28 Dec 2011

Skill Challenges Part 47

Blog 19 Comments

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.

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19 Responses to “Skill Challenges Part 47”

  1. Matt James says:

    Yeah, I think there are a lot of 4e consumers that struggle with Skill Challenges. I use them as a framework for something more abstract. I don’t like the success/failure tally-mark mentality they have inspired in many.

  2. Jason says:

    What I like about skill challenges is providing a structure and direction to scenes that might otherwise be aimless rolling and roleplaying – if a wizard is performing research in a library, I like challenging it up and requiring a variety of skill uses and providing different bits of information as the successes come. I don’t really tally successes or failures, and you can certainly have a structured scene without skill challenge rules, but the core concept of skill challenges has still been helpful to me.

    I have played in several challenges that do tally success and failure, though, and it hasn’t bothered me. I think sometimes it can be good to declare, “This is what the PCs are doing, and these are the rules of the challenge,” and have the players enjoy the stakes and be able to track their progress. We are playing a game, after all, and it can be fun to ‘game’ it up a little more.

    What I like about skill challenges most overall is prompting every PC to contribute to a challenge – in an unstructured roleplaying encounter, players can be at risk of being shut out by others, especially if their character isn’t especially socially skilled – this could happen in my last game because the party’s leader was a Bard with insanely high Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate bonuses, and his numbers cowed other players into letting him take the reins. If you make it clear that everyone is participating, whether by rolling initiative or some other method, then everyone gets to contribute and use their skills and wits creatively. Turning roleplay scenes into challenges is something that really bothered me at 4e’s release, and I don’t do it all the time now, but I’ve really come to enjoy it for important social encounters and embrace the gamey aspects.

  3. Claudio Pozas says:

    One idea I’ve had for a long time was to turn a long dungeon, like the Mines of Moria, into a skill challenge, and give the players the ability to describe some of the dungeon through their skill choices.

    A good example of SC is from The Slaying Stone (by Logan Bonner). I like the initial “approach Kiris Dahn” SC, with the success or failure dictating where you emerge in the city.

  4. Claudio Pozas says:

    I forgot another great SC example. In the adventure “Dead By Dawn” (by Blackdirge), the PCs are holed up in an abandoned temple, while a zombie apocalypse goes on outside, and they have to survive the night. A SC determines how well the PCs barricade the place, and each failure adds more creatures to the next “wave” of zombies. After each “wave”, a short SC represents frantic attempts to repair the barricades.

  5. Erik Nowak says:

    I loved the “Dead By Dawn” skill challenges, too. I ran that adventure for a 12th-level party, and it was super easy to convert – I simply used different, higher-level undead, and upped the SC DCs, and it was one of the best sessions in the campaign.

    The SC mechanic of “X Successes before 3 Failures” is a weird one sometimes, especially when it’s used as a proxy for role-playing. I don’t get it why you might need 3 successful Diplomacy checks to persuade the jarl to help the village when you can nail it with explaining everything you need to say and making one check…. maybe a backup check too in some cases, if he’s still undecided.

    But, yeah, Rob is spot-on as usual – make them matter, or hand-wave them.

  6. Alphastream says:

    I try to keep 4E’s skill challenge problems in the context of what 3E was like. With 3E you often had RP scenes that concluded with the party diplomat making a single roll… usually a success unless you rolled a 1 or a 2. This was pretty bad, because it taught players to only participate if they were the diplomat and it made success feel either a given or a failure only due to terrible luck. The other common “skill challenge” was the faux puzzle where the bard and/or wizard used knowledge checks to open a door or get past some barrier. These were even more boring in most cases. Our nostalgia tends to dull our memories around these issues.

    4E advanced D&D greatly by helping everyone participate. It also gave more equal time to non-combat encounters, making them common even in delve-style adventures. These were significant improvements! Unfortunately we had several problems. One was that the “encounter” (either skill challenge or combat) became 99% of the play experience. There was little attention given to starting with the concept and then weaving in encounter design. For example, a tavern became less open-ended investigation and more or either a straight-up skill challenge or a brief RP scene followed by combat. This had a very disastrous effect on how experienced gamers play/view the game. I see it as the main reason people (incorrectly) label 4E as resembling an MMORPG.

    Another problem was with skill challenge format. The DMG really did a disservice with the format of skill and description. “Arcana DC 15: The PC has studied the ancient tomes of Tim the Enchanter, and recalls…” That format encouraged many DMs (even experienced ones) to drive the skill challenge at the players instead of responding to them. And when a player is _told_ what their PC did or how they solved things? I recall my first skill challenge. The wizard tried arcana to do a very specific thing and the description for the skill challenge was about library research. It threw me off my game to see such a disparity, taking me a few precious seconds to formulate a response. Instead of the format, skill challenges should be responsive to what PCs want to do to resolve the situation and should provide the DM with general ideas for resolution.

    The format of a long list of skills, DCs, and resolution descriptions has a second problem. It creates the feeling that these must all be done now, by all the PCs. It makes the scene static. In traversing the wilderness, it makes it so the martial character uses athletics while the ranger uses perception while the wizard uses history… all at the same time or in very rapid succession. That makes no sense and carries little narrative. Instead, the DM should be providing problems (the trail ends at a cliff, with a smaller trail winding around…. do you want to go over or around, and how?) and the players should provide a specific response (which may involve several checks and non-skill actions but count as one check for the challenge).

    And that brings up my final big beef with skill challenges. The rules are too rigid as to the number of rolls and what becomes success or failure. Ideally there would be a better way to decide the number of checks, how to use non-check actions for success, and how to have entire mini-scenes be one success/failure.

    I would love to see a re-write of Skill Challenge rules to fix these issues, providing a new format or even providing a menu of formats based on different objectives. The system should encourage open responsive design, encourage the players to investigate and RP, and allow for collaborative narrative.

  7. hbunny says:

    Skill challenges are a nice framework for plot and scene design, but they suffer from the same problem of other 4e rules extensions: they’re not a game. As a framework it provides a fun way to imagine the way between-combat scene might play out, but the actual table mechanics as written don’t support your goals of promoting “tension, drama, and excitement”. That requires a bunch of additional design work (and thus has spawned 1,001 blog posts on the subject). Trying to stretch an incomplete design to encompass virtually every out-of-combat scenario is almost never going to generate fun table play.

  8. froth says:

    I completely ignore them

  9. Dale Sheldon-Hess says:

    “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.”

    I just want to say that this is precisely as true for COMBAT challenges as it is for skill challenges.

    If it doesn’t matter to the story, either skip it, end it early, or MAKE it matter.

  10. Steve Townshend says:

    There was a time around Essentials when skill challenges went through a reformatting that didn’t seem to take. They were presented as situations with different strategies characters might use to solve them. Those strategies had suggested skills listed, but they were typed in paragraphs rather than lists of skills with DCs next to them (i.e. standard format). A great example of this is the dragon skill challenge in the DM’s Kit.

    I’m a big believer in that “new” presentation for skill challenges, but when I write a skill challenge in that format, by the end of the process it changes into a list of skills with DCs rather than strategies. Initially, the unicorn challenge you played said, basically, here’s what you might do:

    Part 1: Sneak up or take a nonthreatening approach; here are the skills you might use to do that.

    After you approach, or try to approach, the pixies jump you.

    Part 2: Once you’ve made your approach, while the combat encounter is taking place, you might lasso the unicorns or try to coerce them. Here’s the skills you might use to lasso them; here’s the skills you might use to coerce them. If you make off with the unicorns, you win. Here’s what happens if you don’t succeed….

    The published version is similar in content but different in execution.
    I feel that simply presenting a challenge as a set of broad choices/strategies, as the DM’s Kit example did, goes a lot farther toward making the challenge an organic part of the story. You’re not “button mashing,” trying to hit the right key to move on; you’re making a character/story choice and following that path (and oh, by the way, here are the mechanics that you “might” use for that; try something else if you can justify it).

    In home games, I don’t use them at all. At the end of the adventure, I look back on the things the characters accomplished and give them XP accordingly as if they had succeeded in a skill challenge approximately matching the number of checks they rolled. This way, we improvise around events without artificial structures blocking the story. When shit happens and they fail to do something, it happens organically and terrible things happen in the characters’ lives. TERRIBLE THINGS!!!

  11. Kilsek says:

    “The solution? Ignore them or simplify them.”

    Sounds good! And when we do ignore or simplify them, weave anything resembling their old scoreboard presentation and mentality as seamlessly as possible into the narrative. They were far too gamey and all the “stuff” between combat simply didn’t need that much structure. In so many cases, a skill check or simple action or simple decision or two is all you need in an RPG. Sure, they can chain together, but doing it rigidly and predictably breaks immersion like a rock thrown at a mirror.

    After all, D&D is part game, part art, always has been and always will be.

  12. Bubba Brown says:

    I’d definitely go with simplifying skill checks. Also, each individual skill check needs to be more significant. With any mechanic, you have to use it enough to justify its existence… but without going so far to cheapen it. If you consider any mechanic in the game like currency in an economic system, they both will model the same. A bad currency (mechanic) is one either used too little in too few places or one systematically devalued too many places to sheer inconvenience. Too often skill checks are suffering the same plight of the American Penny. When inflation wasn’t so bad, the penny was considered significant and useful. Now with decades of inflation, the penny is viewed as worthless and inconvenient to most. The penny itself isn’t too blame as much as the economics surrounding it.

    But there’s another facet to this problem. Granularity. Often most checks are used in a binary (pass or fail) sense. This mentality drives people to chain them together to handle more than two possible outcomes. Continuing my currency examples: Imagine a currency only having one denomination; what if you only had the ten dollar bill (or the relevant ten unit denomination for your local currency) as the only denomination available. For trades at or relatively close to a dollar, it’ll work. If you are trying to trade for an item worth less than ten dollars, you might be completely out of luck. If you are trying to trade for an item significantly greater than ten dollars, you are going to require a lot of ten dollar bills. The odd side effect is that prices of goods in this situation will start to gravitate towards multiples of the denomination available. This may make high value items tolerable, but it’ll make previously inexpensive items artificially inflate their value. Hence, why you’ll end up doing checks for inconsequential things or a series of checks for big things.

    This is why I’ve been shifting the focus of check from the pass/fail to the disparity between the roll and the goal number. Succeed by 5 points? Nicely done, you look like you know what you are doing. Fail by 1 point? It takes you another try, but you didn’t alert anyone to your folly. Succeed by 15 points? You smoked it. The next few traps after this one don’t hold a candle to your prowess. Fail by 15 points? May the gods have mercy upon you, because I won’t.

    It’s been an interesting experiment, but has shown promise. Still need to get the presentation of the idea right to players (especially if I want to obscure results from them), but less frequent, more significant rolls without sacrificing narrative opportunities has been very nice.

  13. jshaft37 says:

    As S. Townshend mentions above, I greatly prefer approaching skill checks/skill challenges as presented in the Twisting Halls (Red Box Adventure) dragon interaction. After all, its intuitive that all all skill challenges are at their core based on 1 (and some times maybe 2) skills. Other skills are used to modify that roll.

    WOTC posted “Heart of the Scar” today, and is completed with a skill check that does exactly that. In the challenge they are escaping a collapsing ruin. It is a series of group endurance checks with a set DC. Their rolls can be modified by +1 or -1 with other checks.

  14. Dan Ciano says:

    Rob, I was with you that fateful night when we “had our way” with a certain pair of unicorns (spoiler alert?) and I just wanted to add my 2gp.

    One of the biggest problems I have with skill challenges are when they pretend to fork the player’s experience but ultimately end up leading to the same end point. Something along the lines of “you failed your skill challenges, so you make it to the SAME EXACT PLACE, but you each lose a healing surge.”

    Why? Obviously this was just something to make the journey more interesting, as you mentioned, but what if a troupe of adventurers were to fail these skill challenges in such a way as to completely alter the rest of the adventure? Granted for things like LFR and Encounters, this is much harder to do, since there is a prescribed set of events, but in a homebrew campaign, whats to stop the DM from saying “well you guys failed the skill challenges so you don’t actually find the blah-blah-blah of blah-blah-blah, and the townsfolk are pretty disappointed. I would expect word of your failure, nay, your ineptitude in navigating the extremely small forested region just ourside of town to follow you for months.” The PCs dont get quest rewards, but now it opens up a whole new set of objectives…in this case, the party has to clear their name in the forestry department.

    Its a stretch in most cases, but the point is if skill challenges become to prevalent, it detracts from the roleplaying and puts more emphasis on random rolls than what a character should actually be capable of. An elf ranger who grew up in Yuirwood should not “forget” how to weave a path through a few dozen trees just because the player botched a few DOZEN rolls.

    Likewise, a failed nature roll shouldn’t spell disaster for the entire adventure simply because that unicorn didn’t want to be pushed through a fence…

    Just sayin’.

  15. Don Cee says:

    Thanks Robert for coming to our Encounters and meeting your fans! Everyone had a blast!

    I never use skill challenges in my home brew games, such as the Ravenloft campaign that I am currently running. As a DM, I am more focused on what traps and scenarios that I can put together to test my players. I feel that tactics are more important than skills most of the time.

    I always found that skill challenges in published modules told the players what they were doing instead of players doing that themselves. There are plenty of skill challenges in this season of Encounters, and maybe that is part of the reason that I dislike this season’s storyline.

    Players should be able to do the things in the skill challenges and not be hog-tied to completing them exactly as written. I agree that most players should be able to do what they feel is beneficial to their situation, and not be compelled to what the published materials says they should do.

  16. Ian says:

    I have to agree with most of the sentiments in the article and in the comments. My biggest problem is what to do with players who won’t pick the “right” skill choices for the challenge? What if what they want to do or how they want to use the skill is way off from the appropriate skills? You either have to tell them, “no, try again, your imagination isn’t guessing the right thing,” or you have to justify their wildly rambling and incoherent idea into a possible skill check for them–as a sop. I don’t like either choice, so I’m definitely for simplifying skill challenges.

  17. Weekly Roundup: Happy 2012 Edition | Roving Band of Misfits says:

    [...] Schwalb wrote an article this week after a blogging hiatus. It involves his thoughts on skill challenges in 4e – their origins, and his thoughts on them as one of 4e’s [...]

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  19. Death Metal Nightmare says:

    agree with Kilsek 100%! i felt the same way with skill challenges.
    keep the artistry of imagination in mind during the 5E design (get some of the scary/weird/occult-ish/grimoire art work back too… it added such a cool mystique to the game… the books looking more like Tomes instead of cartoon/photoshop bombast would be amazing)
    getting the players to roll less and role more is the name of the game.

    this also always takes a moderately decent DM/GM to interact with so i can understand some mechanisms in game design being put in place for beginners, novices, etc…

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