DM Tip: Skill challenges should be say, then roll.

Willingham-IronCobraI like skill challenges. Once it got pounded into my head that WotC ‘rules’ for them were more frameworks and guidelines, rather than cut and dried rules, I totally got into the groove of running them. People still have a lot of ire for them and some lament how skill challenges are too much a game mechanic that interrupts good roleplaying. To be honest, it totally depends on how you run your challenges.

I’m not talking about the set up, goals, and deciding the DC values. The Fearless DM has given pretty good rundown of how he runs skill challenges. I find it interesting how in one point I run my challenges similar.

If you have some skill challenge, say the group is seeking a written pass into a city, and you approach the challenge as a series of diplomacy checks. Well that is exactly what you are going to get. I can see the conversation at the table now…

DM – ‘Okay, um… make a diplomacy check.’

Player A – ’19’

Player B – ‘8, ouch!’

Player C – ‘A 23 here.’

DM – ‘You guys get two successes and one failure. So, you still need to talk to the guard some. Make another round of checks.’

Yeah, I think with that type of challenge just about any group would think them a big snooze fest. And in this light I can totally see how 4E detractors think of skill challenges as a very mechanical process without any roleplaying.

I’m going to bypass talking about setting up skill challenges and working out DCs and appropriate skills to use. That’ll likely come as a few individual posts. Instead I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how I run a skill challenge from round to round.

Describe your action – I have my players describe what they want to do and avoid the simple skill check. Don’t tell me you want to make a diplomacy check, tell me what your character is doing or saying. I think this is a key point to running skill challenges. Get your players into the habit of describing there actions first, worry about what to roll later.

Everyone participates – I go from character to character getting a feel for what they are doing. And everyone is in the action. Doing nothing is not an option. People get wrapped up in not wanting to make checks that lead to a failure. I don’t accept inaction as an option, my players are going to be doing something.

See, there is this little skill option called assist other. A player makes a moderate skill check and if successful, can give a bonus to another character’s skill check. If a player is really worried about tanking a check, they can always use this option. So yeah, I make everyone do something, even if they are just trying to help out one of their teammates.

Work out the skills needed and roll – Once I find out what everyone wants to do, I assign skills and have everyone roll. This is a key point. Have the players tell you what they want to do. You as the DM then figure out the appropriate skill. Finally, then have the players make their skill checks.

You have to be flexible with this. If a player offers a clever idea and can make a convincing argument for using a particular skill, then the DM should roll with it. If you really think the skill use is a stretch, or not applicable, assign a penalty or bump up the DC for the check (or do both) and let the player make the check. Once they say what they want to do, find the appropriate skill and work with the players, not against them.

Describe the results and repeat – Don’t just tally up the results and spit out the number of successes and failures. Be descriptive with the results and give degrees of failure and success. This is a great way to give subtle cues that a player is using an appropriate skill for the challenge (‘You find the duke receptive to many of your points. You think with a bit more persuasive conversation, you might sway him to your cause’).

This is also a great way to give out a little information or some simple rewards in the face of failing the challenge. Maybe the group doesn’t find the entrance to the thieve’s guild, but at least they know it’s in the port district. This helps players from feeling some challenges are a total loss if they fail. That at least they managed to gleam some information or make a little headway to finding a solution, rather than their efforts being a complete failure (and failing one should never stop things dead).

Overall, I find these points help make skill challenges a lot more of an organic RP experience, rather than some mechanical round of skill checks. I hope some folks find them useful and would love to hear any tips other DMs have to offer when running their skill challenges.


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