The Thing About Skill Challenges

Mike Mearls is writing a two-part article for Dragon Magazine about skill challenges. If you have a subscription to Dungeons & Dragons Insider, you can read the first part here. Now, he’s just laying the groundwork for a discussion of running skill challenges, but it’s pretty good stuff, so far, talking about when a skill challenge is appropriate, and when it isn’t, and how to put in a good mix of skills so everyone in the party can contribute. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Having said that, I’ve got some thoughts of my own on skill challenges, based on running a couple of published ones, and creating and running a couple of my own.

When I first read the 4E DMG, I thought skill challenges were a great idea. They provided a way to implement game mechanics into what had formerly been mechanic-less scenes in adventures, and a way to calculate experience awards for these scenes. Great, right?

Well, yes and no.

See, if you turn every scene that was previously resolved by role-playing into a scene with dice mechanics, you can lose a lot of flavour and spontaneity and interaction. It becomes a different kind of combat in the minds of many of the players. On the other hand, having clear mechanics for some interactions can be a real boon for some players and characters, especially those who have trained up the interpersonal skills.

My own view on skill challenges is that they’re a good thing, but you have to use them appropriately. I’ve found that having a skill challenge in place to see if the characters accomplish something doesn’t work too well: if failing prevents them from accomplishing something important to the adventure, it can derail the entire thing, but if failing doesn’t have a penalty, it’s not interesting, so why devote all the time to the skill challenge?

My solution to this has been to put skill challenges in place to add complexity to the narrative of the adventure. For example, in my Storm Point campaign, the first session started with a skill challenge to track down a group of goblins rumoured to have a map to a previously-undiscovered ruin. Now, the characters were going to find the goblins no matter what, but I wanted to see how they might decide to go about it. They used their Nature and Perception skills to try and track the goblins down, but didn’t get too much good information that way. When they started interviewing the farmers in the surrounding area (using Streetwise and Diplomacy), they found out about a halfling who traded with the goblins, and then leaned on him (Intimidate) to get him to tell them where he met the goblins to trade.

The success of the challenge let the players surprise the goblins, which allowed them to run roughshod over the little beggars. If they had failed, the goblins would have been ready for them, and laid a trap. But the way the characters went about locating the goblins added some complexity to their story: they now have a rivalry with a halfling criminal, and have let the people in and around Storm Point know that they’re out looking for ruins and the wealth they contain.

By allowing the characters to run free with this skill challenge, I got to let them set the pace and flavour of the their search. Sure, I made some notes about how different skills might be used and the results thereof, and I created an NPC that could be slotted in as an information source, but I really let the players dictate the direction of the inquiries, and the method of the search. It told me a lot about how they viewed this new game world, and what they saw as their place in it.

The other thing I used skill challenges for was to introduce complications into what could otherwise be a long, boring part of the game. For example, the characters, after obtaining the goblins’ map and locating the chasm marked on it, had to climb down into the rift to find the ruins. Instead of just calling for Athletics rolls to see if they make the climb, I turned it into a skill challenge. They used Athletics and Acrobatics, of course, but also Dungeoneering, Endurance, Nature, and a few other skills. Instead of setting a pass/fail condition for the challenge as a whole, every time they failed, I threw a complication at them: a rock slide, an attack by a cavern choker, what have you. This turned a fairly boring set of rolls into a more exciting challenge, with each failure meaning some sort of obstacle to overcome.

What I don’t do anymore is use skill challenges to replace role-playing. In the first Scales of War game, there is a skill challenge (granted, it’s optional) where you try to convince the town council to hire you to fetch back the kidnapped townspeople. It’s listed pretty much whole-cloth from the DMG’s example of negotiating with nobility. I think everyone in on this one found it to be artificial and rather stilted, especially as we were using the pre-errata rules, where it was run pretty much like a combat*.

No, I find that it’s one thing to let people roll for their characters’ skills during a role-played encounter, and quite another to turn the whole thing into a succession of dice rolls. Granted, some of that feeling of “combat by other means” resulted from my inexperience using the rules, but the nature and the structure of the skill challenge seemed lacking. Far better, in my opinion, to role-play it, and call for rolls when necessary.

The other thing I really disliked about it was the automatic failure skill – basically a landmine in the challenge that blows up on you if you try the wrong thing. I hate this. Skill challenges, in my opinion, should be opportunities for players to try things that their characters are good at, not creep carefully through the encounter, going with choices that they know are safe. They should be trying different, exciting things to get the encounter moving.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the structure and use of skill challenges. Right now, I’ve got the notes for a skill challenge that should make up an entire adventure, as the characters take on a crime boss in Storm Point. Each success gives them an encounter based on what they’re trying to do, and each failure gives them an encounter where they’re at a disadvantage. Success and failure both lead to a final showdown, but the odds will be swayed one way or the other depending on whether the challenge was a success or failure.

I’ll let you know how it works out.


*If you are unaware of the errata, I suggest you check it out. It gets rid of the initiative roll, and the combat round sequence of skill challenges, making them more free-flow and intuitive.

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2 Responses to The Thing About Skill Challenges

  1. Pingback: “It’s Not D&D” - 4th Edition Analysis and Apologia | What's He On About Now?

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