[D&D 4e] How I'm Doing Skill Challenges

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

So, after trying a few skill challenges at the table, breaking the system apart, putting it back together, and building a dozen challenges, I think I have a handle on how I want to use the mechanic in play.

Success and Failure Results
First, I don't really like pure pass/fail outcomes. Fortunately, the system gives you some tools to add shades of success or failure and I'm using those tools to a specific end.

Before you start the skill challenge, you say what the Goal is. This is the thing you're trying to get if you succeed. Sometimes the players will set the goal and sometimes the GM will set it, depending on the nature of the challenge and what actions set it in motion. The GM always sets the failure result -- what you're risking if you fail, in other words. (You may recognize this general conflict set up from TSOY.)

The GM also sets the complexity -- how many successes are needed to get the goal and how many failures are needed to suffer the consequences. When you get the required number of successes, you achieve the goal. When you get the required number of failures, you suffer the consequences. Both of these things can happen during the contest. By default, the challenge doesn't end when you hit the failure number.

The GM has the option to add "the challenge ends" as part of the failure consequence, but this isn't required for most challenges. The players have an incentive to quit challenges that are going badly for them instead of always pressing for success, as you'll see below (under "Time Pressure").

Goals can be concrete fictional outcomes, like "The Baron agrees to help us," and/or they can be mechanical conditions and effects like, "We get a surprise round when we fight the Ogres, and they're slowed when the fight starts (save ends)." The same goes for failure consequences.

Goals and failures should be discussed before the skill challenge, so the players can decide to attempt it or not -- assuming the PCs are in a position to walk away from the challenge. This might not always be the case, such as a trap room skill challenge that is activated when the PCs enter the area.

Time Pressure
The PCs roll initiative at the start of the skill challenge. At the end of every round (after all the PCs have acted), each PC faces an attack from the challenge. This attack should be a standard monster attack (use the tables on p. 184 and 185 of the DMG to set the right values for the challenge level). Most attacks should be Low damage with the occasional Medium. High damage should be reserved for the rare super deadly challenge. Make a separate attack roll against each PC, but apply one damage roll to all.

This "attack" and "damage" can represent actual physical danger and harm from the challenge (like the classic Indiana Jones style trap challenge) or exhaustion, fatigue, and loss of resolve (from the stress and difficulty of a social challenge).

The point is to attach a potential resource cost to each round of action during the challenge, so the players have to make decisions about how to spend their turn. Helping rolls are great, but when you help, you can't earn another success for the team and the challenge will go on a little longer -- which means you have to face more attacks. But if you roll against a tough DC and fail you get closer to hitting the failure consequence. Tough decisions make for good play!

Players might also find a use for their powers -- to buff their defenses for the challenge or give themselves circumstance bonuses to their rolls.

Setting DCs
The GM will choose a few skills for the challenge, which will be Moderate difficulty. Players can also use any other skill they want, by saying how it helps in the situation at hand -- those rolls will be Hard difficulty, and you can't use the same skill two rounds in a row. I've decided to use the DCs from the stunt table (DMG p. 42) without the extra +5 DC for skill checks. So, for levels 1-3, Moderate checks are DC 15, and Hard checks are DC 20. Helping is always Easy. The GM can always give +2/-2 circumstance modifiers as needed.

And that's it. This method is a reflection of my tastes, which are for more fluid challenges that don't require a lot of pre-building or customized write-ups. If the players say, "We should sneak around and find a good place to ambush the leader!" I can instantly drop into a skill challenge on the fly to set the starting conditions for the fight (Agon style).

This method can give twelve general types of outcomes:
- Success, no failure consequence, not hurt much. (the best one!)
- Success, no failure, hurt.
- Success, no failure, very hurt.

- Success, AND failure consequence, not hurt much.
- Success, AND failure, hurt.
- Success, AND failure, very hurt.

- No success, no failure, not hurt much. (we tried and gave up)
- No success, no failure, hurt.
- No success, no failure, very hurt. (we should have given up sooner)

- No success, failure consequence, not hurt much.
- No success, failure, hurt.
- No success, failure, very hurt. (the worst one!)

This approach may or may not suit your style. The system in the book is pretty flexible and is made to be customized, so you may have to experiment a bit to find the method that fits your group.



Blogger Tony says:  

Good stuff! The rule about allowing the skill challenge make an attack every round may be an important missing piece I've been looking for in skill challenges.

I'm working on a sophisticated encounter right now, and I ended up decided not to use the skill challenge rules, creating my own solution instead using hazards. But after last night's session and this post, I'm reconsidering. I should have something interesting to show for it next week.

Blogger Kevin says:  

Great idea, John. I liked reading about skill challenges, but seeing them as written leaves me a little flat. I didn't really expect 4E to do a GOOD job, mind you... And there are already quite a few games out there that do this kind of "interaction" scene MUCH better. I liked what you've done here, though.

Anonymous Rob says:  

I was thinking of putting a time definition on each "round of skill checks" and a total "you fail automatically if you don't succeed in x rounds" to balance letting characters use Aid Another vs not just "stacking up 4 such every round"

E.G., Designing an adventure that involves dealing with a large number of refugees, each round is 3 days. The mission (involving maintaining order and finding who you want among them) must be completed in 15 days. It's Difficulty 5 (12 successes needed).

So with only 5 rounds, you can't simply "pile on 4 aid anothers" each round.

I will also add some easy secondary DC's for contributing skills which have the effect of helping all rolls of a set type in a round (e.g., a History DC 15 check gives +2 to all Diplomacy rolls that round). This is an "better aid another" result in that you can aid multiple characters instead of one, if there are multiples using the skill in question. This encourages some different tactics than simple aid another as well.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

I've read several posts by Ron basically saying that establishing concrete stake rather than vague goals is poo.

How does this tweak fix that issue?

If characters can usually heal rather quickly (i.e., "Wow that Skill Challenge went poorly. We rest a day...")how else can the tweak better simulate Dog's like Fallout?

Anonymous johnzo says:  

(coming in way late but I'm just working up some skill challenges for my Shadowfell game now so I wanted to ask...)

I like how failure and success aren't mutually exclusive, and I think this looks like an awesome ruleset to use for death trap encounters like escaping from sinking ships or giant rolling boulders or the like. But do you guys use this system for non-mortal encounters?

I ask this because you left off (dead) from the list of outcomes. It's an unlikely outcome, given how hard it is to die in D&D -- the victim would have to have used their surges and their second wind with no one else in the party available to heal or stabilize them -- but it does seem possible.

Death is where hit points stop being an abstract resource that can represent inspiration, patience, reputation, whatever, and become only about bodily health. So how would you deal with a death resulting from a challenge that's seemingly non-mortal, like the canonical "convince the Duke for help" example?

( My first guess would be to wedge a bodily threat into the challenge -- something like "the Duke's hothead son is irritated with your presence and his bravos kill one of you..." )

Also, how would you use this system for a long-term challenge that crosses extended rest cycles? Like, say a challenge to command a war?

Maybe the right idea for a non-mortal challenge is to use the Hit Points as you've written, but alter death to fit the situation. So if you're doing something social-y, death is reputation death, if you're doing something job-related, death is losing your job, if you're doing something intellectual, maybe you lose the skill that you were rolling when you died...

Also, I'm guessing that healing and second winds work just like they would in a combat, right?

Blogger John Harper says:  

Hey Johnzo,

If you want to avoid mortal results, you can have the target lose a healing surge instead of taking damage. This is easier to abstract as "will" or "resources" or whatever.

To do a large time-scale challenge (across rest cycles) I might charge a resource to sustain the challenge. Like, when you rest, you regain your healing surges -1 (or -2 or -3) to maintain your stake in the long-term challenge. Or you could choose to regain all your surges for the current cycle, but take a failure in the long term challenge.

You might charge a different resource to sustain the long term challenge, like gold, a magic item donation to your allies, a daily power use, or whatever.

And yes, healing and second winds work for these kind of challenges, too.

Blogger Mike Olson says:  

What about just introducing something along the lines of a "communal hit point pool" for non-mortal challenges? As much as I want to abstract HP to the point where losing an argument with the Duke is the equivalent of him running you through with a longsword, my mind can't seem to stretch that far. (Not for D&D, anyway. Even SotC splits it into Health and Composure.)

So a communal hit point pool, or Success Points, or something along those lines, would take the hit instead, and when the group runs out of SP, they're failed. If it's a social skill challenge, take each character's Wisdom or Charisma, whichever is higher, and add them together -- that's their SP.

Blogger Mike Olson says:  

Oh -- and Healing Surges would work for this, too, only they'd come from the individual characters, not an external source. I'd want to insert a social-specific Healing Surge, based on Wis or Cha instead of Con, to determine how many SP the surge restores. They'd come out of the character's regular supply of Healing Surges.

Basically, spending a Healing Surge to triumph in social combat would mean that the player's ascribing additional narrative importance to the challenge. He'd rather succeed at this challenge than heal himself in combat later on that day -- it's that important.

I wish Healing Surges were called something else, like... I dunno... Fate. Destiny. Something a little more flexible that played into the heroism of the PCs and let them do double-duty that much more easily.

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