Skill Challenges in Practice

July 15th, 2009

Explosives as an option

I rather like the general idea of skill challenges; they encourage a DM to reward players for solving problems without resorting to combat. This encourages players to see each other’s characters outside their combat roles and fosters a more rich, varied, interesting, and thus entertaining play experience. The general idea is lovely, a welcome addition to Dungeons & Dragons.

In practice, skill challenges as presented in the rules are a mess. I’m not talking about the math of target difficulties. Whether you need to roll a 5 or a 15 to advance the challenge is immaterial. The problem is that poor rolling necessarily results in failure. The tactical combat system of Dungeons & Dragons when implemented as suggested in the rules assumes player victory. Take 600xp worth of bad-guys from the Monster Manual and throw them at five 2nd level adventurers and you will almost always see the adventurers succeed. Repeat this two more times without allowing the player characters to reset their daily abilities and healing surges, and things can get a little hairy but victory is still the most foreseeable outcome. Skill challenges as presented in the DMG and the errata introduce a significant chance of defeat without a mechanical means of building up player tension.

Some assumptions I work with when doing prep-work for a campaign:

  1. The characters will be advancing through levels during the course of the story.
  2. As characters advance in level, they become more competant.
  3. Players generally prefer to have their characters succeed overall.
  4. It is important that the characters be competant enough to have a reasonable chance at success.
  5. Success that comes too easily is rarely satisfactory.
  6. It is important that the characters not be so competant as to make success trivial.
  7. When preparing for play, some preparation for the players bypassing or failing in regards to certain xp-yielding challenges should be taken to address points 4 and 6.

If I am to incorporate one or two skill challenges per game session, each worth the experience points rewarded for a level-appropriate tactical engagement, I face the very real possibility of the players failing several encounters. If I pepper in skill challenges every second fight or so, the player characters will advance a level after six fights. That tends to take two to three game sessions for my group. Fail one of those skill challenges and the rhythm gets broken up. Instead of doing the character advancement busywork at the beginning or end of a session, maybe the XP threshhold is broken mid-session. No, thank you, but I still want to use skill challenges.

Does this mean I should force the players to succeed their skill checks? Oh Lord, no. When players roll badly they know it. Just as they expect their characters to be awesome when they roll a 20, they expect their characters to suck when they roll 1. Rather than stonewall on a skill failure (or series of failures), I add complications and require that everbody gets in on it.

Skill can be fun, too

“Everybody grab a d20, somebody give me a Nature check, somebody else give me a Perception check, everybody else give me either an Endurance or Athletics check.” The players pick who’s responsible for which end of things. If most of them succeed, a consequence is avoided. Consequences could involve the passage of an undue amount of time: you found a good route through the swamp, but Mr. Shinypants Paladin got stuck in the muck about a half-mile in.

If enough failures amass over multiple passes through the group (let everybody have a chance to roll at least a second time; people love a chance at redemption), they fail the skill challenge and are faced with an additional combat encounter to make up the XP gap and slap them on the wrist a little. After Mr. Shinypants Paladin got stuck in the muck, Mr. Smartypants Wizard picked the wrong path, and Ms. Stabbity Rogue didn’t notice the Gnoll ambush before it was too late. Oops.

Depending on the nature of the challenge, it may be more or less easy to come up with a narrative justification for this. How does haggling with a merchant over the price of apples result in fisticuffs in heroic fantasy? Pretty easily, really, but in many of those cases there’s really no reason to pick up dice in the first place or give an experience point reward for a success.

4 Responses to “Skill Challenges in Practice”

  1. Greybunny Says:

    To start at the end and work my way backwards: Skill challenges should of course never be used for trivial events that can be handled with pure roleplay or a single dice roll like haggling with a merchant. Haggling with a fence over how much the loot you stole from the Temple of Ioun? Worthy of a skill challenge, with failure not only meaning a poor price, but being ratted out to the priesthood, or taking long enough that the city watch was able to track them down.

    On failure: I’d argue that combats actually feature lots of failure. In my experience so far with 4e it’s not at all uncommon for one or two PCs to drop during a fight, leading to a desperate scramble by the rest of the PCs to get them back on their feet before they die. The problem with skill challenges is that there isn’t a ‘get back up’ mechanic like there is in combat.. but they do allow for incremental success.

    I tend to reward partial experience for skill challenges. A skill challenge is worth xp as one equal level monster per level of complexity, which translates to one monster per two successes above 2. Therefore I figure only a failure with less than four successes is a total failure. Failure past that point means they get at least some advantage from the challenge to offset the penalty for failure. They don’t get the price they wanted, but they get a little more than bottom dollar. They don’t reach the keep before the reinforcements do, but they’re scattered and not all inside the gates. They don’t manage to catch up with the thief during the rooftop chase, but they see him heading into his hideout. Etc etc.

    I don’t worry overmuch about when the xp line is crossed. We always do character advancement between sessions, no matter what. If your group does it differently, though, it’s easy enough to add a monster here and there to encounters to toughen them up as part of the penalty for failure, or introduce some smaller challenges (traps are great for this) along the way.

    Another thing I do is not use complexity 5 challenges in most cases. Anything that complex usually works better by being broken down into a series of smaller challenges. If I do use a comp 5 challenge, I assume the PCs are going to fail. The challenge at that point becomes how far they can get before the point of no return, and design encounters and challenges for afterwards that depend on how well they did at the grand challenge.

  2. Burrowowl Says:

    There are lots of small failures in combat. A PC’s attack roll fails, a damage roll is lower than hoped for, a saving throw is missed, a portion of the party runs out of hit points. The end result of the combat, the score in the “wins vs. losses” column is almost always in favor of the player characters. One or two PCs rendered unconcious is explicitly outweighed by 100% of the NPC villains falling or fleeing.

    Incremental results are encouraged by some of the magazine articles and adventures WoTC has since published, but skill challenges as presented in the books are in serious need of adjustment for my purposes. Proportionate degrees of success and failure is something I try to embrace and would recommend to any DM.

    Regarding directly scaling the experience reward to the numeric complexity of the challenge, I like it. As for breaking up complicated challenges into a number of smaller challenges, I’m all for it, at least as window-dressing. The most successful skill challenges I’ve run have almost always been complexity 4 or 5, and presented as two or more phases of action (e.g. investigate a crime, perform some preparation for an expedition, backtrack the perpetrators). These would certainly be doable by breaking them down into two or three complexity 1 or 2 challenges, with success in the early challenges resulting in advantages during the subsequent challenges.

    Your aversion to complexity 5 challenges sounds a lot like my aversion to the suggested maximum number of failed checks. I’d much rather keep the complexity and ditch the high risk of failure.

  3. Burrowowl Says:

    To clarify that last statement: a complexity 5 skill challenge as presented in the DMG requires 12 successes before three failures (after errata). This sounds like a lot, but when dealing with a recommended party size of 5 player characters, this is only three passes around the table.

    The most successful skill challenge I’ve run had three players and about seven passes around the table. Successful in terms of everybody at the table being engaged and entertained, that is.

  4. msilver Says:

    Failures in combat? yep