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

pemerton

Legend
you've invoked a few commonplaces entirely outside of skill challenge systems to make this situation more interesting. Notably that drawing a weapon will presage armed conflict (a totally reasonable evaluation of the fictional state, and something I would also adjudicate similarly without a skill challenge framework). That means, unless you'd just happened to have gotten that player to roll the final failure before X successes on that particular check, you're actually abandoning the skill challenge framework, in favor of "do skill check, evaluate fictional state, offer next action declaration" which I would argue was the default before skill challenges were added.
4e DMG p 72:

A skill challenge can serve as an encounter in and of itself, or it can be combined with monsters as part of a combat encounter.​

4e DMG2 p 80:

A goood skill challenge also allows for other actions outside the framework of the skill system to contribute to the party's success. Spending money, using powers or action points, combat encounters, rituals, and the simple passage of time can contribute successes or do any of the things that secondary skill checks can accomplish.​

So it seems to me that what @Manbearcat is doing is exactly what the rulebooks tell a 4e GM to do.
 

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pemerton

Legend
If the PC's decide to surrender, what are the mechanics that have resolved the combat?
If the PCs decide not to pursue their initial goal, what are the mechanics that have resolved the skill challenge?

I mean, I'm not sure what point you're trying to make here.

If the GM, exercising power over the fiction independent of mechanics, decides that some NPCs surrender, that's a different matter. Skill challenges are an alternative to the approach of outcome of conflict is decided by GM adjudication of the fiction independent of mechanics.
 

pemerton

Legend
My point is more broadly that player agency is increased and the resulting gameplay a more mechanically interesting set of decisions the closer you map resolution to discreet actions.
This claim is highly contentious.

If the GM is allowed to introduce elements into the fiction more-or-less at will, and is entitled to extrapolate consequences from the fiction as they think makes sense (as per your discussion of @Manbearcat's gnolls), then it is the GM, not the players, who decide when any scene or conflict is resolved. Because the players can decide to make particular skill checks with discrete outcomes as much as they like, but it is the GM who decides what follows from that.

Then what is the value of the skill challenge, if you're going to evaluate the fictional state after any given action?
The skill challenge structure mediates - mechanically - the relationship between successful or unsuccessful checks, and the upshot of the scene/encounter/conflict.
 

Pedantic

Legend
OK, so your earlier posts about skill challenges being bad RPGing with low agency turns into I prefer GURPs and D&D 3E to anything else.

That is the least charitable reading of my position possible, and unfair. My criticisms of skill challenges are very specific, and I am happy to concede that there exist entirely different drives/desires and things to extract enjoyment from tabletop RPGs than mine, and that skill challenges are serving a specific purpose, particularly in pacing and structure of non-combat challenges.

I am pointing to a specific flaw, to which a reasonable response is "expression of mechanical agency is not particularly important in my non-combat RPG scenes." If you don't think it's important that the mechanics of non-combat resolution require what I'm calling "gameplay" then my criticism is not relevant to you. I want to be able to make good decisions when faced with a challenge, to feel clever about having found a better way to resolve it with less risk, less expenditure, or, alternately, to fail to do so and figure out what I could have done better when I review the situation later.

After I play something like a game of Netrunner, there's often a conversation wherein we discuss the lines of play we tried, analyze whether some risks were worth it, and talk over any lines of play we missed that might have changed the outcome. I'm suggesting that a game of D&D (say a reasonable sub goal, like breaking into a castle vault) that uses a skill challenge model of action resolution would not be amenable to such conversations after the fact, because there would be little difference mechanically between various lines of play.

The second is not true for much RPGing. When I asked my friends earlier this year to play a session of White Plume Mountain - which they did - the objectives were not player determined. And I'm not the first GM in the history of AD&D play (or other versions of D&D) to have suggested a module in this way! Gygax gives an example of play in his DMG in which the GM, not the players, sets the objective of play.

I'm not sure that's meaningfully not a player set goal. I am admittedly not familiar with the module, but I think it quite reasonable to assume the characters played in that scenario will adopt the modules goals as their own. What I'm saying is that unlike a board game, the players can pick goals other than "accumulate the most victory points" or perhaps "survive for 6 rounds" from a cooperative game.

I do want to point out that I'm talking significantly more granularly than a module as a goal/victory condition. A goal might be as grand as "dethrone the illegitimate monarch" or as fine as "cross this river," both of which are things a player might want to do, and both of which I would like to be able to take optimal actions toward achieving.

4e DMG p 72:

A skill challenge can serve as an encounter in and of itself, or it can be combined with monsters as part of a combat encounter.​

I don't believe this is relevant to the point at hand. Unless I'm misunderstanding the example, the success state for the skill challenge was a diplomatic solution and temporary truce to deal with a devil threat and the failure state was continued conflict between the gnolls?

The PC's action in this case changed the failure state of the skill challenge, something outside the listed rules, but again, I think the correct choice and a reasonable extrapolation of the fictional state. The quote you're pointing to seems to be suggesting something more like say, attacking a necromancer's minions while disrupting his magic circle, which I don't think is a contentious example of a skill challenge in a combat scenario.

4e DMG2 p 80:

A good skill challenge also allows for other actions outside the framework of the skill system to contribute to the party's success. Spending money, using powers or action points, combat encounters, rituals, and the simple passage of time can contribute successes or do any of the things that secondary skill checks can accomplish.​

So it seems to me that what @Manbearcat is doing is exactly what the rulebooks tell a 4e GM to do.

I think what you're suggesting here, to interpret the situation back into the skill challenge framework, is that the combat encounter created a success in the skill challenge outside of the usual skill checks? I admittedly was done with 4e before grabbing a copy of the DMG2, but I think the point you're making here is that you could retain a skill challenge framework, interpreting actions/events that are resolved outside of the skill system as successes (and implied, but not stated, also failures)?

If I've got that right, I do agree that potentially adds more agency to the framework, because you have more choices than striving to pick your best skill to roll. I do worry that you're kind of leaving it wide open to how effective any course of action is, which may make it impossible for a PC to make an effective choice, but definitely it's an improvement.

I am less persuaded, however, that this is preferable to not using a skill challenge framework. Instead you could adjudicate each action individually.

What differentiates a RPG from a boardgame is primarily that fiction matters to resolution, and that (subject to some fairly avant-garde exceptions) most of the participants engage the game via controlling an imagined person within the fiction, and declaring actions for that person.

We can agree to disagree on what makes TTRPGs good and still like them.

This claim is highly contentious.

If the GM is allowed to introduce elements into the fiction more-or-less at will, and is entitled to extrapolate consequences from the fiction as they think makes sense (as per your discussion of @Manbearcat's gnolls), then it is the GM, not the players, who decide when any scene or conflict is resolved. Because the players can decide to make particular skill checks with discrete outcomes as much as they like, but it is the GM who decides what follows from that.

I don't generally think that's true for most skill checks. Obviously, the GM creates the world at large, but if you specify action resolution, you're not doing anything fundamental to the fiction you already described when you complete any given action.

Once you've described a wall as existing, the fiction doesn't change once a player decides to climb it, or to walk around it, or to smash it. Perhaps you have to elucidate some part of it you hadn't specified ahead of time, say, if they sneak into a keep and you suddenly need to figure out where the guards are located, but that's just providing further clarity to a fictional state that is presumed to already exist.

More to the point, what I'm saying about "picking victory conditions" is precisely the means by which players decide when a conflict is resolved. They know what their goals are, when they're achieved or can no longer be achieved after we check back in on the fictional situation after resolving each action, they can set new ones.
 

FallenRX

Adventurer
Ok, I was right.

I thought that is what you were putting forth; that conflict resolution mechanics are arbitrary things that are inherently not associated with the imagined space and cannot be associated with the imagined space.

This is basically "dissociated mechanics redux."

With respect..."no." It wasn't true then and its not true now. And if it is true now or if its been true ever...then D&D is the mother load of this problem with Hit Points ("you're telling me I can't just kill this dude...I just stabbed him in the face!!!!1111!") and so many other aspects of its system architecture.

So you say Blades in the Dark Progress Clocks are "ok" (how...I don't know) presumably because your sense is that they either (a) are inherently associated with the imagined space or (b) can trivially be associated with the imagined space and (c) presumably in a way that Skill Challenges cannot be. Can you engage with the below question because I'm really curious how you've built out your working model for this without getting ensnared along the way. Talk to me about "inherent association with the imagined space" or "inability to be associated with the imagined space in each of them, if you would be so kind to indulge me:

1) 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.

4e: Exactly the same situation as above except sub out the mechanical intricacies of Blades for 4e. This is a highly capable NPC within a Social Conflict so in 4e this is represented by (a) Level of Skill Challenge and (b) Complexity (as tasks become more complex, the mathematical prospects of winning goes down). I decide upon PC level + 3 (which is going to bring every DC up from 1 to 3 depending upon PC level) and Complexity 4 (which is going to give me 3 Hard DCs to throw at the players...and those DCs will be increased due to level). I'm basically doing exactly as above. The initial part of the challenge will be framed around "taking the NPC guard down" so they're amenable to subsequent overtures while the rest will be the back-and-forth of the overtures and complications relating to that.

In both cases, I'm GMing roughly the same ethos-and-technique-wise. I'm framing obstacles to PCs goal > rendering a change in in the fiction (that matches the newly altered gamestate) after the player action > resolution loop takes place.

Why is the Blades version of this inherently associated with the fiction while the 4e version is not and is also irredeemably not?





I'm just going to stop there, but I can do this exact_same_thing with Opposed Racing Clocks in Blades where you're trying to Escape Pursuit (whatever pursuit might be...it might be Bluecoats/security while you're on a Stealth Score ...or a terrible supernatural storm while you're in The Deathlands on a Transport Score) which matches up seemlessly with a 4e Skill Challenge of x Level and Y Complexity (or even linked Skill Challenges or nested Skill Challenges). You can do the same thing with a Mission Clock to "Purge the Malevolent Spirit Before its Possession Kills Your Friend" in an Occult Score in Blades that works the exact same way as a Skill Challenge via the Adjure Ritual in 4e...or an "Unlock/Seal the Arcane Gate" in both systems (via Mission Clock or 4e Skill Challenge of Level x and y Complexity). I can go on like this forever and I've done it in real life because I've got an obscene amount of GMing of both systems and doing exactly this (with zero problems in 4e).

But I'd really like to know the answer to the bolded question above.

* And as a complete aside...I don't remotely understand the usage of the term "railroad" here. GM Force is when a GM subordinates a player's tactical, strategic, thematic decisions by imposing the GM's own outcomes upon play. Railroading is sufficient deployment of Force to pass the table's "Railroad Threshold" lets call it. This isn't about deploying mechanics of a game system. If it were about deploying mechanics of a system then just go back to my HP problem for D&D:

Player: "WHAT WHAT WHAT...you're gating their death/"scene staying power" behind Hit Points? HOW ARE THEY NOT DEAD? I STABBED THEM IN THEIR STUPID FACE! THIS HIT POINT CRAP IS TOTAL RAILROADING!"
The problem is skill challenges are designed with action resolution in mind rather than actually describing the problem in question and leaving it to the players to solve the issue.

Hit points work because it isn't just designed with "attack monster x time, monster drops" they work because they are designed to be the representation of a character's health, something that isnt just beaten by attack but in a plethora of other ways seperate from that. Its not just when you do X enough times you win, no its "if something were to happen to cause this to go down you win" this difference is small but its of the highest importance because it dictates how the players actually engage with the fiction in question, it is describing the actuality of the situation not the resolution, how its resolved should 100% be up to the players, how they resolve or engage with the situation in question is actually up to them, not by some skills you decided, not by anything else, by actually engaging with the problem in question and the fiction of the problem in question.

Skill challenges are divorced from this, they are a bunch of conditionals made first that only represent the resolution, "do this enough time to win, or lose, anything you do will go back to this". The problem with this design is if you have designed a problem or scenario like this you have already decided how its resolved and the series of actions and outcomes of how its resolved, you've made a puzzle or a plotline to follow to get X, and are circling back any action taken to this plotline, when you should not be assuming anything about how a matter should be resolved, because you should leave that to your players.

This is why i call this just a bizzare rail, its why HP isn't and skill challenges are, HP is the health points, how they lower that or get victory(they don't even need to involve themselves with it to win) is up to them, its just a part of the larger problem of the scenario in question but there is no clear set of resolutions to solve it, its just descriptive. Skill challenges you made the path to resolution because thats what you designed first seperate from the problem in question, this is also just completely at odds with the nature of TTRPG in general, how can you sit there and make a path to resolution, when players can engage or resolve the matter in ways outside of the X successes, its just rigid and inflexible, and just like a badly railroaded campaign going to have to be thrown out whenever the resolution the players actually put forward comes in contact with it.

Progress clocks i do not consider the same because again, it doesnt give a damn about how the players "succeed" all it does is measure something, describing something, it is not designed around how to overcome it, its designed as a description, you can even tell from the example you put foward comparing 4E skill challenges to BitD.


"When you create a clock, make it about the obstacle, not the method." - summarizes everything right there.

Just read it from the website, every single clock is designed to describe something, not to resolve, describe, it doesnt give a damn about how its resolved, it just presents a problem.

Skill challenges on the other hand, don't just describe the problem, no they also design the resolution to those problems, and tie every single alternative back to this resolution system, because it never once even thought that the player may have an alternative way to actually resolve the problem, again, this is a plotline, a puzzle, a railroad, this is bad. (Especically with the original 4E rules with initiatives, and all of the other terrible ideas in that mess.)

Sorry if im terrible at explaining my points lol, and thanks to all trying to piece together my weird ass rambles.

Last point, the thing that bothers me the most about these Skill challenges, and all of its is just, so worthless.

In the end, what does this actually add to the game? What is the benefit of using this, what does it actually do? Because right now the end result is basically just the same gameplay except the players have less narrative control on how to solve the problem, I still do not have an answer to this.
 
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Imaro

Legend
If the PCs decide not to pursue their initial goal, what are the mechanics that have resolved the skill challenge?

I mean, I'm not sure what point you're trying to make here.

My point was that combat is not always resolved by mechanics as you implied earlier.

If the GM, exercising power over the fiction independent of mechanics, decides that some NPCs surrender, that's a different matter. Skill challenges are an alternative to the approach of outcome of conflict is decided by GM adjudication of the fiction independent of mechanics.
I know what skill challenges are... you made the comparison to combat, not me.
 

I think the issue is with my point, is people dont quite understand how ridiculous and unintuitive skill challenges actually are and what they do in 4e actually is.

Simply comparing this very the actual extended skill checks/progress clocks people here are talking about, makes it a lot clearer

However you built them, it literally just boiled down to players picking a list of actions and rolling more success then failures separate from what the players were doing, or how it was going on, completely dissociated alien stuff, that require some weird initiative to handle, this was my point of contention, and why Skill Challenges are actively really bad.
So, I'm not sure which sources you have read, as there is DMG1, DMG1 with errata, DMG2, and Rules Compendium. DMG2 and RC, especially DMG2, discuss the DYNAMIC NATURE of challenges. If a GM is simply presenting a static situation as an SC, where each PC, or each succeeding check, faces the exact same situation as the previous ones, then you really aren't using them as intended. An SC is a STORY, there's a plot, characters, and conflict. Its a small story, but not trivially so. Certainly at each check the situation has evolved and what moves make sense, the fiction around them, the possible benefits of success and consequences of failure are going to keep changing.

So, it doesn't boil down to 'players picking a list of action' etc. Each time some action happens in the challenge, new fiction is introduced, the story progresses, and the PCs move closer to, or further away from, their goal (but always in a direction which reaches towards some kind of climax where everything hangs on a single check, possibly in both directions. This is a trait that isn't NECESSARILY shared with other techniques, though some permutations of BitD clocks will do it. The SC is a 'ratchet', things always get 'hotter', until the situation 'boils over' and the story comes to a conclusion. Its actually quite clever! I would argue that most situations which don't seem to work super well as SCs probably are sub-optimal for play in a TTRPG! GMs in such games really SHOULD be aiming for that 'boiling over' kind of effect.
 

pemerton

Legend
I do want to point out that I'm talking significantly more granularly than a module as a goal/victory condition. A goal might be as grand as "dethrone the illegitimate monarch" or as fine as "cross this river," both of which are things a player might want to do, and both of which I would like to be able to take optimal actions toward achieving.

<snip>

Obviously, the GM creates the world at large, but if you specify action resolution, you're not doing anything fundamental to the fiction you already described when you complete any given action.

Once you've described a wall as existing, the fiction doesn't change once a player decides to climb it, or to walk around it, or to smash it. Perhaps you have to elucidate some part of it you hadn't specified ahead of time, say, if they sneak into a keep and you suddenly need to figure out where the guards are located, but that's just providing further clarity to a fictional state that is presumed to already exist.
What's the DC to dethrone an illegitimate monarch?

What's the DC, even, to cross a river?

I don't think it's irrelevant to this discussion that the concrete example you give of constraining fiction is a wall that the players might want their PCs to circumvent. Even then, most discrete action resolution systems that I'm familiar mechanise the smashing through of a wall by giving it "structure points" and resolving actions analogously to D&D attack, the aim being to wear down those points.
 

pemerton

Legend
My point was that combat is not always resolved by mechanics as you implied earlier.
I don't think I used the word "always". I certainly implied "typically". The counter-example you introduced was the players choosing to have their PCs surrender, which is no different in the skill challenge context. So how do you think you've shown my comparison between the finality of combat and the finality of skill challenges to be in error?
 

In your own post, you have shown the issue with the fiction in question, which is you have made a very specific set of inputs to get a specific output separate from the actual thing you're describing itself but focus on how the players with resolve X thing. This is terrible, because players can resolve X thing in 100 ways that go beyond that input scope, but you have basically limited them to a specific input, to get X amount of times to get an output separate from the reality itself. This is quite literally, unironically railroading, and if the players think up anything outside of that structure that simply resolves the problem, the structure itself quite literally doesnt work, because like railroads it is too frail to actually last in any meaningful way. Aka why 4E skill Challenges are terrible, notably worse then the far simpler progress clocks and such because those are separate from "How" the players resolve it, its more a measure of something else, like time. The point is no matter what "fiction" you make, no matter what you produce, it will not matter, you are just telling the players to roll X till they win, separate from the actual thing they are trying to do, and anything they do does not matter until they rolled a X amount of time to do X.
I am genuinely not following you here at all. I am happy if you want to elaborate, but as it stands I can't comment meaningfully, except to say that 'railroading' is nothing like what I'm aiming for in play as a GM, and AFAIK is presumably what I've achieved in most cases. I mean, honestly I don't normally have any preconceived ideas about what is going to happen next, or maybe only some vague notions where I might, perhaps, have some options in mind for what might be some good fiction to introduce.
 

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