Fighting with Words
Sometimes your players will get tired of hitting things. I know, it was a shock to me when I realized that when you play a roleplaying game, the roleplaying part wasn’t just smashing a club into a kobold’s face… repeatedly.
Now the problem with players getting tired of hitting things is that they are going to want to do other things. This might mean talking to people and trying to win encounters through the art of speaking. Which means you have to be ready to figure out what on earth you are going to say, but that’s a different topic for another time.
What we are going to cover is how to treat conversations like a challenge and how we can reward our table for conquering those encounters.
Use Your Words
When your table inevitably finds themselves trying to talk through a huge combat encounter you had set up, you can not help but feel a little disappointed. How dare they throw your battle plans completely off the rails! You worked hard on the stats and you were so excited to use that one ability that would completely catch them off guard, but now the tables have turned. They want to talk about the BBEG’s feelings and how they can help.
Well, TTRPGs are all about improv and saying “Yes, and…” and what better way to reward your players than to work with them on discovering the true emotions and motivations of your BBEG. But now, how do you mechanically make this work?
The easiest and most common way is to have them roll Persuasion checks with a high DC. But a lucky roll shouldn’t be what dictates the outcome for this. We need to set up a Skill Challenge.
A Skill Challenge is a series of challenges that the party must overcome as a group to further their own goals. This can be used for a variety of situations, but we will focus on how we can use it in our RP Encounters. Here is a great article that goes in depth about setting up skill challenges for all sorts of situations.
For our Skill Challenge, we need to determine a few things:
• What is the threat of failure? For us, this will be the BBEG deciding to just attack the party anyways. They don’t have time for their emotions, they have a world to conquer.
• What complications arise? This might be that the BBEG is actually being controlled and forced to take over the world by something greater than them, and they have very little choice in the matter, or maybe the BBEG has a hatred for cats and one of the members of the group is a Tabaxi.
• What can the Party do? Your party will have to figure out what they can do to push through this challenge. This is less on you as the GM, but you will have final say if the fancy words of the bard or the cooking skills of the fighter is enough to change the mind of the BBEG. This will be different for every encounter, table and tone of the game.
So let’s continue our hypothetical situation. Our table of intrepid adventurers no longer have a thirst for the blood of their enemies, for now. They wish to parley with the BBEG and find out if there is a solution they can come to without having to murder someone to death.
This is a great time for a monologue by the way, the players are asking for a monologue and you can finally deliver one! This will help the party figure out how they can help our BBEG and move forward on the Skill Challenge, and you finally get to deliver a monologue that isn’t interrupted immediately by the table screaming that they attack.
So now we have our party asking for parley, and we have a choice. Is our BBEG willing to talk things out? In your mind, does the BBEG think this is a good idea? If it isn’t a good idea for the BBEG because they can’t trust the party to not backstab them, they won’t do it, but if they know the party has been honorable they may be willing to talk things out.
Since we are talking things out, now is the time to come up with any complications that may arise for your players and determine how difficult this challenge is. We will continue with the Easy, Medium, Hard & Deadly challenge that we used in our article on Combat Encounters and pick Easy & Deadly to talk about in depth. Medium and Hard exist between the two and is less important to pin them down exactly.
As a rough rule of thumb, an Easy challenge is something that is almost guaranteed for the players, its less about if they’ll succeed but more about how they succeed that could cause changes for the campaign.
Whereas an Easy challenge is all but given, a Deadly challenge requires a series of skill checks that will determine the fate of the party. The table gets a chance to have a greater say in how the story develops, but the complications that arise should cause serious problems for our players. The chance of success is not guaranteed and the party will find it extremely difficult to succeed.
So in our example, our BBEG is willing to talk and now the party has several things they must do to persuade the BBEG to listen to them. At this point, you can ask the party what they would like to do to persuade the BBEG, and so long as it makes sense in the world, you should encourage and allow even some strange checks.
Maybe the bard wants to use his silver tongue to convince the BBEG that the world isn’t as bad as they make it sound, which requires a Persuasion check. And then your Barbarian wants to show off his muscles and leave a threat in the air that they are far stronger, which you require an Intimidation check. Finally, the wizard wants to show off how much they know about the BBEG’s magical ability and you would have them roll an Arcana check.
All these rolls will add to a success and failure chart that you tally the results on. You create the DC of each roll based on your BBEG and what your players are doing. Maybe the BBEG is a really buff fighter and the Barbarian needs to roll really high on his Intimidation roll, or maybe the BBEG is scared of magic and the Wizard needs to roll low on their Arcana roll to succeed. This is a very situational DC and is up to you to think on your feet.
So now you have these rolls going, what do you do with them? With tallying them on a chart, you determine how many successes it’ll take for this skill challenge to need for its conclusion. Typically you only need 3 failures before the Skill Challenge ends poorly for the players, whereas the number of successes will vary based on how difficult you want to go with the Skill Challenge. An Easy challenge may only need 2 or 3 checks, where as a Deadly challenge may require 6 or 7 checks.
As a side note, make sure not to have too many checks as it eventually bogs down the game and players won’t want to deal with a system that isn’t streamlined. Nothing is worse than having to roll success after success and not seeing any progress.
So now that they are making these checks, you then need to describe the effects of each of their skill checks on the BBEG. Let’s say the Barbarian rolls a successful Intimidation check, you can say, “As you move closer to the BBEG, you can see a flash of worry in his eyes as he looks at your muscles, clearly nervous.”
Now let’s say that the wizard fails their Arcana check to show off their magical prowess, you could say something like, “As you try to gauge the magical abilities of the BBEG, you can’t quite figure out how powerful they are and they notice your look of confusion.”
These descriptions help give the players something to work off of and help them see how well they are doing in this challenge.
After the skills have been rolled and they have succeeded the number of times required, or failed enough, than the Skill Challenge is completed. If they succeeded, they should be awarded the experience that fighting the BBEG would normally give them. They have overcome the challenge successfully.
If they failed, then maybe it’s time for that fight between the BBEG and the party, or maybe the BBEG will make their escape based on how intimidating the party was, that’s up to you and how the players performed on their Skill Challenge. Just because they failed it as a whole, any successes they had should affect how the BBEG interacts with the party for however much longer the BBEG has to live. Maybe they try to stay away from the Barbarian because he was extremely intimidating, maybe they pick on the wizard because the BBEG is confident in their magical abilities against the party. Either way, the BBEG is reacting to how your party handled themselves.
Sometimes Words Hurt
Sometimes the party is tired of hitting things, sometimes you are tired of the party hitting things. It happens to everyone, and it is helpful to have a back up plan. Sometimes talking can be the ticket to an encounter, your players won’t always talk to a BBEG, sometimes they’ll talk to an uppity Noble, and you can use these skill challenges for that as well, and they should be rewarded with experience after those challenges. It’s important to reward players when they overcome challenges put before them.
Up next, we will talk about Exploration Encounters.
NOTE: In my previous article, I mentioned the expenditure of resources as a big part of an Encounter. I wanted to fit that in to this article, but I felt like we were already getting too long just talking about Skill Challenges. We will revisit that in a future article.