[D&D 4e] How I'm Doing Skill Challenges
Wednesday, June 18, 2008So, 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.
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.
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.