Skill Challenges in D&D Encounters

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This thread on the week 3 reports is very interesting. Many DMs and even players continue to be frustrated by the rules behind Skill Challenges (SC). I don't want to get into whether the mechanic itself is great or not. Rather, given what the rules are, I wanted to share some thoughts and ask others to share thoughts as to how to make them fun.

1. Goals
Let's start with the premise. The whole point of any encounter is to achieve some or all of the following (in no particular order):
  • Everyone has a fun time! (Overall goal)

  • Stimulate the imagination

  • Gain XP and perhaps treasure - players want to level!

  • Role-playing opportunity

  • Tactical fun (weighing mechanical options, make choices for ideal results, problem solve, solve puzzles, etc.)

  • Role dice, face risk, and be happy if we succeed


In any encounter, SC or otherwise, you want to accomplish some of the above. The first one is the big one - if you don't have fun, what is the point? (And more importantly, what could you do differently to achieve fun?)

2. Skill Challenge Basics
Any skill challenge is driven by a few rules.

First, take a look at the level and the complexity. The level tells us how hard this should be. Is it around the level of the PCs? Higher? Higher by a lot? The level drives the DC a PC must make on a skill check (broken down by easy/medium/hard as shown in the DMG and errata). The complexity adds to difficulty, as it tells us how many successes must be made - the number of failures is always the same. The more successes, the longer it will play and the harder it will be not to get those failures, especially if the level is high. By looking at level and complexity we know the difficulty intended by the author. Based on context and other factors, we want to know if this is supposed to be hard or basically be just something for the PCs to do while they go through the story. (Neither is better than the other, just as having an easy combat is fine too from time to time).
spoilers for session 1-3:

The first SC is level 1, complexity 2. This is not very challenging. That said, the DCs are all medium or hard, so there is some edge to it relative to the potential. (Level 1-3 SCs have DCs of 5/10/15 per the DMG p72 and the errata for that page). So, this is a SC where it isn't meant to be hugely challenging. (Of course, PCs can always happen to be a bad fit for the skills or roll poorly. Also, see technique later, as how the DM sets things up can drive difficulty!


Second, let's look at how many skills apply and if they are confined to a narrow attribute/class area. The summary for the skill challenge will tell us primary and secondary skills. If we want, we can see if they are heavily physical (athletics, endurance, acrobatics), which will favor melee and fighting types, or knowledge or perception/insight (which favor int/wis), or social (which favor charisma). The narrower the focus, the harder it will be, on average. I say on average because you might have a party that doesn't have any PC with high charisma, and thus few options. Or, you might have one really charismatic PC and actually have it be easy, but limiting participation (which can reduce fun).
spoilers for session 1-3:

The first SC has many skills, across many attributes and available to many different PC classes. Secondary skills let PCs help pretty easily, reducing the difficulty and compensating for not having any easy skills.


Third, let's look at the way the skill challenge is broken down. Does it have scenes? Scenes can impact difficulty, because fewer skills are actually available at any given time.
spoilers for session 1-3:

While the format has all the skills jumbled together, there are really two scenes here: Downshadow (diplomacy and intimidate) and Exploring (dungeoneering). Separating this into scenes on a piece of paper can help us visualize the flow and the limits on skills. We can see that Downshadow is heavily social and down to two skills that are charisma based. Exploring is just dungeoneering (wisdom). From this, we can see the SC will be very difficult if the PCs do not have these skills trained or have a few PCs with high attributes in those areas. Thus, it will be important to ensure such parties use the secondary skills to achieve the desired challenge level (which is easy).


Fourth, let's look at the failure and success. How much does it matter if we fail? How important is success? If it is very critical, we may need to consider options for how to handle failure. If failure has a strong impact, we want to consider that. In the same way we might let PCs off the hook when facing a TPK for what should be an easy combat, we might find ways to let PCs gain success with an easy SC.
spoilers for session 1-3:

Failure is a loss of a healing surge for each PC. They still progress in the adventure. And, of course, they do not gain XP (always a downer!). Further, several of the skills have failure conditions! The failure is healing surges. Given that the previous two fights may have drained a number of healing surges, this is a potentially significant condition for failure and we may want to ask PCs how they are doing before deciding if we will let PCs off the hook, since the encounter is supposed to be easy.


Now, not all of the above will be interpreted the same way by all DMs, and that's ok. It is a game and everyone runs a bit differently. Still, reviewing those factors and thinking through them lead to a DM being prepared.

2. Technique, part 1: Story
When running a SC, the first thing I do is look at the story. What is taking place? Why? Separate from mechanics, what are the PCs experiencing and how can it play out? This is really important because this is an RPG. First and foremost we want to provide a rich experience (and fun!). When the Fellowship of the Ring traverse dangerous lands it is exciting and filled with story. It isn't boring! Challenges like being lost in Moria are cool experiences full of imaginative challenge as the PCs weave through dark passages, avoid trouble, and seek answers. We want to clearly understand the story and then convey that as DMs. Ideally, we can also find some opportunity to let PCs interact with it and have the story reflect that. When a PC rolls and fails their stealth check to cause a failure on the whole challenge, we can describe them knocking a bucket down a well and the sound of drums... moments before foes arrive.
spoilers for session 1-3:

This SC is full of story! Not only are the skills related to some good story elements, but for the Exploration scene you have tons of ideas a DM can use to riff cool story behind the rolls. The Lanceboard can be a cool scene where PCs use skills to turn off pieces, bear a charge from a knight, use History to learn a proper move, and so on. The last piece vanquished might yield a clue, or perhaps when they win the King grants them the answer to one question. The possibilities for story are endless!


Many DMs and players have issues with the SC format. They find it hurts RP. They say they would rather have the rolls taken out. They say it is too boring. That is possible, but generally when you don't seize the potential to include story. Or, if none of your players like RP, then it might be necessary to do the reverse and focus not on story but on challenge and tactics.

Here are two scenarios:
spoilers for session 1-3:

  1. "Ok players, this is a skill challenge. You guys know you need to go to Downshadow. You start talking to the people that live there. I need a diplomacy check. Hmm... that fails. Well, how about you also roll streetwise to give +2? Ok, that succeeds. You have one success and need 5 more. Now let's roll..."

  2. "Staring between the tattered map given to you and the myriad of cold dark corridors ahead, you see several possible directions that could lead towards the hidden chambers. You also recall the information you picked up in the Yawning Portal. Down-on-their-luck adventurers, many of them likely dangerous, live in the community known as Downshadow. You could explore or you could head to Downshadow to ask around. What do you do? (Party discusses and chooses Downshadow, DM describes the setting as an underground slum. In one area an 'open air' tavern of sorts has been created. Two twin half-elf waitresses do their best to pry coins from the customers. One of them spins away from a table and greets you with a forced smile." (After some RP and the player saying they ask some questions, a streetwise check is granted). "Sure, cutey, I can help you, especially if you or your buddies order a drink! See that half-orc over there with the minotaur bodyguard? That's Krog. Krog seems to always know things. And that dragonborn talking to those three humans? He showed up recently. Seems the noble sort, if you can believe it, which I don't. Says he is an experienced adventure, which makes it strange that he is here, but he might know something."

The first example is really low on RP, forces the mechanics in a dry way, and is largely devoid of any tactical opportunities. That approach will be unlikely to please just about any player type.

The second example will really please those that like role-playing, as well as those looking for puzzles and, to some extent, tactics. It may not please everyone, however.


3. Technique, part 2: Mechanics and Flow
How you run a skill challenge will greatly impact the fun factor and the challenge level. There have been a lot of articles in Dungeon by Mike Mearls that are useful for understanding the options, though the articles focus on construction. This one is a pretty helpful one. Small books could be written about the craft, but here are a few aspects to consider.

Do you tell the players you are in a skill challenge?
If you do, it will please the more tactical and mechanical players, but may turn off the role-players. It also starts some metagaming and will tend to suggest certain actions by the PCs. They might go for the dice rather than describe what they want to do. They might think less like PCs and more like players. They may be very careful, not participating in anything their PC does not do well (such as keeping their mouths shut if they have low charisma).

Do you state the skills needed?
Providing an explicit list of skills will take away a large part of the mystery, which may turn off role-players and puzzle-seekers. It can also take away from story and encourage PCs to go for the dice.

How do you choose who gets to act?
Sometimes it is obvious a skill is needed. Do you select a PC to act, or let the party decide who will take part? The later is much easier, since the table can select the most skilled amongst the PCs. Choosing a random PC or forcing the party to go around the table may result in a failure (especially since a given PC might be untrained in all of the skills in an SC).

Do you punish an unskilled PC for taking IC initiative?
The PCs stand before the emissary to the king. A player takes initiative and speaks to them. Do you force them to roll a diplomacy skill check, since that is the skill that is used in this SC? Doing so may produce a failure and may send a signal for players to avoid "triggering" any future checks, which drives down player participation. On the other hand, in an easy skill challenge it can be ok to accrue a single failure this way. You could even find a way to undo the failure at a later time, as a way to make the penalty for taking initiative light. Or, after the roll reveal the importance and allow assists as everyone rushes to correct the breach of etiquette.

How many assists do you allow?
A PC fails. Can other PCs assist? How many? And can they do it after the result is announced? The difference will greatly impact the challenge. In general, it is good to limit assists as any valid DC will become trivial if each PC can help. Assists can actually be a very good vehicle for RP, though. "Your fellow companion's words seem to win some favor with the noble, but at the last second his face sours. You think one of you could help the cause... but you will need to say the right things as well as deliver them well." This allows an assist, but gives a real reason for it and encourages RP.

spoilers for session 1-3:

For the dungeoneering after-effect, it would be possible to choose a PC. Maybe a portal appears dropping off a creature next to some PC, and that PC has to make an Endurance check while he/she buys time and the other PCs retreat to favorable ground. This can be a reward to the right PC (a high-con defender), but it might be a sad moment for a low-con ranged PC and be seen as unfair. The situation might be more fun if you describe a horrid beast and explain that there is a portcullis that could be dropped to block the creature's path... if only one of the heroes would step forth and block its path! And, maybe, with a failure, and knowing the PCs are low and surges, you might describe a rope off to one side and let a PC heroically swing in front of the blow, providing an assist to endurance... if the PC succeeds, the blow bounces harmlessly off the main PC's armor, distracted by the swinging hero. The PCs prevail and the portcullis drops in front of the creature. The PCs head off with a clue.



D&D Encounters is all about showcasing 4E for new players. It is in the game's interest (and therefore our interest as DMs) to showcase skill challenges as positively as we can. When preparing an SC we can take steps to prepare a truly fun and engaging SC. We will see many SCs in D&D Encounters as new campaigns unfold.

How about you? What tips do you have as a DM for making SCs a success?




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Nice summary and great job framing the issues!

Here are some thoughts - I'll respond directly to some of the key questions you pose in the post.

But first - my overall rule number 1.
There shall be no dice roll unless the player describes what they are attempting or the DM has prompted them to roll (such as Perception to notice something).   Period!
In the case of a DM prompt - the DM will describe the reason for the roll.

That is an important expectation to set.  As DM I will not receive/respond to any rolls without describing the story around it.  In others words there shall never be a die roll without story/action/narration.  I expect the same from the players.  "Can I try Bluff?" is always met with, "Sure, but please describe exactly what you are doing to try and use that skill."

Key Questions

Do you tell the players you are in a skill challenge?


Absolutely yes!  You have to, because when entering a skill challenge the rules of the game have been changed, and the players need to understand this.  You don't want to create a situation like this: The narration describes how the party enters a chamber and sees a troll, and then one player says "I throw my hand axe it it!"  DM responds with - "Ah, make an Intimidation check."  Player: " Huh, don't you mean roll initiative?"
To me, the importance of knowing when you are in a skill challenge is as essential as knowing when you are in or out of combat.

Do you state the skills needed?


Yes and No.  Most of the time the DM should "suggest" skills which apply, because this helps the players understand the nature of the obstacle, but the DM shouldn't necessarily list ALL possible skills.  If the specific scenario is a puzzle then the DM should not suggest any skills at all - just describe what the party sees and ask what the characters do, then based on that tell them which skill roll to make.

How do you choose who gets to act?


To me this is part of the skill challenge design.  For the Week 3 dungeon crawl I explained that I was looking for two characters to take the lead in each area (section of the dungeon) and make the primary rolls.  Then I allowed a third to step in and make a roll in an alternate skill if one of the main rolls failed.  No DM prompting here - they had to come up with a plan on their own.
For simpler challenges or any challenge where the characters are all in it together, go around the table.  Depending on the situation, each character may HAVE to make some sort of role, but in some cases a player may opt to pass, but this should be allowed only when doing nothing absolutely would have no effect.  This is actually quite rare, because even in the classic, "talk to the Duke" type skill challenge the characters are all in the room normally so even if they say nothing, their appearance, body language, etc. may influence things, so they should participate.  Plus, in any scenario where time is of the essence, a non-participatory character equals a waste of time.


Do you punish an unskilled PC for taking IC initiative?


I wouldn't use the term "punish", but if a player opens up a diplomatic exchange with a poor diplomatic skill that is 100% within their rights to do so, so they would roll and the effects would be the effects.   As a DM I do not play the characters.  Plus - those situations can easily be made into fun encounters.  Fun if they fail miserably and perhaps get ushered out of the king's presence (or even trigger a fight), fun if they miraculously succeed and the Half-Orc with WIS 8 does somehow convince the king to do something he'd rather not do.
Granted this may create a party issue - but managing those is a completely different thread!

How many assists do you allow?


Can't quantify this - as many as are reasonable.  A good rule of thumb is don't allow multiple assists from the same skill.  Often a DM will ask one party member to make a roll and then suddenly get four results back.  Why?  Because every other player with a decent chance at this roll will jump in and roll too.  Players love to do this!  And this is fine, because they are just trying to contribute.  In this case, the DM should weigh all factors.  If one character was making the primary roll (i.e  they were the one trying to disable the trap), then this still stands as the primary roll, but give them a single assist for the other three roles in the same skill based on whether these rolls generally were good or not.  Go with your gut on the assist bonus in this case but consider everything.  Then describe how the other characters either helped, or perhaps, distracted, from the effort.  If different assist skills are being used and each is accompanied by a good idea as to why it helps, allow them all and stack bonuses.


As DM I will not receive/respond to any rolls without describing the story around it.  In others words there shall never be a die roll without story/action/narration.  I expect the same from the players.  "Can I try Bluff?" is always met with, "Sure, but please describe exactly what you are doing to try and use that skill."



That is a good way of operating. I don't do this always, but I do it often (and especially with D&D Encounters, due to the dungeon delve format needing more RP). It is easy to do with social skills, but harder with pysical skills - and yet can be more fun with them. "Acrobatics, sure... how is your PC attempting to do that, exactly?"

Do you tell the players you are in a skill challenge?


Absolutely yes!  You have to, because when entering a skill challenge the rules of the game have been changed, and the players need to understand this.  You don't want to create a situation like this: The narration describes how the party enters a chamber and sees a troll, and then one player says "I throw my hand axe it it!"  DM responds with - "Ah, make an Intimidation check."  Player: " Huh, don't you mean roll initiative?"
To me, the importance of knowing when you are in a skill challenge is as essential as knowing when you are in or out of combat.


I don't use one method here either, but I find myself having the most fun as a player when I don't know for sure if I am in a skill challenge. In general, I find that having a complete knowledge of a skill challenge will drive the more experienced players into tracking success/failure and/or shying away from rolling if they aren't skilled. Giving off the feeling that they are not in a skill challenge instead results in a lot of participation as they all want to roll and participate. Somewhere in the middle is a really nice sweet spot where everyone wants to participate but there are some tactics. Of late I have been leaning towards not announcing the SC, allowing some up-front rolls to gather information and frame the challenge, and then try to organically prompt the skilled to step up to what naturally seems like a difficult challenge. For example, I could see some of the knowledge skills that appeared first in the adventure (around Halaster and Undermountain) being used here to frame things - PCs would be actively recalling knowledge about Downshadow and the areas they will explore. Then they choose a course... let's go to Downshadow... now they do a bit more gathering to fine-tune, and you RP an NPC that seems important and likely has information, but who may turn on them as well... now the skilled Streetwise PC steps forth.

Sometimes I do let the players know it is a skill challenge, but never by saying those words. Instead, I might frame the problem and possible options. "The monsters defeated, you turn to see a shimmering portal. Sigils on the portal are winking out one-by-one! You suspect you have limited time to act or the portal will close, leaving you trapped. The portal sigils glow with arcane magic and it looks very old. However, some of the runes seem to involve fey magic and seem to represent the natural world. Others appear to be parts of prayers." This is pretty obviously a skill challenge and Arcana, History, Nature, and Religion seem likely - but we didn't go out and say that. This helps PCs stay a bit more IC.

How do you choose who gets to act?


To me this is part of the skill challenge design.  For the Week 3 dungeon crawl I explained that I was looking for two characters to take the lead in each area (section of the dungeon) and make the primary rolls.  Then I allowed a third to step in and make a roll in an alternate skill if one of the main rolls failed.  No DM prompting here - they had to come up with a plan on their own.
For simpler challenges or any challenge where the characters are all in it together, go around the table.  Depending on the situation, each character may HAVE to make some sort of role, but in some cases a player may opt to pass, but this should be allowed only when doing nothing absolutely would have no effect.


Interesting. Don't you find you drive failure if you go around the table? What if you start clockwise, and only the last PC is trained in the key skill... mathematically, aren't you looking at a likely failure? While everyone standing before the Duke might make an impression, usually a Duke understands that the barbarian is going to look uncomfortable and instead looks to their leader for discussion.

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Interesting. Don't you find you drive failure if you go around the table? What if you start clockwise, and only the last PC is trained in the key skill... mathematically, aren't you looking at a likely failure? While everyone standing before the Duke might make an impression, usually a Duke understands that the barbarian is going to look uncomfortable and instead looks to their leader for discussion.


If the situation was one in which going around the table was the way to go - then the order shouldn't matter because everyone is going to roll no matter what.  Plus, I wouldn't do this if there was some sort of "key" skill they all had to roll.  Those I usually have everyone roll together (such as when everyone must make an Endurance roll as part of a challenge).  Going around the table would be when each character can justify (or attempt to justify) using whatever skills they ARE trained (or strong) in.  Lastly, going around the table is really sort of a default.  Since I always allow the players to influence things, they are welcome to offer a plan to handle this in any order as they prefer (so long as everyone makes one roll if that's what the skill challenge design calls for).  Going clockwise is there for when the party doesn't offer an alternative order, or when everyone is trying to do something at once (starting at a random point, then clockwise works too - or even completely random if the overhead is necessary for some reason).

I guess the bottom line is that I try to be firm about keeping to the general structure of the challenge - such as when it calls for everyone to be involved and make roll(s) - but then be extremely flexible and responsive in exactly how it all plays out (which skills actually get applied - in what order, etc. etc.).  So to me a well-written skill challenge should be focused on the mechanics as a priority - even if it is light in the details and flavor.

From another thread:

You want a good skill challenge system, look to Fantasy Craft.



I am curious how it differs and whether there is anything that can be learned from that in terms of approach?

I am familiar with Spycraft, where the skills end up being dramatic challenges usually involving one PC. That is both very cool in being nail-biting for one PC and un-cool in leaving a lot of PCs watching. In that sense, having tough DCs for a primary skill one PC has to make, plus skills others can use to assist or uncover clues, could all be cool - but that is more for a home campaign.

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I came into session 3 almost completely cold. One of the other DMs outlined roughly where they were and what was going on, and I had tried to follow some tweets and threads about the adventure, but I didn't know much beyond that. I was advised to start with the skill challenge, so I looked it over and dove in.

I think it worked alright. I got some laughs and I was praised for how smoothly it went.

Show
They didn't really know what to do except follow the map they'd been given. I didn't know about the map, so I had it become innacurate very quickly. To spur them into making some skill checks, I told them that they had stumbled into some industrial area with steam and cogs and chompers, etc, complete with some irate workers. They used Diplomacy to get past them and get some advice about some traps (I think I was supposed to have them use Streetwise first, but I was lost and desperate to engage them). Then I told them that they ran into a market area and strongly hinted that Streewise might help them get back on track. They did this and they were told about an ogre who knew things. They went to him and struck a Diplomatic deal with him and were given some direction and another trap warning. I never did have them use Thievery. That might have been a way to go.

I faltered a bit at this point. They got hung up on the trap I mentioned, even though that wasn't the point. I mentioned monster lairs, but couldn't think of a monster to jump them to lead into the Stealth or Endurance checks. I started to ask them about skills they wanted to use. One of them suggested using Athletics to get around, so I suggested a ledge that they could get down to avoid a particularly infested area. Then someone asked to make a Perception check and I told her she saw a massive trap about to crush another character. She saved that PC and that was success for the challenge, though I can't recall what the sixth check was.

Basically, my approach is to make use of the freedom the format gives me. They really covered a lot of in-game ground with just a few checks, and met at least one interesting NPC. That would matter more if this was a longer campaign under my control, but I think it still made for a fun encounter for them.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Sounds very cool, Centauri!

Sometimes I think SCs might run better for a lot of DMs if they aren't too prepped. I suspect the average LFR judge, for example, is really tied to the words on the page rather than painting the picture. A less prepared judge might go off the cuff and come up with something imaginative and play off of what the players/PCs do. Ideally, we do the best of both worlds, having a good framework through being prepared but adjusting on the fly and painting a vivid picture.

It still hurts me to admit that my old college gang thought the best gaming session I ever did was one I made up on the spot. It hurt my feelings back then, because I usually put a lot of prep time into my sessions. I suspect the reality is that back then I over-prepped things and a lot of the ideas were in my head instead of in the players'. I've been trying to make up for that ever since.

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Sounds very cool, Centauri!

Thanks.

I remembered the general piece of advice I wanted to give about skill challenges, something I didn't always quite remember myself: if the party isn't sure what to do proactively, give them something to react to. This challenge had plenty of things you could throw at the group to make them think, hm, maybe Diplomacy is the right angle, or maybe Streetwise (I'm not sure how anyone would think of Endurance, unless it was suggested specifically). Even though skill challenges are written pretty passively, with the PCs just trying to overcome static numbers, there's no reason the challenge can't react to them and highlight certain skills. All of the listed skills should be available per usual (and any not listed available per convicing player idea), but having, say, the nobleman sprinkle historical references in his responses should spark the idea of using History when talking to him. Springing a hidden trap on them during their explorations should make them think of Thievery. Etc.

Sometimes I think SCs might run better for a lot of DMs if they aren't too prepped. I suspect the average LFR judge, for example, is really tied to the words on the page rather than painting the picture. A less prepared judge might go off the cuff and come up with something imaginative and play off of what the players/PCs do. Ideally, we do the best of both worlds, having a good framework through being prepared but adjusting on the fly and painting a vivid picture.

I might have liked a little more preparation and continuity, but lacking it meant I could pull in anything I wanted. My preparation for this was an otherwise wasted life of gobbling up scf-fi and fantasy.

It still hurts me to admit that my old college gang thought the best gaming session I ever did was one I made up on the spot. It hurt my feelings back then, because I usually put a lot of prep time into my sessions. I suspect the reality is that back then I over-prepped things and a lot of the ideas were in my head instead of in the players'. I've been trying to make up for that ever since.

There, there. Let it out. We're here for you.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

From another thread:

You want a good skill challenge system, look to Fantasy Craft.



I am curious how it differs and whether there is anything that can be learned from that in terms of approach?

I am familiar with Spycraft, where the skills end up being dramatic challenges usually involving one PC. That is both very cool in being nail-biting for one PC and un-cool in leaving a lot of PCs watching. In that sense, having tough DCs for a primary skill one PC has to make, plus skills others can use to assist or uncover clues, could all be cool - but that is more for a home campaign.



In Fantasy Craft, Complex Tasks are two or more skill checks, each providing a specific step towards succeeding at the task. Rather than having a vacuous list of appropriate skills, instead you have a script for which tasks must be completed in order to finish the event.

Each success allows progression to the next task, where failure does not cause loss of progress, but rather increases the chance of errors (i.e. critical failures). Critical success allows the players to progress two tasks, whereas critical failure causes the players to fall back a step. The Complex Task only fails if the number of successes is reduced to zero by a critical failure, or if a time limit runs out (if there is one).

Failure in any particular task can cause detrimental side effects, if appropriate to a particular task. For example, if the players are on a Thievery task to disable the mechanical guts of a piece of machinery in order to access the core, failure might inflict damage. However, they would not suffer any ill effect for, say, failing the Perception check in the previous step to locate the secret panel allowing access to the machinery.
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