Something that comes up a lot when I’m prepping one-shots is what I’ll call the Perilous Non-Combat Encounter. Whether the players are trekking through a dangerous wilderness, spelunking down a cave, hiding from orcs in the forest, or racing to find a vaccine for the alien mind-plague, these are non-combat situations that are big set-piece encounters, where the whole group are involved and working together to achieve a goal.
Often systems address one or more of these as specific subsystems – rules for Chases, or Social Combat, or Deathtraps – but I like to have some systems for these even when the rules set doesn’t directly do the heavy lifting for me.
There are a few ways to handle these, which I’ve stolen from a few different systems – I’ve used all of these at one point or another in my games, and I’ve tried to analyse which is best for which approach below. Things they have in common are, generally:
- they are adaptable to a wide variety of situations. They aren’t a chase subsystem, or a mountaineering subsystem, or a mass combat subsystem – it can be used for all three of those at different times
- they allow the whole group to make rolls. This isn’t Netrunning – where the one super-skilled PC gets all the fun while the rest of the group watch passively
- there’s some flexibility in what skills can be used to tackle the obstacle. If they’re climbing a cliff, along Athletics checks to actually climb, maybe they use Sleight of Hand to check the knots in the rope, or Navigation to plot an easier route – or even Sing to raise the spirits of their companions
- there are consequences to failure – normally group consequences, which might be in terms of plot, or might be in terms of system (everyone take 1d6 damage from the arctic winds) – although there’s one exception to this below in the Turn-Taking section
I’ve broken these down into four main approaches – although this is certainly a non-exhaustive list – below:
The Skill Challenge
In this approach, originating in 4e D&D, your group has to accumulate a number of successes before they make 3 failures. There’s an excellent post here about how that would work in D&D 5e, and a post here with lots of 4e examples. This caused some controversy when it first came out for 4th ed (not least because they had to swiftly issue errata changing some of the difficulty levels), but it’s a solid way to introduce a challenge while still making it perilous and having real chance of failure.
Be warned that you probably need to make each skill check easier than you might think, or have an exciting consequence for failure. Failure in these kinds of situations is often less fun in a one-shot as some of the consequences may take time up – and in a one-shot, time is a precious commodity. So if they fail the skill challenge to sneak around the forest and the consequence is they have to fight orcs, that’s time that could be spent fighting the green dragon at the end that they have to waste on the orcs. Better to make all the DCs lower (or whatever margin of success your system uses) and let them show how they overcome the problem like the heroes that they are.
The three failures thing can also be tweaked – there is a risk that the first three players all fail and the remaining players don’t get a chance to contribute. To avoid this, you can increase the failure threshold to four failures, which makes this much more unlikely to happen (or impossible, if you have four players). Or you can allow the remaining players a check to avert disaster at the last – although the skill challenge has been failed, perhaps they have a chance to mitigate some of the most deadly effects of it.
The Tolerance Test
This comes from The One Ring, which uses this to resolve social encounters. Each time you meet an NPC you set a Tolerance – this is usually related to the PC’s best Valour or Wisdom score, maybe with contextual bonuses or penalties. The players take turns trying to impress the NPC, with each failure taking one point of Tolerance away, until there is no Tolerance left. Then, the number of successes they have amassed gives the margin of success – so maybe the NPC grudgingly allows them to be on their way, or maybe they shower them with gifts or praise.
The Tolerance is usually around 3, so it’s as easy if you’re adapting this to another system to just set it at 3. The difference between this and the Skill Challenge is that there’s no specific “failure” condition – just a sliding scale of outcomes – which makes this a good approach if you’re more interested in how well they do. For instance, if they are climbing the peak to find the cloud giant castle atop it, we know they need to climb the peak – the question is whether they arrive bedraggled and fatigued, or fresh and ready for the fight to come.
In prepping this, you need to work out what different levels of success overall look like – so if the party get 0-2 successes, 3-4 successes, or 5 or more succeses, for instance. It’s also worth having an idea of what Critical successes look like – in One Ring, great successes are worth 2 points, and extraordinary successes are worth 3, which gives more influence over some great rolls and also make spending any resources to boost rolls worthwhile.
The other advantage of this is that there is a defined end point – the challenge will be resolved one way or another and the players pointing where you want them to go at the end of it. Once they reach the best outcome you have planned on the outcome table, as long as everyone has had a go, you can cut it there and assume they have finished the challenge.
The First To Three
I think this first came up in Fate Core as Contests, described in the Fate SRD here. Basically, you have two or more sides, and the first to accumulate three successes is the victor. This obviously works well if you are competing against something (say if you and the orcs are both racing up the peak to the cloud giant castle) but you can also make it work by rolling for the opposition (maybe the peak has a +5 bonus to try and thwart you and rolls each time).
One advantage here is that everyone rolls at once, which keeps everyone a bit more involved – although this will work better face to face than if you are running online, where better turn discipline is sometimes needed. This also works if there are multiple ‘teams’ acting – maybe the orcs, the peak, and the PCs are all competing for the cloud giant castle. You can either make everyone roll against a set difficulty, or allow opposed rolls in whatever way your system allows them – a simple D&D hack would be that everyone who rolls above DC 15 get to mark a success, and the team with the highest roller on it gets to mark two.
This is the simplest way to look at a challenge, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. This is easy to add in if you want to respond to a new approach the players have tried, as it needs minimal prep beforehand. Basically, in turns each player rolls the skill that fits their approach to the situation, and suffer individual consequences for failure. Then once everyone has taken their rolls, you look at the successes and failures and give an overall picture of how successful they have been. So, while they climb the peak, each failure makes that individual take 1d6 damage (or something) and then after they have all rolled, you make a judgement on how successful overall they have been – again this works better if you need a successful outcome overall, and need to see how smoothly they achieve it.
This works well where there are ways players can support one another with successful rolls – so in FFG Star Wars / Genesys allow Advantage results to be converted into Boost dice for the other players, or the Momentum system that 2d20 uses. It is also quick and finite in terms of time required.
If players want to use powers or spells instead of their skills, personally I’m really flexible about this – with the allowance that they have to expend a resource. So a daily spell, or a spell they can only cast 2 or 3 times in the scenario, will if it fits allow an automatic success. In 13th Age, Icons and Runes can certainly be used – if I’m feeling generous, I’ll even allow them to be spent after the roll to flip a failure to a success.
These can also, of course, be used to resolve combat as well. There’s a future post planned about handling mass combat in One-Shots, but one way to handle it is of course using one of these skill challenges.
What other methods have you used for non-combat resolution beyond a single skill check? Comment below, or let me know @milnermaths on twitter. In the next post, I’ll post with examples of each of these challenges – probably for D&D, but if you’ve a particular request for a system, let me know in the comments.