Today, and likely Thursday, I'm talking about Skill Challenges. Today I'm discussing some problems I've noticed in my games and when planning a Challenge-dominated game. I'm at the planning stages of my next 4e adventure where centerpiece is an adventure-long Skill Challenge interrupted by combat and other small encounters. Skill Challenges have become the focus of my attention and I decided it was time to blog about them. They're a great addition to 4e but the mechanic is still in its infancy and sometimes just doesn't work well.
I'm sticking close to the RAW/RAI in my homegame, avoiding too many house rules or arbitrary callings. My players are new so I'm still working to establish a DM/Player trust and comfortableness with the rules, rather than throwing away sections of the Core books or tacking-on my own additions. So when designing my challenges I stick to the DMG advice that failure in a Skill Challenge shouldn't derail or end the adventure.
I've noticed two problems with Skill Challenges and their victory requirements. First is the binary success: either you completely win or completely lose. In this case "completely lose" often means "still win, but don't gain anything extra." There's not alot of range and this takes much of the sting from failing Skill Challenges. The DMG1 compares it to not defeating a dragon in a room: you don't get xp, treasure, and can't go through the door it guards.
This brings me to my second problem with Skill Challenges. In combat, if you fail, the game ends! Some or all of the characters die and the remaining are forced to retreat, likely derailing the adventure as they rest and seek help. If you fail to defeat the dragon in its room after a combat encounter, there's usually a much, much steeper penalty for failure than just "taking a different and more arduous path." That's a much less steep penalty unless arduous is truly crippling to a player. The loss of gold is also a non-event as treasure parcels are so standardized the players know the DM will just have to insert any treasure they would have received elsewhere, they're never going to lose the chance to gain a magic item because the math of the game relies on them.
This also subtly reinforces the attitude that combat is king: failure is acceptable out of combat and is barely a speedbump, but in combat there's risk and reward. Better to ignore non-combat skills than risk death.
How experience relates to Skill Challenges is also problematic. Firstly, there is all-or-nothing experience for a failed Challenge. If you're party is in the middle of a Complexity 5 Skill Challenge requiring 12 successes and they fail after 11 successes they receive the same xp as if they failed on their third roll: 0! In a combat, the PCs might have defeated some or most of their enemies before retreating and should likely receive partial experience. (Although I can't find rules to support this; the DMG doesn't seem to mention failure in combat.)
There's also the question about the experience for the "different and more arduous path" of the DMG. Unless a Skill Challenge was high in complexity and level it wasn't likely to award as much experience as a single hard combat encounter. If the different path is arduous including encounters then it's likely in the player's best interests to purposely botch the Challenge for more rewarding combat encounters.
4e is a game of optimization built around the framework that your character is really good at one thing. The math assumes you have one really good statistic with the minimum acceptable number being considered high in previous editions. And when we say "optimization" we mean "combat optimization", so you do not have to sacrifice combat prowess for non-combat ability.
Now, this leads to a handful of problems with skill challenges. Firstly, the knowledge skills (Dungeoneering, Arcana, Religion, and Nature) are non-combat skills compared to Acrobatics and Athletics which often allow a character to navigate or bypass terrain and hazards. So Skill Challenges bring a forced choice: choose combat or choose more options for Skill Challenges. Most players focus on one out-of-combat skill be it Diplomacy or Intimidate or Streetwise.
To balance with the likely situation that PCs might only have one or two skills they're good at, the DMG table was revised, dropping DCs across the board and removing the +5 to skill checks rule. The reasoning was that the DCs should be achievable by any PC to encourage alternative skill use. The problem is, this goes against the design goal of optimization and PCs that are really good at one thing.
To make this further problematic, DMs are encouraged (by the DMG2 and the regular article on designing Skill Challenges) to pick skills the PCs have a higher likelihood of being trained in, and designing Skill Challenges based on your party.
So the game is about optimization and min/maxing, you're told it's good design to make Skill Challenges that reflect your player's skills, yet the DCs are set to give people who are untrained and unskilled a 55% chance of success.
Yes, the charts are just a guideline. That's how they respond to complaints on the low DCs and how competent PCs don't even need to roll to above a 5 to blow Hard DCs out of the water. But making them more difficult is making them a higher level, which awards more experience. To challenge an optimized PC you often have to increase the DCs by 5 or even 10, which can be 9-15 levels higher. Would you arbitrarily throw monsters of that level difference at your party? And if they succeeded, wouldn't you award full appropriate xp?
If the charts are a guideline and everyone is house ruling them, isn't that the textbook definition that they're broken?
Fixing the Chart
First of all, what exactly does "Moderate" mean? Step One in fixing the charts would be establishing what each of the DCs represent in the game and when they should be used. Specifically, what is an "easy" task versus what is a "hard" task. The books should tell you what column to use and why.
As I said earlier, to D&D character "moderate" means an untrained, unskilled character has a 55% chance of success. Easy is so easy as to be trivial (80% chance of success for anything without a penalty) for the same unskilled and untrained character. Yet a skilled and trained adventurer with appropriate stats has a 100% chance of success at both before picking-up the dice. Easy is so easy as to be redundant. Easy tasks are ones so simple they should be almost automatic.
Instead of trying to fit the vague terms for everyone, the books should offer DCs of an easy/hard DC for each of the major categories of PC: untrained and poor stats, good stats or trained, and good stats and trained. This generates a range of 6 possible (and overlapping) DCs dependant on how badass a character needs to be.
There should also be advice for when to use each of the 6 possible DCs. Most Skill Challenges should have DCs that fall in the middle, varying between easy and hard for PCs that either have high stats or are skilled. Secondary Skills (the ones that grant additional bonuses, open-up additional skill uses, cancel-out failures, and the like) should be the next step up being easy or hard for characters that have good stats and are trained. The lower two DCs should likely be the rare DCs, used for situations where success is almost automatic but there is a high penalty for failure, so the DM cannot just assume success. Situations with a time limit or where you cannot Take 10 are the prime examples, as are jumping the gorge, climbing the cliff, or telling the simple lie.
The level range of the chart is also flawed, likely in an attempt to save space. While monster experience charts vary per level, the DC table (page 42 of the DMG and 66 of the DMG2) divides PCs into 3-level bands. This means a PC gains a +1 bonus to everything once on the first row, and twice on the second row, then once again on the third row. A bit odd for a table trying to set reliable numbers. There's a 5% deviation between what challenges a L3 and a L1 PC and in the 7-9 band there's the big power jump at level 8 with the 1/2 level boost and the second stat boost yet that row is accompanied with a negligible increase in the easy DC.
A more accurate chart would have DCs for Level 1, then L2-3, l4-5, etc. This could accurately reflect the changes for 1/2 level as well as give room for finer increases in DC for gear, stat boosts, and have a smoother damage expressions increase (should a L12 character really only take the same amount of damage as a L7 character?).