Tuesday, August 31, 2010

House of Wookiees Campaign Upgrade Part 1: Skill Challenges

Another Galaxy, Another Time..
Winston, a teenage Rodian, sat uncomfortably in the plasma-like chair. He found it difficult to focus on the holovid program. Mon Mothma’s recorded voice detailed the history of the Alliance to Restore the Republic. There were so many odd beings around him… like the gray-haired noble in the dark cloak and the red-head human girl in the flight suit. Most frightening of all was the Wookiee. Its yellow eyes threatened to start trouble. If the Wook did, Winston would not back down.
Was it Winston’s nerves, or was there a rumbling? It didn’t seem to be coming from the holodisplay… although it wasn’t out of place with the graphic war footage showing the Kwymar Suppression.
Boom! Part of the roof collapsed. Winston sank into the heart of the plasma chair and floated helplessly as though encased in carbonite. Debris rained all around him, smashing the holoprojector… and most of Winston’s orientation class. The majestic telescope plummeted past Winston and vanished down the stairwell, taking out whole flights of stairs in the process. By the time Winston, the Wook, the noble and red-head forced themselves out of the impact-safe prototype chairs, Winston realized they were the only survivors. The Sarge was bent over backwards with the telescope’s mount impaling him through the chest.
More TIE bombers streaked across the sky visible through the elongated portal. What was that at the edge of the hole? A ladder? It was propped against a support beam now at a 45 degree angle, leaning against another beam, which vanished behind a computer bank. It was risky, though entirely possible to climb to the portal then the roof.
An annoying buzz filled the stairwell shaft in the center of the room, where the telescope had fallen and vanished. Winston blinked, staring downward. His mind swam among the refracted images surrounding him. The holoprojector lens had cracked and now, he looked through distorted views of the orientation video; what was real and what was part of Alliance History 101? He looked up to find himself surrounded by three different groups. Each one was comprised of an Imperial officer pulling a baby from its mother’s arms, then throwing the youngling beneath the wheels of an oncoming tracked transport.
Three black-armored troopers rocketed from the debris swirling in the stairwell. “Freeze!” the lead jumptrooper ordered as the other two raised their blaster rifles. Blue energy bursts fired from the barrels. The Wookiee howled and charged, intent to knock one of the jumptroopers down the stairwell. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get a grip on the jetpack-mounted Emperor’s minion.
The holovideo changed to show the interior of a cantina. A group of old men were blockading the door. Grenades flew through the windows and clattered to the floor like apples falling from a tree. All was consumed in fire. Winston raised his arm as if that would prevent him from getting burned, as if he really could get burned by the holovid. Blue blaster bolts streaked past him. That could really hurt him. He raised his blaster and put a hole in a trooper’s chestplate. The trooper fell backwards, vanishing down the stairwell.
“Get over here,” the red head ordered as she began to climb the computer bank. “Time to leave this party.”
Imagine being the player running Winston or his companions. You struggle to make it from the observatory to the portal ladder dangling high above the duracrete floor. There is as much risk of being killed in this escape attempt as there is fighting the jumptroopers. You experience gripping moments as the red head slips and barely clings to the edge of the beam. You dive, sliding on your belly, arms outreached to catch the girl before she drops. The gray-haired man, you learn, was an engineer before he joined the Rebellion. He walks around the observatory, makes a couple of quick calculations on his datapad then instructs you and your cohorts to shove a toppled caf brewer between two support beams to gain a little more stability.
When you finally get through it all, as your green hands pull you up the ladder to the “safety” of the dome’s roof, are you going to be satisfied if the GM only gives you xp for defeating the jumptroopers?
I wouldn’t. But when I wrote the first scene of the House of Wookiees campaign, which the first part of this entry describes, I did just that. Back then, Galaxy of Intrigue wasn’t available, and I hadn’t yet played Dungeons and Dragons 4e.
When Winston and his companions fought their way out of the observatory at the unveiling of House of Wookiees, there still wasn’t Galaxy of Intrigue. During the inaugural session, the PCs made a dramatic series of climb checks on their way to the portal. There were a few by the skin of their teeth moments, but there wasn’t any inspired creative skill uses that serve as the cornerstone of a well-run skill challenge. No one tried to make a Use Computer check to move an overhead catwalk against one of the beams, securing the structure and making it easier to climb. No one made a Mechanics check to reinforce the beams.
Star Wars is about creative problem solving. Sometimes the heroes are successful, like when Han and Luke donned stormtrooper costumes and pretended to deliver Chewie to the detention block as part of a prisoner transfer. Sometimes they fail disastrously, like in the same scene when Han failed to deceive the security officers that “Everything is fine here”).
The other day I was reading Edge of Victory: Rebirth by Greg Keyes. He tickled me with his masterful understanding of Han and Leia’s dynamics. He really thrilled me with the creative solutions he provided his characters. For instance, the Falcon was floating powerless in space, having been yanked from hyperspace by a Vong warship. As Han worked to restore power, Anakin sealed 3PO in the cabin that had access to the waste removal tube. He ordered 3PO to physically push concussion missiles out the waste chute toward the massive Vong warship. Then, Anakin remotely detonated the missiles once they reached the target. Great thinking, kid!
As in the example above, skill challenges push players to think beyond obvious solutions. Using the observatory scenario, the easy to think of skill choices would be climb and jump. A great skill challenge will cause the players to stretch their creative muscles and hone in on their characters’ unique strengths.
In the movies, when there is combat, the characters play to their strengths. They don’t all pick up a blaster and hope to shoot better than the stormtroopers. Artoo is quick to find a computer port and shut doors on the enemy or open doors so his allies can make their escape. Leia provides covering fire for Artoo or other allies using noncombative skills in a combat encounter. Lando uses Deception to catch his enemies off guard, like when he orders the Wing Guard on Cloud City to ambush the stormtrooper patrol, or when he disguises himself as a guard in Jabba’s Palace and on the skiff over the sarlacc pit. Ben Kenobi preferred to use Stealth and Use the Force skill checks to go about the Death Star unnoticed to reach the tractor beam controls.
Here’s a non-Star Wars example. While playing Living Forgotten Realms, my character, Claethia the Bard, took part in a skill challenge where the goal was to catch the plague-ridden rats the mad man had set loose. I thought about my character. Was Claethia great at shishkabobbing them on a sword or arrow? Could she cast a sleeping spell? She was a bard. Bingo! “I want to do a Pied Piper,” I told my DM. I’m certain there weren’t any clarifications in the module about how to do this. We ended up treating it as a Persuasion check with some modifiers to account for the power of the bard. There were many great moments in the combat encounters that gaming session, but what I think a lot of players still remember about the game was the Pied Piper skill challenge.
The TIE bombers blast the observatory. Jumptroopers emerge from the stairwell. There’s a chase to the portal at the top of the observatory. The rebels scurry up beams and debris, all of which could collapse any moment. The way I rewrote this encounter, it will be much more exciting than a couple of Climb checks. It will challenge Wookiees to make astounding leaps and Mechanics checks to use their wits to prevent the whole thing from crashing down. Once everyone is finally safe on the roof… they will get well-earned xp.

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