A Skill Challenge Deck Post-Mortem

Not sure if it fits here specifically, but I figured it might be interesting to do a post-mortem of a homebrew mechanic I used in a campaign.

A while back, I came upon the idea of using a custom deck of cards (on roll20, not a physical set) to randomly generate some skill challenges. The players were going into a dark, foreboding cavern run by a mad AI, and I figured it might spice things up for them to ‘gamify’ it a little bit.
So I ended up making three decks - a ‘location’ deck, an ‘incident’ deck and an ‘obstacle’ deck. Cards in each deck looked something like this:

When you enter this room, each player must roll against a DC of 18 or attract 1 drone to their location.
Navigation DC: 15.

If this is not resolved, three enemies spot you and attack
DC: 20

While this is on, navigation DCs are increased by 5
DC: 12

The idea was that each round, players would divide their attention between trying to navigate through the location, trying to overcome an obstacle that was created when the players entered the location, and dealing with incidents that popped up each turn. The DCs were vague and were more of a range of X±3, depending on how players described avoiding or dealing with the obstacle, and whether the skill they rolled was appropriate. I thought this would be an opportunity to let players demonstrate their powers in weird ways, and it would make it easier for me to GM this while keeping things tense.

I’m not going to say it was an outright failure - the players had fun, and I’m definitely going to try something like this again - but two major components ended up going wrong.

  1. Combat
    You may have noticed earlier that two of the cards mentioned drones. At first, I made it so combat was a thing that was happening alongside the cards. Each turn, players had to choose between fighting or trying to resolve a card, if there were any enemies about.

This, of course, was a terrible idea.

The game became a sort of death spiral as the players tried to take down the drones before moving on, which lead to more incidents resolving which weakened them or spawned more drones, and led to a sort of downward spiral.

Eventually, I decided to make things easier and less confusing by rewriting the rules - now, at the end of each round players dealt with any drones that spotted them. But this made combat into a slow, boring chore - enemies no longer had a chance of overwhelming the players by spawning more, and were easy to kill, but they also felt like meaningless fodder.

2: Incidents
I’m actually pretty happy with the concept of the incidents, and I intend to move forward with these. Unfortunately, I came across a pretty devestating problem while running this deck - how do we roleplay this?

With some cards, it’s simple. Patrol - the players roll agility to stay in the shadows, or movement to teleport them away. But I wasn’t actually very good at coming up with incidents, and some of my incidents were harder to roleplay.

“Trap” seems simple - roll perception to notice it, or energy to trigger it from afar, right? but how do I roleplay them knowing about it to deal with? Cards being open to players meant they had a hard time knowing how to roleplay spending time dealing with incidents they didn’t know about in-character, like aforementioned traps.

And of course, some of my incidents were just obviously bad, and I didn’t realize it until the time came to roleplay it. How do I describe “Misfortune”? How does the player describe dealing with it?

All this said - and this is pretty bad stuff - the players did eventually have fun, and I mentioned I wanted to do this again. So clearly not all of it was bad. What went right with this?

1: The cards provided guidance, without being a crutch. I didn’t write down the description of each location when they drew it - I described the power room as they entered, taking into account the winding paths card by describing the servers as a maze. It was fun for me to come up with the locations on the fly, with the guidance of a few cards.

2: The choices felt impactful. Some cards were like ‘X player takes 3 lethal damage’, and players took time debating whether it was worth it to deal with, or if they could ignore it and tank the damage. It sometimes felt hard to roleplay in-character, but it was a fun and interesting choice out-of-character, and it provided an opportunity for players to describe how they dealt with the sniper obstacle hounding at them.

3: This gave players an opportunity to roleplay their characters’ abilities. It didn’t give much in the way of in-character choices - the choices, while impactful, were mostly mechanical in nature - but it allowed them to show off their abilities in ways that felt rarer outside.

Uuuh yeah. IDK if this’ll be useful to you, but I had fun with this and I think the idea is worth modifying and iterating on. I know I’m going to do something like this in future. I hope this can be useful to your games too.