Eberron - Scarred Elf Campaign

Koln Campaign, 992 YK, Shadow Marches

or, Why I Don't Use Skill Challenges

With the prologue over, it was time for Caius to have an opportunity to play Koln. I figured that after being injured by vampires, Anika would return to her family in the Shadow Marches. Since I like a character-driven game, I wanted to really root Koln in the Shadow Marches and Tharashk culture, create a sense of attachment to his family.

This session failed to accomplish that goal.

Oh, it started out well enough. I was rather proud of the session introduction, which I think linked the prologue to the main story in the player’s mind but told nothing whatsoever to the character. But it quickly went downhill from there.

You see, the session was supposed to be Koln’s test of Siberys, where he obtained, or failed to obtain, his dragonmark. It is supposed to be a test that brings out extreme stress, which causes the dragonmark to manifest if it was going to do so. And I thought that the best way to do that was to ditch Koln in the woods and force him to find his way home.

But it was a mistake, both in conception and execution. The first problem was that Caius did not have enough reference points to engage in the culture in a meaningful way. So there was a druidic ritual, which he really just sat through and should have been narrated as exposition rather than played; followed by the test of Siberys which, if Caius had already been immersed in Eberron, would have felt like a matter of great significance; but for a player who was not yet familiar with the setting, it was a poor introduction.

Then there was the resolution mechanic. The test of Siberyis is a non-combat encounter, or series of encounters. According to the 4e rules as written, it cries out to be a Skill Challenge. But it suffered, as many Skill Challenges suffer, from trying to cram more checks into the challenge than really ought to be necessary to achieve the goal.

Koln needed to use his skills to get home, but he also needed to use them in a way that would trigger one of the powers of the Mark of Finding to manifest. And there were really only a few skills that I could think of that would trigger any given power (and Caius didn’t come up with anything different). Which meant if he wanted to succeed in the challenge, he basically had to spam checks. And as a GM, I had to narrate spammed skill checks into something interesting.

I think the player enjoyed it well enough (particularly because of the combat encounter, which I will get to later), but it left the GM wanting to blow his brains out. And it underscored the basic problem that I always run into when creating skill challenges, which is that most interesting non-combat obstacles, or even series of obstacles, do not predictably require 4-23 checks to resolve.

I underscore “predictably” because Skill Challenges contemplate that the GM know how many successes are required to accomplish a task, and of what type, which I feel imposes an unneccesary restriction on gameplay. Players need to be free to find their own solutions to problems.

Checks ought to be made when the GM is adjudicating the results of a specific action attempted by the PC, and the number of checks should be determined by how far the GM thinks that specific action would take the player toward accomplishing his goal. Moreover, the type of check should be determined by the nature of the solution that the PC attempts.

I underscore “interesting” because often there are only a few skills that may realistically be applied to a situation, and the GM therefore needs to either allow spamming of the same skill, or to shoehorn in primary skills that really are of questionable relevance.

Like convincing a national leader to listen to your argument by performing a feat of athletic prowess in front of him, and thereby convincing him that you are a formidable fighter and somehow an expert on tactics and strategy. Because kings respond to nothing so well as a diplomat who breaks off negotiations to start performing one-handed push-ups.

This is what I do now. I create an obstacle with a solution that is known to me. I figure out how many successful skill checks would be necessary to overcome the obstacle. For every four checks using my hypothetical solution, I assess experience for an at-level monster, and that is the amount of experience the encounter is worth. The players then chooses whatever actions they wish, and I adjudicate those actions as necessary. I don’t even track successes, although sometimes I track failures. If the party accomplishes the goal, they get the experience regardless of what skills they chose or how many successes they achieved.

Of course, in practice, that really happens, because I rarely create a situation where more than three checks are required.

Anyway, getting back to the session, from Caius’ point of view it was not a total bust, because at one point Koln failed a check in the Skill Challenge which triggered an encounter (don’t tell me 4e doesn’t have random encounters). Koln fought a spiretop drake when he wandered to close to her nest. Koln then decided to go looking for her eggs and found them (by a remarkable coincidence, they were worth exactly the amount of a treasure parcel of Koln’s level).

Caius decided that Koln would keep one of the drake eggs, and train the hatchling. I updated the spiretop drake’s stats to MM3 levels and made it into a Companion Character, replacing the CA mechanic with Hunter’s Quarry, and thus was born one of Koln’s most enduring allies.

That damn drake is bloody effective in combat, other than the fact that he doesn’t stick around to draw his fair share of the attacks; there has been more than one battle where it was all down to the drake, and he pulled through. Generally, about halfway through a given battle, the monsters realize how dangerous he is and try to focus fire on him, but because he is flying only the ranged monsters can even attempt it.

In fact, I have actively tried to kill him off on more than one occasion, to start a subplot I have cooking, and I haven’t even come close.

Oh, and Koln also got his dragonmark. So now he always knows which way is north.

You can find the session summary here (the italicised portion is a modified version of my notes for the session introduction).

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Beoric

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