Overwhelming Odds, The Kill Challenge

Posted on August 15, 2012 by

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You know what’s cool?  A small party of heroes cutting a swatch across a battlefield, cutting their way through gross amounts of enemies and feeling amazing the entire time.

On the other hand, only the most insane of dungeon masters is prepared to lay down hundreds of enemies on a playmat and keep track of their hitpoints as the heroes proceed to waste them, and their turn would be a nightmare of movement and attack rolls.  Even using nothing but minions, no DM wants to run this encounter.

My friend Adam once designed a large scale battle that played a lot like a tabletop strategy game.  He had to devise his own ruleset for the game, and made a whole bunch of tiles to represent the units in our armies.  It was fantastic, but most Dungeon Masters just don’t have the time or talent to put stuff like that together.

And so as DMs we instead run encounters with a half dozen enemies that work together well, and leave it at that.  But not any more, thanks to a little thing that I like to call the Kill Challenge.

The Kill Challenge is the brother of the Skill Challenge.  The angry, aggressive, murderous brother of the Skill Challenge.  Instead of navigating a challenge, the players instead attempt to slaughter their way through an absurd amount of enemies.

Start by surrounding your players with an army of monsters.  They may have allies, or be fighting by themselves, they could be inside, outside, dragons could be circling overhead, it doesn’t really matter.  Ideally this should be part of the story, but hey, who am I to tell you how to run your game?

Then assign an order to your players.  You can roll for initiative or assign them randomly, but personally I just like to start on my left and go clockwise.

On each player’s turn, they make a skill check or an attack roll, accompanied by a matching description of whatever awesome thing they’re doing to slay their enemies.  The DC for this skill check should be chosen according to something like Sly Flourish’s DM Cheat Sheet (here), and if the player chooses to make an attack roll instead, it should be at a defense equal to the skill DC plus 5.  My notes on these tend to look a lot like this (at level 13):

Round 1 – Heroes catch goblin infantry by surprise [DC 17 / AC 22]
Round 2 – Goblins start fighting back, well trained [DC 20 / AC 25]
Round 3 – Elite Orc troops enter the battlefield [DC 23 / AC 28]
Round 4 – An Ogre general inspires the monsters [DC 26 / AC 31]
Round 5 – With the general dead, troops in disarray  [DC 20 / AC 25]

As with a skill challenge, players should feel free to use their skills in creative ways.  Let your players use perception to find the weak point in a formation, history to remember how similar battles were one in the past, even streetwise to compare the movement of the battlefield with the movement of a crowded street.

Let them get creative, because they’re going to get penalized for repeat skill use.

The first time a character successfully uses one of their skills or attacks in a given fight, they do so without penalty.  Each additional time they try to use that skill or attack, it is with a cumulative -2 penalty (-2, -4, -6, etc).  If they try to use the same thing that they used the last round, give them an additional -2.

Failing one of their rolls however, does not mean that a character should be punished immediately, they can still defend themselves.  A failure to slay their enemies also opens up holes in their defenses, allowing foes to attack them.  Have them make another roll to defend themselves, using the same skill or another one.  If they also fail their second check, they lose a healing surge.

Failed rolls should not apply a penalty to later rolls using the same skill.

A five round skill challenge might look a little like this for a given character:

Sebastian Blake versus Gith Pirates (level 25)
As two vast planar armadas crash together, the crew of the Planeship Miranda must aid their allies in a fight against many gith ships.

Round 1 – Gith Pirates attack by surprise [DC 29 / AC 34]
Attack roll to rain down energy blasts down on the gith crew, success
Round 2 – Initial momentum lost by pirates [DC 26 / AC 31]
Arcana check to drain the magic from the gith silver swords, weakening them, success
Round 3 – Dragon riders join the battle [DC 32 / AC 37]
Athletics check to leap onto a passing gith dragon, kill its rider, and crash it into the deck of the attacking ship, success
Round 4 – The Gith cannons begin to power up [DC 35 / AC 40]
Arcana check (-2) to drain power from the engines, disabling them, failure
Acrobatics check as a defensive action to do a backflip off of the nearby wall and escape the gith closing on him, success
Round 5 – Allied ships arrive and help to defeat Gith  [DC 26 / AC 31]
Attack roll (-2) to clear a path for himself as he returns to his own ship, success

Of course, in an actual game, you’d have many players making rolls, and a much more chaotic battlefield.  There’s only one more rule left to learn, a secret weapon that the players have up their sleeves.  The Daily rule.

On a player’s turn, they may use one of their daily items or powers in order to give themselves an automatic success on one challenge.

Had the player before been more worried about his near-loss of a healing surge, he could have instead done something like this:
Round 4 – The Gith cannons begin to power up [DC 35 / AC 40]
Arcana check (-2) to drain power from the engines, disabling them, failure
Use Vorpal Edge (daily) to enchant his weapon and counterattack by shearing through his attackers

So there you have it, the Kill Challenge laid out in all its glory.  I promise that it isn’t nearly as complicated as I’ve made it seem.

Characters take turns
Make a check to kill bad guys
– Make a check to defend yourself if that goes wrong
– – Lose a healing surge if THAT goes wrong
Do cool stuff, rinse and repeat as long as needed

Now this is a system that can be adapted for smaller or larger battles, but really the DM is able to control it quite easily simply by adjusting the DC and AC numbers for each round of the challenge.  Make it fit your story, and then let your players go nuts.  After all, nothing makes them feel quite as heroic as taking apart hordes of minions in a combination of roleplay and combat.

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Posted in: Gamecraft