Skill Challenges – A Necessary Follow-up

5

September 10, 2010 by deadorcs

So…it seems I wrote a little blog post a few days ago, explaining how I wasn’t a fan of skill challenges, because of the “mechanical” nature of the structure, and the way they are presented in the rules.  I received several great comments on the post (thanks, everyone!), but I wanted to clear up a few issues of concern the post generated.


First. I never intended to imply anything specific regarding how most DMs run their skill challenges.  It’s quite apparent to me that most DMs ARE NOT running skill challenges as they are presented in the source material.  I should have made that clearer in the post.  I’m glad to see the mechanical nature of the presented skill challenges is being interpreted by DMs as a framework for the encounter, NOT a method for running the encounter.

Second.  I want to re-emphasize that I think Quinn Murphy’s (@gamefiend) work in skill challenges is some of the best stuff I’ve seen.  Contrary to what might have been interpreted in my original post, Quinn has been able to take the original concept of the skill challenge and stretch it to some amazing places.  Please go read his blog (At-Will) and see what I mean!

Third.  I had a brief discussion about this topic with Sarah Darkmagic (of the New Hampshire Darkmagics).  She told me (and I think it’s good advice) that while my “re-writes” of the example skill challenges I wrote were nice, she thought it might be even more helpful, if some general advice regarding running alternatives to skill challenges were presented.  That way, new DMs (on which she’s an expert) can get a better handle on what I’m talking about.  It’s a good idea, and I’ll mull it over.  Some of the comments I received on the original post seem to indicate that I was still working with skill challenges, I was just defining them in another way.  That point leads me to this one:

Fourth.  On the DM Roundtable Tuesday, our group was lucky to have Chris Sims join us.  I don’t need to restate his RPG credits here.  Chris was nice enough to drop by.  During our discussion on skill challenges, he made what I thought was an important point.  “Skill Challenge” is just a name.  You don’t call combat encounters “Power Challenges”.  I think (and of course, correct me if I’m wrong), that what Chris was saying, is that any kind of an encounter that’s not a combat encounter could be considered a “Skill Challenge”.  That doesn’t mean it has to be framed or spelled out with specific mechanics.  For my part in this discussion, I need to embrace that.  It’s easy to get caught up in the name, and I think it’s easy for new DMs to perhaps do the same.

Until next time…


Game excellently with one another.

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5 thoughts on “Skill Challenges – A Necessary Follow-up

  1. Anonymous says:

    Centauri would love to email you, always appreciate help, but how, there is no email for you here?Ab

  2. centauri says:

    Just losing a healing surge will rarely be that interesting. Many skill challenges have more interesting results for success and failure. Feel free to email me with questions.

  3. Arbanax says:

    Firstly I am following this discussion with interest. Thank you for putting your thoughts down. I'm a newbie DM to 4e having returned after many years from 1st Ed. I have been running a group of 3.5 fans through 4e in the scales of war AP which has so far gone quite well. On our gaming night this week we encountered our first skill challenge – officially. I say that because throughout the two previous encounters the gnome cleric was acting more like Errol Flynn, jumping out of windows and doing all sorts of out of the box stuff to get into the action. So I felt as if skill challenges were happening in an impromptu way. Roll an athletics check, roll under your Dex to see if you slip etc (this is a throw back to another game I play, so I often go to prime attributes rather than skills sometimes). And all this is before we came to the 'planned' skill check. My big worry about skill checks is that you cannot account for what the players will do. So when they roll really well, work well and come up with great ideas to overcome the challenge – I found I departed more and more from the skill challenge as stated. No problem you say – I'd agree but see on. The skill challenge was to question a captured Hobgoblin. The party worked as a whole, and got exceptionally good rolls. But after four successes and no failures, I felt as if there was no reason for this Hobgoblin, who the party had 'won' over, wouldn't tell them what they wanted to know. I thought that in this context what more can I say to hold out just for more two successful skill checks. Also I didn't like the idea of asking for rolls just to fulfil the checks that skill challenge is supposed to get. It simple felt and flowed better to go with the information and get moving again. But this raises all sorts of questions about the nature of skill challenges as they've been presented (especially in the Dungeon scenarios I've read) I've been worried about critical failure. Skills checks seem so binary, with not enough thought given to total or near total failure. Certainly they way their currently written often makes failure, seem pointless – just a loss of a healing surge. Sure that could be painful later on, but it hardly feels like the whole thing was just a speed bump and undermines the importance and value a skill check being their in the first place. I realised that skills checks scared me for this reason. On the one hand how do you prepare for what players might do and secondly how can you advance the story meaningfully despite critical failure in a skill check – sometimes through no fault of their own. We all know that in good stories there are often setbacks, but this is co-operative endeavour, if failure happens, knowing how to handle what should happen next, without making the who purpose and outcome of the skill check pointless, seems to me to be as important as success especially for newbie DM's like me.

  4. centauri says:

    Chris is right. You created two skill challenges in your last blog. You're clearly a fan of them. What you're not a fan of is klunky mechanics, and you see the DMG skill challenges as klunky. Fortunately, they're not inherently klunky, even as written in the DMG. The example play session they provide shows that pretty well. They can be run just like any skill-based encounter of the past. If you'd like, I can run a play-by-post Danger Room to demonstrate.

  5. Callin says:

    One thing I dislike about Skill Challenges is the way WotC is using them. In their adventures, Skill Challenges are presented as mechanics. They come across very "roll this skill, get this result, then do it a lot more"; or at least that is my interpretation. There seems to be some sort of mandate that every one of their adventures has to include several Skill Challenges. Often these Skill Challenges seem tacked on; they seem forced and not natural at all. One example springs to mind (Well of Demons from one of their modules)…the party is advancing through a dungeon and encounter some ghosts who can provide information about the dungeon if the party can pass the Skill Challenge. Rules are in place for diplomacy but then they also include using Athletics to impress the ghosts with their physical prowess. All I can imagine is Jack Palance at the Oscars doing push ups…"see ghosts, I am mighty, I can do push ups!" To me is seemed like they threw in another skill for the characters who would be left out of a "talking" challenge, but it seemed so out of place and silly to me. Far too mechanical and not intuitive.

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