Skill Challenges (or, They Wasted a Perfectly Good Mechanic)

One thing I was excited about in 4th Edition was skill challenges. I think they’re a great idea. I think they’re such a great idea that I can’t help but notice that every DM in every campaign I’ve seen has run one, even before D&D 3.5 was published. Having a set of rules for it would just contribute to making this free-range, non-combat style of encounter a core part of the gameplay.

But then I read it.

Take, for example, the skill challenge “The Negotiation” on page 76 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. In this skill challenge, the players can contribute to success by making Bluff, Diplomacy, or Insight checks. Once during the challenge, one player can make a History check to gain a success, and any Intimidate check is an automatic failure. It’s a negotiation, so this sounds reasonable.

But then, look at the eight classes in the Player’s Handbook, the only classes published when the DMG came out. Of those classes, two of them have none of the skills needed in the encounter (ranger, warlord) and one only has the once-per challenge skill (fighter). There’s a very good chance a party has one of these classes, so that character is essentially locked out of the challenge. To be useful, the other characters must have chosen the correct skills, so a paladin who trained in Endurance, Heal, and Intimidate is also locked out.

The only chance those characters (and players) have to participate is if they think of a sufficiently good reason to use one of their good skills, which is subject to DM approval and made at the hardest difficulty by rule. Normally, this isn’t so bad, because it just means that the ranger keeps quiet during negotiations. But in the 4th Edition skill challenge system, players roll initiative and make skills checks in order. Bowing out of a skill challenge is not an option. That player is forced to make a check with a good chance of failure, not because it’s interesting or because the rewards are great but because the rules say that they must.

Wizards did address this somewhat in the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, which is news to a lot of the people reading this because they either don’t own that book or skipped the section on skill challenges (for reference, I’m in three campaigns now, and I’m the only one in any of them who read the DMG2 of his own volition). They didn’t explicitly say that skill challenges don’t work on initiative any more, and they removed that section from the rules in an errata, but their example of play went in initiative order anyway. They now recommend building skill challenges based on your party’s abilities and options rather than a high concept. They also increased the number of skills in a skill challenge, saying this:

…in play, [a skill challenge with only a few usable skills] is boring. The characters who excel at those skills make their checks while everyone else hangs back reluctant to make their own checks because they don’t want to be the reason that the group fails the challenge. If your potential skill challenge has a similar bottleneck—in which only one skill does the heavy lifting for the challenge—you need to rethink the challenge.

It was a very quiet way of saying “every skill challenge example we’ve given you before now was wrong”. I’m all for fixing a broken system, but maybe a system shouldn’t be published if there wasn’t a single thing about it that was right.

So after the errata, we’re left with a system for skills challenges that has these rules:

  • A skill challenge has a complexity rating that determines the number of successful skill checks needed to win the challenge and the XP reward for winning.
  • The players lose the challenge if they fail three skill checks.

…that’s it. Everything else is up to the DM to design and adjudicate (or it’s already part of the core rules, like rolling a d20 and adding a modifier). The only thing the skill challenge system gives us is “how do I know when I win, and what do I get for it?”, which isn’t the worst possible way to design a mechanic but is the worst possible way to design an ostensibly roleplay-based encounter. It’s not a sufficient framework in a framework-heavy system like 4th Edition.

So I ended up working on my own skill challenge system. It may or may not work for your style, but it’s allowed me to free-range the challenge as it runs (like I DM with Charisma or something) while still giving me enough structure to explain it to players and track things appropriately.

  • Don’t determine any skills beforehand. This isn’t really a rule, but it’s different from the normal system so it merits mentioning. Do determine five possible results of the skills challenge: one for if the players fail significantly, one for if they barely fail, one for if they neither fail nor succeed, one of if they succeed barely, and one for if they succeed significantly. Also, determine the number of checks the players need to succeed or fail (I like seven).
  • Inform the players that they’re in a skill challenge. It may also be best to put them in some order like initiative just so everybody gets a chance to speak, but that’s up to you. I like putting them in initiative order when time is of the essence in the skill challenge, or where having a character sit around and do nothing contributes to failure.
  • When a player wants to act or when it’s their turn, ask them for the skill they’re using and the reason they’re using that skill. Based on the explanation, determine whether they’re rolling against the easy, medium, or hard DC.
  • Have the player roll their skill check.
  • Based on their result, decide whether the player failed significantly (“red”), failed (“orange”), broke even (“yellow”), succeeded (“green”), or succeeded significantly (“blue”). (I guess we’ll call these colors “bands” of results. I don’t have a good name for them yet.) Note this result.
  • Inform the player what happens as a result of their check and move to a different player. Don’t let them know the specific band in which their result fell, though based on your response it should be somewhat obvious.
  • When the party gets some number of results in a given band, the skill challenge ends and the players learn the final result.
  • No XP is awarded, because XP is for losers. But if you must, you can award XP based on the number of results needed to succeed or fail.

Determining the DC and the result of a check is more of an art than a science, but I try to stick by a few points:

  • I reward good ideas over ideas that the character can do easily. If the wizard wants to make an Arcana check to detect a hidden door, I tend to be more harsh than if somebody wants to use Perception.
  • I reward varying ideas over using the same skill every turn. It’s a “skill” challenge, not a “my best skill is Diplomacy, so let’s roll five of those” challenge.
  • I reward risk over safety. If a player wants to use Religion to ward against a demon, that’s not as interesting as a player who uses Athletics to grapple it.
  • I reward expenditure of resources. I’ll often bump a success up to the next color band if the player spent an action point, a daily power, or some number of healing surges to achieve it.
  • I reward awesome over mundane. If an idea is exciting, I’ll often use a lower DC simply because I want to see it succeed.

An example: Varon, a half-elf bard, would like to use his Diplomacy to ask random people whether they saw the fleeing criminal. This helps him if he succeeds but doesn’t hurt him if he loses besides wasting time, so I use a moderate DC. If he’s dealing with orcs, I increase the DC to hard because orcs don’t like elves. If the skill check succeeds, I put a mark in the “green” or “blue” band, depending on how the player phrased his questions and how well the check went. If it fails, I put a mark in the “yellow” band.

His ally is Tela, a goliath warden. She wants to block the traffic in the street, fencing the criminal in, using Endurance or Athletics. Since failure could cause damage to her or create confusion that lets the criminal hide but success would hinder him, I use the moderate DC. If the skill check fails, she gets a mark in the “orange” band.

But Near, the party’s tiefling warlock, had found the criminal and, absent other options, attempts to attack him with Arcana. If she succeeds, she deals damage but doesn’t actually harm the criminal, and failure could injure passers-by. I use the moderate DC, maybe moving it to the easy DC if she’s willing to expend an encounter or daily power. If the check fails, I add a mark to the “red” band, while a success is just “yellow”. If Near opts to use a power that can blind or slow the criminal, a successful check may instead be in the “green” band. In either case, any damage dealt might apply to the criminal if the party fights him at the end of the chase.

After the players make a bunch of skill checks and have gone through a bunch of turns, they get some final result based on which color band first reached the threshold I’ve set. If they his the threshold in the “orange” band, the criminal gets away and the players need to go look for him. If “red”, the criminal gets away and the city watch is considering pressing charges against the players as accomplices. If “yellow”, the criminal gets away but the players have a lead to track him down. If “green”, they catch the criminal, and if “blue” they actually ambush him and get a surprise round.

So what does this give me over the normal skill challenge system? Most obviously, it creates five different results rather than two. The players can be rewarded for slaughtering a skill challenge more than just “you open the magical door”, and they can be penalized for crippling failure and bad decisions more than just “you need another way in”. It also means that they have a lot more freedom to try different ideas because they aren’t beholden to specific skills and, at your option, can fail more than three times before ending the challenge. Most helpfully, it works in 3rd Edition and Pathfinder, while the original system only works in 4th Edition due to the lower number of skills. Basing a skill challenge on seven skills out of seventeen is fairly inclusive, but not if it’s seven out of thirty and a lot of characters only have two skills.

The downside is that there’s a lot more on-the-fly adjudication, including the DCs and the results of every check. It makes it a little easier to flow from the beginning of the skill challenge to the final result with each action, but it’s still up to you to tell the players what happened as a result of each skill check. It’s also a little jarring when the players get six “red” results and six “orange” results, but get seven “green” results first and thus succeed. It could mean that they did well were it really counted, but sometimes it’s a bit awkward to justify.

Is this system better than the official system? Yes, because I wrote it and I’m allowed to make incredibly biased statements like that. But I know it’s not for every DM or every group of players. I know that it’s really best for people who like coming up with ideas on the fly, and it’s not for people who tend to stick to a few things at which they’re very good (Like a skill challenge itself! Gasp!). It might be something worth trying during a future session, and you can take it or leave it based on the opinions of your group.

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8 Responses to Skill Challenges (or, They Wasted a Perfectly Good Mechanic)

  1. aslum says:

    Oh no, I’ve peeked behind the curtain! Seriously though I did quite enjoy most of the skill challenges I participated in during your campaigns, though I suspect some of them may have been while you were still developing this method. Be aware, I’m totes stealing this for use in my own D&D campaign (if it ever happens again).

  2. Dave Fried says:

    I like this approach. It makes both success and failure interesting, though I think it would bear looking at the probability distributions to make sure that the most common result isn’t always “meh”.

    There’s a bit of a thing here regarding meta-knowledge, though. The traditional mode in D&D, especially in skill challenges, is of hidden DCs, often even after the roll has been made. I’ve been thinking about this, and I think it’s one of the reasons I find non-combat die rolls to be less satisfying in D&D than in other games like FATE and Apocalypse World.

    If you’re interested, I’ve just written a post which goes into a little more detail on this.

  3. Leirra says:

    You penalize a wizard for yousing arcana? Do you penalize a fighter for attacking with a sword? Players will play to their strengths. The catch is getting them to role-play to their strengths, as opposed to just “I roll diplomacy.”

    • MssngrDeath says:

      Yes, I do, which is why I miss having monsters that can be resistant to slashing damage. I have a degree in database design, but I deserve to fail if I try to use it to solve fistfights, relationship troubles, bad pet behavior, and car engine failure. The one-skill approach to all problems is incredibly boring to watch, irritating to adjudicate, and frustrating to the player who finds the occasion when their one trick doesn’t work. Players should be rewarded for thinking on their feet and reacting both in-character and creatively, not making a single number go very very high and solving all problems with a really good Jump check.

  4. Pingback: Breakthroughs & Setbacks: How and Why We Should Bring Back Skill Challenges. Kind of. | Ludus Ludorum

  5. SimonTVesper says:

    Why do you need a skill check to ask people a question? Just ask the freaking question, “I’m looking for a guy dressed like this with a scar like this, gave you swen him?” And how does Endurance or Athletics let you control a crowd? If you were a bouncer or a riot control officer, sure, but some random adventurer trying to block traffic for seemingly no reason? And why is it only on a bad failure that the players incur the ire of the police? Whoever owns that street shouldn’t take kindly to having passage withheld, especially by someone without the authority to do so.

    I understand your example is a bit light on details and that, were I present for the game in question, I would have more answers. But it seems to me that the problem is not that skill challenges are presented/structured poorly; it’s that they exist in the first place. Stop using them and just ask for a skill check when the players’ success is in quedtion.

    • MssngrDeath says:

      Because that’s the point of skills. In games where players build characters, players like using the characters they built. If all players can ask “have you seen this guy?” with an equal chance of success, then player who built a character to be good at Diplomacy has wasted his decisions. It makes sense that he would know who to ask, how to phrase the question, how long to linger on a given person or in a given area, how best to describe the person they’re chasing, and other things that should rely on the character more than the charisma, wit, and volume of the player at the table. The same applies with Endurance, Athletics, and other skills. One of the DM’s jobs is to make sure the characters get to shine, and not that all things can be solved by a single check made by a single person.

      A skill challenge also has the advantage of tension. If any check could end the challenge at any time based on how good the DM decides the answer is, the player agency is gone. All pacing is controlled by the DM. But with set, public failure conditions, the players know when they need to try something risky or expend resources to turn the tides.

      Speaking of agency, that’s also why a player would try to control the crowd. If a player asks “I want to use Athletics to block the street”, and the DM says “no, because you’re not a police officer”, the player gets to do nothing because the DM decided what they’re doing isn’t good enough to warrant mention. If they see no way to use their skills in the situation at hand, they sit on the sidelines. This is one of the problems we’re trying to solve, except now we’ve made it worse because instead of the written challenge not agreeing with the table reality it’s the DM telling the player to their face that their decisions are wrong.

      That said, with a few more campaigns under my belt than when I wrote this, I probably would have had the crowd get angry at being blocked. Some parties love taking actions that get them into more trouble because it makes the story more frantic and the rewards sweeter. Some parties hate it when the DM dogpiles on them just to see them squirm. It’s all about reading the table and responding to the situation at hand, which is something a more mutable system can do without pitching the entire mechanic.

  6. Pingback: Breakthroughs & Setbacks: How and Why We Should Bring Back Skill Challenges. Kind of. – Hemicyon

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