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

Skill challenges, group checks* and other forms of extended contests certainly have their uses, and I occasionally employ them, though probably far more infrequently than many others here. I feel they're most useful for abstracting extended activity exact details of which you're not interested in modelling. Travel is a common use.

* Seriously 5e's group checks are very similar to skill challenges, I don't know why people are not similarly enamoured with them... 🤷

However, the central claim of the OP was that skill challenges "centre the fiction". I don't really see this, it is almost the opposite. This is very "mechanics first" way to handle things. You have the mechanic framework as a starting point, and then you weave fiction on top of that to justify skill uses and invent what success and failures mean. Now people here certainly have given excellent examples of how to do that in a way that compelling fiction is generated. I think this is mostly due their skill and experience, and perhaps aided by importing principles, guidance and approaches from other games. The actual printed text IIRC is pretty sparse about how the fiction and mechanics are connected.

The "traditional" approach is for the GM to come up with the fictional situation and then trying to honestly and consistently represent this via mechanics. To me this me seem far more "centred to the fiction". If fictionally it makes sense that the problem is solved via one genius move or escalates into unmitigated catastrophe by an idiotic one, then so be it. In this approach such following of the fiction with integrity is not prevented by rigid mechanics that dictate predetermined amount of checks.

And I don't buy the notion that the latter is (or at least has to be) just GM arbitrarily deciding when the issue is solved. It is not arbitrary. The GM sets up the fiction and is constrained by honestly following it, just like in the skill challenge they set up the complexity of the challenge and are constrained by it.

And sure, things that were not predetermined might become relevant and the GM might need to ad hoc decide them. But similarly in skill challenge the GM has to make such decisions. When does the fictional positioning warrant the use of a skill? What additional complications failures bring? What additional avenues of gaining further progress the successes open? Especially if played in non-scripted, no-myth mode advocated by many I feel the GM must make far more such decisions and they will shape the course of the fiction far more than in an approach where the GM is just trying to honestly present a prepped situation.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
Since you’re familiar with Torchbearer, a good way to look at Skill Challenges might be Torchbearer adventure and resolution design. Take a quick look at the Adventure Budget:
I bought and played 4e when it came out. The designers presented a few subtly different takes on SCs over the publishing lifetime.

I hadn't thought to compare them with TB2 however.

Looks an awful lot like a combination of Skill Challenge Complexity and Level!

Then consider the Fail Forward "Twist but Fun Once" action resolution that undergirds Torchbearer.

Torchbearer Short to Medium Adventure Budget + Difficulty Level + Success or Twists but Fun Once is basically the same architecture/engine (broadly) as 4e Skill Challenges.
I need to give that some thought. It's an interesting comparison.

EDIT I wish Enworld had a "thinking" emoji.
 

pemerton

Legend
On the one hand, supposing we part from our primary and secondary skill lists - which as you show is intended - then what is the real value of that mechanical furniture over clocks, which are my comparative?
I've neither read nor played BitD, so can't comment on its clocks. @Manbearcat seems to think they are fairly similar to skill challenges.

Skill challenges are clearly different from AW clocks, because the latter are both "prescriptive" and "descriptive", in the sense of both driving and following from the fiction; whereas skill challenges are prescriptive.

My own view, based on experience, is that it is often helpful, in advance of running a session of 4e, to think about what skill challenges are likely to come up (given the current trajectory of play) and think about some of the ways they might be adjudicated (eg what are some places that invite the insertion of Hard checks; what are some good consequences for failure - eg like the encirclement by Goblin wolfriders that I mentioned upthread; etc). This is for the same reason that - again in my experience - 4e benefits from having stat blocks prepared in advance. It's an intricate mechanical system.

None of this is to say that preparation is essential. I've run many impromptu skill challenges, and chosen or written up stat blocks on the spur of the moment. But 4e is not a light system.
 

pemerton

Legend
However, the central claim of the OP was that skill challenges "centre the fiction". I don't really see this, it is almost the opposite. This is very "mechanics first" way to handle things. You have the mechanic framework as a starting point
I don't think this is correct. The starting point is that the PCs are confronted, in the fiction, with an obstacle to their goal. And the players declare actions for their PCs to try and overcome those obstacles.

The framework is not a starting point: rather, what it does is direct the GM how to narrate consequences: successes can't be narrated as final - in relation to the goal - unless they are the last success required. And failure can't be narrated as final either - again, in relation to the goal - unless they are the third failure.

The GM also has to keep an eye on the tally of successes and failures, and narrate consequences having regard to that, so that when finality (be that success or failure, relative to the goal) does need to be narrated, it can be done so consistently from what has followed rather than being a jarring rabbit from a hat.

TL;DR: The framework is not a starting point; its role is to guide the GM in respect of finality of consequences.

then you weave fiction on top of that to justify skill uses and invent what success and failures mean.
As I've just posted, the fiction comes first: the PCs confront an obstacle. Then the action declarations come next - they are grounded in the fictional situation as the player understands it ("try not to say no") but with the GM as ultimate arbiter (" make sure these checks are grounded in actions that make sense in the adventure and the situation").

There is no weaving "on top of" anything. The GM narrates consequences - successes and failures. These are no more "invented" in a skill challenge than in any other context of resolving a check: the stakes of the check are either express or at least implicit in the fiction, and depending on whether the player succeeds or fails the GM narrates the gain or loss in relation to those stakes appropriately.

The narration does depend upon the GM having regard primarily to intent - both local, and the overall goal of the skill challenge - and stakes - again, both local, and the overall context of the skill challenge - rather than just granular analysis of and extrapolation from the task. But this is not particular to skill challenges, or even to closed scene resolution: for instance, it is pretty central to the adjudication of a single check in Burning Wheel or Torchbearer, and having regard to stakes (though not so much intent/goal) is also part of GMing Apocalypse World, which does not use closed scene resolution at all.

The actual printed text IIRC is pretty sparse about how the fiction and mechanics are connected.
The OP sets out some of the key passages from the original printing of the DMG:

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.

<snip>

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."

<snip>

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.​
Sparseness is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder. But to me that all seems pretty straightforward and unambiguous.

The "traditional" approach is for the GM to come up with the fictional situation and then trying to honestly and consistently represent this via mechanics. To me this me seem far more "centred to the fiction". If fictionally it makes sense that the problem is solved via one genius move or escalates into unmitigated catastrophe by an idiotic one, then so be it. In this approach such following of the fiction with integrity is not prevented by rigid mechanics that dictate predetermined amount of checks.

And I don't buy the notion that the latter is (or at least has to be) just GM arbitrarily deciding when the issue is solved. It is not arbitrary. The GM sets up the fiction and is constrained by honestly following it, just like in the skill challenge they set up the complexity of the challenge and are constrained by it.
The OP is not comparing skill challenges to the approach that you and @Pedantic prefer, although in post 215 upthread I give some reasons for preferring skill challenges to your preferred approach.

As the OP makes clear - with its references to Burning Wheel, Prince Valiant, Torchbearer, Marvel Heroic RP - the comparison is being made with systems based on opposed checks and ablation of opposing pools. The point is elaborated in post 194, with reference to two further RPGs: In A Wicked Age, and Agon.
 

So I actually don't have a problem with any of this except the bolded part. Yes, absolutely, the GM is a window into a non-existent world they are attempting to simulate to the best of their ability at all times. They are a deist god who set a world in motion, and also the camera unto that world as necessary. We can argue about whether that's practical or not I suppose, but that's the design basis I'm coming from when talking about these kinds of challenges. The castle exists, independently of whether the PCs will ever engage with it, and has traits that are only interesting to them should they appear there. It's an obviously impossible task to actively simulate an entire additional universe in full, but it's not particularly difficult to emulate doing that at the point of PC contact, and design choices flow from assuming that's the norm.
And this is FUNDAMENTALLY why we won't agree, cannot agree, because we are not approaching the structure of play in the same way, at all. There is no 'world' and it is NOT being 'simulated' in any meaningful way. We are playing a game which involves telling parts of a story, or several interwoven stories. Nobody owns it, or has total control of what it is. There is certainly no 'deist god'. There are a group of participants who are playing the game and finding out what sort of world they are creating, and what sort of things will happen in it, together. There's no need for the GM to be in some sort of 'drivers seat'.
The bolded section is just wrong. I have no idea what you mean by "when a conflict is over" without the framework of a skill challenge or timer. Whatever is happening is happening, and if a player wants a particular outcome, they have a bunch of actions available to change the world to their liking. A conflict ends when the PC has gotten the thing they wanted, or it is no longer possible for them to get the thing they wanted.
But how do you measure when it is no longer possible? Either you have to have closed scene resolution, or the GM invents that answer on their own (or maybe a player gives up or changes there mind I suppose).
This is the thing I keep talking about, where the PC sets the victory condition, and gets to change it whenever they want. They decide what it is they want, and then spend their available actions to get to that point. The story of a given campaign is the ex post facto stringing together of that PC chasing each of those goals and recording what happened from point A to point B along the way.

More to the point though, removing the GM from resolution is the primary goal of such a system. Actions have discreet effects and consequences, so you can figure out what happens by plugging a PC choice into the mechanics for resolving that action, and be handed a result. Then you reevaluate the state of the world, any other parties that can take actions do so, and you repeat. Continue until everyone is dead or the PC has gotten whatever it is they wanted done.
The GM can never be removed. In this classic paradigm the GM IS the world, removing them isn't even remotely possible.
 

So, I think we can summarize the difference in agency we're discussing pretty simply. In a skill challenge framework a players the following two points of agency:
1. Which skill they're rolling
2. Which difficulty they're rolling against.

Those might be limited in various ways by the situation, and depending on the structure, they may also get:

3. Spend resource to ignore roll.

I'm proposing that players should additional have the agency:

4. Adjust number of rolls until victory.

And that this is best achieved by leaving victory undefined until the player decides they've achieved it, and by limiting resolution to each individual roll.
But that is not what happens. The GM calls for checks. The GM determines what sort of progress is made when a success is achieved (and vice versa). The only time this is going to be completely outside the GM's immediate control is when they decided beforehand, by completely specifying the situation, and now we are in the same situation as an SC! (at best). The player is deciding nothing.

I mean, if you are suggesting a very non-classical type of system in which players simply decide for themselves when the situation warrants final success and simply informs the GM of such (OK, I passed a swim check, I've reached the other side of the River Lethe) well, OK I yield the point (but Mr. Czege wants to have a word with you now...)!
You don't necessarily know, but you're certainly going to do your best to manipulate any situation to cut down on risk as much as possible. Consequences are intrinsic to actions, the primary cost being time, and other consequences following naturally in reaction to events. And yes, conservative is a fine descriptor of the sort of play I'm after. Players are trying to be efficient and effective with their resources, but you know, face a whole fantasy world full of problems and will be forced to expend them.
See, I think the problem is, you are taking one very narrow agenda of play, deciding that a certain system design might not work for it, and declaring it to be a bad design. Yet, at best, you know nothing of how well it works for everyone else who doesn't share that exact agenda.

But I find there is another issue, which is the 'unreality factor'. A fantasy world imagined by a GM and/or players (or however its description came about) is a very 'thin' thing. 99.9% of everything is really not defined in the description and is unsettled. Thus nobody can really say what the risks are. Heck, a pretty good hunk of why most RPGs involve dice is the feeling that there are MANY factors that have not been taken into consideration, could not practically be taken into consideration, by the participants, and thus a stochastic mechanism, the dice, is employed to kind of 'fill in'. But even that aside, most plans rely on factors nobody knows about! Is the candle maker friends with the scullery maid? Who knows? I mean, sure, it could theoretically be noted, but nobody fleshes out that level of detail, yet it could be a critical factor, and the GM will have to decide it, on the fly. In a sense there really is nothing BUT 'low myth' play, and the idea that anyone can map out any but the most immediate and proximate causes and consequences of things doesn't hold water. There is no 'plan', there is no spoon, thus I cannot bend the spoon, you get it?
Not knowing I don't have any agency to improve my situation does not actively improve my agency, and merely makes whatever game I'm playing more frustrating. Now the player has to play a meta-game to figure out what game they're in, and then attempt to optimize for that.
No, now they know a way to even-handedly decide. We can get on with the interesting part, what actually is it that we find in this situation?
The math is not hard on these, and more to the point, in a sufficiently well designed system there is no functional difference between trying to optimize your chances of success and engaging with the fictional state. Your character, it can generally be assumed, is competent, wants to survive, and has the goals you've given them. Optimizing their chances of success is exactly how one engages with the world.
I would not presume that at all, and find the idea that this is the only design which provides 'agency' to be a highly dubious proposition. You would clearly benefit from playing in a game using an RPG and techniques which challenge your assumptions.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
Skill challenges are clearly different from AW clocks, because the latter are both "prescriptive" and "descriptive", in the sense of both driving and following from the fiction; whereas skill challenges are prescriptive.
Yes, I think that is right. To put it in hopefully not too banal terms, SC's set an amount of work to be done to reach an outcome, and list some tools for doing that work. Clocks measure the amount of work of a certain sort that is done, by whatever means, and list an outcome. Contrast
  • You have to dig a hole this deep. You can use a shovel or a spade. You might hit some electrical cables if you dig in the wrong place.
  • You're digging? Okay, let's track how deep: there are electrical cables this far down.
I agree too about the value of the right kind of prep for heavier systems. It's the dilemma of crunch: one can enjoy crunchy play, but typically the crunchier the play, the more prep is needed to sustain that enjoyment. I think SC's - in the context of a crunchy system - strive to offer a light-enough framework for playing out a wide variety of situations in a systematically-constrained way with minimal prep.

When I ask myself - would 4e have done better with clocks than SCs? My intuition is probably "yes"... but you know, it's very much a matter of style and taste. The fixed ticks for effect level could have been readily translated into powers, for example +1s when using Nature. That actually has some pretty beneficial consequences.
 

I understand the automatic success rationale. The game text I can find provides for additional possible successes on successful skill checks, but only for complexity 3+.
I think people are overestimating the degree to which the intent in 4e is for all these various elements beyond the number of successes and failures to be used rote as exactly written. There are advantages, different DCs, possible 'use a ritual and get a success' (or other resources), etc. It is not really exactly spelled out that every one of these must be in play exactly to the letter of the blurb on each one.

My take on SC rules, as of RC or basically DMG2, is you have the tally of successes and failures based on Complexity, a level, and the GM can decree various things like primary and secondary skills, some number of advantages, etc. as it seems like the situation is best served. Some of these things have pretty precise guidelines, like the number of advantages and the number of different DCs of checks that you should use appear in the complexity table, so you PROBABLY use them as-is. OTOH the rules on what happens when a ritual gets cast, or a power used, are quite a bit more vague and clearly owe so much to the fiction that whatever is said is at best advisory.

So, I think @Manbearcat kind of decided that if you use a ritual, you make a ritual check, and you get AT LEAST the one success for paying to do the ritual plus maybe another one if the ritual check is sufficiently good. Now, if it was a different ritual, maybe one that doesn't scale its outcome based on the check, or doesn't even have a check, maybe he would call it differently. You'll have to ask him. I think he stated the SC was Complexity 3 anyway, right? So maybe that was why it was at least that high, I'm not sure...
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
I think people are overestimating the degree to which the intent in 4e is for all these various elements beyond the number of successes and failures to be used rote as exactly written. There are advantages, different DCs, possible 'use a ritual and get a success' (or other resources), etc. It is not really exactly spelled out that every one of these must be in play exactly to the letter of the blurb on each one.
To get perhaps overly technical and legalistic, I dislike that argument on the following principle
  • where game text can be read in one way to sustain meaning in all parts, and another way to empty some parts of meaning, we ought to prefer the former
  • this is true except where there the principle of specific beats general applies
I believe the game text on advantages in SCs based on their complexity would be strictly meaningless, if the intent of the DMG text is to confer an identical benefit. Construing the DMG text as you suggest isn't literally necessitated, and it breaches both principles above (the advantages text would be emptied of meaning, even while the advantages test is the more specific).

My take on SC rules, as of RC or basically DMG2, is you have the tally of successes and failures based on Complexity, a level, and the GM can decree various things like primary and secondary skills, some number of advantages, etc. as it seems like the situation is best served. Some of these things have pretty precise guidelines, like the number of advantages and the number of different DCs of checks that you should use appear in the complexity table, so you PROBABLY use them as-is. OTOH the rules on what happens when a ritual gets cast, or a power used, are quite a bit more vague and clearly owe so much to the fiction that whatever is said is at best advisory.
Perhaps the better thing to say is something like this: I queried a poster's description of an adjudication based on their words as I read them compared with words in the game text. It's okay to say that one feels the intention of the game text is vague and make a different interpretation, but one can't say that the game text I compared with doesn't exist. Nor does it really seem right to me, to put vagueness in one place on the same footing as clarity in another.

So, I think @Manbearcat kind of decided that if you use a ritual, you make a ritual check, and you get AT LEAST the one success for paying to do the ritual plus maybe another one if the ritual check is sufficiently good.
Agreed. As I said up thread, for me it is right to understand from the DMG that investing resources can earn successes. What they don't do (outside advantages) is increase the number of successes from ongoing checks. (Or maybe they do, there's a lot of text scattered through the books, but no one has shown where yet!)

Now, if it was a different ritual, maybe one that doesn't scale its outcome based on the check, or doesn't even have a check, maybe he would call it differently. You'll have to ask him. I think he stated the SC was Complexity 3 anyway, right? So maybe that was why it was at least that high, I'm not sure...
This is how the SC was categorised
Level + 2 Skill Challenge, Complexity 2; you've got to get there quickly > convince the ankheg > the two of you get back quickly.
 
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So, I think @Manbearcat kind of decided that if you use a ritual, you make a ritual check, and you get AT LEAST the one success for paying to do the ritual plus maybe another one if the ritual check is sufficiently good. Now, if it was a different ritual, maybe one that doesn't scale its outcome based on the check, or doesn't even have a check, maybe he would call it differently. You'll have to ask him. I think he stated the SC was Complexity 3 anyway, right? So maybe that was why it was at least that high, I'm not sure...

To get perhaps overly technical and legalistic, I dislike that argument on the following principle
  • where game text can be read in one way to sustain meaning in all parts, and another way to empty some parts of meaning, we ought to prefer the former
  • this is true except where there the principle of specific beats general applies
I believe the game text on advantages in SCs based on their complexity would be strictly meaningless, if the intent of the DMG text is to confer an identical benefit. Construing the DMG text as you suggest isn't literally necessitated, and it breaches both principles above (the advantages text would be emptied of meaning, even while the advantages test is the more specific).


Perhaps the better thing to say is something like this: I queried a poster's description of an adjudication based on their words as I read them compared with words in the game text. It's okay to say that one feels the intention of the game text is vague and make a different interpretation, but one can't say that the game text I compared with doesn't exist. Nor does it really seem right to me, to put vagueness in one place on the same footing as clarity in another.


Agreed. As I said up thread, for me it is right to understand from the DMG that investing resources can earn successes. What they don't do (outside advantages) is increase the number of successes from ongoing checks. (Or maybe they do, there's a lot of text scattered through the books, but no one has shown where yet!)


This is how the SC was categorised

We’re going backwards. I resolved this several posts back:

DMG2 p86

“A character who performs a relevant ritual or uses a daily power deserves to notch at least I success toward the party's goal.”

So 1 auto-success + 1 success for hitting the DC for amplified Eagle’s Flight.

You could look at this like Blades +1 Effect or Torchbearer’s Margin of Success. Principally the same.

DMG2 says at least 1 success for deploying relevant Ritual. How do you get to 2? By exceeding the base effect DC of the Ritual.

4e is exception-based design with a mega-transparent chassis. The rules inform resolution qualitatively and quantitatively except in edge cases where GM must adjudicate (as above).
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
We’re going backwards. I resolved this several posts back:
IKR! Others keep revisiting it.

You could look at this like Blades +1 Effect or Torchbearer’s Margin of Success. Principally the same.

DMG2 says at least 1 success for deploying relevant Ritual. How do you get to 2? By exceeding the base effect DC of the Ritual.

4e is exception-based design with a mega-transparent chassis. The rules inform resolution qualitatively and quantitatively except in edge cases where GM must adjudicate (as above).
As I hopefully made pretty clear up-thread, I took no issue at all with gaining 1s for investing the resource. That 1s can be granted regardless of the number on the Nature check, as the check for the ritual determines the ritual's effectiveness, not whether it succeeds. (It determines Overland Flight speed.) You tied it to the number rolled, which can be parsed under the rules to mean one of two things
  • You wanted to see an Overland Flight of above a certain speed (15+) to get that 1s
  • You wanted a hard Nature check anyway, and using Eagles' Flight was granting an auto-1s
(Seeing as you called for one roll, it seems it must be the latter, right?)

What I queried in the first instance was whether you intended to grant +1s for Nature check as primary or secondary skill use, which is covered by a specific rule (advantages for complexity 3+ challenges). Conceivably, in that case one would be granting an ongoing +1s (where Nature was allowed to contribute more than once to the SC.) You clarified - as I understood your later post - that you did not intend that. Which made sense to me as that chimes better with the rules on advantages for complexity 3+ SCs. Phewf.
 
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Skill challenges, group checks* and other forms of extended contests certainly have their uses, and I occasionally employ them, though probably far more infrequently than many others here. I feel they're most useful for abstracting extended activity exact details of which you're not interested in modelling. Travel is a common use.

* Seriously 5e's group checks are very similar to skill challenges, I don't know why people are not similarly enamoured with them... 🤷

However, the central claim of the OP was that skill challenges "centre the fiction". I don't really see this, it is almost the opposite. This is very "mechanics first" way to handle things. You have the mechanic framework as a starting point, and then you weave fiction on top of that to justify skill uses and invent what success and failures mean. Now people here certainly have given excellent examples of how to do that in a way that compelling fiction is generated. I think this is mostly due their skill and experience, and perhaps aided by importing principles, guidance and approaches from other games. The actual printed text IIRC is pretty sparse about how the fiction and mechanics are connected.

The "traditional" approach is for the GM to come up with the fictional situation and then trying to honestly and consistently represent this via mechanics. To me this me seem far more "centred to the fiction". If fictionally it makes sense that the problem is solved via one genius move or escalates into unmitigated catastrophe by an idiotic one, then so be it. In this approach such following of the fiction with integrity is not prevented by rigid mechanics that dictate predetermined amount of checks.

And I don't buy the notion that the latter is (or at least has to be) just GM arbitrarily deciding when the issue is solved. It is not arbitrary. The GM sets up the fiction and is constrained by honestly following it, just like in the skill challenge they set up the complexity of the challenge and are constrained by it.

And sure, things that were not predetermined might become relevant and the GM might need to ad hoc decide them. But similarly in skill challenge the GM has to make such decisions. When does the fictional positioning warrant the use of a skill? What additional complications failures bring? What additional avenues of gaining further progress the successes open? Especially if played in non-scripted, no-myth mode advocated by many I feel the GM must make far more such decisions and they will shape the course of the fiction far more than in an approach where the GM is just trying to honestly present a prepped situation.

Although (as you know), there is a whole lot of daylight between us in the bulk of what you've written above, good post nontheless (hence the xp).

Thoughts on your post (and @Pedantic may want to chime in on this as well):

* Group Checks are in 4e (and Blades, and Stonetop, and most games really). 5e pulled them directly. They're a very good mechanic, but they don't do what Skill Challenges do. They just resolve a singular obstacle when all the PCs either must be involved (eg climbing a mix-pitched, 100 meter, vertical face to get to a place they need to) or can be involved (eg a social obstacle where all the PCs have something to say on the matter). They're routinely employed in Skill Challenge obstacle resolution.

* So back to social conflicts. I'm going to copy and paste my Blades in the Dark example above (which is pretty much my standard Clock deployment for Social Scores in Blades) and bring in Stonetop resolution (which should look a lot like 5e Social Interaction resolution as 5e's is clearly AW-inspired while Stonetop is straight-up AW-derivative):

BLADES: I've got a Master Rook (con artist, spy, socialite) NPC in Blades in the Dark that is Quality 3. The players have done the heavy lifting to pursue a Social Score with this NPC. Its going to see a whole lot of Desperate Position and Limited Effect because of their Tier and Quality relative to the Quality of this NPC. They're also going to be straight up "eating" Desperate or Risky social Complications (that they can Resist) because that is how Master NPCs work in Blades. I mechanize the challenge as follows:

* Linked Clocks of Mission Clock 4 to "Remove Their Guard" and a Tug of War 8 Clock to "Convince the NPC" which starts at 3 and the PCs have to get it to the zenith (8) before the NPC gets it to the nadir (0). So first they have to defeat the 4 Ticks of the first Clock to engage with the back-and-forth of the 2nd Clock.

I'm framing the scene based on the engagement roll > action > consequence/new framing > action > consequence/new framing.




Stonetop social conflict resolution is derivative of Apocalypse World (just like 5e's Social Interaction appears to be inspired by). Effectively the loop is this:

1) Establish the situation

  • Frame the action
  • Portray NPCs and monsters, clarify any questions

2) Make a soft GM social move that provoke action and/or increase tension. It demands players respond to my what I've said by saying or doing something with their PC. If its threatening (and threatening doesn't necessarily mean "physical threat"...it likely means "social threat/escalation"), then the player is going to have to say something or do something to defy that danger. This could lead to a number of things:

The player focusing in on the NPC/monster's words/posture/body language to try to get a cue about the dynamics of this NPC in this moment. So they might make a Seek Insight move:

SEEK INSIGHT
When you study a situation or person, looking to the GM for insight, roll +WIS: on a 10+, ask the GM 3 questions from the list below; on a 7-9, ask 1; either way, gain advantage on your next move that acts on the answers.

What happened here recently?
What is about to happen?
What should I be on the lookout for?
What here is useful or valuable to me?
Who or what is really in control here?
What here is not what it appears to be?

There are other playbook-specific moves that they might make in this case as well. Regardless, the player (through their PC) is trying to suss out key information to "parry" this "social attack/overture." Ultimately, since this is a threat, they're going to have to say something in response. When they say it, that will trigger a Defy Danger move (very likely Charisma) or a playbook-specific move:

DEFY DANGER
When danger looms, the stakes are high, and you do something chancy, check if another move applies. If not, roll...

... +STR to power through or test your might
... +DEX to employ speed, agility, or finesse
... +CON to endure or hold steady
... +INT to apply expertise or enact a clever plan
... +WIS to exert willpower or rely on your senses
... +CHA to charm, bluff, impress, or fit in

On a 10+, you pull it off as well as one could hope; on a 7-9, you can do it, but the GM will present a lesser success, a cost, or a consequence (and maybe a choice between them, or a chance to back down).

Depending upon how this goes, the conversation could escalate to more trouble or open up the player to "going on the offense."

(3) Ultimately, what they player is trying to do (from a gamestate perspective) is (a) get to a situation where they have uncovered the NPC impulse and (b) use that to get to a point where they can either (c) press or entice an NPC where they don't have a reason to resist (eg they leverage their understanding of the NPC's Instinct etc to perform an overture/promise that ensures the NPC will agree) or (d) press or entice an NPC where they have a reason to resist (eg they leverage their understanding of the NPC's Instinct etc to perform an overture/promise but they aren't willing to just straight-up do what the NPC want of them so they're trying to persuade them/reorient the NPC Instinct to a favorable position for Team NPC - which is handled via the Persuade move) before (e) things go south and aren't recoverable socially (triggered by a move, often a Defy Danger, of 6- and/or conversation has just turned violently against the NPCs Instinct).

Conversation takes place, triggering moves, and NPC Instinct is uncovered (or not) and either an overture that leverages Instinct is accepted or we go to the dice with a Persuade move. So Seek Insight (above) might uncover an Insight. The PC might draw upon Know Things to draw upon accumulated knowledge to establish something interesting and useful (useful here would mean "allows the player to angle the conversation in such a way to reveal the NPC Instinct or a way to leverage it) or they might have a playbook-specific move that does the same thing as Know Things but through different thematic means (such as the Lightbearer's All is Illuminated...which requires different fictional positioning than Know Things):

KNOW THINGS
When you consult your accumulated knowledge, roll +INT: on a 10+, the GM will tell you something interesting and useful about the topic at hand; on a 7-9, the GM will tell you something interesting—it’s on you to make it useful; either way the GM might ask, “How do you know this?”

ALL IS ILLUMINATED
When you look closely on another and see their soul laid bare, roll +WIS: on a 10+, ask their player 1 question from the list below, plus “And what would make them feel loved, beautiful, or worthy?”; on a 7-9, ask them 1 question from the list. In any case, they must answer truthfully.

  • Of what are they most ashamed?
  • What do they most desire or covet?
  • What hope have they abandoned?
  • Who or what is most precious to them?

Raw conversation might not reveal an Instinct in a table-facing way, but in a "I'd like to solve the puzzle" way where the PC just wants to take a risk and escalate to Persuade.

Regardless, ultimately, they're using the uncovered NPC Instinct as leverage to entice the NPC toward the player's sought end:

PERSUADE (vs. NPCs)
When you press or entice an NPC, say what you want them to do (or not do). If they have reason to resist, roll +CHA: on a 10+, they either do as you want or reveal the easiest way to convince them; on a 7-9, they reveal something you can do to convince them, though it’ll likely be costly, tricky, or distasteful.

Alternatively, they might have a playbook move that does roughly the same thing as Persuade (or lets them leverage a different stat with different fictional positioning, eg Strength when they have a reason to fear your intimidating presence/threats).

Regardless, the social conflict loop is structured and follows the same shape (much like 5e's Social Interaction mechanics).

The same thing goes for the Blades in the Dark Social Score as above. Framed social obstacle > conversation had > action rolls and resistance rolls made > clocks ticked toward ultimate resolution (win con/loss con/abandonment of Score).

These are all kindred to the 4e Skill Challenge (though with subtle differences in structure).

The advantage (in my estimation) of these things is that they (a) give shape/structure to Social Conflict and (b) establish codified win/loss cons. In the absence of (a) and (b), a completely freeformed social resolution relies wholly on (i) fairly intensive GM prep because (ii) the GM has to mentally model the affair (the NPC's multivariate nature, the influencing situation dynamics, backstory dynamics that the GM has prepped or has just imagined, or not, that might influence the NPC's mood/orientation to the PCs/orientation to the situation) > skillfully telegraph all of this through freeform conversation with players who then must > extrapolate the GM's conception and portrayal of all of these goings on of this imagined space > convince the GM that "they've done enough work to cement the social conflict victory" before the GM decides (through their mental modeling + extrapolation based on all of the conversation back-and-forth) "this NPC just won't budge at all" or "this NPC finds their differences with the PCs irreconcilable" or "this NPC finds these PCs irredeemable due to some or another slight that the GM has perceived is relevant in the course of the conversation back-and-forth."

In my opinion (and in my experience), this has a huge abundance of both (i) failure points baked in (most everything listed above is a failure point + if the GM has significant prep invested, that is going to be an area of downward personal pressure on themselves to have play realized/manifest in a particular way - which often leads to an instance of GM Force) and (ii) tends toward a dynamic of "gaming the GM" or (iii) exerting metagame downward social pressure on the GM (we're buddies, we're partners, we all just want to have a good time, I'm signaling that I'm not pleased with your rendering of this NPC/the situation before me so you need to make amends, etc).

Now...what I've mentioned above doesn't have to be the way things manifest...but I've witnessed this model for play go pear-shaped for the reasons I mentioned above with extraordinary frequency....or I've heard testimonials about this exact pear-shapedness manifesting (and boy do you see a lot of testimonials to this effect on ENWorld!).

And this isn't even touching upon the "metaplot/AP requires this social conflict turn out this way (either successful parley for required advancement of the plot or parley being a predestined impossibility due to the scenario design).
 

* Group Checks are in 4e (and Blades, and Stonetop, and most games really). 5e pulled them directly. They're a very good mechanic, but they don't do what Skill Challenges do. They just resolve a singular obstacle when all the PCs either must be involved (eg climbing a mix-pitched, 100 meter, vertical face to get to a place they need to) or can be involved (eg a social obstacle where all the PCs have something to say on the matter). They're routinely employed in Skill Challenge obstacle resolution.
I don't really see why one couldn't use group check for more extended situations. The mechanical difference between it and the skill challenge really is that in group check everyone has to participate. To me they seem like a variation of the same thing.

The advantage (in my estimation) of these things is that they (a) give shape/structure to Social Conflict and (b) establish codified win/loss cons. In the absence of (a) and (b), a completely freeformed social resolution relies wholly on (i) fairly intensive GM prep because (ii) the GM has to mentally model the affair (the NPC's multivariate nature, the influencing situation dynamics, backstory dynamics that the GM has prepped or has just imagined, or not, that might influence the NPC's mood/orientation to the PCs/orientation to the situation) > skillfully telegraph all of this through freeform conversation with players who then must > extrapolate the GM's conception and portrayal of all of these goings on of this imagined space > convince the GM that "they've done enough work to cement the social conflict victory" before the GM decides (through their mental modeling + extrapolation based on all of the conversation back-and-forth) "this NPC just won't budge at all" or "this NPC finds their differences with the PCs irreconcilable" or "this NPC finds these PCs irredeemable due to some or another slight that the GM has perceived is relevant in the course of the conversation back-and-forth."

In my opinion (and in my experience), this has a huge abundance of both (i) failure points baked in (most everything listed above is a failure point + if the GM has significant prep invested, that is going to be an area of downward personal pressure on themselves to have play realized/manifest in a particular way - which often leads to an instance of GM Force) and (ii) tends toward a dynamic of "gaming the GM" or (iii) exerting metagame downward social pressure on the GM (we're buddies, we're partners, we all just want to have a good time, I'm signaling that I'm not pleased with your rendering of this NPC/the situation before me so you need to make amends, etc).

Now...what I've mentioned above doesn't have to be the way things manifest...but I've witnessed this model for play go pear-shaped for the reasons I mentioned above with extraordinary frequency....or I've heard testimonials about this exact pear-shapedness manifesting (and boy do you see a lot of testimonials to this effect on ENWorld!).

Be that as it may, to me, as GM mentally modelling NPCs, and organically portraying them and in the process telegraphing their values and personalities is among the most fun things in RPGs, and as player interacting with such well portrayed NPCs in "LARPish" manner is again my favourite. So whatever pitfalls the process may entail (which I don't personally remember much experiencing*) it definitely is worth it and I feel saddling the situation with extensive mechanics distracts from the things I want to get out of it.

(*OK, as player I remember sometimes disliking when the GM didn't portray the NPCs well enough that they came across as real people, but this would not be improved by extra mechanics.)

And this isn't even touching upon the "metaplot/AP requires this social conflict turn out this way (either successful parley for required advancement of the plot or parley being a predestined impossibility due to the scenario design).
Well that's another matter entirely.
 
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No no, this is very important. The GM decides the state of the world before each action is declared and resolved. The action then determines the resolution. It is generally not practical to detail an entire world all at once, so information is derived from the setting as necessary, but these decision are presumed to have occurred before players have made choices, and to exist in the absence of those choices. Actions have resolution processes, the world state post action resolution is derived as a result of that action.

NPC decision making is obviously a GM function as well, but they aren't fundamentally different actors than PCs, just less explicated.


Yes! Precisely! Those things matter, and PCs get to make a sensible decision to the best of their ability and information, in an attempt to better resolve the situation in their favor. You can make a decision that will result in a strictly better outcome. Approaching the wall from one angle may result in a completely extraneous extra check that risks failure, and it would have been fundamentally more beneficial to approach from the other side.

That choice becomes interesting, because there is a success and a failure state, and because the system is complicated enough that those are not obvious, except possibly in retrospect, and perhaps not even then.
So, you are advocating for a radically different play loop then, where the GM describes an initial situation, players declare actions (I would say here that they would have to declare INTENT, not just what action the character takes), resolution takes place (IE dice or whatever), and then the PLAYER DESCRIBES what the resulting situation is. What if their intent fails (IE the dice go against them?). How does the sequence get reestablished, and how in fact does an overall goal get established to start with if there is no 'closed resolution' of overall (operational level basically) goals? I don't see how such a technique could be architected outside of something like SCs (though obviously something like BitD scores would also work). Honestly you are getting VERY close to the Heroes of Myth & Legend Challenge System here...
 

Ah, right. So they spend the 400gp for the Eagle's Flight components, and roll Nature to find their overland flight. If it is high enough they notch 2 successes, otherwise 1. Is that right? Is this recurring? Like, they can keep rolling Nature? Or once off? (I mean, how many successes are you allowing Nature as a primary skill to contribute?)
Once a specific situation within the greater SC has been dealt with, it is dealt with, so the same approach won't come up again (it is conceivable that the same skill and even power/ritual might find a different use in the same SC, though it certainly seems like the "use a secondary skill once" idea is generally there to insure that things don't get spammed). The GM will describe the NEW situation, which presumably in the case of MBC's described challenge would involve actually being in the vicinity of the Ankheg, or tracking it once you reached the right general area by flying, or whatever. That might involve, say, Perception. Later you might use Insight to determine whether or not the Ankheg seems hungy, and Nature to decide what to feed it and find some (IE rabbits or something). Perhaps skills like Diplomacy and Intimidate, or Bluff might also come into play, right? I doubt you'd need to flog anything in this kind of challenge. Anyway, IIRC there isn't some specific number of times a given skill COULD be used if it is primary. Nature might come up quite a bit, since you're dealing with a natural creature. It might serve as a knowledge check source, a measure of your understanding of predator/prey relationships, etc.
 

Requoted here for other readers


Again, for sure. The conclusions I draw from it are probably where we diverge.
  • On the one hand, supposing we part from our primary and secondary skill lists - which as you show is intended - then what is the real value of that mechanical furniture over clocks, which are my comparative?
  • On the other hand, if we adhere entirely or largely to our skill lists, resisting additions, then I think that could be read to justify a feeling of railroading that some posters describe themselves experiencing.
Where GM extemporises, (increasing success counts, admitting in additional skills) I think they can also could run foul of a secondary goal that you and others might have for SCs, which is to avoid GM-decisions that are opaque, arbitrary, at risk of inconsistency.

In truth, that likely does more to suggest that apparent gulfs between our preferences might come down to what we are willing to count sufficiently or better constrained. Do we all agree on what counts as "sufficient" or "better"? Probably not! @Manbearcat put forward in this thread (and so far as I recall in many places elsewhere) numerous good motives for preferring more rather than fewer system constraints, but then if we are going to grasp and uphold as central a rule in the game text that relieves us of constraints we seem to be going rather against that.
Well, one way to look at this would be that all the various bits added onto the basic core 'X successes before 3 failures' structure is to provide exactly those sorts of constraints. So the GM can burn hard checks (and has a defined number of them), they have to delineate a specific number of primary and secondary skills which are KNOWN to be appropriate and usable a certain number of times, they could also include a small number of challenge-specific rules, like disallowing certain skill uses entirely, or even making them an auto-fail, as well as defining the advantages of burning powers and rituals. If the GM sticks pretty hard to these techniques, as provided in the books, then surely they are reasonably constrained (granting that they still have the job of adjudicating exactly when and where the fictional position allows for a given skill use, though the "try not to say no" admonition is fairly powerful here).

I would suggest that improvements are quite possible within 4e, and even rather obvious. Give the whole table the authority over deciding what is an allowable skill use, for instance. Let the player define what the outcome of a successful check will be by declaring their INTENT, not just what skill they use. 4e doesn't contain these elements of advice/play process in its text, so I can understand the questioning of if the system really produces the kind of play I, @pemerton, @Manbearcat, et al are probably envisaging. Certainly I do not hold up the text of 4e as a model of how I would (and have!) write up such a system today. Its not a perfect example in other words, but it was a pretty darn first cut at the SC concept! It got measurably more refined by the 4th presentation (4e Rules Compendium, though the DMG2 has a much more extensive discussion of various considerations).
 

Skill challenges, group checks* and other forms of extended contests certainly have their uses, and I occasionally employ them, though probably far more infrequently than many others here. I feel they're most useful for abstracting extended activity exact details of which you're not interested in modelling. Travel is a common use.

* Seriously 5e's group checks are very similar to skill challenges, I don't know why people are not similarly enamoured with them... 🤷
Hmmmm, I don't have a problem with them. I think 4e also has this rule, or a very similar one. I think it is a lot less flexible than the SC framework, for sure. OTOH if you tie it together with something like helping others, the ability to utilize resources like spells and such as part of the group check, etc. then it could take on a similar character. The main difference being there is only one skill in play.
However, the central claim of the OP was that skill challenges "centre the fiction". I don't really see this, it is almost the opposite. This is very "mechanics first" way to handle things. You have the mechanic framework as a starting point, and then you weave fiction on top of that to justify skill uses and invent what success and failures mean. Now people here certainly have given excellent examples of how to do that in a way that compelling fiction is generated. I think this is mostly due their skill and experience, and perhaps aided by importing principles, guidance and approaches from other games. The actual printed text IIRC is pretty sparse about how the fiction and mechanics are connected.
Well, I think the printed text, certainly in DMG1, is easy to read as a recipe for a GM to construct an SC as a fairly 'fixed' structure, where the obstacles and the basic plot and fiction were invented beforehand, and then skill check uses are kind of envisaged as appropriate or not to produce a set that maps onto the fiction pretty well (and this is probably fairly iterative if you do that). Remember, 4e sort of holds back, textually, from completely breaking with the traditional D&D paradigm of GM generated fiction and players just 'playing through it'. While a lot of things in the rules don't quite make sense in a Trad interpretation, a more story now/narrative type of approach is mostly cloaked in "you could do this" or "maybe if someone tries something unexpected, just make up some new stuff to happen" and whatever.

So, there's skill and experience in terms of having played these types of non-trad RPGs and being able to see through the 'trad wrapper' that WotC seems to have not quite dared to completely rip away. However, I think once you go there and simply pick up the tools that are available that will work in this narrativist fashion, you find that the required bits and pieces are all there in 4e, and it isn't at all hard to use them. I think the most difficult thing is typically like with many introductions of narrativist game techniques, you have people who are just completely unaware of even the possibility that RPGs can be anything but trad D&D.
The "traditional" approach is for the GM to come up with the fictional situation and then trying to honestly and consistently represent this via mechanics. To me this me seem far more "centred to the fiction". If fictionally it makes sense that the problem is solved via one genius move or escalates into unmitigated catastrophe by an idiotic one, then so be it. In this approach such following of the fiction with integrity is not prevented by rigid mechanics that dictate predetermined amount of checks.
I think this is the canard of the 'objective scenario'. There's so much unspecified, in even the most nailed down RPG scenario that any realistic human GM can put together, that almost anything COULD happen. So, to say that a specific action MUST 'escalate into unmitigated catastrophe' is simply the GM deciding that is the case! I mean, even if a PC draws a sword during a negotiation and makes like their going to whack the guy they're supposed to be talking to, there are 100 possible ways that fate, circumstance, or the other participants in the scene, could turn it from catastrophe to success or at least a situation where the challenge goes on. Nor is it like a 4e SC can't go sideways, it just happens after everyone gets to roll a few times (3 at least).
And I don't buy the notion that the latter is (or at least has to be) just GM arbitrarily deciding when the issue is solved. It is not arbitrary. The GM sets up the fiction and is constrained by honestly following it, just like in the skill challenge they set up the complexity of the challenge and are constrained by it.
I don't think honesty is necessarily enough. Sure, GMs can be creative, principled, and even-handed. Nobody is denying that. Nor are we in any sense trying to state that every exercise of free RP with unbounded skill checks and such is a recipe for disaster or even sub-standard. We all played this way, most of us for a few decades! I'd like to say I'm a past master of this kind of play. I just found a stronger technique that obviates the need for me to worry about all that too much. I just have to keep in mind the tally and provide some descriptions of things that honor it.
And sure, things that were not predetermined might become relevant and the GM might need to ad hoc decide them. But similarly in skill challenge the GM has to make such decisions. When does the fictional positioning warrant the use of a skill? What additional complications failures bring? What additional avenues of gaining further progress the successes open? Especially if played in non-scripted, no-myth mode advocated by many I feel the GM must make far more such decisions and they will shape the course of the fiction far more than in an approach where the GM is just trying to honestly present a prepped situation.
Again, I agree that the 4e SC construct, as described in DMG1 particularly, is very GM-centered in this sense. 4e seems to me to be literally written in such a way that you can interpret it as a trad game, or as a non-trad narrativist game. When you do the later, you might also introduce some looser or more modern interpretations of how to use some of 4e's tooling, as I've stated above. Players should be describing INTENT, so if the Fighter succeeds in his Athletics check, HE is describing the resulting fiction, and potentially bringing the situation to the next obstacle (though the GM may start asking questions and filling in missing information, typically). I know that when you really go for it with this technique it starts to sound fairly different in many ways from DMG1 SC presentation. These various things are kind of tucked away in there, in a mild form though.

I mean, at first I ran pretty cut-and-dried SCs as the book described them. I wrote up adventures as I expect most people running 4e would expect to do also. Laziness actually was one of the greatest factors in my perfecting my SC and adventure techniques. Pretty soon I just got sick and tired of all the prep! So I did less and less, and just starting asking the players to explain what they were accomplishing, how, and why. Pretty soon they were telling me a LOT of what was going to happen, if the dice cooperated with them. After that I saw some people posting about narrativist techniques, which I hadn't really formally paid attention to before. It was quickly pretty obvious that I was essentially doing a 4e-ized version of those things, and at some point, a couple years in IIRC, some posters started to explicitly link their play to things like GNS models and whatnot and explain why it all worked.

So, I would never say that people playing 4e SCs as just fairly pre-specified little mini-adventures are WRONG. No, that was an intended reading IMHO, but they definitely have, even then, a more open-ended structure than other formats.
 

I've neither read nor played BitD, so can't comment on its clocks. @Manbearcat seems to think they are fairly similar to skill challenges.

Skill challenges are clearly different from AW clocks, because the latter are both "prescriptive" and "descriptive", in the sense of both driving and following from the fiction; whereas skill challenges are prescriptive.

My own view, based on experience, is that it is often helpful, in advance of running a session of 4e, to think about what skill challenges are likely to come up (given the current trajectory of play) and think about some of the ways they might be adjudicated (eg what are some places that invite the insertion of Hard checks; what are some good consequences for failure - eg like the encirclement by Goblin wolfriders that I mentioned upthread; etc). This is for the same reason that - again in my experience - 4e benefits from having stat blocks prepared in advance. It's an intricate mechanical system.

None of this is to say that preparation is essential. I've run many impromptu skill challenges, and chosen or written up stat blocks on the spur of the moment. But 4e is not a light system.
Yeah, I agree. So, that is pretty much my 4e DM prep process nowadays. I think up some cool dramatic scenes that might arise, and the stat blocks and some terrain that is already fairly well implied (or hard established) by prior play or genre expectation, etc. I would go out to the Compendium, find stat blocks that looked pretty interesting, and just print them to PDFs, and then make a 'roster' in GIMP, 1 to 3 sheets of stat blocks on a page. If something needed some more explication, then I'd go to my Wiki and make a page for that NPC with their stat block, plus anything else that I thought was potentially relevant, ideas about what resources they have, tactics, etc.

Generally I spend an hour or two a week on that stuff. Typically most of it would come into play, and I could just bring the printouts with me and write on the backs or whatever during play, and then write up the action afterwards. Of course, often, things would take a different turn, some player would throw out some completely different take on what was happening, or they would just go off into left field, and then the good old MMs get to come out, and things get done completely ad-hoc! But my job was really more to just find the right stat block to create a fun fight or whatever, and add some silly crazy terrain, than to tell people what they were encountering. By gosh they went to Spider Forest, it ain't filled with ogres!
 

Yes, I think that is right. To put it in hopefully not too banal terms, SC's set an amount of work to be done to reach an outcome, and list some tools for doing that work. Clocks measure the amount of work of a certain sort that is done, by whatever means, and list an outcome. Contrast
  • You have to dig a hole this deep. You can use a shovel or a spade. You might hit some electrical cables if you dig in the wrong place.
  • You're digging? Okay, let's track how deep: there are electrical cables this far down.
I agree too about the value of the right kind of prep for heavier systems. It's the dilemma of crunch: one can enjoy crunchy play, but typically the crunchier the play, the more prep is needed to sustain that enjoyment. I think SC's - in the context of a crunchy system - strive to offer a light-enough framework for playing out a wide variety of situations in a systematically-constrained way with minimal prep.

When I ask myself - would 4e have done better with clocks than SCs? My intuition is probably "yes"... but you know, it's very much a matter of style and taste. The fixed ticks for effect level could have been readily translated into powers, for example +1s when using Nature. That actually has some pretty beneficial consequences.
How would that have been coherent with the game's hard encounter-based structure, and quest-driven player-side goal setting? The reason that SCs exist in 4e is because they allow ALL play, potentially, to be measured in terms of encounters, thus tying into the win criteria for quests, the XP system, the treasure system, and the resource replenishment system (short and long rests).

You would have to do a pretty significant redesign in order to do away with SCs and replace them with clocks. I can imagine ways to do that: organize the game entirely around quests, so that they actually replaced encounters as the organizing measure of progress in all cases, and then built quest completion around clocks. So, sure, such a game is certainly possible, though there would be some other issues to iron out, like how that meshes with combat encounters (I guess they become less central constructs, simply being a type of 'obstacle' in a quest, effectively). Its unclear how you would handle the 'put an SC inside a combat' option either, though I guess you could use clocks tactically there as well, which is less of a reach.

I think the fundamental problem is, it would be a bridge too far for D&D! I mean, people were already weirded out by the idea of Skill Challenges, which are really just a 'non-combat combat system' in their most vanilla form in DMG1. They really don't have to be a very radical thing, but a clock-based design WOULD need to be a pretty radical restructuring of D&D, you couldn't get away with pretending it was Trad at all, not even for a second.
 

To get perhaps overly technical and legalistic, I dislike that argument on the following principle
  • where game text can be read in one way to sustain meaning in all parts, and another way to empty some parts of meaning, we ought to prefer the former
  • this is true except where there the principle of specific beats general applies
I believe the game text on advantages in SCs based on their complexity would be strictly meaningless, if the intent of the DMG text is to confer an identical benefit. Construing the DMG text as you suggest isn't literally necessitated, and it breaches both principles above (the advantages text would be emptied of meaning, even while the advantages test is the more specific).
My feeling is that this kind of argument is only meaningful in terms of discussing what are the actual rules of the specific WotC version of SC (at any particular point in 4e evolution I suppose). I'm not all that interested in dissecting the exact RAW and RAI (to resurrect the terms used back in the day) of the game. I think I, and I assume the OP, are more interested in how it CAN be played and what actual successful practice looks like (and maybe what the alternatives are and what SC's weaknesses are). So, I am not that much taken with your principles. Yes, I am playing fast and loose in some sense with the rules, but that is my prerogative and at most I am interested in how it may relate to the spirit of what was written.
Perhaps the better thing to say is something like this: I queried a poster's description of an adjudication based on their words as I read them compared with words in the game text. It's okay to say that one feels the intention of the game text is vague and make a different interpretation, but one can't say that the game text I compared with doesn't exist. Nor does it really seem right to me, to put vagueness in one place on the same footing as clarity in another.
Well, I'm just saying that the ACTUAL WORDING of the DMGs is pretty vague as to what a ritual does in an SC. DMG1 p74 "Characters might have access to utility powers or rituals that can help them. These might allow special uses of skills, perhaps with a bonus. Rituals in particular might grant an automatic success or remove failures from the running total."

Nothing in the above quote seems to definitely state a rule. Each statement is qualified with 'might'. In fact this text is asking the GM to consider what these might be and if they will be effective, and to what degree. All I'm saying is that I think the greatest weight is placed on the firmer and more definite parts of the text. It is CLEAR that an SC has a complexity-determined pass/fail condition at its core. It is also clear that there are a certain number of advantages and a certain number of checks of various difficulty (in the DMG2 write up, DMG1 didn't have this refinement). I'd mostly go with the DCs/advantages being fairly canonical, I believe they were intended to help tweak the overall chances of success in SCs, to 'tune' the system. However, because each SC is pretty situational I think they are more likely to see modification.

I'd point out that in DMG2 there is actually an example SC on DMG2 P98 'Moving through Suderham', which uses TOTALLY different rules! I mean, its a stretch to even call it an SC in a sense, yet it is designed as such and presented as such. This illustrates that, certainly by 2009, the designers of the game thought that even the 'so many successes before 3 failures' core mechanic was fair game to be modified if it suited the GM. Now, honestly, I doubt I would do that except in a case where I wanted to create a mini-game of some kind for whatever reason (and I'm not super fond of that kind of thing, so I wouldn't, but if I did).
Agreed. As I said up thread, for me it is right to understand from the DMG that investing resources can earn successes. What they don't do (outside advantages) is increase the number of successes from ongoing checks. (Or maybe they do, there's a lot of text scattered through the books, but no one has shown where yet!)


This is how the SC was categorised
OK, well, I think its a bit less nailed down in DMG1, which lacks advantages and is less specific about rituals. My feeling is that I'd just use the advantage rule, even though its complexity 2, and not worry about it. As I say, Mearls literally wrote an SC that changes ALL the SC rules, and its an example in DMG2, so giving the PC one advantage on a complexity 2 challenge when they use a VERY appropriate ritual seems rather appropriate to me.
 

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