Actually running skill challenges

30 posts / 0 new
Last post
Okay: I'm an experienced DM. I've run 2nd, 3rd and 4th Ed. games. I've been running 4e for some time now, and my current campaign for over a year. And I have a confession to make:

I have no idea how skill challenges work.

I know how to make them. I know how to read them. But I have absolutely no idea how to actually run them. I haven't done an exhaustive online study of the subject, but I have read the relevant material in the DMG and DMG2, as well as a handful of articles online, and I still have no clue. No one seems to answer my basic question: What do I actually say when running a skill challenge? The original description in the DMG made some sense: Roll initiative, and ask each player in turn what his action will be. But that got redacted in the errata, and I think that's probably a good idea, as skill challenges should be more free-form than that. But what do you do? Does anyone know of an example (audio would be awesome!) of a skill challenge (for a party, not just one character) being run in an actual game? Do you tell the players all of the possible skills and then let them decide how to use them? Or do you let them try things whether or not those skills are on your list? What if they just stare at you blankly? Do you say "now we're having a skill challenge!" or do you just ask them what they do now? Do you let one player take multiple actions in a row, or do you make them take turns?

Of course, us old-school DMs have been running 'skill challenges' since 2e, at least: You set up the situation, and ask the player what he plans to do about it. He tells you, you tell him what skill to roll, and you announce the results. That's great--but not nearly as structured as skill challenges, and it never occurred to us to actually give out XP for skill checks. I love the idea of skill challenges, but I have not been able to figure out how to make them work in an organic, fun way.
SyDarkSun, my 4e Dark Sun campaign
I second this. I've run a couple and sometimes they work (as in, is fun) and sometimes they don't work and I can't seem to distill what separates a good skill challenge from a bad one.
"One skilled at battle takes a stand in the ground of no defeat And so does not lose the enemy's defeat. Therefore, the victorious military is first victorious and after that does battle. The defeated military first does battle and after that seeks victory." -- the Art of War
I love skill challenges. I consider myself pretty good at making them and running them. Unfortunately, I don't have time to write up much about them right now. Maybe later.

Basically, it's not as mechanical and codified as the "rules" make it sound. Provide rich description, have the challenge go on the "offensive," and make sure you provide an interesting way to fail, and you can't go far wrong.

The listed skills are just the primary skills, the ones that work without much question. Any skill can work, if it makes sense.

More later, with some play-by-post examples.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I don't think I have any recorded examples of skill challenges. There are a few play-by-post examples in the 4e Skill Challenges group (community.wizards.com/skill_challenges_4...) but otherwise that group is basically defunct.

The reason I love skill challenges is because they showed that there was a way to address the issues that have historically come up with non-combat parts of the game. This way doesn't cover everything, and not all aspects of that way need to be (or can easily be) applied to every non-combat challenge, but if nothing else, it's good to have some sort of a fallback.

What I tell experienced DMs is that skill challenges are no different from what they've always done, it's just that now they have some backing in the rules. Those rules don't advise anything that we couldn't or should have always been doing. So, as a default, don't do anything different than you've always done. If you want to use skill challenges, start by adopting the aspects of the rules that solve any problems you had with the old way - and if you had no problem with the old way, just continue using that.

For me, these are the key aspects of skill challenges. They only one I don't consider to be optional is the first one:

1. Failure must be interesting: I never got this, in all the many years and editions and games I've played, but it's obvious now, and it's key. If you're making an extended challenge out of something, don't make the ending fall flat, or be a dead end. Don't just expend resources. Make the ending something that the PCs can pick themselves up from and move on with. Make it an interesting complication. If you do this, then pretty much nothing can go badly wrong with your skill challenge. If you can't see a way to do this, consider not making it a challenge at all, because it won't be to anyone's benefit for the PCs to fail it. (Incidentally, this applies to combat as well as non-combat, but I won't harp on this here.)

2. Neither failure nor success can be short circuited: It's classic to have a delicate negotiation, or infiltration spoiled by a single roll. It's classic to have a seemingly impossible task knocked out by a natural 20. It can also be aggravating. If you enjoy those kinds of scenes, keep them, but skill challenges mean you don't have to. Have some fun describing the results of the die, but the challenge continues. The required successes or failures allow the scene to develop at least a little, allowing for some back-and-forth, and also some involvement by multiple characters.

3. Some skills always work, some not always: There are no "possible" skills. The "primary" skills are just the skills that definitely apply to the challenge. Any other skills (what were originally called "secondary" skills) might also apply if they seem plausible, but the DM should not feel compelled to give a success or failure or anything else for those rolls. The way the skill is making the challenge less complicated (i.e. granting successes or bonuses or positives) or more complicated (i.e. granting failures or penalties or negatives) needs to be clear. Try thinking about actions, rather than skills. How can this action make things better or worse and what's the applicable check to make.

3a: Some skills never work, or work but don't directly help: Some skills can be locked out. This gets over used, as with Intimidate in negotiations (because people don't seem to get what "intimidate" can mean). Use it sparingly, and to shake things up. Other times, the challenge isn't "about" the skills you'd expect it to be. Yes, you need to negotiate with someone, but that's the easy part and the hard part is weaving through the social scene, or something.

4. Use a DC that makes sense with your description: Don't use a DC just because it's appropriate to their level. Use the DC you think is appropriate to your description. If you want to use a DC appropriate to their level, try to distinguish your description of it in some way from the description you'd use for a higher or lower DC. If, in describing it, the challenge seems like it should be trivial or impossible for the party, then consider not making the scene a challenge.

5. Use them like monsters: This, to me, is what the codified XP for skill challenges means: that they can and should be linked up with each other and with combat. This realization is what made skill challenges really click for me. They often don't make very much sense when they're just by themselves. And they don't really make sense when lots of skills are shoehorned into give everyone something to do. Better just to have other things going on.

There are lots of ways for a skill challenge to go bad, and anyone who has played older editions has seen them before skill challenges were even invented: lame description, blocking for no good reason, a challenge that the DM either won't let succeed or won't let fail, players doing weird things or not clear on what to do, players afraid to make things worse. Some of these the mechanics can help with, some they can't.

That's enough for now. I'm happy to discuss more and might even be able to be convinced to run an example challenge at some point.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I would also appreciate some Actual Play transcipts. I really have a problem swallowing Skill Challenges - in fact I have hacked apart the XP award rules so that I can generate skill challenges on the fly or even just after they have happened. I'm pretty happy with the way I run out-of-combat encounters now so I don't think I would ever go back to Skill Challenges compleytely, but I am still interested in learning ways that other people make them work.
Skill challenges require a lot of house rules because there are like 14 different official ways to run them. 

The important part is that the PCs need X successes  before Y failures. You probably want something that encourages everyone to try something every round. (By default if you are bad at something and fail, you hurt the group so only people who are good attempt) Aid another actions can help this if you don't have them count as a failure.  

If/when I run them I use them as a timer. The group needs X successes to succeed on something. Navigating the woods, performing a chase scene, convince the king to do something. Each attempt takes [arbitrary] ammount of time. The failure limit can be in play if you want, but I generally avoid it.

It takes 1 day each attempt to navigate the woods. Every 1d4 days they are random encountered. The PCs attempt to navigate the woods. Eventually they will pass, but the poisoned king will die in a week. You need 5 successes to get through the woods. They can use nature skill to navigate the woods, but they also need food. Each survival check also takes 1 person 1 day, and success provides food for 4 people that day. Endurance checks can be made to forgo food for a day. Each person can make 1 check a day.

The group bursts into the royal court. The king looks shocked and he hears his guards shouting to get in as the PCs brace the door. (DM Note the guards come around a back way in 7 rounds) The PCs need to convince the king his guards are betraying him. Each round is 6 seconds, or a round. The PCs need 4 successes to convince him not to let the guards kill them.  Strength checks can be made each round to prevent people from opening the main door and ending the challenge early.

"In a way, you are worse than Krusk"                               " As usual, Krusk comments with assuredness, but lacks the clarity and awareness of what he's talking about"

"Can't say enough how much I agree with Krusk"        "Wow, thank you very much"

"Your advice is the worst"

Skill challenges require a lot of house rules because there are like 14 different official ways to run them.

There's really nothing gained by imagining there's any "official way" to run skill challenges.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Here is a site that I found to have helpful information for actually running a skill challenge.
critical-hits.com/features/skill-challen...


The easiest method I have found to incorporate a skill challenge is play normally, but indicate a success or a failure to the player to give them a nod that they just entered a skill challenge.  This should be more about the player choosing actions for the situation and the dm determining what failure looks like for the action.  It's no different than actually roleplaying through a situation and making some checks that you probably were any way other than the size and scope of the challenge.  Sneaking past a room of guards is one thing, but creeping into the prince's bedroom while he's asleep to steal some documents is alot more in-depth and would probably be more interesting as a skill challenge (although that is subjective).


     
Skill challenges require a lot of house rules because there are like 14 different official ways to run them.

There's really nothing gained by imagining there's any "official way" to run skill challenges.




Thats sort of my point. There are tons of "Official" ways. So you are going to have to house rule the entire thing to get it working. Knowing upfront that some of the printed books will be inaccurate helps a lot of people. Especially any rules lawyer players. "We aren't following the methods in this book, but rather this printed version" can help get them on board instead of fighting you when they notice some changes or discrepencies. 

"In a way, you are worse than Krusk"                               " As usual, Krusk comments with assuredness, but lacks the clarity and awareness of what he's talking about"

"Can't say enough how much I agree with Krusk"        "Wow, thank you very much"

"Your advice is the worst"

Here's my 2¢:

The essence of a skill challenge is simply that the end result of that challenge is dependent on multiple rolls rather than a single roll. For many DMs, there is absolutely nothing new about skill challenges. They probably resemble the same way that you have treated skills for years. A skill challenge just means: instead of walking into a bar and saying "I roll to see if I can gather information," the player instead rolls to talk to patron 1, then patron 2, then patron 3, etc.

Each "success" brings them incrementally closer to getting the information they want. Let's say they succeed when talking to patron 1, so patron 1 directs them to patron 2, who has a little more info. They succeed with patron 2, who sends them to a card game in the back where the really knowledgable guys hang out. Then they ask patron 3, a player in the game. They fail this check, so patron 3 lies to them and maybe pickpockets party leader's watch. This is a minor setback, so they go back to patron 3 and this time they threaten his life if he doesn't help. They succeed on this check and now they have 4 successes and 1 failure, so they should be pretty close to getting the info that they need.

Don't tell the party that they are "in a skill challenge." Present them with a problem and see how they solve it. If the party isn't in a skill challenge, it means that they are totally safe and the world is at peace. The entire game is one long skill challenge, with smaller skill challenges sprinkled throughout.

Don't be afraid to put a skill challenge on hold. I've had skill challenges that span months. The party might get their first two successes in Neverwinter, which leads to a clue hinting that they need to travel to Baldur's Gate. They spend three sessions traveling to Baldur's Gate in order to get their next success, then three sessions traveling back. In between, they fight battles and tackle other challenges.

Be flexible about what constitutes a "success." Players will often surprise you, and sometimes they'll do so by coming up with an idea that bypasses skills entirely, such as starting a fight. There's no reason that a barroom brawl couldn't have counted as one of the "successes" in the above example. You can even "nest" one skill challenge inside another, with success at one smaller, easier skill challenge constituting a one roll in a larger, more complex challenge.

Finally, it's been said before but let me reiterate: don't think in terms of success and failure. Think in terms of simplification and complication. If the party succeeds, either at a single roll or at the whole challenge, then their path forward should seem simpler and more straightforward. If they "fail," that's just an opportunity for you to make their task more complicated and convoluted. Quite often, "failure" should result in far more interesting situations than success, which is predictable.
Great question, and one I asked repeatedly when I started running skill challenges. There are definitely some answers given above that I completely disagree with, though.

The most important thing to remember is that there is no one correct way to run a skill challenge; you as a DM have to flexible and smart enough to choose the proper way of running the challenge for a given situation. One day you might run a very rulesy challenge, and another day a very freeform one--great!

I think one grievous mistake that many fledgling DMs make is being too rigid about how skill challenges work, and adhering to absolute rules like, "Don't ever ever mention it's a skill challenge!" or the opposite "Give the players all the details from the beginning every time!" Either way works sometimes, but neither way works all the time.

Generally speaking, if you're not going to tell the PCs that they're in a skill challenge, you need to first ask yourself if you should really be running a "skill challenge" at all. If this particular situation can be handled through very freeform and narrative roleplaying, you probably don't need to run it as a "skill challenge" at all (with fixed Primary and Secondary skills, success/failure counts, rolling initiative to determine turn order, etc.). You can just roleplay through it, asking for rolls here and there based on what PCs are describing, and basing your judgement of their success by those rolls.

If you've decided you need to do a formal "skill challenge" and your players are reasonably competent storytellers, telling the PCs they're in a challenge and laying out the perimeters beforehand can actually greatly increase the fun and narrative quality of the challenge--it becomes much LESS about the rules because you cleared it all up early on, so there's no fumbling around trying to figure out if they're doing things properly or whatever.

Let me give you an example of a recent skill challenge I ran and how I presented it to the PCs (I think I posted this challenge on the DS board at some point and got some good feedback on it, too). In my Dark Sun game, the PC group had been tasked with investigating the paying of the "Dragon's Levy". They found a mysterious group of elves and mercenaries preparing to escort a thousand slaves to the "Dragon's Altar" deep in the mountains near Altaruk, and got themselves hired as mercs to join the marching column during its two-day journey through the mountains. Secretly, they were trying to free a certain slave (who was a member of the Veiled Alliance), as well as kill off one of the mercenaries they had a longstanding rivalry with (though she didn't know who they were), as well as hampering the payment of the levy as much as possible. After a day of marching and several encounters, the PCs broke off into the surrounding hills and joined up with a slave tribe (the Altar Skulkers) that "haunted" the mountains, throwing spears at the marching columns paying the levy each year.

Vilsis, eladrin seeker (a PC): "We want to help you kill these slavers! They don't deserve to live!"

Me: "Joaquim [the Altar Skulker clan leader] nods. "Each year, we bloody them thoroughly as they march toward the Altar. It's said that if enough of the slaves escape, the Dragon might even make up the difference by feasting on the fleeing guards!"

Bost, mul warden (a PC): "Just what they deserve! Let's kill as many of these mercs as possible, and free as many of the slaves!"

Me: "Okay. Over the next eight hours--nighttime--you join the Altar Skulkers in harrying the column. How well you guys do is going to be handled by a skill challenge rather than by me running 20 individual combats. This challenge will end when we reach 12 successes or 6 failures, whichever comes first. Unlike most challenges, we will be keeping track of the points you exceed your DCs on each roll. (Failures will simply be tracked as “one failure”). The end result of the challenge will be determined based on the totaled points."

"The primary skills I think you can use will be Athletics, Intimidate, Nature, and Stealth. Additionally--and this is weird, I know--you can use your Ranged Basic Attack as a primary skill. Anything else you want to use could work, too, as long as you can explain what you're doing."

"Since this happens at night, those of you without Low-Light Vision are going to be at -2 to all rolls. Chat'G'Hak, since you accepted one of the Altar Skulkers' red clay cloaks, you're at +2 to all rolls."

"At any point, you can tell me you're using one of your (remaining) daily powers before you make a roll. By expending it, you get +10 to the result of the roll. But you have to be able to explain how it's being used...you can't just say 'I make a Stealth roll! And I use Fireball! Plus ten!' It has to make sense."

"You can also use an action point on your turn to make another roll right there."

"Any questions? No? Great. Roll initiative. Okay, who's first?"

Vilsis: "That's me. All right, I'm going to scuttle along one of the rock ridges above the marching column and dislodge a cascade of loose rocks onto the column. I'll use my Nature skill to find the right place to hopefulyl cause a small avalanche." (rolls Nature, scores a 24)

Me: "Awesome roll. A small landslide forms, knocking a handful of mercs to the bottom of the ravine, screaming. The rest of the column is momentarily delayed in a cloud of choking dust. In the confusion, several slaves manage to bolt into the hills. Now that you've made a Nature roll, I'll tell you that the DC was 7 (so you have accumulated one success and 17 points toward the goal) and that you can only use this skill to gain two more successes throughout this challenge."

Chat'G'Hak: "I'm up next. I'm going to dart in and out of the dark crevices of rock, throwing my chatkcha at stragglers. I'd like to use my Stealth skill to stay unseen, like I'm a ghost in the night." (rolls Stealth, scores an 18).

Me: "Your glittering dasl weapon repeatedly darts out of the darkness and returns as quickly as it emerged, leaving mercenaries clutching spurting wounds as they sink to their knees. They whirl around, but can find nobody to attack. Several slaves scramble away as you kill the nearest guards. The Stealth DC was 7, so you guys are now at 2 successes and 28 points. You can roll Stealth no more than five more times, succeed or fail."

Zuri, shardmind sorcerer (PC): "So, I'm going to be waiting up ahead as the column circles a bend. I'm going to crush the glowworms we use in our lanterns and rub them all over my crystal body. As they come into the open, I'm going to be standing on top of the cliff with my arms out, glowing like a ghost myself, glaring. I want them to think I'm some kind of spirit of the hills and try to scare them with my Intimidate skill. Also, I'm going to use my Dazzling Ray daily power to shoot radiant beams out of my glowing form to add to the effect." (rolls, gets 21, plus 10 equals 31).

Me: "Wow! The mercenaries cower and shriek as your gleaming body seems to hover in the darkness ahead. Blazing beams shoot from you, annihilating mercs as they stand there. Ducking their heads in terror, the column bolts onward, leaving behind handfuls of slaves, who run to safety in the darkness. That was DC12, so now you guys have 3 successes and 47 points."


This goes on for some time. It's important to note that a good skill challenge needs creative/narrative input from the players as much as from the DM. If the players fail to contribute, the skill challenge will begin to suck. A good DM should be able to help his players develop good narrative skills, but also pick up the slack where they fall short.

Chumley, human hexblade (fake crappy PC): "I make a Stealth roll. 25."

Me: "Can you describe what you're doing a little more?"

Chumley: "I'm sneakin'."

Me: "Okay...are you going to attack them when you sneak up to them?"

Chumley: "Sure, I guess."

Me: "With what?"

Chumley: "My eldritch bolt."

Me: "Okay, after you hit them with your magic attack, then what?"

Chumley: "Then I sneak away!"

Me: "All right, hmm...as you're creeping up to the column, you see that one of the precious water-wagons, being drawn by a kank, is right nearby, providing you cover. The kank turns its antennae in your direction..."

Chumley: "I'll shoot the kank!"

Me: "Your eldritch bolt crackles into the kank and you're disappearing into the shadows as shouts ring out from the column warning of an attack on their water supply! The crippled kank clacks its pincers as the column grinds to a halt, the mercs struggling to unhook the wounded kank from the wagon and harness the water to a new kank, all while avoiding the animal's snapping jaws. It doesn't go well in the darkness and confusion; some slaves manage to sneak off while at one tarek is seized around the throat by the thrashing wounded kank and shaken like a ragdoll. You guys can only use Stealth four more times now, and the total is..."


By the end of the challenge (when I'll total up and tell them the number of mercs they killed and slaves they freed, based on the points I tracked), the six of us have developed a cool little narrative together, which occupied eight or ten hours of game-time but only took us forty minutes or so to play. I think skill challenges are great for that: very broad goals to achieve ("get from this town to that town") where you don't want to run every little encounter and interaction, but still have skills and rolls come into play beyond just creative description.

Here's the challenge as I wrote it out. The DCs use an older table and are thus a little low, but it worked for this challenge because they needed to accumulate points besides just getting successes. I might raise the DCs to a more standard level (but then also make the point-counting formula more forgiving...maybe 1 merc/slave for every 4 points accumulated instead of 5, or something).

Show

Harrying the Column Skill Challenge
Setup: This challenge will end when we reach 12 successes or 6 failures, whichever comes first. Unlike most challenges, we will be keeping track of the points you exceed your DCs on each roll. (Failures will simply be tracked as “one failure”). The end result of the challenge will be determined based on the totaled points.
Level: 6 (DCs 7/12/17)
Complexity: 5 (12 successes, 6 failures)
Additional Factors:
* -2 to all checks for characters without Low-Light Vision if the challenge occurs at night
* +2 to checks for characters wearing red clay cloaks.
* +10 to a single roll if an appropriate Daily power is expended
* Free additional roll if an Action Point is spent

Primary Skills: Athletics, Intimidate, Nature, Ranged Basic Attack, Stealth
Athletics (DC12): You use your muscle to push rocks onto the column; alternatively, you scramble over rocks and gaps to put yourself into a good position to attack.
Intimidate (DC12): Manipulating shadows, using noises, pushing rocks, hurling weapons; you’re able to frighten the mercenaries, who shrink close to each other and look around wildly.
Nature (DC7): Knowing the likely nooks and crannies and terrain of the mountain, you’re able to move smoothly into position and set up deadfalls, boulders, sliding terrain, and other nuisances. This skill can be used to gain no more than three successes during this challenge.
Ranged Basic Attack (DC12): You launch a series of attacks using ranged weapons or spells on the column, killing or wounding a number of mercenaries. This skill can be used to gain no more than six successes during this challenge.
Stealth (DC7): You sneak close enough to launch an attack against the mercenaries. This skill can be checked (success or failure) no more than six times during this challenge.

Secondary Skills: Bluff, Diplomacy, History
Bluff (DC14): You convince some slaves it would be safer if they ran; alternatively, you convince the mercenaries that they are facing a greater threat than they really are. This skill can be used only once (for each style) during this challenge.
Diplomacy (DC14): You convince some slaves to bolt. This skill can be used only twice during this challenge.
History (DC17): You recall a piece of the history of the payment of the Dragon’s Levy and use it to your advantage (for example, that wounded mercenaries were worse than dead ones, because they slowed the column; that spurring the mercenaries into killing too many slaves could invoke the wrath of the Dragon on them or their city-states). +3 to all checks until the end of your next turn.

Success or Failure: Total the accumulated “points” that exceeded the DCs. If the characters gained 12 successes before 6 failures, add 20 to the total. If the characters accumulated 6 failures before 12 successes, subtract 20 from the total. For every 5 points accumulated, 1 mercenary was killed and 1 slave was able to escape. If the PCs accumulated 0 or fewer points, they are reduced to Bloodied by return fire, falls, and exhaustion.
Counting successes and failures is really just a pacing mechanism. You assess the relative "size" of the problem being confronted and convert that to an approximate number of successful checks the players should need to resolve it, the same way that you would determine the DC of an individual check based on the relative difficulty of what is being attempted.

Rolling for initiative is just a way of forcing every player to be equally involved, or to determine the order of actions when everybody reacts at once. (I like to use intelligence in place of dexterity for initiative when it's not a physical challenge.) 

Primary and secondary skills are just a way of either broadly hinting to the players what you have in mind for the most likely solution to the challenge, or for spotlighting one particular PC in a given challenge. (Everybody likes to say to the rest of the party, "Step back guys, I got this.") 

In other words, these are all tools to be pulled out of the box as-needed, no different than you would use difficult terrain, concealment, or minions to help shape a given combat challenge.

There really is only one difference between a skill challenge and "free form role playing." What makes free form roleplaying a skill challenge is just in how it is scored – based on mechanics rather than a gut feeling of what should happen next. There should really be no noticeable difference to the players.

I say this based on my experience as a player, that everytime we have entered "skill challenge zone," it's become dreadfully, agonizingly slow and dull. 
the problem I keep running into is that the skill challenges in modules are frequently very badly written.

Scales of War has several mind-numbingly bad ones.
Negotiating to put together the coalition. As written, it was like trying to get the characters from Game of Thrones to discuss anything in a rational manner: almost all the characters were either fools or jerks.
Another would have been fine, had the party been acting like scum-bag mercenaries, and yeah, then you'd have to persuade people that you aren't. But when the party has been playing like near-paragons of virtue, having everyone be mistrustful seems a little out of place.
But the worst one (so far) was in the lvl17-18 mod, in which, as written, it was impossible to succeed. According to the rules, only 7 successes were possible in a 12-success challenge.

Failure should have consequences. Not necessarily outright disaster, but consequences. In one adventure, the only consequence was, oh darn, we had to take an extended rest and get all of our daily powers and action points back. The villains' plot would have been in exactly the same stage, regardless.

Not everyone is useful in a skill challenge. In several, my characters did not have the skills necessary. Tough. Not all situations can be solved by hitting someone in the face with a hammer. (Pity, because it is much more satisfying...) So let the players who invested in diplomacy, streetwise, or other non-power munchkin skills win.

No, it doesn't have to be rigidly run, but the rules are there as a framework for the role-playing.

Thanks, especially to waxwingslain for the transcript.

I think this thread has finally helped me to work out why I don't get along along with Skill Challenges. It's because they are all about the dice rolls, rather than what is happening "in world". Sure you can describe what each dice result represents, but still there is a case of the cart pulling the horse.

I want the dice to serve the in-world events, to help resolve them, not dictate them. I'm having a hard time explaining this, so let me give you an (pretty bad) example.

Suppose that we have a Skill Challenge about travesing a rickety bridge. Primary skills are athletics and acrobatics and Perception. Other skills could perhaps be used a secondaries to provide bonuses.

However, a PC decides to use a skill like Dungeoneering to fashion a pully system from ropes, some of them from the bridge, to get across. As written, this should only give them a bonus, or perhaps  1 success if you are generous. But logically, a success here should get them across. THE SOLUTION PRESENTED SOLVES THE PROBLEM, EVEN THOUGH THERE HAVE NOT BEEN ENOUGH SUCCESSFUL DICE ROLLS.

Like I said, this is a bad example, but it illustrates my problem. Problems are solved by appropriate actions and/or logical solutions, not number of successes. Skill Challenges are frames in such a way that the objective is to "get N successes" rather than "acheive X".

Another bad example of the two approaches: the party want to get into the top room of a tower. A Skill Challenge would describe how the primary skills could be used (climbing, sneaking past guards etc) and then say "the party need 4 successes to gain access to the top room".
Now the challenge is all about getting those successes. But it SHOULD be about getting to the top room.
An Objective-based challenge would simply say "the objective is to get to the top room of the tower". Getting there will most likely require some successful skill checks, but the number of them is dictated by the specific actions and consequences (rather than vice versa) eg Bluffing the head guard will take fewer checks than Sneaking past all of them.

So for that reason, I will be sticking to Objective Challenges rather than Skill Challenges.
Well, a lot of the "reasons Skill Challenges are bad" that people are saying are because the skill challenges they use as examples are horribly written.

Many of the skill challenges as written in adventures suck because they assume that players will all react the same way or all think of the same solutions (at best, they think players have two or three possible responses/strategies), and the way the challenges are cooked up, they completely break if players don't do exactly one of those fixed responses. You need to write the challenge to allow for many different possible ways of succeeding, and rarely have published skill challenges successfully done that.
several things I would say about skill challenges from personal experience...

1) They help with a setup to a dungeon...I occasionally use them if they don't know the location of where they are going and have to find out, if they are traveling (instead of random encounters), or sometimes in town if they need to gather general information about stuff.

In these cases failures generally mean one of the following:
* they got caught asking around and thus alerted the dungeon to their arrival (making the encounters harder and/or adding traps and/or giving the mobs a surprise round).
* The trip was arduous, they end up losing healing surges on the way (and what a shocker! they dont get an extended rest before they start into the dungeon). This makes the dungeon harder without increaseing the levels/etc. more like resource management.
* If they are gathering information, they end up getting dinged with a -2 or -4 to future checks when it comes to using that information (i.e. they gather information, fail, that information takes them to a person who they need to negotiate with, now that negotiation is harder).

In cases of success, usually the quest remains the normal difficulty, on occasion I'll make things easier or give them a bonus...in one case they gathered info on a dungeon and thus got a +2 to all checks made in that dungeon (since there were a lot of traps, this was very helpful to them).

2) They make for a great Ad-Hoc quest...On more than one occasion, we've had a case where a bad guy or NPC has attempted to elude the party, or stolen something, or something to that nature which wasn't initially planned...If a PC decides to pursue the NPC, I turn it into a quick skill challenge...if they succeed, they catch up to him, if they don't, he escapes. You can use this for a miriade of things, but it gives the DM a really easy out when it comes to unexpected PC behavior.

I often times tell them it's a skill challenge, and let them know what the primary skills are...they are savy enough now to know they can use any skill if they describe it and it seems plausible. I don't tell them the number of successes they need, but they do know the number of failures...furthermore, I do it turn based, requiring everyone to take an action on their turn...if they dont roll for success/failure, they have to aid another...this is interesting since on a failed aid, it gives a -1 to next roll, success is a +2...and I let them stack...so if 3 people want to aid, they can...this can be abused, but in general it isn't.

Like it's been stated before...skill challenges are encounters...I tend to use them as 'encounter lite' in that failure results in something becoming harder to complete...
the problem I keep running into is that the skill challenges in modules are frequently very badly written.

Scales of War has several mind-numbingly bad ones.
Negotiating to put together the coalition. As written, it was like trying to get the characters from Game of Thrones to discuss anything in a rational manner: almost all the characters were either fools or jerks.



This skill challenge was one of my most successful ever for this campaign (characters are now 16th level.) I completely rewrote it...giving each issue its own scene. The PC's had to try to win over each council member, and could do it with various skills. There were some various mechanical complications here and there - some tied to particular PC's, some tied to particular councilors. The party spend probably 90 minutes on that skill challenge, and loved it.

So, I guess the nice thing about that challenge was that, as written, it was SO AWFUL, that I spent a lot of time rewriting it, and making it enjoyable.

The only skill challenges I EVER use is in straight-forward contests.... like a fiddle contest. Make a perform fiddle check, DC 23; win the shiney fiddle mad of gold. But if you lose, the devil gets your souuuuuuuuuuuuul.


Otherwise... if the goal is to convince the king he is in danger, the situation depends on a host of factors. Does the king already know and trust the party? How well? Good enough to let them into his home, at least. If the goal is to protect the king from a coupe by his guards... do they have the evidence in hand? They should. If not, the king's not likely to believe anything they say, anyway. Maybe if they could in some ways dupe the guards...

There's just so many myriad ways to succeed here. Some options better than others, of course. A simple disguise self might be interesting.. combined with mirror image. All it would take would be for one illusionary king to be attacked for the king to be convinced of the danger. He might even show the party a secret door in the next room where he keeps a king's ransom of treasure for them if they can get him to a safe place until he can sort things out.

I'm with 5 shilling... let the party decide what the objectives are. Heck... they might decide to kidnap the king and help the guards in the coup... knowing that as long as they hold the king captive, the guards involved in the coupe will never truly rule the kingdom, not until the king and his family are 'disposed of' properly.
A rogue with a bowl of slop can be a controller. WIZARD PC: Can I substitute Celestial Roc Guano for my fireball spells? DM: Awesome. Yes. When in doubt, take action.... that's generally the best course. Even Sun Tsu knew that, and he didn't have internets.

I want the dice to serve the in-world events, to help resolve them, not dictate them.



I'm not sure what to make of this statement. In one sense, it is a meaningless distinction. If you are incorporating the dicerolls into the narrative of the game, then the rolls are both resolving and dictating in-world events. In another sense, the dice rolls can never "dictate" in-world events. Other than success feeling vaguely positive and failure feeling vaguely negative to the players, there's really no constraints on what success or failure means.


Suppose that we have a Skill Challenge about travesing a rickety bridge. Primary skills are athletics and acrobatics and Perception. Other skills could perhaps be used a secondaries to provide bonuses.

However, a PC decides to use a skill like Dungeoneering to fashion a pully system from ropes, some of them from the bridge, to get across. As written, this should only give them a bonus, or perhaps  1 success if you are generous. But logically, a success here should get them across. THE SOLUTION PRESENTED SOLVES THE PROBLEM, EVEN THOUGH THERE HAVE NOT BEEN ENOUGH SUCCESSFUL DICE ROLLS.



This is both a terrible example of a skill challenge and a poorly implemented solution, so it's pretty much impossible to refute other than to say, yeah, this sounds really dumb. That's because you constructed the scenario and the solution in such a way as to make your straw-challenge sound dumb.

Let me see if I can expand this a little into a reasonable skill challenge.

First of all, the challenge isn't "crossing a rickety bridge." The problem is getting to the party's destination, which is presumably on the other side of the gorge. There is a rickety bridge nearby, a rampart of loose dirt on either side of the ditch, and a town relatively close by.

This is the challenge you present to the party.

This is a pathetic challenge for anybody higher than level 3, so we'll say that you need to get 5 successes before 3 failures.

This is still not a great example of a skill challenge, but it's better than "crossing a rickety bridge" because crossing a bridge has only two possible outcomes – either you cross it or you don't. You could have the players roll some kind of check to determine if they get across or if the brdige breaks, but it's not really complex enough to justify anything more than that.

By reframing the challenge, the party can attempt to tackle this challenge through a wide variety of approaches: they can scale the cliffs and traverse the densely wooded floor of the ravine, they can return to town and purchase ropes and pullies to devise a mechanical solution, they can purchase long bolts of cloth and hangglide across, they can fortify the bridge with nearby vines and use that to cross, or they can simply cross their fingers and step out on the bridge while praying to whatever gods they keep.

If the party has already invested in the kind of heavy rope and pullies they would need to construct the mechanism you describe, then I would say just give  it to them and move on. The party has thought ahead and expended resources on a preemptive solution to this problem, and they deserve a reward. The ropes and pullies are really just a cheaper and less flexible version of a flying ritual in this scenario.

However, if they don't already have the gear, and this is the solution they opt for, then I would say it is a damn generous DM who allows the players to simply declare that they build a simple machine and cross the gorge without requiring ANY rolls whatsoever. They need to go back to town, track down the equipment they need (streetwise), see if they have the necessary knowledge to complete the project or if they'll need to improvise (dungeoneering), pruchase the equipment (a monetary investment that I would consider one success) send one party member across the bridge with a heavy rope and pully to affix them to the other side (acrobatics), and then hope that everything holds (potentially a thievery check, depending on other factors). That's five checks at a minimum. If any step along the way fails, the party will need to seek a new solution or go to extended lengths in order to implement the proposal.

And again, as you say, this is still not a great example. In my opinion it is far too small and direct to warrant a skill challenge, but at least you can see some of the work that would go into expanding it into something more reasonable. What this is, again in my opinion, is a really, really good example of what not to do. Generally speaking, you should not be allowing players to simply declare that they prestidigitate rope, pullies, and the experience to build a simple machine out of the aether, implement it, and then use it effectively, based entirely on a single roll or without rolling at all.

There are exceptions to that rule, but usually this would be pretty bad storytelling. Imagine if you were watching a TV show and the characters came across a challenge like this. First of all, you would probably think it's a pretty dumb thing to spend a lot of time on, at least as a credible threat to the hero's advancement in his quest. But it might provide some good opportunities for characterization and teamwork, so if it is well written it might still be a worthwhile scene. However, if one of the characters produces a deus ex machina device out of his backpack and resolves the problem in mere seconds, it would be a breach of the willing suspension of disbelief and also a complete waste of the viewers' and characters' time.

Like I said, this is a bad example, but it illustrates my problem. Problems are solved by appropriate actions and/or logical solutions, not number of successes. Skill Challenges are frames in such a way that the objective is to "get N successes" rather than "acheive X".



I think it illustrates a problem, but not a problem with skill challenges. The problem that you are having is determining what is worth spending time on. If this is the calibre of challenge that you are presenting the party with, no wonder you are having trouble. If you allow the party to solve problems simply by brainstorming a clever solution without testing their ability to actually implement that solution, then again you are going to have troubles.

But like you said, this is a bad example, which, as I said, makes it really, really difficult to determine what problems you are having with skill challenges vs. what are the problems with the example in general.

However, I would note this line:

Problems are solved by appropriate actions and/or logical solutions, not number of successes.



This is like saying that fights are resolved by killing monsters, not by reducing them to 0 hitpoints. Yes, there are appropriate times to bypass hitpoints and declare a monster simply dead. Yes, there are appropriate times to ignore the results of skill checks. Generally, however, the whole point of the skill checks is to determine the effectiveness of those "appropriate actions" or "logical solutions." If I declare that my character is going to jump over the pit of spikes, that is an appropriate and logical solution. I still have to roll to see if I succeed.


Another bad example of the two approaches: the party want to get into the top room of a tower. A Skill Challenge would describe how the primary skills could be used (climbing, sneaking past guards etc) and then say "the party need 4 successes to gain access to the top room".
Now the challenge is all about getting those successes. But it SHOULD be about getting to the top room.
An Objective-based challenge would simply say "the objective is to get to the top room of the tower". Getting there will most likely require some successful skill checks, but the number of them is dictated by the specific actions and consequences (rather than vice versa) eg Bluffing the head guard will take fewer checks than Sneaking past all of them.



Not every roll that the party makes contributes a success to the challenge track. If the party spends ten rolls dithering at the base of the tower, then they have obviously not made any progress. Again, a lovely bad example. Until you come up with a good example, it's really hard to tell what the actual problem you are having is.

So for that reason, I will be sticking to Objective Challenges rather than Skill Challenges.



Tom-ay-toe, Tom-ah-toe.
Suppose that we have a Skill Challenge about travesing a rickety bridge. Primary skills are athletics and acrobatics and Perception. Other skills could perhaps be used a secondaries to provide bonuses.

However, a PC decides to use a skill like Dungeoneering to fashion a pully system from ropes, some of them from the bridge, to get across. As written, this should only give them a bonus, or perhaps  1 success if you are generous. But logically, a success here should get them across. THE SOLUTION PRESENTED SOLVES THE PROBLEM, EVEN THOUGH THERE HAVE NOT BEEN ENOUGH SUCCESSFUL DICE ROLLS.

There's nothing inherently logical about that. It's just as logical that some other, unforseen complication would arise during the use of the pully system and the PCs would have to react to that, using skills. Having a rope fray, for instance, is a classic trope that would make for an exciting complication. The remaining required successes are what "tell us" that more complications can and should arise.

There's also nothing inherently logical about a single die roll being enough to concoct a pully system. It would be just as logical for no die roll to be called for and for the DM to deem that the PCs had gotten across the chasm safely, but took too long and therefore suffer the effects of failure in the skill challenge, such as losing too much time to be able intercept the McGuffin.

It's similar to hit points. If a player says he's chopping off a target's head, rolls, and hits (and meets the damage threshhold, or whatever else) that target should be dead. And, frankly, plenty of people play this way. But people who don't bat an eyelid at the pacing mechanism of hit points for some reason dislike the pacing mechanism of successes and failures.

Like I said, this is a bad example, but it illustrates my problem. Problems are solved by appropriate actions and/or logical solutions, not number of successes. Skill Challenges are frames in such a way that the objective is to "get N successes" rather than "acheive X".

Literally, they're framed in terms of "achieve X," with "get N successes" just the mechanical underpinning. But I agree that the "in-game" reality of what the underpinnings really mean and dramatically useful for is often ditched, just as it is for hit points.

Another bad example of the two approaches: the party want to get into the top room of a tower. A Skill Challenge would describe how the primary skills could be used (climbing, sneaking past guards etc) and then say "the party need 4 successes to gain access to the top room".
Now the challenge is all about getting those successes. But it SHOULD be about getting to the top room.
An Objective-based challenge would simply say "the objective is to get to the top room of the tower". Getting there will most likely require some successful skill checks, but the number of them is dictated by the specific actions and consequences (rather than vice versa) eg Bluffing the head guard will take fewer checks than Sneaking past all of them.

The issues skill challenges attempt to solve there are getting wrapped around the axle on the skill checks (how tall is the tower, how many guards, how far can we move while sneaking, what about the fighter in armor, etc.) and the DM having an agenda and calling for more and more rolls until the desired conclusion is reached. Those are avoidable, of course, but I find that having a set number of successes and failures, and providing an interesting way to fail really helps remove a lot of that kind of bias.

So for that reason, I will be sticking to Objective Challenges rather than Skill Challenges.

Cool. I'm never going back to them, even in other systems.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy


I'm not sure what to make of this statement. In one sense, it is a meaningless distinction. If you are incorporating the dicerolls into the narrative of the game, then the rolls are both resolving and dictating in-world events. In another sense, the dice rolls can never "dictate" in-world events. Other than success feeling vaguely positive and failure feeling vaguely negative to the players, there's really no constraints on what success or failure means.



Let me try putting it another way. As I see it, a dice roll should happen because an action or event is happening in the game and you need a way to resolve that action.

It is not the results of the dice roll I have a problem with, it is the reason you roll them in the first place.

With skill chellenges, an action or event is happening in the game because a dice roll needs to be made. The skill chalenge rules have told you to roll some dice so now you are finding things for the players to do to justify those dice rolls. The critical subject and point of drama is the dice roll, not the event in the game world. This is a philosophical distinction.

Or to put yet another spin on it: in a skill challenge the actions are interchangeable - one action is just as good as another as long as it results in a success. Once the Skill Challenge is over they are all the same. skill challenges parcel things up into weird little mini-game bubbles. Without skill challenges the game can change with every action, based on that action, in a continous chain of causality.

You also misunderstand me if you think I am letting players do things too easily or bypass obstacles. Actions still require rolls to see if they succeed. My examples were deliberately cliché, not actual things I have run - I have yet to run a rickety bridge obstacle (although if I did I am confident that I could make it compelling without having to make it "OMGEPIX!!!")

Until you come up with a good example, it's really hard to tell what the actual problem you are having is.



Maybe you could give me an example of an excellent skill challenge, and then if I still have problems with it I can better describe them to your satisfaction?

Let me try putting it another way. As I see it, a dice roll should happen because an action or event is happening in the game and you need a way to resolve that action.

Quite so.

It is not the results of the dice roll I have a problem with, it is the reason you roll them in the first place.

With skill chellenges, an action or event is happening in the game because a dice roll needs to be made. The skill chalenge rules have told you to roll some dice so now you are finding things for the players to do to justify those dice rolls. The critical subject and point of drama is the dice roll, not the event in the game world. This is a philosophical distinction.

The dice roll is (or can be; it is in my games) prompted by an event in the game world. I've seen my share of challenges in which the DM just asks for who's rolling what skill, but that's not inherent to skill challenges.

Yes, I'm finding things for the PCs to do. That's part of what a DM does. If I've posed a challenge to them, the intent is that the scene be at least interesting, even if the challenge itself is either trivial or impossible. Because I can't necessarily know ahead of time how they'll approach the challenge, some of the complications that arise will have to stem from the approach they take. If they just wanted to cross the rickety bridge, I could have the bridge ropes fray and ask for their reactions to that, but if they take another approach I'm allowed and obliged to give it complications (or, if they simply want to bypass the challenge, to give them the effects of failure, which I'm obliged to make interesting). I suppose having their own ropes fray is a bit of a railroad, but I could have wind gusts come up, or a flock of bats fly up from below, or another, heavier creature start to move out along their pully system. I'm allowed, by the skill challenge mechanics, to come up with interesting complications. DMs already did this before skill challenges were really codified, but in my experience those tended to be due to the DM not liking the fact that, say, the PC could ace skill checks so easily. They seemed punitive, rather than just interesting.

Or to put yet another spin on it: in a skill challenge the actions are interchangeable - one action is just as good as another as long as it results in a success.

Not so. Not every action has the potential to move toward success. That's part of the point of primary skills: the DM isn't required to allow anything to work, though they're encouraged to find ways to allow things to work.

Once the Skill Challenge is over they are all the same. skill challenges parcel things up into weird little mini-game bubbles. Without skill challenges the game can change with every action, based on that action, in a continous chain of causality.

I'm not sure what this means.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy


Let me try putting it another way. As I see it, a dice roll should happen because an action or event is happening in the game and you need a way to resolve that action.



With you so far.

It is not the results of the dice roll I have a problem with, it is the reason you roll them in the first place.



Right, the reason being because something is happening and you need to resolve it.

With skill chellenges, an action or event is happening in the game because a dice roll needs to be made. The skill chalenge rules have told you to roll some dice so now you are finding things for the players to do to justify those dice rolls. The critical subject and point of drama is the dice roll, not the event in the game world. This is a philosophical distinction.



You lost me. The players are making rolls because they are attempting to resolve the situation, and you need a way to assess their progress. I don't understand the "philosophical" difference you describe for two reasons: I am not sure what you are contrasting the skill challenge with, and I'm not sure what the difference is.

Or to put yet another spin on it: in a skill challenge the actions are interchangeable - one action is just as good as another as long as it results in a success. Once the Skill Challenge is over they are all the same. skill challenges parcel things up into weird little mini-game bubbles. Without skill challenges the game can change with every action, based on that action, in a continous chain of causality.



This is typical pablum offered by those who dislike skill challenges for no decent reason, so they invent explanations. At this point I start to doubt whether you want to have an honest conversation or whether you just want to bash skill challenges without bothering to understand them. Every single argument in this paragraph has been specifically refuted by myself and by other posters in this thread. You're either not reading or not trying to understand.


You also misunderstand me if you think I am letting players do things too easily or bypass obstacles. Actions still require rolls to see if they succeed. My examples were deliberately cliché, not actual things I have run - I have yet to run a rickety bridge obstacle (although if I did I am confident that I could make it compelling without having to make it "OMGEPIX!!!")



I'm only going off of what you wrote. You suggested that a player should be able to construct a rope and pully system and thus bypass a skill challenge – i.e., without having to make any checks or expend any resources whatsoever. If this is not an actual example of an actual challenge that you would actually run and an example of an actual solution that you would accept, then it's just an example you invented in order to arrive at your own preconceived conclusion that skill challenges are dumb. This is why it's impossible to respond to a bad example without simlply acknowledging that the bad example is bad.


Maybe you could give me an example of an excellent skill challenge, and then if I still have problems with it I can better describe them to your satisfaction?



I'm not sure I can provide you with an example of an "excellent" skill challenge because like all other aspects of the game, excellence is determined primarily by the players involved and the random events that they encounter. What I can provide is an example of a skill challenge that was successful. Coming up with the scenario is nothing more than what I would call "a good start."

Recently my players were seeking to escape from certain lands by moving downriver to the sea. They had a variety of options. They could make their way through the woods, they could pay the dwarves for passage across the mountains, they could traverse the goblin swamps, they could reach out to their contacts amongst the elves, etc. They opted to return to a village that they had recently been run out of by an angry mob and attempt to secure passage on a boat.

I didn't feel that they should just be given a boat – this is a risky proposition, after all. So I opted for a skill challenge. It's a fairly minor, but fairly risky, skill challenge so I thought they should make 5 successes before 3 failures.

They returned to the village under cover of night, cleverly circumventing the gates and thus avoiding a hassle with the guards. They made their way to the docks and there they split up.

Two party members went into a nearby pub and brothel to see if they could secure passage from the unscrupulous sailors inside.

Two party members went straight to the docks to see if they could easily steal a vessel sturdy enough to take them downriver.

Inside, one PC made a circuit of the room eavesdropping on the conversations. It was late at night so the men were very shady indeed, and the women even moreso. She made a perception check to eavesdrop and failed (1 failure), so she overheard only one possible prospect, an obvious smuggler who planned to leave shortly under cover of darkness and head down the river with his illegal cargo.

PC2 cozied up to an older, friendly gent at the bar and began pumping him for possible leads. She made a couple checks here as part of the investigative process – insight and diplomacy as I recall – and succeeded at both (2 successes). The man took an interest and suggested he might have a boat she could use, but he became intrigued by her and she had to deflect questions about the earlier riot. She made a bluff check and failed (2 failures), causing a nearby hostile prostitute to become suspicious and excuse herself.

PCs 3 & 4, meanwhile, snuck past the guards patrolling the docks (3 successes) and began investigating boats. They made a thievery check to assess their prospects and succeeded (4 successes).

At this point I knew that they should be very close to accomplishing their goal, but also very close to failure. Whatever happened next would be the fulcrum that everything tilted upon. Because I was using the skill challenge scoring system, I knew that I should have the pieces in place for either total success or failure.

The thievery check gave the party three viable prospects for a boat to steal, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. In other words, it would require at least overcoming at least one more obstacle in order to take them. The PCs inside, meanwhile, had secured the assistance of the old drifter but had also aroused suspicion as to their true nature.

Bare in mind that at this point the party has not been told they are "in a skill challenge bubble" or any nonsense like that. They have chosen their actions and I have adjudicated them accordingly. Each one seemed like a viable attempt to resolve the problem so each one progressed them forward slightly. The only way that they know that they might be on the cusp of something is because of the mounting tension of the narrative. They know that they are very close because their next step is to board a stolen boat or to escape the pub without being detected, and they know that failure at either would be disastrous because, obviously, being caught stealing a boat or being recognized as the instigator of a riot would be pretty bad.

The players decided out-of-character that taking the drifter and his boat was probably the best prospect. PCs 1 & 2 exited the pub and began making their way to his vessel. As the party reconvened, the two human-looking characters were joined by the pixie and the dragonborn who had been skulking about unnoticed. I requested a perception check to determine if they were being watched.

Had they succeeded at this check, I would have told them that they are being watched and they'd better hurry. The would have boarded the drifter's boat and escaped while the prostitute shouted for the guards.

However, they failed the check, so as they made their way towards the boat they were attacked by the prostitutes, who turned out to be vampires in the service of the local vampire baron whom they were attempting to evade, and the zombie thralls that the prostitutes had created from decades of patrons who failed to pay their tabs.

I am having a really hard time understanding your various claims. This wasn't some magic bubble where special rules apply, it was just that the PCs had  a set task (one they had chosen themselves, I would add), and I wanted to develop that task into a fully-fledged scene with actual tension. The players decided that they wanted to split up, that two of them would look for boats to steal and two of them would chat up locals, that they would eavesdrop, sneak, and cajole. I only set the DCs based on the difficulty of their various actions and set the number of required successes vs. failures for my own purposes to help me gauge how far along each task should move the storyline and how much tension they should feel at the end.

Your various claims seem to be obstacles that you have invented for yourself and now refuse to abandon, despite the fact that you have been clearly told that they are not applicable. Making checks interchangeable, asking for checks for the sake of asking for checks, and creating the impression that each challenge the PCs face is completely adrift and unrelated to every other challenge are all symptoms of bad DMing, not facets of skill challenges.

don't understand the "philosophical" difference you describe for two reasons: I am not sure what you are contrasting the skill challenge with, and I'm not sure what the difference is.



I'm contrasting it with skill checks that arise organically, outside of a skill challenge. As for the difference; I'm not sure I can find yet another way to describe it. Think of it as the rolling of the dice (not the result, the actual rolling) as being predestined, vs not being predestined. It's a subtle difference perhaps, but one I think is important.





This is typical pablum offered by those who dislike skill challenges for no decent reason, so they invent explanations. At this point I start to doubt whether you want to have an honest conversation or whether you just want to bash skill challenges without bothering to understand them. Every single argument in this paragraph has been specifically refuted by myself and by other posters in this thread. You're either not reading or not trying to understand.




ad hominem, blah blah. For the record I was very excited about skill challenges when 4E first came out, but that has steadily waned over time.


It's a fairly minor, but fairly risky, skill challenge so I thought they should make 5 successes before 3 failures.



That sounds like a fun time and a good session, but this sentence it where is starts to clash with me personally. Before they even told you what actions they are taking, you have decided how many successes they need and how many failures they must avoid. No matter what approach they take, it will still be the same difficulty and take around the same amount of time.

If they had not split up and had all gone to steal the boats, the eavesdropping would have proved unnecessary (fair enough) but the actual theivery around the boats would have magically become harder (requiring more checks). The various strands were unconnected - they could all have been seperate skill challenges that all had the same result on success.

I only set the DCs based on the difficulty of their various actions and set the number of required successes vs. failures for my own purposes to help me gauge how far along each task should move the storyline and how much tension they should feel at the end.



So it seems like a form of railroading, but instead of controlling what happens you are controlling how fast or how many tasks.

That's a bit harsh, I admit; all good DMs can play with tension and pacing. I just prefer other methods. I can see that skill challenges can be a useful tool to structure out-of-combat encounters and plan ahead. I might even find a good place to use them in specific situations, but for experienced DMs I think they are likely to be unneccessary 90% of the time. When I realised I was OK with that I decided to stop using them "just because I ought to" and now replace them with more organic play.


Your various claims seem to be obstacles that you have invented for yourself and now refuse to abandon, despite the fact that you have been clearly told that they are not applicable. Making checks interchangeable, asking for checks for the sake of asking for checks, and creating the impression that each challenge the PCs face is completely adrift and unrelated to every other challenge are all symptoms of bad DMing, not facets of skill challenges.



I said in my first post that I don't like Skill Challenges and I am trying to work out exactly why. I am exploring these particular reasons. My motivations are not hostile towards you, or even towards skill challenges; I am just trying to understand my own reactions, which I presume must be based on something because they were not my intial ones (perhaps it was a bad sandwich I ate?). But here we arrive at another ad hominem implication at the end of your post  - a shame since I enjoyed the actual play you described. Thanks for your help, but goodbye for this thread.


I'm contrasting it with skill checks that arise organically, outside of a skill challenge. As for the difference; I'm not sure I can find yet another way to describe it. Think of it as the rolling of the dice (not the result, the actual rolling) as being predestined, vs not being predestined. It's a subtle difference perhaps, but one I think is important.



The distinction you are making is nonsensical. Skill checks do not arise "organically," they arise because somebody rolls the dice. It's utter nonsense to claim anything else. There is absolutely nothing natural or compulsory about skill checks in any way, they are the result of our choices as storytellers.


ad hominem, blah blah. For the record I was very excited about skill challenges when 4E first came out, but that has steadily waned over time.



You don't know what an ad hominem is.


It's a fairly minor, but fairly risky, skill challenge so I thought they should make 5 successes before 3 failures.



That sounds like a fun time and a good session, but this sentence it where is starts to clash with me personally. Before they even told you what actions they are taking, you have decided how many successes they need and how many failures they must avoid. No matter what approach they take, it will still be the same difficulty and take around the same amount of time.



Well I was pretty confident that they were going to make some kind of check somewhere along the way. I mean, it would have been pretty damn shocking if they didn't.

This is just a way of ensuring that a given task requires the proper amount of effort, and that we spend a fair amount of time on it. It's no different from giving a monster a certain amount of HP.


If they had not split up and had all gone to steal the boats, the eavesdropping would have proved unnecessary (fair enough) but the actual theivery around the boats would have magically become harder (requiring more checks).



This is nonsense. Stealing a boat would not "magically" have become "harder," I would have told the story differently. That's my job, I'm a storyteller.

Do you watch any cop shows? There is a show called "Flashpoint" that somewhat resembles a DnD team. The show is about cops who respond to unusual situations such as bombs, hostage situations, and spree killers.

Sometimes when the cops find a bomb, there are 45 minutes left in the show and takes the entire rest of the episode to defuse it. Sometimes they find a bomb and there are three minutes left in the episode, and all it takes to defuse it is clipping a single wire. Sometimes they need to bring in a specialist to defuse the bomb, and sometimes it's simple enough for anybody to do.

The difference isn't "magic." There is no supernatural force compelling a bomb found at 3:02 to be way harder to defuse than a bomb found at 40:23. That decision is all about story pacing. Similarly, if a player attempts to steal a boat at 7pm when we have been trying to acquire a boat for less than five minutes, of course there are going to be more complications that arise than if he tries to steal the boat at 8pm after completing a whole series of precursor tasks while we have been trying to acquire the boat for an hour and five minutes. In one situation, stealing the boat is just the beginning. In the other, it is the tension-fueled climax. In one situation, the player has spent over an hour preparing for this one crucial moment. In the other, he is instigating a new adventure with an all-too-easy act of casual criminality.

The various strands were unconnected



I'm not sure what this means.

- they could all have been seperate skill challenges that all had the same result on success.



They could have, yes. I'm not sure what you were expecting. Did you think that the skill challenge mechanic would lead to wildly different results? How would it manage that exactly? As I have said three times now, the scoring system is nothing more than a pacing mechanism. Some DMs are going to have an exceptional sense of story pacing and find no value in the scoring system. Bully for them. For most people, having a means of measuring  and scaling the players' progress and is immensely valuable. Some DMs have no need for monster mechanics whatsoever. They don't track hit points, they don't write down abilities, they don't keep track of defenses. The monster gets hit when they feel it should get hit and dies when they feel it should die. Most DMs do not have this level of comfort and control within the system.

I typically use the scoring system when I get blindsided by the players attempting something that I had not planned for, because I have enough going on without having to worry about pacing as I'm trying to come up with interesting story elements on the fly. I typically don't it when I have a good handle on what the players are doing because I've had the time to give it some thought beforehand and I am more comfortable with my gut reactions, and able to refer to my notes for story complications. I also use it for very long challenges that span a great deal of real-world time, so that I can keep track of how far along I expect the players to be, and how close they are to failing, using a few hash marks in my notebook.


I only set the DCs based on the difficulty of their various actions and set the number of required successes vs. failures for my own purposes to help me gauge how far along each task should move the storyline and how much tension they should feel at the end.



So it seems like a form of railroading, but instead of controlling what happens you are controlling how fast or how many tasks.



This use of the word "railroading" is nonsensical. Words have meanings. You can't just toss out "ad hominem" and "railroad" and expect that they will metamorphize into something that makes sense when you haven't bothered to apply them in a manner consistent with their actual use and definition.


That's a bit harsh, I admit; all good DMs can play with tension and pacing.



It might be if it made a lick of sense. As is you might as well have said it's a form of banana because it cheeseburgers but not leotard. I can't really be too insulted.


I just prefer other methods. I can see that skill challenges can be a useful tool to structure out-of-combat encounters and plan ahead. I might even find a good place to use them in specific situations, but for experienced DMs I think they are likely to be unneccessary 90% of the time. When I realised I was OK with that I decided to stop using them "just because I ought to" and now replace them with more organic play.



I still object to your use of the word "organic." Organic, as used by storytellers, describes a feeling that they are trying to evoke, a desire for the reader to avoid looking at the puppet strings. But the strings are always there. You are still making decisions and choices about how the players' actions impact the world and the twists and turns that story takes as a result.

This use of "organic" is exceedingly common amongst DMs, and it's unfortunate. Often it is used interchangeable with "logical." It's a way of abdicating responsibility for the narrative. "I can't help that blah, blah, blah, that's just logical." It's just logical that a player should be able to poof a rope and pulley system into existence and thus resolve an obstacle without making a single check. Of course! No. You chose to have the story take that turn because it was your gut reaction, but there is nothing logical or organic about it.

The structure of skill challenges is a tool, as I said before. Use them when a little structure will help you. Don't use them when they don't. But don't make up nonsense justifications about how your approach is logical and organic because you are an experienced DM who doesn't railroad and skill challenges are a magical bubble that require rolls for the sake of rolls and all rolls are interchangeable. That's all just BS.

I said in my first post that I don't like Skill Challenges and I am trying to work out exactly why. I am exploring these particular reasons. My motivations are not hostile towards you, or even towards skill challenges; I am just trying to understand my own reactions, which I presume must be based on something because they were not my intial ones (perhaps it was a bad sandwich I ate?). But here we arrive at another ad hominem implication at the end of your post  - a shame since I enjoyed the actual play you described. Thanks for your help, but goodbye for this thread.




And here you prove that you really have no idea what ad hominem means.

Show
An ad hominem is a fallacy that attempts to dismiss an argument based on some external or irrelevant qualities of the arguer. For example, if I said "You're ugly, therefore you're wrong," that would be an ad hominem. In this case, I am accusing you of stubbornly clinging to objections to skill challenges that are unrelated to their actual use. This is not an ad hominem. You have made a criticism of skill challenges that shows either ignorance or misunderstanding of almost every post in this thread that spoke positively about them. You have misrepresented yourself and (edit: sorry confused you with the OP. You haven't bothered to hide your distaste for skill challenges, although you also haven't bothered to read the other posts in this thread.) you have invented situations – situations that you admitted were poorly applicable – in which you contrast skill challenges with a solution that you yourself would not accept in order to argue that skill challenges are bad. When it was pointed out that your complaints about skill challenges were the result of poorly implemented challenges rather than inherent features, and are problems that are by no means unique to skill challenges, you retreated to an abstract "philosophical" distaste and used loaded words like inorganic and railroading to contrast skill challenges with this poorly articulated philosophical alternative. This is not the way that a person who is open to learning new approaches behaves.


Show
Railroading is an approach to DMing the negates or ignores player choices. If a player chooses to steal a boat, and I ask him to make a stealth check to avoid a guard, that's not railroading. Railroading is if a player chooses to steal a boat, and I say, "You fail. Maybe you would like to try the mountain path like I planned for you to instead?" Asking the player to make checks in order to accomplish goals is as much railroading as requiring the player to actually fight a dragon in order to defeat it, rather than just declaring it defeated and moving on. Of course I control how long it takes and how much effort is required to accomplish something. That's practically the DM's job description. It's an utterly nonsensical application of the word.

Not sure how everyone else runs their tables but I figure since I find Skill Challenges, especially in an RP Style Campaign, to be interesting then I would contribute my thoughts on the matter as well.


When do I use a Skill Challenge? When a task proves to be a little more complicated than the mundane information shakedown or exploration


Maybe they are entering a tavern a Crime Lord uses as a front for his business. That would require them to either bribe the bouncer to let them in or prove that they are not there to cause trouble. In that case I would consider a Streetwise (Easy DC), Bluff (Medium DC), Stealth (Hard DC), Diplomacy (Medium DC), or just a straight bribe. Depending on how well the player rolls any one of these challenges I might trigger an event inside the tavern as a reward or punishment.


I then take into consideration the background of the characters. If one is a Rogue or generally thuggy type person I might make it easier on them, but harder on someone who looks out of place. From there I go based on their actions. If their approach isn't stirring up trouble then the amount of times they need to succeed goes down. If they are causing trouble with their actions (not failure, but perhaps a stronghanded approach) then it goes up.


Given that I also use the alternative reward of Reputation with certain Factions in game they also might call in favor to get what they want. In the end I just go with what feels logical based on their actions and the general feel the table has going on. Maybe that means I have an innate understanding of pacing or I am just House Rule happy, but whatever the reason my players tell me pretty regularly they are glad I am the one DMing and that my campaigns make them love playing.


In the end I think the way people run Skill Challenges should be determined is by the group of players as a whole. If they are combat optimized then cutting back on the skill challenges to when they are needed only and making harder combat sessions would be better than making them do something they find boring. However if players aren't so much into the combat and prefer using their brains I see no reason that players shouldn't be allowed to roleplay their way through the game (when fighting isn't called for) and have the skill challenges adjust to them.


What do I think this does? It encourages them to approach skill challenges using their roleplay as its basis. My players get a better sense of when aggression will work as opposed to being gentle. It also gives them a sense of teamwork since everyone is able to contribute to the situation in their own way. Suddenly the Cleric of the party is trying to talk information and a key out of someone and the Fighter is following backing them up with keeping a lackey out of the way with a dirty look and a hand near their sword.


Or maybe the Fighter comes in and starts making noise while the Sticky Fingers member of the party pickpockets the key out of the distracted mark's pocket. Sure it isn't finesse, but those are the stories the players are going to remember when the campaign is said and done. More importantly though it makes the challenges not be a completely dry affair.

I would like to commend 5shilling for PMing me to get his final word in, and then promptly blocking me so I couldn't respond. Stay classy dude!

Apparently the "ad hominem" he thought I was making was that I was saying he was a bad DM and therefore his arguments that skill challenges are inorganic railroading that require skill rolls for the sake of skill rolls and make all rolls interchangeable could be dismissed on that basis.

So let me clarify:

Firstly, I did not call 5shilling a bad DM. To my knowledge, I have not ever called an individual on these boards a bad DM. What I said was that each of these things – railroading, inorganic feel, interchangeable rolls, and rolls for the sake of rolls – are symptoms of bad DMing. While there are handful of flawless DMs and a handful of truly awful DMs out there, most DMs are good at some things and bad at others. All DMs require a constant expense of effort or else they fall prone to certain common habits. DMs may temporarily exhibit these bad habits, including those mentioned above, for a wide variety of reasons, but mostly those reasons fall into a category of being distracted by something besides the game. Exhaustion, boredom, hunger, a fit of the giggles can all cause DMs to lose their focus and fall prey to bad DMing. One distraction that is very, very likely to cause a DM to exhibit the symptoms above is when they are struggling with new mechanics. This also affects players, and it's one of the reasons it can take many sessions for a new game system to feel comfortable. None of these issues are unique to skill challenges, nor to DnD. When 4e first came out, there were very loud and persistent complaints that the system as a whole caused or even required these problems. The same is true of the 3e. Every game system with an active forum will see this complaint from new players. In this case, 5shilling insisted that these were required elements of a skill challenge despite the fact that those speaking positively about them had specifically warned against each of them. I myself warned against three of the four in my first two posts.

Secondly, even if I had called 5shilling a bad DM, that still would not be an ad hominem. The problems that 5shilling described, being symptoms of bad DMing, necessarily had to be teased out from the inherent nature of skill challenges in order to determine if they were worth addressing. If I were to post on a car forum that my car is totaled and would never run again because it has a flat tire, then the fact that I am obviously a shoddy mechanic is not an ad hominem but rather by far the most daunting problem that I am having with my car. If you complain about skill challenges, and then list a bunch of problems that are not endemic to skill challenges but rather to a particularly poor implementation of them, then the fact that you are implementing them poorly is very much on-topic and relevant.

So while I did not, and would not, call 5shilling a bad DM, it's definitely safe to say at this point that he really, really doesn't know what ad hominem means.
Excellent posts Iofgren, and I think you handle skill challenges very well.    I fully agree with your methodology, and would love to pick your brain sometime about tweaking a few skill challenges in my own campaign.
Thank you SwampDog. All I can offer is that I will try to help.
 Does anyone know of an example (audio would be awesome!) of a skill challenge (for a party, not just one character) being run in an actual game? Do you tell the players all of the possible skills and then let them decide how to use them? Or do you let them try things whether or not those skills are on your list? What if they just stare at you blankly? Do you say "now we're having a skill challenge!" or do you just ask them what they do now? Do you let one player take multiple actions in a row, or do you make them take turns?



An example from my recent game...

A teleportation circle flares to life during the King's birthday celebrations and a slightly singed apprentice Mage topples through. In my notes I have that the apprentice Mage was sent thru by his master when the master's tower came under attack by a red dragon: the tower is some 20 miles from the King's castle (I.e. a dragon with overland flight speed 15 could cover it in 2+ hours). In the back of my mind I am thinking about a skill challenge divided into roughly three 45 minute time segments, but I have no notes about what skills the PCs might use (IMO that's up to the players to imagine, not me).

After questioning the apprentice for several minutes, the PCs realize that the red dragon is indeed coming to the King's castle and calculate how much time they have to prepare.

FIRST SEGMENT

The Mage chimes in first, and decides to cast a divination to receive Bahamut's counsel (so he's busy for 30 minutes). Unfortunately he rolls a '1' on his check. Bahamut is strangely silent on the matter. In this case, i am not tracking # of failures cause it's mostly irrelevant. The main price the PCs pay is unproductive time.

The barbarian is unsure what to do, so she waits for the Mage to complete his ritual.

The paladin wants to help with troop and ballistae placements, and as its entirely in character, I see no need for a check. He just does it. I give him tokens to place that represents soldiers, archers, and ballista.

The fighter looks for explosives to create a smokescreen. Again no check is needed, he comes up with some Greek Fire which will serve his purpose. Likewise the bard advises the knight commander to set up firebreaks and create smoldering fires to create a smokescreen, and succeeds on his Diplomacy check. This will have the effect of blanketing the town in smoke so the dragon will have a hard time targeting specific areas.

SECOND SEGMENT

I ask the Mage what he is up to and he wants to question an emissary of a foreign nation who gifted the king with the Orb of Green Dragonkind. A successful Insight check reveals the emissary has been subjected to supernatural terror and never fully recovered. The Mage muses on what this means.

The barbarian questions the apprentice more thoroughly, no check just roleplaying, and learns that his master Fastilbras is the wizard she was looking for (character quest). No effect on the overall preparations, but important to the character.

The paladin gives a motivational speech to the troops, making a great Diplomacy check which ensures the soldiers won't panic and flee their posts at sight of the dragon.

The fighter and bard, working together thru roleplaying and a Bluff check, convince the local priest to let them use the chapel's bell tower chain to fend off the "dragon, who serve evil and injustice." This unlocks what 4e D&D coins a "terrain power."

THIRD SEGMENT

There are hippogriffs in the King's stables, but since none of the PCs have ridden a flying mount before, I ruled they'll need to spend one time segment training with a hippogriff if they want to fly safely. The warlord, paladin, barbarian, and Mage all decide to get aerial mounts.

The fighter did something else (cannot remember).

INTERPRETING THE RESULT
The PCs got 4 hippogriffs. They got a "massive chain" terrain power. They got control of 3 ballistae, 10 archers, and 20 men-at-arms (who wersufficiently inspired not to break ranks at sight of the dragon). They created a blanket of total concealment above the city. And they ensured that no fire would spread out of control.