Tag Archives: Dungeon Master’s Guide

Speed factor, weapon armor class adjustments, and skill challenges

(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.

Next: The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge

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