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Thoughts on Skill Challenges

In D&D 4E on January 24, 2009 at 12:30 am

With Skill Challenges, Wizards made perhaps the most experimental change in D&D 4E. For a high-profile game that focuses nearly all of it’s “crunch” on hitting things with other things, the Skill Challenge is a surprisingly ambitious and avant-garde non-combat resolution system. It is flexible, dynamic, engaging and fun. At least in theory. As many before me have noted, the Skill Challenge rules are perhaps the least stable of the sub-systems in D&D 4E. This is of course not surprising, as 90% of the text in the three core books deals with combat  and the 10% that make out skill descriptions, skill challenges and parts of the DM’s guide is supposed to cover everything else. Read on for some thoughts on how to design good Skill Challenges.

That said, with the Skill Challenge system, the 4E rule set actually tries to deal with non-combat encounters in a dependable, formulaic way that no edition before it, and indeed few other role-playing systems have done (though some have given it more effort than others, Castle Falkenstein comes to mind, as does of course the pinnacle of dicelss gaming, Amber, am I showing my age here?). The situations handled by the Skill Challenge rules are resolved in many other games by a few dice rolls and GM’s fiat. This is fine for many gaming groups, but for a system as gamist as D&D it definitely puts non-combat in the back seat. To many groups (especially if they have a gamist slant), if there are no rules, it means it’s not important. Similarly, if the effect of my character’s improvement can’t be measured by increased success at the gaming table, I will spend my feats and powers somewhere where they can, usually by adding more combat potential. In fact, my increased use of Skill Challenges as a DM has made Skill Training one of the most selected feats in my gaming group, something that would have been unheard of when we were playing 3.5E.

So Skill Challenges are all nice and dandy, except of course, when they aren’t. There are, admittedly a few problems with trying to force all kinds of possible non-combat situations under one roof. It all comes down to what I believe to be some of the basic premises of the Skill Challenge:

  1. Everyone can participate. As in combat, all characters, and by extension all players can participate and be engaged by the challenge, by taking turns.
  2. Every action means a skill check. It is after all a Skill Challenge and skills (and to a very limited degree attributes, powers and feats) are how you measure a character’s capacity in non-combat situations.
  3. Failure must be a viable alternative. If failure means derailing the adventure, then the DM can’t afford to let the players fail, making the challenge moot.
  4. There must be several ways to add to the challenge using different skills. Also, the Skill Challenge should require  at least as many successes as characters in the party. This is basically a corollary to premise number 1; if your character can’t add to the challenge in a meaningful way, you aren’t really participating.
  5. The Skill Challenge must correspond to an in-game problem that the players want to solve. The Skill Challenge shouldn’t be too trivial to the story. Also, suspension of disbelief is as important as ever and you don’t want to put too much distance between the mechanics of the Skill Challenge and how it is actually acted out in-game.

These basic premises mean that special care has to be taken when designing and running your Skill Challenges so that they become as flexible, dynamic, engaging and fun as they can be. For instance, premise number five about correspondence and plausibility can very well be in conflict with number one about player participation. If the Skill Challenge describes a seduction-attempt, the notion that everyone should be as involved seems a bit far-fetched (in most cultures, I’m not one to judge ;)). The first solution to this problem is clearly written in the rules. Not every problem is a Skill Challenge. Some, perhaps most non-combat encounters could and should be solved with just a skill check or perhaps just some role-playing and DM’s fiat. This brings us to the first rule of designing Skill Challenges.

Rule number one: Show some restraint!

Every situation isn’t cut out to be a Skill Challenge. This is discussed in the core rules, but bears repeating. Check the basic premises above. If one or more of them really can’t be fulfilled, perhaps the situation is better solved in some other way. The seduction-attempt above is perhaps better solved as a skill check for Diplomacy combined with lots of role-playing, because it breaks the first premise that everyone can participate. Other examples are:

  • The challenge can’t be described using the skills of D&D (second premise). Perhaps the characters are supposed to build a wooden horse to sneak into a besieged town. An excellent Skill Challenge involving all characters in a pivotal story moment. Only, what skills should be used? 4E has no craft skill, so Thievery? Arcane? Bluff? Nature? None really seem to apply and so perhaps it shouldn’t be a Skill Challenge at all.
  • Failure isn’t an alternative (third premise). The Skill Challenge might involve finding a vital clue to the plot. What if the characters fail? The adventure grinds to a halt while the DM frantically improvises to get back on track. This problem can often be avoided through careful design of the Skill Challenge and I will show some examples of how to do it in another post.
  • Too few skills are usable (fourth premise). A Skill Challenge involving only repeated checks for Nature isn’t very inspiring. Also, it’s not a lot of fun for characters lacking skill training in Nature, as they won’t contribute to the challenge. Again, with som thoughts to design and an open mind to player initatives, this can usually be circumvented even in Skill Challenges that seem to circle around one skill only. This will also figure in a later post.
  • There is no actual problem (fifth premise). A Skill Challenge that doesn’t represent any real problem to the characters doesn’t engage players. Buying new armor isn’t a Skill Challenge, though finding that unique elven chainmail might be.

So that’s rule number one, rule number two is Be flexible, but I’ll save that and some other advice for a later post. Until then, you could do worse than reading the excellent link collection on Skill Challenges on Critical-hits.

So, do you agree with me on the basice premises? Are there any other rules you think should apply to the successful Skill Challenge? Leave a message in the comments!

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