Why I like skill challenges as a noncombat resolution mechanic




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  1. #1
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    Why I like skill challenges as a noncombat resolution mechanic

    A couple of recent threads - one in this sub-forum, and one which got moved to Meta - have talked about noncombat resolution and skill challenges. This has come up in the context of what 4e players might be looking for from D&Dnext.

    It seems that people are looking for a range of different things out of noncombat action resolution mechanics. What I primarily want is mechanics that will produce unexpected results in play, and that don't require the GM to pull punches. Which is to say, in these two respects at least, I want noncombat mechanics to resemble well-designed combat mechanics.

    I don't pretend to know the full range of non-combat resolution mechanics for every version of D&D, but I will assert that they are not that thick on the ground.

    In classic D&D (B/X, or the 1977-79 AD&D books), the only conflict resolution rules in are combat ones (including rules for evading/escaping from combat). There are reaction rolls, but these don't actually go as far as the resolution of social conflict. There are task resolution rules for perceiving various things, but when these get turned into conflict resolution mechanics they are limited to the surprise rules for combat (and this is one source of mechanical difficulty in those games - for example, thieves have a move silently ability and rangers don't, but rangers and not thieves get a bonus to surprise - what does this mechanical difference actually mean in fictional terms?).

    There are no social conflict resolution mechanics that I know of in 3E other than the Diplomacy rules. There are rules for allocating character build resources to crafting, professinal and performance skills, but other than the mundane crafting mechanics (which I personally don't regard as very signficant to core D&D play) there are no conflict resolution rules that I'm aware of. To put it another way - the rules tell me that a +10 Performer is a better artiste thatn a +8 Performer, but there are no rules for persuading an aggressive owlbear not to attack by calming it with song (unless you start using bardic magic).

    My own view, based on this udnerstanding of prior editions, is that skill challenges are the most robust non-combat conflict resolution mechanic scene in D&D to date. (I think they are far superior to 3E's Diplomacy rules, for example, which aren't really action resolution rules at all but more like scene-reframing rules: the player gets to tell the GM, "Instead of an encounter with an unfriendly NPC, let's have an encounter with a friendly NPC!") They are a scene-resolution mechanic very obviously based on similar sorts of mechanics found in a number of other RPGs (the ones I know are Maelstrom Storytelling, HeroWars/Quest and Burning Wheel, but I'm pretty sure that these don't cover the field).

    There are points of technical detail one could quibble with in comparing skill challenges to those other systems, although as I recently posted here the skill challenge as a mechanic actually has some strengths over (say) the Duel of Wits from Burning Wheel.

    4e also makes it hard to get the maths of skill challenges right, because it has very divergent and escalating skill bonuses. Hence the repeated revision of suggested DCs, plus the somewhat ad hoc "advantage" mechanic in Essentials. But this issue doesn't go to the structure of skill challenges - problems with the maths caused by scaling is a general problem for 3E and 4e D&D, which it is one aim of D&Dnext to correct.

    For some examples of skill chalenges that I've run, you can look here and here. The basic dynamic is very similar: I as GM frame the situation, the players engage it via their PCs, skill checks are made and resolved, I renarrate the situation in light of that, and the process continues until either N successes or 3 failures is reached. The trick to the narration is to (i) keep the scene alive, so that the players continue to engage, but (ii) be able to bring it to a close at the requisite time. A good sense of both the evolving fiction, plus various complications that can be introduced to push things in the appropriate direction, is important to running these encounters.

    There is also the need to apply "genre logic" in adjudicating players' declared actions (as per the brief discussion on DMG p 42 - Robin Laws's discussion in the HeroQuest revised rulebook is better). For example, a recent brief skill challenge I ran pertained to the reforging of a dwarven thrower artefact, Whelm, as a mordenkrad rather than a warhammer. At a certain point in the challenge, Whelm was thrumming with magical energy, and the dwarven artisans were having trouble physically taking hold of it with their toos. The player of the dwarven fighter-cleric overseeing the process asked if he could shove his hands into the furnace to hold the hammer steady long enough for the dwarven artisans to get a grip on it with their tongs. At heroic tier, I would have said "no". At mid-paragon tier, I happily said "yes" - and the Hard Endurance check was enough for the challenge to succeed, and Whelm to therefore be reforged as Overwhelm. (Had the player failed the check, I would have allowed the reforging to take place in any event, but was going to impose some sort of consequence for the PC on wielding Whelm, as the burns to his hands returned whenever he picked it up.)

    I can't profess to knowing every book for 3E/PF, but I'm pretty sure it has no mechanic that I could use to run any of the encounters I've described or linked to above, nor many of the other skill challenges I've run. I know that there are no mechanics to handle this in classic D&D. And this is so in two respects. First, these earier editions have nothing analogous to the pacing dynamic of a skill challenge, which requires the GM to keep the scene alive (including by introducing new complications) and the players to respond to the evolving scene, which continually, at least in the skill challenges I run, produce unexpected outcomes - of which the dwarf sticking his hands into the forge to hold Whelm steady is just one simple example.

    Second, they have nothing analogous to the "genre constraint" on permissible actions. So there is no simple mechanic for (for example) evaluating the success of a dwarven fighter-cleric's attempt to facilitate the reforging of an artefact by shoving his hands into the forge and holding it steady. A related consequence of this feature of skill challenges as a mechanic is that they make it very easy to adjudicate the improvisational use of combat powers for non-combat purposes. For, as the 4e PHB notes (p 259, emphasis added):

    Chapter 5 describes the sorts of things you can attempt with your skills in a skill challenge. You can use a wide variety of skills, from Acrobatics and Athletics to Nature and Stealth. You might also use combat powers and ability checks.

    In the reforging skill challenge, the player of the dwarf used Fighter's Grit (a utility power that permits the ignoring of certain adverse conditions) before shoving his hands into the forge (gaining a +2 to his Endurance check). In another recent challenge, the wizard PC used a power that lets the caster physically discorporate and possess an enemy to try and read an NPC's mind for a password (he succeeded in possessing the NPC, but failed in the Arcana check to extract the information he was after). In one of the examples I've linked to above, the sorcerer PC used Bedevilling Burst, a push attack, to upset some servants carrying jellies at a dinner party (together with a Bluff check to conceal his casting of the spell), thereby demonstrating effectively how one might physciallyd defeat a gelatinous cube (which was a topic of conversation at that time).

    I don't think this sort of improvisation is so easily incorporated within a system that relies heavily on the mechanics themselves, rather than the logic of situation and genre, to determine what is feasible and what the consequences of actions are (and what makes this workable, in a skill challenge, is that the push towards resolution of one form or another is provided by the metagame imperative of the "N before 3" structure, rather than the mechanically-determined outcomes of discretely resolved tasks).

    For D&Dnext to support this sort of non-combat resolution, at a minimum it would need to give me DC guidelines, some sort of resource system able to play the same functional role as the power system in 4e, and a general approach to scene framing and scene resolution which allows "genre logic" and metagame-driven complication introduction to work (so eg no need to track time and durations outside the context of the scene, which is one enemy of scene-based resolution).

  2. #2
    I dislike skill challenges for a few reasons:

    1) The math is opaque. It is likely a DM will misconstrue the overall probabilities of success and the variations a small change in DC can cause. I discussed that ages ago; here's one time. Further up that thread I show the difference between a 1-roll wins and a 6:3 win/loss probability.

    2) A skill challenge insists on full participation even when neither the player nor the PC was interested in participating and/or the player felt that participation would be detrimental (at least at the time I was paying attention; it is entirely possible there has been yet more errata around them).

    Skill challenges are a decent tool, but I think there should be a bunch of other tools in the toolbox. I use a bunch of other task completion mechanisms ripped from other game systems as necessary, myself.

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    Conceptually, I really like Skill Challenges, for many of the reasons the OP gives. In actual use, however, I've found them to be an almost complete failure - the use of a Skill Challenge has caused the scene to fall flat almost every time.

    As far as I can tell, there are four weaknesses with Skill Challenges, the first two of which should have been obvious at the outset:

    1) If a character has a directly-relevant skill, the player will proceed to make use of that one skill, again and again. This tends to be very dull. (And sure, the DM can restrict the spamming of a single skill, but very often this is, and feels, very artificial.)

    2) If a character does not have a directly-relevant skill, the player will either seek to step out of the challenge altogether, or at least will look very very hard for some way to minimise the damage that his PC does. That's really not fun for anyone.

    3) When preparing a Skill Challenge, establishing the structure of the scene was generally easy. However, I found that adjusting the scene as it went on, and especially adjudicating anything but the simplest results of PC actions, was quite difficult - in fact, this gained very little (if anything) over simply not using the mechanic. Ultimately, SCs proved to be more trouble than they were worth.

    4) The big one: Imposing the single Skill Challenge structure on very disparate situations (construction, diplomacy, chases...) tended to make the game feel very homogenous. Indeed, I found that the moment I uttered the words "Skill Challenge" this proceeded to destroy player immersion, as the game devolved into an attempt to find the "magic button" skills to get those requisite N challenges. The scenes worked much better if I didn't tell the players that was what was going on, but even then scenes tended to feel very artificial - whether because the players didn't realise they'd had too many failures or they didn't realise they hadn't yet accumulated enough successes.

    In the end, I concluded that Skill Challenges were a noble effort, but they tried to impose one solution on too many disparate problems. Instead, it was better to gut the system with a knife, and instead use the bits individually as they were required.

    Thus, when constructing each individual scene, rather than use the language of a Skill Challenge (with the N successes vs Y failures, key skills, etc), it worked better if I instead thought of the situation and built a custom solution, using the SC rules as nothing more than guidelines to that effect.

    (I don't know what that means for 5e. I think I would like to see some discussion of Skill Challenge-like mechanisms for resolving non-combat situations, complete with copious guideance for the DM in constructing such challenges. But I don't really want to see anything quite like the 4e/SWSE Skill Challenge rules - I just don't think they work as-is.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by delericho View Post
    As far as I can tell, there are four weaknesses with Skill Challenges, the first two of which should have been obvious at the outset:

    1) If a character has a directly-relevant skill, the player will proceed to make use of that one skill, again and again. This tends to be very dull. (And sure, the DM can restrict the spamming of a single skill, but very often this is, and feels, very artificial.)
    And they get diminishing returns - the target DC rises from medium to hard. And then if I'm DMing it goes upwards from there. You've already done what you can with this skill - to convince me you can do it again without seriously diminished returns you need to show me how you are using your skill in a fundamentally different way.

    And @KidSnide, I consider skill challenges I run to vary at least as much as ogres did from orcs pre-4e. I do consider skill challenges to be a scaffolding-based meta resolution system. And trying to present the scaffolding itself rather than the building it helps you build just looks bad.

    2) If a character does not have a directly-relevant skill, the player will either seek to step out of the challenge altogether, or at least will look very very hard for some way to minimise the damage that his PC does. That's really not fun for anyone.
    One exploration skill and one interaction skill isn't a high bar to set.

    3) When preparing a Skill Challenge, establishing the structure of the scene was generally easy. However, I found that adjusting the scene as it went on, and especially adjudicating anything but the simplest results of PC actions, was quite difficult - in fact, this gained very little (if anything) over simply not using the mechanic. Ultimately, SCs proved to be more trouble than they were worth.
    Honestly to me this is a matter of experience. Skill Challenges are an attempt to systematise the way some good DMs handle complex situations and make it accessible to all DMs. The guidance isn't what it might be. And not all DMs will handle all situations the same way.

    But ultimately most experienced DMs can get by without such a guideline. The people who need it are new DMs. In my third session DMing my PCs threw a slightly insane plan at me (I've given details repeatedly on other threads). And had I just had skill checks rather than skill challenges to fall back on I don't know what I'd have done. Possibly hid under the table gibbering. But with a mechanical structure to fall back on that covered the entire scene I was able to concentrate on weaving that with the fiction and handle it almost seamlessly.

    And that is where skill challenges or something like them are incredibly useful. Not for experienced DMs - most will tweak the system. But for newbies wondering how to learn to pace a scene or handle an off the wall plan.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    My own view, based on this udnerstanding of prior editions, is that skill challenges are the most robust non-combat conflict resolution mechanic scene in D&D to date. (I think they are far superior to 3E's Diplomacy rules, for example, which aren't really action resolution rules at all but more like scene-reframing rules: the player gets to tell the GM, "Instead of an encounter with an unfriendly NPC, let's have an encounter with a friendly NPC!")
    Can you explain what the difference is between "conflict resolution" and "scene reframing"? What happens if you "win" a social skill challenge, and how is that different from what happens if you hit a diplomacy check? Why is it enhanced by the rigid, disassociated game framework? I just don't understand what you're arguing.

    My argument against skill challenges is that it ends up being a minigame where everyone around the table needs to roll a die, so they have to look at their character sheet, see what they're good at, ask the DM if that skill works, come up with an explanation for what their character does to justify using that skill (or not), roll a die, and perform simple arithmetic. Basically, it just devolves into everyone rolling dice pointlessly for 20 minutes. I accept that a very good DM might be able to make a skill challenge fun, but I've never seen it happen.
    Last edited by GX.Sigma; Monday, 9th July, 2012 at 12:58 PM.

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    You need to combatize your non-combats. The genius of D&D is the to hit followed by damage rolls. Non-combat suck because we have dropped the damage roll. Reintroduce the damage roll and everything is fun again. In the forging of Whelm the artisans are rolling their craft skills and adding up 1d8s in order to reach a preset number symbolizing the completion of Whelm. The cleric simply made a Con-check and added 1d6 to proceedings.
    (You need to allow the challenge to produce danger in order to keep things exciting.)

    Lock 20 hp
    Roll Disable Device and do lockpick damage to the lock (1d6).
    Every round there is a 20% chance one lockpick is broken.

    Ride Storm 50 hp
    Roll Profession Sailor to manage and steer the ship to safer waters. Captains do 1d12, Ablebodied seamen do 1d8, and passengers do 1d4 points of use.
    Every round the sea will try to fling one character into the sea at +3 vs Ref.

    What die to use for damage depends on various things such as skill, class but mostly it depends on tools. Just like combat. This need to be developed further.

    In earlier editions you always used a monster to symbolize a danger. You didn't weather an icestorm - you fought a yeti. Now, we need to realize that the opposite us true too. Any danger can be handled in the same way a monster can. We just need to assign dice to the tools in the equipment list.
    Last edited by Frostmarrow; Monday, 9th July, 2012 at 01:29 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Frostmarrow View Post
    Non-combat suck because we have dropped the damage roll. Reintroduce the damage roll and everything is fun again.
    I don't know - I'm not a big fan of combat by attrition (and part of why I stopped GMing Rolemaster for 4e is that 4e takes D&D significantly beyond combat by attrition).

    Quote Originally Posted by Frostmarrow View Post
    In the forging of Whelm the artisans are rolling their craft skills and adding up 1d8s in order to reach a preset number symbolizing the completion of Whelm. The cleric simply made a Con-check and added 1d6 to proceedings.
    I don't know that that is more exciting than what I actually GMed. In my scenario, the player had to try for something to get his successes to 4, and after his attempts at prayer failed (poor Religion check) shoving his hands in was all he had left. In your system, why would the player ever take that risk?

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    Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
    I don't know - I'm not a big fan of combat by attrition (and part of why I stopped GMing Rolemaster for 4e is that 4e takes D&D significantly beyond combat by attrition).
    Isn't a 4E Skill Challenge exactly combat-by-attrition?

    The challenge has 6 hit points. The party has three hit points. A successful skill check deals 1 point of damage. Last man standing wins.

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    I found skill challenges, as originally presented, a bit awkward to run. Many of the reasons have been highlighted already, but often it was hard to come up with a challenge that would cover a suitable range of skills without being arbitrary. For instance, you need to track down the lair of an owlbear to steal an egg - there are lots of useful skills that will help you achieve this, but the dynamics require a certain order: the wizard should research first, then someone has to look for tracks, then perhaps there's an environmental hazard to overcome and some sneaking to finish. There's no logic to first sneaking and later researching.

    Successful challenges that I ran moved away from X successes vs. Y failures and instead became Markov chains - like the disease track. I would usually impose a time limit, and sometimes have branching or parallel chains but in essence a success that made logical sense would move you along the chain towards the goal, a failure would get you nowhere or move you back, depending on the logic of your attempt or how badly things went. Most challenges would be grand-scale enough that there could be minor parallel tasks to achieve, which even characters trained in as little as possible would take pride in completing whilst the competent core group followed the main quest.
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