Thursday, September 2, 2010

Skill Challenge Play By Play: A Tragedy in Two Acts

I was asked to provide play-by-play of the skill challenge I built into the opening House of Wookiees encounter. I can’t as I haven’t run the encounter since adding the skill challenge. However, last Friday my gaming group had two fun skill challenges. For the last couple of sessions, I ran modules as a break from the campaign’s main plot. Friday’s module was adapted from the Living Force adventure “Coruscani Dawn.”
The PCs have been helping Mace Windu rescue captured Jedi. You read that correctly. In my campaign, Mace barely survived the fall from Palpatine’s window, and after years of healing and cybernetic surgery, he helped Senator Organa and others hide Jedi from the Empire’s wrath. The story begins with Mace finding seven Mandalorian iron boxes, sealed by Sith alchemy. They cannot be destroyed or opened without rare equipment and a ritual. Mace has a contact on Coruscant to help him open the boxes, which supposedly hold pieces of an ancient city built with the power of the dark side. Another box holds a powerful Sith artifact. When Mace walks out of the Sith temple with these boxes, a dark Jedi cult catches wind of what Master Windu found, and they attack. The Empire also discovers the artifacts have resurfaced and sends agents after them. Mace decides to separate the boxes and have a trusted transport crew each deliver a single box from Cularin to Coruscant. Hopefully, this will confuse the cult and Empire, and the boxes will get to their destination. Of course, the PCs are entrusted with a box.
There are only a couple of routes out of the Cularin system because of surrounding asteroid and comet belts. The PCs decided not to blaze their own trail through the asteroids and comets and to stick to the narrow, crowded space lane. Suddenly, their ship lurched as a Barloz transport tried to force its way past. The com crackled to life as the Barloz transport taunted the PCs. “Is that you, Grandma? I’m in a hurry, Granny. I’m on an important top secret mission. Yee-haw!”
“Identify yourself, Barloz transport,” Shaler demanded.
“This is Jek Porkins of the Bantha Ribs Buffet. I ain’t got time to chit-chat. Move it, or I’ll move you into that asteroid field.”
The module reads, “A hotshot pilot who goes this way is really going to have to give his ion engine all its got to avoid being caught at the rear of the pack, and if he manages to make it to the front, he finds himself racing another pilot for the far side of the comet cloud. If they really want to race, utilize the Generic Pilot from the rule book. Kindly remind the players it is one of their allies, and it is bad form to shoot their allies. If they end up stuck in traffic, gloss over this section.”
Well, that sounds like it involves a couple of pilot rolls, and the other players can twiddle their thumbs in boredom. A skill challenge keeps everyone involved. On the Order 66 Podcast forums I’d seen the stats for Jek Porkins, a fave from the movies. I wanted a lot of cameos in this module, so I chose to use him.
Who’s Who:
Before I go into the play-by-play. Here are the characters’ names and a brief summary.
Mac El Guapo is a middle-aged human scoundrel. He serves as the party’s sniper. Recently, he died in a battle with some dark Jedi. Mysteriously, he woke up from the dead, Force sensitive and tainted by the dark side. He’s also haunted by a Force spirit who wants Mac to atone and learn the ways of the Force.
Shaler is a human fugitive Jedi. He’s been getting by in the Galaxy as an information broker and freelance pilot.
Ssoy is our resident Gungan brawler. This Gungan has gone up against Gammoreans and even successfully grappled a hydra.
Winston, a teenage Rodian soldier, loves demolitions, destruction and big guns.
Garrett (moi) is their lucky GM.
 GM: So, are you going to let Porkins past, or are you going to take him on?
Shaler & Ssoy: We’re going to kick his butt.
GM: Great. You’ve entered a [fanfare] skill challenge.
The players groan. This is a natural reaction to a skill challenge announcement.
GM: This is Complexity one, which means you need only three successes to accomplish it. But we’re using the antagonist special effect… which means you don’t have to worry about the skill challenge ending when you blow three skill checks. Instead, the skill challenge ends if Porkins gets three successes before you do. Does this make sense?
[Crickets chirp.]
GM: Everyone clear on how this works?
Winston, Mac, Ssoy and Shaler mutter something affirmative.
GM: Good. What other fun rules do we have this challenge? You have the Second Effort effect. That means, if you blow a skill check, you can still make it count as a success… however, your spaceship will drop a step down the condition track.
Mac: I have a bad feeling about this.
GM: That’s nice, Mac. Five points. [I award five xp for every clever line of dialogue that amuses me. A key element of a Star Wars story is witty writing.] Now, there is also a skill use limit. Only one of you can make a Pilot skill check… at least until everyone else has had a turn at making a skill check. Keep in mind a lot of the skills, including the Knowledge skills… if you use them successfully, they’ll give the driver a bonus on his Pilot check. So, you may want to hold off making that Pilot check until everyone has had a chance to do things that can give you bonuses on your flying.
Shaler: I get it. Okay, I want to make a Use Computer check to look into BoSS records to see if I can learn anything about this Porkins and his ship.
[Shaler is an established infochant and should be able to get to these records. Someone who has never tried to gain access to government records of this type would have a much more difficult time… and would probably need to spend several rounds on this attempt.]
He rolls and gets a 23. The predetermined Use Computer DC was 17. Success number one.
GM: The Bantha Ribs Buffet is not a registered ship, and the transponder information you are receiving from the ship is a fraud. You do find info on Jek Porkins. He’s wanted for making raids on Imperial convoys.
Shaler: So he’s probably on our side, delivering a box for Master Windu. We better not destroy him.
Ssoy: I’d like to make a Knowledge: Technology check to identify the kind of ship Porkins is flying… and figure out any weaknesses we can exploit.
GM: Great idea. Make a roll.
He rolls a 19, better than the predetermined DC 17. Success number two.
GM:  It is a Barloz-class transport. [I pull up information and a picture on Wookieepedia]. Here’s something you can exploit… it has better engines for speed but is nowhere near as maneuverable as your YT-2400. [I have to confess I didn’t compare stats. I just made this information up. Honestly, I didn’t see any benefit to stalling the game so I could do a thorough comparison between the two ships].
Winston: Looks like a fish, moves like a fish, steers like a cow. I want to set it up so our ship dumps its trash and some spare parts into Porkins’s path… so he’ll be pinned between our ship, the trash and the asteroids.
GM: Interesting. I guess you’ll need to make a Mechanics skill check.
Winston rolls. He gets a 15. The Mechanics skill check is DC 17. I grit my teeth.
GM: Winston, do you think you should use a Force point?
Winston: I’m not letting him get ahead of us.
Winston rolls a Force die and gets a new total of 18. Success.
GM: Great. Toiletries, cables and waste from the refresher spews out the back of the ship, also managing to gross out Porkins.
I roll Porkins’s Pilot check as a reaction. He gets a 21, better than Winston’s 18.
GM: Porkins pulls his Barloz out of the way of the waste and narrowly rounds a medium-size asteroid. By the time he returns to the spaceway, you are clear of the asteroid belt and can make your jump to hyperspace, leaving Porkins in the dust.
Ssoy: That is a cool ship. I’m going to spend the time in hyperspace trying to find a good deal on a used Barloz.
This skill challenge was only CL 6. Most of the players are 7th and 8th level. This shouldn’t be a challenge they throw too many Force and destiny points into. It is just a fun little bit of flavor and team-building exercise before the main plot kicks into gear.
Porkins was only going to get a turn after each of the PCs went, so the odds were really good the PCs were going to beat him at this skill challenge. If the dice really failed the PCs, Porkins would have shoved past the PCs and sent them spiraling at an asteroid. I would randomly determine what systems went bust in the crash. The PCs might spend time fixing the ship, or they might go on without making the repairs. I believe the cost of failure for a minor skill challenge, as this one was, should be minor time and resources lost. They would fall behind on the mission, having to fix the ship. Plus, they would consume physical resources to patch the ship together. They might even have to pay someone to repair the ship back at Cularin or on Coruscant. This is nothing like the heroes losing limbs and catching on fire or having to face Darth Vader himself as a cost for failure. Those kinds of things are appropriate for high-importance skill challenges.
The second skill challenge took place after the PCs landed on Coruscant. They noticed blaster fire on a landing pad a couple hundred meters away. After looking at the ship through macrobinoculars, the PCs realized they had seen the ship leaving Cularin with them. It took a bit of convincing from the PCs’ Coruscani contact, Juno Eclipse, to go over to the scene of the blaster fight and find out if the Mandalorian iron box was still in the crew’s custody. It was not. A group of humans in black skin-tight clothing had ambushed the crew. A human female had been the first out of the ship. She was shot from behind and fell off the platform. A Wookiee was knocked unconscious with stun weapons. A Jedi who was traveling with the group was shot dead. Luckily, another crew member had been resourceful enough to fire a homing beacon onto the raiders’ speeder. The PCs took the receiver, climbed aboard a transport and gave chase, following the thieves into the lower levels of Coruscant.
The original module  reads, “There is no good traffic lane leading down, in part because very few people want to go to the Undercity. It’s therefore a little tricky to dodge the other ships in the upper levels. This should be done via description, not dice-rolling.”
I think it is a lot more fun to give the PCs control over their plummet into the Undercity.
GM: All right, you’re racing at top speed, weaving through traffic coming at you from every direction and not seeming to care you’re there. Sounds like another skill challenge. Hooray. Who is piloting?
Ssoy: That would be me.
GM: Just like the last skill challenge, certain skills, including Knowledge checks can give bonuses to your piloting check, so you may want to hold off on doing that until the others act.
Ssoy: No problem.
GM: First, some rules. We have Catastrophic failure. Miss a skill check by ten or more, you get two failures for the price of one. Ouch. We have Recovery. Make a check by five or more, and you can cash in that success to erase a failure. Finally, we have the Degenerating special effect. When you get a success, the DCs drop by five. When you get a failure, they go up by five. Who wants to start the madness?
Shaler: I have the receiver, so I’ll make a Use Computer check to figure out how close they are.
GM: Great idea. Make a Use Computer check.
Shaler rolls. He gets a 20. I grit my teeth.
GM: Shaler, how do you feel about using a Force point?
Shaler: I feel pretty good about that.
Shaler rolls his Force point and gets a new total of 23. He just makes it.
GM: A Force point very well spent. There’s total chaos on the receiver, from all the electronic signs and tons of comlinks and passing vehicles with every conceivable electronic device adding to the cacophony of electric noise. But you are able to determine the thieves are not horribly far ahead. They’re down a ways and to the left.
Shaler: I relay that info.
Mac: I guess I’ll make a Perception check to try and eyeball the enemy speeder.
GM: That makes sense. With Shaler’s success, the DC is a little easier, which makes sense, since you know where to be looking.
Mac rolls a 21. He makes the check.
GM: They aren’t being too subtle, flying around every vehicle in their path… and the other drivers are sounding horns at them. You catch a glimpse of their speeder before it disappears behind a droid towing an abandoned speeder.
Ssoy: I’ll make a Piloting check to catch up to those guys.
Ssoy rolls a natural one on his d20. This is a critical failure in my games.
Ssoy: Oh no. A Force point won’t help, will it?
GM: I wouldn’t spend one if I was you.
Ssoy: Darn.
GM: Shaler is yelling, “They’re ahead to the left.” Mac is practically turning your neck for you to where they are. Too bad you were distracted. You fly right through a billboard. Crackle. Crackle. Crash. A cut out of an R2 wearing a chef’s hat, advertising Dexter’s Diner, winds up plastered against your windshield. It’s cute, but it isn’t helping you drive. The speeder also moves a step down the condition track. And hey look… that was a catastrophic failure. You get two failures.
Winston: Let me through. I’ll make a Mechanics check to fix the speeder.
GM: A wise move. Make a roll.
Winston rolls a 22. With the -5 to the DC from the two successes and single failure, he is successful.
GM: The engine sounds like it ate some of that droid’s cooking and is about to either die or vomit. You mess with some controls under the dash. For a moment, it sounds like the engine is dying, as the clunks become softer and fewer between. Then, the speeder rockets forward, and the engine purrs better than ever. Congrats. That’s three successes. You win. But the other speeder… there’s a bright flash as the speeder you were following plows into a walkway a hundred meters beneath you and explodes.
Ssoy: Did the box get destroyed?
GM: You can’t tell right now. You can find out next session, as we continue “The House of Wookiees Campaign.”
Winston (played by my old lady, Mari): You and your cliffhangers.
If the PCs blew the challenge, they would have crashed also, taking 6d10 damage. This would not take out any of the characters but would put them at a big disadvantage for the rest of the adventure.
Note the higher DCs. This was a CL9 challenge. It was designed to be harder and make the heroes spend force and destiny points to avoid defeat. I consider it to be of medium importance, as far as the encounter is concerned, and I wanted to get across to the players how significant this chase was.
I hope this better explains the wonderful world of skill challenges. If you have any questions, please post them, and I will try to promptly respond. Below, I am posting all the notes I had and needed to run these skill challenges.
Race through the Asteroids Skill Challenge CL 6   Complexity 1
Setup: Several pilots are running boxes containing dark side artifacts to Coruscant. One pilot, Jek Porkins races the heroes out of the asteroids first.

Suggested Skills:
Deception: DC 17
Initiative: DC 20
Know Galactic Lore: 22
Know Phy Science 22
Know Tech 17
Know skills will give next pilot roll +2 bonus
Mechanics: 17 (with know tech) 22 without
Perception 17
Perusasion 17
Pilot 27
Use Comp 17
Use Force 17
Special fx
Antagonist: only get failure when Jek gets success
Restricted Skills: only one pilot check per initiative round
Second effort: move ship down cond track -1 to turn failure into success

To the Undercity skill challenge CL 9 Complexity 1
Deception: Feint other drivers DC 23
Initiative: DC 18
Know Galactic Lore: 18
Know Phys Sciences: 18
Tactics: 23
Tech 18
Mechanics: 23
Percept 18
Persuasion 23
Pilot 23
Use Comp 23
UTF 23
Special fx
Catastrophic failure

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