Skill challenges revisited – Part 1

Trampier-SpiderI’ve always been a fan of the concept of skill challenges. I like the idea of having some means of awarding XP for roleplaying and not just saddling it to some interpretive standard. Skill challenges in 4E really offered a DM some decent guidelines for doing that. Better yet, skill challenges laid out a way to offer XP to players for great roleplaying aside from your typical hacking up monsters and completing quests.

Skill challenges were far from perfect however. I think what stood out for me the most was how they were more a framework of rules when running them. In the past few years I began to tweak with designing skill challenges and altering how I ran them. After a while I sort of fell into a groove running them by getting input from all the players and keeping the challenge structure fluid.

It’s been awhile since I visited skill challenges, so I figured on posting a bit on some approaches I use with designing and running them. It can be tricky, but once you get some concepts down regarding them, they are a snap to make up and run. Onto some tips:

Rules are a framework, not set in stone – I think something important to remember at the onset is that skill challenges work best approaching their structure as a guideline rather than a hard set of rules. It’s easy to stick to difficulty labels and outcomes based on X successes before Y failures. It’s far better to be flexible with running them. You may get a stellar idea from a player. Why not offer them 2 successes (or even pass it immediately)? If you adhere to a set format unerringly, challenges can feel artificial and constrained.

Start with failure – When first thinking up a skill challenge, start with thinking about what happens when the PCs fail it. Do you have something interesting happen? Is there a way to keep the story moving? If the answer is no, then don’t make it a skill challenge. Failure should always be a possibility.

Say you decide players have to progress in some underground tomb by opening a sealed door. Sounds perfect for a skill challenge, right? If they open the door great! If not, then what happens? If the answer is the players turn around and go back to town, the adventure is over, rethink making it a skill challenge. In some cases you have situations that give the story a hard stop and moves everything off into another direction, but if that’s the case a skill challenge likely isn’t appropriate (you’ve got a major story branch instead). You should always consider what happens if the players fail a skill challenge and have an alternate plan.

In the above example failure might mean the players do bypass the door but one of the PCs gets severely injured. Maybe the door suddenly closes and the group is split up. Maybe they can’t open the door and instead have to go some other route that is longer or more dangerous. In each case the group can continue on with exploring the tomb, but have varying penalties and unfortunate circumstances due to failing the challenge. Make sure that failing the challenge doesn’t halt the adventure.

Have gradations of success – A partial success for a skill challenge should allow the players to squeak out a win. I typically set this as 1-2 less successes needed from the total to win the challenge. If they do this they are successful for the challenge but get ½ the experience reward. Think of this as a victory with some complications, or no clear advantage despite overcoming the challenge.

The alternate is a complete victory with the challenge. The players push themselves to get the required number of wins. Not only do they complete the challenge and get the full XP awarded but they will get some kind of advantage or benefit.

With the above door opening example, let’s say a failure means the party has to take a more difficult route. A complete victory means the players open the door and possibly can skip a potential encounter. A partial victory would then be in the middle of the two. Yes, the players get through the door but maybe they trigger the attention of some monsters. Maybe it’s a very difficult and taxing physically, so all the players lose a healing surge. While they complete the challenge, it’s not without some additional hardship.

Use preferred skills, not absolute ones – I think another trap to avoid is having a list of skills that are absolutely needed for the challenge. Instead you might want a short list of skills (2-3) that have an easier DC, or confer a small +1 bonus when utilized for the challenge. Additionally, I’d consider these as skills other players can utilize to assist another player. I’ll get a bit more into this with part 2, however giving a laundry list of checks for the players to select from is boring. Instead, you should be flexible with what skills can be used.

If players have to convince a Duke to release garrisoned troops to prevent a warband of orcs from heading through a pass, diplomacy might be a key skill for such a challenge. I’d figure that trying to reason with the Duke is a likely course of action and grant a +1 to using this skill for the challenge. But let’s say a player wants to use intimidation? If it’s not on the list of needed skills could it be used? Would intimidation be an automatic failure (after all I am seeing diplomacy as a key tactic)?

How about that player wanting to intimidate the Duke states they dig through a sack and produce the head of a slain orc. They throw it at the feet of the Duke and state this is what’s coming for the village. The orcs will likely do the same to him, his family, and all the common folk, hack off their heads and keep them as trophies. Locking yourself into a set list of skills required for a challenge will very likely also mean being inflexible when players give you a surprise like this. Give them some freedom to use different skills, and that starts by not demanding specific checks be made.

That’s it for now. In my next post I’ll go with some nuts and bolts with how I run challenges.

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