Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Situation - The Problem

This all began with @sarahdarkmagic raising an innocuous question on twitter: how to run breaking into a castle in 4e. Specifically, the issue was that doing it as a skill challenge did not provide the right feel, which was more fast and skirmishy, taking out guards and such. Now, I could argue that a skill challenge can be made to do that, but I’ll concede it’s hard. Making skill challenges feel dynamic is a trick of its own, and not an easy one to master. When you add in combat, this complicates things even further, since 4e’s world of skills and the world of fighting are very far apart indeed.

A number of very good suggestions were put forward, including the incorporation of daily and encounter powers into skill challenges for bonuses (always a good practice) but that got me thinking about the nature of this specific problem and how I’d want it to go as a player. I’d be thinking in terms of stealth computer games like Thief or Splinter Cell, where play is like a montage of badassness. You sneak up on a guard, find some clever way around the complication, then take him out.

In practical terms, that’s an encounter in miniature - opposition + some interesting twist. And right off the bat, this reveals a lot of what makes this hard for a GM. While this mini-encounter may have fewer moving parts than a big one, it’s still a pain to design. The real work in encounter design is not filling in the details, it’s coming up with the hook that makes this encounter stand out. Coming up with a sequence of those would be work enough, and having to do it for a single skill-challenge equivalent (centered around one player no less!) is way too much work for the payout[1].

So you need to cut corners. Trim down the number of encounters. Maybe re-use some tricks. And then you bump up against the other problem, how to actually run it. Yes, you could make it purely skill driven, but the reality is our player wants to stab himself some guards (or snap their necks or something equally dramatic). That demands fast, brutal fights. No problem! Sounds like a job for Minions, right?

Well, no. The problem is that if you use minions, the guards are no longer a credible threat. Why bother to be stealthy when you can kill these guys with a forcefully thrown piece of paper? But if you make them full-on opponents, then this whole thing is just going to drag out impossibly long. You might think you could make do with lower level opponents, but even a level 1 enemy can have 20-odd hit points, and it’s easy for that to be the wrong number[2], to say nothing of the lameness of using weenie opponents like that.

So we need some way to tune the enemies more finely than they currently, and that’s what got me thinking that maybe we have the problem backwards. And that’s where I’m going next.

1 - Unless you also play stealth video games, and have a mental library of situations to steal and reskin. If so, awesome.

2 - That said, here’s a dirty trick that works only for rogues with daggers or shuriken. Their actual weapon damage is pretty trivial, quickly overcome by their bonuses and sneak attack bonuses. For them, figure out their minimum damage on an attack (all bonuses +1 for a 1 on the roll) and add 4 to that. That’s your perfect HP number. That opponent will probably survive the initial attack if it’s not a backstab, but will almost certainly die if it is.


  1. My immediate thought when presented with the guard problem is to use the minion role as a toggle. So long as the players continue succeeding at their skill rolls (or making clever plays, etc.) the guards are caught unawares and are thus minions. Mistakes and failures alert the guards in an area, allowing them to keep their full stats. I would be inclined to make the guards a weaker challenge, allowing what fights occur to be resolved quickly, but you could up the danger factor by making them more powerful.

  2. In situations like this, I modify the minion. If I want something the feels "harder" without adding the complexity of 20+ hit point opponents, I change the one-hit point opponent into a "two hit" opponent.

    A successful attack, regardless of the damage roll marks of one "hit box". A critical hit marks off two "hit boxes", killing the opponent.

    And to disguise the minion status, I have the players roll damage dice anyway. The helps me prevent the question "Does this monster/bad guy look like that minion I just clobbered?".

    I find it reduces the metagaming a bit.

  3. As Zack above said I think the best way is toggle minion mode on/off. If player(s) succeed on min skill/chalenge to catch the guard ... then he is a minon and one brutal strike takes him down. If now - too bad, it's gonna be a longer fight and he will probably will sound the alarm.

  4. @Zack While I dig that approach, one problem is that a lot of players are uncomfortable with quantum minions. It's a good piece of sleight of hand, but some people object on principle, so I'm hoping to work around that. (Also, it makes XP budgeting a little crazy, though that's more or less important, depending).

    @robert Two hit minions are a good fix to a lot of minion issues in general. A similar solution I like is giving minions DR equal to half their level. No need to track hit points anything, but it demands a solid hit to take them down (and avoids metagamey ideas like using large, puny attacks).

    One question on the two hit method: Would you allow the successful sneak attack (or other situation specific criterea) to count as an automatic crit if pulled off successfully? That would probably be necessary to allow it to apply to this kind of situation.

  5. Sneaking into the castle

    Boy, I could have used this post last week before my game where the group needed to sneak into a town swarming with guards....

    In the aftermath of that session, this is what I determined...

    Element one, stealth check - if successful, opponent is unaware...

    Then, perform attack. If successful, opponent is unconscious unless the attacker is using sneak attack (think pommel to the head).  This allows the possibility to coup de grace victims, but it isn't required.  You could have a setting of number of turns in the sneak scene, and the longer they are sneaking, the bigger penalty against stealth (because there is more chance of someone coming along and finding a body). They could choose to coup de grace, but it takes a round, or they leave the person unconscious, and there is risk of a wake up. They could also spend a round disposing of bodies so they cant be found as easily, but that is o ce again more time.

    In the end, the thief has an edge due to a greater stealth skill, but other classes could sneak about as well and have a chance to take out opponents Rambo style if they are sneaky enough.  Of course, they may have to drop some of the loud armor to pull it off.

  6. I'll be following this one with interest as I do find the Skill Challenge something that just fell slightly short of being great. My thoughts since Leverage came out was to maybe find some way of easy "dual stats" do handle them in that way (as I've started trying to work out over on the Cortex forums If that were to work it might make a nice "mid-ground" between full on combat encounter and Skill Challenge that could add some nice granularity to the focus you dedicate to scenes.

  7. @craig In a similar vein, Dave Chalker has proposed using Leverage for the between-fights/skill challenge wrapper around 4e, with regular 4e for the fights. I think you're both in a really potentially fruitful space.

  8. In regards to minions not being a credible threat, another important point is that they don't need to be if they can summon a credible threat. If the PCs get the drop on them and don't flub it, they'll take out the guards. If any of them escape, they summon the Guard Captain and his Ninjas.

    Alternatively, you could use a combination of the lower level monsters as you suggest and couple it with giving them the "helpless" condition so any hits against them before they react are coup de graces. This will make some striker builds very happy to help.

  9. I'd use Leverage for the between-fights, and develop a crunchier combat/scene process via Cortex Plus for the actual fights with some nods from 4E's tactical approach. Mashing both C+ and 4E together makes my head spin widdershins, of course. :)

  10. @Rob My group digs the Two Hit Minion and the DR Minion. I've also found a third variation that plays pretty well, though it takes a bit more bookkeeping on the DM's end.

    I combine the two variations in a way, giving minions a DR but making it ablative. That way they can still be taken down with a single good hit, but multiple blows from a controller will still make some progress. It's also easy to represent in the game with shields or multiple weapons that get knocked away by attacks.

  11. @Rob
    Translated and posted this first part.
    Here is a link:

    I plan to go one part a day and will post in the comments of the parts I translate.

  12. I'm doing some necromancy here, but a really excellent resource is Break and Enter, a PDF you can get here:

    Unfortunately it looks like volumes 2 and 3 aren't being done, but this one is pretty good for what it is.

    The mechanic is that while creatures are unaware, their hp is much, much lower than normal. Not quite minion level, but close. They usually can be taken out on one hit most of the time.

    The problem is, if you don't kill them (or the alarm gets triggered), they turn into 'normal' monsters (though still with 1/2 hp).


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