Thursday, October 22, 2009

Skill Challenge: Changing the World on Your Downtime

If anything, this skill challenge was even more ambitious than yesterday's. It really steps outside the bounds of what a skill challenge normally does and instead introduces a way to track a situation (the status of the character's home city) and for players to influence it or not, as they see fit. Cleaning up this Town
Sure, it's safe for you to walk the streets. Someone tries to jump you for your wallet you'll probably beat them so bad they'll be begging you to take their money. For you this is just a nice stepping off point between going off and killing dragons, rescuing princesses or whatever it is you lot do. From where you sit, it must look pretty nice, but us? We have to live here. I don't expect you to care much, but the least you could do is throw an old man a copper or two.

The city of Valmer is a cesspit of crime, poverty and decay. Once a small mill-town, the construction of a bridge across the river turned it's sleepy dirt road into a major thoroughfare, and the city grew far too quickly for any kind of planning. The original miller who owned much of the local land now styles himself a duke, and his wealth is such that no one argues. He maintains a number of 'knights' who have benefited from his elevation, and he supplements them with mercenaries when absolutely necessary. It's not a nice place to live, though it's a decent enough base for an adventurer.

The health of a city is a complicated thing, but the players can impact it. There are several possible successes they can seek to accumulate, each of which touches upon some aspect of life in the city. The main areas they can try to improve are health, safety, quality of life, trade and education. For the more driven, rebellion is an option, and for the less socially interested, that time might be better spent training or turning a profit.

When the characters are between adventures, they may spend their time trying to change the city, for better or for worse as suits their needs. This is an ongoing skill challenge, and the DM may call for the players to describe their actions during the downtime between sessions, and call for a roll to apply it to one of the possible successes. Not every character may be interested in making such a change, so players may also take actions that pursue their own interest.

Setup: You can change circumstances in the city over time through your actions.
Level: Equal to the level of the party.
Complexity: Open ended, zero sum (that is, there is no end condition. Successes and failure both simply trigger events and change the situation, potentially canceling each other out). Each of the six categories (health, safety, education, honesty, quality of life and rebellion) has its own score which goes up and down over the course of play. Players may each take a "turn" on their downtime between adventures, and use this skill challenge as a shorthand of what they've been up to while off screen.

Primary Tasks:
Health (moderate DCs): You take time improving the health of the people of the city. You might take direct action, using your heal or nature skills to help out at a clinic, or you might pursue it more indirectly - dungeoneering might help you improve the drainage system, streetwise or intimidate might help you put together work crews to clean up bad areas or you might even use diplomacy or religion to try to get others to help out.

Safety (moderate DCs): You set about making the streets safer. Whether this is by walking patrols (streetwise or intimidate), busting heads (combat skill), through community organization (diplomacy or religion) or even through civil planning to improve visibility or build more streetlights (arcana, dungeoneering or possibly something else) you are making the streets safer to travel and the people less fearful.

Honesty (high DCs): Cities depend on a certain amount of trust. Scales must be reasonably honest, goods must be delivered in a timely fashion, contracts must be upheld; every day is a delicate interplay of these forces, and every corrupt guard or dishonest merchant adds a little more friction to the process. You are taking steps to improve the status quo, calling out dishonest merchants, helping cut through red tape and expose corruption wherever you find it.

You might be a diligent investigator (insight or streetwise) a legal champion (history) or just a pair of fists willing to fight for what's right (combat or intimidation).

Quality of Life (moderate DCs): This is the catch-all for improvements that don't fall into any other category, but still improve life in the city. Education, celebrations, holidays, public art projects and many other things can help improve the general quality of life in the city. Players may teach teaching (using an academic skill like history, religion, nature or arcana) or otherwise support teaching, the arts and other pursuits.

Rebellion (high DCs): Not content to change the city, you're looking to tear down the duke and his men. Violent insurgency (combat), sabotage (stealth, bluff) or even public mockery (bluff, streetwise, stealth) are all potentially tools in your arsenal. If successful, the impact of this will be profound, but the risks that come with this are equally problematic.

Training (moderate DCs): Keep to yourself, mind your own business and practice your skills. You can use almost any skill. If successful, start the next adventure with an extra action point. If you fail, start the adventure down one healing surge.

Profit (hard DCs): You concentrate on making a little bit of money on the side. You put up a little seed money (up to your level x10 in gp) and make the roll. If successful, you gain an amount equal to your seed money. If you fail, you lose your seed money. You gain a bonus to this roll equal to the current honesty score of the skill challenge. Success or failure at this roll does not count towards the skill challenge as a whole.

Exploit (moderate DCs): You concentrate on turning a profit at the expense of your fellow citizens. ou put up a little seed money (up to your level x10 in gp) and make the roll. If successful, you gain an amount equal to your seed money. If you fail, you lose your seed money. You take a bonus to this roll equal to the current honesty score of the skill challenge. Success or failure at this roll does not count towards the skill challenge as a whole.

Establish Connections (Moderate DCs): You spend your time establishing contacts in the city. When you attempt this task, you name an NPC you're looking to influence - this can either be an existing NPC, or you can invent a new one. The DM determines the appropriate skill to roll, and which task the NPC is active in. If successful, the NPC becomes one of your contacts, and gives you a +2 item bonus to tasks of his type within the city. If you fail, you not only don't you gain the contact, but you lose one of your existing contacts. Success or failure at this roll does not count towards the skill challenge as a whole.

Other Actions:
The characters may opt to try other approaches.

Charity (Automatic Success): If the characters opt to throw some money at the problems, it can make a difference. If the characters spend or donate an amount equal to the gp value of a treasure parcel of their level, they may gain one automatic success in Health, Safety, Education, Honesty or quality of life. For twice that much, they can purchase an automatic success in rebellion. This can be done multiple times, but a character must use his action to oversee spending the money.

Adventuring (Special): If the characters end up adventuring in the city, the outcome of that adventure should could as at least one success or failure in an appropriate score. If the adventure is a failure, inflicts a lot of property damage, or furthers the interest of the duke or similar parties, it will probably score as a failure, while a successful adventure that removes a threat to the city will count as a failure.

A lot can happen in the city, some of it in direct opposition to the character's and their interests.

Status Quo (automatic, every round): There is a natural resistance to change that comes from many forces pulling in their own direction. However, there is also a natural tendency for some change to remain in place Every score starts with a status quo value of 0, but it may change over time. After the players have taken their turns, perform the following two steps:
  1. The highest and lowest score each move one step closer to their status quo, so if the score is higher than the status quo value, it's reduced by one and If the score is lower than the status quo value, it is increased by one.
  2. For each score whose current value is ten or more than their current status quo value, increase that status quo value by 5 and reduce the current score to equal the status quo value. Similarly, if any score is more than ten below it's current status quo value, reduce the status quo value by 5 and increase the current score to the status quo value. This generally represents some significant achievement or setback in that particular arena.
The Duke (automatic, every round): The duke has his own vested interest in things, and he will reduce one positive score by one, regardless of its status quo. If he reduces the score to zero in this fashion, then it's status quo becomes zero. He will usually lower the highest score after the status quo event, but for purposes of determining his priority, treat the rebellion score as five points higher than it is.

Martial Law (Triggered at the end of the round when any score is -5): Things have gotten so bad that the Duke cracks down, bringing in troops and bringing the city to heel. All scores are set to a value 2 points below their status quo value. .

Revolution (Triggered when Rebellion status quo becomes 20): The duke is removed and he is replaced with an NPC from the player's list of contacts, and he now grants a +4 bonus within his area of interest. This new duke may also now forgo the Duke trigger each round. Additionally, the revolution score and status quo both drop to zero.

The status quo values represent the general state of the city, with the individual scores representing fluctuations. At zero, the state of that particular score is pretty abysmal, while at five there's some hope for improvement. At ten, the city is at least at par, and at fifteen, that particular segment is noteworthy and important. At twenty or greater, the city has become an exemplar of that particular field.
For each of the potential arenas, the following describes the state of the city at each status quo value.
0: The canals run brown with filth and food rots in warehouses before it reaches the people who need it. Disease runs rampant, and death carts are not an uncommon sight on the city streets.
5: The sickest and poorest have places to go. Religious charity, poorhouses and improvement in some of the worst sanitary condition keep disease from running absolutely rampant, but it still claims more lives than it should.
10: The water supply is reasonably clean, and while life in the bad parts of town can be hard and dirty, it is not a guaranteed death sentence. There may even be the beginnings of a hospital. This general improvement in quality of life grants a +2 bonus to all quality of life or train skill checks.
15: The streets are clean and open and the water sparkles. Disease is responded to quickly and efficiently, and there is food enough for the churches and poorhouses. At this point there is at least one major hospital in the city. The bonus to other skill checks increases to +3. However, DCs to improve the health score are now 5 higher.
20: The city virtually gleams, streets and waterways sparkling. Several hospitals see to the health of the city, and great warehouses make starvation almost unheard of. The bonus to other checks increases to +4, and DCs to improve the health score are now 10 higher.

0: It is foolish to travel the streets alone and unarmed, even in full daylight, in anywhere but the finest parts of the city. The city watch is little more than one more street gang, and at night, all wise folks bar their doors and pray for morning.
5: The city watch may be corrupt, but they at least try to do their job. Lamps are lit on most major thoroughfares, and daylight crime is at least fairly rare.
10: The streets are safe during the day, but it is still dangerous at night, especially in bad neighborhoods where the lamps can't be counted on. The watch is reliable, but they can't be everywhere. This improved level of safety grants a +2 bonus to profit and honesty skill checks, but applies a -2 penalty to rebellion checks.
15: The watch is honest and the streets are well lit. Children can play during the day without concern, and night requires only reasonable caution in all but the worst parts of town. Crime exists, but violent crime is reasonably rare. The bonus and penalty to other skill checks is increased to +3/-3, and the DCs to improve safety are increased by 5.
20: It is a point of pride that a man may walk the streets safely, and any violent crime will be investigated and prosecuted with extreme prejudice. The watch is renown for its honesty and effectiveness. The bonus and penalty to other skill checks is increased to +4/-4, and the DCs to improve safety are increased by 10.

0: Nothing gets done in this town unless you know someone and can afford to grease their palm, and even if you do pay, the outcome is unreliable. Mismanagement is a prevalent as corruption, and the wheels of the city are more or less ground to a halt. Goods cost 25% more than the cost listed in the Player's Handbook.
5: If you bribe a man, you can at least feel confident he'll do what you paid for. It is perhaps a stretch to say that things work, but they stumble along in a rough facsimile of function. Trade is slow, but moving, and goods cost only 10% more than the cost listed in the Player's Handbook.
10: Bribery is less open now, and things can get done without it, though it unquestionably speeds the process. Government is inept, but no more so than anyone expects, and trade moves along adequately. Goods cost their listed value in the Player's Handbook.
15: Bribery is a rare thing, reserved for high crimes and special occasions, and the government does its job well. Trade flows briskly, and non-magical goods can be purchased at 5% under the values listed in the PHB and the DCs to improve honesty are increased by 5.
20: The city is a well-oiled machine, it's officers known throughout the land for their efficiency and honesty. The city has become a hub of trade, and non-magical goods can be purchased at 10% under the values listed in the PHB and the DCs to improve honesty are increased by 10.

Quality of Life
0: Life is terrible. Graffiti and busking are the closest things the city sees to art and music, and education is something only the rich can offer their children.
5: Life is bad. A handful of artists get lucky enough to find patrons, but most quietly starve. The handful of teachers trying to teach the basics are overwhelmed.
10: Life is OK. In addition to patrons, a handful of theaters and other venues allow the arts to get by, if not flourish. Education is at least available to some, and a few rudimentary schools have sprung up, improving the ad hoc approach. Improved communication grants a +2 to all skill checks to improve health.
15: Life is good. The arts have blossomed, and the city is home to at least a few artists of reknown. The schools have also grown, and a number of academies have started making names for themselves. The bonus to skill checks is increased to +3 but the DCs of checks to improve Quality of Life increase by 5
20: Life is great! The city is a centre of culture, with arts and education at the forefront. The city draws grand masters of the arts, and its universities attract students from across the continent. The bonus to skill checks is increased to +4 but the DCs of checks to improve Quality of Life increase by 5

0: The government's iron fist is closed tightly around the city, and his rule is unquestioned.
5: Mutterings can be heard in dark corners and back rooms, voices of those who feel that enough is enough.
10: There is now a movement, a full fledged underground working to undermine the current ruler, though it must operate in secret and it must proceed very carefully indeed.
15: The movement has grown, and almost daily there are strikes, protests and acts of sabotage. Revolt bubbles just beneath the surface.
20: Revolution! The city is up in arms to remove the current ruler. Hopefully, this is fodder for any number of adventures as it transpires, but more importantly, the revolution trigger occurs.

  • There's a conceptual debt to Birthright here, since this is more or less a small scale version of a long action. For those unfamiliar, Birthright let players play the movers and shakers of the setting - nobles, bishops, guildmasters and such - and between adventures the camera would draw back to the big map, to play the bigger game. At this scale, each character could take one action per month, and most of them revolved around maintaining or improving their respective domains. There were a few non-domain actions for characters who were not so exalted as to have kingdoms to run, but the heart of the matter was in the domain actions. This skill challenge operates on a very different scale, but it's based on that same idea of coming up with a shorthand way to play the things that happen during downtime in such a way that they impact the game.
  • This engine is, by intent, very generic. The duke is pure color, and could just as easily be replaced with almost anything, just by tweaking the initial dials.
  • This is probably a little bit too fiddly when all is said and done, though it's not that complex by most tabletop RPG standards. I think I let my desire for some sim-city bleed through a bit too much.
  • I love the inclusion of revolution because it's unstable. Players can start a revolution, but there's no guarantee it won't just burn down whatever they build up. That feels right to me, though it might be a bit on the cynical side - a bit more Danton's Death than Common Sense.
  • EDIT: Cam's reminded me that this is also a riff on the social meters from Underground, which was an awesome and crazy little game.


  1. I'd said as much in response via Twitter, but the thing this reminds me of most strongly isn't Birthright but Mayfair Games' Underground. It was possibly the most revolutionary "social scale" mechanic I had ever seen, certainly the inspiration for many future campaigns. Even if I never actually ran the game itself.

  2. I dig it. If I manage to start up In The Shadow Of Giants again, this might be a solid system for modeling the governance of the city in the giants' absence.

  3. Very similar to the Great Game mechanics in the Weapon of the Gods Companion. Always glad to see rules empowering players to direct change in the broader fictional world.

  4. I really need to get around to actually reading the WOTG companion, since it looks quite awesome.

    -Rob D.

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  6. Skill challenges as presented in the DMG are a neat idea, but not quite ready. In particular, fitting everything to a "Succeed X times before 3 failures" pattern seemed very artificial. Your two proposed skill challenges, especially this one, feel a lot more integrated into play and less artificial. I will be pinching ideas for my own games, oh, yes. Thanks!


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