Tabletop roleplaying games as we know them now find their history in war games. These strategy combat simulators allowed people to compete in deeply tactical game mechanics focused completely on battle scenarios. There were not characters with enriching backstories, there were not scenes of heroes wooing bartenders or cleverly outwitting wise queens – just an army of faceless drones destroying one another in battles that were all about displaying the gaming skill of the players. This origin story has impacted the hobby in a few ways, perhaps the most noticeable of which is that many roleplaying games have much richer combat mechanics than they do rules for handling non-combat situations.
Imagine if you will the typical roleplaying game rulebook. You have within it a somewhat substantial section on creating characters, walking you through each piece of character creation step by step and explaining the series of options available to you. Next is a section on actually playing the game, explaining how the dice work and how to test individual skills on a one time basis. Each skill gets a paragraph or two painted in broad strokes about all the possible outcomes of that skill, but the rolling mechanic works the same for each one. There’s little to no guidance for how long any of these actions take and there’s no real structure to the game at this point. It seems like players simply describe themselves kind of doing whatever they want to do and occasionally the GM will ask them to roll dice to see how that goes over.
Then you get to the combat section. Suddenly everything is much more serious and the rules very granular. What was once a loose structure where time could be elided at will is now a strictly regimented six-seconds per round system where each character gets a short turn made up of a few key actions. There are rules for who goes when, what they can do when they take action, and detailed descriptions of what every action does. Some of these might take up an entire page by themselves, such as the rules for grappling an opponent. Now there are detailed mechanical descriptions of how to handle very minute issues such as walking past another character in combat, exactly how far you can see or move, the amount of damage taken by falling based on the exact distance that you fall. In TTRPG parlance we may refer to these multitudinous mechanisms as “crunchy” – there’s a lot to learn and consider during any given turn and how you utilize the rules in tandem can create different strategies to use during battle.
This is a common sight across the hobby and while it’s easy to point at a particular well-known roleplaying game as the source, it is a design choice that is so ubiquitous that even the specific description above applies to more than a handful of roleplaying games. The side effect here is that while a GM and player may feel very supported when it comes to understanding how combat is supposed to work and has a robust toolset for handling that situation at a granular level, in many of these games no such rule exists for breaking down skill challenges into a similarly complex series of actions. Nine times out of ten you’re not going to open a rulebook and find twenty pages dedicated to the specific tools and techniques of lockpicking, with subtly different rolls based on the particular approach you are taking on a given “round” of lockpicking. If you want climbing a mountain to be more complicated than just rolling a good Athletics check, you’re going to have to make up how that looks by yourself.
A lot of games that I have played or read which do address these rules do so by abstracting combat more rather than making non-combat actions more crunchy. Many games in the Powered by the Apocalypse style, for example, will have a series of basic moves which cover the most common actions in the game as well as specific playbook moves which represent unique abilities of your character archetype. Combat doesn’t have fifteen types of special maneuvers or special rules for disengaging from melee or whatever else. The bare basics of attacking and defending are boiled down into two or three moves, which is really no more or less than the other actions that are important to that particular roleplaying game. This is great for people looking for a simpler more intuitive system. That raises a question, though: where do we look when we love crunch and want some mechanical complexity for non-combat challenges?
While there may be other RPGs out there which have their own ways of addressing this issue, Reclaim the Wild is the first one that I personally have played that has made any effort to create a mechanism for complicated skill challenges. It doesn’t add the same degree of crunch that exists for the game’s combat to skills such as discipline or mechanics. But what it does accomplish is creating an interesting system for multi-turn skill challenges that can be effectively tied to different types of situations. The mechanism responsible for this feat is the extended challenge, a concept which is so simple in its design that I’m surprised to be seeing it here first. Yet that simplicity allows for a versatility that I find to be valuable as I prepare sessions for the game.
So how do these extended challenges work? What is wild to me about it is that Reclaim the Wild has found such a simple solution for this issue that I was genuinely surprised not to have seen it in any other game up to this point. The difficulty class or target number of a check is simply multiplied by the number of rounds you expect the action to take and the number of characters you expect to participate. The book also provides a recommended length of two to three rounds. So say you have a group of four heroes and you want to give them a three-round extended challenge. Based on the difficulty of the task you decide that this should be a journeyman-level challenge (DC 10). Multiply that by four characters and three rounds to get a final DC of 10 x 4 x 3 = 120. Now that you know how hard the challenge is, the characters can begin to take it on.
Each round of an extended challenge, every character can take one action to contribute to the total skill check. This may be one predetermined trait (particularly for short, single-character skill challenges) or it could be a selection of four or five different traits that make sense for the situation (great for longer challenges engaging multiple characters). The single-trait challenge is great for one specific action that simply is more complicated than a single dice roll, while the multi-trait challenge is perfect for handling entire scenes where the heroes will be facing a variety of obstacles on their path to a goal. Because each hero can handle the challenge a little differently and prioritize their best traits, it helps the players to feel as if they have more to offer versus a scenario where they get one chance to roll a stat that they may not even be good with.
How do the stakes work for these challenges? The beauty of the extended challenge is that often the stakes will define themselves pretty clearly. Taking more rounds to do something is often a complication in and of itself. For example, if three heroes are at the top of a cliff when a battle starts but the fourth has to do an extended Athletics challenge to reach the party, every additional round that hero isn’t at the top of the cliff is another round that the rest of the party is struggling to battle without them. Natural consequences are best consequences, in my book. Sometimes outright failure may be appropriate in situations where failing to complete the challenge on time would drastically change the situation or make the original goal impossible. In my experience so far, adding layers of complication or removing layers of reward has been pretty effective for extended challenges where the heroes don’t finish in the prescribed number of rounds. This is great for situations where you know the players do need to ultimately pass the challenge – if the game would grind to a halt if the players failed, the extended challenge is a great way to add consequences while still moving the scenario forward.
I want to share some quick examples of scenarios where I have used extended challenges in my Reclaim the Wild campaign to demonstrate why it is that I have found them so effective, and potentially to give you ideas for your own campaign. While the situations I will be describing are specific to Reclaim the Wild, the extended challenge rules would be very easy to graft onto any game system that uses a target number/difficulty class mechanic.
In the second session of the game our heroes found themselves in a bind. A village youth had been kidnapped by a band of dangerous lizalfos, but the party knew well that they could not face such a threat with the shoddy equipment they currently carried. According to a rumor circulating the village, an abandoned guard tower nearby could still have some of the soldiers’ old gear lying around. However, the tower was covered in malice, the ink-dark poison that spreads from the body of Calamity Ganon. In order to climb the tower, I presented the heroes with an extended challenge where the goal was to reach the top of the tower before sundown. What they didn’t know was that the darker it got, the more powerful their boss encounter at the top of the tower would be. This gave them meaningful stakes while also allowing each character to use different skills to work their way up the tower. Some examples that I will highlight: our Goron blacksmith using athletics to throw a smaller party member across the pool of malice, a Gerudo swordswoman rolling agility to skillfully traipse across the trunk of a fallen tree, and our Hylian scientist using perception to identify a safe path up the tower which avoided some of the malice overgrowth.
At the time of writing the most recent session we played was focused on an extended challenge that I called the sports festival. This was a lighthearted session where the heroes got to celebrate a recent victory while also working towards a goal by competing in a series of competitions at a massive festival organized by a group of local villages. In this scenario I pulled a little trick and justified the mechanics in the game world – the players would choose their events and then make a dice roll to compete, getting a score from the judges equal to their value on the dice. They had to reach a cumulative score of 120 to qualify for the finals of the competition, and for each round where they had not yet reached 120 they watched another member of the opposing team qualify for the finals. Their natural consequences were seeing their upcoming battle get harder and harder for every round they didn’t finish, some ominous foreshadowing for the finals in the next session. But for now, they got to compete in silly events and show off their various skills in a way that gave them lots of creative freedom to put their personalities on display.
The beauty of the extended challenge lies in its combination of simplicity and versatility. The situations I described above merely scratch the surface of what’s possible – I already have tentative plans to use extended challenges for an ancient puzzle shrine, investigating a mysterious disappearance, and a challenging social encounter. Because extended challenges are so easy to design you can quickly incorporate one into the session even if you don’t have it planned. At their best, they allow the heroes to put their unique traits on display while still working together as a team towards a single common goal. And when you need the heroes to ultimately succeed, having the consequences tied to the amount of time it takes to succeed rather than having them tied to success itself can be an effective way for the challenge to still have stakes. This mechanic is one I can see myself grafting onto other games in the future, which for me as a gamemaster is one of the highest compliments I can pay to the design of a tabletop.