Tobold's Blog
Sunday, August 12, 2012
Skill challenges

It is possible to play a version of roleplaying games in which combat is resolved by the players actually trying to hit each other, albeit with foam weapons. That this form of roleplaying combat has remained rather niche has two reasons: First some people feel silly waving foam swords in the air, and second a players skill in hitting somebody with a foam sword doesn't necessarily correspond to what he imagines his fictional character having as sword skill. The same two arguments, albeit to a lesser degree, apply to determining success with skills. Not everybody enjoys playing out loud the haggling with a NPC merchant, and you can have tongue-tied players playing suave characters. And that is just the social skills, nobody wants to have to determine your chance of swimming in chainmail by an actual physical exercise, unless you're out to win a Darwin Award.

While one roll of a die can determine whether you hit an orc with your sword, a combat is a structured encounter that pieces together multiple of those dice rolls of multiple players and forms a greater whole out of them. Skill checks tend to be just single rolls. So in 4th edition the makers of Dungeons & Dragons had an idea: What if they could create a structured encounter that pieces together multiple skill checks of multiple players into a greater whole? And so they created the rules for skill challenges.

It has to be said that skill challenges were not a big success. The original rules were clunky, and Wizards of the Coast spent years of trying to explain them in Dungeon Magazine, and revising the rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide 2. The fundamental idea isn't a bad one: Pose a problem which can be solved by succeeding in a number of skill checks, with every player contributing not only whatever skills his character learned, but also some basic roleplaying in explaining why a certain skill will help solving the problem. Ideally that works a bit like a combat, in which every player states what he is doing, with some description beyond just rolling dice, and after a while the group has collectively overcome the problem. In practice that bloody hard to pull of, because somehow it doesn't feel as natural as a combat.

For the DM the problem already starts at the beginning of the skill challenge: How much of the rules governing his skill challenge does he tell the players? If he lays open all the rules ("you need 10 successes before having 3 failures, and here are the possible skills that can contribute"), everybody just minmaxes the problem by rolling on his best skills with little or no roleplaying. But if the DM doesn't tell the players they are in a skill challenge (as some people propose), then they are likely to propose all sorts of solutions which have nothing whatever to do with their skills. And as at every table there sit some people who are more extrovert than others, a few players tend to monopolize free-form out-of-combat problem solving. Such free-form roleplay is great, and is an important part of D&D, but it doesn't a skill challenge make.

I can't say I found the perfect solution for my 4E campaign yet, although I'll keep trying. The players at my table have different degrees of engagement, and finding a format which will keep everybody engaged, and prevent the most outspoken players from totally dominating the discussion would be a boon. Plus I think that having skill challenges makes the skill system a bit more interesting, which is important because 4th edition player powers are heavily concentrated on the combat side. The examples given in the DMG2 suggest that the players know that they are in a skill challenge, and know that they need a series of successful dice rolls to get through, but the examples are unrealistic in that the players always choose actions or rolls that just happen to be those foreseen in the skill challenge. I'd love to see a successful skill challenge working as intended seen played out in one of those "Chris Perkins plays with a bunch of celebrities" official WotC videos; but the only one I found involved only one or two skills, and ended up being played by a single player while the others were involved in combat. Not what I was looking for.

I think I will tell the players that they are in a skill challenge, and ask the usual "what do you do?". When the usual players come forward with their ideas, I tell them to roll whatever skill check would be relevant for that idea, but also tell them that this will occupy them for a certain time. Then I ask the remaining players what they'll do in the meantime. If somebody just proposes to roll, I'll ask him to describe what his character is doing, to encourage them to roleplay.

What do you think? Have you played skill challenges in your D&D campaigns? How were they handled?

You should give this week's Critical Hit podcast a listen:

Their DM runs skill challenges with special house rules - you can't use the same skill two turns in a row, and you can't use the same skill as the player before you. This makes for a pretty wild narrative.
I think the main issue is the current mechanics of skill challenges. I think the idea is good, but the mechanics are fundamentally flawed and need to be re-visited. (The rest of this post has been taken from a similar post I made on ENWorld.)

One thought I had is that it might be better if "opposition" in Skill Challenges was independent of the player's action, rather than dependent.

If you look at combat, the dragon attacks the paladin even if the paladin does not attack the dragon. Right now, the situation with Skill Challenges is more like the dragon automatically swipes the paladin for damage if and only if the paladin attacks and misses.

This has a lot of ramifications. The cost of failing is so high that a lot of players try to avoid taking an action. As well, you always play the attack that will succeed, rather than the low-percentage chance that might do a lot of damage.

In combat, if the wizard is cornered and out of spells, well, the dragon's going to get whacked with a staff. It's unlikely that the dragon will actually get hurt, but by god, the wizard is going to swing for the fences.

I wonder if a model like the following might be better:

1. Player A takes action.
2. DM introduces complication.
3. Player B takes action.
4. DM introduces complication.

The DM complications are independent of the player's action, and force a reaction from a player. If the player fails the reaction, the DM's side scores a success.

Then it's like a penalty shootout in hockey or soccer. First side to get to five successes merits the overall success.

Example: Wilderness survival challenge

1. Player A goes hunting. Makes check and catches a rabbit. (1-0)
2. DM Complication - Player D is stung by a scorpion. Needs to make a Con save. Fails it and is poisoned. (1-1)
3. Player B attempts to suck the poison out of the wound. Fails. (1-1, notice nothing bad happens.)
4. DM Complication - Possible allergic reaction to the poison for Player D. Player D makes his Con save. (1-1)
5. Player C spreads some healing salve on the wound. Makes her check and the poison's spread is halted. (2-1).

and so on.
This is one of many problems that I think arises from the very linear structure of the vast majority of adventures. Players can only pass or fail, passing meaning they continue with the adventure as intended, failure meaning the adventure falls apart (or more likely, the DM is forced to improvise the party back onto the adventure path, rendering the skill encounter meaningless).

My suggestion is to abandon the pass/fail paradigm (for both skill encounters and adventures as a whole). Make a flow chart that encompasses different things players might try to do, each with their own outcomes and follow-up choices. Failing a skill check has consequences aside from "fail two more and you fail the encounter." It puts the player in a different position, possibly with different skill checks they can now attempt.

You should wind up with not just two, but lots of different possible outcomes, none of which represent represent total success or failure.
Actually skill challenges are generally designed to let the adventure continue even if the players fail them, much more so than combat encounters. Succeeding just gives additional rewards, information, or makes the next part of the adventure easier.

Skill challenges also have rules for branching outcomes, depending on number of successes or number of failures. For example a skill challenge could be to ask somebody for information, and the better the group does, the more information they get.
Dice usually pave the way for table top sessions - so even though we enact what our character says it still comes down to the roll.

Like, I walk up to the female enemy gate guard and say "Hey, good looking - mind opening the gate for us?"

DM rolls eyes and says roll dice against my charisma (or whatever).

In that particular case I failed the roll anyway. :P

As an aside you may laugh at people bashing each other with foam swords but if you go LARPing you will find that because of it there are some really fit and skilled weapons people around, especially when they bring in martial arts backgrounds.

Fighting a black belt judo goblin is tough! :P
Surprisingly, it is possible to swim in a chainmail. I know someone who used to do that on a regular basis.

I don't play D&D currently but in the other game I use multiple skill checks if they add to the tension. For example, to climb a rope one rolls every ten feet. Failed roll means he falls. But only one skill is needed here, not several. So I guess the answer is no.

Real life skills, for example climbing the rope, are perhaps different. Often you are quite consistent (good or bad) but can fail epicly if something out of the ordinary happens while you are practicing your skill.
Having spent a fair amount of time waving foam weapons around, I'd say there are a number of other problems with them which reduce their takeup as a simulation mechanism.

First, they don't provide a very good simulation of fighting with swords. I've fought with both foam and steel, the latter in a martial arts context, and foam has a number of problems. Most prominently, you can't safely thrust with most foam swords, which pretty much screws any realistic attempt at mimicking 90% of sword styles.

It's also very tricky to pull off deflections rather than parries - foam tends to stick to other foam - and the weighting on the swords means they move unrealistically, which, again, causes problems for realism and allows for a number of degenerate tactics that diminish the realistic "feel" of the experience.

You've also got the overall simulation quality to consider. Very few fantasy LARPs have much of a budget, and that tends to lead to a considerably-sub-1960s Star Trek level of realism in creatures, props and environments. That makes it hard to suspend disbelief, and in turn drives people back to other simulation methods.
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