Last week, I was invited to participate in D&D Encounters, sign books, and answer questions to promote the release of the Book of Vile Darkness. I had a great time and met some fantastic people. It heartens me to find such an active and vibrant gaming community in what is effectively my back yard. While I enjoyed myself immensely, I was surprised by the difficulties still have running skill challenges. And my surprise has prompted me to spend even more words on this topic.
The first mistake we made with skill challenge design is to make more of them than they actually are. You can find their genesis in 3rd edition’s Unearthed Arcana as complex skill checks. A skill challenge is nothing more that a group of checks utilizing the various access points by which player characters interact with the game world and abide by an organizational structure that ought to promote tension, drama, and excitement. Thus, one should only use skill challenges in situations where the problem to overcome is more than roleplaying or a single check can solve and also stands at the narrative fork, where success leads to one outcome and failure leads to another. Of course, a skill challenge might lead to several different paths, but most have a binary outcome. Success means the adventurers achieve some narrative victory and the story progresses. Failure means the adventurers suffer a narrative setback and must find some other way to progress the story.
That’s it. That’s what a skill challenge should do in almost every situation. But this isn’t the case is it? Many traps can only be disarmed after 4 successful Thievery checks before 3 failures, when really one check should suffice. Many NPC encounters pile up required skill checks to overcome the challenge when simple roleplaying ought to resolve the situation. How many overland journeys involve skill challenges when clearly all a DM really wants is to get the heroes from point A to point B. I’m guilty of these terrible skill challenges. Hell, most people who have worked on 4th edition have put out a few stinkers. Why? Because I’m not entirely convinced we knew what skill challenges were supposed to do in the first place.
The solution? Ignore them or simplify them.
A DM should always assess all skill challenges in any published adventure he or she would run and the best criteria for judging a good skill challenge are the stakes. What happens if the PCs fail? Is there an interesting or compelling result? If not, you should either create one or just skip the challenge. For example, consider any of the “journey skill challenges.” Often, these operate only as resource drains, existing solely to tax healing surges from PCs, healing surges PCs will simply get back when they take their next extended rest. Even if the PCs have a fight or two after the challenge, most groups will hole up and rest before pushing on with the adventure. In the end, nothing interesting happens and the entire process is nothing more than an exercise in dice rolling.
Let me pick on myself. “Siege of Bordrin’s Watch” was one of my first 4e adventures and I committed a grave sin with a few of the skill challenges. In particular, there’s the Monastery of the Sundered Chain skill challenge. My intent was to recall the wandering monster tables from the old days within the skill challenge framework. The PCs make a series of skill checks. With victory, they reach the monastery or get back to Overlook without trouble. With failure, they have to fight a randomly determined group of monsters. At the time, I thought this was a cool way to deal with overland travel. Now, I’m not so convinced.
Here’s why. Each time the group travels, the DM feels obligated to run them through the skill challenge. There’s nothing dramatic about this sequence and the consequences of failure are nothing more than simply draining away resources. A far better solution would have been to build an optional table with some roleplaying, exploration, and combat encounters. Then I should have offered basic instructions for dealing with these encounters (conflict, avoid, parlay, and so on) in broad terms. I might have a brief section on sneaking past the orc raiders, chatting up the gnoll marauders, taming the hippogriffs, and include suggested skills for dealing with each.
Or, if I wanted to preserve the skill challenge element, I should have woven the challenge into the story. Rather than make this a drain, I could have built actual stakes. For example, if the PCs succeed on the skill challenge to reach the monastery, they find Kalad the Paladin alive. If they fail, they become delayed and find his body amongst the other dead dwarves. Since time becomes a component, I would have built this as a staged challenge, where the PCs must find ways to overcome certain obstacles encountered en route. The first obstacle might have been orc scouts, the second a terrain feature, and the third a roleplaying encounter that would alert the PCs to what lies ahead and maybe foreshadow Kalad a bit—perhaps a fleeing survivor reports on what happened at the monastery.
If I were running this adventure today, I would make these changes using the material in the adventure without a doubt. Or, I would just cut the challenge altogether and instead slip in a combat encounter or maybe just describe the PCs’ journey to the monastery, skipping the challenge entirely. In this adventure or any adventure, don’t ever feel obligated to run skill challenges. If the challenge has no significant consequences, you best serve your players by cutting it, letting them get through the challenge with fewer successes or, best of all, strengthen the challenge by giving it teeth, with real consequences that shape how the adventure unfolds.