(Part 3 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)
The first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons included lots of rules that no one uses: weapon speed factor, weapon armor class adjustments. A little of that tradition lived on in the first year of fourth edition. No one played skill challenges exactly as written in the first fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. At the very least, you did not start skill challenges by rolling for initiative.
According to the book, the Dungeon Master announces a skill challenge, the players roll initiative, and then take turns deciding on a skill to use and inventing a reason why that skill might apply to the situation. No one may pass a turn.
In short, everyone interrupts the D&D game and starts playing a storytelling game.
At Gen Con 2012, Robin D. Laws, one of the authors of the 4E Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, held a panel discussion on story advice. The Tome Show podcast recorded this panel as episode 201. When giving advice on running skill challenges, Robin Laws gives a succinct description of the original skill challenge.
“What I found myself doing when I was running 4E was putting a lot more onus on the players to describe what they were doing and make it much more of a narrative world-building than just here’s these particular obstacles that you have to overcome.
“‘You go on an arduous journey. Each of you contributes in a significant way as you’re going through the desert, and some of you wind up in a disadvantageous position. So tell me what it is you do to contribute to the survival of the party.’ And then I go around the table round-robin style and everyone would have to think of something cool and defining that they might have done.”
This flips the normal play style of D&D. Normally players encounter obstacles, and then find ways to overcome them. Now the players participate in the world building, inventing complications that their skills can overcome. I’m not saying this is wrong for a game. The market is full of storytelling games where players cooperate to tell stories, a process that can include taking turns inventing complications. This sort of collaborate storytelling may even be the preferred style of play for some D&D groups, though I have to wonder why those groups would choose to play D&D over a game that better suits their interests. I argue that for a lot of D&D players, this style did not feel like D&D very much anymore, and that is why skill challenges evolved over the course of fourth edition.
Robin’s description of the players’ role in the skill challenge is particularly interesting. He says players search for “cool and defining” things they could do. That could be fun, but challenges never play out that way. Most players just search their sheets for their best skills and try to imagine ways to justify using them. I suppose under Robin’s coaching, or with a game that encourages that play style, players might seek out cool and defining things. Unlike D&D, story games can encourage that play style mechanically. For example, story games often have mechanics where you define you characters by simply listing their unique and interesting aspects. This might be as simple as coming up with as list of adjectives or keywords describing your character.
Neither D&D’s tradition nor the skill challenge mechanic encourages players to overcome the challenge by inventing cool and defining actions for their character. D&D’s mechanics encourage players to look for their highest skill bonus, and then concoct an excuse to use it. I am certain that both Robin Laws and I both agree that this strategy makes D&D less fun than it can be.
He prefers a game where players share more of the narration, world-building role. Many fun games support that that style of play, but D&D is not one of those games. (Robin mentions that his HeroQuest game inspires the way he runs skill challenges.)
When I play D&D, I want to immerse myself in the game world and think of ways to overcome obstacles. My actions might involve skill checks, by they often do not.
Less then three months after the 4E release, Mike Mearls began his Ruling Skill Challenges column. He writes, “In many ways, the R&D department at Wizards of the Coast has undergone the same growing pains and learning experiences with skill challenges, much as DMs all over the world have.” The column starts a process of recasting the skill challenge, making it fit better with the usual D&D play style.