I like Skill Challenges, but I think they really shine in fast paced, action set piece type of scenes. However, many seem to only use them as a substitute for travel, rather than the tense scenes they can be. I was inspired to create these based on classic adventure movies like Indiana Jones.
So I propose a new way of thinking about them, a 4th type of a encounter to go along with Social, Exploration, and Combat; the Terrain Encounter.
While Social and Explorations are often slower paced interaction, Terrain Encounters fit more in with Combat Encounters, emphasizing fast paced action.
Start with a theater of the mind combat, then replace the enemies with either the "terrain" or elements in the environment. The "terrain" in this sense is both the literal place and situation the PCs are in. The terrain has its own initiative count, and takes Lair Actions on its turn. Then you play it out like a normal skill challenge, where the PCs have to get a certain number of success before 3 failures. In order to encourage creativity, PCs must wait one round to use the same skill again.
Example: The PCs are trying to steer a ship through a raging storm in the open sea. In this sense, the ship, storm, and waves are all the environment. On initiative count 0, lighting strikes the mast, causing it to collapse and setting the ship on fire. One PC could make a dex save to jump out of the way of the falling mast, another could make a survival check to put out the flames.
Elements of the Terrain
If you want, you can split up the terrain into different elements. In our storm example above, the environment could be split into the sea, the wind, the lighting, even the boat. The sea could surge upward, causing it to sweep over the deck; the wind could tear loose the sails; the boat could heave and fall on the waves.
However, this would affect the action economy. You can also skip an element's turn if the players are getting too overwhelmed.
Lair Actions and Conditions
Actions taken by the terrain are essentially Lair Actions, and may be one off attacks or lasting condition. Using the above example, a one off might be the player being tossed from the rigging to the deck below, taking fall damage. A lasting condition might be the ship catching on fire, or being thrown overboard to drown.
Success and Failure
Like a normal skill challenge, the PCs must get a certain number of successes before 3 failures. However success and failure doesn't mean a total success or failure. In the above example, if the players overall succeed but still roll 2 failures, their make it through the storm but their boat might be damaged from the storm, or a crew NPCs may have been swept overboard.
Likewise a failure doesn't mean total failure. The PCs might end up shipwrecked on an island, tending to their wounds. Or they may be drowning, but then suddenly kidnapped by merrow who were waiting just below the surface trying to pick off survivors.
As what is typical with 5e design, you want your players to fail forward.
You can add enemies to your Terrain Encounters, but I would advise making them only minions with 1 HP each. This is to avoid making the Terrain Encounter into a more complex Combat Encounter. In the storm example, you might add flying creatures that harass the PCs during the storm, or water creatures climbing aboard. Lair Actions and Conditions also effect these creatures.
I've compiled a list of Terrain Encounters that I think would make great action set pieces, and really shows what you can do with these.
- Panicked Crowd – Something makes everyone around the PCs panic, threatening to trample them. Complexity: 6 successes before 3 failures. Lair Actions Slam, DC 12. A person slams into a PC. On a failed check the creature is knocked prone. Trample, DC 15. A PC knocked prone takes 1d10 damage per round until they can get back up. Crowd Push, DC 15. The crowd pushes into the PC. On a failed check the PC is moved 5 feet per round.
Success and Failure Success: The PCs manage to escape the crowd with minimal injuries. Failure: Any PC knocked prone risks being trampled to death.
- Raging Rapids – The PCs are caught in rapids Complexity: 6 successes before 3 failures Lair Actions Boat Heave, DC 12. The boat heaves up and down. On a failed check the creature is tossed overboard.
Rocks, DC 15. The boat or creature are slammed into rocks. On a failed check the boat or creature takes damage.
Short Waterfall, DC 15. The boat or creature is careening towards a waterfall. On failed save, the boat or creature goes over the waterfall taking damage.
Drowning, DC 10. A creature in the water is engulfed in water. On a failed check the creature is drowning until they make a successful check.
Success: The PCs navigate the river rapids, gaining experience with traveling through rapids. Failure: The PCs boat may be too damaged, losing time and resources. A PC or NPC may drown in the river.
- Cave Collapse – The cavern the PCs are in begins to collapse. Complexity: 6 successes before 3 failures Lair Actions Falling Rocks, DC 12. Rocks fall onto the PCs. On a failed check, the creature takes damage.
Fissure, DC 10. A pit opens in the path of the PCs. On a failed check, the creature suffers a short fall.
Flood, DC 15. Water begins pouring into the tunnel. On a failed check, the creature is swept away and begins drowning.
Success: The PCs escape the collapse. Failure: The PCs are trapped in the cave, forcing them to either dig their way out, or find another way. The PCs may also be seriously injured. Monsters may also be drawn to injured party.
- Terrain Encounters are Combat Encounters but the enemies are replaced with the terrain or elements of the terrain.
- The Terrain has its own turn in combat, and takes a Lair Action that could either be a one off attack or a lasting condition. You can split up the Terrain's turn into Elements of the Terrain.
- The PCs respond by making skill checks. If they succeed a certain number of times, they win the Terrain Encounter. If they fail 3 times, they lose the Terrain Encounter.
I'd love to hear feedback on this concept, as it's still in the play testing phase.
- What are the downsides to being deafened in combat? I’m creating an encounter with a Storm Giant Quintessent and could use some ideas.
- Feedback on Travel Framework
- Falling Rules
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "A 4th Type of Encounter: Introducing the Terrain Encounter, combing Skill Challenges, Combat, Chases" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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