Skill Challenge #1: Escape from Slavery
A scalable, complexity 3 skill challenge for characters stupid enough to get caught!
8 successes to succeed, 3 failures to fail.
In the past, I have operated skill challenges in a number of different ways with varying results, and one thing I’ve learned is that there is not one perfect technique to conducting skill challenges that seems to work for every situation and type of challenge. In certain situations, for instance, I prefer to use a more informal type of skill challenge with no failures like I did in our most recent side trek post, "Mysterious Tracks." In others, I opt for a more conventional skill challenge as outlined in the fourth-edition DMG.
To start off the challenge, read one of the following text blocks to the players.
Hook #1: If the PCs were knocked unconscious in battle and then taken prisoner read this
Your eyelids flutter and a groan escapes from your lips. You awaken in pain. Where are you? Looking around, you spot your companions. They, too, are beginning to awake, and like you, they are in chains. You now notice that you are surrounded by your recent enemies. They’ve also noticed you’re awake, and one of them comes over and laughs. Giving you some water, he offers some to each of your companions, and he then throws some disgusting food your way.
“Eat up!” he says, laughing, and gives the last of you a shove, “short time to rest and get better, and then you get to work.”
Your ankles and wrists, you now notice, are clasped in iron chains that restrict movement, preventing you from being able to move faster than a slow walk. Hearing other, loud noises nearby, you sit up and find people working in the distance. Like you, they are half-naked and in chains, heavily beaten. There appears to be ten or fifteen of them. They are working hard, and they are just beyond the perimeter of your captors.
With downtrodden faces, they are using picks and shovels and carts to haul dirt and stone. It is obvious they are slaves, and you now realize you are in a slave camp and you are about to become one of them. Defenseless and heavily injured, no weapons in your hands, completely surrounded by captors and in chains, escape looks impossible right now, but perhaps things will change in the near future. Quickly, you realize you’ll need to develop a plan and find a way to improve your health and perhaps put in some work with the other slaves. This will allow you to make contact with them and perhaps get them to secretly assist you; it will also allow you to lull the guards into a false sense of security, allowing you develop your plans and wait for a better opportunity to escape and a time when your captors are not so aware of you. Escape may be possible right now, but with some careful thought and time, that may change.
Hook #2: if they surrendered in battle and were taken while conscious, read this
Your captors round you up and take away all your weapons and armor, quickly stripping you. After searching you and your belongings completely, they take everything away. They then throw you some smelly rags to wear, and tie up your bodies from shoulders to waists, pinning your arms to your sides. After that, they gather you up and place you at the center of their party and march you along a back trail to some unknown destination.
An hour later, you arrive at a camp. All around are half-naked and starved people, heavily beaten. There are ten or fifteen of them. They are working hard, just beyond the perimeter of your captors who are now in a circle around you. With downtrodden faces, they are using picks and shovels and carts to haul dirt and stone. You now realize you are in a slave camp, and you are about to become one of them. The guards herd you to a nearby wagon. They then pull out a sets of chains and secure them to your wrists and ankles, restricting your movements, preventing you from being able to move faster than a slow walk.
Defenseless and heavily injured, no weapons in your hands, completely surrounded by captors and in chains, escape looks impossible right now, but perhaps things will change in the near future. Quickly, you realize you’ll need to develop a plan and find a way to improve your health and perhaps put in some work with the other slaves. This will allow you to make contact with them and perhaps get them to secretly assist you; it will also allow you to lull the guards into a false sense of security, allowing you develop your plans and wait for a better opportunity to escape and a time when your captors are not so aware of you. Escape may be possible right now, but with some careful thought and time, that may change.
Possible bonuses and penalties:
Once the PCs begin to make plans and roll the dice, apply adjustments to ALL the DCs for the task according to how difficult you view the task they are attempting (see the section “ideas and examples of how to improvise and run this challenge” at the end of this challenge for examples), as well as apply appropriate modifiers according to the bonus/penalty chart, below. To further dissuade them from making a foolhardy immediate escape, explain that they are never allowed to fully heal from their recent battle, so they lack any surge values they lost in that battle. This is because, as slaves, they are continuously whipped and beaten and placed under such hard labor that they will never, under normal circumstances, be able to fully recover; and of course they remain weaponless and malnourished, surrounded by armed and armored guards. The following list provides the basic bonuses and penalties you should apply to individual rolls as you see fit.
- Award a +2 to any roll in which the PCs come up with an unusually good idea that you have not accounted for. (Limit of +2).
- Award a +2 to any roll in which the PCs choose to pursue a course of action they are not particularly good at (a skill they are not trained in) because it makes more sense to do so, even though they could have used a better trained skill to do something more silly. In other words, they describe and role-play out the situation exceptionally well and end up making a roll based on what makes sense, not what skill they are best at. (Limit of +2).
- Penalize a -2 to any roll in which the PCs opt for a silly course of action instead of something that makes more sense because they want to use their best skills instead of their worst ones in order to avoid a failure. (Limit of -2).
- Award a +2 assist bonus to any roll in which the PCs successfully argue that an assist from another PC using the same skill is a viable option in that instance. Also award a +2 assist bonus to any roll in which the PCs successfully argue that a different skill can influence the outcome. No more than two assists total (+4) in this fashion can be attempted, and to gain each assist, the PCs must make a DC10 roll with the appropriate skill as outlined in the DMG, page 74. (Limit of +4).
Have the PCs describe their actions clearly and then periodically require them to make an appropriate roll when you think it is necessary and compare the result to the following list of DC results to determine the basic outcome. Unless there is a longer delay resulting from a poor roll (see individual results below), assume that a small amount of time must pass between each skill check before the PCs can enact their next roll or part of the plan, anywhere from a few hours to a few days (depending on what they are attempting to do). Tell them this is because they must be patient and wait for an appropriate time and opening in which to enact their next move. Note that each of the DC outcomes below is very generic and requires impromptu thinking on the part of the DM who must describe what actually happens as well as describe what possible new opportunities are unlocked by the roll (or what opportunities are now cut off).
- A natural 1 or a result less than an EASY DC of the PCs’ level+3 is a failure for the challenge, and it also results in an added difficulty and/or problem (see failures, below). This also means the PCs must now think a completely different way in order to get their next skill opportunity and roll for the challenge; they’ve hit a dead end and need to come up with a new course of action on their own to obtain a new roll or opportunity. Each failure also results in a one-month delay to their escape attempt, and each failure has certain other ramifications.
- A successful EASY DC of the PCs’ level+3 is neither a success nor a failure, but it does result in a one-week delay for their escape attempt because they PCs were not able to succeed at the necessary task they were attempting and will have to await a new opportunity and come up with a slightly different plan of action. PCs can still continue to follow their current course of action and/or come up with new ideas on their own. By doing so, they prompt the use of additional skill opportunities and rolls to accomplish the plan or task at hand.
- A successful MODERATE DC of the PCs’ level+3 results in a success for the challenge in addition to leading to the use of other skill opportunities and rolls. There is no delay to their escape plans, and the DM should also give them at least one new option or course of action to choose from that is unlocked by their recent success that now becomes obvious to them (in addition to any other options the PCs come up with by themselves). They can use one of these new options, or they come up with their own ideas, to pursue a new roll in the skill challenge.
- A successful HARD DC of the PCs’ level+3 over results in a success for the challenge in addition to leading to the use of other skill opportunities and rolls. There is no delay to their escape plans. In addition, the PCs gain the benefit of a +2 to their next roll in the skill challenge and should this roll result in a failure it is instead bumped up to a 9-12 result. The DM should also give them a few new options or courses of action to choose from that are unlocked by their recent success that now become obvious to them (in addition to any other options the PCs come up with by themselves).
1) The first failure in the challenge results in hitting a dead end for the PCs current skill option and drawing the attention of at least one suspicious guard. They now need to come up with a new course of action to obtain a new roll and skill opportunity in the challenge. The guard or guards, though, aren’t sure exactly what the PCs did; they are just suspicious enough to punish them for not following the slave camp’s rules (the PCs involved permanently lose one more healing surge for the rest of the challenge from malnutrition and constant beatings unless they make a hard DC endurance check). If any PC lacks the healing surges to give up from this beating, he or she must make one death save instead. If it’s a failure, mark it off. It also results in a one-month delay to their escape attempt. Although the guards are now suspicious of them, they do not yet know the PCs are planning an elaborate escape.
2) The second failure in the challenge results in hitting a dead end for the PCs current set of plans and needing to come up with a new course of action on their own to obtain a new roll and skill opportunity in the challenge. The guards learn of their latest action and punish them harshly (the PCs involved permanently lose half of their remaining healing surges for the rest of the challenge due to malnutrition and constant beatings unless they make a hard DC endurance check, and even if they make this check they still lose one more healing surge). If any PC lacks the healing surges to give up from this beating, he or she must make one death save instead. If it’s a failure, mark it off. It also results in a one-month delay to their escape attempt and a -2 to all future rolls in the challenge. The guards are now very aware of them and know something is afoot and have discovered part of their plan, making it very difficult to proceed; they will be increasingly alert for more trouble.
Failed skill challenge (3 failures):
The third failure in the challenge results in a failure for the entire challenge and no escape attempt is possible. The guards learn of their latest actions, foil them, and punish the PCs to the point of near-death (the PCs involved permanently lose all remaining healing surges for the rest of the challenge due to malnutrition and constant beatings unless they make a hard DC endurance check, and even if they make this check they still lose half of their surges). In addition, they will remain imprisoned for a period of two years. During this time, they must make a death save every six months. If they fail three death saves, they die.
If the PCs manage to survive for two years after the escape attempt failed, they are finally freed. How this is done is up to you. But perhaps you can have heroes from a nearby settlement successfully raid the slave camp and free all prisoners because they are attempting to free someone they know, someone who has just been added to the slave camp a few days ago.
Success in the skill challenge (8 successes):
If the PCs obtain eight successes, tell them that they’ve successfully laid the groundwork for an escape and they now think they see an opening for such an escape. Examples include allowing them to successfully arm themselves and surprise their captors in an extremely easy fight while most of the slavers are gone, having left the camp to go raid another far-off area for new slaves; or allowing them to stealthily knock out a couple minions and sneak out of the camp unnoticed; or convincing the entire group of slaves to form a mob that easily overwhelms the few guards the slavers left behind, etc.
Regardless, allow the PCs and any other slaves who are assisting them to fight a very minimal battle (if any) with numerous advantages and to escape and slip away to the nearest safe haven where they can then rest up and renew their life.
Ideas and examples of how to improvise and run this challenge:
Shackles and chains: The shackles and chains can be unlocked automatically by obtaining the proper key or they can be unlocked by using thievery (adjust all the base DC levels by +5) under the normal thievery rules; there are four sets of locks (one for each wrist and ankle, each of which restrict movement and must be removed or picked separately). Removing all of the locks counts as one success for the overall challenge PER PERSON freed of them, but only if the person or persons is not caught in the process and re-shackled. The leg chains, while worn, reduce normal movements of a PC to slowed, although athletics, strength, and endurance can be used to double that. Wrist chains hamper all forms of attacks by -5. The locks can also be destroyed by causing damage to them. Doing so without making noise, of course, would be very difficult (adjust all base DC levels of stealth by +10). In this case the item has 30hp (made of iron) and an AC/Reflex of 8 and Fort 8. In addition the chains can be targeted instead (30 hp and an AC/Reflex of 8 and Fort of 8). Two guardsmen carry the keys needed to open these shackles as well as the shackles the other slaves wear (requires stealth and thievery to steal; adjust all base DCs of this task by +5).
Administering medical aid or healing powers: The heal skill can be used to regain one healing surge per person during the entire challenge (adjust all base DC levels by 0). This can only be attempted once per person. The healer then attempts to find a way to exacerbate the healing process in that person to offset the way they are being treated in captivity. Success will also improve their overall health and faculties. Usually, the guards aren’t too concerned about this, but sometimes they take note of someone helping another in this way and react in a cruel manner, unraveling all the work done by the doctor by beating the prisoner even harder. Medical administrations also have the added benefit, if successful, of making the beneficiary more alert and physically capable of accomplishing future tasks (+2 to all future rolls for that person in the challenge). If at least half of the PCs are successfully administered in this way, you should also award the PCs 1 success for the overall challenge.Alternatively, the PCs are also free to use one of their healing powers (healing word, inspiring word, etc.) in place of this heal skill roll to automatically gain the fore-mentioned success and regain one healing surge per person as outlined above and to gain the +2 bonus mentioned. However, the slavers will take note of those slaves who have been healed and work them even harder to offset most of this healing. For this reason, PCs will not be able to gain more than one healing surge in this way.
Befriending or threatening a fellow slave or slaves: This can also work to the PCs advantage. Primary skills that can be used in this manner: diplomacy (adjust all base DCs by 0), bluff (adjust all base DCs by +2), intimidate (adjust all base DCs by 0). If they succeed, the slave or slaves agree to work with them to escape, and award up to 2 successes for the overall challenge.
Create a distraction: Encouraging slaves to enact a distraction, or having some PCs form their own distraction can also help. Primary skill: bluff (adjust all DCs by 0). A well-timed distraction provides bonuses to other skill attempts, but it is also dangerous and draws the wrath of any guards who realize what they are doing. A successful distraction should provide a +5 to any task it is helping to cover; in addition, a successful distraction at the actual time of the actual prison break they are making (after the PCs have already accomplished 6 or 7 successes for the challenge and are ready to make their big move) also provides one success for the overall challenge.
Verbal and physical interaction with the guards: This is another possibility. Doing so can be used to distract, curry favors, and accomplish other verbal trickery to accomplish some task (such as stealing a key or hiding a useful tool or sneaking into another area without being seen). A successful interaction should provide a +5 to any task it is helping to cover; in addition, a successful distraction at the actual time of the actual prison break they are making (after the PCs have already accomplished 6 or 7 successes for the challenge and are ready to make their big move) also provides one success for the overall challenge.
Appearing to exceptionally work hard, like nothing is up: If the PCs do this they can lull their slavers into thinking they are actually doing what they are supposed to be doing and not thinking of escape at all, that they are disillusioned and broken like the other slaves and not planning to escape. Primary skill: bluff (adjust all DCs by 0), athletics (adjust all DCs +5), endurance (adjust all DCs by +5). An added benefit, if successful, is the guards will pay less attention to the PCs in the future. This provides them with a bonus to all future tasks until they obtain their next failure (+2 to all future rolls for the PCs until that failure occurs). This also counts as 1 success for the overall challenge.
Fighting: At some point, fighting is also another possibility. Of course, be sure to describe to the PCs the seeming futility of this action until the time is right, for there are numerous slavers and brutal guards in charge of watching over them; also be sure to keep hinting there may be a better opportunity in the future to make an attack or break for it if they just keep planning and remain patient. Observation of the slavers indicates that many of them will likely be stronger than the PCs in battle. Also stress that these are only the enemies they see in the immediate vicinity, and that others would likely arrive quickly from other, nearby posts when battle and loud noises erupt, or when guards shout for help. Such an occurrence will likely bring more enemies within a few turns. Also explain that the guards have given all the slaves, including them, a warning that any physical violence done against a guard will result in that person simply being killed outright. On the other hand, you can give the PCs some advantages in a fight based on any plans and/or preparations they have successfully undergone so far. Also, if they have obtained six or seven successes, you can even allow them a “golden opportunity” in which to arm themselves and take out only a couple of minions to make a successful run for it.
Rituals: Rituals are not likely be useful in this challenge because they take too long to accomplish and require specific components the PCs will not likely have available.
Wrapping up the challenge:
It’s pretty hard to actually fail this skill challenge completely. It is designed that way on purpose, and no matter what, the PCs will eventually be released. What is really at stake here is how long they will remain enslaved: is it going to be weeks, months, or years? That is the question. It adds a little flavor to the game and provides a wonderful way to age the characters a bit.
On the other hand, if the PCs are dumb enough to make an attack against their captors without laying any groundwork in the skill challenge for such an attack, even with all your warnings, you should hold nothing back: in the ensuing battle throw everything the slavers have at them and let them be overpowered and killed.
Ways to expand or enhance the skill challenge:
You might be able to slip in a future adventure hook in the prison camp while the PCs are working with their fellow prisoners (a prisoner who turns out to be the source of valuable information or provides a hook to a future adventure). Another option is to continue the PCs adventures and difficulties after they escape and reach the “safety” of the settlement that they are escaping to; for instance, force them to explain they’ve been slaves and recently escaped and prove they are not vagabonds or thieves recently escaped from the settlement’s legitimate jail. The settlement’s lord may also attempt to enlist them for a future raid against the slavers and their encampment to free other slaves and capture the slavers.
Awarding experience for this challenge is pretty easy: just follow the normal rules set out in the DMG. First, determine the overall level of the challenge by taking the PC party’s level and add 3 to it. Then, take the complexity of the challenge, which is three, and times it by the experience point value for a standard monster of the same level as the challenge you just determined. Thus, for a first-level party the scalable skill challenge would provide 175 XP (1+3=the award of a 4th-level monster) x 3 = 525 total XP.