Spinning a narrative around a skill challenge

(Part 5 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2’s example skill challenge shows the Dungeon Master responding to each success or failure in the traditional DM role─by telling the players what happens in the game world as a result of their actions.

On page 83, the DMG2 advises dungeon masters that each success or failure should do the following:

  • Introduce a new option that the PCs can pursue.
  • Change the situation, such as sending the PCs to a new location, introducing new NPCs, or adding a complication.
  • Grant the players a tangible congruence for the check’s success or failure (as appropriate), one that influences their subsequent decisions.

This puts the DM back in the DM’s role, but it puts a burden on the DM running the challenge. Before, I just had to determine if a player’s justification for applying a skill made sense. Now I have to respond to each success or failure with an ongoing narrative. That’s okay; that’s the job I signed up for as a DM. But the format for a written skill challenge description remains focused on the skills available to the players and the possible justifications for using them. The format never evolves to give the DM more help spinning a narrative around the challenge.

Just as every failed check leads closer to failure, every successful check overcomes some barrier to success, but reveals a new, tangible obstacle or complication.

So in a well-run skill challenge, the DM faces his own challenge of inventing new complications to thwart the players even as they earn each success. (Sometimes I’m reminded of the infamous babelfish puzzle in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game, where your countless attempts to get the fish each result in it slipping into yet another inaccessible spot.) Written skill challenges sometimes help by suggesting the sorts of obstacles that each skill might overcome, but the written format is far, far from optimal for the task.

Skill challenges also limit the number of successes players can earn with each skill. That guideline remains good. No one wants a boring and repetitive challenge where one character chips away at a problem with the same skill.  But this guideline adds another hurdle for you, as the DM. As you narrate the challenge and pose new complications to meet every success, you must craft situations that invite the skills which remain available, while closing off the avenues that are now blocked. You get extra credit for creating complications that force the characters on the sidelines to participate.

Now we have a challenge for the DM as well as the players. Ironically, while the skill challenge mechanic initially tried to sideline the DM to a secondary role, running a good skill challenge now becomes one of the DM’s most thorny tasks.

I approach the task with a little extra preparation.

When I prepare to run a ready-made skill challenge in a published adventure, I am less interested in the list of recommended skills than in the obstacles and complications that the author says the skills might overcome. With a particularly sketchy challenge, I may list a few obstacles of my own, so I am prepared to present new situations as the players advanced through the challenge. I want specific obstacles that invite more than one solution. You can pick the lock or break down the door.  Obviously, most obstacles are not simple barriers like a locked door. For example, in an investigation skill challenge, a success might reveal a new lead that carries the characters across town to a new obstacle─anything from a cryptic note hidden under a floorboard to a reluctant witness who won’t talk until you eliminate the source of her fear.

Of course, tangible obstacles also invite creative solutions, so be prepared to welcome the players’ ideas, and to mark off successes without any rolls. For more, see my post on player skill without player frustration.

In my preparation, I also consider the setbacks the players might encounter with a failed check. With each failed roll, I want to tell the players exactly how the failure draws their characters closer to a catastrophe.

Despite my preparation, when I run for organized play, I respect the skill challenge the author presents. When my players compare notes with players from the next table, I want my players to say, “Your skill challenge sounds just like ours, but ours seemed like more fun.” (Actually, I want every skill challenge to be more fun. That’s why I’m writing all this.)

Next: an example

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2 Responses to Spinning a narrative around a skill challenge

  1. Pingback: The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge | DMDavid

  2. Pingback: Evolution of the skill challenge | DMDavid

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