Skill Check vs. Skill Challenge

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So, I can't seem to do skill challenges right. At least I don't feel like I'm doing them right. They always seem to just feel like an extended series of skill checks, rather than a different kind of encounter.

I really like the idea of skill challenges, but running them eludes me. Does the differance come mostly from how its presented?

Heres an example. I wanted to have a skill challenge revolving around tracking downa unicorn in the woods, but it feels more like a dull series of nature checks to track it.

What am I doing wrong? How can I make this work.

Oh, I don't know if it matters but I'm running a solo game right now, so I only have one PC. Does that make skill challenges impossible?
What happens if they fail the skill challenge to track the unicorn? As long as it's interesting and moves the game forward, you really can't go very wrong. The number of successes you choose for the skill challenge is just a pacing mechanism.

Check out how I do skill challenges and see if that sounds better than what's presented in the official materials. They key here is that I go "on the offensive" by presenting situations to the PCs that demand attention and response, but are related to the overall goal. Complications in tracking the unicorn might include Whispers in the Wood, Will o' Wisp Lure, Goblin Hunting Party, Torrential Downpour, Lost the Trail, Naked Nymph, etc.

Let me know if that's something you could see yourself running that way and we can workshop all sorts of fun complications. 

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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I looked at the link but I'm not sure I really understood it all.

I also have no real plan for what happens if the challenge fails.
Okay. Where are you struggling with either skill challenges in general or with my guide? Is it the structure? The presentation? What made you think of using a skill challenge in the first place? You must have seen some use for it.

Regarding failing, start thinking about that. If the overall goal of the challenge is to track down a unicorn in a forest, what happens if the PC fails to do that? Does the unicorn's horn get taken by goblins and brought to the Lord of Darkness? That's an interesting failure because now the PC might want to journey to that dark place to get it back and restore the unicorn to health. (Yay! More adventure!)

What you don't want is a situation in which you say, "Well, you didn't find the unicorn, so that's that." That's boring. It doesn't suggest future adventure. It just suggests continued searching. What you're seeking in both success and failure here is a way for the adventure to take a sudden and interesting turn either to the benefit of the PC or to his detriment, where "detriment" is interesting and leads to more adventure.

Throw some ideas out there. We can figure it out.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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Alright, I reread the link and it made a bit more sense to me this time around.

The idea behind the challenge was to make the hunt for the unicorn more than just a quick check and move on. I want it to be a major scene in the overall story.

The story behind it is that the unicorn was a 'friend' to the PCs mother but went missing. The PCs doesn't know that the unicorn was captured by goblins who want to enslave it for its healing powers to make their clan stronger. I suppose if the PC fails the goblins will get away with the unicorn, but I'm not sure how to then make the PC aware of it.

I like one of the complications you suggested, the downpour. Since this is very early in the PC's adventuring carrier I'd like to keep the challenges they will face somewhat mundane for the time being, more natural than magical.
I'll write up a skill challenge tonight and walk you through it.

I don't think 4e's the best game for dealing with mundane stuff (better for editions that let you train Profession: Cook, I think), but I think I understand what you mean. To me, tracking a unicorn in a forest would suggest cool magical/fey influences on par with the movie I linked above.

Anyway, more later. 

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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How about if the players fail the skill challenge, they wander around and eventually find the goblin camp, but they have already moved on. The fire is cold, everything has been packed up and taken away, and the only the sign the unicorn was there is the cage they kept it in. So now the PC knows the goblins have his friend, but he isn't exactly sure where they took him. Now that, as Iserith said, suggests a whole adventure to find him and get him back, now that the PC knows the stakes.

EDIT: Er, obviously just a cage wouldn't be much of a clue. The cage should probably have some clues inside of it that hint at the idea that the goblins were holding a unicorn. 
I'm not sure how you're running skill challenges but let me explain what works for me.

-I never announce skill challenges. Generally the players don't even know that one is occurring.

-Always describe the scenes and outcomes of the checks and allow opportunities for roleplay. In fact, I basically treat it like a RP scene while just throwing in a couple checks here and there.

-Allow for creativity. Some ideas the players have might grant a bonus to a check, give them an automatic success, or an automatic failure.

-You can allow for some meaningful options. Maybe the party can stick together, in which case the DCs are easier but each failed check is a failure for the challenge, or they can split up which increases the DCs of all checks, but so long as one character succeeds, other failures for that "round" don't accrue a failure for the challenge.

-Throw in a short combat encounter. The encounter isn't meant to kill or seriously challenge the party, instead it runs the risk of slowing them down. They must beat their opponents within X rounds or suffer a failure towards the skill challenge as they fall behind. Maybe they can skip taking a short rest in order to negate that failure. Maybe they can bribe the enemies to avoid the encounter altogether (possibly requiring a Bluff check with the bribe offer) and keep moving.

-Make sure you plan for the possibility of failure. Obviously if the unicorn is essential to the story, you don't want failure to bring the quest to a crashing halt. So maybe a failure means that a group of hunters caught the unicorn first and the PCs must now fight them to seize the unicorn.

-Sometimes I have consequences for partial successes (over half the required successes were achieved before failure) or partial failures (they succeeded but also accrued 2 out of 3 possible failures). In this case, the consequences for partial failure might be that they caught the unicorn but over-exerted themselves, causing each of them to lose 1 healing surge.
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How about if the players fail the skill challenge, they wander around and eventually find the goblin camp, but they have already moved on. The fire is cold, everything has been packed up and taken away, and the only the sign the unicorn was there is the cage they kept it in. So now the PC knows the goblins have his friend, but he isn't exactly sure where they took him. Now that, as Iserith said, suggests a whole adventure to find him and get him back, now that the PC knows the stakes.

EDIT: Er, obviously just a cage wouldn't be much of a clue. The cage should probably have some clues inside of it that hint at the idea that the goblins were holding a unicorn. 



Not just holding, but torturing. Some specks of blook and some hair tangled with the bars should do the trick.
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You have to narrate and describe extensively. Skill checks by themselves are dry.

These kinds of scenes didn't arise from the existence of skills, skills arose from these kinds of scenes, and a desire to have things determined by the character, rather than the player, which I highly agree with. But now, instead of someone explaining how they track, being told if that was successful and then explaining further how they tracked, we have dice rolls, which are easier and don't seem to require that we know anything about the skill in question, but which are dry by themselves.

So, narrate and describe. This still doesn't actually require you to know anything about the skill being used, but it does require you to couch the results in some kind of detail. It helps if the players can also provide some kind of detail. When they "roll nature" what are they actually doing. If they say "Tracking," work with them a little more. Give them some choices. "Ok, there are two possible avenues, one leading toward the mountains, one leading toward the valley. Which do you take? Or do you go another way." What they choose doesn't matter to their check, it just matters to the description, because the next time you ask for a roll, you can then put it in terms of the hilly approach to the mountain, or the steep, winding trails into the valley.

Narrate and describe. It's still just rolls, but there will be action involved.

I recommend the following, as well:

Don't run a single skill challenge by itself. Always have more going on. This is more important when you have more players.

As others have said, know what failure looks like and how it moves things forward. If I'm not feeling creative, failure is just the same as succes, but with a twist. If success means you find the unicorn but hear goblins crashing through the bush, the failure could mean that you still find the unicorn, but it's wounded, or you find it just as the goblins arrive.

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

How about if the players fail the skill challenge, they wander around and eventually find the goblin camp, but they have already moved on. The fire is cold, everything has been packed up and taken away, and the only the sign the unicorn was there is the cage they kept it in. So now the PC knows the goblins have his friend, but he isn't exactly sure where they took him. Now that, as Iserith said, suggests a whole adventure to find him and get him back, now that the PC knows the stakes.

EDIT: Er, obviously just a cage wouldn't be much of a clue. The cage should probably have some clues inside of it that hint at the idea that the goblins were holding a unicorn. 



Not just holding, but torturing. Some specks of blook and some hair tangled with the bars should do the trick.



Freely loot Harry Potter and other movies here, too. Unicorn blood glows in the dark, and is unmistakable. The bars of the cage recently had an injured Unicorn rub against them, and it wasn't long ago!

"Legend" is EXACTLY this skill challenge, too. Goblins hunting unicorn... maybe the player runs across a small goblin hunting party (Successful Nature/Stealth check allows them a surprise round, or perhaps as the result of a failed roll they are ambushed by the hunting party). Assuming the player wins, there could be Ye Olde Note (written in Goblin) from The Boss to find the Unicorn and bring it to Goblin Home Base (The plot thickens!). If the player loses the combat, the Goblins would probably be interested in taking them back to The Boss, resulting in a capture and transport to the next stage of the story anyway.
So many PCs, so little time...
FIND THE UNICORN
6 successes before 3 failures

The Sitch: The unicorn Iriandel was a great friend to your mother but has gone missing. It is said to have mystical healing powers. Such a creature is greatly desired by the forces of darkness.

The Stakes: Will you find Iriandel before it is captured by agents of evil in the Magical Forest?

The DC: Level-appropriate. High DC+, unfettered success. Medium DC range, success with a cost. Medium DC-, failure with a cost.

Complication: Torrential Downpour, Distracting Feysong, Goblin Snares, Lost the Trail, Dense Forest, Hunting Wolves, Naked Nymph, Will o' Wisps.

So talk about the situation. Tell the player that any reasonable person in this situation would know certain things and that among those things are: (1) Unicorns are highly sought after by evil creatures and (2) On nights with no moon, the forest is rumored to be occasionally populated by goblins from the Shadowfell.

Set the scene by describing briefly but vividly what the forest is like. Avoid the mundane - focus on the impossibly tall trees, the twinkling of feywild fireflies, odd otherworldly sounds, unintelligible whispers just at the edge of the character's hearing. Then describe the trail - easy enough to follow, being a big creature and all, but there are telltale signs it is stressed and something is followed it other than the character. Make sure the player understands the scene, the goal, and the stakes. 

When he does, throw a complication at him, say, Distracting Feysong: "Following the trail has been easy thus far despite the lack of light from any moon and the untamed nature of these woods. You heard whispers at the edge of your hearing earlier that are becoming clearer. It's a song, it seems, and quite beautiful. It's quiet difficult to keep your mind on your task for as the song repeats in your mind, it's like you desire unwittingly to find its source and engage in dance. This may cause you to lose the trail. What do you do?"

Ask the player to tell you what he does about this. Ask question to make sure his goal and intent are clear. Ask if there is anything in the scene that could help him with this and if he says something, he gets a +2 bonus to the roll. Boil it down to a skill check and ask him to roll. Determine the results as above and describe it.

Now, move on to the next complication ("It starts to rain... hard.") and do the same process until he's either succeeded or failed at the skill challenge.

That's basically it. Let me know if you have any questions.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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Oh wow, thats great! Thank you!

So it really is mostly in how the skill checks are presented to the player, and then counting how many successes and failures they get trying accomplish a complex task?

This has been so helpful, I really can't thank you enough. I feel like I have a better grasp of how to run skill chanllenges now.
So it really is mostly in how the skill checks are presented to the player, and then counting how many successes and failures they get trying accomplish a complex task?

Yes, presentation is almost all of it. The number of successes is purely a pacing mechanism, exactly like hit points. There's no real reason why a single attack shouldn't take out an enemy (and it does, with minions), but the assumption is that the game and the narrative benefits if there's more of a "scene" sometimes, some back and forth. The complications iserith mentions, and which are sometimes talked about as the skill challenge "going on the offensive," do wonders to make the players feel like they're not just rolling dice.

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

Oh wow, thats great! Thank you!



You're welcome! Let us know how it goes.

So it really is mostly in how the skill checks are presented to the player, and then counting how many successes and failures they get trying accomplish a complex task?



It's less about presenting skill checks and more about presenting interesting situations that might arise while pursuing an overall goal. To be fair, I often use the skill list as a guide when coming up with a list of complications e.g. "What kind of problem might arise in this skill challenge where Athletics is the 'obvious' choice?" (I often create 17 Complications per skill challenge, one for each skill.) The key is that this isn't the only answer to the problem nor the only applicable skill. I may have imagined Athletics as being the skill of choice for a given sitch, but it can be solved any number of ways and with any number of skills. To this end, the DM is simply presenting a problem that is interfering with with the PCs' ability to do what they set out to do (be sure to frame it clearly as such). How they solve that is up to their imagination and the use of their skills. There is never One True Solution.

By design, the more successes required, the greater the chance the PC will fail the skill challenge. For my part, I generally decide how many successes something requires based upon real time, figuring 3 minutes per complication. So if I have 4 players at the table and I'd like for each to get two complications thrown at them, that's about 30 minutes or so for the skill challenge, rounded up. You can build a very rich story in that kind of time.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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Looking at the complications Iserith uses, I would point out most of those are explorational in nature. They can be cool in setting the mood and adding description to the setting, but they are often resolved by a simple skill check or by ignoring it. Assuming typical players, I would also add a complication or two that require a bit more social interaction. For example, you could add a scene of playful fairies that want something from the PCs and in return can offer to be their guides. If the check fails, the fairies take them into a particular dangerous area because they think it is fun to see the PCs squirm.

Note that if the unicorn is already captured by the goblins, a price of failure could be that a stronger more evil force just massacred the goblins and toke the unicorn with them (potentially leaving a goblin or two alive accidently to be questioned by the PCs). I would add some complications that forshadow that the PCs have competition so that the players know what is at stake. For example, they might come across a seriously wounded dryad, her tree partially cut down, who the PCs can cure. She has been wounded by those same forces competing with the PCs, and if revived she tells what happened and if not the tracks give the PCs some clues on what is going on.

Of course, this also means that if the PCs succeed, they now have a second skill challenge: get out of the forest with their friend before that other force catches up ;)

I like Iserith's suggestion on describing the environment.  I would just chime in and recommend reading some of the DnD books, they're great for getting a little bit of cultural education on the world, and there's nothing wrong with lifting a few apt descriptions to be used in your own campaign as well.

But like Madfox11 says, it's kinda dependent on the players you have.  One group I run, would pretty much just barrel towards their objective, distractions be damned, while the other one has been lured off the beaten trail by damsels in distress, that tried to eat their faces.
Looking at the complications Iserith uses, I would point out most of those are explorational in nature. They can be cool in setting the mood and adding description to the setting, but they are often resolved by a simple skill check or by ignoring it. Assuming typical players, I would also add a complication or two that require a bit more social interaction. 



Yes, create whatever complications you want. You know what your player likes better than me. Don't be afraid to collaborate on complications either. I'm sure the player might have some good ideas of his own about what might be problematic in this situation.

As for "ignoring," this is not a way of overcoming a complication. Always be sure to frame the complication in a way that makes clear why the complication matters or interferes with the overall goal. Distracting Feysong is a complication because it's a mental compulsion that keeps you from paying attention to the trail you're following. A Torrential Downpour is both cold and perilous but also quickly erases the trail before the character's eyes. Goblin Snares are evident all over the glade in front of the character but going around them means losing time and possibly the trail. "So what do you do?"

If you can just bypass something or avoid it without a check, then we're not talking about much of a challenge, are we?

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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Ignoring might not have been the word I was looking for. Obviously, the PCs cannot ignore a downpour. The players though might very well resolve it with a single Endurance check, which takes hardly any time. With luck they might shiver a bit IC, and then up to the next scene. You just resolved the complication in a few seconds, especially since there is little a character can actually do against the weather or the fact that it erases the tracks ;) It will mean that in practice the complication has little impact on the players' perception of the adventure, espcially in their memory. Not bad by definition, but if you only use such complication you end up again with just rolling a string of dice rolls which is what you tried to avoid.
I think you're assuming a distinct lack of collaboration on the part of the players and DM to create the scene and explore elements of it independent of the skill check. That would entirely miss the point of a skill challenge.

You also appear to assume the PC doesn't take Aid Another or establish an asset, all of which are character development and scene-building interactions. That alone is generally enough to build a compelling enough scene to be interesting, but that doesn't drag on forever. I'd add that, at least in my approach, I'm asking questions of the players to flesh things out e.g. "When's the last time Ragnar has been in a storm like this? What did it cost him then?." It's never: "It's raining." "I make an Endurance check." "You succeed, carry on."

I figure 2 to 3 minutes per complication in a skill challenge. That's plenty of time to spend on this sort of thing.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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If your players react that way, more power to the skill challenge ;) In my experience you cannot rely on it happening though. On one table dealing with a storm on board of a ship lead to some great RPing about a ritual to appease Umberlee (godess of the sea in the FR) performed in the middle of a hurricane and on the other people simly rolled the acrobatics/athletics/nature checks and went on to the next scene. I simply have better experiences with more complicated complications and ones that are more interactive by definition such as NPCs wanting something from the PCs.