or when those same PCs kill the NPC who will provide the information they require to move onto the next step? Or when the PCs just aren’t picking up on the very obvious, to your mind, clues that you are leaving them? What do you do?
It’s very easy to meta-game and speak out of character, “I can’t believe you guys killed Fizzlebaum, he was going to lead you to the orcs lair! Now what will we do…” However, talking about the game in this manner breaks the flavour, ruins the moment and may cause some PCs to lash out at you. It’s equally as easy to railroad the PCs down the direction you need. “As you search Fizzlebaum’s corpse you find a tattered map that seems to lead to an ancient ruin.” The problem with railroading is it’s obvious and no one likes it.
So as the DM what do you do when your players have tossed all your planning on its head? How do you get things back on track? Enter the favourite mechanic of the Dungeon’s Master team, the skill challenge. The beauty of skill challenges is they are very fluid and easy to run on the fly. When well laid plans go south, get creative with your wayward PCs and steer them back on track in a way that looks like you planned it.
Naturally, running a skill challenge on the fly requires a great deal of creativity from you. There are a few elements that you will quickly need to brainstorm in order to move forward.
In what direction do you need to move the PCs? If a dead NPC was going to provide a clue, how can you provide that same information in a skill challenge format? You want to provide some clues that empower the PCs into making the decision they should have made all along. So you will need to be very clear, in your own mind, about what you need them to accomplish. In order to enhance the atmosphere of the game, provide an in-game description of the scene.
As the dust settles an eerie calm settles over the cavern. The carnage from the battle is laid out before you. The body of the town elder Fizzlebaum is badly mangled, his death clearly was the result of magic running rampant as you battled the Orcish shaman and his warriors. As you inspect the dead a glint of metal catches your eye, the shaman seems to be grasping onto something almost as if it will guide him home in the afterlife.
From this point it is very easy to have a perception check notice a bag of chalk on the shaman’s possession. After a series of other checks the PCs will be able to deduce that a larger lair exists and where it is located. Fizzlebaum must be avenged!
Your original plan may have been to have Fizzlebaum offer a reward for clearing the orcs out. With him dead that’s no longer an option, unless the PCs return his body to town and another NPC offers the quest. This is a valid option, but it’s easy and nowhere near as fun. Instead, insert a plot hook that will have the PCs seeking to avenge Fizzlebaum’s death. Perhaps a journal is found on his body, indicating something about a PCs back story. This might motivate the PC to seek revenge.
What Skills To Use
4e D&D has 17 skills and normal skill challenges don’t use every skill. Most skill challenges probably use about half the skills. In our instance above we can very easily eliminate bluff, diplomacy, intimidate and streetwise. Thievery and stealth probably aren’t needed either, that has us down to 11 out of 17 skills. A nice manageable number that allows you to think of creative responses to doll out to the PCs as they go about inspecting the scene of the battle.
Running The Challenge
Now that you have the framework for your challenge in your head get the PCs invested. Keep the conversation in game, provide them flavour tools to keep them interested. Once they start looking around provide the necessary ammunition to get them back on track.
Skill challenges provide a great way to increase the role playing and enjoyment factor of your games. Handled correctly they will enhance your game play. While there are a great many articles about skill challenges and how you can vary the complexity of them to weave very intricate story lines, this isn’t always necessary. If your goal is simply to put the PCs back on track with the campaign, try winging a skill challenge and see what happens. So long as you are open to trying something new and willing to role play the scenario out you should have great results.
What experiences have you had with running impromptu skill challenges? Did it work out as you envisioned or was it like rolling a natural one?