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Skill Challenges

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In the D&D 4E games Iíve been running Iíve been trying to make use of Skill Challenges periodically. Reading about them I really love the way that game mechanic feels, since it gives you a direct way to engage the players with a purely role play scenario. The trouble is that thus far I havenít had much success incorporating them into the game sessions. I know thereís been a ton of stuff written about them already; but none of it was said by me, which I think means that still more needs to be said. Besides Iím a firm believer in cluttering the interwebs with extra information, and besides II need to store my notes some place.

Going by what the rule book said youíre supposed to introduce the skill challenge by getting Initiative Rolls from the players. This fell apart immediately. My players immediately thought Initiative meant combat, so they were all too ready to throw their combat powers around rather than try their skills. This was disastrous if there were any NPCís involved in the challenge.

Scrapping that I figured my players were smart enough to tackle problems on their own, lets just describe the situation and let them solve the puzzle on their own. Whatever they chose to do I could match to some skill and take them through the challenge that way. This worked somewhat better. They did approach the challenge in a Role Play method, having their characters explore the situation and work toward some solution. Where this method failed is with the DCís of the checks they attempted. I get the impression that the modules make the assumption that the PCís will be working together; either doing Group Checks or Aid Other attempts to boost their skill rolls. My playerís always tried to do things solo, so theyíd miss out on some bonuses and had trouble getting high enough rolls. Furthermore they didnít always work toward the same solution, so tracking successes and failures became complicated. Since I didnít want what one player did to wreck the completely unrelated actions of another player.

It seemed to me that the problem I was having was the fact that Skill Challenges were such a new concept. Neither the DM nor the Players knew quite how to approach them. It seemed that prompting the players that they are attempting a skill challenge was in order until they caught on to how things were meant to play out.

Before I could attempt this in my own game, I was a player in a game where the DM tried this. When we started a skill challenge he would announce that to the group, and then let us go from there. This worked better, but its still not exactly how I had envisioned them and wanted them to play out.

What happened was that the players treated the challenge as a form of combat. Theyíd choose the skills that had the biggest bonuses and attempt to apply those to the challenge. If none of their skills applied, they stay out of the challenge until they could offer to assist another player to give them a bonus. Not much thought was given to what their characters would do. Instead the players approached it from a purely tactical perspective, seeking out the best course to win the encounter.

After seeing all these styles of presenting the skill challenges, Iíve come to realize that the problem wasnít in how the DM or the Players handled them, its that they simply donít work as a stand alone encounter. At least, now in what I wanted them to be anyway. You canít have explicit rules and assign numerical values without someone figuring out how to tweak the numbers to ensure success. Essentially you need to leave the numbers outside of your role play, otherwise they will dominate the scene.

This does not mean that Iíve given up on skill challenges, just that once again Iím changing my approach to making use of them. They just need to be kept in a section of the game where the numbers are already dominant, meaning Combat. While its already amusing to the players to smash various monsters and take their stuff, it adds a new element to the encounter to have an additional puzzle built into it.

Take those same monsters and add in the skill challenge. Lets say youíve got a bunch of cultists defending some portal, I have the portal spew minions every round until the players manage to close it. Or have the monsters defending some animated statue, the statue is impervious to damage so they need to find some other way to shut it down. Or have the players lost in a maze like crypt chased by a horde of undead, now they need to defend themselves and find their way out. Things like that work perfectly for skill challenges; and they add to the encounter in two ways. First they give it an extra level of complexity since thereís the combat as well as this puzzle to overcome. Secondly they can give the combat larger implications in terms of the unfolding story, winning or losing the fight might be less important that solving the puzzle.

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  1. jpatterson's Avatar
    Not a D&D player or DM but I find this an interesting post and would like to learn more about these skill challenges from your view, and examples. Especially here you give the example of what you decided on, introducing the challenges in combat, like the impervious statue, but you don't give an example of what that meant - what that challenge IS, what skills it applies against or an example of how to solve it; because even though as a non-D&D gamer, I feel like this could be a very useful concept for any game.