Combat in 13th Age is very structured, but outside combat it is a lot looser. Most of the time, I find this flexibility useful, but occasionally it’s useful to provide more structured and defined challenges outside combat.
In the F20 family of games I first encountered this kind of structure in D&D’s 4th Edition – but it felt half-baked, and often functioned poorly in our games. So, inspired by that game’s Skill Challenges we developed our own style of Extended Challenge for home use; and now we’re developing it further in order to use it in future 13th Age work.
Our home system is a simple skeleton that gets fleshed out arbitrarily for any RPG we’re playing (from buffy to fate): Gameplay proceeds in rounds so that everyone is involved. How many rounds you took to reach your goal is likely to matter; repeating the same action over and over results in an increased DC, or is impossible if there’s no fiction justification; there’s no set list of skills that contribute – if the player has a good explanation for how their action aids the party then it can work; there are more options than just “roll to move towards victory” – ways to boost other players and mitigate downsides.
But that skeleton is held together by a set of assumptions that we’ve never written down, so rather than trying to work backward from that I’m here starting from scratch again over the course of these blogs – so as to ensure that the final product holds together in the wild, rather than relying on quirks of my own GMing style.
So here are the explicit goals that I’m going to work toward when creating the Extended Challenges system:
- Sharing the Spotlight:
In combat every player takes part regularly. In more loose-weave situations it’s common for one or more player characters to end up uninvolved – for instance when socialising with elves the mechanical genius half-orc probably won’t have much to say.
When big stakes are in play it’s nice to make sure everyone gets some level of input into the outcome. 4th Edition’s skill challenges often punished you for doing so – if the half-orc made a skill check they would make the team more likely to fail, and so their best bet was to stay quiet so there was no chance they’d be called upon to roll.
If the Half-orc Artificer with 8 charisma and no diplomatic background contributes to your elven ball by charming the nobles, things start to feel out of place. It’s important for each character’s contributions to feel like they come from that character.
- Meaningful Choices
At its most basic, combat is a constant repetition of “roll to attack the thing in front of you with your best attack” until either it falls over or you do. If you’re a 13th Age player that’s almost certainly not your preferred flavour of fun – even the simplest class has significantly more going on than that.
At its most basic a skill challenge would consist of rolling your best background+ability combination repeatedly until you either succeed or fail. That’s no more fun outside of combat than it is in combat, so we need something more to play with.
- Non-binary Stakes
Pass/fail is acceptable for a single roll, but when you’re going to be devoting a meaningful portion of your session to something it’s nice to have some middle ground – some possibility of an expensive victory where the resources expended (spells, powers, recoveries, etc.) put a significant crimp in your ability to move forward, or of a partial victory where you only achieve some of what you were aiming for – for instance, avoiding the guard patrol on your way into the archvillain’s castle, but not making it all the way to his bedchambers before the alarm is raised.
- Fitting the Game
Different games have different feels, themes and mechanical underpinnings. While a skeleton of a system can exist outside of the game in which it is to be used – and indeed, if you follow this series of blog posts I’ll start by building such a skeleton – fleshing it out such that it belongs as part of the game is a vital step. And it’s a step that is far easier if you keep it in mind throughout the process.
Those are the goals, but how can we go about achieving them? I’ve got a few more blog posts coming talking about our approach, but we’d love to hear your thoughts on how to approach such a challenge. Let us know here, or on Facebook.