5E So...Skill Challenges
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  1. #1
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    So...Skill Challenges

    I skipped right over 3rd and 4th editions, but have just learned about skill challenges.

    I've read the applicable section in the 4th edition DMG. I have a bit of an idea how I might use them in my game. But they seem to rely on a player saying "I'll use diplomacy" or some such, instead of just telling the DM what he's going to do and letting the DM call for the specific Skill Check. That is, without the guidance from the DM saying "you need 6 successful skill checks among these three skills..." players may be floundering for what they should do.

    Is there a good way to use skill challenges while keeping the "just tell me what you want to do" aspect of playing D&D? I want my players to say "I swing my sword," not "I roll to hit." And I want them to say "I look around for clues," instead of "I use my perception skill."

    I appreciate the hive's thoughts.

  2. #2
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    Quote Originally Posted by SubDude View Post
    I skipped right over 3rd and 4th editions, but have just learned about skill challenges.

    I've read the applicable section in the 4th edition DMG. I have a bit of an idea how I might use them in my game. But they seem to rely on a player saying "I'll use diplomacy" or some such, instead of just telling the DM what he's going to do and letting the DM call for the specific Skill Check. That is, without the guidance from the DM saying "you need 6 successful skill checks among these three skills..." players may be floundering for what they should do.

    Is there a good way to use skill challenges while keeping the "just tell me what you want to do" aspect of playing D&D? I want my players to say "I swing my sword," not "I roll to hit." And I want them to say "I look around for clues," instead of "I use my perception skill."

    I appreciate the hive's thoughts.
    Skill challenges do rely on a player telling the DM what they want to do and not on the player just saying "I use ____ skill." When I run them, I always ask players what their characters are trying to do and how. I don't just let them roll skill checks until the RNG sorts out success or failure. If the player does a really good job of RP'ing the attempt, I'll even grant a small bonus to the check.

    I also tend to build in potential checks that allow you to remove a failure, albeit at a higher DC.

    You can even accrue successes or failures by doing things that aren't skills. Try to bribe the guard who is notoriously incorruptible? Automatic accrual of a failure. Trying to convince the goblins you mean no harm and just want to speak with their leader? Putting away your weapons might get you an automatic success.

    Skill challenges simply provide you with a framework for determining success or failure. The way in which you RP the use of skills (or just ability checks) doesn't change.

    If you do run a skill challenge, try to come up with a broad array of skills that can be useful. Come up with interesting elements that can be brought to bear. For example, want to convince the king to help you clear an orc menace by loaning you some soldiers? Play up the reputation the king's beloved father had for establishing peace and order in the region, and how it would make his father proud.
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  3. #3
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    Well, you can always prompt them. If they say, "I will use diplomacy," then ask them how, what will they say? There's nothing wrong with acknowledging a mechanic behind the narrative. Not sure why "I swing ny sword" is any better than "I roll to hit." Both are equally boring when said a dozen times.

    Matt Colville did a video on skill challenges not long ago.

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  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by SubDude View Post
    I skipped right over 3rd and 4th editions, but have just learned about skill challenges.

    I've read the applicable section in the 4th edition DMG. I have a bit of an idea how I might use them in my game. But they seem to rely on a player saying "I'll use diplomacy" or some such, instead of just telling the DM what he's going to do and letting the DM call for the specific Skill Check. That is, without the guidance from the DM saying "you need 6 successful skill checks among these three skills..." players may be floundering for what they should do.

    Is there a good way to use skill challenges while keeping the "just tell me what you want to do" aspect of playing D&D? I want my players to say "I swing my sword," not "I roll to hit." And I want them to say "I look around for clues," instead of "I use my perception skill."

    I appreciate the hive's thoughts.
    Don't use skill challenges as written, because they are awful. They've got a massive amount of variance based on the DC and skills of the PCs, and the best possible plan for dealing with them as a player is to make sure that only the person with the best relevant skill participates (either by withdrawing from the situation, or by always "assisting"). They're also pretty tedious dice rolling affairs.

    Watch out for 5e skill DCs, because using them verbatim makes PCs look like incompetent clowns.

    Stick with the tried and true action declaration followed by a potential roll: but bear in mind that most of the time you shouldn't bother with a roll, and just judge the action on it's merits and the skills of it's participants.
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  5. #5
    An indepth skill challenge is a perfect test for 1st level characters. It will set the stage for creative resolution of future conflict in the game. Don't be afraid to offer suggestions the first time it is implemented.

    Let's say the party needs to sneak through a city.

    The players might see 'Stealth' on their sheet and assume that is all they can do.

    This is where you can give suggestions to show that they can try all sorts of things.

    The Fighter could use their great strength to lift the party members over walls/buildings to escape/throw off their pursuers.

    The Wizard could remember the city layout from the book of maps they perused that one time.

    The Rogue might use their Stealth to scout ahead, ushering the other characters along when the coast is clear.

    And so on. There are an innumberable amount of ways to approach the problem. Sometimes you have to teach the first one so the players will understand for the future.
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  6. #6
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    Simply put, a skill challenge is just a structure for resolving a complex fictional obstacle - something that is going to take a little time or special effort. It consists of stakes and a set number of challenges or complications. The easy way to set it up in D&D 5e is to just make a note of a set of fictional challenges you want to present to the PCs while they are trying to accomplish some goal. If they succeed in overcoming all of the challenges, they achieve their goal and gain some kind of boon. If they succeed in overcoming most, but not all, of the challenges, they simply achieve their goal. If they fail to overcome most of the challenges, they can either achieve their goal at a significant cost or fail to achieve their goal (but the tale continues).

    Let's say the goal is to get through the Duskwood and to town before the Storm Unending catches up to the party and imperils their journey with bad weather. The Duskwood is a forsaken forest abandoned by the fey centuries past. You might list the following complications or obstacles: Nearly Impassible Thickets, Unseelie Trickery, Supernatural Darkness, A Wide Lake, and Sleep-Inducing Mushroom Spores. (There are just off the top of my head.) As the PCs make their way by whatever way they describe through the Duskwood, you hit them with one of those complications, describe what it is, how it affects them achieving their goal, and ask "What do you do?" The PCs formulate a plan, put it into action, and you decide what, if any, ability checks are required to resolve it into a success or failure. Repeat for each complication as it comes up on the journey through the forest. When they've gotten through all four, evaluate the result based on the parameters above, and narrate the outcome of the skill challenge.

    That's basically all there is to it. You could get fancier with it and there's probably a way to balance out the math to make it more of a tactical thing, but I think the above method works just fine in D&D 5e and keeps prep to a minimum and the focus on the basic conversation of the game. You should probably think about how you want to frame the challenges, too, so as to make sure everyone has a chance in the spotlight. Sometimes that's just a matter of calling on people before asking, "What do you do?" and letting them take it from there.

    I wish I could point you to the many skills challenges and advice on the same that I had on the WotC forums, but alas, they are gone.
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  7. #7
    Make weapons variable in their attacks. Instead of a Strength greatsword, allow them to use either, so long as they describe how they do this.

    For example "I jump off the cliff, whipping out my greatsword to cleave down at the enemy." I would say, roll an Acrobatics check, against the targets AC. Success means you get to use dex instead of Strength, failure means you miss.

    Alternatively "I hold my sword out to my side, with the tip touching the ground. I then build momentum to swing it into the Orc.", where I would say to do a Performance (Dexterity) check, again against the targets AC.

    This will reward creative play, I think, rather than a simple barbarian "I attack."

  8. #8
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    I love the idea of skill challenges but in practice they never quite worked, imho.

    I think it's probably because it never seemed like a real consequence was at stake, like dying, and the 'challenge' to overcome was never as concrete as a monster.
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  9. #9
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    Here's the Matt Colville video. What I like about skill challenges is it makes obstacles more interesting than just "Sneak past? I roll stealth." It's all about narration, though, how you tell the story the dice tell, not just, "I roll Athletics. Succeed."

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  10. #10
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    I cobbled together my owngroup skill challenge system. Basically, it creates a skill based combat against a challenge that has a skill DC like a an AC, and each point skills exceed that number away strip off its difficulty like HP, or add to it in the case of failures, until either it grows beyond the character's ability to succeed, or is overcome.

    Group Challenges.pdf

    As with most things, you get more out of your game if you require more roleplay from your players. Encourage them to state their actions in such a way that it creates a story, then roll dice to spice it up. Do they blow it out of the water in the first attempt? Describe it as such, it becomes the party showing off their excellence in skill like an episode of a crime procedural. Do they have a bungler dragging down the group? It offers a great chance for some in party tension and character growth. Does it all fall apart and end in fire and tears? Awesome, now THAT'S a story...

    Dice and a chance at even a partial failure keep things exciting, if all we did was sit around and say "There's a challenge" "Yeah, but we're awesome and beat it" "I guess you are", there's no dramatic tension.

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