December 5, 2008

The Skill Challenges of War - Part 1: Introduction

This series is part of the 5th RPG Blog Carnival - "Trasitions & Transformations" hosted by The topic of this series is WAR - one of the greatest transformational forces known.
War means change. Sometimes for the better, often for the worse. The role that player characters play in a campaign set against the backdrop of war may be one of aggression, of peace, or it may be that the ongoing war merely provides a backdrop, and nothing more, for an ongoing story that has little to do with the larger conflict. This post, and the series that follows, will cover war-time campaigns and possibly how the past 30+ years of D&D development might influence the way we might create 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons skill challenges for war-time campaigns.
"What is war? It may be described as one of the most important affairs to the state. It is the ground of death or life of both soldiers and people, and the way that governs the survival or the ruin of the state. So we must deliberately examine and study it." -- Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
My current 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign is set in a backwater area of the 3.5 Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting: The Great Dale. Without providing too many details of the story line - suffice it to say that the campaign is set against an ongoing war between The Burning Man's blightspawn army and a loose confederacy of clanholds and villages held together by Circle of Leth, a druidic enclave based in The Forest of Lethyr. The player characters have just overcome a major obstacle, but now are faced with being trapped inside a city (Yeshelmaar) that is surrounded by no less than 10,000 angry blightspawn zombies.

This got me to thinking: How could I come up with a skill challenge to mediate their escape from the city without sacrificing some good roleplaying?

Then I started thinking: What sort of skill challenges in 4E would need to be created for war-time campaigns?

and... How has Dungeons & Dragons, in general, handled campaigns set against the backdrop of a greater war in the past?

The 4E Dungeon Masters Guide offers up War as one of many campaign themes.
"Warfare in a fantasy world is rife with opportunities for adventure. A war campaign isn’t generally concerned with the specifics of troop movements, but instead focuses on the heroes whose actions turn the tide of battle. They might be sent on specific missions: capture a magical standard that empowers undead armies, gather reinforcements to break a siege, or cut through the enemy’s flank to reach a demonic commander. In other situations, the party might support the larger army, by holding a strategic location until reinforcements arrive, killing enemy scouts before they can report, or cutting off supply lines. Information gathering and diplomatic missions might supplement the more combat-oriented adventures." -- 4E DMG.
For the new DM, this would seem great! Sounds aweshum and a great way to set up a campaign. But then it dawns on you: how will I actually handle all those different events the authors suggest? What if my campaign is at the Paragon or Epic level - am I actually going to have the players spend a hour or more killing legions of lowbie orc soldiers or kobold skirmishers? The answer is obviously No.

The solution is to develop skill challenges that can mediate the outcome (from the PCs point of view) of mass-combat, key missions, and other important events that might occur during the greater conflict. Can the five level 12 heroes defend the tower from 200+ orc legionaries who are ten level below them? You certainly don't want to roll dice, or even think about running a combat encounter, for that many opponents. Instead, I would recommend using a skill challenge to find out. This is not to say that true combat encounters are verboten - it is after all 4E D&D, a game that is heavily focused on killing things. I'm just saying that combat encounters should be saved for those encounters where the number of opponents are manageable and the combat would be tactically challenging. For the rest of your wartime encounters - stick to skill challenges.

The above quote from the 4E DMG lists a number of interesting scenarios that might be related to war-time skill challenges:
  • capture something
  • rally the troops
  • break a siege
  • spearhead an attack to reach the enemy commander
  • holding a strategic location until reinforcements arrive or some time has passed
  • find and kill enemy scouts before they can report
  • cutting off supply lines
  • gather information on a diplomatic mission
  • find a spy in your ranks
  • force a surrender
  • route the enemy troops
  • and many more
Some of the above examples could be whole adventures, but for the purpose of this series I'll focus on treating them as complex skill challenges. In the next post of this series I'll start laying out some examples of skill challenges for the scenarios above, and how to handle them in 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. So, until then... stay tuned and GAME ON!!!


  1. I had been thinking of a new campaign for D&D and wanted to include a war... which led me down the same path of trying to answer how to play out epic battles with thousands of combatants.

    I wanted rules for when the PCs are fighting and when they are commanding. Skill challenges are definitely the way to go and I look forward to part 2 to see how you resolve some things.

  2. had an idea.. i'll email you directly Mad Brew...

  3. Like I keep saying to the doubters, once you get through the immersion (for lack of a better word) breaking factor of the skill challenge, it is rife with possibilies.

    In 3.5, you would be EXPECTED to carve your way through those blightspawn. 6 hours of dice rolling later, you reach the general, who is CR +3 or 4 to the party. Gotta love the whole cutting a path through peons approach.

    One of the few useable bits of heroes of battle has the reccommendation of using the PC's as a tactical strike team, which works better.

    In this 4E situation, I would just flow with whatever the players could come up with and justify. Of course they WILL end up in the sewers beneath the city no matter what, but they don't know that :)

    Your posts just keep getting better Jon, keep up the good work!

  4. I'd recommend reading Iliad by Homer to get a picture of suitably high-powered heroes in suitably high-powered combat so as to fit 4e. (It is heavy reading.)

    Particularly, a challenge to reach opposing heroes, with failures giving said opponent more allies or costing healing surges from the characters, would be appropriate.

  5. I think it's really creative to envision skill challenges as a possible resolution system for mass combat. Well done, now get on with some examples! :)

  6. I've seen a few examples of mass combat resolution that are quick and easy.

    Greywulf came up with a mass combat mechanic for microlite20 that would be convertible to 4e. I've not had a chance to use it, but the discussion left me with a lot of ideas.

  7. This sounds fantastic!

  8. I just want to keep this post and the blog alive. The series is very useful. Thanks.


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