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

pemerton

Legend
The secret of a good SC is to craft it in a way that the players don't really know they are in a SC
I don't agree with this. Just as in a combat encounter, players of 4e have a lot of resources they need to think about spending, and they can't do this sensibly without a general sense of the mechanical context.

I also think the best skill challenges involve some sort of real "progression". If your scene is static, its often best to just make a few rolls and be done with it. SCs work better in things like chase scenes where the action keeps moving, prison breaks where you are moving from one area of the prison to another. A diplomatic skill challenge is best in a large party settings where you are moving from one NPC to another learning bits of info, rather than just sitting down with the duke and throw down Persuasion checks until you hit your magic number. Ie there needs to be a narrative reason to roll more checks.
The OP of this thread discusses this. That's really the raison d'etre of the thread!
 

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Is there a version after 1.2? The way I understand it is that more successes are needed (up to a dozen), but they're accrued over three rounds.

One nagging doubt I have for my own efforts is that WotC's well-equipped design team invested effort into multiple revisions of SCs and ultimately decided not to take them forward into 5e. What reassures me is the trace of SCs preserved in Social Interaction and some downtime activities, which gives me a sense that for specific purposes they can work.

In that light, your comment on casual use is interesting. For casual use, I use an approach in the same design space as SCs, but without preset targets for successes and failures. I now feel motivated to get into my design a rubric for that approach.
What Mike Mearls wanted to, and was told/asked to, take forward into 5e had little to do with game design issues and everything to do with D&D community politics. It would be a bad idea to draw any deep conclusions about what does and does not 'work' from what is and is not included in 5e. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, overall, 4e works a heck of a lot better than 5e! So what can we really make of that?
 

I have used SCs for a long time, both the core systems in 4e and my own system.

Generally what I found over time was....less is more. I think SCs can be very useful, but it is VERY EASY to shoehorn them in to narratives where they don't belong. More often than not I've found, when in doubt....don't use a SC. A badly done SC is boring as mud, and feels really gamey and arbitrary.

The secret of a good SC is to craft it in a way that the players don't really know they are in a SC, and that usually takes planning and work. I don't think casual SCs are that great.

I also think the best skill challenges involve some sort of real "progression".

Now, back when you first posted on SC probabilities, in the dim dark ancient days of 2009 or so, lol, I thought much like you in terms of numbers and probabilities. However, as time went on, I came to the conclusion that all of that was pretty much secondary, practically irrelevant really, to what mattered about SCs.

. Most SCs are too organic, and arise too much out of something that the players start. It just provides structure, really.

I also use both original and Stalker0 SC in both 4e, 5e, TOR, and other systems.

To me, the most important part is structure as well because it's a non combat resolution mechanic. It gives you a way to non artibtrarily or non DM intuition based decide how much weight to put on a single action/roll and when to stop. Whether the structure is X before Y or X in 3 rounds or whatever is not as important and better if you have good math options for multiple types.

However, probabilities are important as well because it allows you to match resolution with narrative which is very hard to do on the fly over multiple rolls.

Agree with all the advice on fiction driving the scene and dynamic responses to the actions as ways to open up new possibilties to engage.

I'm in between on usage and transparency. I use SC often but not always. And I do both revealed and background, but revealed is preferrable because then the stakes have been agreed upon.

Another issue is the stakes -- I feel like SC are much more valuable when there are clear narrative stakes and not essentially mechanical or fake narrative stakes.

Losing healing surges when it won't really matter or more combat or delay to location when that delay doesn't really mean much are not great stakes.

Star Wars Saga had the best official example -- the PCs were breaking out of a prison with fellow prisoners and each failure indicated that 1/2 of the red shirts were captured. Great narrative stakes if the PCs got to know their fellow prisoners and chance to have a former prisoner show up as a villian later seeking revenge.

Travel Skill challenge to get to village PCs care about quickly enough before Orc tribe sacks the town. If they fail, the orc tribe actually sacks the town -- people they know are killed and some dragged off. NOT arrive a little late and loose a healing surge and fight an extra winable battle or something not so meaningful.

It doesn't always have to be this big but even if smaller stakes having it be true narrative stakes/consequences is always better.

A big part of good SC is stake setting and the players knowing those stakes so I veer toward transparency mostly.
 

darkbard

Hero
Now, back when you first posted on SC probabilities, in the dim dark ancient days of 2009 or so, lol, I thought much like you in terms of numbers and probabilities. However, as time went on, I came to the conclusion that all of that was pretty much secondary, practically irrelevant really, to what mattered about SCs. They are not a mechanism for regulating probability of success, nor of gating some valuable outcome behind a highly risky set of dice rolls, etc. Instead its a yardstick, really. Sure, it matters that you can either succeed or fail, and as a general proposition both outcomes should be reasonably likely to arise from time to time. That provides some sense of conflict and uncertainty, and lets the outcome be owned by everyone instead of being a product of any one specific set of rulings or tactics, etc.

After that I just went back to the original (1st errata) SC system, and mostly accepted the various tweaks that DMG2/RC added. However, I just run pretty much EVERYTHING as SC, unless its a combat, and make it very open-ended. Yes, a given sequence is likely to focus on certain skills, and I can sometimes say to myself ahead of time "oh, yeah, and if the player does X here, then I'll respond with Y, and that's likely to provoke a chance for the other player to use his character's best skill..." but I don't think the whole writing things out process that 4e always envisaged is that helpful. Most SCs are too organic, and arise too much out of something that the players start. It just provides structure, really.
Since I switched over to a ~50% combat / 50% SC structure in 2018 or so for 4E, your post got me thinking, @AbdulAlhazred :

What if SCs operated on something of a sliding scale, with increased Complexity offered for increased payoff. For example, the PCs succeed at a C2 SC with 6 successes and 1 failure: the negotiated stakes indicate they successfully sneak into the prison warden's office. As GM I offer, "okay, if you want you can carry over your success and failure tallies and we can turn this into a C4 challenge to also find something incriminating about the warden (illegal contraband, secret mistress, etc.). Or we can begin a new scene directly in the office. What would you like to do?"

I never tried this in actual play, and the idea just occurred to me as I was reading this most recent round of posts.
 

pemerton

Legend
@darkbard, that's an interesting idea. I don't think I've ever done it in a formal sense like you describe. It's possible it's happened at my table informally, but I can't remember. Certainly not frequently or systematically, or else I would remember!
 

I also use both original and Stalker0 SC in both 4e, 5e, TOR, and other systems.

To me, the most important part is structure as well because it's a non combat resolution mechanic. It gives you a way to non artibtrarily or non DM intuition based decide how much weight to put on a single action/roll and when to stop. Whether the structure is X before Y or X in 3 rounds or whatever is not as important and better if you have good math options for multiple types.

However, probabilities are important as well because it allows you to match resolution with narrative which is very hard to do on the fly over multiple rolls.

Agree with all the advice on fiction driving the scene and dynamic responses to the actions as ways to open up new possibilties to engage.

I'm in between on usage and transparency. I use SC often but not always. And I do both revealed and background, but revealed is preferrable because then the stakes have been agreed upon.

Another issue is the stakes -- I feel like SC are much more valuable when there are clear narrative stakes and not essentially mechanical or fake narrative stakes.

Losing healing surges when it won't really matter or more combat or delay to location when that delay doesn't really mean much are not great stakes.

Star Wars Saga had the best official example -- the PCs were breaking out of a prison with fellow prisoners and each failure indicated that 1/2 of the red shirts were captured. Great narrative stakes if the PCs got to know their fellow prisoners and chance to have a former prisoner show up as a villian later seeking revenge.

Travel Skill challenge to get to village PCs care about quickly enough before Orc tribe sacks the town. If they fail, the orc tribe actually sacks the town -- people they know are killed and some dragged off. NOT arrive a little late and loose a healing surge and fight an extra winable battle or something not so meaningful.

It doesn't always have to be this big but even if smaller stakes having it be true narrative stakes/consequences is always better.

A big part of good SC is stake setting and the players knowing those stakes so I veer toward transparency mostly.
I pretty much agree. I think though that the key in terms of what sort of stakes to present is for the GM to basically not be the one doing that, or at least doing only a moderate piece of it. I go back to our BitD campaign, I think a lot of the stuff happening there would work great as SCs, and its ENTIRELY player-directed. I mean, the GM is certainly dropping hard choices and such on us, but its the players that are setting the basic terms of the action. We come up with scores, sometimes in response to narrative threads that are rooted in some GM provided consequence for some earlier low roll, but mostly if I were to trace things back, it was a player made a suggestion about how to handle something, or some goal they had. I think that's the ideal kind of environment for these 'closed form' resolution systems.

I mean, at least in this game, maybe it varies by GM, the scores we've done are on the scale of most SCs, there's a few opponents, some info gathering, some sneaking around, blowing stuff up, etc. (our crew is pretty much insane, we tend towards outright slaughter, lol).
 

@darkbard, that's an interesting idea. I don't think I've ever done it in a formal sense like you describe. It's possible it's happened at my table informally, but I can't remember. Certainly not frequently or systematically, or else I would remember!
Yeah, I'd like to say that something kinda like this has 'accidentally' happened once or twice. I don't recall if it was quite spelled out though.
 

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