Whether the Player Characters in your campaign stand for good or battle for evil, one thing will always be true. The ability to tell a story of war to your PCs. This is a very important skill for any Game Master. Be it as simple as a battle between a farm-hand and a pack of hungry wolves or a biblical showdown between Demons and Gods.
These are two extremely different battles, but the ability to explain to your PCs what is going on is equally important. As a GM we all see these graphic images in our minds eye. The hard work is already done for us thanks to our imagination. Now, take what you see and put that into words that will kick your players imagination into maximum overdrive!
A lone farmer fights by the light of a full moon to protect his chicken-coop from a pack of hungry wolves, all the while his wife and two kids look on in horror from their farm house. The man in their lives, the heart of the family, is frantically fighting a losing battle to protect their only food source.
In two sentences we have taken an otherwise dull wolf encounter and given your PCs enough description to not only jump in and save the farmer’s life, but the PCs are most likely going to do all they can to ensure this simple farming family will never have to worry about wolves again.
As the PCs battle with the wolves you can add details your players might not see that will serve to make the whole battle that much more real.
The GM roles against the PC’s Armor Class and hits. He then rolls for damage and gets an 8 and says:
Showing his teeth, with drool oozing out of the sides of his mouth, the first wolf bites down hungrily on your left arm for 8 damage.
The GM roles against AC again for the second wolf and hits. This time rolling a 5 for damage and says:
The second wolf comes alongside the first wolf and you can see the muscles of his body flex as he tenses up to bite you. He sinks his teeth into your leg for 5 damage.
From that example you can see how adding just a little description during a battle can greatly effect how you and your players perceive the world around you.
Now, how do you handle a battle scene that is far more epic than wolves on a farm? How do your PCs become a part of and get involved with something like a Biblical epic that words could never described the total horror going on? Luckily for us GMs we don’t have to. That’s the best thing about playing role playing games. One’s own imagination always fills in the gaps of a scene that words cannot.
You have been traveling for days to reach the Kingdom of Toss. You ascend to the top of the final ridge that overlooks the great kingdom in all it’s glory. Taking a moment to observed the truly awesome site that mortals have erected. Before you the ground begins to shake violently causing dust and debris to bounce around your feet. An ominous red light shines up to the heavens through the center of Toss with an ear shattering thunder. As the stream of red light gets bigger, screams can be faintly heard over the ground splitting sounds coming from the center of Toss as the sky above becomes dark with clouds and rain. A white light bursts through the clouds meeting the red light head on. Through the rain, though it is difficult to see, it can be seen, angels poor out of the light from the sky and fly down to the earth with great speed as demons fly up from the red light to meet in the middle. A holy war has erupted right before your eyes.
The question I had for the longest time was; How to get my PCs to feel like they are involved in an epic this mind blowing, but still keep it at a scale that a game master can manage? It’s just telling a story.
What do the player characters see when they enter Toss?
As you enter Toss the state of devastation is overwhelming. Buildings are on fire, damaged from flaming stones that erupt randomly like cannon balls from the center of a chasm that has split the ground wide open where the center of the kingdom used to be. Screams from women, children, and men can be heard coming from all directions. Down a once safe ally a demon with dark red wings and black horns corners a women and drools over her. In the opposite direction a child screams for his life out the second story window of a building that is on fire.
Making it a battle just to get to the epicenter of the the devastation will help make your players feel like they are literally in the events that are taking place around them.
Approaching the chasm that has ripped apart the center of Toss, it is apparent that the only way to stop the Demon Lord, Prince of Darkness is to descend down the rockery wall via small foot path leading to the center of the earth. Above angles and demons battle to gain ground over one another.
Your ability to tell stories is what makes role playing games possible. You can be using the best gaming mechanic ever invented and the game could still suck if you are a GM with poor story telling skills. To improve your story telling skills, the best advice I can give you is read books. Read fantasy, history, fiction, nonfiction; I don’t care, but your story telling skills will improve with each book you read.
Sending the party into a ruined town where a woman is being threatened in one place, and a child in another is brilliant. I haven't found many good uses of skill challenges in D&D 4E, but I bet you could have a high drama one with this setup. Saving the woman _will_ require a fight, and saving both the woman and child requires success at the skill challenge.
The skills that can benefit the challenge are constantly changing as the players make their way across the rubble. "You used Athletics to climb up the side of the building to the child? Great. But you can't anymore because flames are pouring out of the windows below. You could use Athletics to jump, and _you'd_ probably be OK, but the kid is to scared to. Maybe if you tried diplomacy or intimidation…"
Oh, and did I mention that, once you've saved one of the two, the target numbers of the skill challenge all increase by +2, for the burden of lugging an extra civvie around?