So, the last session I tried to make an encounter where my players had to escape from a burning house. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a boring bunch of pass-or-suck checks. How can I make this interesting?
You might want to take a look at the chase rules in the Gamemastery Guide; my DM used them for us once when I was pursuing a fleeing enemy, and I don't see why they couldn't be adapted to a burning building scenario. The basic gist of the rules is that you have a series of obstacles, each of which can be overcome by one of two checks, and the players get to pick how they want to overcome the obstacle. There wouldn't be an enemy to gain on, but you could have the fire metaphorically chasing them from behind, in which case if it catches them they start suffocating from smoke or some such dire consequence.
Make it interested by adding challenges which are interesting in their own right. The fire can play a number of roles. It can be as simple as background scenery, a cause for the challenge, or simply add a time dimension to something that would otherwise be be straight forward. Some examples might be illustrative.
Combat in Fire
Perhaps the fire was started by an enemy that wants to eliminate the players. But the enemy needs to make absolutely certain the PCs are killed, so he sends in henchmen to either verify the kill or help ensure it happens.
Of course, this presupposes that the henchmen are either immune to fire or so fanatical they will expect to die. (Mindless undead perhaps?)
The fire could serve as just scenery. But perhaps you place "active fires" on the map, and moving through those or worse being forced to stay on one could cause fire damage. At your discretion, you could also add smokey areas which provide concealment. You could consider dealing with suffocation from smoke damage, but that is probably more trouble than it is worth.
Locate someone that needs to be rescued
The building might be large and mazelike. The heroes now need to explore it to find the person they need to rescue. You can have the fire play an active roll, forcing them to pass through areas, perhaps collapsing upper levels. But alternatively, you could just use it to set a timer. The rescuee will die in X rounds, they must find the rescuee and get out in that time. Now they have to face decisions. How do they search? Do they split the party to cover more ground? What if there are hostiles in there, or just the possibility of hostiles will affect the decision to split up or not.
A series of challenges.
Perhaps all they have to do is escape. But they need to find the way out, and deal with obstacles appropriate. In a building it might be areas blocked off, doors that are locked, etc.
This risks becoming the "succeed on roll or suffer" that you want to avoid. But you can mitigate that by providing choices. When they come to a locked door, do they use magic to destroy it, use force to destroy it, or pick the lock? If they come to an area on fire, do they rush through just accepting damage, try to go around, or perhaps try to do something (coat themselves in water? Breathe through clothing?) to mitigate the damage before rushing through?
And of course, some of these examples can be combined or shift from one to another.
Of course, its worth pointing out that a lot of this is depending on their abilities. Fire becomes a lot less intimidating if you have serious protection from fire or can regenerate fast. Escaping is easy if teleporting is an option or flying is an option and you can find an upper story window (or break through a wall to make one).
Not a definitive answer, but here are some suggestions for getting creative with fire:
Have some sort of counter or cumulative system set up to account for all the smoke/other chemicals they're inhaling. For example, maybe they have to make a Fort save every turn. Each failed save results in adding one to the counter. If they counter adds up to their Con score, they pass out. Or perhaps rather than running a counter, they simply take 1 Con damage each turn they fail the Fort save, making it harder and harder to save each turn. Just the intense heat itself might be enough to sap their vitality. This save might be affected by armor check penalties. Crashing through a burning building wearing full plate as it starts to heat up would be pretty torturous. Maybe allow them to crawl along the floor in order to get a bonus on these saves.
A burning building can make for a mess of interesting traps. Fire causes floors to fall through, ceilings to collapse, burning beams to come crashing down, etc. Items they grab might be scalding to the touch. This could be construed as pass-or-suck, but you should be able to make it interesting. Maybe a fall through the floor deals pitfall damage and also momentarily splits the party up. Maybe it allows them to escape an overwhelming adversary.
Visibility should be a major issue in a burning building with billowing black smoke everywhere. This can make for more challenging Perception checks as well as giving adversaries the option to surprise. Concealment falls nicely out of this as well.
Fire can have neat offensive uses for the characters (or their adversaries). They might try to set their enemies on fire. There might be barrels of black powder or other chemicals strewn throughout the building. A normal vat of water or oil might be boiling hot after sitting in a burning building for some time. I can imagine scenarios of shooting a burning arrow into a barrel of black powder, or rolling a barrel down a stairwell to have it explode on the enemy at the bottom.
Fire should play a very active role in the combat terrain. Walls of fires here and there, they can be crossed but with significant damage. Placing patches of fire on the mat and allowing characters to bull rush their enemies into these patches would be neat. You could even build an enemy combatant with all the feats necessary to push the characters into fiery pits, trip them into patches of fire, etc. Also flames themselves might play a role in concealment or may be used to momentarily stun or even blind someone. An enemy who throws burning coals into a character's eyes is one villainous dude.
Finally, to add some intensity (as others have mentioned), you could have a sort of ultimate timer. If they can't get out/complete their objective by the time the clock strikes X, the entire building collapses and their death is assured. This should force them to economize their actions, and pick and choose what routes to take, where and how to fight, who to save, etc.
In other words, in addition to your classic dungeon manipulations (e.g., labyrinthine halls/rooms, clever combats, rescue/escort a noncombatant), there are a few nice tricks to use that rely on the fire itself.
In addition to, or instead of, the chase idea, you could create a countdown situation with a timer that is counting down that they can visually see. A creative timer based on a candy bowl has been suggested here:
The advantage of the visual timer is that it adds something more than dice rolling, both visually and tactile.
For my most recent D&D 3.5 game, I actually stole the idea of "skill challenges" from D&D 4e (which I generally dislike), modified it very heavily, and plugged it in to 3.5. In my incarnation of the idea, it's essentially a challenge abstraction. My players loved it.
Here's the general idea:
- I tell them the goal of the skill challenge. In this case, it would be "escape the burning building."
- I set up two tracks on the game map: a success track and a failure track. I place a mini at the beginning of each. The length of each depends on the difficulty and importance of the skill challenge. More difficult means fewer failures on the failure track, more important means more successes on the success track. In this case, depending on the party level, I would probably do 10 successes (fairly important) and 3 failures (fairly difficult).
- I have them roll initiative. This gives them an order to go in and makes sure that one player with really good stats doesn't dominate the entire challenge.
- Here's where it really diverges from the Skill Challenges of the version-that-may-not-be-named: I don't mandate "primary" or "secondary" skills that they must choose from. All skills and abilities are on the table for any party member to use if they are able, with two stipulations: you must be able to adequately explain why that skill will help you reach the goal (to my satisfaction), and your action may not be attempting to immediately accomplish the goal unless it is the final action of the success track. (I also encourage them to try not to simply spam the same skill or ability over and over). The players choose a skill, explain what they're trying to do (which brings them into the storytelling); I confirm whether that's allowed, and then they roll to see whether they succeed or fail.
- I compare the roll with the DC of the challenge (which I usually set at about 7-15 more than the party's average highest skill score) and describe the flavor of what happens when the character succeeds or fails at what they attempt. Then I move the mini up the success track or failure track.
- When a mini reaches the end of either track, the challenge is over.
Two notes of caution: a skill challenge, being an abstraction of events, shouldn't take up much more time than a reasonable-length battle. Also, there should be a reasonable chance of (and consequence to) failure.
This is a great way to encourage participation, make them feel like they have agency over what occurs, and frankly take some prep work off your hands as far as story goes, since they build that section of story as a party. My players have had a great time with it, and the story has become much richer for it.
(Finally, I have to credit Rodrigo Lopez of the Critical Hit podcast for the ideas of rolling initiative and using any skill.)