One of the many new elements in 4th edition is the Skill Challenge. In the month and a half of my playing 4e I’ve participated in a few, most notably one in my weekly Dark Sun game. The PC’s were guarding a caravan and were attacked by a group of monsters, two of which were swarms. The skill challenge was that every round during combat a few of the birds would break away from the swarms and attack the caravan people that we were guarding. At the end of each round each player told the DM what their character was doing to drive the birds away from the cowering drivers and laborers. Some players used Acrobatics to jump up and swat the birds away, others used Perception to tell the drivers that the birds were coming, thereby allowing the caravaners to hide. My mul gladiator used Endurance by intentionally wounding himself so that the stray birds would be attracted by the scent of fresh blood and come back to the swarm.

In the end we had enough successes that none of the caravaners were killed, though some of them had sustained injuries. We had completed the skill challenge! Huzzah! That’s been the best skill challenge I’ve had so far. The most frustrating one was in the same campaign where the party had to get past an arcane & mechanically locked door. No one in the party had either of the most useful skills (arcana or thievery), so there were long strings of failures interspersed with us getting blasted with arcane energy from the door. Needless to say we failed the challenge, the doors timer lock clicked and we were stuck. It was the end of the session anyway so we camped in the cave mouth and took an extended rest. The next game session we went back to the door and this time luck was on our side as we rolled high and quickly got the successes we needed to continue the adventure. The failure of the skill challenge completely shut us down and during it I mostly felt useless as my gladiator didn’t have much to contribute except standing in the way of the energy blasts.

The former skill challenge with the birds was far more enjoyable, as it was very well-integrated into the combat encounter, which meant that we weren’t suddenly stopping RP to mess around with a bunch of mechanics. I’m sure that this isn’t much of a surprise to most people reading this given your (presumed) greater experience with 4e, but for me it was a valuable lesson in how a skill challenge could be incorporated into the game without standing out like a sore thumb.

This is all leading somewhere, don’t worry.

I’m going to run the adventure “Reavers of Harkenwold” at the game store on Friday with a group of players that I met at Encounters the last two weeks. Yes, Encounters is actually working in bringing players together. It’s a great idea and my only gripe is that we haven’t had the material for the past two weeks. My thinking is that that’s a local issue though, not a problem with Encounters as a whole. We’ll see if the material is there tomorrow.

I’ve been reading through the adventure and I’m pretty excited about. It’ll be my first time DM’ing a 4e game, though certainly not my first time behind the screen. I don’t remember exact dates and such, but I do recall that I didn’t have my AD&D books for a year before I had conned my friends into letting me run the game. I don’t remember much about the sessions aside from the characters getting captured, thrown in jail, and the psion using some Non-PG-13 tactics to escape prison. Best not repeated, trust me. I’ve DM’d a handful of pick-up games for 3.5 for weeks when whatever group’s I was in DM took a break. I’ve also taken up ST duties and ran a Hunters: The Reckoning game for two players; that campaign was awesome, and ended sadly when the players got too cocky and went patrolling the streets, looking for vampires to beat.

Digression aside, I’ve decided to incorporate a challenge into the first encounter of the adventure. The setup is that the PC’s come upon a group of brigands with wolves that are standing outside a farmhouse with lit torches. There is a woman and her two teenage sons inside that the brigands are taunting. The adventure calls for a straight fight between the PC’s and the brigands, but I’m thinking that it’d be interesting if the brigands toss the torches onto the roof of the farmhouse before the fight starts. Now the PC’s have an immediate problem: how are they going to save the woman and her sons?

I didn’t refer to this as a skill challenge because I’m not going to run it like one. Instead think of it as a non-combat challenge set inside a combat encounter. The PC’s will have to use actions to complete the challenge instead of rolling skill checks during the fight. The woman has barred the door and shut the windows, and while the brigands are standing in front of the main door (which is where the fight will roughly take place), there is a back door that the woman could use to escape. The reason that she doesn’t just run away is that she’s afraid of being shot in the back by the brigands. Here are my notes on the challenge.

Title: The House Is On Fire!
Goal: Rescue the people stuck inside the house.
Strategy 1: Put out the fire. This allows the woman and her sons to stay inside the house in safety while the PC’s fight the brigands.

Strategy 2: Convince the people to leave the house. Ilyana and her sons will go out the back door and hide behind the farmhouse until the brigands are killed.

Strategy 3: Kill the brigands before the house burns to the ground. Once the brigands are dead Ilyana and her sons will come out and put out the fire.

Success: The fire is put out or the people leave the house before it burns with them inside it.

Failure: The fire is not put out and Ilyana escapes but her sons die.

1st Trigger: Once the brigands are dead Ilyana and her sons will leave the house if they are still alive.

2nd Trigger: Once the fire is out Ilyana and her sons open windows and shout encouragement to the characters, granting morale bonuses in combat.

The goal of the challenge is to save Ilyana, her sons, and the house. Regardless of whether the PC’s succeed or fail, Ilyana will escape but the PC’s don’t know that.

Instead of making skill checks to put out the fire or convince her to leave I’m going to tell the players that they can have their characters spend actions putting out the fire instead of fighting. There’s a well in the yard and my thoughts are that if a player spends his turn going to the well, drawing up water, going to the house and throwing it on the fire then that will take their actions for the round. There’s no check involved: either the players devote a turn to putting out the fire or they don’t. This seems to make sense in that you can’t fight and put out a fire at the same time. What I won’t tell them is that in order to put out the fire the players need a certain number of successes, to borrow the phrase from the skill challenge. Each round of characters actions putting out the fire counts as one success. If two players in a round devote their actions to putting out the fire then that’s two successes that round.

I’m going to use a number of mechanical elements to make the idea of putting out the fire attractive to the players, as their first response will likely be to try to kill the brigands before putting out the fire. They’ll learn about them as they come out in play.

1) When a player devotes his turn to putting out the fire his movements do not provoke opportunity attacks. Compare this to the idea of total defense, where the character is concentrating on evading attacks. Instead of making attacks against the enemy they are trying to move around the brigands, get to the well and put out the fire. As long as they’re not fighting the brigands, no opportunity attacks from the brigands versus those PC’s.

2) Spending an Action Point to aid in putting out the fire will count as 2 successes. So if a player devotes their turn to putting out the fire and spends an action point, they’ve contributed 3 successes that round. I figure it’s worth 2 successes because the AP action that the character would normally take would be an attack, and since it’s a limited resource it’s a highly valued action. In sacrificing the extra attack to put out the fire I feel they should get something good in return.

3) The house will burn down within a set number of rounds, so the players have a time limit within which to accomplish the task. They won’t know exactly how long that time limit is as the beginning of combat, but as the fire spreads it will be easier to tell when the house is almost consumed. Each success that the players get in putting out the fire will slow down the fire and add more rounds to the time limit. They won’t be told that directly but it’s effect should be obvious.

4) If the 2nd trigger happens (fire is out but brigands are alive), then Ilyana and her sons will open the windows to let the smoke out. They’ll stand there shouting encouragement to the characters, which will grant the characters some type of morale bonus. I think it’ll be something along the lines of a +2 to attack or defense for the duration of the encounter. It’s not a large number, but the party is 2nd level so it will have an impact and more importantly the players will see a direct result of their succeeding at the challenge.

As I’m re-reading what I just wrote I can see how this might seem over-complicated and slow combat down, but I think it will run fairly quick because the players aren’t going to be bogged down with the analysis that I’ve just written. All they have to do is tell me what they’re doing and I’ll keep track of the consequences, so from the player’s side it should run smooth, but more importantly it shouldn’t feel like a skill challenge.

I feel that pretty well covers the first strategy. The third strategy is simple: kill the brigands as fast as possible before the house burns down. The second strategy I’m not real sure about. I’m trying to think of ways for the players to convince Ilyana and her sons to escape while the PC’s are still fighting the brigands without using a skill check mechanic, but I’m having trouble thinking of actions that the players could take instead of rolling skill checks.



::two cigarette breaks later::


Got it. Ilyana is worried about the brigands attacking her and her sons if they leave the house, so for strategy #2 the players need to get the brigands away from the house. In game terms they’ll need to maneuver (push/pull/slide, etc) the brigands until all of the brigands are a certain number of squares away from the house…say…three squares away. That will give Ilyana enough confidence that she can make a safe getaway and the PC’s will have convinced her to escape.


To recap: We now have a challenge in the combat that doesn’t have to be solved by the PC’s killing the enemies or making a skill check. In the future I may try the normal rules for skill challenges in combats, but I’m curious to see how this one will play out. The game is set for Friday evening so I should have a report Friday night.


Good gaming!