Skill Challenges, How have you handled them?

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I'm looking for some feedback from DMs who have run the various LFR modules on how they handle skill challenges. I.E what do you tell the players, what don't you tell the players, how do you usually give hints, etc.
Christopher Green RPGA# 5209379759 Aelar Tel'ess'san - Elven Cleric Lvl 4 Veloch Shade - Tiefling Rogue Lvl 4 Adaeth the Mindwalker - Deva Psion Lvl 2 The Story Tellers' Guild The Roleplaying Association of SUNY Oswego http://www.oswego.edu/stg
I have stopped running skill challenges. I will describe the situation, let the party come up with a solution and assign success when they have done what is necessary to overcome the situation. Or, I will ask for skill checks from all of the players in order to deal with the situation.

For example
Drag 1-3
In Dragon Coast 1-3, there are two significant skill challenges and neither of them are any good.

The first skill challenge calls for the party to go to a masquerade ball and then spend four or five hours of in-game time making diplomacy or bluff checks and gives a long list of NPCs what skills other than diplomacy and bluff can be used on each NPC and a long list of random rumors that have nothing to do with the plot of the module to fill out conversation with. And the best part about this is that the whole purpose of the PCs infiltrating the masquerade ball is to: A. find their contact and obtain the information and B. avoid committing any faux paus or otherwise blowing their cover. So the logical thing for the PCs to do would be to deliberately avoid talking to any of the named PCs if there were any possible way to do so and they would certainly not be trying to work the crowd.

What I did was ask the players what their cover was going to be and what they were going to dress as. Most of the players decided to go to the ball but the dwarf fighter decided to go to the ball as the carraige driver where he would have the party's weapons and armor that were not incorporated into their costumes hidden in their rented carraige. In the ball, I had everyone explain how they were going to avoid blowing their cover for the first hour. The warlord made polite small talk and then quickly got rid of people. (Diplomacy). The drow fighter did the same. The rogue used stealth so that no one noticed him. The deva used insight to look for someone who looked like they were looking for their contact (which succeeded). Since that didn't deal with the random social interactions, I had him roll a diplomacy check as well. Meanwhile, the dwarf was drinking and playing dice with the other lackeys, footmen, and carraige drivers. He rolled an endurance check to drink them under the table. The contact then found the PCs and they made their excuses and exited the party and came up with a plan to smuggle their equipment into the store room where the entrance to the undercity was. They stole some servants' clothes and a few boxes from the carraige house and put their gear in the crates then walked up to the servants' entrance carrying the crates. I asked for a bluff check when someone asked them where they were going and they were done.

So how is that not a skill challenge?
A. I don't have any arbitrary number of successes that I require. If the party decided to do what the module writer apparently intended and pump a bunch of NPCs for worthless information, they could have rolled all the successes they wanted and would not have gotten anywhere. Their purpose was to get into the undergate and they need the number of successes that their plan to get there takes, neither more nor less.

B. I don't have an arbitrary number of failures before the challenge is over or before there are consequences. In this example, any failure would have changed the situation and, depending upon what it was and how the players reacted, might have triggered the guards being called. For example, if the players had failed the bluff check when trying to get the crates to the supply room, the servant would have called his supervisor and if he wasn't bluffed he would have asked them to leave and called the guards if they didn't. In that case, two failures could have triggered the consequences of failure in the skill challenge. Now, the players could have tried to bribe him after that, getting a third chance at success before being kicked out and if they just left peacably, they could have attempted stealth to sneak back in giving them the potential to get three failures and still succeed but that depends upon what the players try and the circumstances in which they try them. (In fact, they could have attempted to bribe the first guy they failed to bluff as well, potentially acquiring four failures without the consequences of failure).

C. Players don't necessarily have the option to opt out (anyone who was at the party was going to have to do something every hour in order to avoid blowing their cover).

D. Players don't always have the option to choose any skill they want and are not necessarily limited to one skill per round of the skill challenge. Depending upon the situation, I may ask them to roll from a specific skill set. In this case, the deva used insight to try to figure out who their contact was; since that didn't cover blending in at the party, I asked for an additional skill check to cover that aspect of what he was doing. In the second "skill challenge" the party was infiltrating the fire knives' base. Rather than doing the normal skill challenge thing, I had the party member with the lowest stealth check roll stealth for the group (which is the usual way to resolve stealth for surprise when initiating combat encounters).

E. The story and storytelling elements rather than the die rolls are the controlling factors. For instance, in the later skill challenge, they players came to the fire knives hideout and decided to try a creative but really really lame story to explain what they were doing. They rolled a decent bluff check, but because it was not a decent bluff, I decided that it failed. To use a 3e example, if you are going to try a story as outlandish as "everyone knows that lammasu are trustworthy and I'm a lammasu polymorphed into a halfling so you should believe me" then rolling decently is not sufficient.


The aspect of the skill challenge that I will still maintain is the no combat rule--otherwise the additional time to run a combat would usually cause the module to run too long.

This may sound odd, but apparently it is not unusual. At the con where I recently ran Drag 1-3 in this manner, there were two other Drag 1-3 tables in the same room as me. They both finished about two hours earlier than my table did and when I talked with the players from those tables, it turned out that what the DMs there did was say, "OK, here's a skill challenge. Everyone roll a check. Good, we're done. Let's get on with the module." Neither one of them ran the skill challenges as written, they just had the players roll one die each and moved on to the combat.

Skill challenges are an emperor's new clothes situation. The designers are convinced (if the podcasts are any indication) that they are a good idea and that they work. The RPGA staff either believe this or are forced to use them anyway (one author at the same convention confessed to me that it is very difficult to write a module without skill challenges--he submitted a module without a skill challenge but that a skill challenge had mysteriously appeared in the final version of the module). There are apparently some number of players and judges who believe what the designers tell them and pretend that the emperor has clothes. A lot of players and DMs, however, have quietly started ignoring them or house ruling them so heavily as to eliminate their essential design characteristics. Like my method of "running skill challenges" those house rules or alternate methods of running skill challenges are probably lacking in a lot of areas--I won't pretend to have a good generic mechanic for skill challenges--but it would be very difficult to come up with a worse mechanic than core skill challenge mechanic.
I have stopped running skill challenges. I will describe the situation, let the party come up with a solution and assign success when they have done what is necessary to overcome the situation. Or, I will ask for skill checks from all of the players in order to deal with the situation.

i do pretty much the same thing. many times, i will let the players go about the problem as they would have in, say, previous editions of the game. it becomes fairly obvious when they have succeeded or failed. i do let players know this ahead of time, and i do let them know that failed rolls still have consequences so it's still not a good idea to run around using skills willy-nilly.

there are times when i will use the skill challenges largely as written, but only when it would actually make sense to have an "x number of successes before y number of failures" sort of situation.

non-lfr related, but i did find the skill challenge set up for the monster manual 2 game day mod interesting. i'm not sure if i like it or not, and i certainly wouldn't like to see every skill challenge set up in the same way, but it is interesting.
I run skill challenges differently based on the table, time available and whether or not I can figure out a way to give the skill challenge fun RP aspects. If all the players are approaching the game mechanically - as just an excuse to hang out and roll dice - I don't put a lot of effort into making a scene come to life.

But in most cases I can walk people through a RP session describing the situation and improvising scenes. For example, in a skill challenge to convince a halfling gang leader to help you a suggested skill is Perception. So I had the halfling (doing a James Cagney impersonation) flipping a double-headed coin and saying "If I flip tails I'll help you". The perception check was to notice the coin and mention it - having a sharp eye impresses the halfling.

In another cases I gave a perception check notice someone in the bar watching the party and a streetwise to get information which led to the shopkeeper of "Broken Shard" pottery who was being harrassed by clerics of Bane while fellow shop keepers watched. An insight check determined the fellow shop keepers might help the fellow with a diplomacy/intimidate. All done somewhat on-the-fly in response to character's actions and adjusted based on outcomes.

So yes, I think skill challenges can be just "roll the dice". Or in most cases they can be fun, interactive RP encounters. Doesn't always work and sometimes there simply isn't enough time.

Allen.
Good GMs handle them by describing a situation, asking how players approach it, and then use the skill suggestions written down as guidelines. They describe the effects of both successes and failures in detail and let people roleplay as long as they are having fun and time permits. They finish it when it's clear that it's over, and everyone enjoys it.

One of the GMs in this thread does seems to do exactly that by his description, but does not like calling it a "skill challenge". A lot of people have a negative impression caused by judges who are bad at such challenges. Bad judges do not allow any roleplaying, stick to the skills described only, make no attempt to make sure everyone is involved, force players to complete the challenge even when it's over, and generally prefer mechanics over roleplaying.

Treat it just like combat, namely: The rules are there to cover things that are commonly tried and obvious. The module describes standard tactics and likely outcomes, but the GM has the responsibility of modifying what goes on. Successes and failures should be described. If the combat is clearly over, call it -- don't force people to complete it when it's over, and generally prefer roleplaying over mechanics. Try and get everyone involved.

-Graham
Good GMs handle them by describing a situation, asking how players approach it, and then use the skill suggestions written down as guidelines. They describe the effects of both successes and failures in detail and let people roleplay as long as they are having fun and time permits. They finish it when it's clear that it's over, and everyone enjoys it.

A really good DM will do that for people who want it that way, and will do the 3 minute roll-the-dice-and-get-on-with-it for people who'd prefer it that way.
Try and get everyone involved.

-Graham

Another thing I've been trying out lately (especially in mods with flexible RP-conducive skill challenges) is to ask people when they introduce their character to also tell me what skills they're good at. That way if Bob is only good in Acrobatics, Athletics and Endurance, I can try to think of a way it might come into play and give Bob a way to participate. Add a drinking contest to the challenge, or a chance for him to climb on top of a building to see something.

Allen.
One of the things I like to do is try to make rolls happen as follows:
Most Involved Player gets to roll the assist.
Highest Mod Character with an Involved Player gets to roll the primary.

That way, the brutish Fighter can do a lot of talking during the diplomacy part without blowing up the skill challenge, because the high charisma bard will get to roll the primary. But he can't do it unless the high charisma bard does some of the talking, because if the bard doesn't, he'll make the roll.
I won't pretend to have a good generic mechanic for skill challenges--but it would be very difficult to come up with a worse mechanic than core skill challenge mechanic.

The problem with skill challenges is trying to codify roleplaying and that's simply a mistake.

I think the way you are doing things is just fine and you should stick to it.

One thing they could have tried to do would have been to simply have the given skill challenge system as one option of how to frame things. Another would be something along the lines of X successes before Y rounds expire, while yet another would be avoiding W failures over the course of Z rounds on an individual scale, etc.

But honestly the best way to handle it is simply to throw it out and just have an obstacle to be overcome via skills & roleplaying.

-James
But you were running a skill challenge. It really does not matter whether you call it RP, dabidah or a skill challenge. You let your players know the goal of the challenge and the setting. You then let your players decide on a course of action, asking for a skill checks based on their actions, and then react based on those rolls. You even thought about what actions would result in failure, and how three failures would result in failing the challenge. The only thing you might have changed is the number of successes needed, but that should be a good guideline and in my experience when the right complexity was picked it is almost always reached if you follow the natural flow of the encounter. It is the perfect example of how a social skill challenge should be run.

The problem with skill challenges is that many DMs read the DMG, and its rather bad examples, and then conclude they have to follow those to the letter. It is a mechanism that give some good guidelines on how to assign xp to non-combat challenges and which skills to use without it being totally arbitrary and by giving the players the sense that they are using their skills for something worthwhile. In a home campaign you as a DM might be able to ignore such xp and challenge guidelines, but in Living Greyhawk granting xp to anything but fights was virtually impossible to do fairly (and hence it was forbidden).

Side note on DRAG1-3: The intent of the long list of NPCs was NOT to talk with all of them. It was a list of people a DM could use to spice up the encounter, and to pick what ever NPC the players or the DM took an interest in.
Bad judges do not allow any roleplaying, stick to the skills described only, make no attempt to make sure everyone is involved, force players to complete the challenge even when it's over, and generally prefer mechanics over roleplaying.

"Bad judges" also stick to the ridiculously large number of successes required. Although IMO that isn't actually the sign of a bad judge. Its a judge whose sticking to the guidelines as presented by the skill challenge instead of throwing them away and letting players do what they want.

IMO when a judge has to throw out the single defining feature of a skill challenge in order to be a good judge, skill challenges as a mechanic have failed. Because that's the only mechanic that turns a skill use into part of a skill challenge. DCs needed to meet exist outside of skill challenges. Disallowing inappropriate uses of a skill also exist outside of a skill challenge. The feature that turns using a skill into part of a skill challenge, is recording the number of successes against the number of failures.

And sometimes the players can succeed with only half as many skill checks then the challenge requires. Sometimes they need twice as many successful skill checks then the skill challenge calls for. In either case a good DM will ignore the number of checks that need to be met and let the players go for it.

Therefore, IMO, skill challenges are a failure. So to answer the OP, I run skill challenges largely by ignoring skill challenges.
The problem with skill challenges is that many DMs read the DMG, and its rather bad examples, and then conclude they have to follow those to the letter.

I think the problem is that experienced RPGA DMs haven't read the DMG and think that because they were competent 3e DMs (and were able to run games cold) that equates to being a good 4e DM.

Almost to a man, in my (extended) community, these experienced DMs didn't buy the DMG and try to shoehorn a 3e DM's skillset into 4e. They've read the PHB and think that they can get by on a knowledge of the rules. Unfortunately, the DM has an ever-so-slightly different role to play in 4e and part of this manifests itself in Skill Challenges.

In summary, quite a large percentage of these guys I'm thinking of are average 4e DMs at best and awful at worst. I believe the DMG is an excellent guide on how to be an excellent 4e DM - more people should get over their inflated sense of ability as a DM and read it. YMMV.

Joe
Joe Fitzgerald | joerpga[at]yahoo[dot]com[dot]au LFR Global Administrator
In counter example, I know a number of DMs that I'm sure have read the DMG (4e) and practically memorized all of the other books who run skill challenges and regularly pitch the mod rules and book suggestions out the window. So reading the DMG isn't going to solve this problem (for everyone, anyone, someone).

IMO, Skill Challenges are the red-headed bastard step child of 4E. They got an errata for their DCs almost immediately after publishing of the DMG, there are varied articles focused on making them fun, interesting or useful, and still folks have issues with them. I don't see the same focus being applied to the rest of the core mechanics, which are fun, interesting and useful by default. So there is no wonder in my mind that folks have difficulty with (running, playing, using, writing) them.

I'm not trying to indict the game or the designers of 4E. Far from it, this isn't a new (or easy) problem at all. Practically every version of D&D since I've been playing has had a hard time dealing with skill usage, Exalted had this issue with "social combat", and I don't see this changing any time soon. It's sort of a grail quest for the design and development set.

To which I wish them all the best of luck and speed.
IMO, Skill Challenges are the red-headed bastard step child of 4E. They got an errata for their DCs almost immediately after publishing of the DMG, there are varied articles focused on making them fun, interesting or useful, and still folks have issues with them. I don't see the same focus being applied to the rest of the core mechanics, which are fun, interesting and useful by default. So there is no wonder in my mind that folks have difficulty with (running, playing, using, writing) them.

Skill challenges are, for D&D, an entirely new system. The combat system, which has essentially been the focus of each release of D&D, may be in its 4th edition, but the skill challenge system is at 2nd edition, at best.

I find it hard to blame DMs for having difficulty running them, since designers appear to be having trouble coming up with rules for them and authors are decidedly having problems writing them. Add that to the "fire and forget" nature of LFR adventures, which means that the particular assumptions and rules governing any particular skill challenge will vary depending on when it was written, and you have a recipe for confusion.

Were I to answer the original question honestly, I expect the honest answer would be "Poorly, as measured by whatever the designers are trying to do with skill challenges".

My experience is that there are two ways of running skill challenges:
  • By the rules, as an honest challenge at which the players can pass or fail. The players find the PC with the highest bonus to an appropriate skill, everyone aids him and they ride that horse until the challenge is over. The worst thing a PC can do is get involved if there's a chance they can fail.

I find this approach uninteresting.
  • Ignore the fact that failure is supposed to be an option in a skill challenge--if you assume that the PCs could choose the mechanically optimal route and auto-succeed, then just assume they'll succeed and make the encounter about the path they take to get there. Everyone participates; if they fail, they fail, and it's up to the other PCs to rescue them (a Diplomacy check to smooth over a failed Intimidate check; a spent healing surge to make up for a botched Athletics check). The skill challenge is over when it makes sense for it to be over.

I find this approach interesting, but it essentially turns skill challenges into simply a codified version of a roleplaying encounter, not a challenge.

Generally speaking, the latter option is the one I use. I don't consider the middle ground to be a viable option, the "I want all PCs to participate and roleplay, and then I'm going to penalize the group if they do" version.

A basic principle of combat encounters is that, almost always, the worst thing a PC can do is simply not participate; participating will almost never yield a worse result than inaction. Until the skill challenge system meets that pretty basic goal, I question its viability as part of the game.
Generally speaking, the latter option is the one I use. I don't consider the middle ground to be a viable option, the "I want all PCs to participate and roleplay, and then I'm going to penalize the group if they do" version.

That captures a complaint that I've had with Skill Challenges almost perfectly. In previous editions, GMs would give Players/PCs information in roleplaying encounters. And now, if a player rolls badly, that information is left on the floor.
I have been a long time judge for Living City in 2nd Edition and left the game for pretty much the whole run of 3rd and am now back. I've been DM'ing 4e LFR and I have to say that the skill challenges are, in my opinion, the best technological advance in table top RPG's in my 20+ years.

I say this because a skilled player can RP to help their character to achieve a party social goal, just as a skilled player can be a good tactician in combat to help the group combat goal. However, it is still a roleplaying game. I can't weild magic in real life, my character can. Other people might be bad in social enviroments but their characters are silver tongued.

Also, just like in life, those characters that are highly specialized in one area to the exclusion of others feel the negative drawbacks of that to a much higher degree. If a player makes a character to role play and wants that character to have no social skillls then he has to live with that choice and so does the party. Just as a party might have to deal with a character in combat that has little or no magic items because he is always losing his gold by dying.

We make combats hard and sometimes the party fails so that the glory of their achievements are given scope. The same applies to skill challenges. Those that have socially dynamic characters now have a spotlight to shine.

How I run skill challenges are simple:

I follow the success / fail numbers.
I roleplay it out with the party and give them bonuses and drawbacks for their roleplaying, to the dice rolls.
I make everyone at the table roll at least once or twice.
I give synergy bonuses for teamwork.

People have fun and gain bonuses for their roleplay.
To emphisize team play and not "riding the skill horse" as to say I run my skill challenges a little different.

basically to make sure everyone is participating and rolling the dice, i will require everyone to either assist in a check or make a check themselves (i do not allow more than 1 person assist in anothers roll) so long as i get 3 success's before getting 3 fails I pass it off on as a sucees before moving it on to another skill to challenge. and i role play on how or what is going on to need to roll those success'es,, The cave is colapsing, to escape you will need to brace at least 3 points of the ceiling, who will try and embrace it and who will assist, embracing it will be an athletics check. assisting it will be either athletics check or a dungeoneering check.
How I run skill challenges are simple:

I follow the success / fail numbers.
I roleplay it out with the party and give them bonuses and drawbacks for their roleplaying, to the dice rolls.
I make everyone at the table roll at least once or twice.
I give synergy bonuses for teamwork.

People have fun and gain bonuses for their roleplay.

So here are a few questions:

1. Why do you make everyone at the table roll at least once or twice? Should it not depend on the situation of the 'skill challenge'? What if their character doesn't get involved *in character*? Do you also force PCs to attack in combat? Shouldn't those be player calls?

2. What happens when the roleplaying would either solve something earlier than the required number of successes or much later? Likewise with failures? Do you have to contort things based upon the skill challenge mechanics?

3. Could you not handle the roleplaying 'challenge' without a fixed number of successes to achieve or failures to avoid? Certainly some successes mean more than others, likewise failures. In other words, what has codifying 'skill challenges' added to the game, rather than letting PCs use skills & abilities to overcome obstacles/ obtain goals?

The skill challenge system is silly imho.

The *idea* that you want a challenge to be overcome via skills is great. It's also not new.

The codification of X successes before Y failures is stupid and a straight jacket. It's trying to force a square peg into any number of round holes. Trying to make it handle all roleplaying scenarios lessens the game.

Put another way: within the game the PCs need to accomplish Z. Why not simply allow them to use their abilities & skills to try to accomplish Z? Does putting a fixed number of successful skill uses up front aid this in any way, shape or form? Or does it make it less roleplaying and more rollplaying?

-James
So here are a few questions:
1. Why do you make everyone at the table roll at least once or twice? Should it not depend on the situation of the 'skill challenge'? What if their character doesn't get involved *in character*? Do you also force PCs to attack in combat? Shouldn't those be player calls?

Actually, in combat, you are indeed REQUIRED to take your turn. You cannot say, for example "I prefer not to take my turn and not take my ongoing damage". Also many skill challenges can be considered reactive. If someone asks you a question, or if you are moving through a forest, you *have* to do something. So, in the main, I would agree that in most situations, everyone should get involved to some degree.

2. What happens when the roleplaying would either solve something earlier than the required number of successes or much later? Likewise with failures? Do you have to contort things based upon the skill challenge mechanics?

First, that is a bad challenge. A good challenge will be careful to have "exit points" only when success is reasonable. Having an NPC give you the final clue after only a few successes is like having the villain surrender when three minions go down. It's just bad design. Having said that, in either case, it is the GMs job to make it work in a good way. Fix the structure so the combat or challenge works correctly. If you cannot, then yeah, you may be forced to go with something silly like aborting early. Pretend the Villain is a coward or the forest is a lot smaller than it first appeared.

3. Could you not handle the roleplaying 'challenge' without a fixed number of successes to achieve or failures to avoid? Certainly some successes mean more than others, likewise failures. In other words, what has codifying 'skill challenges' added to the game, rather than letting PCs use skills & abilities to overcome obstacles/ obtain goals?

The *idea* that you want a challenge to be overcome via skills is great. It's also not new.

The codification of X successes before Y failures is stupid and a straight jacket. It's trying to force a square peg into any number of round holes. Trying to make it handle all roleplaying scenarios lessens the game.

Maybe that's why no-one suggests it. In fact people the DMG states that often enough a roleplaying scene and a couple of rolls are all that are needed.

Put another way: within the game the PCs need to accomplish Z. Why not simply allow them to use their abilities & skills to try to accomplish Z? Does putting a fixed number of successful skill uses up front aid this in any way, shape or form? Or does it make it less roleplaying and more rollplaying?

Ummm ... all that fixing the number does is define how challenging it is, and allow a standard formula for determining XP. If you don't care about that -- don't use it. I find it helpful as it defines the difference between a short scene and a long scene, and gives good XP advice.

Honestly, if you have a series of skills that can be used to solve a challenge, and DCs for each of them and notes as to what happens when you use any of them, and if you require some successes and not too many failures, you have a skill challenge. You can run them exactly as in the DMG, you can run them the way SERENITY does, or you can muck around with them to suit your style. Whatever. You're running a skill challenge.

Having the DMG present a system for them is, in my opinion, good because it makes GMs consider skill usage as a major part of the game, rather than occasional fluff.
So here are a few questions:

1. Why do you make everyone at the table roll at least once or twice?

That should only happen if someone hasn't read the errata. There is no longer rounds or going around the table.

That said, you do want to encourage people to be involved, regardless of skills. And attempting an assist is painless, even if your character sucks at all the relevant skills.
Actually, in combat, you are indeed REQUIRED to take your turn.

You are not, however, required to attack.

Say, for example, you are low on hps (or worse surges) you are not required to go up and attack resulting in the party needing to rescue you. You can hang back if you can't properly contribute.

In other words you are not required to be a detriment to the party in a given situation. Which was my point on that part.

It's something that the designers were forced to realize with this ill-conceived idea that they had & errata'd it.

As to the other things: Skill challenges are being used as a catch-all and it's a bad model for something that doesn't need to be modeled at all.

Even if you wish to accept just the number of successes and failures as sufficient variables for determining 'success/failure' its not a good blanket model, as sometimes you might want the difference between the two to exceed a certain number to be the determination (I.e. a tug of war between them) while other times a model based upon successes in rapid time, etc.

It seems to be reacting to a need to codify something, but not a willingness to do anything other than something overly simple. This is a fundamental problem. You are better off not having a system if it can't properly handle the situations you are bound to give it. Relying on DMs to have to fix it, when it would have been better just to rely upon DMs to run the scenario is counter-productive. No system would have been better than one that requires more work to achieve less.

-James
That said, you do want to encourage people to be involved, regardless of skills. And attempting an assist is painless, even if your character sucks at all the relevant skills.

You *might* want to encourage people to be involved. At some point you have to believe that your players actually know what is best for them better than you do, and let them do what they like (or not do what they don't like).

Gently encouraging a power gamer to try to roleplay a little is one thing. Mandating that everyone must fully and equally participate in a skill challenge where clearly only one or two of the PCs have either the training or the inclination to succeed is another.

I heard, this past weekend on two separate occasions, "Please, don't make me roll any dice or get involved in this one" during skill challenges. Once the plea was heard and accepted, the other time the player in question failed his check every time he was pressed to be involved ("Wheee! I rolled a 14 on the dice and still failed. Thanks so much for making me roll it!").

To be fair, an assist is indeed a reasonable compromise, but it can be very hard to justify in game-world terms (while being easy to justify in number-crunching terms).
To be fair, an assist is indeed a reasonable compromise, but it can be very hard to justify in game-world terms (while being easy to justify in number-crunching terms).

I don't think it is all that hard to justify. Just watch an engineer + salesperson in a room - the engineer gives data, the salesperson knows just enough about what the engineer is talking about to make the customer feel at ease.

i.e. Diplomacy + assist

Sure, the Fighter probably shouldn't be assisting vs. the Thaneborn Barbarian, but when the Thaneborn Barbarian is clearly not interacting with the skill challenge and the Fighter is, well then, let the Fighter make the assist.

At worst, the Fighter fails the assist, but it shouldn't happen all that often and even when it does, it might not even affect the outcome.
As it stands now, and apparently this is a question that starts war..

To save time I generally forgo initiative per the DMG, since initiative can take a few minutes. It also seems to encourage discussion and roleplaying, don't ask me why.

I have varied how I handle the skill challenges a bit from module to module, mostly because modules handle them differently. I generally follow what the skills are, their restrictions, etc. I strongly hint at which the primary and most obvious skills are, and more subtle hints for things that aren't as obvious. Occasionally I really have to hint at a skill because it seems like the party would never figure out that was an option otherwise (it depends the players I have at table at the time).

I give double bonus if it lists the possibility or if the roll or associated roleplaying with it is really good. This seems to balance out the complexity and bad luck with the players trying to step it up with good rolls and roleplaying.

How I handle assists has varied, I'm still debating on a more permenant policy for it. Generally speaking something that obviously can't be assisted. I think knowledge rolls where you can argue characters are adding bits of information to a common pool is one of the easier assist allowances. In all honesty I try and keep the fun factor here, if players can roleplay some kind of creative assist then I might allow it for the hell of it especially if a +2 or +4 might make the challenge succeed. I'm far less inclined to give double bonuses on rolls involving assists (or say more then one assistant).

Most skill challenges have been fun, it really helps in letting me balance the players' shine time (I.E when a given player is the most active at the table) especially if they vary much in combat. The ones that been mixed into combat have made some pretty mundane combats more interesting (end of CORE1-2 for example, parts of CORM1-1, etc).

I'm still debating on how to handle whatever or not all players have to take part in skill rolls, on average it's a good idea but sometimes a character is going to literally have next to nothing in bonuses on all the skills for a challenge and its a bit unfair to make the party almost certain to doom because a character has to roll a 17 or better to make something succeed or fail. For the most part an given table each character will have a strength in a challenge so this isn't that much of an issue, especially if the skills available are varied.
Christopher Green RPGA# 5209379759 Aelar Tel'ess'san - Elven Cleric Lvl 4 Veloch Shade - Tiefling Rogue Lvl 4 Adaeth the Mindwalker - Deva Psion Lvl 2 The Story Tellers' Guild The Roleplaying Association of SUNY Oswego http://www.oswego.edu/stg
You are not, however, required to attack.
As to the other things: Skill challenges are being used as a catch-all and it's a bad model for something that doesn't need to be modeled at all.

Even if you wish to accept just the number of successes and failures as sufficient variables for determining 'success/failure' its not a good blanket model, as sometimes you might want the difference between the two to exceed a certain number to be the determination (I.e. a tug of war between them) while other times a model based upon successes in rapid time, etc.

This I can totally agree with. The more recent LFR and Dungeon modules have had a lot of different resolution systems within the Skill Challenge framework. I just ran a Dungeon module that had one skill challenge where you always succeeded, just counted the failures as lost time (which had a later effect); a skill challenge where 3 failures stopped you rescuing people, and the number of successes was the number of people who lived (and they were plot-important people -- lots of notes as to what to do if the main NPC was not saved!) and had different results for a skill challenge if you succeeded with no failures or succeeded with one or more.

I absolutely agree that imaginative uses -- such as your tug of war example -- are a good idea. If your main point is that you feel that skill challenges are bad because they force too tight a framework on you, I concede that that is a danger. It would have been nicer to have had a number of different options for resolution that were spelled out in the DMG.

I do think that what they model does need modeling, but I understand your point that the modeling is too restrictive. I'd prefer to work from "too much model" and remove stuff. I believe you are happier starting with less model and adding your own. I have a feeling that a player playing our games would be unable to tell the end results apart ...

- Graham
I do think that what they model does need modeling, but I understand your point that the modeling is too restrictive. I'd prefer to work from "too much model" and remove stuff. I believe you are happier starting with less model and adding your own. I have a feeling that a player playing our games would be unable to tell the end results apart ...

- Graham

The main problem is that the model provided by the skill challenge mechanic actively discourages the behaviors that should be beneficial in the described situation and actively encourages behavior that should not be beneficial in the circumstances described.

For instance, from the module I described above, I explained how I was going to handle the task of sneaking into the fire knives HQ once the invoker had teleported the PCs inside, and then the invoker very sensibly loaned his elven cloak to the dwarf fighter and put on a backup NAD booster. This makes sense because they figured out that the main challenge was making sure that the clumsy dwarf didn't give them away. On the other hand, according to the ordinary skill challenge mechanic, the smart thing to do would be to give the elven cloak to the rogue and have him roll all of the stealth checks. It may seem like a subtle difference in mechanics, but it makes a huge difference in the proper strategies to meet the challenges presented.
The problem I find is that skill challenges actively discourage players from doing anything.

I found this the other day. I was running a mod, and we'd got up to the 'hunt down the bad guys' skill challenge common to so many. The players didn't realise, as we were just roleplaying and continuing on where the previous encounter left off. The all picked up the dice and wanted to roll history/streetwise to see if they'd heard of the bad guy or where his lair was. As six dice hit the table, I found myself saying 'By the way, this is actually a skill challenge. You may want to think twice about all rolling a check.'

Which, frankly, is a crap way of doing things, I'll admit, but sticking to the mechanics that is what you have to do. I'm still a fairly novice GM so not too confident about deviating too much from the rules if I haven't had plenty of prep time (which is another problem with skill challenges: they're hard to run well).

What I'd really like to do, if I can muster the confidence, is just to bin the rules altogether, and RP the encounter, and just see where the players' actions and their skill check results logically lead.

At the moment, quite often the only function of skill challenges is to burn 'that'll do' cards, and we've frequently ended up with the situation of sitting around the table looking at who's got which skill and trying to work out how, by RAW, we're going to get that final success (let's see. Alric's got +20 diplomacy, +16 bluff, +16 streetwise, but we've already rolled all of them and we're not allowed to get more than one success from each of those skills. We have to make a stealth check to finish. What's our best stealth? +3. Right. GM, can the entire party assist this stealth check please?)
I'm still a fairly novice GM so not too confident about deviating too much from the rules if I haven't had plenty of prep time (which is another problem with skill challenges: they're hard to run well).

What I'd really like to do, if I can muster the confidence, is just to bin the rules altogether, and RP the encounter, and just see where the players' actions and their skill check results logically lead.

I'm not only a new GM, but I'm new to D&D with 4th ed. And I have absolutely no problem doing that.

I read the skill challenge, I jot down notes on what the purpose of the skill challenge is. I then run it as an RP encounter allowing the players to do whatever they want (using the mod's suggestions when they get stuck). I also make a brief note on rolls near the beginning. Then at the end I look at the goal they were suppose to reach, I think about how quickly they got it. I consider if they failed 3 rolls really early on. And then I say whether or not they succeeded the challenge.

The only issues I've had is when I don't do the above
What I'd really like to do, if I can muster the confidence, is just to bin the rules altogether, and RP the encounter, and just see where the players' actions and their skill check results logically lead.

But you are not binning the rules, except the one where you mention that the PCs are in a skill challenge. Just treat the string of rules as a group check, averaging the result to determine success, as opposed to treating it as 6 different rolls that each count towards success.

The art is not to let your DMing disrupt the pacing of the game.
But you are not binning the rules, except the one where you mention that the PCs are in a skill challenge. Just treat the string of rules as a group check, averaging the result to determine success, as opposed to treating it as 6 different rolls that each count towards success.

That doesn't solve the problem, that the PCs who really aren't that good at the skill have potentially hurt the party by getting involved, it just minimizes the harm.

The basic issue is this: Failures in a skill challenge are a metagame constraint. Poorly constructed or poorly run skill challenges (i.e., most of them) do not provide enough information to give any in-game rationale for why individual failures matter, so it forces the party and the DM to go out-of-character and metagame to explain their actions.
Considering some of the discussion I have had about various knowledge subjects in real life, I have no problems imagining that if people without any knowledge actually confuse the ones who do remember the facts. I know that the rules do not mentioning misremembering things, but doing so is not a far stretch. Then again, even when there is no skill challenge going on I always ask my players whether they are really all doing the same thing at the same time, reminding them that in some cases doing so is going to cause confusion. I know how fun it can be to roll the dice, but sometimes it is IMO better for the game not to do so.
Considering some of the discussion I have had about various knowledge subjects in real life, I have no problems imagining that if people without any knowledge actually confuse the ones who do remember the facts.

I think that makes sense for quite a few skills--you will rarely see the entire table all roll Diplomacy checks or Thievery checks, for example, since it's obvious that the PCs would be getting in each others' way.

For purely mental skills, however, the intuitive course of action is for all PCs to make checks--if you're walking down a dark alley, four PCs closing their eyes doesn't make the fifth PC's Perception check better; if you're trying to figure out if you remember anything about dragons, it doesn't matter if the four silent PCs didn't bother trying to remember or just don't know anything, that has no effect on the fifth PC's memory.

If you want to claim that PCs bursting out into discussion about a creature can harm each others' concentration, that's fine, but then you're talking about failed Aid Another checks, not simple failed skill checks. And, no, absent a house rule, failed knowledge checks don't lead to the PC spouting incorrect information. ("Failure: You don't recall any pertinent information.")

The problem is that skill challenges often attempt to use reactive skills proactively, which leads to incoherent results.

For example, a skill challenge in which the PCs are making their way through some maze or obstacle might say that a successful Perception check lets you notice and avoid a trap, while a failed Perception check has you blunder into a trap. However, not making a Perception check at all has no effect, either positive or negative.

This isn't how the world works outside of skill challenges, however, where not making a Perception check is equivalent to making and failing one.

Quite a few LFR skill challenges actually seem to draw inspiration more from collaborative storytelling seen in indie RPGs rather than the usual assumptions about how the D&D world works.

When a player makes a Perception check in D&D, what they generally mean by that is "You as the DM have already decided whether there is a trap there. I will make a check to determine if I can see the trap. If I succeed or there wasn't a trap, no harm occurs; if there is a trap and I don't try or I fail, something bad happens."

This differs from what skill challenges appear to assume, which has the players essentially saying "I as the player am going to raise the stakes and declare that there is a trap here. I will then make a check to determine if I see the trap. If I succeed, I avoid the trap and gain some benefit; if I fail, something bad happens. If I didn't take this action, nothing would have happened, either good or bad."

These are two completely separate paradigms, and unless you are explicit in doing so, I don't see how you can expect the players to understand that the assumptions have temporarily changed.
I cannot remember seeing your Perception example in LFR, but there is only so much one can remember. What I do add to many skill challenges is where the PCs make a conscious choice to follow a particular path and that path determines the skill to use. So if the PCs leave the beaten path, they need Athletics and Endurance checks while squeezing through cracks and climbing up while underwater. If they follow the normal path, they need Stealth or Bluff to avoid the guards. So the fact that a PC picks that Athletics skill does not mean there suddenly is a canyon in the way, it means they turned left instead of right. It is the DMs job to make that mix makes sense and not let those PCs suddenly meet the guards in the middle of a uninhabited crack.

As for your knowledge example, I know it is a passive skill most of the time, but unless you are going to share that information knowing something has no influence. So it really is not a far stretch if all the PCs share what they know, which might very well be wrong. In a way they are all assisting each other in a group discussion on who knows what. It is not as if the characters see that dice roll. Mind you, I do agree that it is something you should tell your players beforehand. In any event, if it bothers you so much, you could simply go for the highest result and ignore the rest or treat it as assist. Personally, I have always objected to that approach both as a player and a DM. A character took training in that skill for a reason, and being outclassed by others with no training what-so-ever just because they rolled high (and each time you allow this chances are another player rolls higher) just does not sit well with me.
That doesn't solve the problem, that the PCs who really aren't that good at the skill have potentially hurt the party by getting involved, it just minimizes the harm.

The basic issue is this: Failures in a skill challenge are a metagame constraint. Poorly constructed or poorly run skill challenges (i.e., most of them) do not provide enough information to give any in-game rationale for why individual failures matter, so it forces the party and the DM to go out-of-character and metagame to explain their actions.

There is definately food for thought in what you say for authors.

Most of the emphasis is placed on success for the DM, but the truth is that adjudicating success isn't really a problem, its how to work out failure that is an issue, especially in the chaos of what the players are doing.

Mind you approaching a skill challenge as a narative element has removed a lot of those problems for me. Taking the ideas the players are throwing at you and using them to tell the story usually leads to the skill challenge naturally evolving and helps you as the DM figure out the failure effects.

One problem with this can be that naratively the players "get there" faster than the pre-written (and xp based) number of successes indicate - this is where DME is your friend.

If its a Complexity 3 at level challenge and they through RP and good checks get the challenge finished 2 checks early its fairly simple to add a level appropriate monster to the next encounter or two, or add 4-8 at level minions. The net effect is the same amount of xp earned for the module. Just be wary of modules that have "more monsters" as a consequence of failure on a challenge.
Mind you approaching a skill challenge as a narative element has removed a lot of those problems for me.

I think pretty much throwing them out completely and just presenting the obstacle works.

But I think it would be best to discuss specific ones and pick them apart, to whit here's one from a really great mod:

Number of Successes: 6
Number of Failures: 4
Primary Skills: Arcana, Dungeoneering, History, Insight, Nature, Perception, Religion

All of the primary skills here are done and explained as knowledge checks. The group has gathered around to figure things out.. no one has rushed off on their own, etc. The skills are phrased like 'you remember this' or 'you remember that'..

Now imagine a party of 6 PCs where 5 of them don't remember a given something but the 6th does. Forgetting the skill challenge mechanic this would mean that the party as a whole did know this specific thing. Yet with the mechanic they've already failed the encounter.

Worse there is no restriction on number of times you could repeat a single skill. Put in a party that understands the game mechanics and doesn't have many of the above skills will see the same skill rolled over and over. What is this trying to do here?

It reduces what would have been figure out a puzzle without the skill challenge mechanic, to a bunch of dice rolling. Now a great DM could weave a story around that dice rolling, but that's in spite of the mechanic.

They shouldn't be the hurdle that they are currently.

-James
...here's one from a really great mod:

Number of Successes: 6
Number of Failures: 4
Primary Skills: Arcana, Dungeoneering, History, Insight, Nature, Perception, Religion

All of the primary skills here are done and explained as knowledge checks. The group has gathered around to figure things out.. no one has rushed off on their own, etc. The skills are phrased like 'you remember this' or 'you remember that'..

If the mod simply allows one skill to be used all the time, that is a bad challenge. Like having a combat where the opponents can all only be hit by a single type of power. A good challenge for this is to have insights each of which can be discovered at most once or twice. End of story.

Furthermore, there *is* a penalty to failure. It's not that you don't remember, it's that you remember wrong or discount someone else's issue. Because you (the player) see the dice, you *know* who has succeeded. But the characters do not. If they have 5 failures and one success, it might look like this:

Bob: I think the castle used to be inhabited by undead
Jane: I don't remember that
Jack: I though it was wizards, not undead
Elle: I thought it was uninhabited
Jill: No, it was definitely inhabited by someone
Fred: Sorry, I have no idea

Given the above, who does your character trust? As a player, you know that since Jack's character rolled 25 and no-one else broke 19, you should trust him. In case of debate clearly the most skilled person should be trusted. How best to model that in a game? Oh yeah, just have the most skilled person make the roll. Yup, exactly the mechanism used as written.

A more fun GM approach would be to roll all in secret, give text like the above and then, if the players agree on the right answer, count it as a success. Tricky to do, though.
So the fact that a PC picks that Athletics skill does not mean there suddenly is a canyon in the way, it means they turned left instead of right. It is the DMs job to make that mix makes sense and not let those PCs suddenly meet the guards in the middle of a uninhabited crack.

I agree with that. Some skill challenges are a bit more linear. Get here, overcome this obstacle by using one of these skills. Others are a bit more of a storytelling exercise, requiring action/planning (I'm gonna scout the tunnel with Thievery) and reacting accordingly in a story-telling exercise (look, a trap!). The thing to remember is that failure is often due to these things that were not found, not just to the failed rolls. Every combat assumes that the combat is lively with PCs rolling, hitting the ground, shrugging off blows, etc. The damage from one power is often representative of many things going on (though less so in this edition). Skill challenges can operate and be described in the same way. Failures can be indicative of the wear and tear and not just one failed roll. You can approach them in many different ways and have it all still work. The important part is the story working for the PCs.

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Furthermore, there *is* a penalty to failure. It's not that you don't remember, it's that you remember wrong or discount someone else's issue.

Thank you for sharing your house rule. I'm sure that works very well for you in your home game.

In a core rules campaign, however, it is precisely that you just don't remember:
Knowledge Skill: No action required—either you know the answer or you don’t.
✦ Success: You recall a useful bit of information in your field of knowledge or recognize a clue related to it.
✦ Failure: You don’t recall any pertinent information.

If you'd like, you can certainly house rule it that a low enough roll has the result of "Failure: You recall incorrect information" in the same way that you're free to house rule that a natural 1 on an attack roll causes you to drop your weapon.

That's not what the actual rules say, however. You either know the answer or you don't. If you succeed on the roll, you recall a useful bit of information; if you fail, you just don't recall anything pertinent.
If they have 5 failures and one success, it might look like this:

Actually it'll look like: 'you've failed the skill challenge' and ensues from there.

Where even if you take failed knowledge checks to be false information (which they are not in the rest of the game) all that's happened is that you've got one piece of information wrong.

But as written that would be the end of that.. which is a problem.

Know either the DM has to try to come up with some reason why this ends the challenge which will likely sound contrived (as it will be contrived) or he just says 'you failed, sorry here are the consequences'.. or he throws out the rules for skill challenges.

Imho the mechanics for skill challenges impede things far more often than they aid things. Having no mechanics would be a better solution. Forcing the DM to work around these is just making him/her do more work for no gain (and likely for loss) in the experience.

-James
Thank you for sharing your house rule. I'm sure that works very well for you in your home game.

That's not what the actual rules say, however. You either know the answer or you don't. If you succeed on the roll, you recall a useful bit of information; if you fail, you just don't recall anything pertinent.

Much though I enjoy your sarcasm, I should point out that you are reading the general rules for skills, not the rules for skill challenges. To belabor the point, skill challenges ADD rules on top of skill rules. For example, and this is kind of important, if you fail a knowledge skill check OUTSIDE a skill challenge, then, as you point out, it has no effect.

If you fail it in a skill challenge, then -- please correct me if I'm wrong here -- I believe it counts as a FAILURE, not as a no-op. If I am wrong, and every time someone does no succeed in a skill challenge knowledge check, then nothing happens, then please make sure that everyone knows, because I think most people regard the rules as strongly suggesting it is a FAILURE, with negative consequences.

Now, of course, as a GM, you are entirely free to describe a failure as a lack of anything happening, even though mechanically it is FAILURE, even though, as has been pointed out, it makes no sense to describe it as such, and even though every good commentator on skill challenges says failures ought to be described as such. Feel free.

*Honestly*

I can see why a lot of people have such bad experiences with skill challenges. It seems a rigid dark cloud descends over GMs: "must run rules in most rigid interpretation possible ... anything that makes them more fun must be a house rule ... cannot use creative side of brain ..." This idea -- that describing a failure as having negative consequences in a skill challenge (which it undoubtedly does) is wrong because wording for a skill doesn't allow that is just plain silly.

In D&D, there are quite a few skills that have no negative consequences in general use. However, in a skill challenge, every skill use can have a negative consequence. Choosing to ignore that fact under the guise of following RAW is doing an injustice to your players/
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