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  1. #21
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    I agree that WotC needs to spend more time talking about presentation. I was disappointed that Mearls didn't cover the topic more in his articles.

    Just off the top of my head, questions about presentation that WotC hasn't really covered very well:

    1. When/if/how to let the players know that they're in an SC. Some challenges should probably be "hidden" to prevent metagaming, other challenges should probably be disclosed.

    2. How to let the players know what skills are available or unavailable.

    3. Many WotC SC's allow one skill check to "unlock" another. How and when do you communicate that to the players.

    4. Should the DM directly state if a check results in a success or failure?

    WotC is using the skill challenge mechanic for a wide variety of different in-game acts. Convincing the Ogre chieftan not to eat you, searching for clues about the best way to destroy an evil artifact, escaping from the city guard in a rooftop chase, trekking overland in hostile terrain, all are handled as skill challenges.

    The thing is, I'm pretty sure that a skill challenge for each of these different in-game acts needs a slightly different presentation, maybe even a different structure. Smerwin touches on this point below. I'd like to see more exploration of that issue, either from WotC or from the community at large.

 

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    Thanks Firelance, this is good stuff!

    I am writing a hack and I've left skill challenges alone for now, and this discussion is going to help me put together a system for them.

    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    Presumably, the player said that because he wanted the guard to go away. In this case, success means that the guard leaves.
    The reason why I bring this that I'm wondering how this interacts with skill challenges. If you want to get past the guard to get into the spice den so you can murder a smuggler and his shifter companion, resolving the single action or task in that manner will resolve the entire skill challenge - and that's something we don't want.

    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    What I would do is to add an automatic success or failure, possibly more than one successes or failures if it was a particularly good or bad action. If the DM thinks that it is not reasonable for the skill challenge to remain unresolved after the action, then he should declare that the skill challenge is resolved. (Such occurances should be uncommon, of course, and usually mean that the players did something that the DM did not expect.)
    I agree with that. I would make this explicit in the system.

    Question: How would resolving a skill challenge "before its time" (i.e. before the set number of successes and failures are met) affect the amount of XP rewarded? (pemerton had an idea about handing out XP based on the number of successes accrued. That seems like a good way to handle it.)

    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    Ideally, before the DM presents the players with a challenge, he should have at least one solution (and preferably more) in mind. The skills that are useful ought to flow naturally from the solution that he has in mind.
    I'm not sure about having a solution in mind. There are the usually pre-plotting dangers associated with having a solution in mind; however, if the skill challenge deals with a trap and a specific gear in the trap needs to be jammed, that makes sense. The same thing goes with a dialogue with an NPC: the DM might know that the guard will leave if he's given a decent bribe (and is convinced the PCs aren't cops).

    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    There are a few ways to handle this. The player may describe his action and state which skill he is using, the player may describe his action and the DM decides which skill the player is using based on that description and calls for that skill check. (On a personal note, I prefer the former approach.) Occasionally, the player may propose a course of action that the DM had not originally thought about. If the DM decides that the approach is viable, he may allow the player to use make a skill check to earn a success or gain some other benefit.
    It'd be interesting to see the differences in play between those two systems.

    "The player describes the PC's action and declares which skill is being used. The DM may change the skill used if he feels it is not appropriate."
    vs.
    "The player describes the PC's action and the DM determines which skill is being used."

    I would go with the second because I think you won't see as much "narrative acrobatics".

    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    This is actually a very broad question and goes to the core of what it means to be a DM since one of the most basic responsibilities of being a DM is to answer the question, "What happens next?" Usually, the answer would be the most logical thing to happen, but occasionally, the DM might say that the most interesting (not necessarily logical, but ideally still plausible) thing happens instead.
    There are a number of ways to decide it, and I think it would be good to say, "Here are some ways to decide what happens; pick one that fits with your game and stick to it." Here are some:

    Outcomes are based on...
    • the logical outcome of the action.
    • genre tropes.
    • the needs of the DM's pre-plotted story.
    • the difficulty the PCs have faced up to this point. (That is, if the PCs have been having an easy time of things up to this point, the outcome is not as good for them, and it's better for them if they've been struggling.)


    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    For simple skill checks, a successful check usually means that the player's stated action is carried out successfully. In skill challenges, each successful check should convey a sense of progress, until the final successful check which overcomes the challenge.
    Agreed on skill checks.

    It becomes interesting when you're talking about skill challenges. How do you determine the goal? Who decides? Can players initiate their own challenges, stating the goal for themselves? Do both sides on the skill challenge (the PCs and the opposition) get stated goals?

    Then there's the question of a changing situation in response to the actions taken. If the goal is stated explicitly before we engage with the actions of the PCs, how much room for surprise does that leave us?

    One of the goals in skill challenges - for me - is to enter the skill challenge without having any idea of the final state of the in-game situation. How does one achieve that if the goal is stated explicitly?

    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    The DM should decide whether the proposed action will contribute to the skill challenge or not. As successful skill check that does not help advance the skill challenge should not earn any successes for the purpose of the skill challenge.
    I think this goes along with the need for an explicit goal - even if the players are not aware of it, the DM must be.

    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    Ideally, it should be based on the situation in the game world.
    Agreed.

    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    <snip DCs>
    Agreed. I think there should be some mention of why the DM selects a certain level over another one - why 7th instead of 1st?

    Quote Originally Posted by FireLance View Post
    As mentioned earlier, given the open-ended and complex nature of non-combat challenges, I am not sure that it is possible to provide simple rules for creating good skill challenges. Perhaps, when it comes to skill challenges, only the bare bones structure can be provided, in much the same way that when it comes to creating new monsters, only the basic statistics (defenses, damage, etc.) are given. Adding flavor, twists and interactivity to skill challenges may be something that has to be left to the individual DM.
    I think what would help are clear and specific procedures that one follows, while leaving enough space open for DMs and players to add their own creative input. I think it's possible; other games achieve this goal, so why not D&D?

    (One interesting question that we haven't discussed is how skill challenges affect other character components - what is the relationship between skill challenges and healing surges? hit points? attack modifiers? Ideally the outcome of a skill challenge should be reflected on the character sheet... but that's a lot to ask for now.)
    "If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."
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  • #23
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    Here is me trying to write a system based on my discussion with Firelance.

    Skill Challenges

    • The DM sets a goal for the skill challenge.
      • How does the DM set this goal? Why? Why use a skill challenge at all?
    • The DM presents the situation to the players in game-world terms.
    • The players describe the actions of their characters in game-world terms in response to the situation the DM describes.
    • The DM determines how to resolve the stated actions of the PCs.
      • Is the outcome of the action in doubt? Then a skill check is called for.
      • If the outcome is not in doubt, does the action bring the PC towards the goal for the skill challenge? If so, it counts as an automatic success. If not, it counts as an automatic failure.
      • What about actions that resolve the skill challenge?
    • Based on the description of the action, either the DM or the player selects a skill. The DM has ultimate authority over which skill is rolled.
    • Based on the details of the character's action and the situation in the game world, the DM assigns modifiers to the check.
      • Standard modifiers should be described here, including how and when they are applied.
    • The DM determines the DC.
      • Based on the description of the action, the DM determines if it's Easy, Moderate, or Hard.
      • If the stated action can be found in the skill lists, the DM may use one of those DCs instead.
    • The player rolls and the DM determines the outcome.
      • If the result is a success, the character's action takes them closer to the goal. It does not achieve the goal unless enough successes have been made.
      • What happens for failures?


    Undefined: Complexity and Level. NPC actions. "Initiative" order. Aid Another. Group skill checks. The results of failure. Changes to character components. When is an action finalized - at what point can the player no longer change his mind?
    "If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."
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  • #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    Here is me trying to write a system based on my discussion with Firelance.

    Skill Challenges

    • The DM sets a goal for the skill challenge.
      • How does the DM set this goal? Why? Why use a skill challenge at all?

    • The DM presents the situation to the players in game-world terms.
    • The players describe the actions of their characters in game-world terms in response to the situation the DM describes.
    • The DM determines how to resolve the stated actions of the PCs.
      • Is the outcome of the action in doubt? Then a skill check is called for.
      • If the outcome is not in doubt, does the action bring the PC towards the goal for the skill challenge? If so, it counts as an automatic success. If not, it counts as an automatic failure.
      • What about actions that resolve the skill challenge?

    • Based on the description of the action, either the DM or the player selects a skill. The DM has ultimate authority over which skill is rolled.
    • Based on the details of the character's action and the situation in the game world, the DM assigns modifiers to the check.
      • Standard modifiers should be described here, including how and when they are applied.

    • The DM determines the DC.
      • Based on the description of the action, the DM determines if it's Easy, Moderate, or Hard.
      • If the stated action can be found in the skill lists, the DM may use one of those DCs instead.

    • The player rolls and the DM determines the outcome.
      • If the result is a success, the character's action takes them closer to the goal. It does not achieve the goal unless enough successes have been made.
      • What happens for failures?



    Undefined: Complexity and Level. NPC actions. "Initiative" order. Aid Another. Group skill checks. The results of failure. Changes to character components. When is an action finalized - at what point can the player no longer change his mind?
    Sorry, I find this line if inquiry very odd because what I see in the system as it exists now in DMG and DMG2 addresses every one of these points. Some are given more consideration than others but the SC system as it exists IS what you're looking for.

    Some points:

    It is ALWAYS up to a GM to arbitrate the results and consequences of all player actions. This is inherent in the structure of TT RPGs. I don't understand why the designer of an RPG would need to recapitulate what the nature of DMing is in this specific context. It seems terribly redundant to me.

    When a skill is used the player obviously MUST state what action they are trying to take and what the intended successful outcome is. In the majority of cases this is implicit but if the player has NOT stated these things then no amount of rules structure is going to help because the situation can't be arbitrated without more information. No DM, regardless of the system, can possibly arbitrate an empty statement like "I use Diplomacy" made by a player. The DM is going to have to elicit more information and again this is the sort of thing that is general to all RPGs at all times.

    As for questions about difficulty levels, again this is simply part and parcel of GMing an RPG. We could ask the same question about combat encounters for example. Difficulty is going to be determined by what level of challenge the DM wants to present. It may have motivations in plot structure, pacing, game setting consistency, etc. Its fine to have a discussion of it, but I would point out that 4e has a pretty good handle on this, PCs of a given level are typically presented with challenges in a difficulty range related to their level. Realistically anything far below that should be trivial and not need rules and anything far above that should be effectively not an option for the players (though in a sandbox they certainly can go march off a cliff if they really feel like it).

    Ironically I think part of the issue people are having here with SCs is that WotC made such a big deal out of incorporating them into the game that DMs seem to have lost their minds when they get into that aspect of the game. Its like they fail to think to apply even the most basic concepts they already know in an expectation that the SC is a big platter that everything will be handed to them on. It isn't. It was never meant to be.

    What I'm saying is that the skill system is perfectly straightforward and so is the SC system really. Its just ordinary RP where you do the same things you've always done. The player does something, some dice may be rolled, and the DM informs the player of what happened. This is just what always goes on at any table using any rules set.

    Now, SCs do magnify a couple of questions to a higher level of importance. One is what are the boundaries of a given interaction. This can be illustrated with your question about bribing the guard to get into the lair of the bad guy and assassinate him. You questioned why bribing the guard wouldn't simply cause the challenge to succeed. You assumed what I would call a poor scope for the challenge. Its not a challenge to get into the lair, its a challenge to pull off the assassination. In this context the bribing of the guard is only a single component. It is necessary go get in. Bribing the guard is one way that can happen, thus the check to do that allows the challenge to proceed.

    This brings up a structural aspect of challenges. Lets assume that success means the bad guy gets assassinated. That's the goal. Now, we have to ask what failure represents. We know its 'not success', but what limits the players chances of success? Somehow enough failures have to change the situation enough that the opportunity no longer exists. In this context failing to bribe the guard won't be a show stopper, there need to be other ways to get in. This might include using thievery to get in a back window, or stealth to sneak past the guard.

    Of course one could take a different tack and use small complexity one challenges for each aspect of accomplishing the mission, so bribing the guard or sneaking past him is one SC, getting into the back room might be another SC, neutralizing the assassin's bodyguard might be another, etc.

    So really scope is the big thing that isn't specifically part of the system. I'm not sure how that could be part of a rules framework though. Some guidelines might be possible.

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    When people say "Skill Challenges boil down to pointless roll-playing" and "You just spam your best skill", it's obvious to me that they're doing something that I am not.

    Different systems, in other words.

    For instance, there is a huge difference between a successful Intimidate check and a successful Diplomacy check. The difference also changes how the skill challenge will continue. For other people there is no difference and/or it doesn't really change anything.
    "If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."
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    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    The reason why I bring this that I'm wondering how this interacts with skill challenges. If you want to get past the guard to get into the spice den so you can murder a smuggler and his shifter companion, resolving the single action or task in that manner will resolve the entire skill challenge - and that's something we don't want.
    I'm of the view that just because you expect the PCs to make skill checks at a certain point in the adventure, it doesn't mean that you need to run it as a skill challenge. If the PCs need to make just one check to succeed, just call for a skill check, or make it a minion skill challenge (discussed in one of the DDI articles).

    Anyway, I thought that one of the points made by smerwin was quite insightful, and I've quoted it here:
    Quote Originally Posted by smerwin29 View Post
    What I try to tell the writers who I have worked with in the 40+ 4e adventures I have designed/developed/edited/playtested is that a skill challenge is nothing different than what good writers and DMs have always done. The skill challenge is just a way to codify it, forcing them to actually think through all of the options and therefore getting a better idea of what the PCs might do and what the results of success or failure might be.
    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    Question: How would resolving a skill challenge "before its time" (i.e. before the set number of successes and failures are met) affect the amount of XP rewarded? (pemerton had an idea about handing out XP based on the number of successes accrued. That seems like a good way to handle it.)
    If I awarded XP in my games (and I don't - but that's another thread) I would just give the players full XP for overcoming the challenge as a reward for doing something clever and unexpected.

    I'm not sure about having a solution in mind. There are the usually pre-plotting dangers associated with having a solution in mind; however, if the skill challenge deals with a trap and a specific gear in the trap needs to be jammed, that makes sense. The same thing goes with a dialogue with an NPC: the DM might know that the guard will leave if he's given a decent bribe (and is convinced the PCs aren't cops).
    Having a solution in mind should not mean that the DM blocks other possible solutions from the players. It is more of an internal check for the DM to ensure that the challenge can be overcome.

    It becomes interesting when you're talking about skill challenges. How do you determine the goal? Who decides? Can players initiate their own challenges, stating the goal for themselves? Do both sides on the skill challenge (the PCs and the opposition) get stated goals?

    Then there's the question of a changing situation in response to the actions taken. If the goal is stated explicitly before we engage with the actions of the PCs, how much room for surprise does that leave us?

    One of the goals in skill challenges - for me - is to enter the skill challenge without having any idea of the final state of the in-game situation. How does one achieve that if the goal is stated explicitly?
    I think that before a skill challenge can take place, the PCs must want to do something - that's the goal right there. Sometimes it's determined by the DM, sometimes it's determined by the players themselves (this often forces the DM to come up with a skill challenge on the fly). Sometimes the goal changes halfway through the skill challenge (this may happen if the DM plans for a twist) but every time the players declare an action, they should always be trying to achieve something. I would also distinguish between goals and outcomes. While the players may have a goal, the outcome may not always be what they want.

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    I still think the skill challenge math is a bit off. I very rarely use the suggested DCs.

    I'm not sure if this has been addressed in DDi articles or not since I don't subscribe to DDi, but I don't like how bonary skill challenges seem to be. Instead of making them a pass/fail situation, I like to make the amount of failure and/or the amount of success matter.

    For example, let's say the party is trying to ask a noble lord for assistance by sending troops to aid in the defense of a nearby village. If the PCs fail, yet managed to get most of the successes necessary, the lord might offer the party something less than what they were hoping for. In this example, the lord might offer a magic item which he feels might help even though he refuses to spare some of his soldiers.


    I also don't feel as though mixing skill challenges into combat encounters works very well sometimes. It can work well, but it takes a bit of experience with the skill challenge system to recognize what works and what doesn't. An example of this is a PC attempting a skill challenge to disarm a trap. Because of how much more capable the PCs than the rest of the 4E world is, it's usually far easier and faster for the PC to simply attack the trap and destroy it rather than sit out the combat for several rounds.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LostSoul View Post
    When people say "Skill Challenges boil down to pointless roll-playing" and "You just spam your best skill", it's obvious to me that they're doing something that I am not.

    Different systems, in other words.

    For instance, there is a huge difference between a successful Intimidate check and a successful Diplomacy check. The difference also changes how the skill challenge will continue. For other people there is no difference and/or it doesn't really change anything.
    Could you expand on this? Sure, there is a difference between an Intimidate and a Diplomacy roll. But each player is likely to be better at one of these skills than at the other; what is to prevent such a player from repeatedly spamming his best skill?

    An example. The players are trying to get by a guard at a city gate. There are a few approaches; Diplomacy (presenting yourself honestly, easier if you are legitimate), Intimidate (playing haughty and powerful), Stealth (sneaking by in a hay wagon etc). We have 4 characters participating. Armand is charming and forthright; he uses Diplomacy repeatedly as it is his best skill. Brutus is proud and ferocious; he uses Intimidation whenever he rolls, as that is his best skill. Cesar is a sneaky git and uses Stealth. David is an all-round character and has all these skills, each at a value 2 lower than his friends due to lack of specialization. He tries to mix-and-match, and becomes a party liability.

    You could punish Brutus by saying the guard is insulted by Intimidation, but that is just bullying the player and telling him his concept/skill choice is bad. Armand and Brutus could come up with a meek adventurer, proud adventurer skit to play out, and make Intimidate a part of that - while still repeatedly spamming only one skill each.

    What would reasonably be different is the consequences of failure. If Armand fails, he is likely to just be turned away. If Brutus fails, an officer will be called and the skill challenge reset at a higher difficulty. If Cesar failed he'd be arrested.

    The problem here as I see it is the massive number of successes that needs to be garnered. It is not enough that each player makes the skill roll for their schtick once, they have to do it over and over, which is what leads to skill spamming.

    (Bluff should reasonably be a part of this challenge, and possibly other skills as well, but I restrict myself to 3 skills for brevity).
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    I believe the point lostsoul was making is that getting past a single guard isn't really a skill challenge, much like shooting an arrow into a bullseye isn't really a combat.

    As such, spamming skills won't occur, because which skills are relevant will change with each skill check.

    Armand:"I use diplomacy to get past the guard; telling him how we need to get to a friend because his family are in danger"
    "Okay, you did well, he lets you past, and your friends"
    Brutus:"I try and intimidate the guard"
    "He just let you past already, wtf? Seriously. Ok, now you're entering into the city, the streets are crowded, seems like there's some sort of event going on, what're you going to do?"

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    Quote Originally Posted by Starfox View Post
    Could you expand on this? Sure, there is a difference between an Intimidate and a Diplomacy roll. But each player is likely to be better at one of these skills than at the other; what is to prevent such a player from repeatedly spamming his best skill?
    Because when your character uses Diplomacy he is taking one type of action in the game world; Intimidate is another beast. That means the response of the NPC in the case of success is going to be vastly different.

    I don't just look at the success or failure of the die roll, but how the character achieved that success (or failure). What the character does matters.

    In order to consider Armand vs. Brutus trying to get past the guard, we also need to know what kind of guy the guard is. The DM can make a snap decision (it's his job) based on the game world, the genre, or roll on a table. I think I'll do the last - using the two tables in the DMG on page 186. He taps his fingers and has a distinctive posture, very rigid. So I decide he's an anxious guy.

    (I'll also define some skill challenge stuff - I've decided that I do want to run a skill challenge with the guard and then a combat encounter inside, so the Goal is to get past the guard.)

    Now let's look at some actions:

    Armand might come up all friendly, saying, "Hello friend, do you mind if I get by?" Success might mean that the guard is pleasantly disposed to Armand, while failure means that this twitchy guard is wondering what this guy wants from him.

    Armand might say something like, "Hey, how's it going? Nice day. Have a drink with me. I always like to have a sociable drink before getting into the spice, know what I mean?" In which case the guard might take the drink on a successful roll, or at least be socially disarmed; on a failure he might get all squirrely and wonder who this weirdo is.

    Brutus might say, "Get lost loser, unless you want to catch a beating." Success might mean that the guard is even more nervous; failure might mean that he's nervous but also hostile, probably reaching for his weapons.

    Brutus might just reach for the door handle and when the guard checks him, he can say, "What are you doing?" A more subtle form of intimidation.

    Still other Intimidate actions: Laughing at him, staring him in the eyes, making fun of his posture and nervous tic, putting your arm around him in a "friendly" gesture... the guard's response is going to be different in each case.

    After one roll, the guard is:
    -friendly to Armand
    -having a drink with Armand
    -wondering who this guy is and why he wants to get by
    -pissed off at another junkie trying to make friends
    -cringing from the threat of physical violence
    -having to defend the fact that he is supposed to be guarding the door
    -drawing his sword
    -getting in the face of Brutus

    And the next action is going to play into that, changing the situation more.

    I think that's where the value of a skill challenge lies. A single skill check isn't going to have as much texture and detail to it; either he opens the door for you or not. A skill challenge, even a really fine-grained one like this, is going to add details to the game world, and it means the situation will change in unexpected ways.
    "If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."
    -- Ernest Hemingway, "A Farewell to Arms"
    Burning Empires: Boldaq
    Keep on the Shadowfell

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