What constitutes a "grind"?

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I was wondering how people classify a combat as a "grind."  Many people have said that they dislike combat X or Y in a mod because it's a "grind," but I'm not sure we all define that in the same way.

I have even seen DMs call a fight half-way through the second round of combat because they thought the fight had turned into a "boring grind" despite the fact the some players had only taken one turn (during which they may or may not have been dazed/dominated/stunned).  That seemed kinda crazy to me - but is this a common opinion?  How many rounds is too many?  Or does the "grindy-ness" of a fight depend more on other factors like how many controlling effects the monsters have or whether there's other things to do in the fight besides attack the monsters (like an incorporated skill challenge)?



Lori Anderson

WotC Freelancer, LFR author

@LittleLorika

 

Dragon Magazine #412: Unearthed Arcana: Ships in Your Campaign

Calimshan Adventures (LFR): CALI3-3, CALI4-1, and QUES4-1

Epic Adventures (LFR): EPIC5-1 and EPIC5-3

Other LFR Adventures: NETH4-1, ADCP5-2, and MYTH6-3

 

 

 

 

It seems like people decide a fight is a grind or not based on the style of character they built.  Many characters are built to blow their wad in the first round with lots of minor attack powers, immediate attack powers, items that give them extra actions, action points, etc.  Players of this kind of character are often bored out of their mind after a few rounds of combat.  (Of course they are -after their super-nova first turn, all they're doing is lack-luster at-will after at-will.)  Other builds/powers require a while to build up or enable a character to have a long, interesting, engaging battle without the player getting bored.  Perhaps this is why people don't always agree on whether a fight was a grind or not, even if they were playing at the same table.

I have observed that the two play/character-styles do not always mesh well together.  Either the combat takes a long time and the player who used all their interesting powers in round 1 is bored to tears or the combat is over in a flash and the other kind of player is disappointed that they didn't have time to set up their cool combo.  (Or maybe the fight really is a total grind and everyone is utterly bored.)

I've noticed that my "slow" characters (for lack of a better word - the characters that don't use every single encounter power in the first round or two) rarely get to use all of their powers because either the strikers nova all the monsters in the first few rounds or because the DM has decided the fight is a grind.  This is especially true at paragon tier when characters have a lot more powers/options and the difference in the number of rounds it takes for various style characters to use all their encounter powers can be large.

One of my characters has a daily power that lets her recover an encounter power after she's used all her encounter powers.  I almost never get to use it because it's hard to use every encounter power in a fight.  (And on the rare occasion that I could use it, the fight is usually almost-won and using a daily power seems like a waste.)  I know there are similar powers in other classes.  A power like that requires a character to use every encounter attack power, another round to use the daily power, and yet another round to actually use the recovered encounter power a second time.  It can be hard to pull off.  So, are powers like that just a total waste and people shouldn't take them because the fight's almost always going to be over before they can use it?  (I have managed to use this particular daily power successfully a few times, but many other times I have been disappointed due to fights being over too fast or a "grindy" fight being called.)

Similar arguments could be made about other combos that take a while to set up.

Lori Anderson

WotC Freelancer, LFR author

@LittleLorika

 

Dragon Magazine #412: Unearthed Arcana: Ships in Your Campaign

Calimshan Adventures (LFR): CALI3-3, CALI4-1, and QUES4-1

Epic Adventures (LFR): EPIC5-1 and EPIC5-3

Other LFR Adventures: NETH4-1, ADCP5-2, and MYTH6-3

 

 

 

 

I think that most people categorize combats as a grind when:
a1. The outcome is not in doubt
a2. Everyone's cool powers have already been used or are unavailable (perhaps because the monsters are immune/resistant or perhaps because they are out of range).
a3. Therefore, the players are just spamming the same at-wills and the monsters are spamming the same attacks (unless they recharge).

Grinds get worse when:
b1. It is obvious that it will take many, many more rounds to resolve. (For example, the players are all reduced to ranged basic attacks against a monster that still has 100 hp and is insubstatial or the monster has 4 hits worth of hit points left but the PCs only hit on a 17+).

Sometimes people will call a combat a grind when a1 is not true, but b1 is true--the outcome is in doubt, but it is obvious that it will take many many rounds to complete (for example, the players are slowly whittling down the hit points of the monster, but they are largely out of healing and a few lucky hits by the monsters could overwhelm the consecrated ground healing and actually kill a PC or the monster has six hundred plus hit points, regeneration, and could theoretically overwhelm all of the PCs healing if he rolled a little bit hot, but, with the PCs dealing 40-50 damage per round, it will take 15-20 rounds to resolve that). Another way that a combat could have the outcome in doubt but still be a grind is if a somewhat unlikely series of events could prove a TPK. I have often seen combats called when the party clearly had the upper hand, but there is still a 1/9 chance that the monster will recharge its recharge 5-6 close burst power every round for the next three rounds and with a couple good damage rolls, could TPK the party.

I have seen my share of DMs calling fights early--even occasionally when in my estimation the monsters were winning--because "the monsters had no chance" but I think that stems from DMs misreading the tactical situation. Sometimes, it also stems from the DM just not being interested in watching the beat-down occur--something which is really different from my idea of a grind.
I did a fight against a green dragon once that I thought was a grind after round 2... I'd not be surprised if there are fights I'd consider a grind in round 1, with the right group and combat setup.

Effectively, it's when it feels as if I don't have interesting decisions to make and there's little or no excitement to be had. For example, a hovering flier is doing a small amount of damage at a range that no PC can operate effectively at, so a few people are making crappy javelin attacks, but said flier has no real ability to kill anyone. At that point, I'd just as soon have the option of having a computer automate the combat and move on.

But yeah, EB's got it pretty much right.

I will say that whether a combat feels like a grind can be a separate beast from whether a combat should be called. We're on a clock with LFR, so combats should be resolved within a certain amount of time if they can be. Some people don't deal very well with that.
Keith Richmond Living Forgotten Realms Epic Writing Director

Two scenarios for consideration:

1) As Keithric points out, the PCs are engaged in a battle with a flier or two, they don't have good ranged attacks and the NPCs don't have much of a chance of killing the PCs.  If the DM pauses to consider the motivations of the enemy, she might conclude that these creatures realize they won't be able to do anything to the PCs, so they fly away.

2) As Elder_basilisk says, some combats may be clearly in the PCs' favor, but the enemy might pull out a win.  Only if they recharge that one power, and it hits just right against the leader, or something like that.  But if the DM considers the NPC's point of view, they might give up and let the PCs win, or they might flee, or possibly a third option.

I've seen combat in 4e turn into grind sessions, and in almost every case I've "called it" by having the monsters act in accordance with their nature and their situation.  My opinion, then, is that when a combat is reduced to constant grinding one side or the other should be considering their options.

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The key, to me, is that the combat is not in doubt. With no excitement, you just don't have much of a reason to play it out.

I don't experience a grind very often, but that may be because I often play with four players and two are strong strikers with good flexibility. With fewer foes and the PCs going more often, the feel of a grind is reduced.

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Two scenarios for consideration:

1) As Keithric points out, the PCs are engaged in a battle with a flier or two, they don't have good ranged attacks and the NPCs don't have much of a chance of killing the PCs.  If the DM pauses to consider the motivations of the enemy, she might conclude that these creatures realize they won't be able to do anything to the PCs, so they fly away.



Another relevant scenario is where the monsters do have a chance of killing the PCs... eventually. Maybe it's a good chance. Maybe it's a not a good chance. But either way, I think it's still a grind. The trouble is you can't really call it to avoid the grind because somewhere about round 20, the PCs will be out of healing and one monster will probably be dead with the other at 50% hit points. Then, another five rounds and the monster might be dead... or it might have killed a PC and be at 25% hit points.




I've seen combat in 4e turn into grind sessions, and in almost every case I've "called it" by having the monsters act in accordance with their nature and their situation.  My opinion, then, is that when a combat is reduced to constant grinding one side or the other should be considering their options


IMO, the biggest trouble is when the PCs don't have any options (the NPCs are faster/the door closed behind the PCs/etc) but the NPCs are on a course to eventually win the grind. Grind scenarios inherently favor monsters because PCs run out of healing powers fairly quickly while monsters never had any to begin with and likewise PCs run out of encounter powers (and even dailies) fairly quickly but monsters can keep recharging all day. I think that not understanding this dynamic is why some DMs call fights early. A rogue wins init and charges then action points for torturous strike, follows up with press the advantage for the kill and on the next round has a flank from the fighter and attacks with circling predator followed by low slash and sneak in the attack. Great. But the rogue is fresh out of encounter powers at that point so her damage output is going to flatline. (If the rogue is 9th level, she may still have a couple dailies she could use if she were putting everything into one fight, but she's pretty much tapped out). I suspect that the DMs who call the encounter at that point somehow expect the PCs' damage output to stay at the same level for the whole fight.

To address Keith's point, I suspect that smaller tables tend to reduce grind a lot--especially 4 player tables with two strikers. When there are fewer hit points on both sides to work through and the party has characters who specialize in working through hit points, things will tend to finish quickly.
I was wondering how people classify a combat as a "grind." 

I hadn't thought about it.  Obviously, it's mainly that it's taking too long.  I suppose even a long combat could avoid being a grind if it was varied enough.  The key is that it gets boring and frustrating.  That could be on the DM for coming up with a bad encounter, or on the players for aproaching it unimaginatively.


 

 

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If the combat is not in doubt, why the heck are the monsters not trying to escape (possibly with their loot/secrets/etc.)? Are they waiting for reinforcements or are they just stupid?
I think that most people categorize combats as a grind when:
a1. The outcome is not in doubt
a2. Everyone's cool powers have already been used or are unavailable (perhaps because the monsters are immune/resistant or perhaps because they are out of range).
a3. Therefore, the players are just spamming the same at-wills and the monsters are spamming the same attacks (unless they recharge).


Yes. The keywords are "lengthy" and "repetitive".

Causes are either that the monster is unusually hard to hit (because of high defenses, terrain, powers that negate hits, or powers that impose attack penalties), or that the monster takes an unusual amount of hits to go down (because of high hit points, healing powers, regeneration, insubstanialness or powers that weaken). Pretty much every solo monster constitutes a grind.
Those all seem like good points/definitions.

But what if some players at the table are bored because they're just doing at-wills, but other players still have interesting options and encounter powers left?  Rogues seem particularly good at using every single exciting power at their disposal in the first round or two - and then spend the rest of the combat with only at-wills.  Is that just too bad for the rogue PC for using all their fun powers right away and not having anything interesting left?  (Presumably the rogue PC had their time in the spot-light at the beginning of the fight when they got to take a bunch of actions in a row and use all their cool toys.)  More often though I have found that judges and mods seem to reward those PCs that explode in the first round and then have nothing left. 

Obviously we would all agree that a 50-round fight against a solo is a boring grind and the judge should call the fight or do something to make it more fun and engaging for the players.  But what do you do if the combat feel like a grind for some PCs but not others?  The goal of D&D and LFR is for everyone to have fun, so how do you balance player's fun when some at the table are bored and others aren't?

I personally prefer playing characters (and playing with other party members) that do not nova and kill everything in sight in the first round.  (Otherwise we're just playing the "who wins initiative" game - which the PCs will almost always win.)  I think combats can be a lot more exciting, engaging, and interesting if the PCs do not all blow all their powers in the first round or two.  That also helps reduce the feeling of a grind.  But, as others have pointed out, we're often on a time-limit in LFR (which rewards/favors those "kill everything instantly"-type builds).

Lori Anderson

WotC Freelancer, LFR author

@LittleLorika

 

Dragon Magazine #412: Unearthed Arcana: Ships in Your Campaign

Calimshan Adventures (LFR): CALI3-3, CALI4-1, and QUES4-1

Epic Adventures (LFR): EPIC5-1 and EPIC5-3

Other LFR Adventures: NETH4-1, ADCP5-2, and MYTH6-3

 

 

 

 

Personally, I like a good 5-6 round 30-60 minute combat. I wouldn't call a combat a grind and shut it off before the 5th round or 60 minutes if people had actual options to do. That's plenty of time to use your encounter powers.

Now, if it's the 2nd round and it's been 60 minutes, then I think there's some serious problems at the table and every fight might be a grind(ing of teeth).
Keith Richmond Living Forgotten Realms Epic Writing Director
It's a grind when nothing new happens.

So say the monster wears the PCs down, does a little chunk of damage each round.  After three rounds and an hour of time pass, maybe the monster effectively made a PC have to use one more healing surge.  Big whoop.  The players aren't excited, the DM isn't excited.  H***, even the monster isn't excited.

You can have a LONG LONG combat, in which interesting things happen, and the combat REMAINS interesting.  But things MUST happen for the combat to be interesting.  Have the same old situation repeat, with no real change, who cares?
Those all seem like good points/definitions.

But what if some players at the table are bored because they're just doing at-wills, but other players still have interesting options and encounter powers left?  Rogues seem particularly good at using every single exciting power at their disposal in the first round or two - and then spend the rest of the combat with only at-wills.  Is that just too bad for the rogue PC for using all their fun powers right away and not having anything interesting left?  (Presumably the rogue PC had their time in the spot-light at the beginning of the fight when they got to take a bunch of actions in a row and use all their cool toys.)  More often though I have found that judges and mods seem to reward those PCs that explode in the first round and then have nothing left. 

Obviously we would all agree that a 50-round fight against a solo is a boring grind and the judge should call the fight or do something to make it more fun and engaging for the players.  But what do you do if the combat feel like a grind for some PCs but not others?  The goal of D&D and LFR is for everyone to have fun, so how do you balance player's fun when some at the table are bored and others aren't?

I personally prefer playing characters (and playing with other party members) that do not nova and kill everything in sight in the first round.  (Otherwise we're just playing the "who wins initiative" game - which the PCs will almost always win.)  I think combats can be a lot more exciting, engaging, and interesting if the PCs do not all blow all their powers in the first round or two.  That also helps reduce the feeling of a grind.  But, as others have pointed out, we're often on a time-limit in LFR (which rewards/favors those "kill everything instantly"-type builds).



I can only speak for myself as far as the difference between various classes goes, but I think that pretty much all of the classes run out of interesting powers in the first two rounds until 6th or 7th level. (Rangers are actually the king of that--even a 7th level ranger could quite conceivably use all of his encounter powers in the first round without using an action point). However, as tends to kill monsters more quickly, I don't think it contributes to grind. Also, I don't think it is necessarily grind if one character is out of encounter powers but other characters still have their encounter powers--as long as the encounter powers they have left are useful ones. (In fact, even if all of the characters are out of encounter powers and dailies, it is not necessarily a grind as most level 1 and 2 characters evidence). Obviously, the warlock with fiery bolt and flames of phlegethos will always have those two powers left at the end of any combat against foes who all have resist fire 10. They're not useful powers for that fight. Likewise, the barbarian will almost certainly have all of his encounter and daily powers left at any point in a fight against flying foes with reach or ranged attacks. That makes those encounters a bit more frustrating for those players but not necessarily grindy (though other reasons make the "all flying foes who never come within reach unless forced" encounter very likely to be a grind).

The grind comes in when the PCs powers aren't changing the situation and the monsters powers aren't really changing things either. The monster shifts out of flank and attacks with his basic or his recharge. The PCs shift into flank and make the same attacks they know worked before. The monster shifts out of flank... and it goes on until someone runs out of hit points.
It also depends a bit on the situation and how the DM handles it. I know that in a few cases were all that was left were at-wills on both sides, but the outcome was everything but certain (happens most often when players go nova on the wrong target). In that case I have prevented a grind by giving each player just enough time to roll the dice and state the damage. Fights can go real fast this way. Of course, it does not work always either because the situation requires a bit more thought (movement is important) or because the players get frustrated about the speedy dice rolling.

Regardless, I have not seen a fight turn into a grind in 2 rounds. If people are already bored by that time, the fight was set up really badly or more likely the group (including the DM) has other issues that have nothing to do with the fight (even something as simple as hating fights). I never called a fight because it turned into a grind before the 8th round, and I doubt I will. I have called the occassional fight earlier for other reasons, and only if all players at the table agreed.
I think the first time I really experienced a grind was online (thus harder to have good RP to keep the combat from being boring). We go in, close with the monsters, trade some blows... and it is really clear there is no threat. We could decide to do nothing for two rounds and the monsters would still not have done any real damage to us. Then there is our output - our damage is fine, but we only dropped one of the boring foes. The result is that we can see that it will be many rounds of this before this fight ends. Boring monsters that don't threaten us that have a lot of HPs...

The good news is that the new MMs and Dungeon (plus books like Open Grave) combine to give us a lot of monsters. There isn't much of a reason to have all-boring monsters in an encounter. If I think of the first fight in CORE1-14, part of the reason I think it plays well with players is that it has a good scene and feel and the foes are iconic, but the biggest is probably that each foe brings something interesting. It isn't likely to be hugely challenging, but it usually is interesting down to the last foe. "Wait, did that guy just throw a tree trunk at us? Seriously?"

Now, there is always table variation and player variation. Something that is control heavy can be tactically interesting to some players but "grind" to others, because they want to get there and do damage, not move around slowly or be "nerfed". Something that is a single iconic monster can be really interesting to some, even if it devolves to At-Wills, because it is a challenge to kill it, and to others a grind because it is long and down to at-wills. ADCP1-1 comes to mind as something I have enjoyed but others have felt went too long.

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My definition of a grind is similar to other posters have said:  nothing is changing, the combat round has reached steady state (every participant is taking the same action every round, and will do so for the next round).

My experience is that combats reach "steady state" by round 4-6.  At this time, all useful (expendable) abilities have been used (ENC, DAIL, magic item, action points, class features, etc.).  After two solid rounds of everyone using at-will powers, the combat usually is a "grind".

Other things can keep a combat exciting, even at this point.  if the PCs are dealing with complex terrain issues, or a simultaneous skill challenge, the combat is NOT at steady-state.  PCs are choosing between at-wills and various skill checks to move the combat along.  I've had this happen in combats where rounds 5-9 consisted of PCs judiciously deciding between at-wills and important skill checks. 

A skill challenge embedded in the fight can still be boring, especially if it's a case of one PC having to continually attempt a hard DC (such as a high Thievery check needing 6 successes).  In this case, the skill check is essentially another "at will".

Another key component is real-time.  Combats should take on the order of 30-60 minutes.  Some really exciting or complicated fights can take longer - but typically long combats are a result of poor preparedness/decisiveness of the players/DMs and "grinds".  Generally, when combats get to 75+ minutes, that pushes the attentiveness of the average player (and typically, one player at every table will be seriously bored at this point). 

A couple people brought up the idea of "outcome certainty".  i.e. , is it highly likely the PCs or the monsters will win, and thus should the DM "call it".  I've been in situations like this with varying results.  As a DM, if the situation is clearly in the PCs favor I call it.  If it's unclear, I offer a bargain - typically that PCs voluntarily just lose extra surges and move on.  If it's likely the badguys will win, I'll feel obligated to play it out, or at least try and negotiate a reasonable outcome with the players.

Grind:
 - steady state combat (this round, the previous round, and the next round will be the same for everyone)
 - steady state has been going on for at least 2 rounds
 - time:  the combat has gone on for 60+ minutes
 - the out-come may or may not be obvious.
 - the encounter is no longer FUN for the majority of the players+DM

The most likely scenario is monsters that are just annoying to kill (high level solo's, especially soldiers (hard to hit), monsters with regen/healing/insubstantial (or a mixture of these)).  Typically, the monster has already spent it's scary (non-recharge) powers and action points, so it no longer retains the burst-damage capability to kill one or more PCs.

I have found that low level (i.e. below the level of the PCs) solo's, especially brutes and controllers are a fun COMPONENT of a fight, but typically are not a great entity by themselves.  I much prefer elite's to solo's (because there's more room for other monsters/traps/etc. in the XP budget).  The low level solo, or moderate level elite still hang around long enough to be interesting, but doesn't drag the combat on as much.





My definition of a grind is similar to other posters have said:  nothing is changing, the combat round has reached steady state (every participant is taking the same action every round, and will do so for the next round).

My experience is that combats reach "steady state" by round 4-6.  At this time, all useful (expendable) abilities have been used (ENC, DAIL, magic item, action points, class features, etc.).  After two solid rounds of everyone using at-will powers, the combat usually is a "grind".

Other things can keep a combat exciting, even at this point.  if the PCs are dealing with complex terrain issues, or a simultaneous skill challenge, the combat is NOT at steady-state.  PCs are choosing between at-wills and various skill checks to move the combat along.  I've had this happen in combats where rounds 5-9 consisted of PCs judiciously deciding between at-wills and important skill checks. 

A skill challenge embedded in the fight can still be boring, especially if it's a case of one PC having to continually attempt a hard DC (such as a high Thievery check needing 6 successes).  In this case, the skill check is essentially another "at will".

Another key component is real-time.  Combats should take on the order of 30-60 minutes.  Some really exciting or complicated fights can take longer - but typically long combats are a result of poor preparedness/decisiveness of the players/DMs and "grinds".  Generally, when combats get to 75+ minutes, that pushes the attentiveness of the average player (and typically, one player at every table will be seriously bored at this point). 

A couple people brought up the idea of "outcome certainty".  i.e. , is it highly likely the PCs or the monsters will win, and thus should the DM "call it".  I've been in situations like this with varying results.  As a DM, if the situation is clearly in the PCs favor I call it.  If it's unclear, I offer a bargain - typically that PCs voluntarily just lose extra surges and move on.  If it's likely the badguys will win, I'll feel obligated to play it out, or at least try and negotiate a reasonable outcome with the players.

Grind:
 - steady state combat (this round, the previous round, and the next round will be the same for everyone)
 - steady state has been going on for at least 2 rounds
 - time:  the combat has gone on for 60+ minutes
 - the out-come may or may not be obvious.
 - the encounter is no longer FUN for the majority of the players+DM

The most likely scenario is monsters that are just annoying to kill (high level solo's, especially soldiers (hard to hit), monsters with regen/healing/insubstantial (or a mixture of these)).  Typically, the monster has already spent it's scary (non-recharge) powers and action points, so it no longer retains the burst-damage capability to kill one or more PCs.

I have found that low level (i.e. below the level of the PCs) solo's, especially brutes and controllers are a fun COMPONENT of a fight, but typically are not a great entity by themselves.  I much prefer elite's to solo's (because there's more room for other monsters/traps/etc. in the XP budget).  The low level solo, or moderate level elite still hang around long enough to be interesting, but doesn't drag the combat on as much.







I would add players and enemies missing attacks resulting in a small amount of DPR nothing defines a grind better than a fight where everyone is nickel and dimed to death.      
Does a long skill challenge (12 successes needed) feel like a grind to anyone or is there enough roleplay to keep that active?
Does a long skill challenge (12 successes needed) feel like a grind to anyone or is there enough roleplay to keep that active?


It really varies by table. Some skill challenges are set up so that only a couple of skills make sense in the context. This can lead to the Diplomacy grind (probably the most typical skill that gets used repeatedly in social skill challenges), which is a real problem with a couple of challenges.


Some players are totally afraid of failing a skill check during a skill challenge (not the same as failing the entire skill challenge, mind you). They'll typically only assist, and then it's a different sort of grind.


Some replayers are bored by skill challenges when they're going through them the second time, or they don't want to use metagame knowledge obtained from previous playthroughs. I can certainly understand the latter motivation, but it does result in something of a grind for the other players.


Finally, there's the "is it over yet?" grind, where a skill challenge starts, maybe has a combat in the middle, and finally concludes. This feels more like a means of avoiding milestones, which rubs me the wrong way. I generally consider those sorts of skill challenges to be multiple smaller skill challenges.


And just so you don't think I'm totally negative on skill challenges, I've seen some really awesome ones where people were role-playing their characters, rather than simply avoiding failures. As a player and a DM, I'd rather have the skill challenge be interesting, rather than "I can't roll that. I only have +5" (or whatever modifier is considered too low).

Does a long skill challenge (12 successes needed) feel like a grind to anyone or is there enough roleplay to keep that active?



Even short skill challenges usually feel like a grind to me--they are a fundamentally flawed mechanic. But skill encounters (including that rare, mythical beast, the well constructed skill challenge, if one ever mysteriously manages to claw its way from the well of existential uncertainty) don't have to be grinds, and more importantly, do not become grinds in the same way that combat encounters do. In fact, it is probably not helpful to use the same word to describe them.

A skill challenge becomes tedious not primarily when you are simply repeating the same mechanical actions.  In one H3 adventure I played, there was a skill challenge to climb up a cliff. (Many would now argue that this is not a good skill challenge, and maybe it isn't; in any event our DM did not run it using the skill challenge mechanic so it serves as a good example of how a repeated skill roll need not be tedious). Now, in order to succeed on this, our characters needed to succeed on three athletics rolls each. There weren't other applicable skills and though I was playing an eladrin, I figured that the fact that my warlord was good at climbing and that we might be ambushed immediately upon completing the climb meant that I did not want to use fey step to finish the climb. But it still was not tedious--each roll carried a different and easily understood consequence. Failure on the first roll was meaningless; we just made no progress. If we failed by enough to fall on the second roll, however, we were going to take some damage and sufficiently bad failure on the third roll would mean a lot of damage.  After the first character got up, he was able to let a rope down and this made it much easier for the following characters until we reached the wizard who was hopeless at athletics. So, we knotted a loop in the rope for her and hauled her up. Was it interesting? Not especially. But it wasn't tedious despite simply being a whole bunch of athletics checks. The defined goal, defined progress to the goal, obvious consequences for failure, and strategic considerations (my warlord and the fighter actually both climbed up at the same time so that we wouldn't end up with one person alone at the top if we were ambushed) prevented it from being the equivalent of a grinding combat.

Instead, a skill encounter becomes tedious when the mechanics of the encounter are detached from the story. This often leaves you repeating the same strategic actions over and over again: think up whatever fanciful excuse is needed to roll my best skill. Even well conceived or (much more commonly) ill-conceived but well-run skill encounters often fall into this category when the skill challenge format is used. If we have reached our destination (snuck into the enemy camp, stolen the secret plans, or whatever) and still have successes left to go, reaching those last successes will be tedious no matter how good the initial portion of the encounter was. At that point, you are no longer rolling dice to accomplish something in the game world. Rather, you are rolling dice because the rules arbitrarily say you need to roll X number of dice before the encounter is over. Tedious.

Likewise, social skill challenges frequently become tedious. The first character makes a good case. Roll diplomacy. OK, one success, but not enough. The second character makes another good but completely unconnected--perhaps even incompatible--argument. Two successes and we're out of things to say. The other characters then proceed to throw increasingly loony role-playing at the wall to support whatever skill they are best in until it mercifully stops. Now, why does it work out that way? Because in general there is no discernable sense of progress or change in the situation. The first player really did most of what would be relevant to the story and the second player did something else that would have resolved the issue in a different story, but those aren't enough successes so the skill challenge is still going. In short, it often works out to be that kind of a failure because the story ran out after one or two checks but the challenge kept going.

On the other hand, a skill encounter can still be interesting even after we have succeeded on a dozen rolls if the rolls continue to be meaningful and connected with the story. Two examples follow:

Dale 1-7

I'm pretty sure that my most recent DM for Dale 1-7 cut the initial skill challenge short, but in so doing, he managed to keep the investigation phase of the module interesting.

Here's what happened: We arrived at howarts in the sky in the evening, used our thievery skills to rig the elevator so that we would know if anyone used it during the night, talked to a couple of the students and decided to do a bed-check as an opportunity to investigate the student's rooms. Maybe that's a bit out of character for the institution, but our DM ran with it. We walked through all of the bedrooms, noted only one missing student, and found some strings hanging from the windows which we surmised were used by the students to receive their forbidden substances. We investigated the kitchen. Then, we decided to sneak into the missing headmaster's office and found his diary. We went to the spot he had planned to investigate and then followed the trail we found there right to the first combat encounter.

Like I said, I'm pretty sure that our DM ended the skill challenge before we got the requisite number of successes, but whether or not he did so, he ended it at the right time. Once we found what we had found, saying "you have to wait until dawn and teach some classes before proceeding to the next encounter" would have just been rolling dice to roll dice. We had accomplished what the skill challenge was there for. Anything else would be tedious. (And anything less would have been incomplete).


Mini 1-3

Mini 1-3 provided a good example of the opposite situation: a skill challenge that was over mechanically but needed to be extended further. We needed to sneak into a mining camp. So we waited and watched the guards, then snuck up to the least exposed corner of the compound and climbed over the fence. Then we realized that there were guards at the gate we wanted to go through and that those guards were right outside the barracks where the other guards were sleeping and within a very short distance of the front gate where another patrol was stationed.

Our goal was to sneak into the mine undetected but the skill challenge was mechanically over. Fortunately, our DM was not shackled to the mechanics of skill challenges. We sent a character back out the compound, around to the opposite side (this enabled her to avoid crossing the main walkway where she might have been seen--we weren't sure if the guards had darkvision which would have rendered the shadows no defense against detection), where she climbed over the fence on the other side, snuck into the guard barracks through a window, stole several uniforms, climbed out, came back around, and climbed over again (fortunately, these were all relatively easy tasks). Then we disguised a couple members as guards and proceeded to bluff our way past the guards outside the mine entrance (though we still had to fight those inside--our plan for the bluff wasn't very good).

Now, that encounter could probably have been simplified a bit--the "steal some uniforms" side-quest for the rogue may have been a bit boring for the other players and if it had been accomplished with half the rolls, probably would have been better. But it still is a good example of how an encounter resolved solely through the use of skills and non-combat powers can continue well past the 14 rolls necessary for the most complex skill challenge without becoming tedious due to the amount of dice rolled. And why did it work? Because the entire process was directly connected to concrete goals and situations in the game world and, until it was over, there were still non-combat actions that needed to be resolved.


Now, it is my frequently expressed opinion that the DMG's skill challenge mechanics do not encourage good skill encounters but rather actively interfere with both the creation and the execution of them. That, however, has no bearing on my analysis of what makes a skill encounter interesting or tedious. The bottom line is that skill encounters are interesting when they are connected to the story and become dull when they lose their connection to the story, whether they lose that connection because the story isn't finished but the skill challenge rolls are, the story is finished but the skill challenge rolls aren't, or because the strategies for succeeding mechanically in the skill challenge make no sense in relation to the story.
I start thinking "grind" or "tedious" when the outcome is clear either way, but I rarely find these fights to be a problem as a DM or a Player. Once the outcome is clear, it is time to take risks to accelerate the outcome or change it. It is also a good time for monsters to go out with a bang - break out those "If I'm dieing so are you" threats as they make a break for the wizard who has been hanging at the back peppering them with MM or whatever.

I'm much more worried about "frustrating" encounters, ones where the encounter is a series of "no you cannot do that" (skill challenge or stun-lock/out of reach enemy style fight) or where the DM is going "no you must keep rolling" (usually skill challenge).

I will avoid going into the "are skill challenges good/bad argument" with EB (we are on opposite sides of that fence) other than to say he makes a good assesment of how they can go wrong and it is mostly the "Players think it is done and the DM thinks it isn't" situation (and vice versa). Usually the DM thinks it isn't because the author is saying it isn't to the DM. Fortunately LFR has moved away from a lot of long skill challenges like we saw in the early mods and has adopted a general model that makes it much clearer how things will work so I'm seeing this problem less now as a player.

I'm pretty sure that my most recent DM for Dale 1-7 cut the initial skill challenge short, but in so doing, he managed to keep the investigation phase of the module interesting.



Nope -- cutting that skill challenge short due to smart players is explicitly addressed in the adventure. I was quite pleased by that.
A Grind is when the PCs are facing an encounter with enemies that have high defenses requiring a 15 or better die roll, lots of HP, daze at-will or constantly recharge that dazing power, insubstantial, weakening, can heal or second-wind in some form and/or fly.