Monday, December 20, 2010

a missed opportunity

Surrounded by lizardfolk and a wolf-sized spider, Eldeth popped up off the ground, swinging his greataxe and roaring defiance. “Thought ye’d killed me, ye nasty ugly brutes? Well, think again!” Just a moment before, he had been unconscious and dying, but then he somehow tapped into a deep well of dwarven stubbornness and now, bloodied but undaunted, he was back in the fight.

Last week’s Encounters session (#13—Chasing the Serpent) at Total Escape was notable for several reasons, not the least of which was that timely 20 I rolled on a death saving throw. That 20 went a long way toward making up for the THREE! critical hits that our DM had rolled against Eldeth up to that point. (When an attack against a target rolls a natural 20, it scores a critical hit and the target takes the maximum damage possible from the attack.) Knowing about those three critical hits, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I actually found myself cut down twice during the session. Some magicky-type healing from the cleric brought me back up the first time, and then that 20 on the death saving throw gave me new life the second time I was on the ground. Eldeth finished the fight standing up, but those three crits he took meant that he really burned through a lot of healing surges in this one encounter.

The session was also notable for including a skill challenge, the first in my Encounters experience. When our DM announced that we were going to have a skill challenge, it made me sit up and pay attention since I expected it’d be an opportunity for some fun roleplaying.

A typical skill challenge begins with the DM describing the situation and defining the challenge. The DM gives the players a goal to achieve and outlines what obstacles they face to accomplish that goal. In most instances, the DM will tell the adventurers which skills are associated with the challenge (the skills they can use in the challenge), but he can choose to skip this step and let them improvise which ones they use. The players then act in initiative order (or some other order of the DM’s choice) and describe an action they take to try to overcome the obstacles and succeed at the challenge. The DM determines which skill the action is associated with, the player rolls and adds any relevant ability score modifier, then the DM compares the result to the DC of the challenge’s level and describes the outcome of the player’s action. The skill challenge is completed either when the group reaches a specified number of successful checks or when three failures are reached. Whether they succeed or fail, the adventurers complete the challenge, there are consequences, and the adventure goes on.

You can see how the narrative aspects of a skill challenge provide a golden opportunity for some fun roleplaying. Each player needs to think creatively about what their character would do in terms of the story, and then how he/she can describe their character’s actions to the DM. In relating the success or failure of the PC’s actions, the DM can paint a vivid picture in each player’s mind and bring the game to life. Another excellent opportunity for the DM to inject touches of atmosphere and excitement into the narrative is when the adventurers are informed about the ultimate success or failure of the skill challenge.

Unfortunately, the skill challenge this past week in our Encounters session was… well, extremely lame. Here’s how it played out:
  • Our DM informed us that we would have a skill challenge and the goal was to track the bad guy after he’d left the Keep and headed southwest into rough terrain. We were told the skills we could use in the challenge and that we had to get six successes (I think) before three failures.

  • We then went around in whatever order we felt like, saying something like, “I’m using Nature. That’s a 12.” The DM would then tell us if we’d succeeded or failed with our roll. The players didn’t describe their character’s actions, nor did the DM offer any narration.

  • And so it continued. We went around the table, rolling skill checks until we accumulated three failures, at which point the DM told us we’d failed the skill challenge and as a result, each of us lost a healing surge. No reason was given as to what had happened in terms of the story that caused us to lose healing surges.
By the end of the session, I was sorry I’d lost that healing surge since the three crits that were rolled against Eldeth would eat up hit points … a ton of hit points. This was the first encounter after an extended rest, so that means I have to make it through the next three sessions with five surges. And I have the feeling that’s going to be a tough challenge for a feisty fighter like Eldeth.

As sorry as I was to lose that initial surge, I was even sorrier that we’d missed an opportunity to roleplay during the skill challenge. Roleplaying is an important aspect of D&D that I’ve found to be in short supply during Encounters sessions. There are probably several different reasons for that absence of roleplaying, but to my mind, the greatest factor is that new D&D players simply won’t know much about the nature of cooperative storytelling unless it’s modeled for them. I think that within the framework of the Encounters program, that modeling needs to begin with the DM. “The DM is a person,” according the PHB, “who takes on the role of lead storyteller… The DM narrates the action for the players.” With the DM narrating the game and actively encouraging each player to imaginatively describe PC actions, everyone’s experience of the game is enriched as characters come alive & as the adventure becomes an epic quest that everyone has a stake in. Minus that roleplaying/cooperative storytelling aspect, D&D Encounters sessions become a less enjoyable, much less fun experience than they could be.

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