I ran a very fun encounter recently that had a lot of elements of a no win scenario. Only 3 of my 6 players had shown up, and though I scaled down the encounter’s EL for 3 players, they were missing both the cleric and the paladin, the only really good sources of healing they had available to them. To make matters worse, the head guy had a nasty immobilization ray that he kept using on the monk and rogue, and the only other enemy had a reach of two, reducing them to using mediocre ranged attack, while being continually pounded each round.
Things were looking dire pretty early on, with the monk bloodied and the rogue on the verge of unconsciousness. However, I had provided the PCs with a solution that the wizard eagerly jumped on: a skill challenge to free a powerful beast the villain had in enchanted chains. Once free, the beast would attack the villain, giving the PCs a chance to free prisoners in the area and escape. I liked the skill challenge for a couple reasons:
- It did a good job of creating the tension of one group trying to buy time in battle so another person can accomplish an important goal, which is a welcome change of pace from most D&D battles where the goal is simply to mash the enemy into a paste.
- Each success gave the PCs another potential benefit that could help turn the tide of the battle in their favor.
The skill challenge worked as follows:
- Arcana Check (Hard): The PC must be on a specific rune on the floor to complete this step of the ritual. If successful, the PC gains control of the fonts of power in the location (there are several dotted around the area). Gaining control of the fonts means that enemies take 10 damage whenever they stand on a font of power and the PCs can use them normally to do extra damage (fonts of power do an extra 5 damage a tier if you use a power with the same keyword as the font of power).
- Arcana Check (Hard): The PC must be on a specific other rune across the room to complete this step of the ritual. If successful, the PC opens the doors to several cages in the area, freeing prisoners trapped inside. This opens up a Diplomacy (hard) check that a PC can use to rally the prisoners to help in the fight, gaining about a dozen minions that come to their aid.
- Thievery Check (Hard): With the enchantments gone, the chains can be removed. The PC must be adjacent to the beast to perform this check and remove the chains. Alternatively, a PC may attempt a thievery check versus the villain’s passive perception to palm the key from them, which can open the chains as a minor action. This frees the beast, but it is totally insane, randomly selecting a target within 5 squares to attack each round.
- Religion Check (Hard): The villain has placed a powerful curse to drive the beast mad. Succeeding on this check clears the beast’s mind, allowing it to see who its real enemy is: the villain who captured it. Thus, the PCs gain a very powerful ally who can easily turn the tide of the battle.
When I ran this skill challenge, the rogue made the thievery check to get the key right before being knocked unconscious. The wizard, after completing the first two steps, used mage hand (minor) to grab the key, unlocked the chains (minor), and then made the religion check to calm the beast (standard), all in the same turn.
The wizard then activated an artifact that an NPC ally had given him, a coin she told him to flip if he was ever in dire danger. To his dismay and the dismay of the other two party members, who were both unconscious at the time, the wizard was instantly teleported away from the encounter and right next to the NPC’s cottage in the mortal world!
The unconscious rogue and monk were in a precarious situation. The rogue was in an aura that did damage when he failed a death saving throw; he was one failed save from death. The monk had already failed two of her death saving throws and so was in a similar situation!
Things looked grim. Despite having freed the beast to do harm upon the villain and his henchman, the players were quickly bleeding to death and the wizard wasn’t even in the correct plane to come to their aid! It came around to the rogues turn. He picked up his d20 and rolled… a natural 20!
Suddenly it was looking like everyone might survive after all! The monk passed her next two death saves, giving time for the rogue to stand up and feed her a potion of vitality. She jumped up on her turn and the two of them turned to attack the villain. The rogue delivered a stunning knockout blow that had the effect of killing the villain outright since he had already been hurt badly by the beast (and earlier attacks by the players). While the beast turned on the last remaining enemy, the players shepherded the prisoners to safety!
It was a ton of fun and a very epic end to the adventure!