And I’m back. Service may continue to be slow as I build up a backlog of ideas, but the goal is to get back up to a twice per week schedule.
Skill use in general and skill challenges in specific have always suffered a handful of major problems:
- When making a single skill roll, there’s often a very narrow margin of interesting failure between “fail and you’re screwed” (failing your Jump check across a deep chasm) and “well can I just try again in a round?” (failing to pick a lock with no trap or nearby threats). GMs are encouraged to only call for rolls when they know that failure will be interesting and won’t derail the session, but players often try to initiate dice rolls when they are taking an action they don’t expect to be automatic.
- The 4e group skill challenge paradigm of X successes before Y failures does the opposite of what it set out to do: rather than encourage every player to try to get involved, even if they don’t have any good skills that are relevant, it makes much more sense to sit out or aid another so that only the best PCs’ skill results count toward the challenge.
- In general, it’s very hard to come up with a skill challenge that can justify awarding exp in the same way you might for a combat encounter.
This last point is the most interesting. The 4e introduction of skill challenges carried with it the idea that you’d get exp for success just like a combat encounter, so they had to be complex and have a decent chance of failure. But they never really felt like combat. Harbinger has some ideas on how to make them closer, and I’ve mentioned similar things in the past, but the really crucial issue is that skill challenges tend to have lower stakes, low granularity of results, and be self contained.
In combat, particularly in more recent editions of D&D, there’s very little chance that you’ll have a PC die or even lose in the first combat of the day. Instead, the real question is how many resources you have to expend to achieve victory, whether cleverness can mitigate this loss, and whether those expended resources will eventually add up to problems in later encounters. A well-designed skill challenge might have story ramifications for success vs. failure, and even might have some degree of granularity in its output, but it doesn’t have the same kind of coherent system effect as combat where you’ve potentially lost hit points, charges, and dailies.
In his post, Harbinger mentioned the Doom Pool concept from MHR/Cortex+, and I think that might be the ultimate solution to the issue. The following concept is largely based on that and Push Dice from Technoir.
The fortune pool represents a sort of short-term and highly elastic luck or karma. As player characters push their luck and get good results more often than expected, so too do circumstance conspire to make them suffer for these payoffs.
The players have control over the fortune pool, which consists of d6s (and is effectively unlimited). They can pass dice from the pool to the GM in the situations outlined below. They cannot roll the dice for anything themselves, only give them to the GM.
The GM accumulates fortune dice. At any point, the GM may return two fortune dice of the same size to the pool to take a fortune die that is one step larger (e.g., return 4d6 for 2d8 or 1d10). The GM may also return dice to the pool to activate results as outlined below. The GM may add a single fortune die to any roll (skill, attack, save, or damage) made by an enemy NPC (or environmental hazard), after the NPC’s result is known. The result of the fortune die is added to the original result (potentially turning failure to success or dealing more damage). The die is returned to the pool after rolling.
GMs should keep their fortune dice where the players can see them, to see how big their potential misfortune is getting.
In a normal, one-off skill roll (rather than a group challenge that requires multiple successes, see below), a player may give the GM a fortune die to replace the result of the die roll with a 10. If the result was already 10 or better, the player can give the GM two fortune dice to replace it with a 20 (3 dice total to turn a result of less than 10 into a 20). Players can also make this decision for NPC allies.
In this paradigm, failure should be pretty bad. For dangerous rolls (jumping a chasm, climbing a cliff, etc.), failure means you take whatever the worst case damage is. Even for rolls where there should be no particular pressure, rolling and then failing should preclude trying again until at least the next day (the player should have declared taking 10 or 20 in advance rather than going for the roll). There should be substantial pressure to give the GM fortune dice to eke out a success.
And eking is exactly what’s happening: failure to success via fortune dice should always include a complication. At the very least, it took longer than expected, and if the GM can think of something interesting to throw at the players, that’s even better (e.g., “With one final exertion you make it up the cliff face, but you hear the sound of falling rocks behind you; everyone else’s DC goes up by +2 for lack of handholds”).
If the player achieves success naturally, and beat the DC by 5 or more, he or she can also turn over a fortune die to have it be an exceptional success. If the GM accepts the die, it must include narration of some benefit above and beyond simple success (the GM is not obligated to take the die if he or she can’t think of a cool reward).
The GM can return a die to the pool to turn basic natural success (by less than 5) into the same kind of success plus complication as if the player had used fortune dice to overcome failure.
On a failure by 5 or more than the player chose to let stand, the GM can return a die to create a situation of It Gets Worse that wasn’t originally part of the conceived adventure (“Alright, you fall into the pit and take 4d6. As your ears stop ringing from the impact, you hear the hiss of several snakes…”).
GMs shouldn’t call for simple challenges if the DC is so high that even a 20 won’t succeed, just narrate that the challenge is beyond the player’s skill. But if the player goes ahead and rolls without the GM specifically requesting it, feel free to take a bunch of fortune dice and then tell the player 20 is not enough…
A complex challenge is a more drawn out scene that requires a series of rolls and encourages the whole party to get involved. This could be a negotiation, a chase through the city, or something similar. In these situations, a round becomes more narrative and may represent more than six seconds.
In these challenges, the players must accumulate a certain number of successes to win, and lose if their success total is negative at the end of a round. Some challenges will simply go for a certain number of rounds and have a granular result based on accumulated successes (e.g., “you have three rounds representing your time to research and investigate before the trial”).
If the players are being directly contested (chased by guards, competing in the negotiation against rivals, etc.), the NPC opponents get to roll each round and deduct a success from the PCs’ total for each of their own (and can roll a fortune die normally). If the challenge is more environmental (e.g., getting to safety or disarming a trap), the GM may simply apply a set number of negative successes each round.
Players can use fortune dice just as they would in a simple challenge to achieve success with complication. Spending for a major success turns one success to two for the final tally.
Unlike simple challenges, failures aren’t disastrous, they simply don’t add a success (unless the GM has a bright idea to spend a fortune die and add a complication for the failure). Thus, even members of the party with low skill bonuses might consider risking a roll (and shoring it up with fortune dice) rather than passing to let their more skilled peers handle it.
You may choose to award exp for a successful skill challenge, or simply assume that, since it adjusts how many fortune dice are available to make combats harder, success with minimal fortune use is its own reward.