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:
- The characters will be advancing through levels during the course of the story.
- As characters advance in level, they become more competant.
- Players generally prefer to have their characters succeed overall.
- It is important that the characters be competant enough to have a reasonable chance at success.
- Success that comes too easily is rarely satisfactory.
- It is important that the characters not be so competant as to make success trivial.
- 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.
“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.