In the prior installment of this series, I discussed an interlude in my ongoing campaign where I had the party participate in a series of tournaments and contests as a change of pace from their usual dungeon delving and heroics.
The players loved the shift in tone. Indeed, they embraced the two game sessions that covered the tournament far more emphatically than I had dared to hope. In particular, one specific even has now become a touchstone in the campaign’s lore and may have unintentionally generated the most humorous and memorable moment in the entire campaign.
The group I am running includes both a rogue and a bard who are pretty solid skill monkeys. The party’s monk, ranger, and fighter also have solid athletics skills. I wanted to give the group a challenge that would really showcase a variety of skills but I also wanted there to be various levels of challenges and different approaches that the characters could take to overcome at least a few of the challenges. (I was somewhat inspired in this by Graham Robert Scott’s “Breakthroughs & Setbacks: How and Why We Should Bring Back Skill Challenges. Kind Of.”) The best fit seemed to be some sort of obstacle course, akin to the ones we all see in the training montage of any action film, but dressed in more medieval fantasy appropriate clothing. I decided an obstacle course that replicated the challenges of a siege, specifically challenges involved in invading a castle, would make for a good fit.
Having decided on the theme, I then came up with four specific challenges that participants would have to overcome in sequence.
The first challenge was to jump over a muddy ditch with sloping sides, representing the ability to get across a moat or other defensive trench.
The second challenge was to scale a wall using a grappling hook.
The third challenge was to navigate a series of “tunnels,” actually a set of large wooden sewer pipes that twisted and turned on each other, forcing contestants to navigate a maze in the dark by recounting a visual impression of the terrain. There would be three openings to choose from once contestants reached the top of the wall, and each of the pipes would connect with each other at various points and also contain a number of side passages and dead ends. That event was a bit of a stretch for the medieval theme, but I’m still glad I included it, as you will see in my later comments.
The last challenge, after emerging from the pipe maze, was to walk across a long and bouncy plank set over another muddy ditch. This was supposed to represent using a siege tower or some such device. The theme was a bit loose, but real obstacle courses are often representative in that same fashion, and I thought I could apply a variety of skills to those four obstacles.
I also needed some rules for how characters could traverse the obstacles and to determine who won the contest.
So I created three levels of difficulty for each challenge: slow, moderate, and fast. At each obstacle, the players would decide how hard they wanted to push it. By attempting higher DCs, they would run greater risks but they would also go faster. If they made the check, I would multiply the number of points by which they had succeeded by a “Time Bonus” that was greater at each increasing level of DC challenge. If that sounds complicated, it’s much easier to look at the descriptions and charts I created as a handout for the participating players. I’ve reproduced that handout below.
This is a timed event. Degree of success determines how quickly the contestant passes each obstacle. Each obstacle can be attempted at various speeds, granting a time advantage in exchange for a higher DC. Failure forces the contestant to return to the beginning of the challenge.
For each challenge, the contestant chooses a speed (slow, moderate, or fast) and rolls against the attendant difficulty and skill. If he or she succeeds, then the amount by which he or she succeeds is multiplied by the “Time Bonus.” Hitting the DC exactly is counted as a success and adds to the contestants score a number of points equal to the “Time Bonus” multiplier (the same as having succeeded by 1 point).
(Note: It can sometimes be better to succeed by a high margin on an easier check than to succeed only a little over a high difficulty DC!)
Jump the Ditch. Contestants must jump over a muddy 5-foot-wide ditch with sloping and slippery edges – roll Athletics (Strength) for the jump and Athletics or Acrobatics (Dexterity) to land without sliding into the ditch.
Scale the Wall. Contestants can use a grappling hook and rope to climb a 20-foot-high stone wall. Roll a skill check on Athletics (Dexterity or Strength, player’s choice). Hay bales at the base of the wall make falls a non-damaging affair.
Tunnel Crawl. Shimmy through what is essentially a shoulder-width-pipe maze, in the dark! Roll a skill check on Acrobatics (Dexterity). A PC who makes a DC 18 Perception check can figure out where to go, gaining Advantage on the Acrobatics check.
Walk the Plank. Contestants must walk across a 20-foot bouncy plank suspended over a 10-foot-deep ditch filled with water. Roll a skill check using Acrobatics (Dexterity).
|Jump the Ditch|| Athletics
|X 1|| Athletics
|X 2|| Athletics
|Scale the Wall|| Athletics
|X 1|| Athletics
|X 2|| Athletics
|Tunnel Crawl|| Acrobatics
|X 1|| Acrobatics
|X 2|| Acrobatics
|Walk the Plank|| Acrobatics
|X 1|| Acrobatics
|X 2|| Acrobatics
* For the Jump the Ditch Challenge, the contestant must make both a Strength-based and a Dexterity-based skill check. The DC for each of these is the same and both scores are totaled.
1st Prize. The Golden Rope (10-foot-long rope of gold thread worth 250 GP)
2nd Prize. Purse of Coins (100 GP)
3rd Prize. Pair of Finely Crafted Boots (+1 to Athletics checks, 1x per day)
How It Played Out
You will have noticed that in the above system a high score is a faster time. Since we’re used to looking for low times in races, the point system might seem counter-intuitive.
However, the characters in the challenge weren’t carrying stopwatches. Measuring success in terms of minutes and seconds, therefore, didn’t make much sense. All they would know is where they were in the rank order — at the head of the pack or lagging behind?
So after each obstacle, I’d compare their scores, telling them how they were doing. I would also highlight a few (predetermined) accomplishments and mishaps of their NPC competitors. Whoever had the highest score after each round would be in the lead, and I could give an approximation of who was ahead in each round.
The players had little trouble deciphering this, and became very competitive about breaking down their odds for completing each of the challenges. They had their characters inspect the obstacle course ahead of time as it was being set up, and began coming up with strategies for how they would take on each of the challenges. The odds on favorite for the group was the resident rogue who had some impressively high Athletics and Acrobatics skills, with Expertise in both.
However, their anticipation didn’t stop there. The challenge prompted some intrigue, and information-gathering. The evening before the event, at the inn where the PCs were staying, a few characters got into a drinking contest with some locals and hilarity ensued. After failing a number of Constitution checks, the most inebriated members of the party decided that they could make the obstacle course even more exciting by adding another challenge.
For reasons that still defy logic or understanding, they came to the conclusion that it would be an excellent idea to steal a pig and leave it tethered in one of the pipes through which contestants would have to crawl.
The pig quest that ensued involved a probability-defying sequence of amazing Stealth, Perception, Persuasion and Intimidation checks — many of which were at disadvantage due to the inebriated state of the characters. (Frankly, their drunk accomplishments that night surpassed anything they would have had to do to win the obstacle course itself.) And with the help of spells like silence and levitation, the wobbly crew managed to sneak the pig into one of the pipes and leave it leashed to a peg stuck in the wall. They kindly had brought it quite a bit of food and water, and left it with one last silence spell.
So, when the obstacle course event actually took place the next day, the contestants were in for quite a surprise.
All of the contestants. Including the PCs.
See, after rolling Intelligence skill checks the next morning (at Disadvantage), the PCs could no longer recall with certainty which of three possible pipe entrances the silent, increasingly claustrophobic pig was in.
Only the party rogue “guessed” correctly (having been the only one who actually made his secret skill check roll). He ended up winning the contest rather handily, helped both by his selection of tunnels and his Expertise with Athletics and Acrobatics.
The other party members and quite a few NPC contestants encountered a very perturbed pig, which they had to force down a pipe now filled with a great deal of slippery pig excrement. (They had left it with food, after all.)
I ruled that their odorous, disgusting, and slippery state upon emerging from the pipes left them at a Disadvantage while attempting the plank at the end.
When you’re handed such a scene to deliver as a DM, you have a descriptive and narrative obligation to milk that moment for all it’s worth. And milk I did.
Judging from the wheezing, laughing, and tears, it was milked successfully.
The hilarity that ensued from this event, and the descriptive narrative I was driven to produce while attempting to do the whole scene justice, proved to be one of the highlights of my game mastering career. I have no doubt that, in years to come, this campaign will be remembered primarily for what has become known as the “pig in the pipe” incident.
Those shared, impromptu moments are what tabletop role-playing games are really about. The collaborative world and the story-building that results can never be reproduced in a computer game or more passive forms of entertainment. The shared, imagined experience is what defines a good RPG and exemplary gaming. The obstacle course’s legendary status in our own play group is now assured, not by the mechanics I developed ahead of time, but by the alchemy of player agency and DM improvisation.
It was further helped along by the party bard’s composition of a rather ribald song about the event, on which he scored a critical success for the composition. This song actually played a role in yet another skill contest for bardic performance and song completion that I will elaborate on in the third installment of this series. †