Have “No” Be Fun


That was Rob’s advice for dealing with the Tyranny of Yes, and as always it’s spot on the money.

See, I like failure. I think it builds character and the sense of heroic effort. Probably the most memorable chain of events in my gaming life was kicked off by a colossal failure of judgment on the part of the PCs (okay, truth be told, it was entirely my poor judgment and I somehow convinced the party to go along) which led to a whole mess involving a chaos god and releasing an ancient nether drake and…you know what, let’s just draw the curtain on the whole sordid affair and simply say it was eventful and never again discuss whose fault it was.

ANYWAY yeah, failure that is just failure is stupid and a bummer and grinds play to an unsatisfying halt . Failure with consequences is awesome story fodder. This isn’t a new insight – Paul Tevis had a bit to say on the topic recently, and so has pretty much anybody who has written anything about setting stakes and good use of Skill Challenges. A failed skill check or challenge should never be a “no” or a “try again in 10 minutes”. Unless it’s an absolutely ridiculous request I try to never say an outright “no” to the players but instead to always use the “yes, but.” Again, nothing new here.

The first skill challenge I designed for a 4e game I think made this work well. The group needed to gather information about where exactly a flying city had crashed. Because the campaign really hinged on them going to explore the fallen city they couldn’t really fail outright, but failing the challenge (which they did) meant that they found the information, but somebody else also had the same information and a head start on them. Actually each failure added a complication – first a rival group with the info, second a traitorous npc in their midst, third a lack of specifics as to the exact location (another challenge could be attempted when they got to a different location where more details could be collected). I’m actually glad that the PCs failed because without those hooks it might have been a boring trip. Sadly the game never actually went anywhere at all, but so it goes.

I like this kind of approach better than the simpler stakes setting of Dogs in the Vineyard where it’s “if you win you get X but if I win I get Y.” Tying complications to each failure gives granularity and more story options to me as a GM, and keeps the whole challenge from being a binary “all or nothing” proposition.

While I’m under the hood though, why stop there at an arbitrary “1 complication for each failure” thing? Why not marry in the 4e Disease rules while we’re at it? Maybe give the players a chance to wipe out failures with resounding successes, maybe at a higher difficulty rate.

For example, I’m designing a skill challenge right now for my game this Thursday. The PCs will need to race through wilderness to get to a place before an invading army gets there. They’re 2 days behind the army but can travel a lot faster as they have horses and the army is on foot (and also an army, so that slows them down). I’m thinking something like this:

Each failure means that if the party fails they will arrive 1d8 hours behind the army representing getting lost in the woods, running into obstacles they have to take the long way around, etc).

In addition to rolling for successes on the challenge, players may expend a Healing Surge to make an Endurance or Athletics check. These checks do not count toward the required checks for the challenge but can provide a modifier to all other skill checks for the challenge.

Endurance or Athletics Improve DC20, Maintain DC15, Worsen DC<14
The GM will keep track of the present modifier on a continuum of +6,+4, +2, 0, -2, -4, -6
Each Improve result also removes one skill challenge failure (and the associated 1d8 hour penalty)

A successful skill challenge means the party arrives at the location 4 hours before the army. For each failure still on the books at the point of completion reduce this number by one.

This may unnecessarily lengthen skill challenges, not sure. I’ll try it out this Thursday.

What we can have here is the PCs really pushing themselves and being severely winded when they get there, but they did in fact arrive just before the invading army. No time for extended rest, Doctor Jones! Those gnolls wouldlike to have a word with you w/r/t you getting into their bellies!

I also need to come up with a CSI-type investigation skill challenge for the session Thursday, but honestly the more I’m thinking about it the more it may just be some checks and not a full-bore challenge.

One thing I’ve sworn never to do, though, is to say that a failed challenge means a combat encounter. That seems, I don’t know, like cheating.


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15 Responses to “Have “No” Be Fun”

  1. Jack Kessler Says:

    Nice. I like some of the ideas you propose regarding failures in Skill challenges. I had seen it proposed (and have used) the idea of siphoning off Healing Surges for failed checks relating to travel, etc. As long as something that requires Healing surges at the end of the journey is encountered before an extended rest is granted.

    Hadn’t thought about using the Healing surge as a modifier to a future roll, but I may have to keep it in mind. A suggestion I would have, with the failure equals -1d8 hours, is to allow them to spend ANOTHER Healing Surge to avoid that outcome. That gives them a little more control over the ‘success’ (ie, arriving on time) at the cost of additional weakness once there. So, they get delayed by hitting a bog, but slog through to make up the time, rather than circling around, or taking their time sticking to solid ground.

    So even with a bunch of failures, they make it, but are in poorer shape to confront what they need to. In this case, obviously, they have to be careful not to make themselves too weak for the fight.

  2. Jack Kessler Says:

    Also, I agree that the failures are perhaps more interesting than the successes – one of the reasons I’m having troubles with the Skill Challenges in 4th. The failures give the system flavor. The attacks are all very flavorful now, what with the fancy Power names, and splashy descriptions. On a hit, be get something, and sometimes even on a miss. But Skill checks are much more free-form as written, and you really need to embellish them, and encourage your players to do so, to make it seem anything but a dull exercise in rolling dice.

    Like you, I tend to flavor the failures more easily than the successes. this is one of the reasons I complained about not being able to pull one out at a moment’s notice and create a Skill challenge on the fly. I’ve tried, to varying degrees of success. but for something that theoretically should give a number of XP as a fighting encounter, it leaves me a little flat right now.

    I find I need to really give it some thought, over time, to make the idea work – what skills, what happens on failure, etc. Not like monster encounters I can just open up the book and run with it (or use the Encounter Builder at DDI and cut and paste details form the compendium into my own encounter printout).

    Maybe I’ll get there in time, but I find it challenging right now (ha ha), and the way that it feels different from other encounters really discourages me from running more of them. Maybe that makes me a bad 4th Ed DM. I think it does, in fact, but I want to get better. I’m just not sure how, other than doing more, and as I see it the games is discouraging me to do so with its awesome encounter setup.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      I’m still trying to get my brain fully around the skill challenges – definitely more mental prep work than a combat encounter. I strongly recommend checking out the Skillforge section of the At-Will blog (http://www.skillforge.omnivangelist.net). I should have linked to it in the article above. It really shows the scope of what the challenges can do, particularly with “nesting” and “branching” techniques.

      There’s also a big collection of sample challenges to look at here: http://www.critical-hits.com/features/skill-challenges/

      • Jack Kessler Says:

        Check the link for Skillforge – you left the ‘)’ in it, it think. Nice list, especially the examples. I’ll have to look through it. One of my future articles is going to be converting the Keep Rumor table into an open ended Skill Challenge. I started running it, but it got interrupted by ACTION!. I will probably rethink it before the party gets back to it – one of the things I want to hash out in my article.

  3. Bryant Says:

    Working with the LFR skill challenges has been a very useful training technique for me. Some of ’em are good, some suck, but having to work with them in front of a crowd that I don’t care as much about impressing has been informative.

    The barebones technique for me: do not say “OK, you can roll X, Y, or Z.” If you do that, nobody’s going to roleplay. Make ’em roleplay first, then ask for the roll as you see fit. That helps a ton.

    In order to move the action along, you can give clues to people with high passive skills. Perception and Insight are the obvious ones here, but don’t neglect Streetwise, History, Religion, Arcana, etc. I don’t count these as successes — they’re just prompts.

    With the adjusted difficulties, I find that success or failure in skill challenges is really not up to the dice. Chances are you’re going to succeed at your rolls. Your success or failure comes from the decisions made by the players. (Don’t tell the retroroleplayers about this! That method of determining success or failure is supposed to be an old-school thing only.)

    • Jack Kessler Says:

      Good thoughts. I do tend to fall into ‘here’s what skills might be applicable’ trap, since my players generally look at me blankly when I mention we’re going to start a skill challenge.

      Until they figure out what Skill they are using, they don’t seem to be able to role play. I think I’ll approach it the other way as you suggest, next time. clam up and ask them WHAT they are doing – let them stumble around until they come up with an idea, and then make them role as appropriate. Do you fin they rely on the same sort of activities throughout the challenge. Even when I announce they can use a particular skill only once, they can’t seem to move on..

      Looking back at my reply above, I wonder if there isn’t room for a book of skill challenges set up like a Monster Manual, with level appropriate encounters and xp figured out, and an easy formula to quickly customize and configure them for your need.

      • Christopher Tatro Says:

        I know ofthis book of skill challenges, and I seem to recall there are others out there but can’t call them to mind right away.

      • Jack Kessler Says:

        Hmm, I can’t reply to your reply, Chris, so I guess there is an embedding limit. Looks like that book you linked to got an unfavorable review, and doesn’t take into account the various errata on Skill Challenges. Unfortunate – i would take a look otherwise.

        Not sure it’s exactly what I was thinking of (a Monster manual for Skill challenges) but it sounded promising.

      • Christopher Tatro Says:

        Indeed, we’ve discovered the embed limit, and it is us!

        I’m dismissive of the low review because 1) it’s only one review and 2) it’s an Adamant product so people are going to go out of their way to slag it because of GMS.

        But then some digging and yikes, looks like GMS wasn’t aware of the errata? That’s frankly boggling to me. Especially in a product that came out in May of this year. granted he wasn’t the author but that he’d put something out through his shop with that kind of slip? I have to imagine that many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day!

        But that said, I’ll try to recall the other book(s) of skill challenges I seem to remember vaguely, and maybe they’ve been received better.

        • Jack Kessler Says:

          I may give it shot, anyway, since I just now got a refund on an eBay transaction the seller couldn’t make good on, so I have PayPal electrons all accumulated…

          Any 3rd party 4th Ed stuff you’d recommend?

          • Bryant Says:

            One Bad Egg’s stuff is pretty good — Hardboiled Cultures is excellent, the armies book is good. I kind of want to shake Fred a bit for pretending that he invented the undead PC, but that doesn’t affect the quality of their work.

            I hear good things about Alea — I plan to do a review of the Feudal Lords campaign setting.

            Goodman Games is high quality but is mostly doing dungeons and monster books.

            • Jack Kessler Says:

              I get enough dungeons and monsters from DDI. That is, once I realized i could just reskin any old monster in the MM to be theme appropriate for the level I want. grab a beastie with appropriate powers, call him whatever I want him to be, and good to go.

              I’ll check out the others, though. Thanks!

      • Bryant Says:

        I don’t say it’s a skill challenge until I’m a roll or two into it, yeah.

        Oh, and I don’t tell them how many times they can use skills. Better to convey that through roleplaying NPC reactions. “He sighs. ‘Yes, you were convincing the first time, but you’re beginning to repeat yourself.'”

        The other key to skill challenges: avoid repetition. The absolute worst skill challenge is the one where you’re just rolling Diplomacy/Insight/Bluff over and over again, and each time you succeed the Duke likes you a bit more. Unfortunately that skill challenge appears way too often in the early WotC material.

        Better: skill challenges where each element is a roll or two at the most. Succeed in getting information from NPC 1? That leads you on to NPC 2, or location 3, where you need to do something else. Even if it is just more social interaction, at least it’s in a different place with a different person.

        Hm, if I have your email I can show you an example of what I consider to be a superb WotC skill challenge.

        • Jack Kessler Says:

          Yes, my Rumor Table challenge was more like your second ‘better’ example – success leading to contacts, leading to more immediately useful info (though any success would reveal tidbits about the setting). If it’s just one person/one setting/one type of roll, it hardly seems worth trotting out the Skill Challenge apparatus. At least for a group.

          My gmail address is jekessler.

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