Jan 5, 2009

Skill Challenges - Own that @#$%!!

Sitting at work, trying to look busy has it's advantages. You get to read truly great posts like this one. After reading it, I find myself in 90% agreement. Mostly with the opinion that as written, skill challenges are an awkward morass of suck.

I consider myself pretty all around average. As such, I feel a criticism is warranted. WotC, if I am having a difficult time

A.) understanding it, or
B.) Enjoying it

There is obviously a problem. You wanted a cinematic gaming experience? 4E does that. However skill challenges need work. My solution is to abandon the "Forced whole party role-playing experience" and tie them to an encounter as an optional or integral condition of victory. Having a viable action for each party member each round shouldn't be limited to giving them some flashy at at-will powers. It should fully encompass all aspects of the gamer's character sheet.

IMO, a skill challenge is what "some" of the players do to support the "other" players in any relevant encounter. I tried to do this with my freshman effort . It isn't perfect, but look at the concept. A combat encounter that can be resolved by any combination of skill checks (under duress, lol.) or straight up brutality.

Does this fit anyone Else's ideal for a well balanced encounter? If you prefer pulping bad guys to flexing grey matter, more power to you. If you are like me, you want to put the efficiency of 4E combat to work. Here's how we do that.

  1. Choose your goal(s). - This may be as simple as kill all of your enemies, to capture the three princes alive, to snatch the pendant from around the vampire's neck.
  2. What is success? - Is there cake and champagne for all, or is it simply another battle won in a long war? Success should be measurable and satisfying.
  3. What is Failure? - Marilyn Manson once said "Without the threat of death, there's no reason to live at all." Even coming from a Pseudo-goth moron, the words have significance here. What's at stake? How does it affect the parties long-term plans? What about their immediate future?
  4. How hard should it be? This is the hardest part (IMO). Ideally, it should be no more difficult to use one's wits as force of arms. I have no answer to this yet, I've been winging it.
  5. What sub-systems/Rules should you use? - One of the most overlooked parts of a skill challenge is the ability to make the rules up! They are only specific to this one single encounter, so have fun with it! Look at the fishing challenge, my goal was to dump everyone in the drink at least once...I think I will succeed : )

As far as fitting a decent challenge into the story, a few examples come to mind;

  • An otherworldly beast trapped in a wizards summoning chamber. After killing it's summoner, it has free run of the tower, but cannot escape until it unravels the ritual itself. and will try to prevent the players from reaching widget X. somebodies need to distract it while the otherbodies try and complete the ritual.
  • A portion of the party stumbles into quicksand. As the remainder attempts to rescue them, a tribe of primitives attack. Under duress, the party must defend itself WHILE trying to save their trapped members.
  • A forgotten keep has been taken over by bandits/monsters/girl scouts. There are simply too many for the party to have any reasonable chance of success. The party must form a plan, and use their wits to infiltrate the castle and assassinate the leader. Sounds easy...until you see the fighter try and roll stealth.

I think that the 4E designers saw skill challenges as simply a break from combat. While this is a possibility, the inclusion of a skill based challenge AS PART OF a combat encounter has the most appeal to me.

My group come to my games to play their part in one of the few stories left that doesn't have an ending yet. They come to hear me spin flavor text. They come to try and out-wit me. They come to be a part of something bigger than the tedium of being a plain old person in the Bay area, Circa 2009 AD. As such, it is my honor to try and spin up the best possible stories and situations for them.

Dangling above a nigh bottomless pit, held only by the dragonborn fighter, you slip every time the enemy lands a blow upon her...(lol, 6 pulls before 3 slips).

Prying that damn gem out of the giant idol, while the rest of the group struggles to keep the tribes attention...(8 prys before 4 lame jokes?).

Sure you can do all of these things free-form, but is there any fun in it without a risk of failure? THAT is what skill challenges are supposed to be. The mechanical underpinnings you need to be able to roll the dice and play, however it falls.

I for one, love skill challenges. I have made them my own, and look forward to sharing my vision of them with you as I work my a$$ off to challenge my small group of Tri-Weekly escapists. The fruits of my labor will be posted here, with follow-ups as to how it actually worked. Until then, screw the book, this is the most houseruled game on the planet, take your game back!


TheLemming said...

Hey Donny,
I still can't see what the 4e hype is all about, actually it's flattened down the whole gaming experience to a cinematic nothing (*cough* better than colorful words I suppose)...
I mean we probably all used a few skill-checks before in old editions and I can't see the point in revamping a system with skill challenges where everyone has the possibility to succeed - I mean that's even taking the SPECIAL from every single character in the party.

I mean that's really, really strange to me how anyone can enjoy 4e after all the flaws that show up - :)

Donny_the_Dm said...

LEMMI! You're alive! Good to see you man.

Awwww, man. Gotta come to my house and talk smack :)

Flaws? 3E was a flaw, with dice rolling :)

We can agree to disagree. I like my games to be lots of tactical skull bashing, with some RP thrown in to get to the next. The fun and challenge to me is encountering new critters and figuring out the best way to their hearts (back, chest, ear, whatever).

That's not to say that 4E is a power-muchkin's dream come true, but it works for me.

Go write about it!