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.
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, 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.