This carries on from last weeks post Designing Extended Challenges for 13th Age

I’d like to start by thanking people for their input into this development process – Burn Miller pointed me at their blog where I found out about The One Ring’s Tolerance Test system used for social situations in particular. A number of people on the Forge of the 13th Age brought up various aspects of how they run challenges, including introducing me to Blade in the Dark’s clocks – and shadowsofmind on Reddit pointed me at Matt Colville’s explanation of using Skill Challenges in D&D 5e

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In my last post I talked about the goals of our Extended Challenge system, and number one amongst them was that the system must encourage every player to contribute to the scene as a whole.

Its position as number one was not accidental – to me it is the most core part of what makes a good challenge subsystem for a cooperative roleplaying game.

The first step in getting everyone to contribute is getting everyone to take part at all. That step, at least, is so intuitive to F20 players that many assumed D&D 4e’s Skill Challenge system had it: Rounds. Each player gets one turn per round, meaning that everyone must act once before anyone takes their second go.

But just having everyone take part isn’t enough to have everyone contribute. Imagine a player character who, during combat, could only throw blunt wooden spoons at their enemies – hitting on a natural 20 for 1 damage. They get a go every round, but that go feels bad because they aren’t actually helping their teammates to defeat the monsters.

The same is true for our reclusive Half-orc Artificer at the elven ball. Sure, you’re making him take a turn now, but if all he’s going to do is add a failure to his team’s count they’d be better off without him.

So how do you let him contribute anyway?

For starters we could ditch the idea that failing at skill rolls is necessarily going to make things worse. When you miss an attack in combat you don’t hurt yourself or your team, you just don’t make anything better – meaning that the baddies have more time to spend stabbing you. Watching the description by Matt Colville put me slightly away from that perspective – in my home games we use penalties such as the idea of blocks falling he explores that don’t contribute to failing the challenge, merely hurt the person making the attempt.

Given as we’ve already implemented rounds, that seems to be the natural place to move the potential of failing the challenge – rather than keeping track of the number of rolls that have been failed instead we will keep track of the number of rounds that have passed. In cases where outright failure of the challenge is a good answer there can be a simple deadline, for instance “get as many successes as you can in three rounds” – while in other cases there could be a smaller penalty for each round that happens.

So the Half-orc Artificer isn’t making things worse for the party, and may even be contributing a little. For 13th age an 8 charisma and no backgrounds means a normal skill check DC has somewhere between a 1 in 6 and 1 in 3 chance of success, depending on level. Not great, but far from nothing – he may not be good at schmoozing, but there’s always a chance of hitting it off.

Still – we can do better. Any game I run becomes somewhat narrativist, it’s just part of how I GM, and 13th Age is very good at supporting that tendency, so we’re going to lean into that: If a player can come up with a way in which a more unusual background could be useful to the situation, they can roll it. 

On a success, that situation they imagined comes to pass and the skill comes in handy; on a failure it either never comes up, or they don’t manage to take advantage – for instance, the Half-Orc Artificer might be rolling Int+ “Official Master Craftsman in the Concord Consortium” to give an epic description of his latest inventions to an interested elf. If successful, the elf is impressed and moved to support the team that contains such a gifted inventor; if unsuccessful the elf they talked the ear off of has no interest in mechanical devices and was just too polite to say so.

In a similarly narrative vein, we like to allow flashbacks during the challenge, especially during the first round – something that they did prior to the challenge that turns out to be helpful now, such as acquiring the right clothing, or tutoring their allies in the niceties of elven dining.

You may notice that this has a lot in common with 13th age’s Montage System, introduced by Ashley Law – though with more of a possibility of failure – this is something of a case of convergent evolution, and I think is a good sign that what is being developed here fits the 13th Age ethos. Perhaps, then, the guidelines for these Extended Challenges should take a little inspiration from Montages – encouraging players to suggest challenges their allies are suited to overcoming.

Takeaways from this step:

  1. Skill challenges happen in rounds
  2. It’s bad for the players to take too many rounds to achieve success
    1. Failed rolls may have penalties, but won’t lead to failing the challenge
  3. Allow unusual approaches if properly justified
    1. Flashbacks can expand the range of justifiable actions, in interesting ways
    2. Players suggesting challenges that their comrades can overcome is fun.
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