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.