I don’t know about you, but sometimes the most mundane events in my life lead me to odd roleplaying ideas. For example, when I saw the office manager emptying out the shredder this week, I thought that a high level modern rogue could sneak in and steal those shredded documents and reassemble them for some corporate espionage. (Did I also mention Leverage returns tonight?) My next thoughts were constructing a parallel fantasy d&d scenario for corporate espionage. After a round-about train of thought I developed a skill challenge relying heavily on Perception checks to gather evidence against an evil Baron.
In order to make it to the punchline of this whole diatribe, I have to bring in a bit of my day job. As a software programmer, I’m trained in making sure programs fail gracefully. That means if the database goes down while you’re still connected to it, instead of crashing your computer, the program remains responsive to input and allows you to proceed with your work as much as possible. Bringing that idea to my perception challenge, we don’t want a failed skill check to dead end the party’s plans, or end the skill challenge too soon.
The fantasy espionage example involves the party trying to uncover tangible evidence of a Baron’s dealings with the King’s enemies. Since the Baron is a pretty smart guy, he thinks to destroy all the obvious evidence. A hard DC perception allows the PC to find an incriminating note that got caught in the chimney flue instead of burning up. In the standard-style skill challenge, beating the hard DC would count as success, and not making it would be a failure. In addition to counting as one strike, as a consequence for failure, the DM may decide that the failed search took 10 out of the 15 minutes before the guards make their rounds.
A gracefully failing skill check would not have a binary pass/fail option, but instead have grades of results (no more than 3 or 4 is practical). In my example, let’s say the PC did not make the hard DC, but rolled well enough to pass a moderate check. In that case she doesn’t find the note, but instead finds an undated bar tab for a tavern known to be frequented by the king’s enemy. Since this hardly damning evidence, the baron saw no need to destroy it. But this circumstantial piece of evidence could be used by the party to then go to the tavern and try to find eye witnesses to a meeting (requiring further skills and RP). Perhaps only rolling high enough to beat an easy DC gives the PC mud on boot only found in part of town where that tavern is, meaning the PCs must first uncover the tavern, and then find the eye-witnesses. Maybe this also uses up 10 of the 15 minutes minutes. Failing the easy might get the PCs no evidence and a strike against the skill challenge.
This seems like a nice idea to make skill challenges more fluid. If you play with a discrete skill challenge mode, obviously this will add to the complexity of a skill challenge, so the DM will have to adjust the rewards or break down skill challenges into smaller ones.