>Skill Challenges

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Okay, I’m sure someone out there is sick of hearing about this by now, but I just have to post something about this in the interest of fairness. I’m starting to like the idea of Skill Challenges.

Some 3.5/Pathfinder player out there just threw a fit upon hearing that, and new players either don’t know what I’m talking about, or don’t understand what all the fuss is over. But let me explain myself – along with what the heck a Skill Challenge is for.

… Okay, how do I get out of here?

4th Edition D&D introduced the idea of Skill Challenges back when the Player’s Handbook first came out, and thanks primarily to some misunderstandings due to poor wording … and some poor understanding on the part of the mod writers … and a few problems that should probably have been worked out in playtesting … they were kind of hated by a lot of people, mainly long-time D&D players. The whole thing was blown massively out of proportion, to my thinking, but let’s go ahead and break them down.

Skill Challenges are designed as a way of resolving any kind of conflict that doesn’t involve stabbing things with pointy objects (and theoretically some things that do), and doing so in a way that a) rewards cleverness, b) rewards luck, and c) moves the plot forward in some way even if the player(s) fail. Oh, and d) gives the players precious Experience Points (XP).

What it is NOT is a substitute for good roleplaying; it’s intended to provide a structure for certain kinds of situations, though the applications of the idea are numerous once the DM has mastered the art of running them. The problem is, since they were explained so poorly originally, many many 4e players have had to suffer through badly written skill challenges that were then poorly run – like me, in my first 4e game. I was playing a wizard; naturally, the skill challenge demanded Athletics. Or climb. Whatever. And it was run incorrectly, so I had to make them all myself – Skill Challenges are supposed to be handled as a team.

So here’s the premise; A skill challenge is something that the party (or the hero, in a solo game) has to overcome as a group. Like finding the information about where the bad guy is hiding. The GM/DM has a list of skills that might be applicable, along with suggested DCs for the checks. The players figure out which skills they want to use, and the objective is to get a certain number of successes before a smaller number of failures (usually 3). A typical skill challenge will be three or four successes before three failures.

This will, of course, mean rolling your d20 and coming up with good descriptions for what you’re trying to do. 😉

But that’s just the mechanics. A good skill challenge could be anything; from crossing a desert, to bargaining with the king, calming an angry mob, infiltrating a building, escaping a magical (or mundane) trap, summoning an extraplanar entity, convincing said entity not to kill you, slaying a boss monster the way you do in Prince of Persia (hah!), convincing the headmasters at Hogwarts to let you go to Hogsmead despite not having a permission slip, and so on.

Important point for DMs: Don’t tell the party that it’s a skill challenge. Don’t ever USE the words “Skill Challenge” at the table. Embed it into roleplay instead; describe the actions that might be useful, like, say, running long distances quickly to avoid the giant rolling rock from the Temple of Doom, rather than saying “athletics” or the like. The mechanics are for the GM’s benefit, but they should be invisible to the players as much as possible. 

If it’s handled well, and there’s a clear goal involved, and there’s an interesting penalty for failure that will still move the story forward. . . then Skill Challenges can be a great thing in any system. It sure beats “everyone roll a perception check.”

Heck, I might even use them in M&M . . .

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One response to “>Skill Challenges

  • Anonymous

    >We've played the skill challenges in the way you've described, right from the original KotS, and we still find them clunky.One of the issues in the prewritten Modules is the fact that failure rarely gives any penalty, just more monsters to kill (yey more XP). When we've written them ourselves we've been able to bring the roleplay in better, but I think because we tailor them to the party we are writing for.We've got rid of them now, we do skill checks, we do some roleplay, with checks when appropriate, and then quest rewards for success and a nasty surprise for a fail.

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