Thursday, February 26, 2009

On Scale and Skill Challenges

This began as an addendum to my "units of time and scale" article, but morphed into a full fledged discussion of its own with some musings on skill challenges.

Here's a more fleshed out system for the above idea. Let's say that we have a task resolution system that gives about 33/66% odds of success for untrained and trained respectively.

1) You may attempt to accomplish a task an order of magnitude faster.
OPTION A: Expend some sort of consumable resource to begin making the attempt.
2) Roll an appropriate check that takes time equal to one order of magnitude faster than the original task requires. Rationale: This prevents characters from trying to accelerate actions all the time, which results in dice masturbation.
OPTION B: A failed check has some sort of negative consequence (beyond just wasted time)
3) Tally your successes. You need 3 successes to complete the task. Rationale: Same as Option A
OPTION C: If requiring three successes, there should be some way to get an "exceptional success" that racks up 2 successes at once. Otherwise, consider requiring only 2 successes. Rationale: Allows for more realistic results. This allows a marathon to be run in some rare cases in 2 hours. It allows 3 miles to be run in 20 minutes.

EXAMPLE: Bert the Mage wants to use a ritual spell in combat. Normally, casting the ritual requires a turn. However, he can expend a mana (option A) to try and cast it faster. Each round he makes an Arcana check. Once he gets two successes, the spell is completed!

EXAMPLE: Barry the Fighter needs to cover a league in a matter of turns, not an hour. He dashes off with an Athletics check. Once he has accumulated three successes, the run is complete. If he fails a check, then he expends a healing surge (from exhaustion and fatigue) and makes no progress. If he succeeds on a natural 1 (assuming low is good, like an AD&D open doors roll), then he gets two successes and makes exceptionally quick progress.

TURN 1: Barry rolls a 2. He racks up one success!
TURN 2: Barry rolls a 5. He fails to make significant progress and loses a healing surge to boot.
TURN 3: Barry rolls a natural 1. With a burst of energy, he finishes the run! He has covered 3 miles in 30 minutes instead of an hour as is normal.

EXAMPLE: Briggs the Smooth-Talker wants to get an audience with the Duke. Normally it takes a day to arrange all the details, but Briggs needs the Duke's help today to solve a problem. He expends a Resource Point (bribes and fine clothes) and starts schmoozing with the palace officials. He can now make checks, with each check requiring one hour. With luck, Briggs should be able to secure an audience in a few hours rather than waiting all day!

The last issue here is to include a mechanic that discourages non-participation. For example, in 4E skill challenges, everyone except the primary should sit out and do nothing. Agon has an interesting mechanic, where the players as a team all want to win the challenge against the GM, BUT the individual winner of the challenge gets a special reward. You can't be the individual winner unless you try. Agon uses a dice pool system, so with a bonus die from somewhere, even an unskilled individual can close the gap with a skilled expert sometimes. Therefore, all players will have a strong incentive to actively engage in the challenge so they can win the reward.

The reward should be short-to-mid term, not permanent. Otherwise, some characters can pull far ahead of others. So, you don't want to give out XP. You do want to give out something like Healing Surges, Action Points, "Fate Points," consumable items, etc.

You also need a mechanic to prevent frivolous engagement in skill challenges to get the reward. For example, "Let's do a basket-weaving contest so someone can win some INSERT RESOURCE HERE!"

For example, say you started the Duke Challenge above. Everyone pays in 1 resource point to "play." The person who gets to 3 successes first gets 1/2 the pot (with the other 1/2 of the pot going to the GM, just like the house rakes the pot in poker). This has some nice implications -- most folks won't bother initiating skill challenges unless (A) its important enough to spend their own resource on or (B) its something most of the party will engage in, thus giving a reasonable chance of recouping your own investment. For example, in a typical five person party, if all five pay into the pot to play the minigame, the winner will walk away with 3x their starting bet. Indeed, if a majority of the party (3 folks) bid in, you can still walk away with more than your starting bet (1.5x to 2x depending on rounding). But if you can't get anyone else interested, then the DM will rake the pot and you individually will lose a resource.

Now, the non-participation problem may be exacerbated by this betting system as individuals that have poor chances to succeed will not be inclined to ante up. You don't throw more money away when you're holding a 2 and a 6 in Texas Hold 'Em. Luckily, gambling games have dealt with this issue already.
1) The House (GM) adds a bonus to the pot. For plot-relevant challenges, the DM could add a bonus to the pot that makes it attractive to ante up. This is like having a prize for the overall winner of a poker tournament; while your individual odds on one hand might be poor, you want to stay in the game in hopes of winning the big prize.
2) Ensure relatively equal odds of winning. This basically entails either narrowing the gap between the skilled and the unskilled and/or allowing multiple paths to victory. The former solution helps but is boring; the latter path is interesting and leads to more creativity. For example, in our foot race example above, the fighter might use Athletics to run it, the cunning thief might steal a horse, and the smart mage might use his knowledge of geography to find a shortcut (or conjure up a flying carpet!). Some of these alternative solutions may have costs of their own (law breaking, spell slots, whatever), but if the pot is large enough, the player may well deem it worth the expenditure to have a chance at winning! High variability also helps out hte underdog.
3) Mandatory buy-ins. This is like the blinds at a Texas Hold 'Em game. For plot-driven challenges, maybe the DM will just require you to buy in. If you have to buy in, you might as well try to win!
4) Costs for not buying in. Maybe you lose an "honor" point for shamefully refusing a challenge. There's some sort of cost. This is similar to the mandatory buy-in. For example, at a friendly poker game, your friends may mock you for continually folding -- you are paying a price (pride) for not buying in.

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