I can’t explain why the “Battle of the Mounds” sequence has been sticking in my head recently. The track from the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack hasn’t come up in my playlist for a while. Haven’t rewatched the movie. It’s simply there, occupying my headspace, occasionally muttering something about the grim fate that awaits all flesh. Or something. But as long as it’s up in there, it has to pay rent. I need to get something out of it, for writing or game design. And the thing that leaps to mind is the skill challenge.
The skill challenge of D&D 4e is a curious beast. Its closest relative that I’m experienced with, on one hand, are the extended rites from Werewolf where other players can contribute to the overall success. The closest relative on the other hand is combat — a situation where all players are expected to take turns contributing, possibly with an initiative order. If you boil it right down, it’s non-combat combat: the structure of organized participation from everyone at the table, trying to overcome an obstacle in common. It’s rather unlike the skill checks made by one or two players that leave the rest waiting for an obstacle that’s more their speed.
Skill challenges were a flawed thing that never really caught the gaming world on fire for a variety of reasons. I kind of suspect it’s because they have the same weaknesses as 4e combat: they’re so structured that they make fantastic set pieces but don’t necessarily make good impromptu challenges to strew liberally throughout an evening’s play. They can be improvised, of course; and to some extent I think they need to be open to at least some improvisation. I don’t want to decide ahead of time what will and won’t work, and it doesn’t benefit my players that much to be handed a short list of viable options. But it’s the set pieces that justify the concept.
The Battle of the Mounds is a great example of a skill challenge. At a guess, I’d say that it involved some Endurance checks for physical labor, some Bluff checks to set out “bait” for the traps, some Thievery or Dungeoneering to set traps with moving parts, perhaps some Perception to suss out the best approaches for enemies, and right at the end where Conan prays, a botched Religion check. Wait, his dead girlfriend showed back up. Maybe it was a critical success!
The point of such a skill challenge isn’t that “pass” means you go on with the adventure and “fail” means you’re stuck. I see it more as a sliding scale of utility. Every success removes a mook from the upcoming fight, maybe two, in gloriously described fashion. Every five successes removes a named character (like poor Sven-Ole Thorsen). You keep rolling until you get enough failures to halt the challenge normally, which represents you running out of time and having to cover up all the working traps. You could also structure it such as successes granting you extra bits of fortification, or adding traps to the battlefield. Whatever suits.
I honestly could see this working with other game systems; a big extended roll to fortify the caern before the Black Spiral Dancers get there, for instance, or some sort of communal batch of die rolls in Shadowrun. There are other cinematic examples that could work just as well or even better, to boot. Consider The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven: that just adds social die rolls to the mix, as you try to inspire and discipline the peasantry.
And the practical upshot of all this is that you get a set piece that leads into a set piece. Pretty climactic stuff. Ideal for cueing up the Poledouris and letting the slow build of “The Battle of the Mounds” shift into the combat music.
Or you could put “Montage” from the Team America soundtrack on instead. Hey, I don’t judge. Much.