DM TIps?

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Long story short I'm fairly new to D&D. I have been interested in it for some time and have been reading all kinds of material, reviews, tips & ticks, and so forth.

Two things that I want to ask about are rituals and skill challenges.

Over and over again I read and hear that these were both very good ideas that were poorly exited by 4e. My understanding is that people find rituals to take "too much time and cost too much." What does that mean exactly? Too much time to cast? Aren't they rituals? Aren't they supposed to take some prep time to complete? I thought that was a good mechanic for role play rather than just spontaneous casting from a scroll or by a caster. They also look like a fun way to let non-casters and parties without casters have access to utility spells. Also, would a good way to "offset the cost" of rituals be to give scrolls or even books away in treasure parcels?

Regarding skill challenges, what is the problem? From what I read, most of the problem was a lack of imagination by DMs or players and that Skill challenges just turned into a dice rolling session with little RP.

I plan on starting up a KotS campaign this weekend [hopefully] and I am looking for any other last minute advice as I make modifications to the printed adventure.
A lot of the perception is that, yes, it is different from before. Rituals and Skill Challenges do have their faults, but too often when you hear someone complaining about them, it's because they're new additions to D&D. 

Here's my advice. 

Rituals: They don't see much use in the Heroic Tier (except for the free Rituals some classes get), but they get used like cantrips at higher levels. They're great for helping player overcome obstacles of time, distance, or ability. I've found that I don't have to plan my adventures around them screwing it up, but they have a great potential to do things you don't expect PCs being capable of doing.

The complaint of the time and money: don't make Rituals necessary to solve the adventure, or don't make a Ritual necessary if time is an issue. If you do, let them use their skills and powers as an option.
Skill Challenges: Yes, if you don't use any imagination, it's a series of rolling dice. Skill Challenges are best used as a framework that promotes creative ideas, not as a boundary. Build them so that their scope can be involve several skills, or better yet, use one skill in multiple ways. 

Having everyone participate is key. Try to anticipate what the players can do and want to do, and make a need for each of them. For example, if the Wizard and Paladin are both good in Religion, suggest that the Wizard can research ancient texts and the Paladin can perform a Rite of Purification to gain insight from his deity. 

Two good ways to ensure a good mix is the 3 Stat method, and the Power Source method. The 3 stat method assumes that everyone has at least a 12 in either STR/CON, DEX/INT, and WIS/CHA. So, a skill challenge that has Endurance, Religion, and Intimidate as a primary skill would probably give each PC an ability score that they're good at. The Power Source method assumes that certain power sources favour certain skills, and ensuring at least one of those being in it ensures that most classes will have at least one good skill for it. Arcana, Nature, and Religion as primary skills means that Psionic, Divine, and Nature PCs will have a role.   

"Ah, the age-old conundrum. Defenders of a game are too blind to see it's broken, and critics are too idiotic to see that it isn't." - Brian McCormick

Concerning rituals:  I believe that one reason people may dislike them is that in D&D 3.5 most of them used to be spells that could be cast as a standard action and for free (to cast as in it didn't take money to cast the spell).  Wizards could choose to pay for a scroll to add it to their spell book, but that was the only cost.  With 4e rituals they need to be bought to obtain the ritual and there is a cost each time the ritual is used.  As for the casting time, I believe that many enjoyed finding ways to use seemingly not combat spells for in combat situations.  I suppose that with careful planning it could be 4e rituals could sometimes be cast before a battle and have effects carry over into the battle, but that seems rare.

Concerning Skill Challenges:  There's a lot of great advice for SC in the DMG2.  One of the biggest changes from DMG1 and DMG2 is that the DMG1 says that the DM MUST inform players that they are in a SC and give them the list of applicable skills, in the DMG2 the DM is encouraged to NOT tell the players that they are in a SC and obviously the skills to overcome the SC.  This will help the SC feel more free flowing with the rest of the game, instead of a side mini game.

One more thing, farther down the D&D forum there is a sub forum just for DM advice, hopefully you'll be able to find a lot of useful info there too.  I'll provide a link below.


rip the skill challenges out of the book and burn the pages they are printed on.

rituals are the kind of thing that you can give to players and they still might not use them. you can attempt to encourage their use but experience shows that ritual use is ultimately up to the player

Skill challenges are very mechanical as designed, espcially when you have to tell your players what skills they can and cant use and success vs. failure (if you deign to tell them). On the other hand it gets characters using skills other than the ones that they have trained. I especially like the group checks that might occur at the begginging or at intervals in a skill challenge since the emphasize the strength of the party as a whole over individual strengths.
group checks are good things, thankfully skill challenges are not necesarry to use them
I've had a lot of success with skill challenges in situations where the objective is very clear-cut; for example, opening a magically-sealed door, curing a sick NPC, disabling a trap.  The rigid structure of a skill challenge (i.e. succeed X times before you fail Y times) is a good mechanic in that type of situation and allows for a mini-game that doesn't feel forced.  I expect players to outline what it is that they're doing to justify a skill check rather than just announcing a skill and rolling, and allow any skill to contribute if the player has a good enough explanation.  I'll give bonuses to the check for a good idea.  Handled well they can be an opportunity for roleplaying and character development.

For situations where the scope is broader; chasing a villain through city streets, winning the support of the suspicious villagers etc., they feel unnecessarily gamey and awkward as a tool.  Ensuring that there are situations where players need to draw upon their skills is great, but the need to tally successes and failures to determine whether the party 'wins' or 'loses' in an open-ended scenario is the reason that skill challenges are so universally loathed IMHO.
I'm going to take the exact opposite position. Relatively simple tasks like opening a door shouldn't be a skill challenge. THAT'S what I think made people hate skill challenges: many writers made any significant skill-based problem an encounter, instead of just a roll or two. 

Skill Challenges work best when there are several different tangents to follow up on, and where the consequences of choices either open, close, lower, or increase future skill checks. It remains one of the best tools to defuse an angry mob or get through an active battleground without everyone rolling the same skill over and over again.

"Ah, the age-old conundrum. Defenders of a game are too blind to see it's broken, and critics are too idiotic to see that it isn't." - Brian McCormick

Moved to What's a DM to do? per VCL request.
To bring Skill Challenges in I use a sandbox approach by presenting what the PC's are trying to do then beginning a skill challenge without the PC's knowing. However I challenge my PC's to roleplay, then inform them what skill they are using based on what they are telling me, however I will help them if they want to use a different skill or indeed think what they are describing is using a different skill.
For example a character searching the streets and trying to blend in with the local common people can be Streetwise to 'talk the talk' rather than Bluff(Disguise).
If the PC's change the direction of their progress (decide to go by sea rather than across land) then the skill challenge continues but may now include different skills (or even just different use of the skills) to succeed.

Rituals are a tricky one but following the old school mentality I do drop in Rituals to the parties treasure on an intermittant basis to give the ritual characters something of interest. After all the ritual is one part of the Arcane (or clerical) characters facets, like a fighter having the ability to use a shield the ritual character likes the versatility to perform impressive acts of supernatural power to assist the group but I do argue that it is unreasonable to expect the ritual users to always but new rituals which as stated above was a free item in older editions, they should be similar now (although I do draw the line on just throwing rituals at the group). 
I'm another who has embraced skill challenges. Yes, people ran non-combat challenges before 4e, but there were persistent questions about how to do it, how hard to make them, how to know when the PCs had succeeded and how much of an experience point award the players should receive. All skill challenges did was provide one answer to those questions.

Frankly, I've rarely seen skill challenges presented or run well, even in the DMG. There's one good example of the portal that needs to be closed in combat, but most of them are very dry. I think there was a perception that skill challenges would do all the work, the way monsters almost run themselves in combat. But, no, all the skill challenges did was answer the persistent mechanical questions. The encounters themselves, like all aspects of D&D still require some imagination and description. But if you bring those to the table, you can really make skill challenges sing.

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

I'm very new to d&d, but I've had enough time to address the problems I see with skill challenges. When it comes to things like opening magically sealed doors or finding the location of a tavern, I use a set DC for the challenge as you're supposed to - that's because these things are quick, and represent the skills of the characters. With more complex challenges though, like interacting with an NPC, I modify the DC depending on the quality of a player's answer - I do this to incentivise good role play, because I found one of my players saying things like "I'll bluff him", whereas another player would actually put on a bit of a performance. It didn't seem fair to me that despite this their chances of success depended solely on the proficiencies of their characters. My in-game rationale is that in these circumstances the skill modifiers represent things like body language, tone of voice etc. 

Best thing I can offer up with regard to easy skill challenges is to simply present a situation clearly and ask, "What do you do?" Don't have "the answer" written down. Don't write up the skills and what they mean in context. Just ask what they do about the situation and say, "Yes, and..." to their ideas until they come up with something that looks like it might be a skill check. When that happens, ask for the roll and fairly adjudicate the outcome.

If the skill challenge is more complex, occurs in a hectic combat, is staged, or has phases where the action changes, then you should write it up and give it some structure. But deliver it the same way as above, interjecting whenever necessary.

In any event, just make sure success and failure are interesting.

For any decision or adjudication, ask yourself, "Is this going to be fun for everyone?" and "Is this going to lead to the creation of an exciting, memorable story?"

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I'm going to take the exact opposite position. Relatively simple tasks like opening a door shouldn't be a skill challenge. THAT'S what I think made people hate skill challenges: many writers made any significant skill-based problem an encounter, instead of just a roll or two. 

I think the reason that I've had success with that type of skill challenge is that they tend to only be part of an encounter; typically something that is taking place during combat.  There are a couple of great examples of this in the Robot Chicken youtube videos.  They give the party interesting decisions like whether to try to take control of the golem and use it against its allies instead of just destroying it.

I just don't see the need for the rigid success/failure structure in a more open-ended scenario.  I ran through Menace of the Icy Spire as a PC several months back and the blizzard skill challenge was one of the most awkward gaming moments I've ever experienced.  Perhaps it would have been better if a few of the hazards mentioned (areas of icy ground, fallen trees blocking the path, getting lost) were presented as individual scenarios where overall success wasn't about tallying individual successes from a bunch of rolls, but about presenting the players with the problem and having them figure out a solution.  Depending on what the players dream up the outcome might not even require skill checks.
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