Idea: Variable Success

This past weekend I ran a weekend-long game for my friends as I have been doing every eight weeks for the past nine months. One of the hardest part of running that game is that, because we meet so infrequently but play for around 18 hours, the game might feel forced as I want to make sure I include aspects of the game that the players enjoy doing. Playing so infrequently means that they’ve been waiting a long time to try out this power or use that item—presenting them the opportunities to play with those toys is pivotal to the enjoyment factor for this kind of game.

I’m mostly talking about the adventuring part of the game like exploration, skill challenges and combat encounters. Personality, character development, setting and story are easier to knead into the game, as the players can choose to include that as much as they’d like. Opportunities for heroism on the other hand is where preparing wisely comes in. But if you set up a jungle gym for the players that is uniquely suited to all their particular powers and abilities, you might end up losing the aspect of choice and control that makes this game so great.

Choice is Important for Players

Some players like to go off book. They like to skirt a situation either intentionally or obliviously. And I can see why; it can be fun to have control over the world your character is existing in. You can’t step outside the boundaries in a video game, you can’t see behind the set in a film, you can’t ask the author about a particular character in a book. D&D offers you the ability to be given a scenario and react to the aspects of it that engage you the most. When it comes to combat and other challenges, players can sometimes surprise you in how they react to those obstacles. Presumably they want to use all their powers and items and toys to defeat the bad guys in combat, but they may also need to learn more information, or attempt to reserve their resources by subverting or skirting a challenge altogether.

I applaud these attempts, but with weekend long games I find myself having to deny off book adventuring because I’m just not prepared for a scenario where such and such battle or skill challenge doesn’t occur in the adventure. I’ve come to terms with this, and have found lots of ways to still provide players with a modicum of immersion and control over the world. I’m not afraid to allow them the opportunity to attempt sneaking around a clan of orcs instead of fighting them, I’m actually pretty decent at on-the-fly skill challenges or adjudicating creative solutions by the players. But if the idol that requires them to get into the dragon’s lair is in the possession of those orcs, they’ll have to confront them one way or another. Case in point: the orc confrontation provides the players an opportunity to use all the fun stuff they’ve been waiting eight weeks to play with, and going around them would make for an overall less enjoyable experience.

A Dash of Choice

Skill challenges are a great way to give the players an alternative to combat, but they can also just cast the combat in the light or position that they want to fight it in. This has become especially helpful for me with these long weekend games because if I have a schedule, order or timeline for the adventure to retain a balanced and rewarding experience, then skill challenges give me the opportunity to have the story be more in my court, but the story telling more in theirs.

One of the things I don’t really fully enjoy about skill challenges is how they designed them to either be a success for a failure. While preparing for this long weekend game I realized that it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the level of success or failure is what can determine the outcome of the challenge altogether. Along the way, the multiple successes your players rack up may open the door for more choices. Since players want to play with their toys (powers, items, feats, etc), but they also want to feel like their choices matter in the game world, why not put ball in their court?

If you succeed a little, the battle will be easier for you. If you succeed a lot, you can opt to circumvent the battle entirely. If you fail a little, the battle will be a little more difficult. If you fail a lot, you have very little choice in the matter.

I’m Surprised How Many Ideas My Players Have

When I ran a large scale assault on a castle with this same crowd a few sessions ago (read: 4 months ago), I was astounded how many ideas they each had to contribute to the overall skill challenge to prepare for war. Many of their ideas I hadn’t thought of at all but they were creative and unique. There’s no way you can prepare for that as a DM. Looking back at the challenge, I wish I could have just let them keep coming up with ideas to improve their situation, using skills and coming up with ideas. Unfortunately I had delicately laid out the complexity of the skill challenge, so when they reached a certain amount of successes they just didn’t have to keep trying. But it was almost as if they wanted to keep using their skills and brainstorming. It was so fun, but I had to put a damper on it for the sake of balance and time. Pfaw, why did I do that?

Skill challenges could instead be based on ‘how far you can get?’ rather than ‘can you get this far?’ Sure, there might be a level of “failure” if they don’t meet a certain difficulty threshold, but if the players can supersede that threshold, and they want to go for more, that could be a great way to offer a modicum of choice to the players through the mechanics. If the players reach only complexity 2 before they reach 3 failures, then they may have to take the result of the fail because the threshold is reaching complexity 3. If they reach complexity 3 before reaching 3 failures, however, then perhaps they have a choice to continue on with the challenge, shooting for complexity 4 or even 5. This puts the ball in the players court, and can make for an exciting twist on your challenges.


I wanted to include a hydra living in and defending a lake that the characters needed to cross because it was a great scenario that allowed opportunities for the players to use all the cool stuff that they have and do well (Water Walk ritual, good powers against solo creatures, etc). It was a great challenge for these players and would allow them to feel great in the end by defeating a classic creature, even on its own turf, so it was high on the list of things that must be included in the adventure.

But I don’t like to say it MUST go this way or that. So I developed a variable skill challenge that would put the decision of fighting the hydra in the players’ hands. It would go like this:

  • Lead up: Including several checks to outrun and outwit the unseen creature in the lake
  • Reveal: The hydra comes out of the water and blocks them off
  • Choice: With enough successes they could choose to go for a more strategic advantage on the lake, or outrun it altogether
  • Resolution: If the players get enough successes to be given the choice of fight or flight, resolve their choice.

When I built the encounter, I made a small table based on the skill challenge success and failure chart in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Instead of determining the complexity of the skill challenge during preparation, I decided that the characters would determine the length of the challenge by building in a Fight or Flight threshold if they reached complexity 3.

I decided that I wouldn’t show the monster until a set number of successes were made, and that would be point of decision for the characters. They should be given the opportunity to stand and fight, gain better ground for fighting, or outrun the hydra altogether.

In the end the players actually wanted to fight the beast when they hit 8 successes (complexity 3), not willing to risk a disadvantage for the prospect of escaping it unscathed altogether. But I don’t think they were deterred necessarily by the risk, I just think they wanted to see what battling a hydra was like. Either way, the challenge was presented to them, and rather than deciding beforehand that the players must defeat this hydra before moving on to the next challenge, or allowing my whim on that day to determine whether or not they could escape the hydra completely, I built a system and gave the players the choice. I get a pivotal challenge, they get a choice, and there’s good game play all around. What more can you ask for?


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