Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dr. StrangeOrcs (or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Skill Challenge)

Greetings, Readers!

As you may know, I've been playing the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons since its release two years ago. I love the game, and do what I can to support it. Of course, no game is perfect, and where I've seen gaps in the rules, or a need for "fluff", I've tried to step in throw my two cents in.

One of the things I've always had an issue with, however, is Skill Challenges. I've written a little bit about them, and even managed to get myself in trouble for not really liking them that much. Despite the great work of Skill Challenge advocates like Quinn Murphy (@gamefiend) & Paul Unwin (@pdunwin), I just couldn't get that hang of them. Skill Challenges continued to feel "forced" & they were my one blind spot in the rules.

But not anymore.

Last night, I played a three hour 4th Editions Dungeons & Dragon game.  There wasn't a single combat (oops!), no planned encounters (oops!), and only one Skill Challenge. That's right, folks. I ran an ad-lib Skill Challenge.  Let me break down what happened for you:

The Set Up

The group I was DMing for last night, isn't my DeadOrcs group that I occasionally blog about. This is a group composed of my wife, Anna (@FELTit on the Twitters), myself, and two other couples. A good part of the evening's activities involved the heroes trying to find a specific sage, and asking him about these crystals they keep reading about in the area newsletter. The sage gave them their lead, but to follow it, the heroes would have to journey across the entirety of the local area. The quickest route (though a bit more expensive) was to take a river raft upstream to the town they needed to visit. Since the evening had been all role-playing already, I didn't want to break that mojo with some kind of random monster encounter. Instead, it occurred to me that poling a raft upstream might have some risk.  Enter: The Skill Challenge!

The Skill Challenge

I presented the players with the Skill Challenge by letting them know (through the voice of the Halfling raft pilot), that the water was a bit high this year, and that a spot in the river coming up would be particularly dicey.  The heroes would have to help the pilot get his river raft past the rapids or the craft would (gasp!) flip over and dump them in the river.

Off the top of my head, I quickly decided which skills might be appropriate for that situation: rough water, poling, on a raft, etc. I decided that Athletics, Acrobatics, Endurance, & Nature checks would apply. To make it more interesting, I decided that when rolling the checks, the Endurance and Nature checks could only be applied once to the Skill Challenge. The heroes could use Athletics & Acrobatics as often as they liked.

More Structure From the Ether

Since the heroes were only second level, I decided to make it a Medium Skill Challenge. While the "X success before Y failures" formula can seem - well - "formulaic", I thought it was entirely appropriate in this situation. I made a quick off-the-cuff decision that they would need to succeed 6 times before 3 failures. In addition, I set the DC for each skill check to the Medium check of their level.

What The Players Had To Do

This part was actually the best part of the whole thing. Going around the table in order, I simply asked the player what skill they wanted to use (of the ones I said were appropriate to the Skill Challenge), and HOW they were going to use it. This last part was important, because it allowed me (since I was making this up going along), to respond appropriately in case of either a success or failure.

Example: The Barbarian in the group said, "I'm going to use this pole to push off an oncoming rock, and guide the raft towards a better path" (or something to that effect). When he succeeded, I was easily able to tell him, "Holding on tightly to the pole, you wedge it against a rock, and push the raft to a safer area".

I did this activity with everyone around the table. Each character had to participate in the Skill Challenge at least once, with the remaining checks to be made by which ever character wanted to. I couldn't believe how easy it flowed. The players were actually excited about making their checks, even fearing what the group would think (well, not fear, exactly) if they failed.

The Results

The players LOVED the evening's game. They all felt that the Skill Challenge was logical and flowed really well.  Much better, in fact, than the ones they had participated in before (pre-written ones from modules).  To be honest, I'm not sure why it happened, but it all just clicked into place. Here's what I took from it, and how I'll approach Skill Challenges in the future.

1) Establish the event.

2) Define the skill parameters.

3) Engage player input for appropriate responses.

I know that seems simple, and I know better qualified folks than myself have come to similar conclusions. I guess maybe it's just that now having run a successful Skill Challenge, one where all the pieces clicked, and one that I managed to do without any prior planning at all, cinched it for me.  Now, no longer intimidated by Skill Challenges, I will be adding them to my DM arsenal.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.


  1. Anonymous8:20 PM

    This sounds great. The only thing I would suggest is that in addition to the skills you came up with off the top of your head, allow the players to come up with a good reason to use some other skill in their arsenal as a one-shot check if they can come up with a good reason. In your example, a player might say they would like to roll a Perception check to try and look off into the distance to spot potential trouble spots or safe waters coming up. Even though you didn't incorporate Perception as one of your allowable skill checks, that would seem to be a sensible allowance to make.

  2. Exactly how I run them without deciding ahead of time what skills would be 'allowed' Instead I let the players try anything. If it sounds valid they have to make an Moderate DC test. If they come up with a perfect solution/skill for the job then Easy DC test. If they come up with something out there, I still give them a shot with a Hard DC.

    For the example above:
    Use Pole - Moderate Athletics
    Paddle Furiously - Moderate Endurance
    Can't actually think of a perfect skill for this one so there may not be an Easy check.

    Now here's the bit my players like: coming up with out of the box things and me letting them try at Hard DC:

    The Party Wizard: Can I use arcana to do a quick scrying spell to see which path ahead is easiest? - Sure why not!?! Hard Arcana check.

    The Party Rogue - Hey can I use theivery to help jury rig the raft so that it better handles rough water? - Sure why not!?! Hard Theivery check.

  3. @ Anonymous (C'mon, Step Up!)& @ Windsor Gaming Resource: I wrestled with allowing "odd" skill checks to solve a particular skill challenge. I think I might work with the idea of using 1 allowable "off the beaten path" skill use, but it would be one class more difficult than if you used the provided skills. I don't like saying no to my players, but I do feel pretty strongly about having logical skill choices for solving skill challenges. Thanks for the comments all!