The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked

(Part 2 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

The forth edition rules make the encounter the central activity of the Dungeons & Dragons game. The Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “Encounters are the exciting part of the D&D game,” (p.22) and encourages dungeon masters to shorten the intervals between encounters. “Move the PCs quickly from encounter to encounter, and on to the fun!” (p.105)

Page 105 includes more revealing advice. “As much as possible, fast-forward through the parts of an adventure that aren’t fun.  An encounter with two guards at the city gate isn’t fun.  Tell the players they get through the gate without much trouble and move on to the fun.  Niggling details about food supplies and encumbrance usually aren’t fun, so don’t sweat them, and let the players get to the adventure and on to the fun.  Long treks through endless corridors in the ancient dwarven stronghold beneath the mountains aren’t fun.”

Personally, I think that two of those activities do seem fun—especially the trek through the dwarven stronghold. I think the passage reveals something about how the 4E designers disastrously misread some of the audience for the fourth edition game, but that’s a topic for another post.

More to the point, the passage lists the sorts of interaction and exploration that skill challenges try to turn into encounters.

The 4E designers recognized that D&D includes more than combat, so they needed a game activity that gave players an opportunity to use skills and that held the same weight as the game’s core activity, the encounter. I imagine the 4E designers filling a white board with goals like these:

  • Skill challenges should be worth experience points to give them importance equal to a combat encounter.
  • Skill challenges need a difficulty and mechanical rigor similar to a combat encounter.
  • Skill challenge mechanic should enable every player to participate, not just the players with obvious skills.

The last goal reverses the early class balance of the game, in a good way. Through most of D&D history, some characters fared poorly in combat, but got a chance to shine in exploration and role playing. In the original game, thieves were not particularly useful in a fight, but fights were short and the players spent most of their time exploring, so the thief enjoyed plenty of time in the spotlight. In 4E, the rogue ranks as one of the most effective classes in combat, but every other class gets an equal chance to shine outside of combat.

The original skill challenge rules have players rolling initiative and taking turns. To make sure that everyone has a chance to contribute on their turn, players take the role of inventing circumstances where their characters can contribute. The turn structure ensures that everyone must contribute. You cannot pass a turn. “Characters must make a check on their turns using one of the identified, primary skills or they must use a different skill, if they can come up with a way to use it to contribute to the challenge.” (p.74)  This often leads to strained justifications for skill checks.

“Does the chieftain like acrobatics?  By using acrobats and interpretive dance, perhaps I can convince him not to attack the village.”

As the name suggests, skill challenges focus on skills, not on the players’ problem-solving abilities. As I wrote in Player skill without player frustration, 4E attempted to eliminate frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. When every obstacle has a DC and multiple skills, then no one gets frustrated. If you find a locked door, you can pick the lock with thievery, or break the door with strength.

The designers saw another benefit of focusing on skills. Social skills such as diplomacy, bluff, and intimidate allow players who feel uncomfortable with play-acting to contribute without stepping out of their comfort zone. As a DM, I’ve encountered plenty of players who freeze up when I encourage them to speak as their character. I think they miss a fun aspect of the game, but I don’t force it. Nonetheless, I insist players say more than, “I diplomacize the king and I roll….”

Next: Speed factor, weapon armor class adjustments, and skill challenges

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2 Responses to The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked

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