A typical encounter has five PCs facing off against five equally powerful monsters and everything happens simultaneously. But what if the encounter was broken down into five incremental steps, each step representing one monster, and the outcome of each step determined the threat level of the step to follow?
Before diving into this scenario let’s not overlook skill challenges. What if, instead of automatically using five monsters, the DM used five complexity 1 skill challenges, or even a combination of five monsters and skill challenges? Assuming that monsters and skill challenges can be used interchangeably to create balanced and satisfying encounters, is this kind of incremental encounter viable? Absolutely.
Think of the encounter as a flowchart. The PCs have to overcome five monsters one by one, or five complexity 1 skill challenges to complete the larger encounter, earn their XP and move closer to their next milestone. They begin by facing a monster of their level or a complexity 1 skill challenge. If the party succeeds then the next monster or skill challenge is the same level or complexity as the one they just completed. If they fail then the next monster or skill challenge increased by one level. This continues until the party faces a total of five individual obstacles.
In the case of skill challenges this rewards diversity, imagination and luck while making things a little more difficult for parties with gaping holes in the skills department.
This kind of encounter works equally well as a series of skill challenges or a series of combat encounters. For example, imagine that the PCs have to move through five consecutive rooms. In each room is one monster (or a complexity 1 skill challenge). If the PCs defeat the monster quickly and quietly then the monster in the next room is caught but surprise and cannot send for reinforcements (success). They go through the door and again only have to deal with one monster. However, if they bungled the first combat (failure), then the alarm is raised and every subsequent room has two monsters in it. This formula continues until they get through the final room.
In an all skill challenge scenario, an exceptionally unfortunate party might end up facing a complexity 5 skill challenge by the end of the encounter, whereas as a party that continues to succeed will face nothing more difficult than five complexity 1 skill challenges. A party of five should have enough variety and versatility that they will eventually succeed on at least a few of the skill challenges along the way. So it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll face a complexity 5 skill challenge at all.
Throwing potentially as many as 15 monsters at the party without allowing them to get a short rest is not a good idea. And neither is making them complete skill challenges ranging from complexity 1-5 before finishing the encounter. So when increasing the complexity of the next skill challenge don’t demand more successes, instead increase the DCs or limit the skills required for success. Looking at the monster example it’s probably better to beef up the monster rather than add more opponents. You could give each monster increased hit points, defenses or attack scores rather than a companion. This way the party is still only facing one monster at a time, but it is harder to defeat if they failed in the preceding room. Perhaps the monster had time to put on his armor, retrieve a magic weapon or drink a potion when he heard the fighting.
Obviously the encounter shouldn’t be anything as boring as just moving through five rooms. Be imaginative, but be sure that there are obstacles worthy of skill challenges or combat along the way. For this kind of encounter to work best, especially if you’re going to use five skill challenges, then you have to ensure that the PCs can use different skills along the way. Five locked doors won’t pose any difficulty to a party with a Rogue or two, but could stop a party of Fighters in their tracks.
This is not to say that you can’t throw a locked door in front of a party of Fighters. In fact forcing the PCs to use their untrained skills or their imagination often makes for more rewarding scenarios. Just don’t go overboard or the players will get frustrated and angry.
When deciding upon each skill challenge ask yourself if a skill challenge is necessary for this situation in much the same way you’d ask yourself would combat be necessary in this situation. If the answer is no then don’t slow things down for what seems like unnecessary checks. If there’s no one in this area of the castle then Stealth checks are not necessary. However, if there are guards patrolling just outside the open window then perhaps a skill challenge makes sense.
It’s important that any skill challenge have real consequences for failure. When using this kind of incremental encounter design, failure means increased difficulty during the next mini skill challenge so be mindful before imposing any additional consequences for failure.
One interesting twist to this kind of encounter set up is that the PCs may decide to intentionally fail one of the incremental steps, be it a skill challenge or a combat encounter. Perhaps they want the monster to flee and alert the guards or maybe they choose to take a more difficult path. Maybe they figure that they’ll have a better chance of getting six successes using their better skills than four using their untrained skills. Since the encounter isn’t talking place in a vacuum the PCs should have a good idea of what skills are going to be required down the road, even if they’re not there yet. It’s up to the DM to decide how much foreknowledge the PCs should actually have, but giving players this option may result in a more interesting and fun encounter overall so be ready to say yes.
Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try this kind of encounter in actual play, I’m confident that incremental encounters like the ones I’ve described will work. Players will likely be intrigue the first time the come across this kind of situation because this is not how a typical D&D encounter is usually set up. Play with the design and make sure that each step is challenging, but not deadly. Remember that each step is supposed to represent 1/5 of a normal encounter’s difficulty. The advantage of this kind of encounter design is it really rewards players for playing smart and reminds groups that don’t consider the consequences of their actions that things can always get worse.
Have you ever used this kind of incremental encounter design? How did it work? Is this something that you’re likely to try with your gaming group? How might you tweak an incremental encounter to make it more interesting?