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Thoughts on Skill Challenges

Note: this blog has moved to http://dailyencounter.net where you can find this article still just fine right here.

Skill challenges were a new idea with 4E and they have certainly had their teething issues (I’m looking at you page 42 DMG1) and they still have their difficulties. One of those key difficulties in my experience is people becoming bogged down in the mechanics of the skill challenge so here are some thoughts gathered from my time DMing skill challenges (and writing them for my games).

  1. Read the skill challenge
  2. Read the skill challenge again.
  3. Be certain you understand the story of the skill challenge.
  4. Ignore what the author told you about the skills for the skill challenge unless it works for you and your players.
  5. Remember that skill challenges are mechanics for DMs not players.
  6. Remember that skill challenges are RP only for players.

Lets take a look at those six ideas.

1 Read the Skill Challenge

Your first read over of the skill challenge you are looking for the general idea of the skill challenge and reading it to see what the author thought the skill challenge was about. You are not making any judgements about the skill challenge at this time.

2 Read It Again

On this read over of the skill challenge you are taking the information you gained from the first read through and making judgements about how your players might interact with the skill challenge. You need to (if possible) judge the skill challenge against the temperments of your players and the skills of their characters.

3 Understand the Skill Challenge’s Story

Now you have read the skill challenge a couple of times, and given the way it might run some thought make certain you understand the story, the narrative, of the skill challenge. Some skill challenges will have obvious narrative, others might require some thought to work out. Understanding the story of the skill challenge will make it much easier to deal with players wanting to do something unexpected when you are running the skill challenge.

The main reason for understanding the story is so that you can tell the story of the skill challenge, this helps you keep the RP flowing and not have the players step out of character and the whole thing become a “roll the dice and lets move on” experience. A good skill challenge is just as good as an exciting combat.

One of the key things here is that if you stay in character and forget the rules the author gave you the skill challenge will end naturally. If everyone has done their thing and all the story is done stop the skill challenge and move on with your adventure. Do not get hung up on needing 6 skill checks if your party does it in 4 or takes 8, this will take the players out of the RP and into the rules.

4 Ignore the Suggested Skills

The skills that are given to you by the author are just the ones they could think of when they were creating the skill challenge, don’t treat them as set in stone. You and your players will come up with different solutions to the problem than the author sometimes, and that is OK (actually it is great). If you understand the story of the skill challenge it is much easier to roll with what your players throw at you. One thing you will find though is that if the story is going along the lines the author thought then their suggested skills will work out more often than not as the ones your players fall on to solve the problem.

Consider the Grate in Through Ruined Sewers I allocated Athletics as the skill to solve it, but maybe your players decide they will all try to get past using Acrobatics – that’s fine, set a lower DC and let the party attempt it. The story is they need to get past the grate, it doesn’t really matter how they do it just as long as their RP around it makes sense.

This is a key thing, and one of the strengths of skill challenges, the players should be less worried about the mechanics and more about what their characters are doing. If you ned to add more rolls because they choose an unexpected path that is ok. With the Acrobatics to pass the grate, let them all roll, and then give once success if most of them pass and move on.

5. Skill Challenges are for DMs

The mechanical role of a skill challenge is to let the DM decide the outcome of a critical narative element of the game. X success before 3 failures – is a guideline for what the author thought the scene would require for the “encounter” to make sense.

There are two important ideas in this;

  1. Skill Challenges are for things where failure matters. If  failure doesn’t matter do not have a skill challenge for it (even if the author thought there should be one).
  2. The three failures are the tool the DM uses to decide when the challenge has failed. They are not the tool to decide when the RP stops. In fact failing a skill challenge can be a better trigger for RP than succeeding, just like having to flee from an encounter or dungeon. (Note: If you DM LFR events you might find a lot more player resistance to failure – that is part of running a game with random folks, this should be less of a problem in your home games.)

6. Players RP Skill Challenges

If you are like me and have been DMing for a long time then back in “the old days” you used to do the RP and ask for the skill checks and decide when the players had succeeded. Skill Challenges shouldn’t change that experience from the other side of the screen, they just give you (the DM) a rules basis for deciding when sucess and failure have happened. A skill challenge shouldn’t be pulling your players out of the RP – the skill checks should happen at natural points – usually triggered by the player saying “I do…..”

Ask for rolls for their skill checks even if you are not counting them as successes or failures, this will get them used to making such rolls, and stop the burden on skill checks.

Encourage the players to looka tht the problem through the lens of their character’s skills. We see the world, and the tasks we have to do, based on how well we think we can do what is needed – why should PCs be any different? The barbarian isn’t likely to be the one making the diplomatic overtures – so why are you forcing the player to make the diplomacy roll and counting it for the skill challenge? RP the response and then suggest that perhaps someone more eloquent than the barbarian might be able to pick that up and ensure the diplomatic overtures are taken as intended, and let the Barbarian’s player roll for an assist.

Skill challenges are a chance to engage your players in the story – doing it well results in a seemless experience and will increase the players enjoyment of the game as a whole. Doing it poorly can result in players balking at RP, and forcing them out of the story and into the game. So keep in mind that the players shouldn’t be seeing the mechanics of the skill challenge – because as soon as they see the mechanics of the challenge they are starting to think about them and not the story.

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Categories: DM Theory
  1. April 6, 2010 at 6:31 am | #1

    Great post! I agree with what you say here, especially this part:

    “If failure doesn’t matter do not have a skill challenge for it (even if the author thought there should be one).”

    I once reviewed an adventure module and there was one part where the author wrote in a skill challenge, but the result of passing and failing were basically the same and took the players to the same place. The only difference was the XP reward for failing vs passing. I thought “WHAT!?! – how the heck is this supposed to be a skill challenge?” The answer: I don’t know, but it wasn’t one and I didn’t put it in when I ran the adventure.

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. April 9, 2010 at 11:07 pm | #2

    Excellent article. I could not have put it better myself.

  3. April 10, 2010 at 12:16 am | #3

    This is exactly how I run my skill challenges. I have been playing D&D Encounters and the DM (a WotC designer) has been running skill challenges RAW. It was just as awkward and stilted as all the times I tried to run skill challenges as written. I realized it’s not me – its the mechanic. I think it was Jared Glenn on The Power Source podcast who called skill challenges training wheels for newbie DMs.

  4. April 10, 2010 at 1:49 am | #4

    A great article. I’ve shared the link with my local DMing group. Nice job.

  5. April 10, 2010 at 12:26 pm | #5

    Great article. This is pretty much how I run my skill challenges.

    We did the skill challenges at the D&D Encounter session 3 much like this and our table had a blast. The other tables came over to see why we where having so much fun.

  6. April 10, 2010 at 3:47 pm | #6

    Thank you all for taking the time to read this article. I’m glad someone is getting something from my ramblings. :)

  7. Alphastream
    April 13, 2010 at 5:20 am | #7

    Great stuff. You and I think alike. I had some similar ideas on prepping mods over here: http://community.wizards.com/go/thread/view/75854/22425861/Are_skill_challenges_too_easy&post_num=10#390574893 . I think SCs are just still in their infancy with most DMs still figuring it out (and players and authors as well).

    • April 13, 2010 at 11:15 pm | #8

      Yup we certainly agree there for once ;)

      I’m not sure that skill challenges are still in their infancy, but I am sure that lots of us are not sure what to do with them to make them work well in games. People understand the mechanics of skill challenges really well (they are pretty simple) but they seem to still be struggling with how to get them to be a fun part of the game.

  8. April 13, 2010 at 5:59 am | #9

    Here are my thoughts on the matter.

    http://www.metagamemastery.com/2010/01/22/freeform-skill-challenges/

    Frankly, I think skill challenges are there to introduce new players to role playing. As soon as you are comfortable DMing, you should scrap them and go free form.

    • April 13, 2010 at 11:21 pm | #10

      While they are a tool for introducing new players to RP (and not a bad one), they are definately a DM tool. They give you a mechanical basis for working out things you used to do arbitarily. The before skill challenges if the PCs wanted to convice the duke of something the DM had to decide how many checks (often of various kinds) they would have to make to get the task done, and what would annoy the duke etc. Now the skill challenge rules give you a framework to think about that in, that the players can also be aware of and understand.

      The key thing (as Mearls has pointed out in his articles in Dungeon) is that if they are RPing it up, you don’t have to ask for rolls – you can award successes for good RP as well. The roles are there (like they always have been) for when you are not sure about how well they are doing.

  9. James Hopper
    April 16, 2010 at 10:13 am | #11

    I have abandoned skill challenges altogether now. It is rare when I wouldn’t rather role play a given situation rather than leave things to a few die rolls. My players don’t miss them and frankly feel that they are in greater control when I leave them to their own devices to get out of jams.

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