Fate Accelerated: Trouble Magnet – Kaylee’s Solo Supers Session #6 – Fight Fire

Due to unexpected fallout from last session, Nataly’s brawl with an alien gargoyle got her and her new family put on a blacklist that seems to have made it impossible to find a home in Mercury Bay. Things were looking grim as Matthew and Marilla pondered hitting the road yet again, hoping for better luck in another city.

But they got a surprise a few days later when the motel room’s phone rang. The woman on the other end of the phone spoke for a minute or so with Marilla, who sounded first suspicious, then surprised, then handed the phone to Nataly.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this… Nataly?”

“Yes.”

“Hi Nataly. You probably don’t remember me, but we sort of … met. I mean… you…” Nataly hears a deep breath, then: “You flew in and stopped that boy who stole my purse, then flew off before I could really thank you.”

“Oh!” Nataly pauses. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know I should have stopped.”

“And I was too surprised to say anything, then. So…” Another pause. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Nataly, I was talking to your mom.” Nataly looks confused, then glances at Marilla, who looks away. “I heard through the grapevine that you were looking for a place to live. Actually, I gather you were looking at one of the apartments in my building, when you came to help me.”

“We’re… having some problems with that.”

“I heard that too,” the woman replies. “I wanted to invite you and your folks to come back over and take a look at that apartment again.”

“Really?”

“Really,” the woman says. “I’m sure we can work something out.”


“The fact is, Mike and I used to date,” the woman – Patricia – confides to Marilla as she walks the trio through the slightly-too-pink apartment again. “We don’t even talk anymore, really, but sometimes he brings people by to see any properties the building has open – I think he thinks he’s doing me a favor.” She shakes her head. “I don’t even own it; I manage it.”

“I’m surprised you had us back here,” Marilla comments, “what with the warnings that have apparently gone out.”

“I said we used to date,” Patricia says. “I’m long past the point where I care much for what that man thinks I should or shouldn’t do. And in any case -” she smiles at Nataly – “how could I not help out?”

The place isn’t perfect: the kitchen isn’t very large, the wiring is a bit dated, and there’s not much room for Matthew to work on projects, but it’s theirs if they want it.

“If you need to keep busy,” Patricia adds to Matthew, “there’s a huge workroom in the basement… that comes along with a handyman position I’d love to find someone for.”

“Well…” Matthew glances at Marilla and Nataly. “I think that’ll do just fine.”


Things settle down into a comfortable routine. Their new home – The Marquis – is a six story building built in the sixties, originally with thirty-six apartments (six apartments per floor, with three on either side of a central hallway/stairwell) but (after fifty years of modifications and tenants merging two or three smaller units) now boasting 26 of varying sizes. Nataly and her new family are on the fifth floor, in a “trio” condo (three old apartments, combined) that takes up all of one side of the floor. All the balconies from what were once three apartments have been combined into one.

(After a week, Matthew’s list of things to fix in the building is enough to ‘keep me busy until the girl graduates high school… if nothing else ever breaks.”)

Nataly starts attending the local public school, and makes friends around the neighborhood (most of the kids don’t know she’s any kind of superhero, and the ones who do (Patricia’s oldest son, a year younger than Nataly) keep it to themselves.

As a matter of fact, no one seems to be that bothered by the idea that there may be a part-time superhero in their midst – a few are especially friendly, most everyone is blandly neutral, and those that don’t seem to like the idea (Mr. Higgins, 1B) simply glare and stay away.

Patricia turns out to be a big help – she’s a bit of a pillar in the community (she *does* partly own the building, after all), well-liked, and a bit of an activist for good schools, walkable communities, and public green spaces.

And the school isn’t bad. Nataly makes a few friends fairly quickly (Kaylee has fun naming and detailing all of them), and things get familiar very quickly. It’s a nice neighborhood, and fairly quiet.

Which makes the sounds of approaching fire engines all the more notable.


The Fire

The kids in Nataly’s grade were on the playground as the fire trucks approached, and everyone crowded toward the fence to watch them pass.

Except Nataly. She was looking at the skyline, and what she saw worried her: it looked like the smoke was coming from the direction of The Marquis.

Since no one’s looking her way, Nataly ducks under the slide, puts up her force bubble, forces it to the light-bending transparency that makes her all but impossible to spot, and takes off, heading for the fire.

For this, I stole straight from the Jason Morningstar’s “Fight Fire” chapter in Fate Worlds, Volume 1 (one of several game settings in the book – this one designed for playing teams of fire fighters – brilliant). Specifically, I borrowed and modified the set-up for a ‘fire incident’ in an apartment building, from page 101:

Aspects: Mid-sixties construction; Not up to code; Reinforced ‘safety’ doors.

People and Circumstances:

  • Crowds in the street — residents desperate for their homes to be saved and most of the neighborhood as curious onlookers.
  • Nobody can find Mrs. Lupo from 6-B.
  • Miguel Flores is trying to break into his ex-wife’s apartment, 6-C, because his 11-year-old daughter Inez may be alone inside (home sick with an ear infection).

Zones
6-A (Void fire)
Situation Aspects: Cheap framing, Locked doors and barred windows
Skills: Good (+3) Spread, Fair (+2) Smoke, Average (+1) Burn; five stress boxes

6-B (Ignition site, Open fire)
Situation Aspects: Cheap framing, Family treasures, Broken fire escape, Locked doors and barred windows
Skills: Superb (+5) Burn, Great (+4) Spread, Good (+3) Smoke, seven stress boxes

6-C (Smoldering fire)
Situation Aspects: Cheap framing, Dripping roof tar, Locked doors and barred windows
Skills: Great (+4) Smoke, Good (+3) Burn, Fair (+2) Spread; six stress boxes

So with a little cribbing from an entirely different setting, we have one of those classics of comic book hero challenges: the burning building. I’m quietly pleased.

Nataly does a quick inspection of the building from the outside, from high up, while the fire trucks are setting up and trying to push back the crowd. The fire seemed to be focused on just one side of the sixth (top) floor. These apartments are some of the least expensive (read: smallest, sixth floor walk-ups, and no balcony except the fire escapes… one of which probably couldn’t safely be used as an escape in the first place). All the apartment windows on this floor are barred (why, this high up, Nataly can’t guess), so she enters the building through a window that opens onto the hallway that runs down the center of the floor.

Through the haze of smoke, she can see Mr. Florez at the end of the hall, trying to break open the reinforced safety door on 6-C. She approaches, and he’s so distracted that he doesn’t see her until she’s standing next to him. He’s not making any headway on the door.

He tries to get her to leave.

She blasts the door off its hinges, and he shuts up in a hurry.

The two rush into the room. The smoke is thick (Nataly takes some stress), but the gush of new air into the space luckily doesn’t cause the fire to flare up. Inez (age: 11, “one grade ahead of Nataly, but nice to younger kids”) is crouched in the bathroom tub, but otherwise okay. Nataly gets them both heading downstairs as fast as they can.

Now would be an excellent time to leave, but while circling the building, Nataly had heard several people mentioning the missing Mrs. Lupo, and knows she has to check her apartment before she can go. She does the trick with blasting the door down from the hallway again, but this apartment is a much different situation: the source of the fire, the apartment crawls with flames that reach for Nataly as soon as the door opens. Her force shield barely holds, and this is from the doorway.

Still, she tries.

The apartment is small, and doesn’t take long to check – Mrs. Lupo isn’t there, pretty much the only thing not on fire is an old piano in the living room, covered in framed photos.

Nataly is almost out of stress, and is coughing violently from the hot air (Minor consequence), but decides to take a few more seconds and at least save something from the fire. She scoops up all the photos into a second bubble and knocks out the nearest window to escape. The rush of air gives the fire new life, however, and the heat is more than Nataly can withstand – she flies through the hole on fire, barely under control, and (shouts and screams echoing from the street below) crashes onto the roof of the building across the street, still cradling the photos in a force bubble and her burned arms (moderate consequence).

The fire fighters take it from there.

Nataly requires some medical attention, but she’s reported as ‘a child trapped in the fire,’ and no one asks too many questions. Around the Marquis, no one needs to. Flowers, small gifts, cards, and “irresponsible piles” of candy (in Marilla’s words) appear at their apartment door. Mrs. Lupo (who’d been visiting her sister across town) comes by every afternoon and helps Nataly keep up with her homework.

Mr. Higgins isn’t any nicer, but that’s just Mr. Higgins.


And now you’re all caught up to where Kaylee and I are, so far. We have Nataly set up in a new home, with a base of operations, friends and family, and things to fight for. I love the way this has played out so far: it feels a bit like the apartment block in the new Hawkeye series, mixed up with a little Runaways and maybe Zita the Spacegirl.

What’s next?

I tell you, I just don’t know where to start: there’s just so much cool stuff we can do.

Optimizing my free time

I don’t have anything against DnD 4e. In my opinion, it’s a big step up – a real evolution – from the 3rd edition rules.

I don’t have anything against the folks in the monthly game of DnD 4e that I play in. They’re all decent enough folks.

I like my character. I like the way my character works in play. I even like the storyline.

But I’m done.  I was at the game for eight hours on Saturday, not counting travel time, and we managed two fights and one scene that might nominally be deemed ‘role-play’ that ended becoming a player-discussion of the inherent morality (or lack thereof) of groups of adventures who categorize entire sentient peoples by racial stereotypes, then kill ’em and take their stuff.

Fascinating, in a petri dish kind of way, but not what I signed on for, general.

So I’m done.

What shall I do instead?  There’s a weekend writer group that invited me to join in, and I think I’ll do that.

As for gaming in general, I think I’ll stick with things that produce a better fun to time ratio.

Coming back to the old home town: Paragon City

Saturday morning, I revved up the old comp and prepared to get in a little gaming goodness. Would I get back to the incredibly satisfying, incredibly frustrating Braid? How about restarting Bioshock, to get at some of the story I’ve missed? Perhaps a little of the Ol’ Reliable, with Lord of the Rings Online?

None of the above. This weekend, I played City of Heroes.

Now, it’s been a long time since I’ve played CoH, though I think it’s fair to say that, when I played, I logged enough hours to last me the rest of my life, if I so chose. Still, I’ve been feeling an itch to play some supers lately – and, specifically, to play particular characters from CoH – and the opportunity presented itself, so that’s what I did.

Also, there’s two more Supers games coming out this year, and I want CoH fresh in my memory when I go check them out.

I don’t have a lot of nuanced analysis to present, so here’s just some stuff off the top of my head.

Good

  • Well, it’s fun, isn’t it? Not having to worry about bad guys getting behind you, the fairly intuitive interface (with some important exceptions), and hell… it’s super heroes – that’s pretty damned fun.Don’t discount this bullet point: it balances out a GREAT DEAL of the “Bad” and “Meh” below.
  • CoH is easy to play. If you don’t want to sweat the details, you really don’t have to, and that’s okay: you get an arrow telling you where to go to get missions, then you get an arrow telling you where the missions are, and then you do the mission and repeat. Provided you don’t ramp up the difficulty setting at all, I’m convinced a half-trained monkey could get a character into the mid-thirties with no problems at all. If you’re working with familiar contacts in a big zone, you can fly from mission to mission of mindless fun.
  • Extensible. If you like crafting systems and character stat tweaking CoH definitely comes through, limited only by your pocket book.
  • New content. Seems the development team is still doing solid work, and while I haven’t messed with the Mission Builder (nor am I likely to do much creation with it — my days of creating custom stories for CoH are long past (when it was much harder to manage), and that desire has NOT returned at ALL), I’ve heard that some of the new player-created content is excellent, and there certainly is a LOT of it.

Bad

  • Fucking. Timed. Missions. Why aren’t all the timed missions LABELED AS SUCH? It’s a simple, fixable thing, and game is, basically, fucking rude for not warning people. It’s doubly annoying when combined with this: I think they MUST have changed this somewhat since I last played, because damned if I remember this, but WHY IN THE HELL do you automatically get the next mission in a chain when you turn in the previous one? I just click on the NPC and BOOM: new mission? WTF, over?
  • Bugs. Perhaps I got so used to it last time that I didn’t notice, but DAMN the game is buggy. Kind of stupid bugs, also. Base problems. Costume options that migrate to some other table and screw up your character’s look. NPC pathing stupidity that borders on the laughable. Weird door bugs. Those stupid fucking CoT teleportals that go the wrong direction. Crashing the game if I’m using the wrong power when I zone. Seriously: for a game that relies SO HEAVILY on Zoning, it should be less crash- and bug-prone.
  • Zoning. Ugh. So much zoning. I don’t care if it’s fast (it isn’t, even on a good comp), it’s overused.
  • Inventory Management. The inventory capacity on CoH characters is STUPIDLY small. You can get 10 enhancements before being full up. Roughly 15 recipes. About 30 types of salvage. Roughly speaking, that’s half the bag space of LotRO – about a third of WoW. The number of times my recipe or enhancement slots filled up (with useful or valuable stuff), requiring a trip to a store (or four) was frustrating.
  • The interface is great, except when it isn’t. Is there any way to get into screen where you can see your powers and how they’re slotted WITHOUT clicking “Manage” in the Enhancement bag inventory? Is there any indicator that screen even exists, if you didn’t already know?
  • Why can’t you just drop a mission? I don’t mean “Drop it and get credit for it.” I mean DROP IT. I have three mission slots (at least one of which I probably got dropped on me without warning when I turned in an old one – see “Stupid Fucking Timed Missions” above), and I end up in a new area with cool new missions and I can’t just drop the crap I have and take these new things – I *HAVE TO* do those existing missions first.

Good? Bad? I’m the guy with the nanites in my blood.

  • Anyone who tells me that CoH doesn’t have an Inventory system, WoW-like auction house, crafting halls, potions, or body looting — YOU ARE FOOLING YOURSELVES, or just being disingenuous. The ONLY difference in the looting between CoH and other MMOs is that CoH has it happen automatically, without clicking on the body. That’s it. Salvage, inspirations, and enhancements? That’s LOOT. Some of it even makes a coin-jingling noise when you get it. All CoH does is remove a single click. (Actually, WoW doesn’t make you click anymore either, really, so…)
  • Level Cap. Like the urban spawl of Los Angeles or Denver, CoH continues to grow perpetually OUTWARD, with no interest in growing UPWARD. This is apples for some, oranges for others.
  • Only three missions can be live at a time? Really? Three? I get that CoH is geared for ultra-casual players, but goddamn: THREE? I’ve got over Forty-five quest slots in LotRO, and I manage. My daughter can count to ten without using her fingers; give us some fucking credit.

Now, did I enjoy myself? Oh hell yes. I played enough on Saturday that I didn’t get much of anything else done, and Sunday wasn’t much better. I’m pretty sure I dreamed about it Saturday night – it gets into my pores. It holds a special place in my heart – surrounded by a bit of scar-tissue, but still.

And Kaylee loves it. More than any other MMO, she just loves it. That might be partly due to the fact that she heard it in the womb, but it is what it is – she loves it. Like LotRO, she loves hitting the attack buttons as long as they make a satisfying BOOM, and LOTS of powers in CoH go Boom.

That said, it’s a game I have to approach with some caution – it’s fun and all, but it has a bad tendency to cause me to push other things out of my scope of vision — that’s all on me, not the game, but it is something of which I need to be aware.

NCSoft has a payment scheme these days that lets you pay for a single month at a time via paypal, without the annoyance of starting-then-stopping a recurring monthly plan, just to get some casual play – I’ll probably do that for the next month, simply to get my ‘fix’ for the superhero goodness and to analyze how much influence it still has on my productivity. Maybe I’ll even lure Kate along for the ride: who knows?

But I had a good time. It’s a good game, for all it’s quirks and flaws; maybe even despite – or because – of them.

Birthday presents for nerds

From a GChat with the DM in my once-a-month DnD game:

12:59 PM Dale: Congratulations: your character gets 175 xp in celebration of you living another year 😉

Cha-ching.

d20 update (and a bit of a rant at the end)

I feel weird using ‘d20’ to refer to a game of Dungeons and Dragons 4.0, as the game is fundamentally different than the versatile-but-expensive set of lego bricks that made up the 3.5, 3.0, and d20 systems of old.
But anyway.
We played a little more of the Keep on the Shadowfells on Saturday, and by ‘a little bit’ I mean ‘just that one fight that notoriously kills entire parties, followed by some handwaving in the direction of roleplay’.
Man that’s a vicious fight. I’m only playing with one house rule to the 4.0 system, and it is this: “You can trade in Healing Surges for Action Points on a 1:1 basis, and use the resulting action points as indicated within the rules.”
If there a limit to one Action Point per encounter? If so, we ignored that one too. If not, and it’s just ‘on AP per round’, we were fine.
Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that without that little house rule most everyone would have died. (And don’t anyone blame the halfling wandering off, because the fight is tuned to five players, and you had five even not counting the halfling.) As it was, Irontooth dropped the Paladin and Warlord about a round before he himself fell, but some first aid rolls got them standing again.
A few thoughts on the system, scenario, and our general gameplay:

Continue reading “d20 update (and a bit of a rant at the end)”

Patch 4.1 out for DnD

Okay, not a patch, but people make the DnD = MMORPG comparison so much, I figured one more tired joke wouldn’t hurt.
Actually, it’s errata and updates for all three books, enough that I hope they correct this stuff in a second printing of the 4.0 rules.
They has completely overhauled the skill challenge system in the DMG errata. All skill challenges now end with 3 failures regardless of complexity, so Complexity 5 challenges are going to be very difficult. However, they also dropped the difficulty of all skill checks by 5 (which is something I was already doing, based on the number crunching geniuses at Story-Games… you know, they don’t right many crunchy games, but those guys grok dice probabilities.
Anyway: all Easy skill checks are now difficulty 5 instead of 10. Moderate skill checks are now DC 10 instead of 15, and Hard checks are now DC 15 instead of 20. This still scales up with level.

Hacking the DnD Action Point rules

So I looked over the various gaming threads that had come out of discussions of Action Points and how they were used — I agree and disagree in equal measures with what folks are saying, so I’m just writing down my thoughts on Action Points from my own point of view.
This essentially codifies the House Ruled Action Point system I’ve been using.
First, my thoughts:

1. Action Points are cool. I don’t necessarily love how they’re implemented in the game, because:
– 1a: They can only do one thing (take an additional Standard Action).
– 1b: That option is alternately kind of lame or potentially game breaking.
2. Due to (1b) and the risk of a game breaking series of Action Point expenditures (two or three rounds in a row of additional actions would kind of break things, yes), the game designers opted to:
– 2a: Heavily restrict the number of APs a player can have.
– 2b: Heavily restrict how often APs can be used.
I understand why they did that, but I think it simply treats the symptomatic problems of the system as implemented — it doesn’t fix what’s busted.
3. Since Action Points, under the standard system are both (a) rare and (b) unstable in terms of payoff, they’re rarely used by the players.
– 3a: Their primary purpose (allowing players to combat the unavoidable whiff-factor in a dice mechanic with no bell curve and roughly a 50/50 chance of success on any given roll) is alternately too weak or too powerful in practice.
– 3b: Their alternate purpose (as a way to make characters more awesome) is diluted.

Truly, they might just as easily not even be in the game: as written, they represent a lot of bookkeeping (“a new Action Point accrues every two encounters, but the total resets to 1 after each Extended Rest”? Really, Wizards of the Coast? Really?), for a rare and often anticlimactic pay-off.
They are, alternately, “too much” and “not enough”, in my opinion.
So here’s my hack. Changes and additions are italicized.

1. Your character starts with one Action Point. For the purposes of drifting as little as possible from the core rules, we’ll retain the standard accrual rules I just made fun of:
– 1a. You gain a fresh Action Point every other encounter.
– 1b. Your current total of Action points resets to 1 after an Extended Rest.
2. You can use your Action Points for one of three things:
– 2a: Spend an AP to take an additional standard action. (Once per Encounter)
– 2b: Spend an AP to reroll a failed (or successful) d20 roll. (Once per Turn)
– 2c: Spend an AP to add +3 to (or subtract 3 from) a d20 roll. (Once per Turn)

Edit to Add: A natural 1 can’t be rerolled, and always misses. Sometimes, you’re just screwed, and that’s awesome too.
3. At will, as a free action, you can cross off a Healing Surge and give yourself an Action Point, which can immediately be used in one of the ways listed under 2. Healing Surges reset per the normal rules.

The end result allows players to “push” by sacrificing some resources in a way that I already know I like a lot from playing lots of other games with similar options. (Vincent Baker uses a phrase “trading in your future for your present” and I like that term quite a lot.)
It’s also relatively “trad gaming” in the options it presents: if I really wanted to hack it into some kind of Indie co-authored hippie craziness, I’d add a few Meta-options under #2, like spending an AP to let you add facts to the game fiction, a la Spirit of the Century.
Even without that option, I’d definitely consider a player who really wanted to take part in a scene and suggested paying an Action Point to conveniently show up, if it was remotely plausible.
Bones?

The One Where He Totally Geeked Out Like a Mid-1980s Gamer Nerd ((Hacking DnD 4 into Lord of the Rings))

I noticed early on that LotRO’s main conceit about their “Health Bar” really really works in DnD 4th with regards to healing.
Lord of the Rings refers to your ‘health bar’ as Morale — so it’s mostly representative of your will to continue the fight — the rest of the game works in similar ways — where death =’s ‘retreat’ and so forth. This makes ‘healers’ in Lord of the Rings (which is really quite a low-magic setting) make sense — they are the minstrels with their uplifting songs (VERY Tolkein), the Captains with the rallying crys and bold words, and even the Lore Masters with their quietly whispered words (or sometimes taking your worries on their own shoulders to ease your burden).
That idea really works in 4th edition DnD, especially when you look at the Healing Surges everyone has (accessible in combat as Second Wind) and the names of the healing-type abilities for the Warlord (Captain), which indicate that they’re really just boosting your will to continue the fight.
Mike Mearls was saying in an interview that it changes nothing in the game if a player wants to take all his mage spells and switch them to ‘cold’ damage instead of, say, fire; it’s the kind of customization hacking he expects from players in the game as they make their character their own.
Then I thought: it would be a pretty simple thing indeed to hack the Cleric into a sort of lore-master and/or minstrel (or both, depending on which path you took at creation) simply by changing the names of the powers and changing their “implement” from a holy symbol to either a wizards staff or a musical instrument. Do that, drop Mages and Warlocks from the game (or leave them for the bad guys), and you’re pretty much ready to play in Middle Earth in LotRO style.
So, to sum up…
– Drop Dragonborn and Tieflings. Duh.
– Elladrin are the elves of Lothlorien and Rivendell.
– Sylvan elves are the elves of Mirkwood.
– Fighters: unchanged. Depending on build, they are either Champions or Guardians.
– Rogues: rogues are more melee damage dealers than the LotRO Burglars, and their benefit to the group is slightly different, but it’s still similar enough. Halfling rogues should favor trickster builds, probably, with the other type being more common with sylvan elves and the like.
– Rangers: virtually no changes.
– Warlord: call em Captains and you’re done, though I think a lot of them would be multiclassed.
– Cleric: the ‘sit-in-the-back’ build (whatever the name) you tweak in Power names and Implements to be Minstrels, and the ‘up-in-your-face’ build you likewise tweak to be Loremasters.
– Warlocks: probably only bad guys — infernal types serve Sauron entirely, I’d guess. Fey types work alright with the High elves, and Star-pact warlocks would make an interesting type of Loremaster, maybe.
– Mages: too overt to be anything but bad guys, really.
This would simulate LotRO pretty well, would work for a game setting like Midnight quite well, but still be too much magic for true Tolkein.
If you really wanted to be totally hardcore Tolkein, not LotRO, you remove Clerics and Mages. Healing would fall entirely to the use of Healing Surges and any Captains you had with you. Warlocks stay in the setting in very particular instances. Infernal Warlocks are bad guys, Fey Warlocks are the Elf Lords, and Star Pact Warlocks are Gandalf and Sauruman. (Keep the Ritual List, from which you’d likewise remove things like passwall and the Portal magic, but keep the ‘rezzes’ for when Frodo gets insta-gibbed a ringwraith on Weathertop. Only the various Warlocks would get such Rituals automatically — anyone else would need a Feat to learn a few — Aragorn did so.)

DnD Skill Challenges

Skill Challenges are a new wrinkle in DnD skill use that aim to make said skills use… well, more interesting. The basic idea is that each Skill Challenge has a Complexity rating from one to five.
A Complexity One skill challenge for a group of level 1 adventurers, for example, requires that the group as a whole succeeds at 3 skill checks before it fails at 3. A complexity Five skill challenge is something like “succeed at 11 before you fail at 7”.* The idea is that everyone around the table who is involved is taking turns at working on this challenge, either by making their own skill rolls or helping someone else hit theirs, and that each of these ‘moves’ is roleplayed/narrated as you go, making the whole thing more interactive.
In an ideal world, there are a few ‘obvious’ skills that work for each encounter, and the unspoken challenge to the players to come up with novel ways to apply the skills they’re good at that aren’t on that pre-approved list. It’s all very, if I may say so, hippy and indie. It’s a LOT like how all the skills and combat in Heroquest work.
In practice, the Challenges have come under a lot of fire, both because the Difficulties for success are weighted HEAVILY toward failure in some places, and because people are having trouble getting their heads around it, and finally because the results of the Challenge are, as written, binary: you either Win Completely or fail completely.
Enter Keith Baker, and some excellent thoughts on making Skill Challenges interesting and winnable, without actually changing the math. (Which I’m doing anyway.)
One good suggestion is something straight out of Heroquest, but predicated on the DnD Combat model: more graduated levels of success, ranging from the Crit-like total victory, to a regular old Success, to Moderate success, partial success, failure with some benefit, failure with a single mote of light, and the Crit-fumble of Total Loss.
But the best suggestion is one I’ve been working on for what seems like years, now: setting up conflicts so that the failures are as interesting as the victories.
* – I know the numbers I quoted for Complexity values are off, compared to the rules — I’m quoting a mathmatical rework of the rules that makes more sense to me.