Tag Archives: skill challenges

One Rule to Increase Roleplaying Engagment At Your Table

In the spirit of giving credit where it’s due, the idea for this post is not completely my own. It was mentioned in passing on the Dice of Doom podcast many episodes ago, and got my wheels turning. Since then, I have been testing the idea, both with my own group and with all of the tables I judged at Gencon. It works beautifully.

Getting players to go beyond naming off powers and actions in a generic way and move into being more descriptive can oftentimes be a bit like pulling teeth.  Sure, it’s easier to say “I use XYZ” power, or “I’m going to make an athletics check to jump,” but there is something lacking in the story when players don’t participate in the narrative to the same extent as the DM.  That is to say, the story and game are richer when players are as descriptive as possible with their actions. While I don’t think that there is one single rule that can help DMs to increase the level of description that players engage in, I do think that the following rule goes a long way. Continue reading

The Sea Dragon’s Maiden Voyage

Almost done with the skill challenge. Notice all the sails are furled but one in the stern.

A month or so ago, I mentioned in passing that I had finished my first build of World Works Games’ papercraft ship, the “Sea Maiden.”  Although I actively looked for an occasion to use it, only recently did an opportunity present itself.  My group had just finished an adventure tracking down a drug cartel, and clues led them to another area of the campaign world that was reached fastest via sea travel.  So I put together a fun little “on the way” adventure for them that also contained hooks that they may or may not investigate.  I thought I’d share the adventure with you in a few different posts because I had a lot of fun running it, and since it’s an adventure that happens “on the way” from point A to point B, it can pretty much be dropped wholesale into any campaign.  Alternately, you could just take any of the pieces and use them individually.

But first, to address some questions that I’ve been getting about the ship itself:

How long did it take to make?

The ship took between 20 and 30 hours, by my estimate, to put together.  I did not time myself, and did most of my cutting and gluing in the evening while watching TV.  The 20-30 hour time frame did not include printing time, which I discuss below.

How big is it? I can’t tell from the picture.

The ship is approximately 36 inches from stem to stern, and 28 inches from bow to stern.  It’s 7 inches wide, and the masts stand 20 inches tall.  The main deck is about 3 inches off the table, and the forecastle and sterncastle deck are 6 inches up.

How much did the ship cost?

The plans themselves cost only $17 from the World Works Games website.  You receive a downloadable PDF that you can print out as many times as you want.  However, I found that the cost of the PDF was not the most expensive part of the ship.  I only have an inkjet printer, and I went through approximately 4 ink cartridges in the course of making the ship.  That worked out to about $44 more dollars in ink.  I have since purchased a color laser printer for all my papercrafting needs, and expect that future builds will be markedly cheaper.  The printing also took a long time, and the printer I used required babysitting or it would jam, so I couldn’t just send the print job and walk away.

Future builds?

Yes, I plan on making this ship again… sort of.  I learned a lot in the course of making it; for example, it’s really important that the foamcore you base your decks on does not warp.  I also have some ideas for kitbashes* that I’d like to try, and I think it might be neat to print out the plans in black and white for a ghost ship, or a ship from the Shadowfell.  Will I do all of these?  Maybe, maybe not, and certainly not anytime soon; I have a few other projects on the table right now that will be taking precedence (like the mini I talked about in our last podcast).  But that’s the nice thing about the PDF plans.  They’re there when you want them.

*Kitbashing is taking the plans, and changing them to suit your needs.  For example, I might make the ship without the fore and sterncastle cabins, or I may shorten the deck considerably and only have one mast.

And now, on to the adventure…

The group started in a port city, and in need of “nautical transportation.”  Heading to the docks, they proceed to try and locate a ship that will grant them passage.  This can be as involved and interactive as you like, but I ended up handwaving this part, and informing the party that there is only one ship available.  The captain of the ship is a bounty hunter; he is planning on leaving today with two prisoners, but if the party wants to pick up one last bounty that he didn’t have time for, he will give them free passage and share the bounty as well.

While I think everyone (especially myself) had a lot of fun with the bounty hunting part of the adventure, I’m not going to outline it here.  Suffice it to say, it involved most of the party entering through the front door of a tavern, and exiting a second story window.  I’ll leave this part of the adventure to your imagination, or you can leave it out altogether.

The party returns to the ship bounty in hand (or in the case of my group, not), and the ship departs.  At some point in the passage, an unnatural storm suddenly arises, and the ship is tossed about like a cork. I used a moderate Arcana or Nature check to determine that the storm was not natural, and in fact magical in nature. 

The captain shouts over the storm to furl the sails before the wind takes down the masts.

Skill challenge! I will note that I designed this skill challenge specifically for the Sea Maiden.  The plans come with open and furled sails, and they can be swapped out on the fly – from unfurled to furled in seconds.  I saw this as a built in skill challenge.  Since there are six yards on the ship, the skill challenge is 6 successes before 3 failures.  At every success, I would swap an open sail for a furled one, so that the group had a real visual of their progress.

Furl the Sails! (Skill challenge complexity 2: 6 successes before 3 failures)

  • Endurance (mandatory group check, easy DC): You continue to work as you are pelted by rain, buffeted by wind, and soaked through again and again by waves washing over the deck.
  • Athletics (moderate DC): You climb the masts and pull the ropes in.
  • Acrobatics (hard DC): You keep your footing on the rolling deck.  You scramble out on the yardarms to help furl the sails in the upper masts.
  • Theivery (moderate DC): You’re a wizard with the ropes, tying them off to the cleats on the deck and securing the sails.
  • Perception (moderate DC): You watch for incoming waves, and warn the crew before they hit so that no one is washed overboard.
  • Intimidate (moderate DC): You convince the crew that if they don’t work harder and faster, “we’re all gonna die.”
  • Bluff (moderate DC): You convince the crew that things “aren’t really that bad,” and “I’ve seen worse” so that they do not panic and make mistakes.
  • Nature (difficult DC, optional): You assist the captain with navigating the boat so that you don’t capsize, and in fact the waves don’t toss it around quite as much.

Success: The sails are furled in time, and the PCs get a breather before the combat starts. (Yes, combat. Who did you think was generating the storm?)

Failure: Lose a healing surge.  Also, because the wind is still buffeting the sails, the entire deck is difficult terrain and a moderate acrobatics check is required for movement in the following combat (Failure=fall prone).  The movement penalty and acrobatics check can be eliminated by completing the 6 successes during the combat.

I hope you enjoyed the skill challenge.  Come back next time to find out who is behind the storm!

“Choose a Skill Challenge” part 2: Travel the Road

 In the first part of this post, I proposed the idea of “choose a skill challenge.”  Instead of presenting your players with the choice of “skill challenge or combat,” (when a choice is presented at all), I suggested that it is just as legitimate to give them a choice between two different skill challenges.  This technique works best when presenting a problem with two conditions required for success.  In this way, you can design each skill challenge to assure success of only one of the objectives.  In other words, if the PCs need to complete A and B to be successful, you would design skill challenge 1 to assure success of A, but risk failure of B.  Skill challenge 2 would do the opposite.

Of course, everyone likes a concrete example.

The characters find themselves at POINT A with AN URGET NEED to get to POINT B both quickly and undetected.  They are now faced with a choice: they could aviod roads and travel overland.  This plan is sure to avoid detection, but overland travel is slow, and there’s no guarantee the characters will arrive at their destination on time.  Taking the roads would assure you of a timely arrival, but every stranger you meet along the way could be in the employ of your enemy, or willing to whisper word of your travels to the highest bidder.

We already looked at the “overland” skill challenge that avoids the roads (and assures the PCs aren’t detected).  We will now design a skill challenge for PCs who choose to travel the road instead.  They are sure to arrive at their destination on time, but need to contend with the possibility of being detected.

 Taking the High Road

You decide to travel to your destination via roads, staying in towns and villages when possible.  You rely on your superior social skills to disguise your mission from people you encounter and simply avoid other travelers when possible.

  •  Bluff (group):  You have a plausible cover story to tell other travelers you happen to encounter.  You effectively disguise yourselves so that you blend into a crowd.
      • Streetwise (secondary; +2 to everyone’s Bluff check, -2 to everyone’s Bluff check for failure) You know enough about local customs, language, and dress to help the party craft effective disguises, cover stories, and responses to questions.
      • Diplomacy (secondary; +2 to your Bluff check only) When asked a direct question, you are able to seem like you’re saying something without really saying anything.
  • Theivery: (Only one check allowed): You are able to forge believable travel papers, or steal legitimate ones from other travelers you encounter.
  • Stealth:  You scout ahead of or behind the party for approaching travelers.  You are able to hide the party off the road until they pass.
      • Perception: (secondary; +2 to your stealth check) You spot patrols and other travelers from far enough away that you can decide whether or not to avoid them before they see you.     
  • Insight:  You discern whether people you encounter would be sympathetic to your mission or whether they would be willing to give out information about you.  You can tell whether they might be willing to turn you in for a reward.  You advise the party to interact with sympathetic travelers only.
  • Streetwise: You gather information before you leave about the best times to travel that in order to avoid other travellers.
  • Any Knowledge Skill (group check; hard DC): If the party fails a bluff check, the party can negate the failure by choosing a knowledge skill, and succeeding at a hard DC.  Each member of the party can choose different knowledge skills.  As with any group check, at least half the party needs to succeed. “You quickly divert the conversation to a subject you’re knowledgable about; your audience is so enthralled that they forget about the questionable answer you gave earlier.”

So there you have it.  A fully fleshed out skill challenge choice.  Hopefully, I’ve sparked some ideas, and I’d love to hear some of them.  Do you have a good scenario that would benefit from a skill challenge choice?  Leave it in the comments!

How “Choose a Skill Challenge” Can Change Your Campaign

When I see skill challenges in an adventure, I see them in one of two ways.  The first way is as a “plot blocking” standalone challenge.  In other words, the skill challenge as set up is unavoidable if the players want to move the plot forward.  For example, in a recent post, I talked about an investigative adventure I ran recently where, in order to solve the adventure’s mystery, the characters had to complete a skill challenge. 

The second way I see skill challenges is part of an either/or proposition.  In other words, “either skill challenge or combat; you choose.”  Sometimes, these types of skill challenges are framed as “do a skill challenge or engage in combat, and if you fail the skill challenge, it will devolve into combat.”  I contend that these are basically an either/or proposition.   

I have a problem with the either/or skill challenge.  It’s not that I think it’s broken, or am opposed to using it.  They work fine as a plot mechanic.  My problem is that there’s more than one way to do an either/or skill challenge, but I only see “either skill challenge or combat” when there’s a choice.  What’s the other way?  I never see “either this skill challenge or that skill challenge.” And why not?  Having a second skill challenge ready for the players is just as legitimate a choice as choosing combat over a skill challenge.  I’ve found that using a skill challenge choice really shines when there are two conditions that must be met to insure success.  When done this way, you design one of the skill challenges to pose a risk of failing one of the conditions, while the other skill challenge risks failure of the other condition.

To demonstrate what I’m talking about, what follows is the  “choose a skill challenge” concept in action.  I will give a brief (very generic) scenario, and outline one of the skill challenges.  Next week, I’ll post the second skill challenge choice, and if you’re lucky, write a conclusion.

The characters find themselves at POINT A with AN URGET NEED to get to POINT B both quickly and undetected.  They are now faced with a choice: they could aviod roads and travel overland.  This plan is sure to avoid detection, but overland travel is slow, and there’s no guarantee the characters will arrive at their destination on time.  Taking the roads would assure you of a timely arrival, but every stranger you meet along the way could be in the employ of your enemy, or willing to whisper word of your travels to the highest bidder.

This sets up our either/or proposition.  To get to their destination, the characters must either travel on the roads or not.  There are also two conditions to success – timely arrival, and avoiding detection.  Each of the choices eliminates only one of the risks.  Let’s look at the skill challenge the PCs face if they choose to avoid roads.

Overland Travel Skill Challenge

You travel cross country through wooded and mountainous terrain, avoiding roads and any other possibility of human contact.

  • Nature: You make sure that the group is headed in the right direction.  The path you choose is a good balance of shortest distance vs. path of least resistance.  You are able to forage enough food and water that the group doesn’t need to carry a lot of provisions that would weigh them down.  You keep the party away from any encounters with hungry wildlife.
  • Athletics (group check): You are able to move over rocks and fallen trees with ease.  You leap over streams, and are able to climb rock faces, cutting hours off travel time.  Moving up and down steep slopes is no problem.
      • Acrobatics (Secondary Skill; +2 to your athletics check only; cannot grant bonus to another party member) You are able to nimbly fall when you slip, and are light of foot over all the obstacles that the forest provides. 
  • Endurance (group check): You are constantly on the move, stopping to rest only for very short periods of time.  You have no real path to follow, so physical exertion is far beyond what you would experience traveling on a road.  You get minor cuts, scrapes, sprains, and blisters from traveling over uneven and overgrown terrain.  You cannot light a fire at night, so you’ve been eating cold food and relying only on a blanket to keep you warm when you sleep.  Several times you have to travel through the night because you couldn’t find a suitable place to camp.
      • Heal (Secondary Skill; +2 to anyone’s endurance check; no PC can benefit from more than two bonuses per endurance check): You tend to one PC’s minor wounds, and can administer first aid to more serious injuries.  You know how to ease the soreness and fatigue that comes from incessant overland travel.
  • Perception: You spot other people in the woods (hunters and the like) or dwellings so that the group can avoid them.  You hear the sounds of a well traveled road as the group veers too close, and you steer the group away.  You spot game trails that the party can use.  You point out things that other party members would otherwise trip, slip, or hurt themselves on.
  • Dungeoneering: You are able to find adequate caves for the party to overnight in, so that their sleep is more restful.

Tune in next Tuesday to see the other choice the PCs have – travel by road.

Could 4d6-3 Be The New d20?

I’ll start by answering my own question.

No, it will never replace the d20, if only because “roll a d20″ is far quicker to say than “roll 4d6 minus 3.” Of course, there are also some good math reasons, as well as player satisfaction reasons that the d20 is here to stay. That’s not to say that 4d6-3 doesn’t have a place in your game, however. I believe there are instances where it can be a viable alternative to a d20 – more on that in a moment. But first, let’s look at the math involved.

After doing some quick math in your head, you should conclude that 4d6-3 will yield a range of numbers from 1 to 21. And obviously, a d20 yields a range of numbers from 1 to 20. However, the mathematical difficulties of 4d6-3 do not stem from that extra number, but rather the probabilities involved with rolling multiple dice versus rolling one die. Below you will see two bar graphs. The one on the top shows the probability of rolling any given number on a d20. As you may already know, the probability of rolling any number is the same – 5%. The graph on the bottom shows the probabilities for 4d6-3. You can see that it is a curve, with its peak at 11. This is a classic bell curve.

Probability for a d20

Probabilities for 4d6-3

(Special thanks to anydice.com for the graphs)

The fact that the d6’s create a curve (as opposed to the d20’s flat line) is both its selling point and weakness. The d6’s produce less “swingy” results, instead generally giving more “average” results – most of the time you’d roll something between 9 and 13, and VERY rarely a 1 or 21. The weakness shows itself when you add a bonus to the roll. A +1 bonus to a d20 roll increases the chance of success by a flat 5%, every time. With 4d6-3, because you’re moving up (or down) a curve instead of along a line, you’re not getting the same flat increase in probability that you would with a d20. The increase in probability of success would depend upon the target number you’re shooting for, as well as your base bonus to the roll. I’m not going to throw a bunch of math at you, just trust me when I say it’s a headache, and not intuitive, and you’d need a spreadsheet to figure it out. And if THAC0 taught us anything, it’s that no one likes to use a chart when they play D&D. The bottom line is that, with 4d6, a flat +1 can have a different impact on different players. That might be ok in a system that is designed for multiple d6 rolls, but D&D was designed with the d20 mechanic.

On top of the mathematical problems of introducing a bell curve mechanic to a game that was designed for a linear mechanic, we have the issue of player satisfaction. Yes, when we use 4d6-3, rolling tends to be more even. That’s good at first blush, but when we look at the facts, it’s more bad than good. Consider this: with a d20, you’re going to crit (over the long term) 5% of the time. With 4d6-3, you’re going to crit .8% of the time. Even if you open up “crits on a 20 or 21,” your crit percentage is still far below 5%, at only .39% – less than 1% of the time! And let’s face it, critting is FUN. So, yes, you’re not going to miss as often, but you’re also giving up the rush you get when you roll a natural 20. That’s a tradeoff I don’t think a lot of people are willing to make.

Now, I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I feel that there can be a place for the 4d6-3 mechanic at your table. I absolutely do not believe that it should be used in combat. The bonuses and penalties thrown around like candy in your average combat situation would wreak havoc. Plus, you’d almost never crit. So, when should you use it? For skill checks, of course! Here are four ways you could try using 4d6-3 in place of your d20.

To replace the “Take 10″ mechanic

You could have your players roll 4d6-3 when they would normally take 10 on a skill check. This would yield roughly the same result as taking 10 (most of the time you’d roll pretty close to a 10), but sometimes there would be a great success, or terrible failure. Think of it as a way to add an element of chance to taking 10, but not the same wild chance that you get from rolling a d20.

For trained skill checks only

Think about it: two characters could have the exact same skill bonus, but one’s bonus could be from training in that particular skill, while another’s could be from innate ability (ability score + racial bonus). From a purely “simulationist” standpoint, it doesn’t stand to reason that someone who is trained in something has the same chance of success as someone who just kind of has a “knack.” You would think that a character trained in a skill would perform around the average most of the time due to their training, with the occasional spectacular success or failure. On the other hand, one might expect an even amount of success and failure from a character who was performing a skill out of innate ability – there’s been no training in the finer points of the skill, or pitfalls to watch out for. Let those who have training in a skill roll 4d6-3, and have untrained checks be rolled with a d20 to reflect the difference between someone who is trained at something and someone who is not.

As a DM reward

Instead of handing out +2 to a skill check, why not occasionally give players the option of rolling 4d6-3 instead? This gives the players a decision point (+2 or 4d6-3?), and also gives you something else to hand out besides a +2. While this is like comparing apples to oranges (“+2 to a d20″ is nothing like “+0 bonus to 4d6-3″), it does give the DM another way to spice up what may be “just another skill check.”

For any skill check

You could give players the choice of rolling 4d6-3 for any skill check. Be careful with this one though; as stated before, the game (including skill checks) was built with the d20 in mind. Most players, especially those with decent skill bonuses, would always choose to average 9-13 on every skill check. If you do go this route, it would be wise make the choice more meaningful – the easy solution is to incentivize using the d20. For example, you could add a “crit” mechanic to skill checks for natural 20’s – a character’s “amazingly inspiring, perfect execution” of a skill could give another character +2 or even +4 to their similar skill check, but only if that second character also rolls a d20.

I hope that I have gotten you to consider using this mechanic in your game. It presents a lot to think about, and could really add some spice to the normal d20 roll. It won’t, after all, ever replace the d20, but it’s nice to know there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.

Would you ever consider introducing this mechanic to skill checks? Which option would you choose?

The lost art of skill synergy

Those of us who played D&D 3.5, especially the “high skill” classes like rogue and bard,  may remember “skill synergy.”  Skill synergy was a +2 bonus to one skill because you were trained in another skill.  For example, being trained in bluff gave you a +2 skill synergy bonus to diplomacy.  In this specific case, it was assumed that being able to lie made you better in diplomatic situations (“MY but you look lovely tonight!”).  There were a few of these, and if you had enough skill points, it was generally considered a good idea to load up on them whenever possible.

So, now we have 4.0, and no more skill synergy.  It’s an understandable change, since the point system behind skills is different now, and the skill list has been shortened considerably.  To give a blanket +2 to a skill is actually more significant now because there are less skills overall.  That’s fine.  However, I feel that the idea behind the mechanic is sound.  After all, it is easily argued that, for example, being athletic makes you better at certain acrobatic tasks, and being insightful makes you better at lying in certain situations.

It seems to me that all the articles I’ve read about skill challenges (and skill challenges themselves) seem to address the idea of synergy, even if they don’t call it “synergy.”  Giving a bonus to a “primary” skill check because there was a success at a “secondary” skill check is a nod towards the fact that skills do, in fact, interact and help one another towards an ultimate goal.    It’s not quite 3.5 synergy, but it’s close.

I think it’s high time to bring synergy back.  No, not as a house rule, and not as a blanket +2 to a specific skill either.  How would it work?


Next time you’re sent as an ambassador to a king who you have every reason to hate, perhaps you should request the DM to give you a +2 to your diplomacy checks because you’re also trained in bluff.  After all, (you could argue) we hate this guy, but we have to act nice towards him in order for our diplomatic overtures to come off as genuine! (Feel free to quote that word for word – “diplomatic overtures” is the real clincher)

What’s going on there?  Well, you’ve basically requested that the DM use his “best friend” (a +2 to a roll) in a specific situation.  You’ve also shown that you’ve been paying attention to what’s going on, and have defined a relationship between your PC and an NPC.  In other words, you’re thinking about the game, putting yourself into the situation, and being a good role player!  A well thought out, plausible argument as to why there should be a +2 for skill synergy would get that +2 at most tables every time.



To get your players thinking in this direction, they may need a little push.  After all, skill synergy was taken away from them in 4.0.  There is no doubt that they will latch back onto the idea if you show them that, with a little strategic thought about the specifics of a situation, they could have +2 to a skill check.  So, next time you pose a situation wherein a skill check is necessary, keep in mind (or find out) what skills the PCs have.  Then do a little synergistic thinking for them.  “Ok,” you tell one of them, “since you’re trained in endurance, and you’ll be doing this acrobatic performance for the queen for three hours, I’ll give you a +2 to your acrobatics check.”

I believe that this mechanic works best in non-skill challenge situations, since most skill challenges have primary and secondary skill checks already.  As noted above, these secondary skill checks are a type of built in synergy.  For example, if the “acrobatic performance” example above was a skill challenge, the endurance check would probably be a secondary skill that granted a +2 to the primary skill of acrobatics.  There’s also the hybrid “no sudden death” skill challenges where you keep going until you succeed, and cumulative penalties for successive failures.  In that scenario, you’d probably roll endurance alongside acrobatics, and gain acrobatics penalties for endurance failures; it’s the same idea, but moving in the opposite direction.

Using synergy, then, would work best in situations where you’re making a one-shot skill check.  Here are some more ideas, to get the creative juices flowing:

  • You’re looking for information around town regarding the activities of a religious cult (Trained in Religion; +2 Streetwise)
  • You’re observing the interactions amongst one of the oldest and most well known families in the area (Trained in History; +2 Insight)
  • You’re in the middle of the wilderness trying to tend to a poisoned or diseased comrade (Trained in Nature; +2 Heal)
  • You’re trying to scare off a gang of meathead street thugs (Trained in Athletics; +2 Intimidate)
  • You’re talking to a member of the local thieves’ guild (Trained in Bluff or Thievery; +2 Perception or Insight)

So what do you think?  Do we need to bring synergy back?   Can you think of any other “synergistic” scenarios?