Tag Archives: skill challenges

The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Of the 4 iconic classes in Dungeons & Dragons, only 3 appeared in the game’s original rules.

Just a few months after D&D’s initial release, in the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer. “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary [Switzer] gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” See The Thief Addition (1974) for more. In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.

Thieves brought abilities that could shine in exploration and treasure collection. Too bad low-level thieves suffered from miserable chances of success. The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.

Near level 10, a thief’s abilities improved enough to finally work reliably. Too bad wizards and clerics could now cast spells like Detect Traps, Invisibility, Levitate, and Fly. Most anything the thief did, a spell did better.

Thieves could “strike silently from behind” for +4 to hit and extra damage, but the game lacked rules for maneuvering to strike, so the stunt relied on a dungeon master’s favor.

The original thief lacked a dexterity bonus to armor class. Thieves suffered from the same 1d4 hit dice as wizards. Sneaking in for a backstab proved riskier for thieves than for their targets. Gary explained, “This class is different from any of the others. Thieves are generally not meant to fight.”

D&D players like characters handy in combat, so the thief should have proven as popular as the Sage, but players found the class so compelling that Thief took a place with the Magic User, Fighter, and Cleric. Even in the 70s, many players shied from running clerics, but someone always brought a thief.

The thief class offered 4 advantages that let it thrive.

1. An early monopoly on skills

The thief boasted the only abilities resembling skills. When thieves gained the ability to climb walls or find traps, fighting men, clerics, and magic users implicitly—or sometimes by rule—lost the ability to try similar feats.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. Low-level thieves may have sucked, but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusabable abilities.

2. A compelling archetype

Adventure fiction features many heroes that thieves or rogues. Gary Switzer and Gary Gygax drew inspiration from fantasy icons such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Fritz Leiber’s The Gray Mouser, and Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever.

We all sometimes feel bound by the restrictions of everyday life. Roguish characters let us escape that feeling and savor some vicarious disdain for society’s rules.

Players loved the Thief class, but many complained that the concept fostered conflict between players because the class title encouraged theft. Players stole from other party members and dragged parties into fights with the town guard. So D&D’s designers backed away from the class’s emphasis on stealing. See Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins. Second edition made the thief a type of Rogue in name and spirit. The new Player’s Handbook touted the rogue’s heroic archetypes. “Many famous folk heroes have been more than a little larcenous—Reynard the Fox, Robin Goodfellow, and Ali Baba are but a few.”

3. A reason for a solo spotlight

Even in the 90s, D&D rule books told players to elect a caller to speak for the party. Outside of Lake Geneva, D&D parties rarely assigned callers, but most tables settle on a leader who dominates attention. Until a fight comes, other players get less time in the spotlight. But rogues could often sneak and scout and play solo while other classes waited for a turn. Players like going rogue.

4. Fast leveling with no demi-human caps

Unlike classes in modern D&D, the original classes advanced at different rates. Thieves required less experience than anyone else, so they often rose a couple of levels above their party.

Few players chose a class based on the experience needed to level, but everyone who considered an elf or dwarf weighed the demi-human level limits. The original D&D rules stopped non-human characters from rising beyond certain levels, making the most powerful characters human. However, non-human thieves suffered no level-limits.

Gary introduced these level limits to explain human domination of D&D’s fantasy world. “A demi-human is unlimited in thief level only,” Gary explained, “as this is a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.” Also, the limits created a game that featured as many human characters as the fantasy fiction that D&D emulated.

Transforming the rogue

Third-edition fully renamed the thief class to the rogue. This name change matched a broader concept that embraced sneaky backstabbers and dashing swashbucklers. Rogues gained the ability to choose their skills. They could favor charm or acrobatics over theft. The new skill system finally gave low-level rogues a decent chance of success.

The transformation also made rogues a battlefield threat. When Backstab became Sneak Attack, thieves could easily maneuver for their special attack, and they could repeat it.

The rebirth of the thief as a rogue fits the archetype better than a character not meant to fight. Leiber described the Gray Mouser as one of the best swordsmen in the world. Robin Hood ranks as an expert archer. Gary Gygax said Robin’s climactic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) influenced on D&D’s combat system.

In fourth edition, every class needed a way to contribute to the game’s two main activities: combat encounters and skill challenges. By design, every character, and so every class, needed to contribute to skill challenges. That ended the old order of rogues who brought useful skills to exploration but nothing to a fight. For challenges, every class needed skills. On the battlefield, rogues needed to kick as much ass as anyone else.

But rogues did more than hold their end. Strikers came to dominate fourth-edition combat. See Which two D&D roles are too effective. When the designers put rogues in the striker category, the characters came to kick more ass than fighters, wizards, and clerics.

Fourth edition completely inverted the thief’s original role. A class that could barely fight now dominated the battlefield. A class that monopolized the closest thing original D&D had to a skill system was now limited to equal turns in skill challenges.

Fifth edition dials back the class’s combat dominance, but the new game leaves the rogue in a good spot. A d8 hit die and a dexterity bonus to armor class makes rogues stouter than the original thief. New class features let rogues excel at skill checks. Sneak attack still deals ample damage. The latest rogue fits the archetype better than Gary’s original ever did. You can even choose a Thief archetype. For my next character, I think I will.

Never split the party—except when it adds fun

Everyone who plays role-playing games learns the Dungeons & Dragons adage never split the party.

In the hobby’s early days, when dungeon masters were referees and players chose difficulty by dungeon level, never splitting the party always made good strategy. Parties found safety in numbers.

defending-the-bridgeThe danger of splitting the party

In a dungeon stocked with encounters suited for a full party, splitting the party jeopardizes everyone. But despite the adage, players sometimes find reasons to split the party. New players and kids always seem tempted.

Faced with a divided group, some dungeon masters will scale the challenges for smaller groups. Typically, I don’t. I usually only shrink the challenges for those new players and kids.

Experienced players who split up know they’re taking an extra risk. They feel a sense of jeopardy that the usual game can’t match. They use stealth and cunning in ways they might not with a full group, when they assume they can defeat any monsters set before them. I don’t want to lose that sense of peril, or to block their chance to approach the game differently. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions.

Why split the party?

In today’s game, player characters do more than assault dungeons. Sometimes the elf and wizard must persuade the elven emissary, the thief and warlock need to infiltrate a manor house, and the bard and noble paladin need to charm guests at a ball. They could work better separately, but players insist on keeping the party together. So the dwarf insults the emissary, the paladin’s chainmail racket alerts the manor guards, and a motley band of killers sours the ball. Then midnight tolls and evil triumphs.

Game masters often avoid challenges suited to split parties, but I invite them. Sometimes I relish a chance to split a party.

Splitting the party can give soft-spoken players a chance in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents.

Way back in a post on skill challenges, I suggested using time pressure to force each PC to participate. “If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.” Formal skill challenges are gone, but forcing a party to divide and conquer still invites everyone to contribute.

One limitation of role-playing games is that even when the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Splitting the party gives more players a solo. Meanwhile, the thief finally gets to sneak. The wizard finally gets to cast Sending.

If done well, splitting the party creates more spotlight time for every player at the table. More on that later.

Why keep everyone together?

Never split the party started as good strategy, but now it feels like part of the game’s social contract. Even when splitting the party seems logical, players keep the group together for three metagame reasons.

1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.

Players expect combat encounters designed to challenge a group of 4 to 7 characters. If they split up before a fight erupts, then an undermanned party becomes overmatched.

But that happens less often that you think, because you, as a game master, see the situations that invite splitting the party and can plan challenges for smaller groups.

2. Players stay together as a courtesy to the game master.

By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives.

For the GM, balancing two threads can be fun—in the right situation. For a split to work, either (1) it cannot take more time than the idle players need to grab a snack, or (2) each subgroup needs to meet separate challenges. You can’t leave half of the party inactive for more than 5 minutes.

So the trick of handling a split party comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group busy. If someone goes to scout while the party rests, either the scouting should be finish by the time the idle players grab a drink, or something better stumble into the campsite.

3. Players stay together to keep everyone involved in the action.

A split party inevitably forces some players to wait until the spotlight returns to them. To minimize the problem of downtime, use two techniques.

Cut between scenes

Cut from one group to the next every 2-4 minutes. Some GMs advise setting a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track, then a timer helps, but I prefer to use my own sense of time and pacing to switch scenes.

Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the GM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. While players debate their next move, I cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster.

If I can’t switch scenes on a decision point, I switch on a moment of tension, ideally a cliffhanger.

Delegate the monsters to the idle players

Depending on your players’ dispositions, you might recruit idle players to run monsters in a battle. This works especially well in a simple fight where you expect the PCs to win. If the foes bring complicated abilities or motives, or if their power threatens to slay characters, I would avoid giving up control. When a GM kills a character, it comes in the line of duty, but a player should not take the heat for killing a PC.

If half the party lands in a fight, then the split plays best if the other half finds a battle too. You can run two fights on two maps with the same initiative count.

If you run simultaneous fights and let the players run the monsters, then you can leave the room for a drink. Your greatest GM triumphs often come when you have nothing to do.

Game master Rich Howard goes beyond letting players run foes. He casts idle players as the non-player characters who interact with the rest of the party. I admire the approach, but I feel unready to surrender so much of the game world.

Splitting the room

Even when you split a party, players tend to remain at the same table. This lets inactive players watch the story and lets the GM switch easily from one subgroup to another.

While sharing a table, the spectators learn things that their characters don’t. Most players take it as a point of honor not to use their unearned knowledge. If not, remind them to play in character based on what their character knows.

Separating players to different rooms can add fun though. No player has access to hidden information, so decisions become more interesting. Everyone feels an added sense of peril and concern for their missing comrades.

If you do separate players, you still need to switch groups every 2-4 minutes, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.

Back when phones featured dials, I would separate players to sow suspicion about what other party members could be plotting. This fit the early game, when players betrayed each other for loot. Now such mind games only fit Paranoia sessions. Now I insist that my D&D players contrive reasons to cooperate.

Split the party

So split the party. For a GM running a divided party, the second hardest trick comes from finding situations where all the subgroups remain engaged. The hardest trick? Encouraging the players defy protocol and split up when splitting makes sense.

D&D next re-empowers DMs; players stay empowered

How much should the outcomes of the characters’ actions be decided by the game master instead of the rules?

Before role-playing games, the rules of a game specified every action players could take, and then decided the outcome of each possible action.

The invention of the dungeon master freed players from the tyranny of the rules. Most editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected the DM to make frequent decisions about the characters’ fates.

CORE5-8 The Dantalien Maneuver

Taming bad dungeon masters

The DM’s power to augment the rules enabled the hobby we love, but this power enabled capricious DMs to zap characters when players failed to laugh at their puns, to demand to be addressed as “Mr. DM sir,” to curry favor by lading treasure on their girlfriends’ characters, and to win D&D by killing the rest of the party.

Perhaps inspired by all the tales of bad DMs, the fourth edition designers shrank the DM’s role as much as possible. Potentially, a 4E DM’s duties could be limited to reading the box text, running the monsters, and announcing the skills that apply to the skill challenge. As much as possible, 4E shifts the game to the combat stage with its well-defined rules. In stark contrast to earlier editions, 4E’s spells lack effects outside of combat. Fourth edition defines combat powers as tightly as Magic cards, so the DM never needs to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time. (You can.) For action outside of combat, 4E presents the skill challenge, where the DM only has to decide if a skill helps the players—but only when the skill challenge fails to list the skill in advance.

Restoring DM empowerment

Now the D&D next designers speak of returning dungeon masters to their traditional role in the game, or re-empowering the dungeon master. See Rodney Thompson’s first answer in this Rule-of-Three post and Monte Cook’s discussion in an early Legends and Lore, “The Temperature of the Rules”.

The phrase “DM empowerment” may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle your DM’s power fantasies. DM empowerment lets DMs fill gaps in the rules—and sometimes override the rules—with their own judgement. DM empowerment lets your wizard use spells outside of combat, among other things. If Mike Mearls came from a marketing background, we would be talking about restoring player freedom instead of DM empowerment.

You might say, “Even though 4E minimizes the DM’s power, my character still has the freedom to try anything.” Really? When did you last try to use a power outside of combat? Do the 4E rules even explicitly allow powers outside of combat? As much as possible, 4E limits your character’s actions to the familiar bounds of the rules.

Even though 4E allows you to attempt things outside the rules, players tend to limit themselves to the menu on their character sheets, just as they rarely stray from their favorite restaurant’s menu.

Players who limit themselves to their defined powers make my job as a 4E dungeon master easier, because I worry about allowing players to improvise actions that duplicate powers. The game includes powers that do things like trip or blind, and this suggests that these stunts require special training. If I allow anyone to throw sand into a foe’s eyes, effectively duplicating the rogue power Sand in the eyes, am I diminishing the value of a level-7 power? If I allow the improvised power, I set a precedent. What happens when a trick proves too repeatable? I don’t want characters to enter every combat flinging handfuls of sand. No real-world army prevailed with such tactics. I never want to say no, but I’m wary of yes.

In practice, as a DM, I allow improvised actions when the unique situation makes the action difficult to repeat. Repeatable actions demand extra scrutiny, because they must always be a little less potent than a comparable power.

Resolution transparency

The opposite of DM empowerment is not player empowerment or player entitlement, it’s resolution transparency, where the outcome of any action is resolved by rule so players can anticipate the likely outcomes in advance. Resolution transparency lets you subject your enemies to both ongoing cold and fire damage without ever worrying whether the DM will decide that the cold douses the fire.

Player empowerment, also known as player agency, refers to the players’ ability to change the game world. When players lack player agency, either they lack meaningful options because they are being railroaded, or because the DM’s favorite non-player characters upstage and supersede the player characters.

Player entitlement means players enjoy unrestricted access to all game options for their characters. They can, for example, shop for any magic items their characters can afford.

Rules volume

DM empowerment and resolution transparency effect the volume of rules a game needs. Both original D&D and D&D next fit their core game rules into a few pages by relying on the DM to resolve all the areas the rules fail to cover. Rodney Thompson writes that D&D next “trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation.”

In theory, a game could give players freedom while maximizing resolution transparency by including mountains of rules that cover every possibility. For example, 4E might include a damage-type table that reveals that cold cancels fire. The lightning damage type might bear extra rules for dealing with damage transmitted through water and physical contact. The 80s saw several games with such extensive rules, but nobody plays Aftermath much anymore.

How fourth edition avoids too many rules

Fourth edition features greater resolution transparency than any other role-playing game, while avoiding extra complexity. The design works this magic by focusing the game on combat encounters and skill-challenge encounters. These two activities provide a way to ignore all the messy, game-world details that otherwise require mountains of rules or a game master’s judgement to resolve.

For combat, 4E’s designers opted for broad, simple rules that gloss over the physics of the game world for the sake of playability. For example, a power’s flavor text never matters, just its keywords. And while the keywords matter, their meanings do not. “Lightning,” “cold,” and “fire” damage could as easily be “kootie,” “loogie,” and “mojo” damage.

Skill challenges provide an activity where the game-world provides flavor, but where only the list of applicable skills actually matters in the game. As originally conceived, skill challenges grant players resolution transparency, while making the game-world unimportant. Players wind up studying their character sheets and lose any immersion in the game-world. See my series starting with “Evolution of the skill challenge,” for an analysis of the skill challenge, and how the activity changed to allow greater DM empowerment.

By glossing over the game-world’s messy details, these design strategies diminish the importance of the game world and focus everyone’s attention on the rules and stats.

Advantages of DM empowerment and resolution transparency

Both DM empowerment and resolution transparency have advantages.

Benefits of DM empowerment

  • Grants players more freedom to interact with the game world.
  • Enables lighter game rules by trusting the DM to fill the gaps.
  • Makes the game world more important, enhancing player immersion. Monte Cook writes, “Empowering DMs from the start facilitates simulation. No set of rules can cover every situation, and the DM can address fine details in a way no rulebook can.”

Benefits of resolution transparency

  • Allows players to anticipate the likely outcomes of an action in advance.
  • Players understand their options because the rules list most of the actions their characters can take. Players rarely need to ask the DM what they can do; they rarely need to ask, “Mother may I?”
  • Limits the importance of the DM’s skill and personality.

For my taste, I tend to prefer resolution transparency during combat, although 4E goes farther than I like. Outside of combat, I want players immersed in the game world, not in the game’s rules, so I favor DM empowerment.

Tabletop games need empowered DMs to succeed

The biggest competitor to D&D is not another tabletop game, it’s World of Warcraft and countless other computer and video games that duplicate most of the D&D experience, 24/7, with better graphics. D&D enjoys two competitive advantages: face-to-face social interaction, and the DM’s ability to account for actions outside of the game’s rules. A game like 4E that eliminates the DM’s judgement from the game throws out a key advantage. Without a DM, why bother to log off?

Group scenes and mass confusion

In Dungeons & Dragons, the dungeon master assumes the role of every non-player character. As a DM, when I must portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. Certainly if I were better at voices—and better at sticking to a voice—the confusion would lessen.

Short of voice acting class, I avoid the problem by contriving to have the players interact with one non-player character at a time.

Undead Fred cookie cuttersIn your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones. As a DM, you have a tougher job than a TV writer, because when you speak in character, the players may not always recognize your character. Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view.

Now suppose you’re Mel Blanc and Jim Dale rolled into one awesome dungeon master. Great! Can I play at your table? Nonetheless, you still shouldn’t have more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.

As a dungeon master, you must work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, you should resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.

As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. In “The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge,” I suggested splitting the party to force everyone to contribute to an interactive skill challenge. But even without a skill challenge, dividing the party always serves as a great way to encourage less-vocal party members to take the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them their separate ways.

The next skill challenge

(This concludes a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

How would a game activity like the skill challenge appear in D&D Next?

First of all, D&D Next no longer attempts to center game play around the encounter as a core activity of the game, so the rules no longer need to package a bunch of skill checks into something with the scale and formality of combat encounter. As ever, players may still need to infiltrate enemy camps or coax the duke into supporting their cause, and those challenges may require a series of skill rolls, but the checks can come as needed. Under the surface, do the tallies of successes and failures make the game more fun?

If D&D Next never includes anything like a skill challenge, I will be perfectly content. However, including rules for something like the skill challenge could yield two benefits:

  • They give a formal mechanism for awarding experience points to characters who overcome non-combat obstacles in the game.
  • They provide a tool for dungeon masters as they work to structure non-combat obstacles into exciting adventures, which involve every character and feature a sense of jeopardy that rises even as the characters near success.

As I have suggested throughout this series of posts, the design flaws of the skill challenge begin with the “skill” in the name. Putting the focus on skills creates the wrong approach. A good alternative would place the emphasis where it belongs, on the obstacles the players must overcome.

So I present my alternative to the skill challenge: the obstacle course. The name is memorable, puts the focus where it belongs, and yes, it’s silly. I admit it.

Combat encounters feature creatures to overcome. The obstacle course features obstacles to overcome. Combat encounters deliver experience based on the number and difficulty of enemies; obstacle courses deliver experience based on the number and difficulty of challenges. Obstacle courses can be overcome by player problem solving, skill successes, or a combination of both. Just as setbacks in a combat encounter threaten the characters, setbacks in a well-designed obstacle course bring the characters closer to some catastrophe. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

So let’s bury the skill challenge. Long live the obstacle course.

Next: Living Forgotten Realms Battle Interactive

Example: Finding the hidden chambers from Halaster’s Last Apprentice

(Part 6 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

The first D&D Encounters season, Halaster’s Last Apprentice, included a skill challenge that works perfectly within the original conception of the skill challenge rules. “You make a perilous search through the upper levels of Undermountain, seeking the hidden chamber. Each of you contributes in some way….”

For that encounter season, I served as DM to a table full of players who were resampling D&D after many years away from the game. They wanted to return to the Undermountain crawls that they enjoyed in the past. I worried that playing an abstract challenge would convince them that 4E was no longer the game they had loved.  “But some of us like dungeon stuff.” Unfortunately, the skill challenge posed some problems for the more vivid style that I wanted. The challenge’s description included a huge array of applicable skills, but only hinted at a few tangible obstacles that the players might face.

Drawing on the challenge’s description, I created a list of obstacles that suited the challenge. Each invited a number of solutions based on the different skills listed in the challenge.

Obstacle Potential solutions
Locked door Pick lock using thievery
Break door using athletics
Search, possibly locating a hidden key or secret catch
Huge, obviously unbeatable, carrion crawler in a chamber ahead Sneak past (failure forces retreat)
Use nature to lure the giant rats from a nearby niche into the chamber, distracting the beast
Use bluff to create a distraction
Flooded tunnels block passage Use endurance to swim frigid water and find an easy route or, in combination with dungeoneering, a way to drain the tunnels

As I ran the skill challenge, I presented specific obstacles and unveiled new complications as needed. (Sometimes I feel like Grommet laying track as he rolls along.) I kept the complications coming until the characters reach the required number of successes.

The challenge’s description limits the number of available successes for skills like thievery, so once thievery is no longer an option, the players stop encountering doors with locks. Instead, the door is barred from the other side, or perhaps a collapsed stone block closes the passage. A strong character might wrench it out of the way, or you could brave that flooded passage you just passed…

In Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge, I criticized this challenge for lacking any tangible, game-world reason that three failures results in a failed challenge. Because the adventure suggests that rival groups sought the chamber, when my players failed checks, I explained how the failures delayed the party, and then had them find signs that another group had recently passed this way.

If the players do amass three strikes, the challenge taxes everyone a healing surge due to the “constant fighting,” you know, dungeon stuff. Also, the players get penalized with a fight. Some penalty. I ran the fight anyway because some folks at my table clearly would have been disappointed without one.

Next: The next skill challenge

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

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 remakes the skill challenge

(Part 4 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

Just a year after fourth edition’s debut, the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 upended the original skill challenge. The new material makes just one specific revision to the original rules:  It provides new numbers for challenge complexity and difficulty class to address serious problems with skill challenge math.

Beyond the numbers, I suspect the designers sought to remake the skill challenge as much as possible without scrapping the existing rules. The big changes come from original rules that are now ignored, and from advice and examples that completely remake how challenges run at the table.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 strips away the formal game-within-a-game implied by the original skill challenge: The structure of rolling for initiative and taking turns is gone; the new summary contains no mention of it. In the example skill challenge, the players jump in to act as they wish.

I disliked the original, story-game style implied by the original skill challenge rules, and welcomed the new advice. But the core of the original skill challenge rules remained, and some friction existed between those original rules and the recast skill challenge. In this post, I will explore some points of friction, and discuss some ways to overcome them.

Scoring with failed checks discourages broad participation

The 4E designers tried the match the formulas for constructing a combat encounter with similar formulas for a skill challenge. So a skill challenge’s complexity stems from the number and difficulty of successes required─an odd choice in a way. You don’t grant experience in a combat encounter by counting how many attacks score hits.

This scorekeeping works fine when you run a skill challenge as a collaborative storytelling game within a game

In the original skill challenge, every character had a turn, and no one could pass. This forced every player to participate. The new challenge drops the formal structure, leaving the DM with the job of getting everyone involved. The DMG2 helps with advice for involving every character. However, the players know three failed skill checks add up to a failed challenge, so now some players will fight against making any checks for fear of adding to an arbitrary count of failures and contributing to a failed challenge. This stands in total opposition to the original ideal where everyone contributes.

Obviously, some failed skill checks will bring the players closer to a disaster, by alerting the guards, collapsing the tunnel, or whatever. On the other hand, the foreseeable, game-world consequences of some failures do not lead to disaster, yet players worry about attempting, say, an innocuous knowledge check because they metagame the skill challenge.

Hint: You can encourage more players to participate in a skill challenge by forcing the characters to tackle separate tasks simultaneously. For instance, if the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute. Just give the players enough information to know which methods of persuasion will work best on which members of the council.

Scorekeeping may not match game world

In the story-game style of the original skill challenge, the players’ score can exist as a naked artifice of the game, just like the turns the rules forced them to take. I suspect that the original vision of the skill challenge assumed the DM would tell players their score of successes and failures. After all, the players could even keep accurate score themselves. This avoided the need to provide game-world signs of success or failure as the players advanced through the challenge. After the skill challenge finished, you could always concoct a game-world explanation for the challenge’s outcome.

Now on page 83, the DMG2 tells you to “grant the players a tangible congruence for the check’s success or failure (as appropriate), one that influences their subsequent decisions.” (In word choices like “tangible congruence,” Gary’s spirit lives!)

This works best if the challenge’s cause of failure is different from the players’ success. For example, if the players must infiltrate the center of the enemy camp without raising an alarm, then their successes can bring them closer to their goal even as their failures raise suspicion and take them closer to failure. These sorts of challenges create a nice tension as the players draw closer to both victory and defeat.

If moving toward success necessarily moves the players away from failure, then running the challenge poses a problem.

The first Dungeon Masters Guide introduced the skill challenge mechanic with an example where the players attempt to persuade the duke before the duke grows too annoyed to listen.  Good luck role playing the duke’s demeanor as he is poised one success away from helping while also one failure away from banishing the players.

Even worse, if a skill challenge lacks any clear marker of failure, running the challenge presents a problem. The first D&D Encounters season, Halaster’s Last Apprentice, included a challenge where the players seek to find hidden chambers in the Undermountain before they amass the three failures allowed by the rules. Why do three failures end this challenge? Is it because the players grow restless and are now all on their smart phones? The adventure suggests that rival groups might be seeking the lost chambers, but it fails to capitalize on this. The adventure follows the conventional advice by taxing each player a healing surge, and then saying that they found the crypt anyway.

“Why do we lose a healing surge?”

“Well, you know, dungeon stuff.”

Why is the game turning the dungeon stuff into a die-rolling abstraction? I thought some of us liked dungeon stuff.

Hint: You can fix a lot of bad skill challenges by adding time pressure. Every failed attempt wastes time. Too many failures and time runs out. Convince the duke before he is called to the wedding that will cement his alliance with the enemy. Find the hidden crypt before the sun sets and the dead rise.

Next: Spinning a narrative around a skill challenge

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