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D&D 4e Skill Challenge: Assassination!

“… can turn a Murder into Art.”

Spying the watchman standing by the gate, she dropped into a crouch, masking herself among the shadows of the overhanging trees.  She crept slowly toward the quarry, unsheathing her blade, and hiding it inside the edge of her dark cloak to make sure that its razor-sharp edge could not reflect the flickering torch.  She had only one chance to kill the guard, for his cries could rouse even more enemies, and it was imperative that she enter the keep undetected.  Springing silently to a branch overhead, she slithered along its length until she was directly over the oblivious guard.  Wrapping her legs around the limb of the tree, she tensed for the moment – and then moved with blinding speed.  Dangling from the limb by her legs, she uncoiled herself as swift as an adder, and grabbed the guard’s mouth in one hand while her glinting blade slashed across his…

DM: “Ok roll to hit.”

Player: “But my Character totally surprised that guard, I slit him from ear to…”

DM: “Well you have to roll to hit first, and you get +2 for CA, and then we can roll…”

Player: “But c’mon!  I just had to roll three Stealth Checks, an Athletics, and an Acrobatics just so I can…”

DM: “Yea so you can hit him, and he’s not exactly a minion, so we’ll have to roll a Grapple to see if you keep him quiet, cause you’re first hit just isn’t going to kill him out… hey, stop throwing dice!”

If you’ve gamed long enough, in almost any RPG you can name, this scenario is not new to you.   There are those moments around every gamin table, when the realism of situation breaks down in the face of the mechanics of the game.  Regretfully, those moments also tend to rob us of the drama and suspense we’re developing, on both sides of the DM screen.  When we’re role-playing out an exciting scene that could be from any action movie, why should we have to stumble over boring rules?

The Art of the Kill

As Dungeon Masters, we do have a couple things we can use from our toolbox to keep the dramatic suspense and flavor of the moment alive, without having to trip over too many rules.  Deciding which tool will work best in the situation depends a lot on the individual scene, and what the Characters are trying to accomplish.

Here are some suggestions for handling an Assassination scenario like the one in the introduction:

Tool #1 – Minions to the Rescue!

If there is one thing that D&D 4e did so right with this version over previous incarnations of the game was creating Minions.  They are the perfect little widgets, useful for everything from filling in XP gaps in an Encounter to soaking up the Player’s Encounter Exploits that could be used to hurt their Fearless Leader.

They also make great guards, especially if you want to allow your adventurers the option of sneaking up on an Encounter in order to get the drop on the Big Bad Boss.  Having only 1 HP is the key to make the dramatic moment real, because anyone can do at least 1 HP of damage with any attack.

Assuming we play out the encounter as described above, assigning the guard as a minion, you can reduce the number of skill rolls used to get the Character to her quarry.  Originally, you’d assign one Stealth to sneak to the tree, an Athletics to get to the limb, another Stealth to walk along the limb, then a Stealth and Acrobatics to swing silently out of the tree.  But hey, this is just a Minion, so there’s no need to make a broadway production out of the scenario.  Just use one Stealth Check for all the sneaking, an Athletic Check to climb the tree (optionally, Acrobatic Stunt to leap into the tree), and then an Acrobatics Check to swing down and kill the guard should be all that is required.  Roll to hit, and as long as there is no miss, you succeed!

Tool #2 – Skill Challenge Swap-out

But obviously, there are times when you want to create a more difficult challenge then just slaughtering a hapless minion to get into a gate, and so you present a guard that is nearly as dangerous as the Characters – of equal Level, or Level -1, or even possibly Level +1.  Now under normal D&D 4e Combat Rules, there is nearly no way for a single Character to instantly kill an enemy of equal level, short of administering a Coup de Grace.

However, it is possible to quickly transform a Combat Encounter into a Skill Challenge to allow for the guard to be killed.  All you’re doing is swapping out a Combat Encounter for a Skill Challenge of equal XP value.

Important Concepts for swapping a Combat Encounter for an Assassination Skill Challenge

  • Foe Level – Foe’s level is no higher than Level +2. Not allowed with Elite and Solo Encounters.
  • Encounter Adjustment – If Foe is part of a larger Encounter Group, adjust the XP of that group down by the value of the Foe, as it is now the XP value of the Skill Challenge.
  • Skill Challenge Level – Equal to the Level of the Characters
  • Skill Challenge Complexity Level – Complexity 1
  • Difficulty Classes (DCs) – Moderate DCs based upon Character’s Level

This initial setup will work for a Foe of Equal Level to the Characters.  Remember, however, that for the Encounter to be an equivalent XP swap, the Skill Challenge Level must equal the Level of the Foe.  Therefore, adjustments may need to be made to the DCs and the Skill Challenge Complexity Level to make it balance.

Foe’s Level => Skill Challenge Adjustment

  • Level-1 => Change DCs to next row down
  • Level+1 => Change DCs to next row up –or- Reduce Skill Challenge Failures allowed to 1
  • Level +2 => Change DCs to next row up –and- Reduce Skill Challenge Failures allowed to 1

In some instances, it makes more sense that a single failure will ruin the plan and allow the guard to see his attacker coming, so for Foe’s of Level+1 you need to identify which adjustment is most appropriate.  For the Skill Check Difficulty Classes, please consult the DMG Chapter 4: Encounter Settings.  Once you have made all the proper modifications, you are ready to run the Skill Challenge.

Skill Challenge – Assassination!

Setup: To instantly kill an enemy guard or foe, without letting him sound the alarm!

Level: Equal to Party Level

Complexity:  1 (4 Successes before 3 Failures or 1 Failure if adjusted for enemy’s level)

Difficulty Class: Moderate (unless adjusted for enemy’s level)

Primary Skills: Stealth, Bluff, Athletics, Acrobatics, Insight, Nature (or Dungeoneering)

Stealth: You creep up on the enemy to get within range to administer a killing blow.

Bluff (with appropriate disguise): You approach the enemy wearing some kind of disguise, pretending to be an ally until you are within range to strike.

Athletics (terrain appropriate): You use the terrain to your advantage, and climb (or jump or swim) to an unlikely place where your enemy will least expect an attack.

Acrobatics (Balance; terrain appropriate):  You make your way closer to your prey, using a ledge (beam, parapet, wall top, etc.) to mask your approach.

Acrobatics (Acrobatic Stunt): Your make a daring maneuver which leaves your enemy momentarily stunned, and vulnerable to your deadly thrust.

Insight (with Bluff):  Reading the enemy’s face, you adjust your disguise to act more convincing.  Add +2 to next Bluff Check – does not count as a success for the Skill Challenge.

Nature (or Dungeoneering): Your (or a nearby Ally) makes a slightly distracting noise, appropriate to the surroundings.  Add +2 to next Stealth Check – does not count as a success for the Skill Challenge.

Clearly, you can use a combination of Skills to complete the Challenge, but the order in which they are attempted does matter.  Stealth should be the primary component to any successful Assassination attempt, but it does not necessarily have to be.  A Character could as easily climb along a wall top or parapet (Athletics), while in disguise and in plain sight (Bluff), and drop down next to the enemy and engaging him in a moment of idle banter (Bluff again), before suddenly dodging behind him, covering his mouth and sweeping his legs from under him (Acrobatics), while slitting his throat (Success)!

And don’t forget the “DM’s Little Helper” – the application of up to a +2 bonus or a -2 penalty as appropriate for what the Character is trying to accomplish can help make the Encounter flow reasonably.

So remember not to let a Combat Encounter get in the way of a great role-playing opportunity.  Skill Challenges, properly handled, can be just as exciting and suspenseful as any combat – and quite a bit shorter to play out!

So until next blog – I wish you Happy Gaming!

Editor’s Note – Thank you AbdulAlhazred on the EN World Boards for reminding me that there was errata regarding Skill Challenge Difficulty Classes. I have altered that section of the blog to match the errata.


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

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