Like it’s 1981 all over again, part five

Our heroes wend their merry way through the corridors of the Haunted Keep and find themselves at Room 8.

room8

This is the text, as per Moldvay Basic D&D:

Room #8 (15′ square): This room was once a guard barracks. The floor has collapsed and the ceiling leaks. The result is a 3′ deep pool filled with scummy water. A partially waterlogged bunk floats in the water. A rusted iron statue of a beautiful warrior maiden lies at the bottom of the pool. The water is safe to walk through and the status is harmless and worthless.

….. nah.

Dunno about you, but if a room looks like that, it just screams Skill Challenge to me.

“This room looks like it was once a guard barracks. The floor has collapsed and the ceiling leaks, flooding the room below completely. The result is a 20′ deep pool filled with scummy water and no easy way around the edge. A partially waterlogged bunk floats in the water, and you can just make out a rusted iron statue of a beautiful warrior maiden immersed at the bottom of the room below. It appears to have some kind of large octopus-like creature draped around it. The only exit from the room is in the North wall, and it’s going to take a Skill Challenge to get there.”

Here’s my Golden Rule when it comes to designing Skill Challenges: Don’t. By nature I’m a Lazy GM. You can guarantee that if you spend an hour working out all of the possible permutations and uses for skills to tackle a particular challenge, they’ll think of others that work just as well (if not better), so why do the work? Set the challenge, design the difficulty level and sit back. Let the players do the work instead. Sure, think of a couple of likely skills that will come up, but don’t commit anything to paper or pixel. Instead, join in the discussion, push when they need pushing and make the Challenge what it should be – a fun brainstorming session instead of a “guess what skills the GM wants us to use” frustration.

So, the challenge is “How to get to the door” and they need 5 successes before 3 fails. The octopus exists to provide a bit more of a challenge and dissuade the players from spending too much time in the water. Hairy Bob, being the most direct problem solver in the group, decides to swim across to the bed. As soon as he enters the water the octopus detaches from the statue, the water turns black and Bob feels suckers touch his leg.

“Uhhhh…. I make a Swim check.”
“Athletics, DC15.”
“8. I don’t make a Swim check. Uhhhhh…… help?”

That’s one fail, and Bob is now 5 feet underwater in the inky blackness.

As an aside, the 4e D&D rules for drowning are not great. OK. They’re downright rubbish. Outside of strenuous situations, any character can hold their breath underwater for 3 minute regardless of CON, Size or whatever (DMG159). In a combat situation, they have to make a DC 20 Endurance check at the end of any round in which they take damage – so a Wizard could theoretically keep himself at a distance underwater and lob Magic Missiles to their hearts’ content, or a Fighter could mix it up mano-a-mano and, so long as he doesn’t get hit, he doesn’t even need to make a check, ever. Daft.

All hell breaks lose. Squidgee tries to leap onto the floating bunk bed (Acrobatics DC25) and makes it, just. That’s one success. Parson Jeffries casts Divine Glow at the Octopus, firing blindly, and hits (I love you, Close Blast 3 in a 15′ room). They can now just about make out the squirming form of Bob in the darkness. Another success.

“We need the rope! Who’s got it?”
“….. Bob.”
“BOB WE NEED THE ROPE!”

They’re up to two successes against one fail, and Bob tries to make a Strength check to break free (DC20). He fails, miserably. I ask him to make a DC20 Endurance check or lose a Healing Surge. Repeat after me: Healing Surges are the new Hit Points.

He makes that (it doesn’t count towards the Skill Challenge though), but he’s still pulled down another five feet by the giant octopus. Squidgee paddles the bed so he’s over the glowing octo and thrusts his hands into the water. I call for an opposed Strength check, him versus the giant octopus to see who wins the Tug o’Bob. Now, Squidgee is STR 11, and I’d guess this Giant Octopus is STR 20, so that’s d20 versus d20+5. Not good odds…………..

Next time: Will Bob stopping Bobbing? Stay tuned!

Parson Jeffries, Good Half-elf Cleric-1
Str 13, Con 10, Dex 12, Int 8, Wis 14, Cha 15
HP 22 bloodied 11 surges 5×7/day
AC 16 (Chainmail), Fort 11, Ref 11, Wis 14, Speed 5

Mace +3 vs AC 1d8+1, versatile
Lance of Faith/w +2 vs Ref, Righteous Brand/w +3 vs AC
Commander’s Strike/e, Channel Divinity/e, Turn Undead/e +2 vs Will, Healing Word/e, Divine Glow/e +2 vs Ref
Cascade of Light/d +2 vs Will

Diplomacy +9, History +4, Insight +9, Religion +4
Pelor’s Radiance
Dilettante (Warlord), Dual Heritage, Group Diplomacy, Healer’s Lore, Ritual Casting
Rituals: Gentle Repose, Make Whole

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6 Responses

  1. Dave T. Game says:

    “Here’s my Golden Rule when it comes to designing Skill Challenges: Don’t.”

    Exactly how I feel, but I do see their value for new GMs/ones that need a boost.

    Dave T. Games last blog post..PHB2 Roundtable: Races and Other Topics

  2. Greywulf says:

    @Dave Agreed.

    Mapping out a Skill Challenge is essential for published adventures, especially those designed for new GMs – but that’s starting to put across the impression that you have to for those adventures you create yourself. You don’t :D

    follow @greywulf on twitter

  3. glennm says:

    Hi Greywulf, great series….keep up the good work!

    I’m starting out DM’ing again in 4ed after a long break. The skill challenges are still a bit mystifying for me, and I can see their application more to “story-telling” than map based adventures.

    For example your challenge “to get to the door across the pool – 5 successes before 3 fails.” Why 5 successes? If there are only 4 party members and they all decide to swim across, wouldnt that require just 1 success each?

    Also what happens if they get 3 failures? We can’t just say to the players, “Oh well you failed. You had better go back the way you came!”. I have read that I must improvise a particularly nasty obstacle/complication to reflect their unfortunate circumstances in failing a challenge. What are your thoughts on handling failure in this example?

    ps. You made me buy M&M! Evil Greywolf…Bwaahaha

  4. VegasAndorian says:

    @ glennm I sympathize; evil Greywulf made me buy M&M, the Ultimate Power pdf and soon the Masterminds Manual. Bad man!

    @ Greywulf Your comment on Skill Challenges from published adventures vs. your own adventures is one of the best bits of advice an experienced GM can give a noob: don’t feel obligated to design exactly like a published adventure! When you create and run your own you have wiggle room for winging it. Let a little bit write itself as you play.

    And great blog, it’s a pleasure to read.

  5. Greywulf says:

    @glennm Good questions, all.

    I set the number of successes at 5 just because it “felt right” for how long I wanted them to spend dealing with this room. In my experience, Difficulty 1 Skill Challenges (ie, 4 successes before 3 fails) are great if you want to put a speed bump in the players’ way, but nothing too taxing. Difficulty 2 Challenges (like this one) require a little bit more, and so on.

    If the party members had all decided just to swim across, odds are that the octopus would have gotten at least one of them. They’re not all going to be Trained in the Athletic skill. That’s why I put him in – as a message to make it clear that the most obvious course of action isn’t necessarily the best.

    Failure in this case would have meant that they realise that their current plan isn’t working and have to re-think their strategy. They’re back at the beginning of the Skill Challenge again and will need to come up with another plan. I’ll allow them to re-use their skills, but they’ve got to be in different ways to before. They’ve tried swimming across and that didn’t work. Maybe they could think of another use for Bob’s Athletics skill, try using Diplomacy to charm the octopus, or whatever. As this isn’t a Locked Room challenge, there’s no reason why they couldn’t use resources from elsewhere – maybe find some wooden planks to lay across, or get assistance from the Wizard outside.

    Note to self: write a blogpost about this in more detail.

    follow @greywulf on twitter

  6. DNAmers says:

    Nice post, old chap.

    Yeah, detailed skilled challenges are probably more appreciated by those just coming to grips with the abstract concept of the 4E skill challenge system, or those mayhaps not yet confident in their DM-fu to wing it. However, some detail can still be useful to even the more masterly DM; having the appropriate range of skill DC’s in front of you can be useful for the invariable ‘outside the square’ skill use. But then again, less detail prompts the DM to be more flexible in how they adjudicate a character’s skill choices, as opposed to (subjectively) limiting the options to those presented in the encounter text.

    Am more drawn to your comments on the 4E drowning rules however, and their relative paucity of detail. Sounds like you want to review them, and maybe flesh them out a little.

    And then post them.

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