Skill Challenges Are NOT Pure Evil

Skill challenges throw even experienced DMs for a loop. They involve mechanics that aren’t used in any other aspect of the game, and they aren’t used very often. It’s a shame, because a lot of depth can be added to a game by making good use of skill challenges. The problem is a lot of DMs don’t approach them with the right mindset, and putting a skill challenge at the wrong spot in an adventure can grind the game to a halt. Some people even see skill challenges as replacing role playing as skills like Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate replace what should be normal interactions between PCs and NPCs, reducing them to a simple skill roll.

If players have to complete a skill challenge to advance to the next area of the adventure, something’s wrong in the design. This happens a lot when adventure designers (be it a published adventure, something you found online, or an adventure you wrote yourself) use a skill challenge when a series of skill checks is more appropriate. What’s the difference? Skill challenges have a specified ending point. If the characters have to scale a 100 foot cliff, this should be handled as a series of Athletics checks to climb rather than a skill challenge because, if they fail, they just fall and can try to climb again (if they survive the falling damage). If there’s a definite end, it’s a skill challenge. If they can keep trying indefinitely, it’s a series of skill checks. But keep in mind that things that might not seem like they have an ending, they still do. For example, you can’t keep using Streetwise over and over as eventually, you’ll use up all your resources and contacts (there’s only so many bars you can buy rounds at to get info).

You also don’t want the entire adventure to grind to a halt. If finding the orc camp requires multiple Nature and/or Dungeoneering checks, the failure at a skill challenge with a failure set at “They don’t find it” means that the party is stuck with nothing to do but wander in circles until the players happen across it (typically when the DM gets bored of rolling for random encounters). The easiest way to fix this problem is to look at skill challenges as combat that doesn’t involve sword or spell. In combat, a three or four bad rolls in a row don’t usually mean the players fail immediately. They just get hurt. A skill challenge should have a definite reward if successful and penalty if failed, but it should never stonewall the game. Failing to convince the captain of the guards that the evil necromancer is actually an evil necromancer simply means that the guards won’t take sides in a fight. Success would mean that the guards will arrest him or possibly help out the players in combat if a fight breaks out in the streets. Success on tracking the orc camp mentioned above may allow them to find the camp faster than failure, or let them find it before bumbling in, giving them a chance for a surprise attack.

The worst thing you can do with skill challenges, though, is let them replace role playing. Letting the characters simply make skill checks instead of talking to NPCs is one of the things people talk about when they say “role playing vs roll playing”. This doesn’t have to be the case, though, as you should still require your players act out social encounters. Giving a bonus for good role playing of +2 for good performances and +5 for amazing ones will encourage your players to stay in character during the encounters. Sometimes this can give you a disconnect from reality if the player gives a Shakespearian-quality speech, but botches the roll. There’s a logical explanation for this situation though. Just like in combat, what your player says is what he means for the character to do. The roll determines how well that idea goes through. Just as the player would say “I scramble up the wall after him and grab his ankles” when in fact, there are two rolls involved to determine how the action plays out (the Athletics check for the climb and the Basic Attack for the grab), the player’s sweepingly epic speech for the Diplomacy check or thoroughly convincing story for the Bluff check are what he’s attempting to say, while a botched roll means that he in some way stumbled – using the wrong form of address or speaking an incorrect language for the Diplomacy check or some tell or inconsistency giving the lie away in the Bluff check.

My favorite trick to use in skill challenges isn’t really using the rules as written, so it’s technically a house rule even though it’s not since the rules aren’t changed in any way. It’s adapted from another role playing game that I personally love called Shadowrun, where skill checks are used for combat as well as non-combat. In Shadowrun, you a number of dice equal to your skill rating, and each die is compared to the target number. One success means you’ve accomplished your goal, but more successes mean you’ve done better. So rolling the equivalent of a Bluff check and getting one success means the NPC is willing to go along with the lie but isn’t quite sure if you’re telling the truth or not, but five success means he’s a complete convert to the lie willing to shave his head and start handing out pamphlets to spread the word to others.

The skill check system in D&D 4e isn’t really set up for this sort of sliding scale of success, but modifying the skill challenge very slightly can let you pull this little trick. Instead of the normal skill challenge set-up of “Get X successes before you get Y failures” (which can take as few rolls as the number of failures if the players roll badly right off the bat), you have the players make a set number of skill checks and the more successes they get, the better the results. This requires a little more work from you in designing the skill challenge, but it’s worth the effort to prevent skill challenges from becoming tedious.

Let’s create one of my scaling skill challenges. The players have learned that a wizard has plans to perform a ritual which the players want to stop. The wizard is in a tower outside a city which the players have only recently arrived at. They want to get information about the wizard and his tower so they know what to expect. They’re performing a 5 roll scaling skill challenge. Their choice of skills are Streetwise (getting the word on the street), Arcana (studying where the tower is and what sorts of energies are coming from the place), and Diplomacy (getting access to the city’s official records on the wizard and his tower). If they get no successes out of the five, the information they get is “There’s this wizard…and he has a tower…it’s outside the city though.” However, the amount of information they get depends on the number of successes they’ve achieved:

1 success: The wizard paid a good price for five different farms in order to build his tower, and he didn’t even use all the farmland. It’s as if he needed that specific spot for some reason.
2 successes: Normally, the tower is very quiet. But the past few weeks, messengers have been coming and going regularly, and there have been strange noises in the middle of the night.
3 successes: The wizard’s master was known in his prime for developing new uses for arcane fire, and the wizard himself was in trouble regularly for arson when he was younger.
4+ successes: A red dragon was spotted flying to the tower, and sometimes his cries can be heard in the night.

How does this affect the encounter when the players go to the tower? Not at all really. All the same monsters and traps will be there waiting for them just the same. But if they did well on the challenge, they may have learned some important information. The first piece of information tells them the location of the tower is important to the ritual, the second that whatever is happening is happening soon due to the increased activity, the third lets them know to expect a lot of fire-based attacks and traps, and the last tells them there’s a dragon waiting for them. This will help their wizard prep the correct daily spells and let them do a bit of shopping for items that give them fire resistance before storming the tower. Failure means they’re unprepared for the challenges ahead of them, while success gives them a better chance at prevailing.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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