Archive for September, 2011


4E: Approaching & Setting Up Skill Challenges

September 11, 2011

Someone recently asked me about Skill Challenges and a bit more on how to apply what I wrote earlier on them.

The Secret to Easy Times

Here’s something that will set any GM at ease – remember that at the heart of a skill challenge, here’s really the crux of your job:

Tell the players if what they want to do is Easy, Average, or Hard, and look up the difficulty number for that.

If you can exercise the brain power to say, “That sounds tough, but not too tough, so I’ll call it Average”, then you can make a Skill Challenge work, even if you have to do it on the fly. (Yes, you can also say something is automatically successful, or automatically fails, but you get the point)

So, just keep that in mind- all the rest of what I’ve written before, and am writing here, is really just extra stuff on top of that.

Prepping vs. On the Fly

Sometimes you can prep things, sometimes you do it when it comes up.

For prep, it’s easy if it’s been an established goal, whether the party is following orders (“The Queen has ordered you to negotiate with the Dwarves”) or have established their own goals in a previous session (“Let’s head up the mountain and see if the Temple is still up there.”)

For on the fly, there’s a couple of extra steps, but not terrible ones, since, as I mentioned, in the end, it comes down to calling things Easy/Average/Hard.

Stakes and Scale

Make sure you know what the party is trying to do, and whether it’s worth making into a Skill Challenge. If it were a movie, it’d be a scene or several scenes tied together. If it were a videogame, it’d be a level unto itself or at least a section of a level.

Unlocking a door isn’t worth a Challenge, but breaking into a castle and getting the prisoners out is worth a challenge.

Some players are used to hiding their ultimate intentions from the GM, mostly because they’re used to playing with “Gotcha!” GMs who would retcon the world to sabotage anything clever they might do.

First, don’t do that as a GM, second, explain to them that you’re not going to do that as a GM.

Remind the players that IF they succeed at the Skill Challenge, THEN you will absolutely honor that success- they WILL get their stakes. If they aim too high, let them know what a more realistic goal is (“We’ll win the war!”, “Not with one Skill Challenge. You can take this city, and it’ll take hours to do so, but that is within your range.”).

Second, consider the scale of events. A Skill Challenge is what I imagine to be 10 minutes to hours of effort by the characters, at least. If you think it can happen quicker than that, ask yourself if it really needs to be a Challenge.

I mean, sometimes, but most of the time not so much. The number of skill challenges that involve acting quickly, like getting your boat to a riverbank before it goes over the waterfall, are pretty rare. And a lot of skill rolls are just boring. If it’s not a big deal, skip it, skip it, skip it.

Planning – Players’ and Yours

If this is on the fly, and the PCs can have a few minutes to plan, let the players do so. Meanwhile, you’re going to write down some general goals for the Skill Challenge – while listening in on what they’re saying.

Write one Goal for each Success the players will need.

For example, “Breaking prisoners out of the castle” might have these goals:

– Get into the Castle
– Get to the Dungeons
– Keep the Guards out of the Way
– Break out the Prisoners from the Dungeons
– Get the Prisoners out, unharmed
– Get the whole Party out of the Castle

Notice that none of these say HOW the party is going to accomplish any of them. Which is fine, because the players can be as flexible as they want to be in doing so.

Don’t be super secret about these goals either- the players can look at them – and make suggestions if it doesn’t fit or they have really different plans about what they’re doing. Mostly, though, if you have to revise these a lot, you probably should be taking more time to figure out the initial Stakes.

These Goals don’t have to be set in stone- if something happens during the Challenge that makes something better or different (“Oh no, we weren’t planning to leave, let the prisoners go, we’re going to corner the Duke instead”), then go with it – add or change goals as fits.

Playing it out

Let the players say how they attempt to do various things.

Remember, is it Easy/Average/Hard? Is it an auto-success/failure?

If they fail, that doesn’t mean the Goal can’t be achieved, it just means they have to try it a different way. If they can’t get to the dungeons through the normal entrance, maybe they have to go through the Palace instead.

A slick trick is that if the player fails at one attempt, to give them an opportunity at a different goal. “The dungeon entrance is guarded, but you realize that if you can get to the wall, you could drop the porticullis and leave most of the guards trapped in the courtyard…”

I like to use successes to point to advantages outside of the Skill Challenge- useful equipment (“Sneaking through the stables, you see the new saddlebags the Duke had made, unattended, and brand new…”), information (“The guards mention they’re glad they’re not posted on the Wyvern watch in the north, it’s been a lot of casualties…”), or allies (“The prisoners come running out… and your old friend Namal the rogue was in a cell as well!”).

The trick to this is that it really rewards success, or at least gives some prizes if they fail a skill challenge, and generally pushes players to do something after this challenge is over, as well.

Getting Everyone Involved

There’s two ways to do this.

First, you can target the PCs who aren’t doing anything with either opportunities, or problems.

“She sneaks in, and you’re keeping watch, and you see a boat full of troops coming down the river. They’re coming back from an expedition and will be that many more for you guys to deal with- maybe you can distract or delay them?”

Second, you can penalize the “do-everything” players. You can simply give a harder rating, or a -4 to every successive roll they make until someone else takes over. This shouldn’t be arbitrary- give reasons. “Yes, you snuck in and you got to the dungeon, but there’s no way you’re going to both pick the locks AND keep the guards at bay at the same time…”

Remember, there’s several goals, and players should be thinking about how to get them done all at once, or in short order.

Yes, this means some players will end up doing sub-optimal tasks for their characters- that happens! Maybe they’ll find a creative way to use the things they ARE good at to handle the problems.

Reward Good Thinking

Smart choices, good roleplaying should get easier rolls. I know the most recent Skill Challenge rules ask for a certain ratio of Easy/Average/Hard rolls, but skip that mess- just pick what makes sense based on what choices the player is making.

Give Auto-successes for perfect choices- don’t plan ahead what a perfect choice looks like, just when a player describes an action and you go, “That’s perfect!” go with it. Did the wizard use Ray of Frost on the burning cottage? Auto-success. Did the knight swear an oath of honor in front of the veteran knight in exactly the right way? Auto-success.

Likewise, pure dumbassery should get auto-failures. Using Intimidation to try to get on someone’s good side, trying to impress someone by displaying the opposite of their whole life’s philosophy, etc.

Most of the time, stick to the Easy/Average/Hard rolls, but definitely let players know that good choices significantly impact their odds.

Action vs. Social Challenges

Action challenges are about going around and doing stuff. These are pretty easy to work with, since the players will come up with ways to achieve the goals.

Social Challenges work a little differently! If it involves a group of characters (“Impress the Council of 9”) you can write down a single sentence for what each character is looking for.

Mostly, you can win these challenges if you get X number of folks on your side, and, keeping in mind some folks count for more (“The Elder of the Council counts as 3 successes, since he’s got the most pull”).

– Markus wants to know the PCs are reliable.
– Hande only respects a good drinking buddy.
– Fenzel respects wisdom and knowledge. A level head.
– Jira won’t respect cowards or weaklings.
– Anam wants someone to back his power play.
– Ravik loves history and tradition, dislikes ignorance.

Roleplay how they interact! Go with the classic Autosuccess/failure, Easy/Average/Hard. Successes might impress these characters and make lasting supporters, failures might make it harder to get their help in the future.

If you have just one character, or a few, then you can list several goals they have, much in the same way:

– Show me you are civilized, can you adhere to polite tradition?
– What is your intent, and why should I support you instead of sending my own servants?
– Tell me of your deeds and your family. Are you courageous?
– Why does a foreign cleric travel with you? Are they a simple huckster?

In conclusion

All said and done, it’s actually a lot easier to improvise a fun Skill Challenge than it is to improvise a fun encounter. There’s less math, less considerations, and less balancing you need to worry about.

Get the gist of what they want to do, lay down some broad goals, and let the players figure out how they fix the problem, and support them in making any reasonable choices to do so.


“Indie Roleplaying Destroyed My Group!”

September 10, 2011

Every so often on forums, I see some version of this kind of statement. (Sometimes, “Forge theory destroyed my group!”).

Here’s what happens:

A lack of honest communication

You have a group of people roleplaying together, with a long term commitment either established, or as the goal. A part of this commitment is the plan to play a particular game, or gaming style. All of that would be fine, except, like too much of the rpg social scene, this group doesn’t have honest communication.

Now, here’s where the problem comes in- did anyone communicate and agree to the specifics of the game/style? Or is it just assumed? Or is it just a compromise everyone is willing to accept? (“Well, everyone will put up with playing D&D, so D&D it is…”)

If you have a clear agreement, then there shouldn’t be confusion. But if you wanted a poker group but simply said, “Let’s play cards!”, you can’t be angry if someone decides they want to try out Spades or Rummy.

So the real issue that usually shows up is that some of the group is committed to a specific game or style, but it wasn’t made clear.

So someone shows up with a new game, or idea about gaming. Things that can often happen include:

Battle to try it out

The suggestion of a short run, or even a one shot is met with harsh resistance, by either a few people, or the whole group.

Often, this is also tied into two things.

The idea that there’s One True Way to Roleplay means that any other ideas are dangerous and will lead to Bad Roleplaying which will make you a Bad Person.

The Geek Social Fallacy that you must like what I like, or you don’t like me, in which case, the suggestion is treated as an insult.

The new adopter(s) will be perplexed at the resistance, and try harder, which will be taken as greater insults by folks, and instead of, you know, actually talking about what you’re all looking for, it becomes a pit of festering resentment… which makes the next part more ugly.

Possible Sabotage?

The group finally tries out the game. It’s already going to be hard enough to try out a new game or style, with a learning curve that probably should take 1-3 sessions.

Not uncommonly, the most resistant folks can decide to try to break the game, or grief the session in an attempt to “show how bad it is”. Sort of like peeing in a new dish then saying, “See?!? I told you it’d be terrible!”

Naturally, this behavior will also be taken as an insult to the new adopter(s), since it’s basically throwing a fit.

If the social situation is extra toxic, the griefers will then attempt to talk to members of the group outside of play, in an attempt to convince them how terrible that was and that they should all lobby together to return to the “normal game”.

And, a divide

Assuming play survived any of that, some of the group may find they like the new game or game style, some may not. The resultant discussion and desire to play different games falls into the Geek Social Fallacy I mentioned, and people treat it like it was a failing marriage – rather than saying, “We’ll play this, you guys play that” and amicably remaining friends.

Destruction and Ruin!

At the end of it all, the drama spirals into the group changing, and possibly friendships lost along the way.

The question to ask though, was it the new game or gaming style that did this, or the lack of honest communication?

I game with a lot of different folks, and have had a couple of long standing groups- where we try out different games, we play for a while, do other things for a while, and come back. Sometimes we really like a game, sometimes we say, “This isn’t for us.”

The games don’t destroy our group, because we’re not committed to only playing a single type of game, or feeling that there’s only One Way to Roleplay.

To be sure, we have preferences and interests…but there’s still a lot of different games that fit within our overlapping interests, and each of us is willing to go a little out of our comfort zone to try something new.

It’s not really a game, or gaming style that destroys a gaming group – it’s the fanatical belief that the group must stay together, forever, that you have to play a certain way, that you must like the same things or you don’t really like each other.


Stars Without Number

September 10, 2011

Stars Without Number is a tabletop rpg where you travel around the galaxy to different planets and get into adventure and intrigue. (The link goes to the free PDF ebook version). It uses an old-school-ish system with some really smart updates, and great rules for generating different worlds and conflicts.

It’s not Hitler’s Future

So, you know at this point our expectations for rpgs and representation is pretty much bottomed out. SWN does the following things right:

1) Images of POC are in the book!
2) No default assumption about the cultures that you’ll encounter
3) …backed up by the name list in the back! There’s several name lists, divided by culture, with a few paragraphs about clothing or food, and the acknowledgement that odds are good that what was traditional for us in the 21st century would be a massive throwback by the 31st century. The full cultures listed include: Arabic, Chinese, Nigerian, Indian, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, English. Obviously not entirely comprehensive, but the fact that it’s not euro-centric is awesome.

Travel Space, Go Anywhere

SWN is designed for “sandbox play” which means the sort of RPG where you get a bunch of planets, put them on the map, and the players are free to go where ever they can get to, and side with whomever they want, etc. SWN gives some great advice on prepping for this kind of play, and running it, with a strong focus on exactly what you SHOULD focus on, so you can not waste time with things that will be useless in play.

The biggest highlight for me is the World Tags system- you roll twice on the chart and get two major features of the planet that are sources of conflict and drama. For example, if you know a planet has runaway AI and primarily works with heavy industry… well, you can already imagine the sort of drama that would fit there. SWN gives each Tag extra description- some possible problems, some allies, or further complications, so you have support in setting up your notes.

There’s also interesting rules for dealing with factions, factional warfare – through economics, espionage, politics, and classic military force. Factions can also grow by capturing assets of other factions or gaining experience by fulfilling goals.

The only major issue I’ve got is the assumption that you’ll want/need to build a whole sector of planets before playing – it makes more sense to make a few planets and then as the players travel, expanding the map accordingly.

Updated Old School System

SWN strips away most of the cruft and bullshit rules from Basic D&D, and adds some clean, quick features that just work better.

You still have stuff like 6 attributes, and randomly roll stats… except stats are very heavily weighted towards the center and modifiers are really small. It’s pretty hard to roll a really crappy character. When you pick your class (Warrior, Psychic, Expert), you also can bump up one of you attributes to 14, so there’s another layer of protection from rolling the completely wack character.

You choose two sets of skill packages- one representing your upbringing, another representing your training from your class – there’s no point juggling or choices over skills- you pick the package and you get it – the end.

The major old-school-ism that sticks with SWN is Armor Class, hit points, and lethal combat. The GM’s advice talks about the importance of letting players make and enact smart plans to get the drop on foes, or figure out what fights are too difficult, and, that players will probably want to avoid a lot of fights early on. I’m not sure how well this actually runs in play, until I play it, but that’s the only thing flagging for me as a concern.


Threatening Relationships

September 8, 2011

Over on the Burning Wheel forums, someone was asking about how to threaten things in conflicts and it came to the question of relationships. I wrote this stuff as part of a reply, but it’s good all-around relationship issues to bring into your game.

Note that actually all of these questions can go to any category- it’s just that usually for stories, you see that type of relationship focus on those questions.


How do we feel about each other? Do we have faith in each other? How much attention/affection do we need from each other? What responsibilities do we have to share, and are we each keeping up our end? How do we deal with stress?


How well do we take care of each other? What needs do we have? What expectations do we have of each other, and are they reasonable or not? What do we do to force or manipulate each other into doing things? How do our issues affect each other?


How much do we trust each other, and are we worthy of that trust? At what level do we value something other than our friendship (job, family, love, etc)? What do we view as betrayals, real or perceived? How much does status and social circles matter to our friendship? In what ways to we enable each other or lean on each other, and are they good or bad codependencies?


The negative consequences that come out of these things usually appear along these lines:

– They need more attention/help from you
– They are getting resentful of your galavanting around/irresponsibility
– They might discover something about you that is negative (alternatively, they might see something that would appear so, out of context)
– They might hear lies about you and start believing them
– They might reduce how much support they give you
– They might start giving some help/support to someone you don’t like
– They might be in danger of being shamed or lose a job/position

You’ll also notice that this isn’t roleplaying specific, or even fiction specific- these are just the sorts of real world issues people navigate with relationships, that happens to be really interesting when you put it in stories.


Lessons as I go: Sorcerer Exalted

September 6, 2011

I’ve begun playing a game on Google Plus using my Sorcerer Exalted rules. I’m playing with two friends who I haven’t been able to game with for a couple of years, as we’ve all moved to different locations.

We’ve set up to do short, hour and a half weeknight sessions, which I think is actually ideal. It’s long enough significant events can happen, but it’s short enough there’s not a lot of room for going off track- the time limit means you focus and play hard and get some great play in.

Play has been neat slowly sharpening up to good.

Let Sorcerer guide prep

There’s a lot of tricks that work for other games that don’t work so well in Sorcerer. I had prepped by setting up a situation much like I would for Heroquest or Burning Wheel- a small conflict web of folks, and a few interlocked problems.

Thing is, those other games don’t have the laser focus Sorcerer does- BW for example has a few different reward systems which players can play with between engaging with Beliefs- Sorcerer is all Humanity, all the time.

I didn’t get strong enough Kickers from players, and the conflict web got mostly cut down to characters who were the closest approximates to fulfilling the blood & sex connections of a classic Relationship map.

Lesson: do exactly what Sorcerer says with regards to prep.

Crosses for the win

Since I’ve got two players, it’s an intimate game. Their characters aren’t connected, other than being two Solar Exalted in the same city, living undercover. So, I decided to try to take the NPCs each one is connected to and start forcing them to cross over to the other player.

For example, one PC is Kwan, who once was an Exalted who used his magic to create sentient life – without much thought given to it. So now he has wayward and lost paper-golem people still seeking Daddy, a millenia later. One of them, disguised as a human, mistakenly believes it is the other PC, Hui Jin, who is the reincarnation of her creator.

I simply look at each of the NPCs and point them at the other player’s character and fun drama comes forth.

Lesson: Prepping NPCs with crosses ahead makes it easier to set crosses and weaves in play.

Scene Focus

Both of my players have had mostly a background in traditional play with just a little bit of indie game play. I have to keep a focus to remember to keep the action moving scene to scene and not fall into “And then I…and then I…” stuff that happens. I have to sometimes give reminder interruptions: “Ok, we’re going to skip all the details of this – you sneak in, there’s no problem in that.”

This is very different than playing with my usual local group where we had no problem going into PTA because we’re rolling without the gamer baggage.

I’ve found the main thing that’s helped me is remembering to cut the scene often and ruthlessly. If someone says something heavy, or drops the significant piece of dialogue- that’s exactly the time to cut the scene.

Likewise, once a decision is made, I cut the scene, because the players tend to get caught in focusing on the specific hows and whys, which you normally skip over in TV or movies – “We’re sneaking in the building” is followed by actually sneaking in the building, usually not 15 minutes of “Well, but if we go this way, and this happens, we should do that.” etc.

Lesson: Focus on cutting Scene framing and the scene setting will do itself.

Anyway, we’re mostly working out the online medium and new group dynamics. I’m sure more lessons will come soon.