[4e] Skill Challenge – It’s A Trap!

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I’ve been in the situation before. The Planning Session. The party needs to do X and you spend an entire evening bouncing ideas around of how to do it. Eventually you end up with a plan and there may be some good actual role-playing in there but to me at least it usually feels frustrating. And whether there’s any kind of quantitative benefit tot he planning is usually entirely in the hands of the GM.

In the game I’m running we’d hit this situation. The PCs had in the previous session encountered a Githyanki skyship and had fled from it, killing the captain and first officer in the process. For various reasons they knew that they needed to either capture or incapacitate the ship. But there were 4 of them and the ship contained a crew of 40 Githyanki and 100 Warforged soldiers, not to mention having the advantages of flying and possessing lightning guns. Seemingly insurmountable odds but the lives of thousands of NPCs were at stake here. A frontal attack would be stupid; they needed to plan an ambush that neutralized as many of the Gith advantages as they could. So I whipped up a skill challenge. Four, actually.

In some ways I was borrowing from my friend John’s game Caper and from the tradition of heist films where the planning and the implementation of that plan are not in strict linear time and may actually be coming together during the “action” itself.

This was a nested challenge – four smaller challenges of Complexity 1 (4 successes before 3 failures) within the larger context of setting up the ambush. Each challenge dealt with an aspect that I heard them talking about at the end of the previous session: where to have the ambush, how to get the timing of it just right, recruiting help and laying traps. For each of them I used a Moderate DC of 15, except the Recruiting Help one which I made a 17 because of some past tensions between the party and the people they were going to for help. I also set a maximum number of checks they would be able to make, but didn’t tell the players what that number was. If they hit that number the Gith ship had found them and they could make no further preparations. I chose the number 20 mostly arbitarily – they’d need a minimum of 16 checks to succeed at everything, and I allowed one failure with each sub-challenge.

Each of the sub-challenges had a specific effect:

  • Location: If the PCs succeeded they could entirely determine the terrain and landscape of where they wanted this to go down, and they could choose one element of Fantastic Terrain from the DMG or DMG2. I established Nature, History, Endurance and Stealth as primary skills here but in general I let my players run with other skills if they role play it out a bit and justify it (I don’t tell my players what skills I’ve set up for a challenge unless they get really stuck, then I suggest some things). They ended up using those 4 skills and found a box canyon with some caves at the bottom of the canyon and some good brush at the top edges for concealment. One of the players used Arcana to assist with a check, allowing him to identify the Elemental Vortex (I think it was called) – a spot of air which would force flying objects/creatures to land.
  • Recruiting Help: The PCs knew a Shifter tribe in the area, although they weren’t on great relations. They brought with them a Companion Character who is a big high-muckety-muck princess of the Shifters, so that got them in the door and lowered their DC to only a 17. Here I planned to add up the totals by which the PCs succeeded on their checks, and use that as a factor to determine exactly how much help they got (so if they needed a 17 and rolled a 25 that would be 8). My rough idea was to give them 10 Shifter warriors for each number they succeeded by, and that would effectively neutralize the Gith and Warforged on a 1:1 scale. They sent in their heavy social hitters and dropped Diplomacy, Insight and Intimidate checks in the course of some good negotiation RP. At the end they had their 4 successes and exceeded their target by a total of 30! Clearly I hadn’t done my math ahead of time. If I gave them 300 warriors they’d outnumber the Gith two to one and what once seemed like an impossible challenge would now seem rather trivial. I gave them 120, which was about the maximum I’d been expecting. Felt kind of bad about adjusting the goalpost/reward on the fly. Thoughts about how I’d do this differently are below.
  • Timing: You want to get the timing exactly right so you get the drop on the prey for this to work. Success in this sub-challenge would mean a full surprise round (not just a surprise action) for the PCs, which is huge. It also incorporated figuring out where the skyship was presently (via a scrying dish) and luring them in with the proper bait. A series of Bluff, Stealth, Perception and Arcana rolls later they’d succeeded and everything would go off in a way that would make Danny Ocean proud. One of the PCs would be the “tethered goat” and wait in a cave with the deceased Gith captain’s Silver Sword. The elemental vortex would keep them from using skiffs to send down a landing party, forcing the ship to landing the canyon, if they wanted to recover what they thought was the captain’s body.
  • Traps: As I said to the players, this was their chance to “Ewok the place up.” Success here would mean they could lay down one or two traps or hazards from the DMG. They chose to have the Shifters use ropes tied to arrows to set up a complex net over the top of the canyon, intertwining the ropes with the masts and effectively keeping the ship from either lifting off or backing out of the canyon. They didn’t want anything fancier than that for fear of damaging the ship (which they may want to take over and use).

There were a couple of failed rolls along the way but after a total of 18 checks they’d succeeded at everything and they started laying out terrain tiles for their canyon, then we began the encounter. They used their full round to drop all kinds of dazes and zones and are really going into the encounter. It took a while but I think less time than a free-form planning night and they could see the concrete results of their efforts on the tabletop.

Stuff I would do differently:

  • The Recruiting Help sub-challenge is the big one here. I completely failed to take into account that the 2 PCs who went to do the talking already had 14s and 15s in their big social skills, and with assisting the results were sick. Lowering the number to 5 helpers could have worked better but it could also have backfired if they’d rolled poorly and only ended up with 50 or so helpers, leaving them to face 90 foes (I’d cluster them into 10 person swarms and make a lot minions but still that’s pretty horrible). Setting a max number of available warriors in advance would probably have been the smart way to go – it’s not like this little tribe has limitless resources they can mobilize in an hour’s notice.
  • The 20-check time limit was a good idea but didn’t take assisting rolls into account. Without assisting they would have had at least 3 more failures and run out of time. To add to the tension of the whole challenge, one of the players suggested adding assisting rolls to the count and raising the limit a little. That way you’re constantly wondering whether to use another of your rolls assisting and giving only a +2 that you might not need anyway or holding off and using it for an actual check which moves you closer to your total. Great idea there.

Structuring the planning session like this appeals to me because, well, I’m an anal-retentive detail freak. It might be *too* structured for others, might be seen too much as the DM railroading the planning. But I think it worked well for us. We didn’t get to finish the combat because we ran out of time but at the end of round 2 a handful of minions are popped, a couple big players on the Gith side are Dazed, and the PCs have some serious terrain advantages on their side, making it tough for the Gith and their Warforged stormtroopers to get to them (at last for a round – good thing those Gith have telekinesis and can fling Warforged around the map. shhh, I don’t think the players realize that yet) while they pick them off from range. Instead of facing a ship with a serious altitude advantage and lightning guns and a crew of 140 they’re on an even level, many of the guns can’t angle to shoot them, and they are only dealing with about a 3100 xp budget encounter – still deep in the Hard territory for four 9th lvl characters but not impossible.

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8 Responses to “[4e] Skill Challenge – It’s A Trap!”

  1. John O'Brien Says:

    This actually sounds like a really great thing, in so far as since 4e is going to be so tactically gameboard oriented, this allows the player’s plans to have immediate results that carry real rules-weight. As you said, PC plans were too often at the whims of an arbitrary DM fiat in earlier editions, so this really helps give the players a real stake in the strategy, and not just the tactics on the board.

    One of these days, I probably should give 4e another chance. Maybe once I start playing BattleTech again with Bill Lynch, my tactical wargamer muscles will awake from atrophy and I’ll be better primed. 😉

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      To be fair, the rewards I set up for succeeding at the sub-challenges was just codifying the arbitrary DM fiat. There’s no magic to it, just process.

      And you know you’re welcome to come to one of my sessions any time to play or just watch. My 4e style doesn’t differ from how I run most other games – a bunch of yakkity-yakk and then a bunch of hitting things, then a cliffhanger. I’m not so much into running a dungeon crawl type game.

  2. John O'Brien Says:

    Oh, and: thanks for the Caper shout-out. 🙂

  3. joncassie Says:

    I bet the players found this encounter exciting, stimulating to role-playing and completely engaging. I would have. I am not as hostile to free-form planning as a GM (because it gives players the opportunity to riff really creatively and I can roll with it) as you are, but you are much more anal than me (so to speak)!

    The 4 sub-challenges were very well structured, because they gave the party an opportunity to improve one aspect of the coming encounter while potentially struggling with others. All of the encounters make sense from a story perspective and from a game perspective. The decisions to structure the encounters the way you did also is based entirely in the game environment context.

    I would have been happy, happy in this encounter!

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      Awesome. At some point we will game together again. I feel like I’ve come a long way in the last 13 years as a GM.

      I’m not hostile to free-form planning but I felt that the tools were there in the system and it wasn’t an application of them I’d tried yet. I framed it as “from last session it sounded like your planning fell into these 4 buckets, but feel free to add something else if I’m missing anything.”

      I feel like I was doing something wrong though. Mainly because the players had a sense things were going *well* for them and were feeling something akin to “hope” at the end of the session. Have to disabuse them of that.

      • Jon Says:

        Allowing a sense of hope in your players is a very problematic place to leave them…correct this…

      • Moth Says:

        Falling when at the bottom doesn’t hurt, only when you let them scale the heights can you bring them crashing down.

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