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
    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.)

  • #4
    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 GX.Sigma View Post
    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.
    Can PCs opt out of a combat? I mean combat is where it normally the case that all PCs are pressed into action and where everyone needs to roll dice. Opting out and not rolling dice is an invitation to die on the floor! The consequences for failure are clear.

    Whether you are a weak social character or a weak combatant. In either context you do what you can by aiding others.

    I think SC are imperfect but they add weight to failures by adding some framework to non-combat situations. I must say that I do like the idea that certain skill checks are required to 'unlock' other types of checks, ie an intimidate check being required to push an belligerent party to negotiating table where diplomacy and other checks are possible.

    The underlying issue here is that there more to 4th edition than the impression that 4th edition is only about combat. SC are one example of this. Moving forward it is important, I think, to not forget this.

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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 Nagol View Post
    The math is opaque.
    I agree that this is an issue, and I mentioned it in the OP. I have a handy chart that I use to get a feel for the probabilities, and also use some of the techniques from Essentials (the "advantage" mechanic) to even out the bumps, as well as relying on the players to use their powers and other abilities in various ways.

    But Essentials uses another expedient, which is more important: XP for a skill challenge are awarded whether or not the challenge is a success. Which makes the "N before 3" structure more important as a pacing mechanism (for which I think it is not too bad) than a reward mechanism.

    The tricky maths of extended conflict systems is fairly ubiquitous, isn't it? Calculating the odds in a HeroQuest revised extended contest, or a Duel of Wits, isn't easy. These rely also on (i) failure being an option, and (ii) the playes spending more Hero/Fate points in the contexts - the analogue to that in 4e being to use your powers and items to help out.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nagol View Post
    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).
    I can't say what the original designers subjectively had in mind, but I think this is about framing. In a combat, the reason the mage participates is because s/he, too, is under attack. If you apply the same principle in a skill challenge, the PCs will participate. Conversely, if the challenge doesn't put a PC under pressure, it's silly to expect his/her player to participate.

    Quote Originally Posted by GX.Sigma View Post
    Can you explain what the difference is between "conflict resolution" and "scene reframing"?
    As I understand the 3E Diplomacy rules, a player whose PC meets an unfriendly NPC can say "I use Diplomacy", make a roll, and (assuming the result is high enough) the NPC becomes friendly instead. In effect, the player gets to reframe the scene, as one involving a friendly rather than an unfriendly NPC, without actually engaging the fiction.

    For somewhat separate reasons, I'm not a big fan of that sort of mechanic - to flip it around, I tend to favour strong GM control over scene framing - but putting that preference to one side, 3E Diplomacy isn't going to lead to engaging, gripping social conflicts where the outcome is in doubt, the PCs (and their players) are stretched, and the upshot is something that no participant at the table expected going in. Whereas this is what I want from a conflict resolution system - of which D&D's combat rules are an example - and this is what I get from the skill challenge mechanic.

    Quote Originally Posted by GX.Sigma View Post
    What happens if you "win" a social skill challenge, and how is that different from what happens if you hit a diplomacy check?
    The difference is similar to that between playing out a combat - which creates the possibility for one or more PCs to be hurt, to help or hinder one another, to take prisoners, to be taken prisoner, to run away, etc - and a PC simply (say) Wishing the opposition dead. The second doesn't involve any actual play of the game - it is just the player reframing the situation, so instead of it being one involving an opponent being present, it is one in which the PC has unhindered freedom of action.

    When a social skill challenge comes to an end, if the players have achieved N successes then the PCs have got what they want. But this will have unfolded through a series of discrete skill checks, each of which required engaging the fiction in response to the GM's narration of the changing situation. So what the PCs (and the players) want may itself have changed over the course of the challenge. And they may have had to compromise, or make other hard choices, in order to make checks (eg if your last Diplomacy check didn't get what you want, what do you do to get another check? you make a more generous offer).

    The two actual play posts I linked to provide detailed examples of what I have in mind.

    Quote Originally Posted by GX.Sigma View Post
    Why is it enhanced by the rigid, disassociated game framework?
    Because the GM is obliged to keep the scene alive until one or the other completion condition is satisfied. This creates a "space" in which new complications must be narrated in response to the actions the players have their PCs take, and therefore in which unexpected things happen - be they compromises, changes of mind, or the shoving of one's hands into the forge to hold down Whelm as it is reforged.

    Quote Originally Posted by GX.Sigma View Post
    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.
    What you describe here isn't following the procedure as described in the PHB and DMG. Of course the players look at their sheets - that's where the players' resources are recorded, and skill challenges require players to draw on their resources. BUt you've left out the bit where the GM narrates the fictional situation, the player describes how his/her PC responds to it, and the GM then adjudicates that action.

    In your example, I don't know how the players are declaring actions for their PCs. How do they know what the content of the unfolding fiction is?

    Quote Originally Posted by delericho View Post
    If a character has a directly-relevant skill, the player will proceed to make use of that one skill, again and again.

    <snip>

    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.
    I think this is all about framing. And it is not unique to skill challenges - in D&Dnext, for example, if you don't want to see the fighter intimidating by crushing a pewter mug every time, and you don't want the bard to do all the talking every time, you will have to use the same sorts of techniques.

    The ones I use are (i) to turn the pressure onto the players - if they don't want their PCs to look like dullards, for example, they will have them talk, even if their Diplomacy bonus is low - and (ii) to change the stakes, so it is OK not to win every time. (Burning Wheel has excellent advice on this, which the WotC desingers should steal for their own rulebooks.) Part of (ii) falls squarely on the GM - if a Diplomacy check fails, for example, don't tell the player that his/her PC has a squeaky voice and spilled wine on the NPC's clothes. Rather, have the NPC respond "Your offer is a fair one, but unfortunately I swore an oath to my late uncle, from which I cannot resile." Now the player's conception of his/her PC as competent is affirmed, even though s/he didn't actually get what s/he wanted. And you've also give the player a new avenue of attack - trying to persuade the NPC to relinquish the oath.

    Quote Originally Posted by delericho View Post
    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
    Obviously this is the guts of it. It's a GMing skill that needs to be cultivated - not unlike knowing how to play multiple monsters well in a complex combat.

    D&D (including 4e) has extremeley poor advice for this, unfortunately - it tells you to do it, but doesn't give any techniques. I tend to find the best advice is in the games I mentioned upthread (especially Burning Wheel). There is also good stuff on about every second thread at The Forge.

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  • #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Frostmarrow View Post
    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.)...
    Agree with this. I have noticed for some time now, such that the observation now approaches personal dogma*, that if you want interesting game resolution with player decision enabled, you need at least three truly independent dimensions in the mechanics. A damage roll separate from a success check is largely independent, whereas a single success or failure against a count has been rolled into the skill check itself.

    What the third independent dimension should be in a D&D style game, I'm not sure. Burning Wheel uses "fate" (Artha) here, to good effect. Whatever it is, I do think it should be a player-driven resource, at the moment in the game, as skill checks and "damage" are mainly not.

    * in the real sense of the word dogma, that it is now a conclusion reached from reason for which I'll entertain objections if one wants to discuss those reasons or objections to them, but otherwise will take as true.

    One of the not inconsiderable benefits to having "damage" in non-combat is that it becomes far easier to wing it, by granting modifiers to the damage portion instead of the skill check, or in some cases, automatic damage (or "healing"). Moreover, this makes the skill system integrated, in that a "single skill check" now works exactly like the rest of the system. That is, a "single skill check" is one where the hit points of the challenge are low enough that the first capable character that goes after it can knock it out.

    Also agree with the implications of delericho's post that a single mechanical structure for all non-combat is probably not the best solution. It might not be a bad one as a framework to hang other things on, but I'd like to see those other things specific to social, exploratory, survival, etc. challenges. That is, concrete things that can be deployed by the DM and players in those challenges, that work seemlessly with the main challenge framework.

    I believe all of this is consistent with the goals pemerton has expressed, and which I also agree with.

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