I’ve been busy the last couple years and haven’t done much blogging or GMing for games. Last summer, however, I ran an adventure as a guest GM for someones 4th edition game. Party was told to find the burial site of an ancient chieftain, acquire a mysterious item and bring it back. Fairly simple stuff. This cairn was across a river and I decided to make the river a skill challenge. It turned out really great.
Want to know how I did it? I told them the had a river before them and it was moving really fast.
I liked the concept of skill challenges in 4th edition. But everyone learned quickly that they were designed poorly. It’s too easy to create a challenge with a specific sequence of actions required to succeed. The problem with this is that the players don’t know what this sequence is or how to figure it out and it leaves everyone confused as to what to do.
The players, being normal players, assumed I had some elaborate plan on how the river works and how much damage it will do. That assumption kept them coming up with new ideas to tackle the river. There was no time limit so I let them have their fun and they got creative. They used utility powers, rituals, equipment in their bags, and their skills. They made some improptu grappling hooks that got swept down the river. They tried summoning animals with a ritual to get a bird to fly over head with a rope.
Needless to say, the party tried a lot of things because they assumed I had some nefarious plan to destroy them if they didn’t cross the river in a logical manner. They made it across safely except for one character who failed an athletics check. As a penalty I made him lose a healing surge. After all was said and done these mighty D&D heroes feared and respected that river.
I drew a number of conclusions about my GMing style from this:
1) Not everything needs to be planned out in detail. Sometimes a little description and a few dice rolls is all it takes. In fact, this is exactly what an RPG is, and I sometimes forget that. Let the players assume this is all preplanned, as long as they feel danger or suspense while rolling skill checks you look like a great GM.
2) ‘Mundane’ challenges are sometimes the best. Sometimes I try to butt heads with my players and present challenges directed at their strengths, this is counterproductive I think. Ordinary challenges that a regular person would have to overcome in the wilderness are good enough for your game. Sure the fighter in the party made it across the river but now he has to worry about the wizard who couldn’t roll an athletics check to save his life.
3) Travel is important. I used to disregard traveling in my campaigns and didn’t realise the importance of traveling in a campaign. If structured right, the way you handle traveling can be very important. 4th edition has a number of items, skills, and rituals focused on travel and I used to leave it completely out of my game. There is a huge chunk of stuff in the 4e books that I never used because of this. My players haven’t used rope in a long time until this river came up.
Long Story Short
Players think the GM is smarter than he/she really is, and we should let them keep thinking that. Also, if you have no idea what you’re going to run for your next session create an obstacle and let your players come up with the solution.