D&D General Skill challenges: action resolution that centres the fiction

pemerton

Legend
In the Persuasion thread, I mentioned that 4e D&D's skill challenges have some strengths compared to social conflict systems where both the players and the GM roll, such as Burning Wheel, Prince Valiant, Torchbearer, Marvel Heroic RP, etc.

That strength is that skill challenges centre the fiction in the process of action declaration and resolution.

In opposed check-type systems, or roll-to-hit-and-reduce-hit-points systems, there is a real risk that the fiction drops out of play and the action declarations turn into nothing but dice roles and resulting ablation ("My roll of X beats your roll of Y, so lose Z amount from your pool"). Skill challenges don't have rolls or action declarations from the GM - all the GM does is frame checks and narrate consequences. As the 4e DMG sets out (p 74), "You describe the environment, listen to the players’ responses, let them make their skill checks, and narrate the results." So the GM is always bringing the focus of play back to the fiction.

This centrality of the fiction is reinforced by this from the DMG (pp 72, 75):

a skill challenge is defined by its context in an adventure. . . . In skill challenges, players will come up with uses for skills that you didn’t expect to play a role. Try not to say no. . . . it’s particularly important to make sure these checks are grounded in actions that make sense in the adventure and the situation.​

In other words, the GM needs to use the fiction to put the pressure on the players that will make them declare actions for their PCs (ie the fiction gives rise to the skill challenge), and needs to use the fiction to establish consequences. The DMG2 usefully builds on the core ideas of the DMG in relation to consequences (p 83):

Each skill check in a challenge should . . . Introduce a new option that the PCs can pursue, . . . Change the situation, such as by sending the PCs to a new location, introducing a new NPC, or adding a complication [or] Grant the players a tangible consequence for the check's success or failure (as appropriate), one that influences their subsequent decisions.​

The players likewise need to engage the fiction to bring their skills to bear: as the 4e PHB says to them (p179), "It’s up to you to think of ways you can use your skills to meet the challenges you face."

The centrality of the fiction to skill challenge resolution is important to preparing to run a skill challenge. Consider what is involved in preparing to run a combat encounter: as a GM, you look over a monster or NPC's stat block and think about the fictional situation (in D&D, the terrain is especially important here) and thereby think of actions you might declare for the creature in combat, things that will be interesting, exciting, and prompt the players to declare actions for their PCs. In other words, the core of prep is reflecting on the tools that the game gives you, and thinking about how to use them to produce engaging play. In a skill challenge, as a GM you don't have a stat block, or mechanically significant terrain: your tools are the fiction. And so preparing for a skill challenge as a GM means getting to grips with that fiction, thinking about ways the players might engage that fiction - given the obstacle(s) it is likely to pose to the goals they have for their PCs - and the sorts of consequences that might ensue if the players succeed or fail in the range of actions that the fiction involves. Those consequences are first and foremost fictional ones, but they can also manifest in mechanical terms (eg healing surge or hit point loss, modifiers to future action declarations, etc).

The DMG explicitly addresses this need, in prep, to come to grips with the fiction in relation to social encounters (p 72):

If the challenge involves any kind of interaction with nonplayer characters or monsters, detail those characters . . . In a complex social encounter, have a clear picture of the motivations, goals, and interests of the NPCs involved so you can tie them to character skill checks.​

What I would add to that is that, as the challenge unfolds, those NPCs' motivations and goals, even their interests, might develop and change as a consequence of the actions the players are declaring for their PCs. We can see this in the example of the negotiation with the Duke (DMG, pp 76-7): a successful Diplomacy check prompts the NPC Duke to reflect on a relevant event from his past, and that then opens up the possibility for the players to have the PCs take advantage of that in some fashion (achieving a success via their knowledge of History); in the example of play, a player has their character remind the Duke of the stakes of a past battle, so as to make the point that helping the PCs here and now would avoid putting at risk what was accomplished back then. And the way the prep for that skill challenge is set out provides an illustration of how a GM can think about consequences: the prep notes the relationship between a successful Diplomacy check, the NPC's response, and hence the opening up of the possibility of using History in the challenge.

From my own experience with 4e, the more experienced you become as a GM with the skill challenge structure as well as the broader mechanical workings of the game, the easier it is to establish and manage complex fictional situations with only modest, or even no, prep. But it always remains crucial to focus on the fiction and keep it at the centre. Because of the way skill challenges work, with the players declaring all the actions and making all the checks, it is only by presenting fictional circumstances and fiction consequences that the players will be prompted to engage the situation and declare actions for their PCs.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

I would like to discuss one improvement that I have found in later iterations of skill challenges.

In the DMG version (I don’t remember for the DMG2), a skill challenge was presented in terms of X successes before Y failures. This gave rise to complaints that the best thing an individual character could do is not engage with the challenge, because they felt the specialists were improving odds of success whereas they were dragging the party down.

I tend to have skill challenges run for a set “duration” (be it rounds of 1 minute, 10 minutes or even hours), during which each character can describe their action. This isn’t always an external “ticking clock”, sometimes, minds are set at a certain point.

The advantage of this approach is that having non-specialist characters participate is no longer framed as “I’m bringing the party down”, but instead “by trying SOMETHING, at least there is a chance I help the party”.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
I would like to discuss one improvement that I have found in later iterations of skill challenges.

In the DMG version (I don’t remember for the DMG2), a skill challenge was presented in terms of X successes before Y failures. This gave rise to complaints that the best thing an individual character could do is not engage with the challenge, because they felt the specialists were improving odds of success whereas they were dragging the party down.

I tend to have skill challenges run for a set “duration” (be it rounds of 1 minute, 10 minutes or even hours), during which each character can describe their action. This isn’t always an external “ticking clock”, sometimes, minds are set at a certain point.

The advantage of this approach is that having non-specialist characters participate is no longer framed as “I’m bringing the party down”, but instead “by trying SOMETHING, at least there is a chance I help the party”.

I'm not sure how using a "duration" changes it for you, but I get that it made the shift. I for one, just always had everyone participate. I didn't give them the option not to. I mean, they can use the "help" (aid another?) action in a pinch. But standing around would be standing around, which I don't think anyone who's an adventurer is going to do in a crisis, and if it's not a crisis, why call it a "challenge"? Just narrate and move on.
 

I'm not sure how using a "duration" changes it for you, but I get that it made the shift. I for one, just always had everyone participate. I didn't give them the option not to. I mean, they can use the "help" (aid another?) action in a pinch. But standing around would be standing around, which I don't think anyone who's an adventurer is going to do in a crisis, and if it's not a crisis, why call it a "challenge"? Just narrate and move on.
I have read complaints on these boards of people denigrating 4e skill challenges because they feel their contribution is more likely to hurt than to help.

Even before the change, none of my players complained.
 

I'm not sure how using a "duration" changes it for you, but I get that it made the shift. I for one, just always had everyone participate. I didn't give them the option not to. I mean, they can use the "help" (aid another?) action in a pinch. But standing around would be standing around, which I don't think anyone who's an adventurer is going to do in a crisis, and if it's not a crisis, why call it a "challenge"? Just narrate and move on.

No, but it's nice to have a mechanical incentive to participate as well even if it makes more sense narratively to use a skill you are not good at.

Stalker0's alternative skill challenges did this. They recalulated values around "number of successes in 3 rounds of rolls" where everyone makes a roll each round and you are mostly expected to use a skill related to the type of challenge -- social, physical, intellectual.

So once in a while the low charisma Fighter can figure out a way to use his high skill Athetics when trying to convince the Duke to let them into his ancentral hunting ground but mostly the Fighter has to use his low value social skills. But it is mechanically better to try to contribute than not because success is judged on total number of successes. So yes his +0 Diplomancy roll with DC of 16 only has a 25% of succeeding but that is better than 0% so go for it. You are mechnically helping the team by trying.

It's a good system that mechanically incentivizes everyone to participate and also let's the DM veto the most outlandlish high skill fishing. (becuase the success DCs took into account that everyone would not be using their highest skills every round)

When I ran it, I would allow 1 use per encounter of "outside" skills per party and it had to be a creative use that wouldn't make the table groan. So, yes you could use Diplomacy to say something clever to a crowd during a chase skill challenge so that they crowd panicked and created a difficult enviroment for the person chasing you. But that's the 1 use of Diplomacy in this Challenge.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
From my own experience with 4e, the more experienced you become as a GM with the skill challenge structure as well as the broader mechanical workings of the game, the easier it is to establish and manage complex fictional situations with only modest, or even no, prep. But it always remains crucial to focus on the fiction and keep it at the centre. Because of the way skill challenges work, with the players declaring all the actions and making all the checks, it is only by presenting fictional circumstances and fiction consequences that the players will be prompted to engage the situation and declare actions for their PCs.
Yes. I think that when they described skill challenges and listed possible skills for the challenge they really undercut how challenges should work. The focus should be on the player proposing an action in response to the situation, what skill to use is secondary and will be based on what they want to do. IMO when you try to codify that into a write up it's hard to get across how much you need to embrace it as a tool for improvisation to get the full value out of the system. It's too easy to turn it into just a set of boring dice rolls if you don't have that challenge-action-result back-and-forth at its core and kind of make the dice rolls secondary to that.
 

OB1

Jedi Master
I've been tweaking my approach to skill challenges recently around a single roll per PC method with 2 DCs where under the lower DC leads to complications (or failure), and over the higher DC leads to boons. I describe the situation, then have the players describe in general their approach to resolve the challenge and the skill they want to use. I may assign advantage or disadvantage on the roll depending on how appropriate the skill/approach combo is to the situation.

Each PC then rolls, and I jot down the results and compare them to the DCs and the end results I decided on beforehand, then narrate on the fly how the PCs actions led to that result.

So for example, if the players are trying to discover who the spy is at a ball, and the results are 1 complication, 2 successes and 1 boon, they have discovered the identity of the spy (2 success), but spooked them into running (1 complication) yet are able to corner them on the palace grounds (1 boon). During the narration, I bounce back and forth between the PCs, showing how their approach and skill led them to the end result.

The players also have the opportunity to stop my narration at any time and enter directly into the scene. It won't change the end result of the challenge, but can have other effects.
 

I would like to discuss one improvement that I have found in later iterations of skill challenges.

In the DMG version (I don’t remember for the DMG2), a skill challenge was presented in terms of X successes before Y failures. This gave rise to complaints that the best thing an individual character could do is not engage with the challenge, because they felt the specialists were improving odds of success whereas they were dragging the party down.
I wish 5e took the skill challenge and worked on it. 10 years later I am betting we would have much better ideas for them...

I also like to think of them as different (where X success before Y failures can work) some I have tried is "everyone is in a situation and has to do something... but you can help each other, but you are all in like your own X before Y" and "There is no failing unless you give up but each failure costs time and resources" and extended ones where "You need a huge number of success but each time you hit Y failures you can't try again until you take a long rest"
 

I have read complaints on these boards of people denigrating 4e skill challenges because they feel their contribution is more likely to hurt than to help.

Even before the change, none of my players complained.
I mean I hear a lot of 'gameing the system' online I don't run into in person... and look at my user name I have some experience with gaming the system
 


Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Recent & Upcoming Releases

Top