Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Skill Challenges: A Differing Perspective

Skill challenges. Along with defeating monsters and completing quests, skill challenges form the third side of the XP triangle for the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Designed as a framework for non-combat encounters, skill challenges allow a DM to create a scenario where the heroes can overcome a challenge using their skills (hence the name) and without necessarily resorting to combat. Skill challenges are usually designed to fit into the flow of the story, and are thus given an XP rating to reward the heroes for their success.

I’m not a fan.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to offer a great deal of respect to those DMs that have embraced the skill challenge mechanic and have made a science out of building new ones. Folks like Quinn Murphy (@gamefiend) and Paul Unwin (@pdunwin) strive for excellence when creating skill challenges, and for questions about them, they are a fantastic resource. Look them up on Twitter. They’re good cats.

Despite these efforts, however, I can’t help but feel that skill challenges are a clunky mechanic; a sort of artificially manufactured framework for game actions accomplished through simple role-playing, basic skill checks, and what I call “hidden quests” (I’ll get to that last term in the moment).

Illustrated below, are a couple of re-imaged skill challenges using the actions I would take in my own game. I’ll reference the location of the original challenge, and present my alternative to the skill challenge referenced. Again, let me reiterate that I don’t think I can do it better. However, I do believe I can do it different, and in a way that’s less disruptive to the flow of play.

For our first challenge, let’s explore the encounter with Sir Keegan from “Keep on the Shadowfell”. If you don’t have this adventure, it can be downloaded for free, from Wizards of the Coast. During this encounter, Sir Keegan (an undead warrior), threatens to attack the heroes if they don’t convince him they’re on the side of good. Take a moment to review that skill challenge and come back.

Okay, all set? Now…here’s how I would handle the encounter.

Skill Challenge Redux: Sir Keegan 

Set Up: The encounter begins as shown in the adventure, with Sir Keegan leaping out of his tomb to confront the heroes. He immediately challenges the entire group to prove their worth. Initiative is rolled, but only to provide for combat should it break out. Players can act in turn, or talk at once. Sir Keegan addresses the characters as if he were really surrounded. He makes gestures that indicate that he would speak to the heroes. A parlay, perhaps.

Useful Skills: This encounter involves a discussion with a powerful creature. The DM should choose skills appropriate to a discussion. In this case, those choices should be: Bluff, Diplomacy, & Intimidation. The hero can gain a +2 bonus to his skill check if he first watches Sir Keegan speak to another hero & also succeeds a DC 15 Insight check. The hero is required to interact with Sir Keegan BEFORE rolling the check. The nature of the interaction is what determines which skill is appropriate. It’s possible (even probable) that a player will attempt to use a skill not specified by the encounter. Challenge the player to explain how they’re using the skill. A good rationale for the skill, should allow the skill to be used. (Note: this should be a caveat to all such encounters. Reward creative play with at least attempts, even if they’re not ultimately successful).

Success: A character succeeds in convincing Sir Keegan of his worthiness if he succeeds with a DC 15 skill check for the appropriate action within the conversation. In other words, if the character tries to be “tough”, this DC 15 skill check will be against Intimidation.

Failure: If Sir Keegan feels that more than half the party is unworthy, he’ll attack. Combat proceeds normally from there. Essentially, that means that in a five player party, if three fail, combat will ensue.

You’ll notice the encounter works out the same way, but with less artificial posturing. No need to declare a “skill challenge”, no need to quiz players on what skill they’re using. It’s more organic.

Okay, here’s another example. This one is an example of a physical skill challenge. It’s called “Navigating the Tainted Spiral”, and is found in an adventure that can be downloaded from Wizards of the Coast (this one might require a DDI subscription). It’s from an adventure called, “The Tainted Spiral”. When you’ve read that skill challenge, come on back.

Skill Challenge Redux: Navigating The Tainted Spiral 

Set Up: The encounter is set up in such a way that the heroes must successfully navigate a series of confusing, winding tunnels in order to progress further in the adventure.

Useful Skills: This encounter involves the use of physical or knowledge skill in order to succeed. I’m okay with the skills suggested for the original challenge with the exception of Arcana. Thus, Dungeoneering, Nature, or even Perception skill checks could be possible for this encounter. It’s possible (even probable) that a player will attempt to use a skill not specified by the encounter. Challenge the player to explain how they’re using the skill. A good rationale for the skill, should allow the skill to be used. (Note: this should be a caveat to all such encounters. Reward creative play with at least attempts, even if they’re not ultimately successful).

Success: Have the players choose a hero that is trying to find their way through the maze. If the hero succeeds a DC 15 Dungeoneering or a DC 20 Nature check, they succeed and find their way through the maze of tunnels. A successful DC 20 Perception check allows the hero to add a +2 to his Dungeoneering or Nature check.

Failure: Each failure of the above skill check costs 15 minutes of game time. After each interval, the DM should see if the same hero would like to continue to make checks, or if another hero would like to step in. As an option, each failure could mean an encounter with a wandering group of monsters. For the purposes of this adventure, the heroes would encounter additional Fell Taints.

Again, what I’ve tried to do here, is to simplify a largely mechanical experience into a more organic one. No announcements (except for one like, “you’ve been wondering these tunnels for awhile, and you now seem to be lost. What do you do?”) need to be made, and no break in the game flow need commence. If you think that the heroes deserve additional XP, simply add it on to the next encounter.

Speaking of XP, I am reminded that I mentioned something called “hidden quests”. Even before MMOs placed little exclamation points above certain NPCs’ heads, there have been quest givers. Perhaps it was the king of the land, or the crusty innkeeper, or even “the old man from scene 24”; regardless, it’s usually quite clear when the heroes have a quest to perform. In many scenarios, the successful completion of these quests rewards the heroes with XP. At the same time, however, there are also little parts of the adventure that deserve rewards, even though it’s not directly part of an actual quest.

Let me give you an example. While working on a quest, the heroes investigate a local teamster who just might be smuggling flumphs into the city for some horrible scheme. You’d like to reward the players for discovering this tidbit of information. The original 4e way would be to design a skill challenge around the investigation, create all the accompanying conditions, and assign some XP to the challenge.

Not me. I call little parts of the story like this, “hidden quests”. The DM knows that such things will have to be done to move forward with the story, but doesn’t advertise them with a big yellow exclamation point. You really don’t need a skill challenge for this kind of thing.

Instead, I would simply role-play the investigation and have heroes make various skill checks where appropriate (bribing a shipping clerk, threatening a guard, etc.). It’s simple, keeps play in motion, and doesn’t require a great deal of overhead. In addition, if I felt that accomplishing this little story task was important, I’d add some additional XP to the total for the eventual quest it helps complete. No muss, no fuss.

Again, let me state that I have great respect for those DMs that create and run skill challenges. For some, the ability to wrap up a task normally accomplished by role-playing and a few simple skill checks with mechanics, is an exciting and vital part of their gaming experience. I wish them great success in these endeavors. They’re just not for me.

Until next time….

Game excellently with one another.

PS: I have to admit, this article was one of the most difficult I’ve had to write, since converting my blog over to one about Dungeons & Dragons. I love the 4e game and continue to play it. I struggled with how to present this information, because I know that a number of my blogging friends have embraced the skill challenge, and have done great work with them. I hope I have not offended them, or made them think their work was pointless. Perish the thought. My wish continues to be that you “play your game your way”.


  1. This is a great writeup, I've been doing this for quite a while now as I'm also not too keen on laying the guts of the game engine out in front of the players. It tends to detract for the role playing experience, not to mention confuse players at times.

    Doing skill challenges more transparently/organically does take a bit more work than just reading down the stat block for the challenge but in the end I do believe it pays off in terms of believability and the smooth-ness of game flow.

  2. I run my skill challenges exactly how you suggest. I rarely ever stop the game and say, "skill challenge time!" Instead, I narrate a situation. One of the players suggests a course of action, to which I either make them roll a check or automatically assign a success (if it is a really good idea.) I narrate the result and secretly mark down a success or failure for the challenge.

    The idea is to use the skill challenge as a framework. I use the skills in a published adventure as a list of suggestions, not an iron list of finite choices. If the players end up finding a really good resolution to a problem before they've racked up enough successes, I give them the victory (and the XP.)

    It is the same with combat encounters. They don't have to defeat every single enemy with their listed attacks. Heck, they don't even have to get into combat if they find a different way around the situation.

    The point is that the rules exist to give you a metric. "A normal encounter should look like this." Or, "a normal skill challenge should look like this." 99% of actual encounters and skill challenges deviate from this in some way.

  3. Anonymous3:56 PM

    Looks like the way I do skill challenges. Most people seem to think a skill challenge means handing the players all of the information. But I've never seen or heard of a dm doing that with combat, why would it be assumed you would in this case? You don't tell players exactly how many hit points the challenge has either, but you should let them know when its bloodied.

    Skill challenges are a measure for roleplay, not a replacement as some use it for. But to each their own, you're doing them correctly, without even realizing it.

  4. My reply was too long to post!

    Until I rectify that: the others are right. It's not necessary to announce skill challenges. What you are not a fan of are DMs who do announce them. You clearly ARE a fan of skill challenges because you wrote two good ones in your post above.