I read the Ampersand column today where martial practices are previewed — rituals, but using martial power and not magic. Okay, cool concept.

But the examples given utterly fail to convince me, because they’re not martial. They’re just…skills. Martial means used in war, not “disguises” or “non-verbal communication” or “forgery.”

I can’t figure out why forging a document would cost you a healing surge, honestly. Or why only martial characters can learn how to communicate without words. (Take that, bards, and your arcane power source!)

When I was reading through the description, before I got to the examples, I thought of martial “rituals” more like this:

Let Me Show You How To Hold That

Your buddy may be good with spells, but he’s got a lot to learn about weaponry.

Component Cost: 1 healing surge and 25 gp

Time: 1 hour

Duration: 24 hours

Skill: Athletics (no check)

Choose one simple or military weapon with which you are proficient. A willing ally (who must be present for the entire practice) also spends a healing surge, and gains proficiency with that weapon for the duration of the effect.

 

Ah, A Chance To Use This Freshly Sharpened Blade

It’s important to take good care of your weapons before an important battle.

Component Cost: 1 healing surge and 50 gp

Time: 10 minutes

Duration: 1 hour

Skill: Thievery (no check)

Choose one of your weapons. On the next critical hit you roll using an attack with that weapon, add an additional 1d6 damage.

 

No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy

You’ve got it all planned out in your head before the fight even starts.

Component Cost: 1 healing surge and 100 gp

Time: 1 hour

Duration: Special

Skill: History (no check)

You and all allies within 10 squares receive a +2 bonus on initiative checks. On the first round of combat, you and your allies can shift one square as a minor action. These effects last until you take a short or extended rest.

 

 

10/13
2009

Broken Backgrounds are Broken

I’m tired of so many backgrounds, like those found in Forgotten Realms (where all divine folks come from Impiltur and all wizards/swordmages from Thay), Scales of War, Eberron, and so on. Many of these are backdoor “feats” which are unbalanced and campaign-distorting.

In my campaign (which isn’t set in any published world), I’m just going to stick with the first three options for backgrounds (and call these the “standard benefits”):

  • Gain a +2 bonus with an associated skill, OR
  • Add an associated skill to your list of class skills, OR
  • Learn one associated language.

Any backgrounds which don’t meet that will not be available to players for free. If they want a specific non-standard benefit, they’re welcome to use a feat slot to get it:

Advantageous Background

Heroic Tier Feat

Benefit: Choose one of your backgrounds. You gain the non-standard benefit listed for that background, or your choice of one of the standard benefits.

You can take this feat only once.

Note: This actually allows someone to gain benefits from two backgrounds. That’s okay, I don’t mind that — for the cost of a feat.

Otherwise, I fear out-of-control background creep. It already seems to be happening, and that’s not cool by me. This way I don’t have to check over each background individually as written and approve or disapprove it arbitrarily; it’s just a set template. Does it fit the above list of standard benefits? Then take it. If not, then don’t.

10/13
2009

@gamefiend asked me to try setting up one of his skill challenges with the tiles.

Here’s what I’ve got — sorry about the crappy picture.

skillchallenge-demo-08

A few things to note:

  • I don’t have enough tiles printed up — only one set — which means that I wasn’t able to fully model the skill challenge. The black tokens mark the tiles which have the wrong difficulty level, and which would be replaced with the correct tiles if I ran off another sheet of them.
  • The white tokens to the left of some of the tiles indicate “assassin caught.”
  • The little stacks of 2 green tokens are supposed to show “this counts as 2 successes” but in retrospect, that would have been better represented by a die on each, turned to the “2″ value.

It seems the tiles sorta work for this, and would have gotten a lot closer if I’d printed and cut out more sets. It does come out to be a pretty complex arrangement of tiles — but comparable to some of the more elaborate layouts of dungeon tiles I’ve seen or used as well.

I just sent out my weekly announcement to my players about gaming on Wednesday evening, and that reminded me that the PCs had captured a hobgoblin archer and are likely to interrogate and/or question him to try to find out why the archer’s (still unseen) cyclops boss took over the centaur village in the first place.

I sat down with the skill challenge tiles in front of me and in about two minutes had the skill challenge all planned out. No flipping through rulebooks for skills lists or DCs, no writing down actions the PCs could take — just moving a few tiles around, and a couple markers.

skillchallenge-demo-06

Here’s how you’d read these skill challenge tiles:

  • This is a Complexity 2 challenge, because the green die — for number of successes needed — reads “6″ as per the chart on the central tile.
  • You can use Intimidate against the guy, and it’ll be easy — you already shot up all his friends last week — but it’ll only give one success (the blue token). You can’t really get the guy any more scared of you than he already is.
  • Diplomacy and Bluff will both work to get information out of the hobgoblin.
  • If you make an Insight check, albeit a hard one, you’ll unlock an easy Streetwise roll. This guy would really just like it if you’d be nice to him and offer him a drink.
  • Also, he was just in a fight and took some damage. If you Heal him, it’ll actually make the Diplomacy checks easier — a green (easy) tile instead of yellow (moderate).
  • Religion, History, and Arcana are secondary skills that will tell you about the area you’re in and help you figure out the right questions to ask the hobgoblin; they’ll give +2 on the next check (or -2 on a failed knowledge check).
  • A successful Arcana check will also unlock an easy (green) Nature check. Ooh, mysterious! What could it mean?
  • The DCs for the skill checks don’t need to be calculated out — they’re already on the center tile. The players are level 2, so easy is DC 5, moderate is DC 10, and hard is DC 15.

For more example of how I’m using skill challenge tiles, see this blog post. You can download and print your own copies to use in your game also.

So, 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons uses maps and miniatures and dungeon tiles and markers extensively in combat.

But when it comes time to do skill challenges — the structured, non-combat “encounters” that let characters put their non-violent training to work — the tiles vanish, the markers disappear, and everything becomes very abstract.

What’s more, players are often left guessing which skills the Dungeon Master is hoping they’ll choose to use in order to proceed with the encounter. Sometimes, it feels like half the “challenge” is reading the DM’s mind to discern how she’d solve the problem she’s set up, and the other half is hoping your character has the skill training necessary to participate.

In short, skill challenges are a neat idea, but they usually bring the game to a screeching, derailing halt and go off in a very non-D&D-4th-edition direction whenever one pops up.

I’ve got several ideas, ranging from subtle to wholesale rewrites, on how to “fix” skill challenges, or at least make them something I’d like to run and play. Here’s the first of my ideas.

Skill Challenge Tiles

Just as you’ve got maps for combat, so also should you have something tangible, out there in front of the players, for them to look at and scrutinize and strategize over while facing a skill challenge. So I’ve created skill challenge tiles.

There’s one big central tile that serves as the framework around which the other tiles are placed. It’s a 7 x 7 square — all the tiles are made to fit on the battlemaps beside your dungeon tiles — and it includes a handy reference to skill check difficulty classes (DCs) and the types of things you can do with skills.

It’s also got places to track the number of successes and failures, using dice or markers.

4e-Skill-Challenge-Central-Tile

The other types of tiles are the skill tiles. There are three tiles per skill, one each of easy (green), moderate (yellow) and difficult (orange). These correspond to the three levels of difficulty for skill challenges; the exact DCs, based on the challenge’s level, are printed on the central card.

nature-tile-easy

athletics-tile-moderate

streetwise-tile-hard

The skill tiles are placed around the central tile, with the primary skills of the challenge — those which grant successes or failures — on the left side of the central tile, and secondary skills on the right-hand side.

Example: The Negotiation

skillchallenge-demo-02

This skill challenge is from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 76 — the sample skill challenge named “The Negotiation,” which also has an example of play. The orange d12 is showing that 8 successes are needed to complete the challenge, and the green d12 shows that 4 have been achieved. The red d6 is marking a failure — strike one out of the three that would end the challenge.

The primary skills are Bluff, Diplomacy, and Insight, and they’ve all got moderate DCs (yellow). The History skill is offset to the side, beneath Diplomacy, indicating that it’s only available to be used once a successful Diplomacy check has been made.

Example: Urban Chase

skillchallenge-demo-04

Also from the DMG (page 78), this example shows Acrobatics and Athletics as moderate DC checks, and Streetwise as hard. The Perception skill is easy (green) but it doesn’t give any successes or failures; instead, a successful Perception check gives a +2 bonus on the next character’s skill check, while a failure gives a -2 penalty.

Example: Lost in the Wilderness

skillchallenge-demo-01

I have some tokens of various colors made out of craft foam cut into one-inch circles. They’re good for marks, quarries, oaths, curses, bloodied, and other effects because they’re still readable when stacked under a miniature.

In this example (from DMG page 79), I show how you can use these kinds of tokens instead of dice. At the start of the skill challenge, I placed six green tokens on top of the “successes needed” box. As the players got successes, I moved the green tokens from the “needed” to the “achieved” box; the two failures (so far) are indicated by the red tokens on the fail boxes.

Example: The Angry Druid

skillchallenge-demo-05

This is a more complex skill challenge created by Mike Mearls for his “Ruling Skill Challenges” column in Dungeon Magazine. Here I am using the orange d12 to show the number of successes needed, and the tokens to show the number achieved so far.

Each of the primary skills can grant only two successes in this encounter, and so I’ve stacked them with two counters each — blue and green, just to make them more distinct, but they both mean the same thing. With a success, the tokens will be moved from the skill tile onto the central tile — as has been done already with the blue token that used to be on the Diplomacy tile. One success!

If you’d like to give these a try, you can download and print PDF versions of the skill challenge tiles from my game design website, Bold Pueblo, using the following links:

Enjoy!