On Skill Challenges

Skill challenges are important because they’re the first mechanic D&D’s offered for long, non-combat challenges for the entire party. More of a framework and less a “mechanic” in the way “base attack bonus” or “saving throws” are a mechanic, but a mechanic nonetheless. They’re an integral part of 4e D&D, a major revolution in D&D games theory and mechanical interaction, they’ve always fascinated me with their potential and concept, partly because I’ve always been fascinated by attempts to blur the line between mechanics and “narrative” (in general, the non-mechanical happenings in the game—fluff, roleplaying, world-building, wandering around, setting, adventure goals, motivations, plot, etc.).

For a skill challenge example, I’ll use the first one in the Dark Sun campaign guide; it’s simple, streamlined, and well-described. The party want to find a secret alliance—a group that protects Preserver magicians, who are the guys who use magic that doesn’t corrupt the world—wherein they must undergo a skill challenge to join up. The challenge is divided into two parts: first, finding the alliance (Arcane/Streetwise with a secondary of Insight), and after two successes, they have to prove that they’re worth keeping around (Arcane, Diplomacy, Bluff to lie, or spend a Power to show you’re serious, with Insight as a secondary). In a nutshell, the “skill challenge” mechanic is using the provided skills (or ones the GM considers acceptable replacements) to succeed at checks; the party needs to make 8 successful checks before getting 3 failures, at which point they’re now in the secret club. Straightforward, right?

Now, that I’ve pointed out that I like the concept, and provided an example of how they work, here’s why I hate them. [Long-ass, double-size Super Special post; more after the break.]

Isn’t This Something I’m Already Doing?

Much like with Gumshoe and its “let the players find your critical clues,” isn’t this creating rules for something that already comes as a normal part of play? Heck, I’ve been running skill challenges for years without knowing it. Before, in 3.x, FATE, Exalted, what have you, the characters would still need to make rolls to do the same things to generate the same kind of result: 1.) Gather Information/Contacting/Streetwise etc. to find these doofs, and then 2.) have a test to show their prowess or that they mean it: roll in the NPC they saved/chatted up earlier, give them some non-defiled plants, pass out Save The Silt Sea’s Whales! tracts, whatever. End result: they’re accepted into this super-secret hippie-defending alliance. The difference is the lack of metrics; progression would be determined by if (and how well) the players succeeded, not a given success:failure check ratio. Similar, but different, applications.

That doesn’t have to be a bad thing; if every game used the same mechanics, success metrics, etc., roleplaying would be a very dull and creatively bankrupt hobby. And lo, there was diversity, and it was good. Hence why I’m willing to examine the concept, since in large part this criticism is just “it’s different and it’s mechanics for stuff we already do.” The problem is… it has other problems.

Monetize Roleplaying

Look, I’m no stranger to giving abstract/narrative/RP elements mechanical functions; that’s a huge part of how FATE works. In essence, what skill challenges do is convert what would otherwise be narrative flow into a mechanical subsystem. Where that breaks down is its emphasis on mechanics, namely D&D’s traditional hindrances: boundaries and binary pass/fail logic. DMs put a cap on how many successes from each available skill can count; a useful balance mechanic, to diversify who can be helpful in making checks, but one that can end up an illogical restriction (“I’m sorry, you’ve already used up your two Athletics successes chasing after that stagecoach, this one doesn’t count so I guess your horse is tired.”) That creates its own interesting narrative, but c’mon, rolling a success should be a success. Hence why in the traditional method, successes are good, and failures are bad; this system subverts the traditional D&D pass/fail by making some passes into fails. At least any decent GM would raise, ignore, what have you to the cap if it makes sense given the situation. And while I don’t have as much an issue with making RP elements into mechanics as most 4e-bashers, or with adding metagame elements—telling the players what to roll and the number of successes/failures—I’m not convinced that skill challenges are the best way to do them.

Press X To Not Die

A lot of skill challenges turn into the equivalent of quicktime events; if you’ve played a video/computer game in the last decade, you might note these banes of modern gaming. Some of the first example skill challenges I saw fell into this mold: escaping from a prison, putting out/escaping from a burning building. The way they’re constructed are very similar, cut down to the most basic input command: press A to not die; roll dice + skill X to make check. Instead of a back-and-forth which you get from rolling to overcome successively, either contested checks or beating difficulties, the mechanic is compacted down to a single die roll. As written, there’s no texture or depth to the system: game stops, party rolls dice eight times, succeed on all of them, game continues. Yes, that’s running it badly, by not incorporating other elements. That’s also how I saw 75% of gamers using Non-Weapon Proficiencies and 3.x’s skill checks, so it’s a problem that D&D always had. Skill challenges just fell into the same trap.

Hey Everyone, Skill Challenge Time!

To combine the above two complaints into one meatier one. A big part of the reaction against D&D 4th claimed that it emphasized the tactical combat aspects to near-exclusivity of everything else. Whether that’s true or not depends on your group’s/DM’s style, but it’s really not helping things with the way these “non combat” mechanics are handled. Now, you have two options: combat, or Hey, Everyone Roll Skill Challenges! Instead of dealing with these issues as part of the normal narrative progression (e.g., abstract), it’s suddenly something that jumps out, a new mechanical obstacle to overcome. An obstacle that comes complete in its Skill Challenge box, inside the larger D&D box. To clarify, I guess I dislike the feeling that you have two separate metrics for “combat” and “non-combat,” which makes the game fractured or divided, and it stems from the “rigid little encounter box” feeling that 4e always gives me. Not that it wasn’t in the other editions, but it fell into the game’s progression easier, instead of feeling like a mini-game. (Reminding me of Aces & Eights, a collective of mini-games that acquired sentience and joined to become a complete RPG.) I can see a lot of DMs badly using skill challenges as “roleplay encounters” to balance out the combat ones. (A wild skill challenge appears.) Again, an experienced DM will avoid using them as “skill-check combat” and would incorporate them into the session seamlessly without making them obvious and tacked-on.

“The Way To Win Is Not To Play” & “But This Skill Goes To Eleven”

So, on a more mechanical side, some times the best option is for the player to opt-out; nobody wants to be that guy who contributed the third and final failure, so if you don’t have Arcana because you’re a measly warrior, you’re better off sitting this one out. In the Dark Sun example, if you don’t have someone with Arcana and someone with Insight, you’re boned. It’s structured in such a way that the standard D&D fighter won’t be able to contribute at all in the second half, nor in the first if they didn’t take Streetwise. So, great, because of their class pick, they don’t get to be involved in this encounter, unless they’re the one spending a power. Yippie.

Next, there’s no incentive to make players roll X skill when they have Y skill at a higher value—you’re going to want to try and use your best skill to get around that who failure thing. A fighter will try and use their physical skills, because there’s no mechanical reason to try and use something related to the challenge. If you have Athletics at +15 and no ranks in Arcana, Diplomacy, or Bluff, what are you going to want to do: roll Athletics, give your team a free failure by using one of the listed skills you ain’t got, or opt out?

Part of why I’m harping on this is because the way it was originally written in the DMG is painful. The game says to reward creativity, and in the case of skill challenges, creative uses for skills or using other skills creatively by “trying not to say no…” okay, off to a good start… until we get to the part where it says to “let them make a roll using the skill but at a hard DC.” Wait, what? Coming up with a logical way to use Acrobatics to impress these Dark Sun guys to let you into their secret club gives you a reward that… makes it harder? Yeah, because that’s going to encourage action over inaction every time. It’s been errata’d to say “at an appropriate DC (usually moderate or hard),” which fixes the semantic issues, but continual errata and updates never fixed the core problems: the system does not give an incentive for someone unequipped for a skill challenge to make an attempt, or to provide a reason why attempting is superior to opting out, without either making it excruciatingly difficult or pathetically easy.

Any system where inaction might be the optimal route (or, sitting on the bench and rolling Aid Another like a chump) really needs to be rethought. Again, as usual, a good DM would have either planned challenges around their group, or would allow improvisation; it’s a lot of work, but making each player feel like they’ve accomplished something is mandatory for a good DM.

Together Alone

Probably the reason I dislike them the most. D&D has always had a love-hate relationship with players working together; it’s a core principle of the adventuring party part of the game, but it has issues working mechanically. 2e didn’t touch the issue outside the Skills & Powers books. 3.x provided the Aid Another action; everyone has a decent chance to give someone a +2 bonus, which is a whopping 10% to their roll, and more often than not will give a success at low levels. But this is only a real mechanical benefit at low levels; by level 4-5, you’ve got stats high enough that you don’t need assistance, so it goes the way of the dinosaur, and you’re back to a group of people soloing a mob of enemies… together.

Skill challenges have the same weird relationship with inter-group assistance. On the one level, it’s a collaborative effort: you’re all working together for a success. On another level, you’re not: everyone is doing so independently. The successes of Player A have no reflection on Player B, so teamwork is working on the macro-scale (“the party”), but not the micro-level one: you still have four to eight people running around, doing their own thing. Again with the can Aid Another, but that’s not so much “teamwork” as a fancier way of opting out: you’re contributing by helping someone else contribute. You’re not succeeding; you’re helping someone else not fail.

Not So Much A Mechanic As A Metric

That skill challenges are one of the messiest,  least well understood, and most hated elements of a polarizing edition don’t help them overall. My bottom line is that while I like the concept of them, skill challenges are not a well-constructed function; they’ve always struck me as more a non-combat mini-game, with the inherent “I’ve made my check, so I succeed, right?” logic of D&D (another of the game’s weird eccentricities that has always bugged me; the opposite end—the OSR style overblown verisimilitude simulation—does nothing for me either). I’ve heard the same opinion from several of my friends who played a lot of 4e. Several came to this conclusion while GMing, and knowing them as players, I can’t chalk it up to bad GMing or lack of experience or misunderstanding the rules. But I do think there’s a use to take from them: I think they’d work better as a GM metric than as an open play mechanic; instead, more of a way for GMs to construct and arbitrate challenges. To be honest, I’ve seen a lot of 4e GMs take it out of the “mini-game” box and make it flexible, reactive, reflexive, putting it into actual play. And that’s how I tend to use skill rolls anyways.

For example, one of the Pathfinder modules in the Kingmaker adventure path has a pseudo-skill challenge: a rabble-rouser is trying to convince the players’ populace to revolt. To quell the masses, the PCs need to make 5 diplomacy checks. As written, it sounds like a contest between the PCs and this doof, except, as a high-level bard, he has no ranks in Diplomacy (!!), making it either the easiest obstacle ever or a simple “talk at the mob for five skill rolls,” which sounds dull as hell. I’d rather see this taken in a new direction: a passionate debate in front of the crowd, where the players and the rabble-rouser take turns arguing their points back and forth to try and convince the mob, offering rebuttals and influencing opinion, maybe roleplayed out a bit for bonuses. To crib the skill challenge basics, maybe whichever side racked up five successes first won, or lost when they totaled three serious failures (maybe be nice and rule failures only count as checks that ended up 5 or below the difficulty). Still, that would require a party member with high Charisma, and all the focus (e.g., rolling) will be on them, otherwise you’d have the warriors doing squat-thrusts and bicycle kicks to try and influence the mob via Athletics.

Essentially, I like the “layered victory” and “multiple skill rolls to attain success” angles of skill challenges: they provide an interesting framework, a macro-level avenue for success—team success, no less. What first sold me on them was the idea of escaping an erupting volcano, aka an exploding Bond villain base (because, as we all know, volcano bases rock): making rolls to jump from safe point to safe point over the magma, rolls to avoid the hazardous heat and blazing inferno, rolls to dodge falling debris. That would be a pretty epic scene, no? Require 6 successes from each PC to get out safely, whatever their avenue of escape, and they can miss three checks before they fail; that way, a few failed rolls are only a setback, not INSTANT VOLCANO DEATH. They have a lot of potential for those critical climax scenes, and using them more as a GM aid will negate most of their inherent problems.

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