Old School Roleplay & Skill Challenges
Today I read (belatedly) @SarahDarkmagic’s article There’s No Role Playing in 4e and couldn’t help but think “that was a skill challenge”. Sarah specifically mentions wanting to make the session based on a skill challenge, but not knowing where to start, she also mentions being inspired by @newbiedm’s Red Box (Basic DnD from the 80’s) game. As a person who started DnD with that red box back in ’84 I can see the thread between those “old school” games and 4E skill challenges, and it is one of the tricks to running a good skill challenge.
What Is A Skill Challenge Really?
Well at its heart a skill challenge is a decision tool for DMs. A handy way of deciding when it is reasonable to move on, be it because the PCs have achieved a goal or failed to do so. That is it at heart. The result of this is you have an easy tool to assign xp to an essentially RP activity.
Skill challenges are definitely not railroads or straightjackets, the way many see them as.
Looking at Sarah’s game and its plot element of “investigate the disappeared” all that is needed to make it a skill challenge is deciding how many successes are needed to have enough information to proceed to the next point.
Let’s say we pick 6.
Winging It Old School
Ok so all we have is a plot, and a number of successes, doesn’t sound too much like a skill challenge yet. Still it is plenty to go to the table with if you know your plot well enough. (Incidentally this is why it is hard to just “write a good skill challenge”.)
So you start the game and the PCs start doing their investigation. Maybe, as in Sarah’s case they split up and do their own thing. Oh no! You only have 5 PCs at the table – that isn’t a problem, just change the number of successes to succeed to 4! No one other than you will know, and you will forget soon enough ;).
So then you can get on with the RP, maybe you call for a roll here or there to help you make a decision, those rolls are the ones that will count for success in the challenge. Now the trick is not to deny the PCs information, let them learn it so that the whole plot can move forward. The key is that you can manipulate time! (And again no one will know other than you.)
So maybe they all get a successes, hey only 1 more and they have 6! So having learnt all they can (in their reasonable opinion) they regroup at the Inn and do some more RP. They interact with the innkeeper and make some social rolls – there is that chance for the last success! Now they have 6 successes so the innkeeper makes a suggestion that will lead them to the next clue.
But what happens if they come back with 3 successes and 2 failures – well the innkeeper still gives that last chance.
What about if they got 3 failures?
Then the innkeeper can still make the suggestion but now when the PCs follow it up they arrive only in time to get suspicious about what is going on, not witness everything.
Now some folks would say that isn’t an interesting failure, but the truth is that running the challenge this way is likely to be invisible to the players, and so the only one who will even realise there was a failure is you!
So here is the core of it, all you need for a skill challenge is a problem for the PCs to solve and an idea of what is needed to solve it to get the number of successes. Over-thinking it and trying to bolt mechanics to it rather than letting your players dream up the solutions is not only a lot of work, it might well inhibit a fun session of RP.
We used to play DnD with less rules, keep in mind that the rules are only needed to resolve problems and give you ideas. If everyone is having fun at the table then don’t stop that to enforce a rule – go with the fun and call the rule up when it is really needed.