Creating and Running Engaging Skill Challenges (Part 2)

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on April 20, 2010

So you’ve chosen the premise of your skill challenge. Great, now for the second step. The second step is all about forecasting possible developments for the challenge.

Bauxtehude, our newest contributor at Dungeon’s Master, continues his look at skill challenges. In yesterday’s article, Creating and Running Engaging Skill Challenges (Part 1) he stated that the best skill challenges pose a very open-ended problem to the party. Open-ended problems allow for a diversity of possible approaches as well as interpretations of the actual nature of the problem. Good skill challenges allow the party to overcome the problem presented to them in their own way while forcing them to interact with increasing complications. Picking up right where we left off yesterday, we follow the example begun in part 1 through to its natural conclusions with a heavy dose of Bauxtehude’s thoughts and insights added along the way.

I find it harmful to try to start setting DCs for various skill checks unless there are obvious hurdles that will need to be overcome. It’s better to not set any expectations for the party’s actions. The telling of the narration should reflect the choices the party is making rather than what the Dungeon Master thinks the party would do or what the Dungeon Master might figure the party ought to do. In this way time is better invested in thinking about what sort of place the PCs find themselves in.

Are the characters in a city? If so there’s little need to plan out the specifics of every area of the city in order for it to feel like a real and living place to the party. All the Dungeon Master needs to do is make a few key assumptions about what cities are like. Every city has a pub, every city has a mayor, and every city has a 15-year-old who makes pocket money walking dogs. At most, all a Dungeon Master should have to do is come up with two or three locations of interest and one or two personalities. These exist in case there’s a particular tone or story detail that the dungeon master wants to make sure are part of the storyline.

Say team Find the Map isn’t going to the blacksmith’s shop to get grappling hooks made as was hoped, but instead they go to the city hall to see if they can gain access to the map through some obscure access to information law. This could be a problem because the blacksmith has an important piece of information that he can give the party. Well then guess who happens to be at city hall today? It’s the blacksmith! He’s resubmitting his application for a civilly sanctioned dual use space… O’Henderson’s Forge and Pizzeria.

Since the party doesn’t know what O’Henderson’s habits are like there is no reason why he can’t be at city hall at what ever time of day they happen to be there. If the heroes are curious what the blacksmith is doing there during the middle of the day it becomes an opportunity for him to speak about his habits and his character, and thus player-interest driven characterization of an NPC. Perhaps the Dungeon Master’s vision of O’Henderson is as such that it doesn’t make sense for him to be at city hall. In that case since the party has never met the smithy and would be restaurateur so he doesn’t exist. In this way a more conveniently placed NPC gets to know that important bit of news and the party is none the wiser. However O’Henderson does exist, and he’s going to blast pig iron and make pizzas in the same forge if it’s the last thing he does. O’Henderson is at city hall so he’s able to pass on the information to team Find the Map that he once made a vault for the knights at the temple and that it was important that it would be climate controlled so that they could store papers. Back at Unlock the Vault Door the Fighter, Conscore McSwordworthy rolls Athletics while the Rogue waits to roll Thievery.

As the challenge continues and PCs pit themselves against their environment all the Dungeon Master needs to do is make up a DC. There’s no need to prepare these things ahead of time, the Dungeon Master should just be aware of how hard a DC 15 is in the grand scheme of things. If a consistently flowing game is the main concern, it should be kept in mind that the party is willing to wait for the Dungeon Master who adapts plans for the party. However there is little patience for the Dungeon Master who says that the temple has no other doors or windows so that the party’s free will does not ruin her well laid plans. The same treatment should be given to the number of successful skill checks required. A skill challenge lasts until there is nothing left challenging the party, not when a predetermined number of dice rolls are made. How many Thievery checks does it take to open a locked door? Zero if you blow it up with dynamite. The party should be allowed to over come an obstacle as soon as they are able to reasonably over come it.

For many this kind of improvisation is a daunting task, but one should not feel overwhelmed because even stray threads can turn into interesting plot points. It’s more important to “run with the football” than it is to instantaneously develop a new plot line of sinister and masterful deception. At some point an opportunity will arise to link the roadblocks that the party faces back into the main campaign arc, and if not it’s ok for these road blocks to have been mundane.

Now on to the very last part of the skill challenge: scripting your ending. My advice for scripting endings is to not do it, after all, how the challenge ends is not the Dungeon Master’s prerogative. For the duration of the skill challenge the Dungeon Master might want to keep throwing hooks at the party, but eventually the skill challenge should reach a logical conclusion. When the party has accomplished all they are able to or have an interest in, the challenge ends. While the fiction that the dungeon master created as a possible ending may have been an interesting one, it’s not the one that took place and thus has no part in the storyline.

Now that the skill challenge has been drawn to it’s own conclusion it should lead in to the next portion of the adventure smoothly and more or less without notice. A skill challenge designed by this method can be run without ever having to inform the party that they are in a skill challenge and will engage the players like no other method.

Find sample skill challenges and skill aides in our Skill Challenges section. Just click on the Skill Challenges tab at the top of the page.

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1 mildewey April 20, 2010 at 10:59 am

I recently followed very similar guidelines for what turned into an epic (in length and quality!) skill challenge. The goal was to get into a well guarded temple to assassinate a false deity (lvl 21). The players could
1) talk their way in, convincing each hierarchy of the temple that they were devout worshipers or wealthy patrons,
2) investigate alternate methods of entry into the temple, or
3) attempt to infiltrate the palace using stealth an thievery.

Naturally the party decided to do all three simultaneously.

Beforehand I tried to come up with a bit of a story how each path would go. The best was if they investigated alternate methods of accessing the temple, they’d find out about the previous owner of the building, learn that one of his kin knew everything about its history, then they’d find out the kinsman had to be rescued from a bunch of loan sharks. Naturally, he’d tell them about the secret entrance once they found him.

Anyway, the whole thing came off smashingly well.

2 Dungeon Newbie April 21, 2010 at 4:09 am

You bring up an interesting point. Very good planning. But, in my opinion of course, I think that it is more fun to improvise. Anyway, you will never,never,never ever be able to anticipate the routes that PCs choose…… But a very good quality comment. Not like some of the other comments I have seen on certain webpages… filler comments.
So. Back to the point. I think that an ending should NOT be scripted if at all possible. In fact, I think I’ll put that on my Dungeons and Dragons Blog. However, what if an evil player “accidently on purpose” killed O’Henderson? I don’t think there is a need for railroading, but the solution I have in mind may not fit the story… still, here it is:
Evil PC:I kill this O’Henderson guy.
DM: A guard sees you and arrests you
DM: However, he recognizes ______ as the adventurer who ___________ and decide to let you go free. They impose a fine on you, though, of _____gp. However, ______ notices a piece of paper on O’Henderson’s corpse. _____ picks it up and reads, “Note to self: remember to tell visiting adventurers looking for map about the vault I made for those knights and that it’s climate controlled.”

In this way, information is passed on even though O’Henderson has died. I hope you found this useful! 😀

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3 Bauxtehude April 21, 2010 at 10:16 am

I’m glad to hear that you’ve had success with the types of methods that I have outlined in my article.

@Dungeon Newbie
I agree with you about not scripting an ending for your kill challenges, though I would be sad if someone killed Mr. O’Henderson. He’s an NPC that is quite dear to my heart, he’s enterprising but not very clever, but you can’t help but love him for his optimisim. There was another fun NPC that I came up with for the purposes of this artilce that didn’t make the final edit, Lamar the irate civic planer.

Good work on your “Do Not Use Scripted Endings” post BTW.
.-= Bauxtehude´s last blog ..A New Method for Designing and Running Engaging Skill Challenges – Liam Gallagher =-.

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