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
 


robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
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.
This is exactly what is missing IMHO. I was very happy when GiffyGlyph included it in their Trials system which is a variation on the Skill Challenges:

 

DND_Reborn

Legend
Having never played 4E, the concept of skill challenges escapes me. It really doesn't sound like anything other than running the game...

If anyone has a "concrete example" to highlight the importance, I would appreciate it. :)
 

pemerton

Legend
Having never played 4E, the concept of skill challenges escapes me.
If you're familiar with other forms of closed scene resolution - extended contests in HeroWars/Quest; Maelstrom Storytelling; Duel of Wits in Burning Wheel; Prince Valiant; to some extend Marvel Heroic RP action scenes - skill challenges are similar.

But not identical, as per the OP.

It really doesn't sound like anything other than running the game
The most important difference between a skill challenge or similar closed scene resolution, and at least some very traditional approaches to "running the game", is that the GM does not get to decide when the scene is resolved. That is determined by the outcomes of the players' checks.

If anyone has a "concrete example" to highlight the importance, I would appreciate it. :)
Here are some old threads:

On the weekend I ran my first session of 4e that invovled only social interaction. So I thought I'd post about how it went.

The starting point
The PCs are low paragon - a dwarf fighter/warpriest of Moradin, a paladin of the Raven Queen, a wizard/invoker, a drow chaos sorcerer/demonskin adept, and a ranger-cleric of the Raven Queen. The player of the ranger-cleric was absent from the session.

The scenario combines elements of Thunderspire Labyringth (a 4e module), Heathen (from a 2008 online Dragon magazine), Speaker in Dreams (a 3E module from WotC) and Night's Dark Terror (a B/X module from TSR), plus some other elements of my own.

The PCs have recently entered a town which is under increasing pressure from hobgoblin and allied raiders. The town is ruled by a Patriarch of Bahamut and a Baron. The PCs are still getting the lay of the political land.

The PCs entered the town as heroes, having saved an affiliated village from being destroyed by hobgoblins. They were lauded by the Patriarch, and invited to join the Baron for dinner that evening. Later that day they then went on to stop an uprising by Demogorgon/Dagon cultists, and to cleanse the cultists' headquarters. In the headquarters, they rescued a priestess of Ioun who had been chained down next to a gibbering mouther, and had gone insane from the constant gibbering - the wizard cured her insanity using Remove Affliction.

The session begain with the PCs talking to the rescued priestess, and interrogating the one surviving and captured cultist.

Talking to the NPCs
This was almost entirely free roleplaying. The PC paladin had made a successful Intimidate check last session to cow the cultist and stop him running away. He made another check this session to interrogate him - the check was sufficiently high (in the high 20s or low 30s, from memory) that I decided nothing would be held back by the cultist. Some other skill rolls were made (History, Arcana) to see what sense the PCs could make of some of the things that the cultist revealed.

The conversations with the cultist and with the priestess happened side-by-side in play, and mostly side-by-side in the fiction. Three PCs were heavily involved - the paladin interrogating the cultist, the wizard and the sorcerer talking to the priestess. The dwarf was less heavily involved in the conversation, but the player of the dwarf was helping the other players put together and make sense of the information being obtained.

I awarded XP as per the guidelines in DMG2 - one monster's worth for 15 minutes of play.

Two revelations had the biggest immediate impact. One involved the PCs' principal enemy. This is the leader of the hobgoblins, a powerful wizard called Paldemar (but called Golthar in Goblinish). The PCs learned that in the town he is not known to be a villain, but is apparently well-thought of, is an important scholar and astrologer, is an advisor to the Baron, and is engaged to the Baron's niece. The PCs (and the players) became worried that he might be at dinner that evening. This was a worry for two reasons - (i) they didn't really want to fight him, and (ii) they know some secrets about an ancient minotaur kingdom that he does not, but has been trying to discover. One of those secrets involves a magic tapestry that the PCs carry around with them (becaue they don't have anywhere safe to leave it).

The second revelation was that the Baron was prophesied to die that night. The paladin had already sensed a catoblepas in the swamps outside the town, and had sensed it approaching the town earlier that day. The priestess explained that a year ago the Baron had been visited by a catoblepas, as a type of forewarning. And the cultist explained that the uprising had taken place today in anticipation of the Baron's imminent demise.

After learning these things, the PCs cleaned up in the cultists' bathroom and then hurried off to dinner.

The dinner
The PCs arrived late, and were the last ones there. On the high table they could see the Baron, and his sister and brother-in-law, and also Paldemar, their wizard enemy. They left their more gratuitous weapons - a halberd for the dwarf and a longbow for the ranger - with the dwarf's herald - an NPC dwarf minion called Gutboy Barrelhouse - and took their seats at the high table. Gutboy was also carrying the backpack with the tapestry.

The PCs also noticed a series of portraits hanging behind the high table. One had a young woman, who was the spitting image of a wizard's apprentice they had recently freed from a trapping mirror - except that adventure had happened 100 years in the past (under a time displacement ritual), and this painting was clearly newly painted. Another, older, painting was of a couple, a man resembling the Baron, and a woman resmembling the rescued apprentice but at an older age.

About this time the players started talking about the skill checks they wanted to make, and I asked them what they were hoping to achieve. Their main goal was to get through the evening without upsetting the baron, without getting into a fight with Paldemar (which meant, at a minimum, not outing him as the leader of the hobgoblin raiders), and without revealing any secrets to him. In particular, they didn't want him to learn that they had found the tapestry, and that it was in fact 15' away from him in Gutboy's backpack. But it also quickly became clear that they wanted to learn about the people in the portraits, to try and learn what had happened over the past 100 years to the apprentice they freed, and how she related to the Baron's family.

This whole scene was resolved as a complexity 5 skill challenge. It ran for more than an hour, but probably not more than two. The general pattern involved - Paldemar asking the PCs about their exploits; either the paladin or the sorcerer using Bluff to defuse the question and/or evade revealing various secrets they didn't want Paldemar to know; either the paladin or the wizard then using Diplomacy to try to change the topic of conversation to something else - including the Baron's family history; and Paldemar dragging things back onto the PCs exploits and discoveries over the course of their adventures.

Following advice given by LostSoul on these boards back in the early days of 4e, my general approach to running the skill challenge was to keep pouring on the pressure, so as to give the players a reason to have their PCs do things. And one particular point of pressure was the dwarf fighter/cleric - in two senses. In story terms, he was the natural focus of the Baron's attention, because the PCs had been presenting him as their leader upon entering the town, and subsequently. And the Baron was treating him as, in effect, a noble peer, "Lord Derrik of the Dwarfholm to the East". And in mechanical terms, he has no training in social skills and a CHA of 10, so putting the pressure on him forced the players to work out how they would save the situation, and stop the Baron inadvertantly, or Paldemar deliberately, leading Derrik into saying or denying something that would give away secrets. (Up until the climax of the challenge, the only skill check that Derriks' player made in contribution to the challenge was an Athletics check - at one point the Baron described himself as a man of action rather than ideas, and Derrik agreed - I let his player make an Athletics check - a very easy check for him with a +15 bonus - to make the fact of agreement contribute mechanically to the party's success in dealing with the situation.)

Besides the standard skill checks, other strategies were used to defuse the tension at various points. About half way through, the sorcerer - feigning drunkenness with his +20 Bluff bonus - announced "Derrik, it's time to take a piss" - and then led Derrik off to the privy, and then up onto the balcony with the minstrel, so that Paldemar couldn't keep goading and trying to ensnare him. At another point, when the conversation turned to how one might fight a gelatinous cube (Paldemar having explained that he had failed in exploring one particular minotaur ruin because of some cubes, and the PCs not wanting to reveal that they had explored that same ruin after beating the cubes) the sorcerer gave an impromptu demonstration by using Bedevilling Burst to knock over the servants carrying in the jellies for desert. (I as GM had mentioned that desert was being brought in. It was the player who suggested that it should probably include jellies.) That he cast Bedevilling Burst he kept secret (another Bluff check). But he loudly made the point that jellies can be squashed at least as easily as anything else.

While fresh jellies were prepared, Derrik left the table to give a demonstration of how one might fight oozes using a halberd and fancy footwork. But he then had to return to the table for desert.

Around this time, the challenge had evolved to a point where one final roll was needed, and 2 failures had been accrued. Paldemar, once again, was badgering Derrik to try to learn the secrets of the minotaur ruins that he was sure the PCs knew. And the player of Derrik was becoming more and more frustrated with the whole situation, declaring (not speaking in character, but speaking from the perspective of his PC) "I'm sick of putting up with this. I want Paldemar to come clean."

The Baron said to Derrik, "The whole evening, Lord Derrik, it has seemed to me that you are burdened by something. Will you not speak to me?" Derrik got out of his seat and went over to the Baron, knelt beside him, and whispered to him, telling him that out of decorum he would not name anyone, but there was someone close to the Baron who was not what he seemed, and was in fact a villainous leader of the hobgoblin raiders. The Baron asked how he knew this, and Derrik replied that he had seen him flying out of goblin strongholds on his flying carpet. The Baron asked him if he would swear this in Moradin's name. Derrik replied "I swear". At which point the Baron rose from the table and went upstairs to brood on the balcony, near the minstrel.

With one check still needed to resolve the situation, I had Paldemar turn to Derrik once again, saying "You must have said something very serious, to so upset the Baron." Derrik's player was talking to the other players, and trying to decide what to do. He clearly wanted to fight. I asked him whether he really wanted to provoke Paldemar into attacking him. He said that he did. So he had Derrik reply to Paldemar, 'Yes, I did, Golthar". And made an Intimidate check. Which failed by one. So the skill challenge was over, but a failure - I described Paldemar/Golthar standing up, pickup up his staff from where it leaned against the wall behind him, and walking towards the door.

Now we use a houserule (perhaps, in light of DMG2, not so much a houserule as a precisification of a suggestion in that book) that a PC can spend an action point to make a secondary check to give another PC a +2 bonus, or a reroll, to a failed check. The player of the wizard PC spent an action point, and called out "Golthar, have you fixed the tear yet in your robe?" - this was a reference to the fact that the PCs had, on a much earlier occasion, found a bit of the hem of Paldemar's robe that had torn off in the ruins when he had had to flee the gelatinous cubes. I can't remember now whether I asked for an Intimidate check, or decided that this was an automatic +2 bonus for Derrik - but in any event, it turned the failure into a success. We ended the session by noting down everyone's location on the map of the Baron's great hall, and making initiative rolls. Next session will begin with the fight against Paldemar (which may or may not evolve into a fight with a catoblepas also - the players are a bit anxious that it may do so).

This is the most sophisticated skill challenge I've run to date, in terms of the subtlety of the framing, the degree of back and forth (two major PCs with whom the PCs were interacting, with different stakes in the interaction with each of them), my concentration on evolving the scene to reflect the skill checks and the other action while still keeping up the pressure on the players (and on their PCs), and the goals of the players, which started out a little uncertain and somewhat mixed, but ended up being almost the opposite of what they were going into the challenge.
 

pemerton

Legend
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 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.

<snip>

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 ancestral hunting ground
My approach, in contexts where I want all the players to participate in a situation, is to present the situation in such a way that the players will want to declare actions.

Eg when the PCs come to town under the leadership of Derrik, Dwarven Lord from the East, then the Baron addresses Lord Derrik. If Derrik's player doesn't say anything in response, that will be a failure as the Baron is snubbed! If the player decides to spend resources to boost the check - eg an action point to reroll - well, that's the system working as intended (ie generating pressure on the players to use their mechanical resources).

But sometimes not every scene involves every character. A complexity 1 or 2 challenge might just involve a small number of characters. It depends very much on how things are framed. Conversely, given the time that it will take at the table to resolve a complexity 4 or 5 challenge I think, as a GM, it makes sense to try to frame a situation that will engage all the players.

When our main 4e game was at 30th level, the PCs had to persuade some Maruts to not interfere in their fight with the Tarrasque. The fighter made one check in the challenge - an Intimidate check (successful after an action point reroll), emphasising that he was there to deal with the Tarrasque whatever the opinion of the Maruts - and then proceeded to solo the creature for a couple of rounds. His success in that respect provided context for the other, negotiating, PCs to make their points and persuade the Maruts that they had made an error in their celestial calculations and hence had no cause to interfere on this occasion.
 
Last edited:

One easy way to look at Skill Challenges in modern parlance is a combination of Blades in the Dark tech:

1) THE SCORE. A score is a single operation of a particular archetype with a unique goal. The 6 archetypes are Assault, Deception, Stealth, Occult, Social, Transport. 4e D&D parlance might be a bit extended. Overwhelmingly, you're going to go to the Combat Encounter for "Assault", but I have handled plenty of quick combats via SC as a nested consequence in a greater SC. But lets take Assault out of the equation, change some stuff and add a few more:

Engage Calamity - This is a catch-all for something terrible (eg consuming famine, fire, pestilence, tornado) befalling a particular locale (steading, forest, etc).

Perilous Journey - Navigate dangerous wilds either with cargo (people or things) or without.

Pursue or Flee - Predator chases prey through a dynamic environment (of which the predator may not be sentient - "collapsing complex").

Ritual - Engage the supernatural (open/seal the gate, banish/adjure the spirit, bind the demon, summon the entity, etc)

Social - Bargain, convince, negotiate, persuade, trick an adversary who has something they don't want to give up.

Stealth - Infiltrate and exfiltrate unseen.

The goal and attendant stakes will be unique to the Skill Challenge and should be a conversation for the table to clarify prior to engaging.

2) RACING CLOCKS (4/6/8/10/12 ticks). In Blades parlance, you create two opposed clocks to represent a race when a situation is complex or layered and you need to track something over time. That basically describes 4e Skill Challenges to a T. One Clock represents PC's proximity to achieved goal (Successes) and the other represents the antagonism (and its arc) to that goal (Failures).

Deftly managing zoom here is key. The zoom for a social scene where you're trying to befriend an angry and injured brown bear is going to be very different than engaging the resolution of a long-term calamity like famine or pestilence befalling a steading is going to be different than a multi-leg journey through a dangerous wilderness. You're framing a dynamically changing situation that might be new obstacles or escalating situation on the order of moment to moment/blow-by-blow or days or seasons. Telegraphing consequences and foregrounding the conflict inherent to each framed situation is essential. For instance:

For one leg of a journey, the players have chosen to chart a course through an expansive glacial crevasse and moraine field with cornices lurking above (vs navigating an increasingly escalating and steep ridgeline with volatile weather) would risk a failure causing the broad zoom (leg of a journey) to zoom in on a suddenly escalated situation that riffs off of their approach (Skill deployed) to the glacial crevasse and moraine field obstacle. Depending on what move they have made and what consequences telegraphed, we'll be zooming in on thin ice cracking beneath their feet as they've navigated onto a false floor, or exposure, or the terrible truth of a monster in these parts, or the flagging spirits of our intrepid souls.

After that is resolved with a success, we again zoom out to the next leg of the journey and a new obstacle.
 
Last edited:

If the concern is to avoid "players choose to disengage in order to avoid failing and thus causing problems," there are several approaches one can take to address this, ranging from stick to carrot.
  • Every time a player refuses to participate, that is an automatic failure. This is nice and simple, but is going to feel very punitive.
  • Players may delay to the end of a "round" of actions to try to find a better opportunity for their skills, but they take a penalty for doing so (perhaps -1 for every turn they delay).
  • If a player wishes to delay, they can instead help someone else (as per the usual Aid Another rules), but any given approach only works once, and seriously bungled help can hinder instead.
  • A player can spend one round per SC "preparing" for their next roll. This grants +1 to that skill, but only if the player can justify how they've been gearing up to this effort.
  • Players can try to coordinate with one another, e.g. defer to let someone else apply a more-useful skill by proposing their own follow-up option, with DM approval. A good plan well-executed may result in bonuses for subsequent steps of the plan, even if they're not that character's "best" skills.
  • Players who are proactive with participating get a basic +2 to their roll.
Between these various things (which should not all be applied in most games, I would think), you should be able to find some happy medium where players are appropriately encouraged to participate in SCs.
 

DND_Reborn

Legend
The most important difference between a skill challenge or similar closed scene resolution, and at least some very traditional approaches to "running the game", is that the GM does not get to decide when the scene is resolved. That is determined by the outcomes of the players' checks.
Thanks for your post, but I fail to see how any of this is different from running a normal non-combat encounter:
  1. DM sets up scene.
  2. Players state intentions, asking about applying proficiency via skills to any checks.
  3. DM calls for checks.
  4. Players roll against DC or contested roll by DM.
  5. DM narrates resolution of rolls taking in player input.
  6. Repeat until scene is resolved by player satisfaction or by DM narrative requirements.
Now, I read about X number of successful checks vs. 3 (or whatever) failures as well. Perhaps that is really the only "difference". The above could handle adding in such a complication, but IMO that seems like it would just involve repetitive rolls with little satisfaction from them. It would make non-combat scenes/encounters tedious like combat can sometimes become (I attack... I attack again... I attack, um, again? yawn).

Part of your OP talks about using skills in unusual ways, which is fine if it makes sense, but that is already part of 5E, so I don't see any difference there. Otherwise, all the talk of the scene changing as a result of the PCs actions (successes or failures potentially) already happens.

GM's don't decide when a scene is resolved unless they are tyrannical IMO, since if the players are engaged and having fun why stop it? (Unless the DM feels there is really nothing further to be gained, which they can communicate to the players easily enough.) Player's move things along and move on when they are finished and the scene is resolved. Sure, the GM might have to prod things here or there, and the DM might have to necessitate closing the scene for narrative reasons (probably more really a shift in the scene instead of "closing" it).
 

Having never played 4E, the concept of skill challenges escapes me. It really doesn't sound like anything other than running the game...

If anyone has a "concrete example" to highlight the importance, I would appreciate it. :)
Here’s an example from my last game. The players need to bargain with a marid to undo a terrible mistake they made. All they know is that they have been directed to a treasure chamber with dripping urn covered in runes.

Naturally, first priority is to interpret the runes. Arcana check. On a success, they learn they have to draw a summoning circle, but also that the ritual summons the marid and they will have to bargain with it. Failure gets them instructions on how to summon it, but they misinterpret and believe that it will serve them.

Drawing the circle is a Dex check. They can add proficiency if they are trained in Calligraphy or Forger’s Tools.

Once the marid has been summoned, the Skill challenge proper begins. The party has two rounds to make their case (so 10 checks total)

The following skills approaches will work:
  • Finding out more about the marid (Perception or Insight). This doesn’t count as a success, but I will give information about other skills that might be useful;
  • Marids are extremely proud creatures. During the meeting, you need to offer this one a gift of at least 15 000 gp;
  • Flatter the marid by appealing to the marid’s distinguished lineage (History or Arcana);
  • Appeals to the bargain between geniekin and humsns (Religion)
  • Appeal to the marid’s sympathy (Persuasion, only available if the marid has been flattered first);
  • Draw upon knowledge of the sea or mariner’s legends of marids (Nature or Sailor background).

5 or less successes: the marid will grant the wish in exchange for a heavy price. Until the price is paid, the marid can take over any of the characters to get them to do what he wants.
6 to 8: the marid will grant the wish for a heavy price. The party has a fixed delay to complete the price or the wish will be undone.
9 successes: the marid will grant the wish in exchange for an unspecified service at a future date.
 

pemerton

Legend
Thanks for your post, but I fail to see how any of this is different from running a normal non-combat encounter:
  1. DM sets up scene.
  2. Players state intentions, asking about applying proficiency via skills to any checks.
  3. DM calls for checks.
  4. Players roll against DC or contested roll by DM.
  5. DM narrates resolution of rolls taking in player input.
  6. Repeat until scene is resolved by player satisfaction or by DM narrative requirements.
Your 6 is not part of skill challenges.

I read about X number of successful checks vs. 3 (or whatever) failures as well. Perhaps that is really the only "difference". The above could handle adding in such a complication, but IMO that seems like it would just involve repetitive rolls with little satisfaction from them. It would make non-combat scenes/encounters tedious like combat can sometimes become (I attack... I attack again... I attack, um, again? yawn).
The OP is about this.

GM's don't decide when a scene is resolved unless they are tyrannical IMO, since if the players are engaged and having fun why stop it? (Unless the DM feels there is really nothing further to be gained, which they can communicate to the players easily enough.)
You seem to be describing "GM as storyteller" play here. Skill challenges, and closed scene resolution more generally, is an alternative to that.
 

Thanks for your post, but I fail to see how any of this is different from running a normal non-combat encounter:
I use this approach mostly for social encounters.

The way I see it there are several differences:
  • The main one is that it provides a framework for DMs to structure series of skill rolls, some that is sorely lacking from the DMG;
  • Since it is based on accumulating successes, a failure of a single roll does not doom the attempt;
  • it expands encounters that would otherwise be a single roll to a full encounter. For instance, requesting reinforcements from the king becomes more than a single die roll;
  • it involves all characters, and likewise, leads to more and better use of party resources (i.e. the party can’t load all their resources on a single roll).
 

Dungeon Delver's Guide

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top