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5E So...Skill Challenges

SubDude

Explorer
I skipped right over 3rd and 4th editions, but have just learned about skill challenges.

I've read the applicable section in the 4th edition DMG. I have a bit of an idea how I might use them in my game. But they seem to rely on a player saying "I'll use diplomacy" or some such, instead of just telling the DM what he's going to do and letting the DM call for the specific Skill Check. That is, without the guidance from the DM saying "you need 6 successful skill checks among these three skills..." players may be floundering for what they should do.

Is there a good way to use skill challenges while keeping the "just tell me what you want to do" aspect of playing D&D? I want my players to say "I swing my sword," not "I roll to hit." And I want them to say "I look around for clues," instead of "I use my perception skill."

I appreciate the hive's thoughts.
 

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MechaPilot

Explorer
I skipped right over 3rd and 4th editions, but have just learned about skill challenges.

I've read the applicable section in the 4th edition DMG. I have a bit of an idea how I might use them in my game. But they seem to rely on a player saying "I'll use diplomacy" or some such, instead of just telling the DM what he's going to do and letting the DM call for the specific Skill Check. That is, without the guidance from the DM saying "you need 6 successful skill checks among these three skills..." players may be floundering for what they should do.

Is there a good way to use skill challenges while keeping the "just tell me what you want to do" aspect of playing D&D? I want my players to say "I swing my sword," not "I roll to hit." And I want them to say "I look around for clues," instead of "I use my perception skill."

I appreciate the hive's thoughts.
Skill challenges do rely on a player telling the DM what they want to do and not on the player just saying "I use ____ skill." When I run them, I always ask players what their characters are trying to do and how. I don't just let them roll skill checks until the RNG sorts out success or failure. If the player does a really good job of RP'ing the attempt, I'll even grant a small bonus to the check.

I also tend to build in potential checks that allow you to remove a failure, albeit at a higher DC.

You can even accrue successes or failures by doing things that aren't skills. Try to bribe the guard who is notoriously incorruptible? Automatic accrual of a failure. Trying to convince the goblins you mean no harm and just want to speak with their leader? Putting away your weapons might get you an automatic success.

Skill challenges simply provide you with a framework for determining success or failure. The way in which you RP the use of skills (or just ability checks) doesn't change.

If you do run a skill challenge, try to come up with a broad array of skills that can be useful. Come up with interesting elements that can be brought to bear. For example, want to convince the king to help you clear an orc menace by loaning you some soldiers? Play up the reputation the king's beloved father had for establishing peace and order in the region, and how it would make his father proud.
 

KahlessNestor

Explorer
Well, you can always prompt them. If they say, "I will use diplomacy," then ask them how, what will they say? There's nothing wrong with acknowledging a mechanic behind the narrative. Not sure why "I swing ny sword" is any better than "I roll to hit." Both are equally boring when said a dozen times.

Matt Colville did a video on skill challenges not long ago.

Sent from my SM-G900P using EN World mobile app
 

Saeviomagy

Adventurer
I skipped right over 3rd and 4th editions, but have just learned about skill challenges.

I've read the applicable section in the 4th edition DMG. I have a bit of an idea how I might use them in my game. But they seem to rely on a player saying "I'll use diplomacy" or some such, instead of just telling the DM what he's going to do and letting the DM call for the specific Skill Check. That is, without the guidance from the DM saying "you need 6 successful skill checks among these three skills..." players may be floundering for what they should do.

Is there a good way to use skill challenges while keeping the "just tell me what you want to do" aspect of playing D&D? I want my players to say "I swing my sword," not "I roll to hit." And I want them to say "I look around for clues," instead of "I use my perception skill."

I appreciate the hive's thoughts.
Don't use skill challenges as written, because they are awful. They've got a massive amount of variance based on the DC and skills of the PCs, and the best possible plan for dealing with them as a player is to make sure that only the person with the best relevant skill participates (either by withdrawing from the situation, or by always "assisting"). They're also pretty tedious dice rolling affairs.

Watch out for 5e skill DCs, because using them verbatim makes PCs look like incompetent clowns.

Stick with the tried and true action declaration followed by a potential roll: but bear in mind that most of the time you shouldn't bother with a roll, and just judge the action on it's merits and the skills of it's participants.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
An indepth skill challenge is a perfect test for 1st level characters. It will set the stage for creative resolution of future conflict in the game. Don't be afraid to offer suggestions the first time it is implemented.

Let's say the party needs to sneak through a city.

The players might see 'Stealth' on their sheet and assume that is all they can do.

This is where you can give suggestions to show that they can try all sorts of things.

The Fighter could use their great strength to lift the party members over walls/buildings to escape/throw off their pursuers.

The Wizard could remember the city layout from the book of maps they perused that one time.

The Rogue might use their Stealth to scout ahead, ushering the other characters along when the coast is clear.

And so on. There are an innumberable amount of ways to approach the problem. Sometimes you have to teach the first one so the players will understand for the future.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Simply put, a skill challenge is just a structure for resolving a complex fictional obstacle - something that is going to take a little time or special effort. It consists of stakes and a set number of challenges or complications. The easy way to set it up in D&D 5e is to just make a note of a set of fictional challenges you want to present to the PCs while they are trying to accomplish some goal. If they succeed in overcoming all of the challenges, they achieve their goal and gain some kind of boon. If they succeed in overcoming most, but not all, of the challenges, they simply achieve their goal. If they fail to overcome most of the challenges, they can either achieve their goal at a significant cost or fail to achieve their goal (but the tale continues).

Let's say the goal is to get through the Duskwood and to town before the Storm Unending catches up to the party and imperils their journey with bad weather. The Duskwood is a forsaken forest abandoned by the fey centuries past. You might list the following complications or obstacles: Nearly Impassible Thickets, Unseelie Trickery, Supernatural Darkness, A Wide Lake, and Sleep-Inducing Mushroom Spores. (There are just off the top of my head.) As the PCs make their way by whatever way they describe through the Duskwood, you hit them with one of those complications, describe what it is, how it affects them achieving their goal, and ask "What do you do?" The PCs formulate a plan, put it into action, and you decide what, if any, ability checks are required to resolve it into a success or failure. Repeat for each complication as it comes up on the journey through the forest. When they've gotten through all four, evaluate the result based on the parameters above, and narrate the outcome of the skill challenge.

That's basically all there is to it. You could get fancier with it and there's probably a way to balance out the math to make it more of a tactical thing, but I think the above method works just fine in D&D 5e and keeps prep to a minimum and the focus on the basic conversation of the game. You should probably think about how you want to frame the challenges, too, so as to make sure everyone has a chance in the spotlight. Sometimes that's just a matter of calling on people before asking, "What do you do?" and letting them take it from there.

I wish I could point you to the many skills challenges and advice on the same that I had on the WotC forums, but alas, they are gone.
 

Lanliss

Explorer
Make weapons variable in their attacks. Instead of a Strength greatsword, allow them to use either, so long as they describe how they do this.

For example "I jump off the cliff, whipping out my greatsword to cleave down at the enemy." I would say, roll an Acrobatics check, against the targets AC. Success means you get to use dex instead of Strength, failure means you miss.

Alternatively "I hold my sword out to my side, with the tip touching the ground. I then build momentum to swing it into the Orc.", where I would say to do a Performance (Dexterity) check, again against the targets AC.

This will reward creative play, I think, rather than a simple barbarian "I attack."
 

darjr

I crit!
I love the idea of skill challenges but in practice they never quite worked, imho.

I think it's probably because it never seemed like a real consequence was at stake, like dying, and the 'challenge' to overcome was never as concrete as a monster.
 

KahlessNestor

Explorer
Here's the Matt Colville video. What I like about skill challenges is it makes obstacles more interesting than just "Sneak past? I roll stealth." It's all about narration, though, how you tell the story the dice tell, not just, "I roll Athletics. Succeed."

[video=youtube;GvOeqDpkBm8]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvOeqDpkBm8[/video]
 

Capn Charlie

Explorer
I cobbled together my owngroup skill challenge system. Basically, it creates a skill based combat against a challenge that has a skill DC like a an AC, and each point skills exceed that number away strip off its difficulty like HP, or add to it in the case of failures, until either it grows beyond the character's ability to succeed, or is overcome.

View attachment Group Challenges.pdf

As with most things, you get more out of your game if you require more roleplay from your players. Encourage them to state their actions in such a way that it creates a story, then roll dice to spice it up. Do they blow it out of the water in the first attempt? Describe it as such, it becomes the party showing off their excellence in skill like an episode of a crime procedural. Do they have a bungler dragging down the group? It offers a great chance for some in party tension and character growth. Does it all fall apart and end in fire and tears? Awesome, now THAT'S a story...

Dice and a chance at even a partial failure keep things exciting, if all we did was sit around and say "There's a challenge" "Yeah, but we're awesome and beat it" "I guess you are", there's no dramatic tension.
 

darjr

I crit!
Ah. The roleplay suggestions are kinda annoying. It's what I've been doing for decades now. The nice idea behind skill challenges was the codifying of all these different things into a concise structure. But that very structure works against you trying to roleplay.

Can you work through it and past it, yes, but you might as well throw it out and just do what we've been doing.

Though I haven't watched the video, I will, Colevilles videos I've been meaning to watch.
 

I’m a big fan of describing the challenge, then asking the group “how do you deal with it?” For example, I might say “Arcane runes on the floor pulse with necrotic energy, blocking your path. How are you going to try to get past them?” One player might say they try to dance nimbly through, avoiding the runes (Acrobatics). Another might try to use their knowledge of magic to negate them (Arcana). Now, if they give a good description of what they’re doing, I might reduce the DC for them. If they just say “I use Acrobatics,” well, it might be a little harder.

For less concrete skill challenges, like say an ornery harbormaster that doesn’t want to let them dock right now, I also come up with the failed path – how the adventure might proceed if they fail to convince him to let their boat in. Maybe he needs an extra-large bribe, or they have to dock outside of town, or end up having to deal with some sahuagin.

Is there a good way to use skill challenges while keeping the "just tell me what you want to do" aspect of playing D&D? I want my players to say "I swing my sword," not "I roll to hit." And I want them to say "I look around for clues," instead of "I use my perception skill."

I appreciate the hive's thoughts.
 


I like skill challenges, but they have to be used appropriately.

For DM's that already have a good way to deal with non-combat challenges that they and their players are happy with, codifying the process isn't needed. But if you want to share your adventure with others, then a system or standard for laying out such things is important. And to me, that's where you need some sort of system.

Here's how I handled them in the adventure I published on the DMsG (Balance Disturbed);

Skill encounters are non-combat related challenges for the party that lay out a mechanic for using skills in a role-playing setting that allow for varying degrees of success. These encounters are detailed with several levels of complexity (tiers), each level indicating a number of skill successes that are needed before failing a specified number of times. If the first level of complexity is reached, the next level can be attempted by continuing the role-playing, noting that the successes and challenges from previous tiers count towards the current (and future) tiers. Following the complexities are a list of skills and their difficulty class (DC) needed to succeed, along with other restrictions or information regarding the use of the skill. The DM can allow other skills to be used as s/he sees fit, especially as players present creative suggestions and active role-playing.

These encounters should be used to help en-courage creative and in-character role-playing, and not simply as a mechanism for die rolling skill checks. The DM should feel free to grant advantage (or disadvantage) and inspiration to those players actively representing their character’s personalities and histories.

The complexities (tiers) of these encounters are each assigned an experience point value, these values are not cumulative, e.g., succeeding at a second tier grants the XP assigned for that tier only, not for the first tier as well.
There are more details and suggestion in the module, as well as several challenges. I also think it's important in a published adventure that you give the DM examples of what the individual skill checks might sound like when roleplayed by a character.

For instance;

Intimidation (Charisma): Unlimited successes, DC 10, DC increases by 1 with each success, DC increases by 2 each time an intimidation fails. Threats or shows of violence sway the discussion. (“If you don’t start packing, I’ll kill you myself!”)

History (Intelligence): one success per tier, DC 12. A character supports their case by calling upon historical precedence. (“In the time of Balgeraud the Third, an orc invasion much like this one burnt the villages of the Riverlands and was only stopped at RiverHold itself.”)
 

D

dco

Guest
I always found them a waste of time and an obstacle for roleplaying.
It has been possible with all games I played since the 1980s to roll various skills to complete some tasks, no extra rules needed for that, always following the essential flow of the game, the players roleplay if interacting with NPCs or tell the DM they want to acomplish something, then the DM tells them what skills they have to use to succeed.
For whatever reason D&D 4e complicated things and sometimes it seems the DM tells the players what they have to do and then the players try to roleplay their way for the sake of dice rolling, usually there is a ton of dice rolling needed for nothing, for example countless diplomacy rolls till you get a number of wins as the example of the book, at the end it goes against roleplaying when DM or the player doesn't know how much more to say and they end slaves to a bad mechanic.
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
Whenever a player says "I roll diplomacy." I immediately interject "For what?" After a while it tends to set in that they need to say something like "I want to make a diplomacy check to try to convince the guards we're friends." The roll of the dice and the skills of the character are always the filter through which the players statements get translated.

In any case, skill challenges are usually obvious, like a fight. You know when a situation is about to turn ugly, skills are the same way. Just the resolution mechanic is via non-combat skills instead of combat skills (though there are times where that is player's choice). Every DM has to train their players to make skill checks in the way that DM prefers. Some DMs are cool with "I roll diplomacy, is he nice now?" some DMs aren't. I'm personally not picky. Finding words is hard and even if their character is very diplomatic, the player may not be.

Is there a good way to get your players to tell you want they want to do without rolling dice to do it? Yeah, take their dice away. You don't need to physically take their dice, but basically deny their rolls. If a player goes "I roll to hit!" then you just disregard whatever they roll until they say "I swing my axe at it!" and then you give them permission to roll the dice.

Personally, I only use this method with unruly players. If my player intends to attack a target, he'll need to roll the dice. So waiting for me to tell him to roll the dice is just a waste of everyone's time. It's easier for me to fudge the resolution behind the scene than to make him wait for permission. If I want the outcome to be something different than what the dice prescribe, I'll just make that outcome happen anyway.

One thing to note: 4E was huge on player empowerment. They wanted players to declare their action and do it. Not wait for the DM to give them permission to do it, or wait for the DM to resolve their action. 4E was big on "if it says you can do it, you can do it." with a DM taking a more reactionary posture to what the player just did, instead of a prescriptive posture in determining what was allowed to take place. I understand this is a big divergence from earlier editions.
 

MechaPilot

Explorer
4E was big on "if it says you can do it, you can do it." with a DM taking a more reactionary posture to what the player just did, instead of a prescriptive posture in determining what was allowed to take place. I understand this is a big divergence from earlier editions.
There was no divergence in what you're describing. In every edition, you can do what the default rules say you can do, unless the DM rules otherwise. That is exactly how BECMI, AD&D 2e, 3e, 4e, and 5e work.
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
There was no divergence in what you're describing. In every edition, you can do what the default rules say you can do, unless the DM rules otherwise. That is exactly how BECMI, AD&D 2e, 3e, 4e, and 5e work.
That certainly hasn't been my experience with non-4E editions. So I mean, unless it's just universally agreed that every DM rules in the same way, which seems implausible, my general experience has been that other editions leaned in the direction of "you can do it if the DM lets you" as opposed to "You can do this" period.
 

dave2008

Legend
That certainly hasn't been my experience with non-4E editions. So I mean, unless it's just universally agreed that every DM rules in the same way, which seems implausible, my general experience has been that other editions leaned in the direction of "you can do it if the DM lets you" as opposed to "You can do this" period.
I can't speak for every edition, but in the 1e (mostly BECMI), 4e, and 5e groups I played in it has always been "you can do it if the DM lets you."
 

dave2008

Legend
I love the idea of skill challenges but in practice they never quite worked, imho.

I think it's probably because it never seemed like a real consequence was at stake, like dying, and the 'challenge' to overcome was never as concrete as a monster.
What you say can be the case, but it is definitely possible to have skill challenges that have real consequences and concrete obstacles. I've even had players die in skill challenges.
 

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