Friday, January 14, 2011

This Is Not A Science

First, 2 Realizations:
1) SP is also used for currency, but to heck with it, I'll keep using it for the time being. This whole thing is going to need a big language cleanup by the time it's done.
2) Rather than 1d6/1d8/1d0 damage progression, it probably makes more sense to use the light, medium and heavy damage progressions from page 42. I'll still use the previous model for illustration because I can remember it, but at the table, I'd totally go with the other approach.

All right, so with the basic concept in place, let's start with how to actually build a situation. Assuming a default monster HP level of 24 + 8 per Level, it's pretty easy to do a quick XP/budget conversion. A single 7th level monster is equal to a situation with 80sp. That math is pretty easy. What exactly to do with those 80 points is a little more interesting. It's effectively a budget with which to create problems, or to reflect player action. For example, breaking into the enemy camp might be an 80 sp challenge, or you might break it down into 4 20sp guards who need to be overcome.

Now, one fun part of this is that, in theory, SP can be converted 1:1 with hit points. That is to say, if I'm running a fight with an elite opponent with 250 hit points, I could take 50 of those points and turn them into SP and use them to make the fight more interesting. In strictly literal practice, there are some problems with this: monster hit points are not actually consistent with this and the budgeting will not always be intuitive. Much the same way traps can sometimes be turned against enemies, there are going to be time it makes sense to keep hitting the situation rather than the monster.

And here, right here, is the critical decision point. Those are real roadblocks, and not every player would be comfortable going past them, and as such, it's entirely reasonable to say this model won't work for you. No harm no foul. But if you can tolerate the loosey-goosey, GM improvisation this demands then stick with me. You can do some cool stuff with this.

First, don't worry too literally about monster hit points. If you bring a monster in as its own encounter element then you know what the rules are for that. It has a certain number of hit points and costs a certain amount of XP. No problem. But when you throw in a monster as part of a situation, its hit points are just a part of the situation. To illustrate, consider the 20sp guard. We can "beat" him by doing 20 points of damage (progress) with stealth, but if it turns into a fight, he'll have 20hp (or more aptly, 20 hp minus any reduction in sp from earlier skill rolls).

This rolls into the second thing: If you have a monster that also has a challenge component, don't worry too strictly about distinguishing it's HP budget from it's SP budget because - and this is the kicker - really they're the same thing. Consider, for example, the group being attacked by a goblin horde (treated as one creature). The players can fight - just keep killing goblins until they stop - but maybe they want to try to scare them off (Intimidation). If a player wants to engage the "situation", then he might use intimidation to reduce SP, which comes out of the horde's HP budget.[1] Something similar might happen when you try to reason with someone you're fighting, trying to convince him not to fight.[2]

This interoperability with hit points would not work on its own, but there's another important element of challenges - the difficulty. How hard is it to do this stuff? To answer that, I ask the much more important question: What are you going to do?

There's an instinct to answer "Use this skill!" but that overlooks something important. The goal here is to open up _actions_, which skills represent and support, but do not define. That may not be immediately clear, but pull up to a higher level. When faced with a challenge, there are a few ways to approach it, but in the abstract, they break down into four different approaches:

First, you can try to circumvent it. You can elude it, go around or otherwise avoid engaging it on its terms.
Second, you can try to manipulate, control or wrestle with it. You meet it head on and try to bring it to heel.
Third, you can try to understand it. Study it, and use that knowledge against it.
Fourth, you can hit it. Hard. Possibly repeatedly.
Fifth, you can suck it up.
Sixth, you can run away.

Now, I want to set aside #5 and #6 right away. Both of these might call for skill rolls, but neither actually helps get past a challenge, so they're outside of the scope. #6 might be a _different_ challenge, but that's it own thing. #5 is the desperate hope that the other guy will get tired punching you. There are situations where it's appropriate, such as when the challenge is on a time limit or otherwise constrained, but in that case, it's under the auspices of what bad things the challenge is doing, and that's another topic. So, in short, they're off the table here.

#4 is easy. D&D already handles that really well.

#1-3 is the trick. You will generally use a skill to do one of these things, but there's no 100% correlation between which skill is used what way. There are some logical limitations, but they're situational. When you need to travel through enemy territory, Survival might be used to get around enemies (circumvent) or it might be used to try to find the best route (understand). Viewing actions through this lens of what they accomplish makes them more versatile and interesting, and definitely I smore satisfying than the "skill first" approach where a player says "I use Survival!" and upon being asked "Do do what?" has to scramble for an answer. [3]

Experienced 4e hackers probably have already seen where I'm going, but I'll lay it out here. The 4 approaches correspond to the four defenses used by 4e. Thus:

1 - Circumvent - Reflex
2 - Manipulate - Fortitude
3 - Understand - Will
4 - Smash - Armor

While this creates a little bit of a shift in how to handle some situations (Stealth being an attack vs. reflex rather than a roll vs. Perception) it streamlines things a lot and, more importantly, makes it VERY easy to extrapolate a challenge from a monster (or to fold a monster into a challenge).

So, for example, If the Warlord of the Orcs is hunting for you, the GM could create the hunt as a situation, drawing from his HP to budget it (or just creating it), and set all the "difficulties" of the hunt (which is to say, its defenses) using the Warlord's stats. In effect, by evading the hunt, they're fighting him by proxy.

Now obviously, there's more to cover. The big one is, of course, the bad things that challenges can do to you in return - without that they're pretty toothless. But that, I think, is something for next week.

1 - Yes, this effectively "weaponizes" skills (which is part of why I want to sync up with the page 42 damage expressions. A strict mind could view these as repeatable stunts). This is an idea I'm fond of from its success in SOTC fights as a way to help all players feel able to contribute at all times 9and ot encourage them to find interesting ways to apply their skills). This is maybe a little less relevant to 4e where there's less of an idea of a "non-combat" character, but it can still help.

2 - This may immediately raise some confusion of how to handle fights where a lot of HP and SP damage has been done, but 4e actually solves that VERY elegantly for us. If you take someone down to zero HP (or SP), you decide what happens to them. Often this is just used to decide "Dead or Unconscious", but it's a MUCH more powerful tool than that. The guy who takes his last HP could decide his enemy listened to reason and surrendered. , just as the guy who takes the last SP could decide he distracted the guy enough for him to get stabbed (or that he had just gotten through, just as he got killed, for maximum angst). The limiter on this is not a function of rules, but of what makes sense to the table, as it should be.

3- Important note: In all three cases, the activity moves towards action. That is, just studying something isn't going to make progress against a challenge (unless studying IS the challenge) - the knowledge needs to be gained and applied. This need not be _strictly_ applied with each roll, but it must be part of the trend. That is, if you sneak past the guard and get him to down to zero, you should be taking him out (in whatever manner you see fit). If all you're doing is going past him and not actually impacting the situation, that's just a roll, not a challenge.


  1. If you haven't, you should read Wushu Reloaded. Lots of your ideas seem to be pushing D&D towards Wushu..

  2. One potential problem with using monster defenses as the DCs of skill checks is the big differences between the progressions of skills and attack bonuses. Attack bonuses tend to increase pretty steadily while a low-level character can get a very high skill bonus through training + skill focus. Any ideas on how to address that?

  3. About the last idea: so, if Sam Fisher(iconic spy character) or Garreth gets into the castle, goes past every guard in the castle, steals the treasure, and gets out same way, that's a ton of successful stealth/whatever checks without any "fight" with the castle owner, who is represented by guards and their security, am I right?

  4. @Jonathan I haven't looked at wushu in a while, but there's definitely some synergy there.

    @glimm There's a concern, but I think it's pretty easy to address. That +5 bonus from a trained skill is a big bump initially and it fills the same "niche" as the magical bonus in weapons (Accuracy is off the table because it generally cancels out vs the fact that AC is two points higher than other defenses). Net result, skills will be much more accurate than attacks early on, then level out as the magic items start catching up. (In both cases it's Stat + 1/2 level as base, after all)

    Skill focus can offset this leveling a little, but I think it's also a reason that magic items with bonuses to skills might become a little less lame.

    @Guns If the GM constructs the situation that way, then yes, exactly. Presumably, the GM will actually throw in some curveballs so our thief will have to do something other than keep rolling stealth, but that's a design issue. In theory, yes, it could be as simple as that. (I'll be talking more about how to design these challenges next week, and things like this are very much on the table)

  5. I'm very interested in what you've said about this idea so far, and I look forward to seeing what kinds of "attacks" against the players you create for situations.

  6. How would you fit the use of healing surges into this model? Could a guard who has been defeated just using the Stealth skill use healing surges to recover their composure, if given a reason to?

    This probably applies to point [3], where the player leaves the "defeated guard" alone and continues on. The break from the challenge probably counts as a break from combat, allowing the guard to heal. His resources are diminished, but that's probably fair as he is worried about how the player actually got past him, or more importantly, what his sergeant will say to him about letting thieves and assassins sneak into the castle...

  7. but that's probably fair as he is worried about how the player actually got past him, or more importantly, what his sergeant will say to him about letting thieves and assassins sneak into the castle...
    I'm fairly sure, that if I've got past him by stealth, than he does not know a thing about it. That's why I use stealth, don't I?

  8. @Guns In that case, leaving him alone instead of taking him out means that facing him again on the way out is yet another 20SP threat to deal with. Sneaking by successfully once is certainly not final.

  9. well, that depends on me taking the same way out, but essentially, you can be right. And that's fair, you ain't got to be the real thief if somebody knows you're in before you're out, and it's gotta be hard.

  10. I dunno, I'd be worried that making the party stealth past the guy again punishes them for not killing him. There would need to be some kind of payoff in the story or the mechanics for not killing him, I would think. Something like "I get to keep my oath of nonviolence" works, because the player has already chosen to play on Hard Mode. If you could make it clear to players that an alarm was not raised because that guard never turned up missing or dead, that would work too, but that might be tricky to communicate to them.

  11. So, if your players beat a monster (reduce him to zero hit points) do they have to fight that monster again later on?

    While I don't think there's a right answer to that, the answer you choose applies equally well to situations. If you effectively take those piece off the board, then you get once answer. If you leave them in play, you get another.

    Answer is, I note, as much a function of taste as it is of genre and tone. If they do come back, expect players to kill more people. if that's not the desired tone, then consider changing up. But if a high body count is expected, then all's good.

    -Rob D.

  12. As a note, you can also use accounting tricks. That is to say, if the party sneaks past the 20 sp guard, and he shows up again later, it' snot unreasonable to "rebudget" for him. That is to say, you pay for him out of XP/SP budget as if it was a new opponent, but you re-use the existing opponent simply because it's more stylish.

    -Rob D.

  13. And a re-used threat/opponent could be discounted, since you already know his weaknesses, etc and beat him once. So instead of 20 SP this door guard could be just 10. Still there narratively and mechanically, but not too troubling.

  14. @atminn Yup. Once you open the door to the idea that you're "buying" these things, all sorts of tricks open up.

  15. I pondered some of the same things back in july of last year as I tried to convert all skill challenges to 4e's combat system. One thing I wanted to ensure was maintaining the dynamic flow of combat, I.e. shifts, slides, etc.

    What I eventually settled on was a skill map similar to diaspora coupled with skill specific terrain. The challenge/monster attempted to maneuver the pc's to a position that was beneficial to it, but bad for the pc's. The pc's gained an extra bonus for defeating the challenge on terrain favorable to them. These terrains also provided mechanical bonuses during the skill challenge, much like terrain in combat.

    I hadn't thought about using SP and HP interchangably. That makes things much easier.

  16. @seth Yeah, Sometime down the line in this I definitely want to talk about a map or something serving a similar purpose. I've used them to good effect in other games, but tuning it for the flavor of D&D is the interesting bit to me.

  17. Rob, this is a terrific idea. I don't exactly hate the Skill Challenge system but I've always regretted how out of step it is with the more avowedly fun part of 4E (i.e. the fightin').

    I know that One Bad Egg is no longer operating, but if you wrote this up as a mini-system and sold it as a 15-20 page PDF, I would buy it in a red hot minute. Just a data point for you there.


  18. I've really liked the past two posts, but this one definitely puts icing on the cake by giving more tools for designing skill challenges. The overall budget concept as well as the ability to adapt monster defenses goes a long way to making skill challenges more modular and thus easier to assemble out of well defined parts. As is, I think the current skill challenges feel either under defined or require a lot of GM handcrafting. Perhaps more crucially from WotCs perspective, D&D books seem better suited to selling a large number of modular components rather than a smaller number of well balanced set pieces.

    I'd done some thinking a while back on how skill checks could be brought into line mathematically with attack rolls but I hadn't made the crucial leap you did in the last post to separate out the skill roll from skill damage.

    All of which is to say great work, I think you really have something here.

  19. Translated to Russian.

  20. First of all, I wanted to say that I really like this idea! I think it has great potential.
    One thing struck me as I was reading this post. A character trained and with skill focus will do damage equivalent of a daily, but there is no limit to the number of times this can be done, unlike daily powers. This means that defeating an opponent is easier through skill use than attacks.

    Another dynamic I see is that in a single skill challenge, one character will effectively be using all dailies/encounter powers (trained in the primary skill), and other players will "use" mostly at-wills. This is assuming the use of the same skill over and over is allowed. The players that are not trained may come up with an interesting way to use a skill they are trained in, but I don't see this happening every round.

    Of course, this is also an "issue" (or feature, depending on how you look at it) with vanilla skill challenges where one character shines.

    I do like this idea, and apologize if any of the issues I have brought up have already been considered and resolved. I have not read all your posts on the subject yet, but I wanted to formulate my thoughts while it was fresh in my mind.


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