Skill Challenges: Threat or Menace?

This has been bugging me a while, so I’m finally going to rant about it and get it out of my system.

Skill Challenges are what D&D 4e has in place of roleplaying.  And no, I’m not really kidding.  As a method of injecting some pseudo-RP in a tabletop miniatures skirmish game, they make perfect sense: a series of discrete, finite dice rolls so you can get quickly get past the RP and on with the real business of pushing minis around, and to provide some meta-game tension to the “boring” process of thinking of solutions to problems and playing them out.  As an aid to actual RP, they discourage what you want to encourage (creativity, experimentation, thinking as the character), and encourage what you want to discourage (meta-gaming and thinking inside the box).  I think it’s particularly telling that as originally released, even after all the playtesting 4e got, the Skill Challenge numbers were utterly broken and had to be rewritten and released as errata.

The basic mechanism is that you take something that would otherwise be RPed out and replace it with a Skill Challenge of a particular difficulty: you need to score N successes before M failures (N >M in most of the examples I’ve seen) or you fail.  N and M, and the difficulty of the skill rolls (DC in D&D terms) are determined by the difficulty of the Skill Challenge.  The Challenge will then list the Skills that can be applied and their DCs (at least in terms of easy, moderate, and hard), as well as how many successes (or failures) a check is worth towards completing the Skill Challenge (default 1).  Typically the list of allowed Skill checks, or even whether they can undertake a Skill Challenge, won’t be shared with the players, which is where people get fooled into thinking that this is somehow a form of RP instead of a replacement for it.  The process of discovering whether there’s a Skill Challenge and what Skills are allowed is superficially similar to the discussion you might have around the table of plans and approaches to try, but there’s a world of difference under the hood.

What’s wrong with that?

  • The biggest thing is the “Before M failures” rule.  That changes it from an abstraction to a mini-game.  The difference is that an abstraction simplifies things by ignoring irrelevant (hopefully) features to focus on getting reasonable outcomes, mini-games introduce features that have no counterpart in what you’re modeling and no purpose other than to make the mechanics of what you’re doing game-able.  In D&D hit points are an abstraction…they ignore things like exactly how or where you were hit (or even whether you were hit and actually wounded or just battered, bruised and tuckered out) to focus on the potential outcomes after a certain amount of battle: defeated, unharmed, victorious but weakened and less likely to win the next battle.  The fact that they’re a very high-level abstraction has caused a lot of complaint over the years, and prompted countless attempts to fix them or replace them with a different abstraction, but at least they don’t introduce extra new complications in the form of how do you massage your hit-points to use them most efficiently.  The Skill Check failures rule doesn’t represent anything in the game world (if you’re trying to track goblins through the woods, it doesn’t suddenly become impossible because your companion back in town failed to remember some detail about local politics), it’s just an artificial mechanism to introduce tension and limit the number of things the players can try. Arbitrarily limiting the number of things the players can try is bad. If they’re not expending resources or up against a deadline, cutting off their creativity is the last thing you want to be doing in an RPG, even if it makes perfect sense in a board game.
  • The fact that it’s a mini-game encourages/requires meta-gaming.  The order in which you try the tests is crucial, so rather than leading off with the skills that are the most relevant to the task you’re trying to accomplish you have to lead off with the skills you’re best at.  It’s the codification of the old joke Q: If your keys are over there, why are you looking here?  A: Because the light’s better here.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s something your character would attempt, what matters is how good the character is at it and the fact that if he fails he can screw up the Challenge for the entire party.
  • It discourages improvisation.   Dividing the world into things for which there are Skill Challenges and things for which there aren’t pushes the players towards the courses of action for which there are Skill Challenges and discourages them from trying things for which there aren’t (this is true even if the GM is willing and able to generate Skill Challenges on the fly).   Also, because Skill Challenges are defined in terms of making skill rolls you’re discouraged from thinking outside the box and substituting a non-skill roll approach to the same task (e.g. if you can make a Climbing roll to gain a success by getting to the top of a tree and spotting something, you ought to be able to do the same thing with an innate or spell-given ability to fly, or to send your flying familiar aloft.  The GM could just rule those as successes, but that doesn’t seem to be the way Challenges are designed.  The point isn’t the tasks you need to accomplish, it’s whether you make the required rolls).  Finally, by providing a list of approved skills and their uses to count towards the Challenge, it discourages using substitutes (e.g. if the Challenge calls for intimidating someone, what about persuading, bribing or seducing them instead?) or trying oddball or long-shot things.
  • By reducing everything to a series of die-rolls it eliminates any of the back-and-forth and progressive discovery and reasoning that are the essence of role playing.  This is an old complaint along the lines of if characters can just roll Diplomacy, then what’s the point of playing out conversations?  But it’s as valid now as it was then…if your game allows you to substitute skill rolls for interacting with NPCs and making actual deductions based on your knowledge instead of using them as a supplement or a fall-back if you get stuck, then you’re devaluing roleplaying.  Now 4e has made devaluing roleplaying one of its key components.

Let’s take a look at actual play, by someone wildly enthusiastic about Skill Challenges (note, I’m not criticizing Emptythreat15 or his GM at all; they had a lot of fun, which is what counts, but I’m arguing that they could have just as much fun and more often with a system that doesn’t get in the way of what they’re trying to do):

    • My male dwarf normally gets decent initiative; however, my female is cursed to having initiative rolls of less than 10. So my dwarf waded into combat with the hideous dogs and I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if we could improve the attitude of that boar and have it help us out…we don’t have Handle Animal anymore…but hell, maybe the DM will think of something suitable’.

      So my turn came around, and I explain to the DM that I want to undergo a skill challenge to improve the attitude of the boar, and what do you know, the skill challenge “Taming The Beast” was listed in the rules for the adventure. Sweet.

That right there is enough to make a grown man weep.  The player comes up with a really neat idea, and what’s he excited about?  The module gives him permission to try it.

This was turning out to be no easy task though. 4 successes before 2 failures? This thing was just built for failure. Fortunately for me though, I was allowed to use the better of my Heal or Nature checks. Asking a cleric to make a Heal check is like asking a clown to make a balloon giraffe, so I was pretty excited. Much to my chagrin, my clerics +11 Heal modifier does very little when you roll a 2 on a d20. One failure already. Not good.

The next two rounds, a 15 and 16 consecutively, making 26 and 27 Heal checks, and successful ones at that. The next turn, two have a bit of a safety net, her brother, the paladin, came over and aided her on her checks, giving her a +2. She made the next check with a roll of 10, and spent an action point for her last skill check, rolling a 10 once again. The boar was calm, and finally, so was I.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Practically everything, though at least this is a situation where it’s conceivable that botched attempts could make the plan impossible to carry out (fiddle with the wounds unsuccessfully long enough and the boar could be too enraged to befriend even if you eventually get it right) .  Note the way the player meta-games which skills to apply, and when to get the second character involved.  Note also how the player was channeled into a solution that involved making skill rolls, even with two characters that have magical healing abilities that would have made perfect sense in terms of game-world and genre logic to use at that point.  I’d also be inclined to hold it against the system that what seems to drive the tension is the roles themselves, rather than, say, the fact that a fight is raging all around them and they’re spending time fiddling around with the caged animal while their companions are fighting for their lives.

Now imagine playing out the same scene without being anchored down by the Skill Challenge system.  There’s nothing they accomplished that couldn’t have been done by straight role-playing, unless you just don’t trust the GM.  The only difference (besides the fact that the player might have made different choices about whether to involve the second character or use magical healing without the meta-game considerations) is that the task would be open-ended…the player would have an additional decision to make if the first two turns didn’t succeed about whether to continue (and perhaps up the stakes by using special abilities) or give it up and help with the fight.  All the Skill Challenge system does here is dumb it down.

Let’s look at another example, this one a bit more elaborate, and told from the point of view of a GM designing a Skill Challenge.  Again, I’m not meaning to disparage what At Will wrote, on the contrary I’m using this as an example because I think it’s a good Skill Challenge, that would be better if you dumped the whole Skill Challenge mechanic.

You have to go read it, because otherwise I’d end up quoting the whole thing.

So, now that you’ve read it, here’s what’s wrong.   There is, as I believe is typical, no justification whatsoever for the mechanism itself.  There’s just no earthly reason that failing to remember something about the history of the area, or to have a flash of insight, should have any bearing at all on whether you can intimidate a child into telling you what you want to know.  But if you try and fail at those two things as well as using Diplomacy on the villagers, you’ve got no reason to talk to the child…it becomes impossible for you to get information out of him.  The fact that Intimidate is the only skill usable on the child is another failing, in my book…it doesn’t matter if one of the characters is the motherly sort with oodles of Charisma and Persuasion or a spell like Charm Person (or whatever the 4e equivalent is)…that approach is something you can’t even attempt.  In the comments At Will makes it clearer that he’d allow you to use appropriate magic to bypass some or all of the Challenge or to roleplay some of the encounters (but he’d make whether that accomplishes anything contingent on the die-roll…all the talk is just window-dressing), but what advantage is there to even using the Challenge mechanic then?

Here’s how the Old School would do it (in this case, Old School refers to all the way back to 3.5):

Kobolds have kidnapped a group of children from the village the PCs are currently in.  The players must gather information to find out who did it, and find their way to the location in order to rescue the children before the kobolds can sacrifice them to a dragon.

If you talk to the villagers, they don’t know much, but they know that they miss their children and when they went missing.  They were out in the fields…; Someone does report that they thought they saw more children than normal playing for a while…

One child who is still in the village seems to know something. The child doesn’t want to confess because he’s afraid they might come after him if he tells someone, but if the adventurers can persuade or intimidate him somehow he saw some creatures that look like small dragon-people.

Somebody who knows this area and its history will know that this area has not seen too many hard times, but goblins and kobolds can always be a menace. Goblins haven’t been seen around this area for some time…

Examining the tracks in the field, and near some of the houses,  reveals that fairly small creatures kidnapped these children, and they headed North out of the forest.  Appropriate knowledge will further reveal that  creatures are most likely kobolds judging by the tracks.  Appropriate knowledge recalls that kobolds favor mountainous terrain.

Gaining a good overview of the territory (by climbing up to a advantageous spot high among the trees, flight, clairvoyance) grants a good view of the terrain, and suggests three areas that the kidnappers might have gone: a mountain slope, a ravine to the South, or into the dense center of the forest.

And so forth.  Essentially, all the work that went into devising the Skill Challenge is valuable, and can indicate the kinds of information that you can get by talking to the various people and examining the scene.   What’s the matter with Skill Challenges is the mechanism itself, not the putting extra thought and care into how various skills and abilities can be used in the scenario.  You want to strip out extraneous requirements that only specific skills be used (except perhaps noting things that could give a particular approach an advantage, such as so-and-so being a coward and easily intimidated), and beef it up with additional information so that they players themselves can reason about the information they uncovered (the combination of the tracks heading North out of the forest and the overview of the area showing only one likely place to the North, or the overview revealing the mountain and the knowledge check revealing that kobolds like mountains).  You don’t want to artificially prolong it, by requiring a certain number of dice rolls before they can proceed–if they think they’ve figured out that it was kobolds and they’re likely to be in the mountains, by all means let them head for the mountains to take a look around.  You also don’t want to cut them short by saying, oops, you’ve failed, no point in trying to gather more information or recall anything further.  You most emphatically do not want to discourage them trying oddball or long-shot approaches by penalizing them if they fail.  If you want to put them under time pressure, then attach amounts of time that it takes to try different things, and let them decide which they are willing to spend time on and whether they can split the tasks up more efficiently, don’t just arbitrarily rule that failing to recall a fact about kobolds chews up just as much of the day (moves them closer to failure) as canvassing the neighborhood and talking to all the farmers.   For role-playing purposes you can easily get everything that is good about them, and avoid most of the bad, by dropping the Skill Challenge mechanic altogether and just using the list as a guideline to the kinds of things the players can roleplay out.

Skill Challenges take what was a reasonable idea, of examining a situation and making note of all the obvious (and some less obvious) ways that you could use certain skills to obtain information, advance your agenda, or solve a problem and formalizes it into a mini-game that basically piths all that was good and fun about roleplaying to fit it within the framework of a board-game.  The entire Skill Challenge system of collective accomplishment and punishment pushes the players more strongly than ever before into treating the party as a Borg collective of drones with various specializations controlled by a hive-mind, rather than a group of individuals with their own psychologies and approaches to life.  Think about it. There is simply nothing in-character that could be said by one character to another as to why he shouldn’t attempt to recall what he learned about kobolds until some other character elsewhere has either succeeded or failed in picking a lock or climbing a tree (or vice-versa).  Skill Challenges make ordinary role-play harmful to the party, and for no reason at all other than it to satisfy the arbitrary strictures imposed by the mechanics.  If nothing else, keeping the Skill Challenges and dropping the “before M failures” clause would be a step back towards making them at least compatible with role-playing.

22 thoughts on “Skill Challenges: Threat or Menace?

  1. Tommi says:

    I haven’t played 4e, but have used rules similar to skill challenges. They can be used well. Here’s how I’d do the tracking kobolds thing:

    1. Set what the people know as as the examples, set difficulty of what approaches I think the might try. This gives a good basis for dealing with other appraoches. (Actually, I’d probably just impro the whole deal, but this is how I would prepare it, where I inclined to prepare things.) Magic would give automatic successes or allow rolling a skill related to magic in order to get successes.

    2. In play, once the players are clearly committed to their characters figuring out the situation, I’d say that this is a skill challenge, a successes before b failures. “What do you do?”

    3. Players tell what their characters do. The actions are either abstracted into mere die rolls or played out in detail, depending on pacing and how interesting the actions are deemed to be and so on. In case of something being abstracted, the player must explain what the character is actually doing and only then is a skill rolled. In case of detailed approach the thing is first played through, then at suitable point roll the skill check.


    a) Asking the locals. In case of failure a red herring is provided (people have been seeing a monster in the lake); it might be an actual monster, but not the one causing trouble. In case of success, correct info is provided.

    b) Knowledge skills. The character remembers something similar having happened some hundred years ago. If the characters act on that information, then the skill check is rolled to see if the knowledge is correct and relevant. The key here is that the info must be acted upon; asking the locals who know what happened back then or seeing if similar clues can be found again or the like. In case of failure the situations are different, no help from historical lore.

    Skill challenges provide an easy to add complications to the task at hand; eventually, the player characters will find the kobolds, but how many victims do they get or how prepared they are or is their captive still alive when they get there?

  2. Scott says:

    You have almost completely misunderstood the skill challenge.

    That’s not your failing exclusively; many people seem to have. (I too cringed at the Dice Monkey post you quoted.)

    It’s still a misinterpretation, though. Skill challenges shouldn’t replace roleplay, but supplement them. You don’t use them instead of roleplaying, you use them instead of the simple skill or attribute rolls you would in earlier editions. The people who do use them as a substitute for roleplay are the same people who reduced such rolls in previous editions to a purely mechanical level.

    The problem is not with the system, but with the players.

  3. Joshua says:

    @Tommi – even in your approach, the “before b failures” is an RP-breaker; unless you’re concealing the mechanics from the players, knowing that they’re only allowed b failures before they’re screwed pushes them away from doing what their characters would likely do and into doing what they have the highest rolls in.

    @Scott – it’s not a problem with the players if they correctly assess the consequences of using a particular mechanic. RP isn’t just flavor text you wrap around die-rolls, it’s the choices the characters make. The Skill Challenge mechanic punishes players for making in-character choices of what skills to invoke in what order and rewards them for Borging. Given that, it doesn’t really matter whether they invoke the rolls by a bare demand to check against a skill or an elaborate soliloquy that carefully avoids mentioning mechanics at all. As long as that system is the resolution mechanism they have perverse incentives as to how they approach problems.

  4. Scott says:

    Um… not really, no.

    Players *always* try to solve problems by using the abilities their characters are good at, rather than the ones they’re not good at. This is true in any edition. Wizards will typically look to spells and knowledge skills first. Fighters will look to weapons and feats of strength or athleticism. Rogues will use one of their myriad skills. This is not unique to 4e.

    The only way a skill challenge is *really* different from previous editions is that there’s a structure whereby the entire party can/should participate, and the success or failure of the attempt rides not on a single roll or two, but on a number of rolls.

    Persuading an NPC in 1e: Roleplay + Charisma check.

    Persuading an NPC in 3e: Roleplay + Bluff or Diplomacy check. Or maybe Intimidate.

    Persuading an NPC in 4e: Roleplay + skill challenge, in which the party might use Diplomacy, Intimidate, Bluff, Insight, or even other skills. (Assuming it’s important; otherwise a single skill check still works. You don’t run a skill challenge every time a PC wants to haggle over the price of rations.)

    In all three cases, a bad GM and/or bad players can skip the “roleplay” part and reduce it to a die roll. And in all three cases, the dice are unnecessary if the roleplay is convincing enough.

    Skill challenges change *nothing* about the roleplay.

  5. Joshua says:

    @Scott – perhaps you’ve never encountered actual roleplay then. In my experience, players will almost always begin by seeing if any of their relevant knowledge skills have any bearing on the matter at hand. That right there is enough to fail most three-strikes-and-you’re-out Skill Challenges. But even if you give a pass to knowledge checks, real role-players approach problems from the point of view of the psychology of their character, not by checking the difficulty against their skill. If the character is a schmoozer, the character will try to schmooze the village headman, even if you indicate that the headman is going to be a hard-sell (hard difficulty check). And players of characters separated with no way to communicate will often refrain from coordinating their actions with the rest of the party, which is another good way to fail a Skill Challenge. These problems are inherent in the Skill Challenge mechanics, and denying them won’t make them go away. They do not solve the problem of involving everyone at the table–they exacerbate it by making it necessary that characters who have a good chance of failing a check sit on their hands (at least until all other avenues are exhausted), even when in the game world making the check ought to be harmless. If you want to involve everyone at the table, stop punishing them for getting involved. To use your example, Rogues might want to try to do Rogue-like things to solve a problem, but if those things have a lower probability of succeeding than somebody else’s skill at some completely unrelated task (whether because of the exact skill needed or the high difficulty) then under the Skill Challenge system they had better not even try or the whole party will be punished.

    If you want to defend Skill Challenges, deal with the specifics of my objections, don’t just repeat your general assertion that they’re really no different from any other skill mechanic. Talk about how they would be used in such a way so as not to punish the party when a character tries something that makes perfect sense and is completely in character but has a low chance of succeeding. Maybe give some example of how you’d set up a Skill Challenge so that the M failures rule doesn’t come across as a GM smack: Stop roleplaying now, you’ve failed. Give some kind of theoretical justification for why arbitrarily cutting them off after M failures is a good thing. Do something to show you’ve actually read and understood what I’m saying.

    You keep writing as if my objections are that you used to engage in conversation or description of what you do to justify the die-roll, and now you’re somehow forced to just declare “I roll against Diplomacy” but if you read the original post or my comments since, that’s not it at all. I cheerfully acknowledge that you can in fact permit or even require any amount of description and acting out of dialog before the GM makes the roll, or even have the quality of that play have an impact on the role. That’s totally beside the point, which is that the presence of the mechanics that underlie the RP–and in particular the M-strikes rule–has to influence what you’re going to choose to try and describe or act out, and that influence is going to be for the worse.

  6. Scott says:

    Perhaps you’re not making your objection clear, then. I’ve been responding to your mistaken assertion that “Skill Challenges are what D&D 4e has in place of roleplaying.” Of course, since I’ve apparently never encountered actual roleplay in a quarter-century of gaming, I suppose I should just accept your words on faith…

    I could offer all of those things you demand, but I’m not going to. You’ve clearly already decided to dismiss whatever I might have to say. I will, however, attempt once more to demonstrate where your logic is failing:

    “If the character is a schmoozer, the character will try to schmooze the village headman, even if you indicate that the headman is going to be a hard-sell (hard difficulty check).” Yes, exactly. That’s what I’m saying: The character will try that whether you’re playing 4e, 3e, 1e, or OD&D, because that’s the approach the character “knows he’s good at.” (Whether he actually is good at it or not, objectively speaking, is a different story.)

    And, whether you’re playing 4e, 3e, 1e, or OD&D, the character is likely to fail, if the headman is schmooze-resistant. And logically, that failure will have negative consequences of some sort for the party.

    You are arguing that in 4e, and 4e alone, the player is compelled not to try schmoozing because of the likely negative consequences.

    Why do the likely negative consequences in OD&D, 1e, and 3e not discourage this metagaming player? Especially since the consequences are arguably *more* likely in older editions, where a single reaction roll might determine the headman’s response rather than the multiple rolls of the skill challenge?

    If your answer is that roleplay can obviate dice in those editions, my response is that the same is true of 4e.

    I think the root of your issue is your misconception that “The Skill Check failures rule doesn’t represent anything in the game world….” It does. In the case of the schmoozing, it represents the NPC getting fed up with the character’s transparent flattery and refusing to deal with them further, or dealing with them only on terms that are unfavorable to the party, or whatever else you determined the consequence of failure would be when you set up the skill challenge. (There always is one, in a skill challenge, and you always know what it is in advance, even if the players don’t.)

    You also appear to believe that “because Skill Challenges are defined in terms of making skill rolls you’re discouraged from thinking outside the box and substituting a non-skill roll approach to the same task (e.g. if you can make a Climbing roll to gain a success by getting to the top of a tree and spotting something, you ought to be able to do the same thing with an innate or spell-given ability to fly, or to send your flying familiar aloft. The GM could just rule those as successes, but that doesn’t seem to be the way Challenges are designed.” That’s just plain incorrect. The DMG explicitly mentions that powers can be used to obtain automatic successes or to remove failures. (It’s on page 74, left column, toward the top of the page. While you’re there, check the “Reward Clever Ideas” section on the following page, too.)

    “Maybe give some example of how you’d set up a Skill Challenge so that the M failures rule doesn’t come across as a GM smack: Stop roleplaying now, you’ve failed.” You are also apparently under the mistaken impression that the end of a skill challenge means the end of a roleplaying encounter. It does not, necessarily. The DMG’s pretty clear about that, too. Failure leads to other challenges within the adventure (not necessarily skill challenges), not to a halt.

    Of course, if the consequence of failure was “the headman storms out of the room in a huff,” then further interaction with the headman might take some planning on the characters’ part. But that’s their fault for offending him with their sycophant ways. They’ll just have to figure out a way to get his respect back, or at least his attention. Just as if they failed those rolls in the earlier editions.

    In fact, you’re writing as though players are expected to win skill challenges in order to proceed with the adventure. This is not true. Just like they won’t make every Charisma roll in 1e or Diplomacy check in 3e, they won’t succeed in every skill challenge in 4e. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

    Anyway, it’s clear you don’t like 4e. That’s fine; it’s not for everyone. But in this case, you’re not judging it based on its actual content, but rather based on a misapprehension about what it says.

  7. Joshua says:

    @Scott- But failure to schmooze the headman doesn’t carry any consequences in a Skill Challenge…unless it’s the failure that puts you over the limit for the challenge. Unless as GM you’re imposing additional penalties on the party not only for failing the challenge in total but for each individual failure (and what a way to encourage RP that would be: you miss your diplomacy roll by 1, so he’s sickened by your transparent flattery and storms out in disgust). In 4e, and in 4e alone, the character is discouraged from attempting actions (even consulting his own memory) not because a failure might have logical and foreseeable consequences (less cooperation in the future from the headman, which might or might not matter depending on whether there are other sources of information) but because failure adds to an invisible tally that causes global failure for no reason whatsoever. Failing to get the information from the headman has no logical relationship to whether you can see anything from the tallest tree, or if your knowledge of the ways of kobolds gives you a hint as to the type of terrain they might prefer–but the Skill Challenge interlocks them all together in a senseless muddle. If talking to the headman fails, then no point in climbing the tree or trying to recall information about kobolds–the bad stuff (whatever it is) will happen anyway.

    The idea that players might prefer not to fail challenges doesn’t require that the game be declared over if they do fail, only that failing the challenge has consequences that they want to avoid. If you assume that they actually care whether the succeed or not, then they’re under pressure to take the actions that maximize their global success rather than be true to their individual characters even when in a sane game that character’s action could only help. In 4e, unlike in every edition prior and every other roleplaying game I can think of, global success can best be achieved by having characters not take perfectly logical in-character actions if some other character somewhere else has a higher chance of success. In 4e there’s no such thing as you might as well try: you had better not try unless you’ve exhausted every other avenue that has a better check first. It is different in kind from saying in every game, a bad interaction with the headman can have aftereffects where it’s harder to deal with the headman in the future or he takes some action in reprisal. In 4e a bad interaction with the headman (not even one where he storms out of the room in disgust, but just one where he’s pleasantly disposed but he can’t remember anything that will help) can turn the universe against you, so that your researcher over in the university hits a blank wall and your scout climbing the tree sees nothing useful.

  8. Mike Lee - Living Forgotten Realms Point of Contact, Southeast USA says:

    This post is everything that marks a bad skill challenge.

    Written well, a skill challenge should provide a backbone and objective to RP. It should inspire the PCs to take action, and give examples of what kind of action (and the appropriate skills) the PCs can take. Going off the page, and challenging the expectations of a skill challenge are good things.

    Done right, a skill challenge prevents situations where the “sandbox” is a desert, and the PCs don’t know what to do. A good skill challenge has an objective: Get the help of the duke, survive overland travel in a hostile swamp, or infiltrate a cult, for example. The skills with descriptions are EXAMPLE actions that the PCs can take. If the PCs think outside the box, and take actions that are automatically successful (the duke owes me a favor, or I have these cultist robes) should earn an automatic success. If the PCs find a way to trump the challenge with a clever idea, they should also be rewarded.

    So done right skill challenges enhance RP by giving it context and purpose. And it quantifies the effort by awarding XP. Some players don’t need any help in RP, but for many a skill challenge provides “hooks”. Players less inclined to RP, are drawn into it.

  9. Joshua says:

    @Mike Lee- unfortunately, there’s no amount of being well-written or doing it right in the world that can keep the M-strikes-and-you’re-out rule from preventing characters who by all logic should be able to contribute from getting frozen out or–if they insist on participating anyway–increasing the party’s chance of failure. If the rule was simply that you had to accumulate N successes to pass, then everybody could participate, and you could indeed use it to provide hooks or focus. But they had to make a mini-game of it….

  10. Tommi says:

    I was kind of busy, sorry for the late reply.

    Note how in my example I had every action take insignificant amounts of time. Hence, accumulating failures means that time is taken.

    The challenge only works reasonably if characters act together, but this is a problem specific to some challenges.

    If disarming a trap or some other time-sensitive situation where everyone must be nearby to do anything is represented by a challenge, then the problem disappears.

  11. Joshua says:

    @Tommi – Only using Skill Challenges for truly co-operative tasks where everybody is in close proximity does solve the “spooky action at a distance” problem, but it retains the “You’ve only got a 14, so don’t even blink” problem.

    Suppose you need 3 successes before 1 failure (common enough…if you need 8 before 3 you have to have at least two stretches where you’re going for 3 before 1). If the party’s relevant skills, assuming equal DC, are 18, 17, 16, 14, 13 under the old style you could just say “Everybody roll”. Even if you were totaling successes, you could still say Everybody roll. But with the Skill Challenge system if you do anything except say “Top three roll, the rest of you do nothing” the party is more likely to fail…and by the time the top three have rolled, the Skill Challenge has either been passed or failed. I honestly don’t see the value in that, and I’m skeptical that anybody else does either.

    What I’d like to see is a concrete example defending the way the Skill Challenge forces people to sit out for the good of the party. My strong impression, only reinforced by people like Scott, is that either nobody actually plays them as written (which would explain how WotC released the books with numbers that made it virtually impossible to succeed) or that they just use them without thinking at all about what choices are being forced on the players and whether those choices really enhance the RP.

  12. Tommi says:

    People don’t sit around for the good of the party. They help the acting character. I don’t remember the precise nature of helping rules in 4e, but I think helping is possible and useful.

  13. Joshua says:

    I’d have to know what the details are before I could say whether that helped or actually made the situation worse. “Your character can’t do what would be perfectly logical and in character, but hey, you can be a tool used by another character to gain a bonus!”

    In any case, I don’t see how it could help with the aspect that if those checks of 18, 17, 16, 14, and 13 belonged not to separate characters, but say two or three characters who have different skills/actions they could take the “correct” actions to perform are the ones that checked against 18, 17, and 16, not the ones that the characters would choose based on game logic and personality. Part of my complaint is that the Skill Challenge mechanic discourages RP by presenting mechanically right and wrong ways to approach challenges, even when from the point of view of the logic of the game world there’s no justification for the preference of one approach over the other. Granted there always exists the possibility of tension between the mechanically optimal action and the RP-driven one, but it’s bad to exacerbate it. In most systems, going with the RP action costs maybe some time and resources, not risking global failure–and when it does risk global failure there is often strong pressure from others at the table to violate character and go with the optimal action.

  14. gamefiend says:

    Hi! Sooooo…as the guy who wrote the kobold challenge in question/investigation/destruction, I’d like to point out that skill challenges have been a great aid for roleplaying for my group, which includes a few noobs as well as more experienced players. I’ve written a bit more about skill challenges on my site, but in short:

    Skill challenges are about actions, not skills.

    Skill challenges are structured roleplay.

    I talk about these at length at the site, so don’t want to rewrite it here.

    Definitely take what I’m offering in the skill challenges as suggestions. The results and actions are meant to be roleplayed out, and not just read off the sheet.

    I personally find that skill challenges involve quite a bit of roleplay and improvisation from both me and my players –one of the things is not letting players off the hook. A skill role is not the action that there character performed. That is what they give you, and that’s what you give them feedback on.

    Just wanted to clear some stuff up. Thanks for the link, and I would appreciate your comments on some of the work I’m doing at the moment.

    I know you’re not sold (which is OK, because I’m not selling! :)), but I think we can have some interesting conversations on this.

  15. gamefiend says:

    Oh,one last thing — a skill challenge should never be a bottleneck. There should always be another route the characters can take, something else they should do. If you have a skill challenge that’s do or die, it’s probably not the best adventure design.

  16. Tommi says:

    I agree on tension between fiction and rules being a bad thing. (It is also a very good argument against detailed combat systems.)

    Part of my complaint is that the Skill Challenge mechanic discourages RP by presenting mechanically right and wrong ways to approach challenges, even when from the point of view of the logic of the game world there’s no justification for the preference of one approach over the other.

    I’m at a loss here. I think what you are saying that in some case some actions might be more difficult then others while this is not true in the fiction. If this is the case, why not make those difficulties the same?

    Or are you saying that if there is a difference in skills and equally difficult tasks, then it only makes sense to use the better skills? I’d say this is true in situations where skill challenges are appropriate; that is, inherently risky and challenging ones. If skills are used to help others, than roll them as help.

    But, what exactly are you getting at? I fear I misunderstand you.

    On helping: My guy is triyng to pick a lock, you roll the relevant lockpicky skill to help, on success your character has encountered a similar lock before and can give useful advice, on failure not so much. (If picking a lock is a skill challenge, it better be pretty complicated one with in-built traps that trigger if something is messed up.)

  17. Joshua says:

    @gamefiend – I’m not meaning to bash your example, I just thing the same challenge would be better without the specific Skill Challenge rules (particularly the M-strikes rule).

  18. d7 says:

    Just chiming in late to say “amen!” You can at least count me among readers who get what you’re saying. It doesn’t really matter that Skill Challenges “shouldn’t be bottlenecks”, that failure is supposed to be interesting, or that done right they will be interleaved with roleplay. They take perfectly good roleplaying time at the table and add a mechanical toy that is distracting and redirects players’ motivations toward using the toy efficiently.

    There’s nothing wrong with a good mechanical toy inside a game system; combat subsystems often are, as are involved character advancement systems. It’s often satisfying to play with an intricate toy just for its own sake. This one just isn’t done very well if its meant to complement and encourage playing a character as a role rather than an avatar. (A much better non-combat mechanical toy is The Burning Wheel’s “battle of wits” debate mechanic.)

    The other reason I think the too-common “Skill Challenges are fine if they’re written right” rejoinder is silly: If the subsystem is supposed to make creating and running these properly so easy, then why are so many people “doing it wrong”?

    The complaint that Skill Challenges cut across the grain of the game world has been similarly made (and similarly articulately) over at The Alexandrian: Dissociated Mechanics Part 5: Skill Challenges, Skill Challenges: WTF?, and Playtesting 4th Edition Part 6: Skill Challenges. You might find some added insights there if you haven’t already read them.

  19. r_b_bergstrom says:

    I agree that the “M-Strikes Rule” undermines what skill challenges are trying to accomplish. Suspension of disbelief is easier if individual actions had their own consequences, as opposed to an overall success/failure ticker (where-in, as you point out, my failed history roll stopping us before you can make your climbing check). It would make more sense and be less metagamey.

    That said, it’d be very difficult (and require a book of it’s own) to balance all those possible consequences of every individual action. I believe one of the goals of the skill challenge system is to provide rules by which skill tests can be rated and compared against each other and against combat encounters to determine relative degree of difficulty and appropriate XP awards.

    4E’s Skill Challenges system is attempting to do for problem-solving, skill use, puzzles, and role-playing what 3.X had done for traps.

    In other words, the designers want to give out XP for using your skills, but they don’t want it to be a flat rule (25 xp per skill roll) in which the danger or difficulty involved had no impact. Nor do they want it to be a tremendously complicated system, where ever possible factor and consequence needs an entry in some gigantic reference section. Yet within those constraints, they also needed some element of danger and/or chance of failure. Without some way of doing so, Skill Challenges would become a source of easy no-threat XP.

    So they hit on an abstraction – that being the “M-Strikes Rule”, and the Complexity Rating – to determine when you fail and the consequences kick in.

    Just like hit points, M-Strikes isn’t realistic enough for some people’s tastes. As I said, I’m one of those folks who’d rather have detailed consequences stemming from specific actions rather than an overall out-of-character ticker. I wouldn’t have made the decision that 4E’s designers did, but I can still see why they made that call, and why they felt it was beneficial to go there.

  20. Joshua says:

    @d7 – thanks for the links–I think The Alexandrian hits it right on the head. I’m glad somebody gets it.

    @r_b_bergstrom – if that was all there was to their design intent, then they really screwed it up. Guidelines as to xp for skill rolls depending on degree of difficulty and whether there’s danger or consequence attached to their failure…or just general guidelines for xp awarded for all non-combat stuff together, would have been a lot simpler, without all the negative consequences. A key difference between HP and Skill Challenges is that HP is merely an abstraction, while SCs are a mini-game. So it’s not just about choosing a level of detail/realism that you’re happy with, but the consequences (intended or otherwise) of how decisions the mini-game translate (or fail to) into the game world. I’m pretty sure, after reading The Alexandrian’s posts, that they might have had design goals for the Skill Challenge system, but they didn’t do any real analysis or play-testing. Which is a pity, because I don’t think the state goals are crazy.

  21. Falke359 says:

    After playing several sessions 4e and not pariculary liking the SCs, i still would object some of your critique.

    The question was why to integrate SCs if you can roleplay through it. I will name 3 good reasons:

    First, in my experience it helps the DM designing an encounter or adventure A LOT and is an EASY tool to hand out XPs and other rewards. That is true for many 4e mechanisms that sound awkward from a players perspective.
    4e is a bless for GMs mostly.

    Second, it can improve RP, because (as i understand it or as we play it) everyone HAS to contribute in a skill challenge. So you avoid the situation that the group lets the “experts” solve certain problems alone. I see the problems this mechanism has, but the point remains that it supports roleplaying by providing uncertain players with a kind of frame for their actions.

    Third, the SCs strenghen the skill uses.
    In 3.5 a fighter would hesitate to spend a feat for improving skills, in 4e you are not punished but rewarded for doing this. Using skills is much more important and rewarding now.

    Your main objection was that failure would stall the game or prevent players from doing certain things. I still don´t see how, because no one forbids you to try other ways. You can still climb a tree and search the goblins lair even if the corresponded SC failed. But you have to expect other obstacles on your way.

    In earlier versions it was more difficult for the GM to determine the success or failure of an action. Now he can rely more on game mechanics.

    You say there shouldn´t be the possibility of “global failure”
    I think you overestimate the effects of a failed skill challenge.
    Failure means there are no rewards, but more difficulties and obstacles, thats it.

    And why should anyone roleplay or make skill checks when you cannot fail ? Failure is part of every challenge and even if another member of your group produced the failure: where is the difference to older versions ? You can be the best diplomat in town, if the dwarf next to you insults the duke, your efforts could still be wasted, if you are in a SC or not. (But maybe the consequences for the dwarf would be more serious) If you found some advice in a library (which you would rather than find nothing just because your thief failed to climb a tree), it still could be useful (if you rolled a success), but wouldn´t be enough to find those goblins.
    So i can´t see why the M-Strikes are that much of a problem.

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