Skill Challenges: Gone before their time

I love skill challenges, on paper. When I watch an action movie, most recently "The Avengers", I see countless things that translate to skill challenges. Occasionally you even see a failed skill challenge (Captain America and Iron Man fixing an engine, to keep spoilers low). But as much as I have liked them on paper, I have rarely been able to get them to work in game well.

The best way I have ever found to use a skill challenge is to start the challenge and rather than ask the players "what do you do?", you put a challenge in their path and ask them "what do you do?" It worked very well for a chase sequence, with the checks representing when the quarry did something out of the ordinary that the player had to react to. It has worked okay for investigations, but something was definitely missing.

What are some good things from skill challenges that should make their way to the new edition? How can the DMG advise DMs on creating tense and exciting action and interraction scenes? Convincing the King to aid you while his viser controls him. Disarming magical machine of evil before it sucks the life from the world. Chasing down a thug who has information on the murder. Tracking the Ifrit to its hidden layer on the Plane of Fire ...
+1

Skill challenges are a good idea.  But they really need work. 

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F-111 Interdictor Long (200+ squares) distance ally teleporter. With some warlord stuff. Broken in a plot way, not a power way.

Thought Switch Higher level build that grants upto 14 attacks on turn 1. If your allies play along, it's broken.

Elven Critters Crit op with crit generation. 5 of these will end anything. Broken.

King Fisher Optimized net user.  Moderate.

Boominator Fun catch-22 booming blade build with either strong or completely broken damage depending on your reading.

Very Distracting Warlock Lot's of dazing and major penalties to hit. Overpowered.

Pocket Protector Pixie Stealth Knight. Maximizing the defender's aura by being in an ally's/enemy's square.

Yakuza NinjIntimiAdin: Perma-stealth Striker that offers a little protection for ally's, and can intimidate bloodied enemies. Very Strong.

Chargeburgler with cheese Ranged attacks at the end of a charge along with perma-stealth. Solid, could be overpowered if tweaked.

Void Defender Defends giving a penalty to hit anyone but him, then removing himself from play. Can get somewhat broken in epic.

Scry and Die Attacking from around corners, while staying hidden. Moderate to broken, depending on the situation.

Skimisher Fly in, attack, and fly away. Also prevents enemies from coming close. Moderate to Broken depending on the enemy, but shouldn't make the game un-fun, as the rest of your team is at risk, and you have enough weaknesses.

Indestructible Simply won't die, even if you sleep though combat.  One of THE most abusive character in 4e.

Sir Robin (Bravely Charge Away) He automatically slows and pushes an enemy (5 squares), while charging away. Hard to rate it's power level, since it's terrain dependent.

Death's Gatekeeper A fun twist on a healic, making your party "unkillable". Overpowered to Broken, but shouldn't actually make the game un-fun, just TPK proof.

Death's Gatekeeper mk2, (Stealth Edition) Make your party "unkillable", and you hidden, while doing solid damage. Stronger then the above, but also easier for a DM to shut down. Broken, until your DM get's enough of it.

Domination and Death Dominate everything then kill them quickly. Only works @ 30, but is broken multiple ways.

Battlemind Mc Prone-Daze Protecting your allies by keeping enemies away. Quite powerful.

The Retaliator Getting hit deals more damage to the enemy then you receive yourself, and you can take plenty of hits. Heavy item dependency, Broken.

Dead Kobold Transit Teleports 98 squares a turn, and can bring someone along for the ride. Not fully built, so i can't judge the power.

Psilent Guardian Protect your allies, while being invisible. Overpowered, possibly broken.

Rune of Vengance Do lot's of damage while boosting your teams. Strong to slightly overpowered.

Charedent BarrageA charging ardent. Fine in a normal team, overpowered if there are 2 together, and easily broken in teams of 5.

Super Knight A tough, sticky, high damage knight. Strong.

Super Duper Knight Basically the same as super knight with items, making it far more broken.

Mora, the unkillable avenger Solid damage, while being neigh indestuctable. Overpowered, but not broken.

Swordburst Maximus At-Will Close Burst 3 that slide and prones. Protects allies with off actions. Strong, possibly over powered with the right party.

The non-mechanical advice in the DMG about skill challenges is excellent. The mechanical rules associated with that advice are a giant steaming pile.
Skill challenges were never implemented properly, and remain the one aspect of 4e that I could never get working in any sort of satisfactory manner.

I love the concept of the noncombat encounter, but the Skill Challenge system is not the way to do it. 

My objections to it largely are centered around the "X successes before Y failures" mechanic being completely unresponsive to plot concerns (why did that +1 success advance the challenge, why didn't that thing that your rogue did that sounded like it should accomplish the challenge still require 4 more successes), the simultaneously overly-broad yet overly-narrow skill definitions that practically never had whatever the player wanted to do fit in its categories, and the idea that players would be forced to participate even if their skills aren't applicable and it's perfectly justifiable to leave it to the specialist.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
I'm not sure how best to go about this, but I'd like to see a system for resolving non-combat challenges the same way that combat encounters are resolved: reducing the starting scores of a series of separate units to zero. Essentially, hit points and damage for non-combat enounters. Skill checks would be the "attacks" against NPC or object "defences" (DCs), and when all of the HP were removed from an NPC/object, that particular part of the challenge would be overcome.
I think my DM is a great DM.

I do not enjoy when he says "you've entered a skill challenge." It does break immersion (I'm not particularly big on immersion, but this has bothered me a few times). He doesn't often do this, but it comes up. When I'm playing LFR I don't think I've particularly felt immersed, but that's a whole different world.



I think the problem with skill challenges is all in the presentation. If you see your DM marking a tally each time you try to do something, it's obvious. If your DM can keep failures and successes in his mind and is doing a good job of presenting how you are advancing through the challenge (in the RP sense of the word) then the skill challenges become more interesting and less intrusive.

"Here is where you are, this is what you see, what do you do?" sounds like something presented in any edition of D&D. Using skills to get around this challenge sounds like something from any edition of D&D. Being forced to use skills for this kind of challenge seems counter-intuitive. A good DM in 4th will let players use powers when it makes sense and when the resource they are spending will matter. If the DM keeps you on your toes and a short rest could mean that the bad guy gets away or you might get ambushed, keeping the world turning so the longer you rest the worse things can get, then spending an encounter power can be risky. Spending a daily power can be a serious loss, especially if you're a class that relies on dailies (Wizards, Barbarians).

I really think it comes down to the DM's presentation and what is and isn't allowed to count towards successes.
+1

Skill challenges are a good idea.  But they really need work. 


Uh...+2? I agree, at any rate. This is a promising baby that could easily be thrown out with some surprisingly dirty bathwater.
4e D&D is not a "Tabletop MMO." It is not Massively Multiplayer, and is usually not played Online. Come up with better descriptions of your complaints, cuz this one means jack ****.
Skill Challenges are one thing I really loved when I saw them. To date, however, we've only had one truly engaging skill challenge, which was done through badass naration, and creative use of minis and the table. I tend to stick to 3.5, but I've tried to adopt some pieces of 4.0, such as the concept of skill challenges, in my games. I'd really love to see these fixed up with DDN. I hope Wizards doesn't toss the idea completely.
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Skill Challenges are one thing I really loved when I saw them. To date, however, we've only had one truly engaging skill challenge, which was done through badass naration, and creative use of minis and the table. I tend to stick to 3.5, but I've tried to adopt some pieces of 4.0, such as the concept of skill challenges, in my games. I'd really love to see these fixed up with DDN. I hope Wizards doesn't toss the idea completely.



Yep. They are ALL about presentation to be fun. A really good DM will be able to keep you from knowing you are even in a skill challenge.
You should use skills to overcome challenges, but the formality of the 4e skill challenge just broke immersion.  It should have just been a session of roleplay where specific actions needed skill checks.  
There is no better example of 4e's poor math than Skill Challenges.  The DCs were/are wrong.  The Complexity was wrong - it got easier the more complex.  They just didn't do their homework.  This is why they have to give us all the math and mechanics to playtest. 

Some poor group is trying to make sense of DMG1 Skill Challenge rules without the frequent updates and wholesale changes, right now.

But, they are awesome.  I don't think they are the answer to mechanical roleplaying or noncombat encounters, but I think they are some serious next level approach to making a skill check.  If you take all the Skill Challenge variations, the Group Check variations - I say variations because some of the erratad systems were great for certain situations.  Take all that stuff and wrap it up into a Complex Skill system where one encounter you need x successes before y failures or everyone rolls and the majority needs to succeed and so on and so forth.  It's all gold, when you think of it as loose system for making skill checks more fun and a party experience.  

With the new Ability Check skill system, I think Skill Challenges will be even better because characters have more choices to overcome the challenge before them. 
I love skill challenges, on paper. When I watch an action movie, most recently "The Avengers", I see countless things that translate to skill challenges. Occasionally you even see a failed skill challenge (Captain America and Iron Man fixing an engine, to keep spoilers low). But as much as I have liked them on paper, I have rarely been able to get them to work in game well.

They do work better in their latest (3rd? 4th?) revision, in the Rules Compendium.  But, they are still a challenge (npi) for the DM to come up with.  If you just follow the bare bones X successes before 3 failures and a list of primary skills, what can happen is that the player with the highest primary skill just makes a bunch of rolls, and that's the end of it.  That's about the worst-case scenario, and has most of the same problems as the game has always had with skills (and before formal skills, non-weapon proficiencies, ability checks, and, of course, Theif 'abilities').  That is, only one player is engaged, and the flow of the game can be derailed by a bad roll (or three), and there's really not much to a skill check, it's a single roll, maybe opposed, and that's about it, no where near the deapth of play that combat gives you.

If you put a little more work into it, you can structure a skill challenge so that everyone has an opportunity to participate - some players, particularly those with poorly-skilled classes like the fighter, may still more or less 'abstain' (use a secondary skill or aid another to avoid the risk of a failure), but at least they're involved and paying some attention - and so that the progress or danger of failure is more evident.  Tricks like moving PC minis across a 'track' to show progress made, and immediate consequences for failures (like damage or lost surges) can help with that.  It's also an excellent idea to have the consequences of failure in mind, in advance, and to make sure that failure won't disrupt the flow of the game.

All of those - and more - are areas where Skill Challenges have some room for improvement and further development or 'evolution.' 

What are some good things from skill challenges that should make their way to the new edition?

If they only grabbed one thing from SCs, I'd have to nominate group checks.  In the past, obvious options like sneaking past a sleeping dragon, were non-starters, because all it took was one very low skill or blown roll to ruin the whole thing.  Group skills checks, being both easy enough that anyone has a chance of success, and requiring only a majority of successes rather than that everyone succeed, really open up a party's options.

And, considering that even skills are going to be an option in 5e, skill challenges could be included, whole cloth, as a module or optional DM aid.  

Finally, 5e could really improve on 4e - with or without the inclusion of formal skill challenges - if it ran with the "Three Pillars" idea, and assured that each character had meaningful contributions to make in all three pillars.  That would require balancing each class in each pillar independent of the other two.  And it would mean finally giving all classes a decent skill list and number of skills - which would be tantamount to butchering another sacred cow, in an edition that's already trying to feed sacred hamburgers through the meatgrinder in reverse.  



 

 

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The non-mechanical advice in the DMG about skill challenges is excellent. The mechanical rules associated with that advice are a giant steaming pile.



Combine that advice with the mechanical rules in the essentials books, and it runs fine.

More could be added to the system, but it runs fine as last printed.
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I loved the idea of the skill cj
Hallenge. But I agree with many here that it just didn't work quite right when brought up mid-game.
Which means to me it sounds like once we get our hands on the playtest people need to look at what they did and didn't like in skill challenges and build up something that'll work with DDN's framework so that it can be presented on these forums for discussion and maybe inclusion into the next iteration.
I loved the idea of the skill cj
Hallenge. But I agree with many here that it just didn't work quite right when brought up mid-game.
Which means to me it sounds like once we get our hands on the playtest people need to look at what they did and didn't like in skill challenges and build up something that'll work with DDN's framework so that it can be presented on these forums for discussion and maybe inclusion into the next iteration.
Actually I maintain that the mechanics in the current iteration of SCs (Rules Compendium) is about as solid as anything you're ever going to come up with. Presentation and DM education are the whole key. There's nothing wrong with the mechanics at all in an absolute sense. I can run great SCs and the mechanics work fine. It is all in learning how to build them and run them. Just like '4 orcs in a room' stinks, so does 'list of 4 primary skills and no context or framing'.

That is not dead which may eternal lie


All the mechanics did was add the weirdness of, "You are forbidden from bribing the guards because you failed to climb over the wall."




... what?  Where in the world did you get that notion?
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
It's a result of the SC ending at a specified number of failures.  If your last failure was at climbing over the wall, you're prohibited from trying anything else.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
It's a result of the SC ending at a specified number of failures.  If your last failure was at climbing over the wall, you're prohibited from trying anything else.



But your DM is not a computer.

The problem is again in presentation and DM playstyle. If the only thing a DM can do is follow the skill challenge he wrote, then he's probably not going to be a great DM. Additionally, skill challenges don't have to end with "you don't succeed at getting over the wall," but can isntead end with "it was a struggle, so lose a surge," or "you made far too much noise clamboring over the wall, these gaurds have a surprise round."

Of coruse, surprise rounds are not well written it seems (or that just may be from my experience with LFR).
If you're ignoring the SC rules to be a good DM, why bother having SC rules?

It is my position that there is nothing the SC rules do that a series of individual checks, each one adjudicated individually and roleplayed accordingly, can't do.  It doesn't mean that without SCs you can't have "skill encounters."  As I said before, noncombat encounters are awesome.  But the SC rules are horrible.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
If you're ignoring the SC rules to be a good DM, why bother having SC rules?

It is my position that there is nothing the SC rules do that a series of individual checks, each one adjudicated individually and roleplayed accordingly, can't do.  It doesn't mean that without SCs you can't have "skill encounters."  As I said before, noncombat encounters are awesome.  But the SC rules are horrible.



So what replaces them? When a party faces a challenge that is not directly solved by combats, why does it need a roll?

Besides, I'm not ignoring the SC rules, I'm modifying them or placing a different result than 'ultimate failure' at the end of the challenge. I like to keep the story moving. There are some situations where "you fail to get over the wall," still make sense to me. It doesn't mean the story won't keep going, just that the party will have to find another way around that wall. It might even be to try going over the wall again.
Isn't that the Oberoni fallacy, though?  I may have gotten the name wrong - it's the one used to justify a bad rule by saying that you can always DM fiat / houserule it away.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
Isn't that the Oberoni fallacy, though?  I may have gotten the name wrong - it's the one used to justify a bad rule by saying that you can always DM fiat / houserule it away.



I have no idea. I'm not saying the bad rule should continue to exist. It should be fixed. But following the rule to the letter does not always make for a good play experience even when the rules are written well.
Besides, I'm not ignoring the SC rules, I'm modifying them or placing a different result than 'ultimate failure' at the end of the challenge. I like to keep the story moving.


Actually, the 'ultimate failure' result is supposed to be the exception to the rule, IIRC. A failed skill challenge shouldn't derail or end the game, but it will hinder the PC's progress in some surmountable fashion.
4e D&D is not a "Tabletop MMO." It is not Massively Multiplayer, and is usually not played Online. Come up with better descriptions of your complaints, cuz this one means jack ****.
It's a result of the SC ending at a specified number of failures.  If your last failure was at climbing over the wall, you're prohibited from trying anything else.



Uh, no.  Unless your failure was, for some reason, so spectacular that you drew so much attention to yourself that the entire keep knows who and where you are, you can most certainly try something else.

(I wouldn't even consider a simple wall-climb a skill challenge in any event ...)
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
That's exactly what happens in the failure that concludes the SC as a whole with the result of "failed skill challenge."  The challenge ends.  You can't have it not end when it reaches the end condition, not if you're using the SC rules as they were presented.  If it wasn't that spectacular, then the SC is still going.

The major, major problem with SCs is the inflexibility presented:  maybe your failure wasn't that bad, but the SC itself gets to decide whether it was catastrophic or not, and not the DM.  That's bad.
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I don't like Skill Challenges.
 skill challenges don't have to end with "you don't succeed at getting over the wall," but can isntead end with "it was a struggle, so lose a surge," or "you made far too much noise clamboring over the wall, these gaurds have a surprise round."

If you're ignoring the SC rules to be a good DM, why bother having SC rules?

Those are in no way ignoring the rules.  Quite the opposite, SC rules suggest that 'failure' and 'success' need not be absolute, there are consequences to failure and benefits to success, but an SC should be designed to move things along, either way.  

It is my position that there is nothing the SC rules do that a series of individual checks, each one adjudicated individually and roleplayed accordingly, can't do.

That's factually correct.  There's nothing you could do with the encounter guidelines that you couldn't do without them, too.  It's just easier to avoid a really crap encounter if you use them.  Skill Challenges are a DM tool, and one that had a lot of potential.  They can help you design a non-combat or para-combat challenge that's more engaging and closer to the level of difficulty you're aiming for than just winging skill checks.  A useful addition of structure to skills.

To put it another way, there are ptifalls that the SC rules help you avoid that making a series of individual checks can drop you right into.

That's exactly what happens in the failure that concludes the SC as a whole with the result of "failed skill challenge."  The challenge ends.  You can't have it not end when it reaches the end condition, not if you're using the SC rules as they were presented.  

You don't have to have it "not end."  You can just have it lead into another skill challenge.  For instance, if PCs need to get into a walled city, they might try to scale the wall or to bribe the guards. If they try to scale the wall first and get caught, they might try to bribe the guards on the spot, starting a second skill challenge,  (though it'll obviously be harder, since the guards aren't just routinely passing people through and an alarm might have been raised), or fight their way through them (encounter) or flee from them (a different skill challenge) or surrender (and try to escape or talk their way out of confinement - yet more SCs).





 

 

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The consequence of failure that I specified, the end of the Skill Challenge, most certainly is absolute.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
The basic problem here is that Mand12 is saying "This is the RAW.  It sucks.  Don't use it."


Everyone else is saying "I don't like the RAW, so I don't use it.  I do X that the guidelines which disagree with the RAW tell me to do instead."  (Yes, the guidelines disagree with the RAW on this point.  Because there's a difference between a guideline and a rule.)



And for some reason you're disagreeing.
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The fundamental problem with Skill Challenges was its premise.  At its heart, it was trying to turn an exploratory encounter into the equivalent of a combat, and making it easy to determine how to award XP based on its complexity and idifficulty, much like combat.

But I don't think any of that is really needed. 

Exploratory encounters are just a series of obstacles, presented in either linear or nonlinear fashion, with DCs associated with them, and general descriptions so the PCs can improvise their own solutions.  But the forced grouping of the obstacles into a singular challenge often felt arbitrary and hamfisted.

In the end, I don't think they were any better than what we always had: recommended difficulties for doing stuff, and a recommendation that a DM try to make sure that all the players have a reasonable opportunity to participate over the course of an adventure.
The consequence of failure that I specified, the end of the Skill Challenge, most certainly is absolute.

Success would also most certainly and absolutely end the challenge.      Nothing stops a new challenge from beginning, though, either way.  SCs have exp values just like monsters, so you can weave them into an encounter or adventure.   You could have several in a row, or even have a 'random walk' through skill challenges with success or failure in one pointing to different possibilities for the next.  

As with encounters, you can have them carefully plotted out, or pull one together on the spur of the moment in reaction to players doing something unexpected.  

 

 

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Part of the confusion might come from there being different sources for the rules on skill challenges.  I thought that the DMG2 did a very good job of improving the framework set up in the original DMG.

There are a great many problems that can be circumvented by players and DMs having a mature discussion about what the game is going to be like before they ever sit down together to play.

 

The answer really does lie in more options, not in confining and segregating certain options.

 

You really shouldn't speak for others.  You can't hear what someone else is saying when you try to put your words in their mouth.

 

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True, the unrevised DMG1 SC rules were obviously broken, just at a glance.  The first errata wasn't much of an improvement.  DMG2 was much better.   The Rule Compendium is excellent, about as good as it can get without substantially revising the classes to balance better out of combat. 

 

 

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I do not enjoy when [my DM] says "you've entered a skill challenge." It does break immersion (I'm not particularly big on immersion, but this has bothered me a few times).



I'm not quoting you to put down your thought. I'm highlighting this thought as something I have wrestled with as well. It's strange, that "you've entered a skill challenge" can break imersion, while entering combat is so obvious it doesn't need a "you've entered combat" notification beyond "roll initiative".

One thing I think could be brought into skill challenges is if they were more dynamic and run MORE like combat. Give the opponents (such as a quarry in a chase, or the visor in a debate) actions too.

Someone on these boards also once suggested to change SCs from "X successes before 3 failures" to something more like "X successes before Y rounds". If you note in film, scenes that we would want to translate to non-combat encounters often have some sort of timmer against them: you can only debate your possition to the king for so long, you must break into the castle before the ritual is completed, and so forth. It wouldn't quite apply to everything, but it could be a way to improve emersion.

I have tried porting SCs into other games as well. I do agree that the new structure in the Essentials books was good, but I still never felt as comfortable with them as I did with combat. 
Personally, I think designing good non-combat challenges such as those used in skill challenges is lots of work, and it's possible the rules create the impression that it's just a matter of throwing something together using the mechanics.


Making a good skill challenge requires an ultimate objective that the PCs want, and should be sufficiently complex to require a number of steps to solve which each involve different activities.

Badly designed challenges fail at the first hurdle if the PCs, or the players, don't actually want to solve them. Buy-in is required, and forcing a challenge down the throats of reluctant players is a mistake, when they are in a position to just walk away.


I don't think any set of rules can make it easy to devise the equivalent of skill challenges. Room for improvisation based on player input is essential.     
I feel that Skill Challenges should really be guidelines to develop non-combat encounters that build the shared story in the game.  As such, the DM should just have the PCs enter the encounter seemlessly, asking each player what his or her PC does to try to help the situation.  Then, instead of ruling that there has to be x number of successes before y number of failures, the DM should decide how many actions each player gets to make based on the complexity of the situation (once around the table, twice around the table or three times around the table).  Then...count up the wins and losses and depending on the relative success narrate what happens.   0 or 1 failure is a full fledged success perhaps granting bonus for a situation or the greatest possible outcome.  2 failures is success granting a positive outcome.  3 failures yields a complication.

The simplier the better.   

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It is my position that there is nothing the SC rules do that a series of individual checks, each one adjudicated individually and roleplayed accordingly, can't do.  It doesn't mean that without SCs you can't have "skill encounters."  As I said before, noncombat encounters are awesome.  But the SC rules are horrible.



I think Mand has nicely and succinctly summed up my experience with Skill Challenges as well.

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Yeah, count me among the people that think skill challenges have potential but in practice just never seemed to work very well. It seems like the seed of a good system is there somehow, but the specific way it works in 4e just doesn't seem to go that well in all the times I've seen them come up. I'm not sure if it's that they feel a little too formal or if it's that players who feel they don't have appropriate skills seem to not enjoy them very much or that maybe they take a little longer than they should (maybe). Nor do I have any specific suggestions on fixing them. I just know that while I like 4e overall I'm kind of "meh" when it comes to the skill challenges.

Skill challenges only make sense in situtions where it is critical for all party members to participate.

 For instance, the crew of a trireme can't afford to have anyone slacking off while the ship's being guided through a storm. That aforementioned sneaking challenge also makes sense assuming there's reason why one person can't or should't go on their own.

And that's why skill challenges seem silly most of the time: many of the situations presented  are always contrived to include everyone in the pary when one member will do (such as in negotiations, wilderness/cave navigations, or bypassing magic wards).

Right. So, as someone who didn't adopt 4e and is not terribly familiar with SC (let alone as they later appeared), I can't really constructively contribute any thoughts or opinions in regards to how they currently exist. I've heard them discussed before and I think that the premise sounds interesting and has some merit, though. So, I'd like to ask each of you a few questions to get each of your takes.

Specifically what did not work (and how) in the various incarnations of skill challenges?

How would you change things to get SC to work like how you think they should?

Do you think that they are worthwhile enough, if fixed, to bring forward into 5e?

If so, what would you like to see?