Instead of our usual "add your scores together to beat this total," or the conventional "X number of successes before Y failures," I tried something different with this week's skill challenge. I gave my players a rather open-ended prompt and challenged them to create a cohesive narrative. If they work together to tell a story, they'll get a reward (a magical item). Otherwise, participation still earns them our home-rule "DM credit" (gives you +2 to any roll or allows you to re-roll any damage die). Here's the story so far...
DM: "What's in the box?"
While searching the corpses of the kobolds you have just slain, you find a sealed box. It is made of wood, stained dark red, and the outside is covered in strange carved images and symbols. It looks somewhat battered, but the construction is sturdy and sound. Initial* attempts to pry it open are unsuccessful. There doesn't seem to be any kind obvious* locking mechanism. It does not have a strongly apparent* magical aura.
*Please note the deliberate use of qualifiers. I'm not trying to say Strength, Thievery, or Arcana won't help. You just know opening the box won't be easy.
Travok (dwarf fighter):
Travok stares at the box in his hands, thumbs tracing over the intricate carvings. About the length of a forearm, it has a bit of heft, but seems lighter than expected. Flipping the box over and over, his callused fingertips glide over the delicate filagree, searching for any blemish or irregularity in the exterior surfaces.
He's reminded of a similar box from his past. Travok's mentor had a small ossuary. Okay, maybe it wasn't actually an ossuary, but Travok always assumed so. A reliquary? Just a box?
It was kept on a small table, almost like an altar, with decorative strands of beads and silks draped over it. Travok tried to imagine what was in it, but his mentor always quickly changed topics or with the dismissive wave of a hand assigned a menial task to be done. So Travok stopped asking. Only once, when Master was away, did Travok look closely, and notice a teeny out-of-place fissure. Though he respected his elder far too much to ever try to open the box, he did notice the way Master would look around furtively while manipulating something to open it.
His fingers find a minute imperfection... possibly? The sudden tactile difference jars him from thoughts of the past and back to the moment surrounded by kobold corpses. Would a box like this be able to be damaged as such? Would such a craftsman as the one who made this have allowed such a subtle yet "obvious" flaw?
DM: The crack that Travok notices is a deep gouge that goes against the grain of wood and interrupts the carved designs. It is evident that someone else tried to open the box by force, but was unsuccessful. It's an unusual mark, however. Travok is intimately familiar with the slices of a sword and the chop of an axe. This looks almost like... a mark from a claw? Or a tooth?
Valna (half-elf barbarian):
Peering over Travok's shoulder, Valna also noticed the strange gouge on the surface of the box. To her mind, a crack in the box meant a point of weakness. She grabbed the box and in typical Valna fashion attacked it first with brute force. She was fairly sure she could pry it open....and if not, well, there were lots of other tactics they could try.
Strength: 15 (rolled a 1)
DM: Despite Valna's fearsome strength, she isn't able to pry open the crack. She notices that the box is much stronger than it looks... could this be the art of a mage? Or the treasure of a cleric?
Ely (gnome illusionist):
Wordlessly, Elyjobel came to Valna, pulling the box from her fingers after her athletic attempt. With quiet solemnity, she placed it on the stone ground atop a pattern drawn in arcane incense and multi-colored chalk. She walked three turns deasil, each step slowly, bit by bit, causing the pattern to glow with a warm, yellow light like the sun. At the final step, she turned and knelt in one maneuver, the long fingers of one hand touching points on the edge of the sigil, the other pressed lightly to her own temple. Illusion was the magic of lies... and of truth. It was the art of disguising the underlying nature of a thing, but by its very presence it could reveal, to a master, what precisely was being hidden. Someone, whether by arcane means or mundane, possibly even divine, was seeking to keep the truth about this box hidden behind a facade; illusion at its most basic level. Illusion was one thing Ely knew well. Guided by her expertise in subterfuge, the 'fingers' of Ely's magic probed at the box, seeking points her experience told her would reveal what she sought.
Arcana check: 45 (rolled a 19)
((Gnomes also have racial resistance to illusions, in case there is a literal illusion happening))
DM: Ely is able to cut through a layer of illusion masking the box's true nature - every particle of wood is suffused with powerful magic. Furthermore, she recognizes the essence of the magic as being designed to protect something important... and powerful. The use of illusion to mask this signature would imply that whatever's in the box is being protected from a very cunning foe. Why, then, the tooth/claw marks?
In peering at the box with her newly enhanced eyes, she sees the writing and the images on the box waver and shift into something more familiar. But she can't quite discern their meaning while maintaining her connection with her illusion-breaking sigil at the same time.
Ely (gnome illusionist) - granted a follow-up:
Careful, every move slow and deliberate like she's balanced on a tightrope over a lava pit, not an inapt description, Ely raised her hand from her temple into the air.
"Vera... to me... your assistance, if you'd be so kind." Her voice barely a whisper, every word a dangerous distraction from her spell.
She couldn't both maintain her spell and benefit from it... but Vera was a warlock, a creature of infused innate magic. With Vera's own training to channel the gift, Elyjobel should be able to grant The Sight to the tiefling, bespelling Vera's eyes to see beyond the illusion, and perhaps gain some insight into the inner working of the box.