Applying 4e mechanics to 1e adventure design: skill challenges

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This posting continues the line of reasoning from this post on applying mechanics from the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons to first edition adventure design. In a way, this is a deconstructivist experiment, pulling mechanic fragments piecemeal from one edition and adding to another; at the same time, though, Dungeon Masters have been developing their own mechanics outside of the official rule systems of all editions for decades, so it should be possible to import mechanics – not rules – without affecting the ambience of any given edition. Emphasis is placed on not transplanting rules because one of my goals in a current project is to enhance game play without making participants feel like they are playing a different edition.

The project giving rise to this issue – a 1e writing project I’ve not touched in years but would like to finish – was dropped years ago in part due to my not knowing how to proceed. It involved a siege, with hundreds of participants on either side. It was my intent to have this large-scale battle be part of the adventure, although, in true 1e fashion, the scenario wouldn’t demand the use of miniatures, battlemaps or a separate system such as the BECMI “War Machine” rules from the Companion Set Handbook or 1e Battlesystem Rules.

Initially, my plan was to divide the siege into smaller missions that the heroes, fighting for the defenders, would either undertake as a group, or individually, as captains of small groups of lower-level NPC defenders. The overall success of these missions would dictate the outcome of the battle.

That was where my planning stumbled. I had several resolution schemes sketched out, including a timeline-style mission schedule, point values for each mission, a success percentage calcualtion formula for missions the heroes didn’t undertake but would happen anyway, victory point totals, and optional missions for heroes who were especially enterprising or who, in the DM’s opinion, needed a little extra help with catching their total up with the enemy. There were problems, though: my system only accounted for players reacting to what the enemy did, and it didn’t have a clear formula, apart from my own fiat, on what value to place on player-initiated action.

I showed these notes to one of my players at the time, who stated, “there has to be a less complicated way of doing this.”

And he was right. Looking at my notes today, this is a perfect opportunity to apply the mechanics of a 4e skill challenge to this 1e adventure. Not that I would feel comfortable with degenerating some rather unique 1e combats to a series of single die rolls against each player’s chosen skill – it wouldn’t feel like 1e if I did that – but the concept of requiring a number of successes before a number of failures removes most of the calculations and gives more freedom to players.

Moving forward, I’m planning on starting by giving the heroes some basic reconnaissance about the disposition of the enemy. I’ll salvage my old mission timeline as a list of options for the enemy, but allow the heroes a period of planning their defenses, or perhaps some sorties if an opportunity arises, giving them a list of options, as well. We can come up with a brief description of what success looks like for each mission, and we’ll be ready to go.

While the combats will play out like standard 1e, the resolution mechanic will be the much simpler 4e skill challenge; when the heroes’ combat performance meets the criteria for mission victory, it counts as a skill challenge success, and if they don’t meet the criteria, it counts as failure. Should they attain enough successes before a specific number of failures, the attackers are driven off. Reaching the failure total first results in the enemy siege succeeding.

Using this method removes the necessity of maintaining a separate victory total for the enemy, and I can still make some pivotal missions more important than others by making them count as multiple successes or failures.

What do you think? Please consider sharing your thoughts in a comment to this post.

This entry was posted in RPG Hub.

4 comments on “Applying 4e mechanics to 1e adventure design: skill challenges

  1. greywulf says:

    A siege would be a perfect excuse to run a Fractal Skill Challenge. These are like regular Skill Challenge except that each individual success (or failure) is itself either a Skill Challenge (or other type of Encounter) in it’s own right. This gives depth and structure to the whole adventure arc, but still provides plenty of options for the players.

    For example, the overall “Break the Siege” challenge could require five successes before three failures. The details of each individual challenge depends on the players’ tactics but could include:

    – Defend a secret supply caravan winding through the sewers – a straight combat encounter
    – Meet up with an enemy deserter and convince him to provide critical information – a skill challenge
    – Venture outside to steal supplies – a combination skill challenge/combat encounter. Winning the fight counts as 1 success in the skill challenge, as does avoiding the guards
    – Peace talks – a skill challenge. Victory means the means minor concessions. This skill challenge can be repeated multiple times. Add complications! (assassins, etc)
    – Win the starving people over and prevent a riots – skill challenge
    – Fight back the starving people! – a combat encounter triggered if the above skill challenge fails.
    – etc.

    Hope that gives you some ideas!

    • Alric says:

      Adding non-combat encounters as part of the compound challenge is an inspired idea – thanks for suggesting it. I like the assassin idea, too – I have the enemy dropping operatives behind heroic lines early in the scenario, so that makes a great deal of sense.

      Thanks for your visit!

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    Mass combats are hard, but this is a good way to deal with it. If you are doing it a s a skill challenge, I’d also have a few of the challenges be out of the player’s hands. I’d do a roll based on each section of the fighting. I’d start with it being DC 10 like a save, but modify it for terrain, troop condition, magical support, monstrous support, adventurer support, etc. If the PC’s are involved in the planning they might have a pool of resources to allocate resources to different fronts, but once they’ve done that, it’s out of their hands. Some of the PC’s missions might not give them more successes, but they’ll add resources to the other rolls. “You cleared a way for the clerics of the order of mercy. They can provide up to four points of bonus to your troops. Which units do you want to allocate the clerics to?”

    The trick is to have a balance between PC-dominated checks, PC-influenced checks, and independent checks. I’ve often found that a group that plans well will overwhelm a skill challenge. By having uncontrolled factors they might fail despite the PC’s best efforts. (though the PC’s will probably make it a less decisive failure.)

    An insteresting adder is if the checks out of the PC’s control are dominated by somebody else, especially if the PC’s disagree “You cleared a way for the clerics of the order of mercy. They can provide up to four points of bonus to the troops. General McCracken sends them to reinforce his elite knights in the center, despite the heavy losses taken by the peasant conscripts in the west.”

    • Alric says:

      Another great idea, philo. Thanks. That will also come in handy if the heroes leave the other defenders to handle one or more missions.

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