Log in

No account? Create an account
14 June 2008 @ 11:37 am
Skill Challenges  
OK, I know I said I was going to stay away for a few days, but I consider this an important topic and I wanted to put my thoughts together in a coherent post. I really like the Skill Challenge system in 4E, and I've been using in for months. There are people having trouble with it at the moment, so I wanted to provide my thoughts on it.

The common question I'm seeing is "How on Earth does anyone ever succeed at a skill challenge?" At levels 1-3, the medium DC for a challenge is 20. At first level, a player will typically have a score of +9-11 with a trained skill (potentially +15 with a 20 stat and Skill Focus, but that's clearly an exception). Given that you need twice as many successes as failures - and that you won't always be able to find a way to use a trained skill in a particular encounter - how can you possibly succeed? Mathematically, the odds are pathetic.

There's four subjects I want to address. The first are the modifiers to that math. The second is the basic principlies of skill challenge design, and the role that plays. The third is the consequences of success and failure. And the fourth is house rules I have been using. But before I get into any of that, I want to emphasis that a skill challenge should be as significant and interesting as any combat. It should make you search for ways to support your allies and consider creative ways to use your abilities; while it may be fun to charge wildly into the fray as a fighter, tactically you'll have more chance of success if you stick together and support the rogue. And you need to consider the strengths and weaknesses of your particular foe: just like you don't use a fireball on a fire elemental, you need to consider whether Intimidate will work in this particular situation. A well-designed skill challenge is more complex and interesting that simply "I make a Search check" - it's something that requires creative thought.

Anyhow, let's start with the math. I'm not going to worry too much about the challenges of first level, because you're a first level character - is it really surprising that things are tough? By the time you're 2nd level, you're looking at a +10-12 modifier with trained skills, and you have the potential of utility powers and a second feat (third for a human). With a +10 modifier, you're still talking about a 50% chance of success - and since you need twice as many successes as failures, still not looking so good. But, bear the following things in mind.

Rewarding Flavor and Creativity. In running a challenge, I'm not looking for the PC to say "I'm using Diplomacy." I want him to roleplay the scene. How's he making his case? Is he drawing on anything specifically relevant to his target? While I like this for color, it's called out as something that SHOULD be rewarded. In providing advice to the DM, page 74 of the DMG specifically notes that you can choose to reward creative action (or penalize the opposite) by applying a -2 to +2 modifier to the check. In some cases, I've specifically set up encounters where the player can get an even higher bonus if he brings up the right thing - but more on that later.

Aid Another. Every ally who successfully aids you gives you a +2 to your check, to a maximum of +8. If you've got a +10 base and you get +8 from your allies... well, a +18 has pretty good odds on a DC 20 check. NOW, it's entirely up to the DM to decide if Aid Another is possible in a skill challenge; if you're chasing a thief down the street, I'm not going to let you aid your ally's Athletics check; you've got to make your own. And even if I decide Aid Another is possible for a skill, I'm going to want you to explain how you're aiding - to put the same thought into it that you'd use if using the skill. So an Aid Another on Diplomacy isn't just "What he said" - tell me how you're supporting the main speaker's point. Nonetheless, once you bring a potential +8 bonus from Aid Another onto the scene, you've got a big change.

Utility Powers. Many classes can get utility powers as soon as second level that have long-term impact on noncombat challenges. And the point here is that you need to make a choice whether you will shine in combat or out of it - and that both are valid choices. As a rogue, will you take Tumble or Master of Deceit? As a paladin, do you want Martyr's Blessing or Astral Voice? The warlock's Beguiling Tongue, the ranger's Crucial Advice - all of these are utility powers that specifically help during skill challenges, and as a paladin, I personally took Astral Voice. As designed, skill challenges are a significant part of the system; devoting a utility power to them is hardly a waste of time. Some of these only change a single roll; others enhance a skill throughout the course of an encounter. And there's more noncombat utility powers as you go. So in looking at the base math, don't forget that there are modifiers TO that base math, if you choose to take them.

Feats, Feats, Feats. Now, one of the issues here is that the +10-12 modifier is only relevant if you're trained in the skill; otherwise, at 2nd level, you could even have a negative modifier (a plate-and-shield armored paladin with 8 Dex will have a tasty -4 on Acrobatics). Of course, the challenge to you is to find a way to bring one of your trained skills to bear on the challenge... which means that it's good to have trained skills. In 4E, you get more feats than you used to in 3E... and beyond that, at the Heroic Tier, those feats simply pack less of a combat punch than they used to. Weapon Focus? +1 damage instead of +2. Power Attack is certainly useful, but at heroic tier it's a maximum of +3 damage for the greataxe wielding fighter, not the potential +10 of the past. These feats are USEFUL... but they are no longer VITAL. Which means that skill-related choices become a more plausible way to spend your feats. The 4th-level paladin I'm playing in a game at the moment has three feats: Multiclass Warlord training (which included Diplomacy training); Skill Training (Heal); and Skill Focus (Intimidate). Between my high Charisma, racial bonus to Intimidate, and Astral Voice utility power, I am awesome when it comes to Intimidate or Diplomacy; but I'm also decent at Athletics, Religion, Heal, and Endurance, which gives me a fairly diverse spread of skills to choose from when looking for a way to help in a situation. My Perception? only +4. But in that investigation scenario, ifsomeone else can find the bloodstain, I can study it with my Heal skill and see what I can learn. My point is that I consider all of these feats far more effective choices than taking Weapon Focus and getting a +1 to damage. it's much easier than it used to be to take your fighter and say "He used to be a bouncer at a bar - I want him to be Streetwise." Spending a feat on Skill Training won't cripple your fighter in combat; and with skill challenges, it's really a good thing to try to diversify your character, to be more than just the big strong guy. Sure, you're big and strong - but perhaps you grew up out in the country, where you developed your Nature skill (as fighters are rewarded for having a decent Wisdom, there's a lot of Wisdom skills you could train!).

CHALLENGE DESIGN. You can make a challenge very straightforward. "You are trying to scare this man. You need to make Intimidate checks. DC 20. Go!" This is the same as having a dungeon encounter where you say "It's a 10 by 10 room with no interesting features. There's an orc with a pie standing dead center. He's going to fight you. Go!" In creating a combat scenario, you're likely to put thought into ways to make it interesting. How's the terrain affect things? Are there tactics the monsters should use, or things the PCs can do to make the fight easier (IE, target the wizard first, avoid using scorching burst on the fire resistant creatures, get back to back to avoid being flanked)? As a DM, are you taking into account any of the PC's abilities when making the encounter?

All of these same things should apply to a good skill challenge. Let's take the basic example of trying to convince Duke Soandso to commit troops against your enemy, Count Suchandsuch. You could say that the base skills are Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate, DC 20 on each, and leave it there. Or you could get more creative.

Diplomacy is the obvious baseline in this case. It's a diplomatic encounter, right? But perhaps Duke Soandso is a proud warrior who hates silver-tongued weasels; he respects STRENGTH, and he likes a man who makes a fierce case. As such, perhaps the Intimidate DC is only 15. Of course, another Duke might be infuriated by someone daring to speak impudently to him in his own hall - if you're dealing with such a man, Intimidate might be an option... but one that results in automatic failure. Again, in combat, sometimes you'll find the creature that's vulnerable to fire - and sometimes you'll fight one that's immune to fire. That's what makes things interesting - every diplomatic encounter is NOT going to be the same, and you're going to have to adjust your tactics accordingly.

So how do you KNOW what skills are going to work? To begin with, that's where roleplaying comes in. Again, you could play this as just a flat series of die rolls, but if that's all you want to do, why are you playing a RPG? In my campaign, every die roll is going to involve some roleplaying on the part of both player and DM, as the player justifies his roll and the DM plays out the Duke's response. If you try your Diplomacy and the Duke snaps "I have no time for weasels in priestly robes!" that's a good sign that Diplomacy isn't your best shot here. Beyond that, though, try a skill. Perhaps Insight will reveal what he's hiding - or perhaps History will tell you of the time he executed an impudent ambassador.

Beyond this, as a DM, I like to bury hidden rewards for clever ideas. History's not a "primary" skill for the challenge. But perhaps, if you use History, you'll learn about how Duchess Soandso was a woman of peace - and if you work Duchess Soandso into a Bluff or Diplomacy check in a meaningful way ("Wouldn't your wife have wanted you to do this, Duke?", I might give you a +5 to the check. So you CAN just go Diplomacy Diplomacy Diplomacy... but you'll have a better chance of success if you evaluate the situation and look for clues, just as you'd have a better chance of winning a battle if you can take advantage of the terrain. In an encounter with gnolls, I set the initial Intimidate DC at 25, because you just don't know enough about their culture to lean on them... but if someone makes a Nature check, it drops to DC 15, because Initimidation is actually the right tactic to take as long as you know how to do it ("Challenge the father, but NEVER insult his mother."). It's more than just twelve die rolls; it's an encounter, and it should offer just as much opportunity for creativity and clever tactics as a battle.

Furthermore, in creating a skill challenge, I AM going to look the party I'm dealing with. Just like I'd design a fight to pose a challenge to THAT GROUP, I'll look at a skill challenge and say "OK, Lupin's got a good Nature check - if he thinks to use it, he can turn things around."

SUCCESS AND FAILURE. Skill challenges should be challenging. If the players can assume that they will succeed at every challenge, why bother doing them in the first place? As a result, in designing a skill challenge, you need to give careful thought to the consequences of success and failure, and whether partial success is an option. You should never build a skill challenge into an adventure in such a way that failure brings the adventure to a halt....if the players HAVE to win, then you'd better just let them win. Failure may make things more difficult for them. It may have severe consequences. But it should never be the end of everything.

The first aspect of this is to consider the potential of partial success. If I'm doing a skill challenge where you're trying to gather information in a bar, what I'm going to do is have a table of information, with each success getting you one more piece of the puzzle. If you go all the way, you're going to have a much easier time. If you fail - meaning that the crowd has clammed up - you're going to have to try to solve the puzzle using only the information you managed to collect. For example, in the adventure I'm playing in, we found an inscrption on the wall, and each success in the skill challenge let us translate one line. We only succeeded in two out of four - but those two lines were still enough for us to figure out the puzzle and get past it. If we'd gotten all four, it would have been trivial; as it was, it was tricky, but we still managed.

Taking the example of Duke Soandso, full success would mean that he'd commit troops to help you against Count Suchandsuch. Partial failure would depend on just how close you were. If you missed by one success, he might send one of his best soldiers with you to report on the situation - so you get some help, even if not all the help that you wanted; and in any case, the Duke will fortify his domain while he considers your worlds. Total failure could result in the Duke actually joining fores with the Count. It's still not the end of the game; but it's going to make life much more challenging for you, as now you have two enemies to fight.

Likewise, say the challenge is a chase - as you're pursuing a thief through the city. Success means you catch him. On a close failure, he slips away - but you at least got close to his hide out, and you know what part of the city he's in. You can pick up the stolen goods from the local fence, and if you want to keep hunting for the theif you've got a good starting point. Total failure means that the thief will be back with his buddies later in the night, since you were such easy marks... giving you ANOTHER chance to catch him, only now he's got friends. Again, the adventure isn't OVER - it's just a question of what actions come next and if you will have an easier or more difficult time.

HOUSE RULES. Now, I admit, I have been using a few house rules to help people with skill challenges.

Action Points. I allow people to use an action point in a skill challenge to reroll a failed check, and say that the second roll must be higher than the original. If they've missed the check by just one or two points, I will usually offer to let them spend an action point to turn it into an automatic success.

Critical Success. If someone rolls a natural 20 on a skill check (not Aid Another), I've said that it counts as two automatic successes. I've seen other people say that a critical success should instead eliminate a failure, and I may try this out.

In any case, in looking purely at the math of +9-11 vs DC 20, you're missing a lot of the options and depth that go into a skill challenge. First you have the potential modifiers to the math. Then you have the fact that a good skill challenge should always provide interesting options; it should be more than just a few flat rolls. And finally there's the fact that failing a skill challenge shouldn't be the end of the world. In many cases I assume that the PCs WON'T succeed at a skill challenge (remember as DM, I KNOW what their skills are when I'm designing the challenge); the issue is that the closer they get, the better.

There's certainly other house rules you could add. But I don't consider skill challenges to be broken, and I've really enjoyed using the system; it's one of my favorite aspects of 4E.

Current Location: Boulder, Colorado
Current Mood: awake
Current Music: Would be a lovely thing
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 14th, 2008 07:44 pm (UTC)
One of my major points here is that it's up to you as DM to design an interesting skill challenge that includes options PCs can take advantage of. I can easily see people saying "That's great, but that's not the core system." Well, it IS in the core system... it's just not always spelled out too clearly. A few examples of this:

On page 75 of the DMG, under "Reward Clever Ideas", the fighter gets to use a secondary skill against an easy DC, because what he's doing is a relatively simple action that directly builds on the information acquired by the cleric.

In "The Dead Witness", a successful Insight check allows the party to follow up with a Religion check; while it's a secondary skill, the check has an easy DC.

Perception is often called out as something that can give a bonus.

There's lots of examples of Initimidate working against you - either being an automatic failure or raising other DCs to hard. My point is that these challenges are EXAMPLES... and what you should take from these examples is "It is possible for a skill to be an automatic success or failure, or to modify the DC up or down." Hence my Gnoll scenario, where Nature can take Intimidate from Difficult to Easy. Or the idea of the Duke who, rather than being offended by Intimidate, LIKES to see a little fire - in his case, the first time you use Intimidate it might be an automatic success (though hey, if you push too far, the next one might be a failure!).

What the examples show is that it's not about flat rolls. Using one skill may modify the odds or open up new possibilities. When you put combats together, you'll use your imagination to add interesting features and challenges - things that can hinder the players or help them, depending what they do. So put the same level of thought into skill challenges.
(Anonymous) on June 15th, 2008 03:02 am (UTC)
Re: Follow-up
Thank you for this entry. I've been trying to wrap my head around the math complaints of the skill challenges for a few days (since I got the books, actually).

One of the things that I noticed right away is that if you compare skill challenges to combat encounters, you see that the "DCs" for equivalent combat encounters (e.g. the ACs of the opponents of the same level) range between the "Easy" and "Moderate" DCs on the table on pg 42. Your post confirms for me that the way to handle skill challenges is similar - allow the DCs for a "moderate" skill challenge to fluctuate a bit based on what the players suggest doing. That's not really explicit in the DMG, but a challenge where the DCs are spread between "Easy" and "Moderate" makes the math a bit different.

Re: Follow-up - nojo509 on May 24th, 2009 04:56 am (UTC) (Expand)
ext_104868 on June 14th, 2008 08:30 pm (UTC)
I really like your house rule about Action Points in skill challenges. Skill challenges are encounters too so it makes sense that you should be able to use Action Points in them. Since getting an extra action is sort of pointless in a skill challenge the ability to reroll a failed check is brilliant. I'm going to have to add that to my list of house rules.

I feel that the skill challenge system is the part of the rules that has the most potential. I would have loved for it to get more then the 10 pages in the DMG. (24 if you include Puzzles and Traps and Hazards)
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 14th, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC)
Skill challenges are encounters too so it makes sense that you should be able to use Action Points in them.

Exactly: Skill challenges ARE encounters. Many classes have utility or daily powers intended to be used in skill challenges. A skill challenge can get you experience just like a combat challenge. So I allow the use of action points in skill challenges - and I'll consider the difficulty of a skill challenge when awarding a milestone.
Blue Canary in the Outlet by the Light Switchasmor on June 14th, 2008 10:02 pm (UTC)
I'm curious if you've seen any of the posts about the math behind skill challenges. You addressed this a bit in talking about situational modifiers and aid another, but it still seems like as written there's a fundamental flaw in the system. Specifically, there's a certain point where, if PCs are good enough at skills, the more complex the encounter the more likely they are to succeed.

Also, aid another may not be so practical if it's a skill challenge in the middle of combat. For example, I spiced up the first encounter of H1 by letting the PCs find a man laying in the middle of the road with an arrow stuck through his neck and about to suffocate because a kobold's glue pot had burst all over his face. The cleric spent the entire encounter trying to save the guy, and the rest of the team had their hands full fighting kobolds (and I did change the number of kobolds as if the skill challenge were a level 1 enemy).

My own house rule is that regardless of complexity, the number of failures for a skill challenge is 4.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 15th, 2008 03:05 am (UTC)
Specifically, there's a certain point where, if PCs are good enough at skills, the more complex the encounter the more likely they are to succeed.

This is an interesting point, and I'll admit that I pretty much never use 2/4 challenges. The Action Point rule helps there, because it give you a way to deal with those two bad starting rolls, even if it causes you to expend a useful resource. I hadn't thought about something like the flat number of failures, but it's certainly interesting - I may adopt that.
tropico1 on June 14th, 2008 10:38 pm (UTC)
Sorry, but, is any of this supposed to be new information in any way? Seriously, this is like reading "Some players like to collect loot and others like to roleplay" being passed off as DMing advice.

All these points and many more that you didn't even begin to address have already been discussed exhaustively at ENWorld in many different threads. The conclusion is always the same: There are big problems with challenges at a fundamental level, regardless of ANY of this.

People who base their opinion on the math agree. People who base their opinion on nothing but actual play agree. People who use skill challenges exactly as specified in the DMG agree. People who have extensively designed challenges to be custom-made to use their party's highest skills agree. People who use challenges as tactical puzzles agree. People who only reward roleplaying agree.

Myself, I haven't even clicked on any math thread since math theory puts me to sleep, but I *have* run over 40 different skill challenges through eleven 4e sessions so far, half of those strictly within the RAW, the other half playing around with everything you mention here and several things you don't. The answer is unequivocal. Challenges do not work properly as written.

And here you are telling me 'oh no no, it's just because you didn't -design- them well enough.' Dude, no offense, but comes across as patronizing and almost insulting. Customer Support has already communicated to several people that the 4e design team is aware of the problems and some type of solution should be forthcoming in future errata. So WotC has admitted what everybody knows. I think the best thing to do is just wait to see what they come up with and not try to cover it up with shallow platitude-y advice.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 14th, 2008 11:01 pm (UTC)
Sorry, but, is any of this supposed to be new information in any way?

Tropico1, I'm not a 4E designer or a WotC staffer. What I am is someone who's been playing the game for four months now, who's created and run lots of skill challenges, and who's had fun doing them. My opinion isn't official. It's my opinion. If you think it's worthless or patronizing, then stay the %#$^ off my LJ. This isn't some sort of official errata: it's my opinion, nothing more. Beyond that, my point is actually that much of it is NOT new information - it's information that people may simply have overlooked. For example, I recently talked to someone who thought that any secondary skill HAD to be set at a hard difficulty, which simply isn't true; creating a situation where a skill becomes available at an easy difficulty is part of challenge design.

And here you are telling me 'oh no no, it's just because you didn't -design- them well enough.' Dude, no offense, but comes across as patronizing and almost insulting.

Offense taken. Again, you're coming here, taking advice that is freely given and insulting me for providing it? If you don't need this advice, good for you - you don't need to be here. I didn't title this entry "Advice to Tropico". I'm not trying to patronize YOU, because I don't know anything about what you're doing in your game. I'm telling you what I've done with the system, based on my experience as a DM. Honestly, I don't CARE what the threads at ENWorld say, or even what WotC customer support says - because I'm not with WotC. I'm telling you what I've done, and that it's worked for me. If you find that patronizing, again, don't read the LJ. It's not like it's got any more weight than a thread at ENWorld; it's just the opinion of one more gamer.

I think the best thing to do is just wait to see what they come up with and not try to cover it up with shallow platitude-y advice.

You go ahead and do that. In the meantime, I'll be working on the skill challenge for the game I'm running tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it.
(no subject) - mouseferatu on June 14th, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - gloomforge on June 14th, 2008 11:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - tropico1 on June 15th, 2008 06:06 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - somegaijin42 on June 15th, 2008 06:33 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - tropico1 on June 15th, 2008 06:05 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - tropico1 on June 15th, 2008 06:24 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - gloomforge on June 15th, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - gloomforge on June 15th, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on June 29th, 2008 06:41 am (UTC) (Expand)
NthDegree256nthdegree256 on June 15th, 2008 12:07 am (UTC)
Your post sums up everything I've concluded about skill challenges myself. They're hard, but they're a great mechanic provided you A.) give the players a way to analyze and approach the situation, rather than just throwing skill DCs at them, and B.) don't require the players to succeed in order for the plot to continue.

I like your house rules on Action Points and Critical Successes - I'll be swiping the action point rule myself, and one of my DMs has been treating checks that beat a hard DC as counting for two successes, even if the target DC was moderate.

If I may suggest an addendum, I like the idea of providing options to the players that let them expend some other resource to convert a failure into a success if they find themselves in dire straits. For example, during a negotiation with a dragon, the PCs offered her the entire hoard of jewelry they had just discovered, which I treated as a removed failure [i]and[/i] a success. Such things should be rare, of course, but I think it adds a bit more complexity to the players' decisions.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 15th, 2008 03:01 am (UTC)
For example, during a negotiation with a dragon, the PCs offered her the entire hoard of jewelry they had just discovered, which I treated as a removed failure [i]and[/i] a success.

Oh, absolutely. Under the right circumstances, I could see something like that ending the skill challenge immediately... just like starting a fight in the middle of diplomatic negotiations is going to end the challenge.

On a smaller scale, just looking to bribery - a small bribe is going to justify getting to make a check in the first place. A large bribe is going to get a significant bonus to that check. Something truly significant - something that hurts the party to give up? Sure, that's where they should see some reward for the dramatic sacrifice.
Saulunknown_savage on June 15th, 2008 03:05 am (UTC)
Good post Keith. I agree with pretty much everything you've said. I still have a problem with the way the maths works in the 2N successes vs. N failures system. My personal solution will be to give all challenges EQUAL thresholds for successes of failures. This way, an average skill challenge is about as difficult as an average skill check, just more complex. In fact, it means that checks and challenges can be part of the same (revised) complexity table:

Complexity 1 = 1 success before 1 failure (aka a skill check)
Complexity 2 = 2 successes before 2 failures (or best of 3)
Complexity 3 = 3 successes before 3 failures (or best of 5)
And so on...

Apart from the advantages listed above, the beauty of this system is that all the tricks you describe above are still useful, but because the baseline is roughly 50-50, the DM doesn't have to be quite so generous to make the maths work. Also, the complexity number actually describes the way the challenge works - there are no tables to look up.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 15th, 2008 03:12 am (UTC)
I still have a problem with the way the maths works in the 2N successes vs. N failures system.

Yes, reflecting on it, I certainly understand this. Again, in the past I've tended to hover around complexity 3 or 4, and it's worked out... so I haven't hit the whole "Complexity 1 is actually harder than Complexity 5" issue, and I see the flaw. I like Asmor's idea - the number of successes changes, but failures never does - because it clearly means that it's harder when you need more successes. With your system, I like the fact that the number does describe the number of successes - that's a nice touch. I'll have to give it a try!
(no subject) - unknown_savage on June 15th, 2008 03:29 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on June 15th, 2008 03:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drothgery on June 15th, 2008 03:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - unknown_savage on June 15th, 2008 04:45 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drothgery on June 15th, 2008 04:49 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - unknown_savage on June 15th, 2008 04:58 am (UTC) (Expand)
Professor Vining: for science!bluegodjanus on June 15th, 2008 03:56 am (UTC)
You should never build a skill challenge into an adventure in such a way that failure brings the adventure to a halt....if the players HAVE to win, then you'd better just let them win. Failure may make things more difficult for them. It may have severe consequences. But it should never be the end of everything.

This was in the DMG, too, and it makes me wonder something. (You get my curiosity taken out on you because no matter how often I ask, the DMG doesn't give me any response.) There's a constant parallel drawn between skill challenges and combats - how they're basically both two ways of handling an encounter. They both give XP. They both give treasure. Why shouldn't failing a skill challenge bring about some catastrophic failure, like failing a combat can?
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 15th, 2008 04:10 am (UTC)
Why shouldn't failing a skill challenge bring about some catastrophic failure, like failing a combat can?

Because generally, if your party fails at a combat, you aren't left saying "What happens now?" - if they TRULY fail the combat, they're all dead and the game is over. If, on the other hand, you design the whole adventure around the idea that they are going to catch this thief, they DON'T catch the thief, and you have no back up plan, you're just screwed.

So the parallel to me is the thought that you might, say, run away from a combat after suffering heavy losses. You've survived, but one of your group is dead, another has broken bones (hey, big chance to use the broken bones system I suggested earlier!) and so on. The game isn't OVER; they didn't ALL die. But they're in a bad way. I have no trouble with a skill challenge ending like that. When the party is trying to fight Count Suchandsuch and their challenge with Duke Soandso actually ends up with Suchandsuch having MORE troops, the adventure isn't OVER; they still need to defeat the count. It's just harder than it was before.

And hey, if the challenge is "Shut down a nuclear reactor" and failure means "Everybody dies", that's fine with me - as long as you're prepared for the possibility that they might fail. ;)
(no subject) - goobermunch on June 15th, 2008 04:17 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bluegodjanus on June 15th, 2008 04:32 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - goobermunch on June 15th, 2008 04:14 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - xutech on June 15th, 2008 04:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - goobermunch on June 15th, 2008 05:04 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - gloomforge on June 15th, 2008 05:08 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - goobermunch on June 15th, 2008 07:29 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dragonbourne on June 15th, 2008 11:06 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on September 25th, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
xutechxutech on June 15th, 2008 04:00 am (UTC)
I agree with the post, some people are taking the ruleset as an exact engineering plan without factoring in creative problem solving as part of the challenge. The higher level skill rolls aren't easier, they just take it for granted that you become experienced enough to expect success on many bland skill rolls. I myself haven't seen my party disappointed about skill rolls in the new game ever, in fact it seemed that mechanically we're more likely to excel at our self appointed specialties. (its nice that with one feat we can take a new skill that vastly expands our powers).

I'd like to bring up the fact that the thing that's really bringing out arguments about 4th ed at the moment is the system of treasure parcels. Since we have been playing d&d and other systems since primary school we've always played those games where SOME of the players take everything not nailed down. Some players are angry that they can't do the same and seem to feel that receiving parcels is an incredible affront not only to their freedom, but that it punishes them for playing strategically. Does anyone have an opinion I can use to bolster my defence of the new parcel system? they seem to consider that its set in stone and cannot be wiggled or modified; I think its a great way to evaluate how monsters and encounters stack up against a party of a certain level and don't think its a slavish computer game conceit.

Oh, and this is livejournal. We're allowed to write anything here because it's our rough equivalent of a diary. Some people write bad poetry, conspiracy theories or post about their game ideas and thoughts. How someone can jump to the conclusion that you exist on a 24 hour basis as a paid technical advice column for wizards of the coast boggles my mind. Perhaps you should post the occasional haiku or picture of a holiday to remind people of that fact.

Friends on livejournal are just that.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 15th, 2008 04:15 am (UTC)
Honestly, I haven't been hewing closely to the parcel system, because I've been running my games at an accelerated XP rate so people would level faster and we could see more of the character abilities. As such, I've been looking at the "parcels" as a rough gauge of what PCs should have received by level X, but I haven't been actually handing it out on a parcel by parcel basis. And to me it's no different than the "PC wealth by level" table of 3.5; it's a guideline of how much gear you should expect the party to possess in order to keep the encounter tables balanced.

Oh, and this is livejournal. We're allowed to write anything here because it's our rough equivalent of a diary. Some people write bad poetry...

Indeed. I don't care if Tropico1 thinks my advice is useless. It may BE bad advice. But it's my journal - if I want to put bad advice here, I think I'm entitled to.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 01:04 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - gloomforge on June 16th, 2008 02:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - eslington on June 15th, 2008 11:33 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - eslington on June 15th, 2008 11:35 am (UTC) (Expand)
darktouch on June 15th, 2008 04:44 am (UTC)
Hey Keith,
This is a peripheral question for someone who has created a large number of Skill challenges. I'm personally leaning towards abandoning the complexity (x success before x/2 failures) system in favor of a more tree based structure and was wondering if you'd had any experience with that.

I originally got the idea from a post on EN world: Tree Graphic (Apologies to the Original Creator, I lost the original post).

With the tree, which skill is used and when can have an impact on the final outcome or it could just allow different information to becomes available during the encounter. I like its use for traps in that different aspects of the trap would get turned off depending on where along the tree we are.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 15th, 2008 04:50 am (UTC)
This looks great. As I said, I often have a similar "success tree" indicating information/actions that will OK after a certain number of successes. I don't usually take it this far - "This is what happens with 2 Diplomacy successes. This is what happens with 4 Diplomacy successes" - but if you've got the time to weave that level of complexity into it, great!

With that said, I WILL often have information that you can only get with use of a specific skill - for example, in the investigation of the murder scene, using Heal to examine the blood or Arcana to study for mystic traces will provide you with information that no amount of Perception will - I just generally tie these to a single success, potentially with the codicl that you can't use Heal until you've actually discovered the blood with Perception.
Prince Nightchildenightchilde on June 15th, 2008 05:35 am (UTC)
Something that I noticed in my first full-on 4e game on Friday night was that the big skill challenge I had in the beginning of the session really, REALLY worked well with the roleplaying we were doing. It's like they played off of each other; I'd ask for a roll and it would give the PCs some sort of an idea of how they could RP that roll or, more frequently, they'd roleplay something out and I'd call for a roll based off of that.

I was almost shocked when the dragonborn character grabbed the party's contact in a fit of rage and slammed him into the wall out of frustration that this guy wasn't answering the party's questions, prompting me to immediately call for an Intimidate check.

It was awesome.

The fact that traps are now, essentially, skill challenges much of the time is also cool.

Maybe it was just my group, but they were really helped out by the skill challenges as far as the roleplaying side of things, and I was really helped out by the roleplaying as to the what-dice-to-roll aspect. And none of us are n00bs to roleplaying, believe me.
(Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 06:56 pm (UTC)
Specialist subject: the bleeding obvious
I was almost shocked when the dragonborn character grabbed the party's contact in a fit of rage and slammed him into the wall out of frustration that this guy wasn't answering the party's questions, prompting me to immediately call for an Intimidate check.

It was awesome.

Yes because, presumably, you would never have realised as the DM that the NPC might have been intimidated by that if it hadn't been for the die roll? You need to take a long hard look at your DMing style if you thought that was an improvement over your normal play. It should have been obvious.
Re: Specialist subject: the bleeding obvious - gloomforge on June 16th, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Specialist subject: the bleeding obvious - (Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 08:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Specialist subject: the bleeding obvious - gloomforge on June 16th, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Specialist subject: the bleeding obvious - nightchilde on June 16th, 2008 09:39 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Specialist subject: the bleeding obvious - nightchilde on June 16th, 2008 07:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on June 15th, 2008 07:32 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry if all this sound a little harsh or flamey.

But. What's the point in making a rule so broken?

You are telling us the solutions are: house rule it, let the master decide, modify it, change the results or min/max your character to the ubermunchkiness.

Just for the spirit of the rule.

So you are telling me that as the rule designer have not done his job succesfully, it is my job as DM do all his work.

Is WotC going to pay me for the house rule design? Because I am very sure the designer has been given real money for writing this rule.

Also I don't see the point in writing a full book of rules, just to ignore them.

I'm sorry for how it sounds, but to have a rule more complicated that even don't work right, I prefer to stick in past rules, or not have rules at all.

Keith Bakergloomforge on June 16th, 2008 12:39 am (UTC)
I'm sorry if all this sound a little harsh or flamey.

No trouble. I certainly don't mean to be oversensitive, and my apologies if I do in fact sound patronizing or insulting; it's not my intention.

You are telling us the solutions are: house rule it, let the master decide, modify it, change the results or min/max your character to the ubermunchkiness.

No, that's not what I'm saying at all.

min/max your character to the ubermunchkiness.
I'm not suggesting this. It is POSSIBLE to attain higher skill numbers, and I'm pointing that out. Personally, in 4E, I think you're much better off developing a versatile character than a super-specialized person. In 3E, you likely would just have one diplomat in the game, and pump them up to crazy levels with all the feats and synergies - because one Diplomacy check is all that matters. In 4E, it helps to have multiple coverage on a skill, because you may find yourself in a situation where multiple people end up being diplomats.

I'm certainly saying that the number of feats you get, the existence of the Skill Training feat, and the existence of skill-based utility powers allows you to make a character who is more capable at Skill challenges than that base trained + stat bonus that's being discussed. Again, with my paladin, I've chosen to use my feats to train in Diplomacy and Heal and to Skill Focus with Intimidate. This comes at the expense of getting Weapon Focus, Power Attack, and Expanded Dragon Breath; but for me, my increased efficiency in skill challenges is worth the sacrifice in combat. I'm NOT superpowered - especially in comparison to the +20 Diplomacy at 2nd level 3.5 character. But I'm capable.

modify it. I don't actually understand your point here. If you mean "Give the PC a +2 for a creative action", that's IN the rules. If you mean "Create a situation in which using one skill makes others easier", that's also in the rules. The examples given in the DMG are just that - examples. You are expected to use these examples, and the rules preceding them, as guidelines for creating your own challenges. Medium DC is called out as the default, but YOU'RE the DM and it IS your job to set the DCs... and in creating situations where clever tactics give the PCs an advantage, you're doing the exact same thing as placing interesting terrain features in a dungeon. Should WotC pay you when you create an interesting trap or a challenging fight? There's no difference with a skill challenge. It's NOT Medium DC vs stat+trained skill; that is the baseline, but the whole section in the book is about designing skill challenges. Again, if every room in your dungeon is a perfect empty cube with easy terrain, combat's going to be pretty lame too.

let the master decide. This may just be tied to the previous statement, or it may be about setting varying consequences for defeat. If the latter, the point is that I consider this part of design, as noted above. I don't change the consequences of success or failure on the fly. I design it, and then I let the dice fall as they may (action points aside). Because of the design, I'm prepared for the possibility that the PCs will lose and know that the game can still have a fun - if more challenging - conclusion.

house rule it. I am, admittedly, saying that the action point house rule has been very useful in my campaign. I consider it a logical use of action points, and something that gives players a resource they can sacrifice in order to improve their odds. It's also a close model to Eberron's "Use an action point to improve a skill roll" base use of skill challenges. So here, yes: I do use a house rule that has been very useful in my campaign. But it's hardly the first time a DM has invented a house rule; I used quite a few in 3E, too.

I like skill challenges. I ran a game today, and had two good skill challenges (both of which the PCs passed, though action points were spent). There are issues with the system; I'm not denying that. But I'm saying that even WITH those issues, you can play with it as it stands. Well, at least, I know *I* can play with it as it stands, because I have and I've enjoyed it; I can't say what things will be like at your table.
Actual Play Examples - judd_sonofbert on June 16th, 2008 03:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Actual Play Examples - gloomforge on June 19th, 2008 08:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 01:44 am (UTC) (Expand)
Are you bold enough to reach for love?yeloson on June 15th, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC)
I think one of the big issues folks have had with this is that for many gamers, there's a notion that "roleplaying" and "rollplaying" are at odds- that the creative narrations of the players and the numbers in the game can't coexist but rather must be a binary either/or option.

Though all of the ideas indicating how to use them both are in the DMG, I think it's not going to sink in for awhile, if only because it is a drastic shift to about 30 years of traditional play habit for a lot of folks.

Hell, even in the indie rpg circles where this idea has been around for awhile, we still have people forgetting that not only system matters, but the stuff you're imagining also matters and the two go hand in hand.

The major valid point I see in criticism of the system is that because Easy/Medium/Hard scale to your level, it's not an unfair assumption that the general odds of success at a medium challenge should be about the same no matter what level you're at.

Also, I remember reading somewhere where folks were saying that in earlier versions you could choose Easy/Medium/Hard rolls to get different effects? That seems like it would change the gameplay and the way in which the difficulties work significantly- though I know you're under NDA about that stuff, so I'll just go googling and see if I can find anything about it.
(Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 06:53 pm (UTC)
Though all of the ideas indicating how to use them both are in the DMG, I think it's not going to sink in for awhile, if only because it is a drastic shift to about 30 years of traditional play habit for a lot of folks.

Yes, a shift backwards. This is very badly designed crap, really. It's the sort of thing Skip Williams would like but is totally useless to anyone with any imagination or enthusiasm for roleplaying. Well, worse than useless really since it undermines the role of the DM and the players alike. Just play Dungeon! if this is all you can cope with.
(no subject) - yeloson on June 16th, 2008 07:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
grandexperimentgrandexperiment on June 15th, 2008 11:03 pm (UTC)
Great post. Very helpful. The math on Skill Challenges is hard as the process (unlike combat) seems simple. However, the level of modifiers and variation is very high. The result is that the math analysis sometimes assumes that the GM has left has skill at the door. This blog entry is good at dealing with what the GM can do to make Skill Challenges fun and work.
(Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 05:16 am (UTC)
Moderate DCs
Hi Keith,

Thanks for a great Post - I'm definitely going to be using some of this information in my games.

I'm getting a little Confused though with your premise that the first level DC is 20... I was looking in the DMG pg 42 and it looks like it should be 15 -- Hard is 20, and easy is 10. I don't see what the problem really is as the players might have an +8 or +9 on the check.. this means that they are going to make about 75% of the time on the checks.. that doesn't seem bad to me at all, and with the +2 reward for good ideas, the odds get even better. Am I missing something here?

Thanks again for a great post!
NthDegree256nthdegree256 on June 16th, 2008 05:36 am (UTC)
Re: Moderate DCs
If you'll check underneath that table on page 42, you'll see that the listed DCs are for regular ability checks (i.e., Str + 1/2 level), and that on average, you should add 5 for skill checks (to balance it against skill training), or 2 if the target number is an AC (to balance it against weapon proficiency bonuses.)
Re: Moderate DCs - gloomforge on June 16th, 2008 05:43 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Moderate DCs - (Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 04:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Moderate DCs - (Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 06:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Mathew Freeman: Gamingtallarn on June 16th, 2008 09:20 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting this - it's given me lots of ideas.
(Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 10:34 am (UTC)
Don't forget
Don't forget the simple fact that 4E sucks and isn't truly D&D anyway. It's a brand new system with dumbed down rules, so no wonder people who have played much more detailed and complex real D&D games can't understand this skill challenge stuff.
Josh Paulikjoshthestampede on June 16th, 2008 03:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Don't forget
Anonymous coward is anonymous.
Re: Don't forget - (Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 03:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Don't forget - xutech on June 16th, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Don't forget - tyroticon on June 17th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 06:07 pm (UTC)
You could just "roleplay" the situation instead of playing a really dull boardgame version of D&D.

Seriously, if the DM needs to roll bloody dice to tell him what his own NPCs think, then he's just a waste of space, as is this absolutely ghastly system.

Just take your scissors and remove all this crap from the DMG and pretend you never saw it.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 16th, 2008 08:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Alternatively
You could just "roleplay" the situation instead of playing a really dull boardgame version of D&D.

What you're failing to see is that, used properly, this is a tool that can EXPAND roleplaying - as opposed to the single success Diplomacy model used before. This actually ENCOURAGES players to play out a good-cop/bad-cop negotiation or the like.

Beyond this, the system isn't just used to determine "how NPCs think". It can be used for a chase scene. To perform open heart surgery. To investigate a murder scene. Are you saying "I'm a bad DM because I don't know what clues my players are going to find at the murder scene"? The point here is that I want them to ROLEPLAY that investigation. It's not just a skill check. I want them to tell me what they are looking for, how they are following up on what they've found, how their character's personal experiences are going to have an impact. Again, the rogue's keen eyes may notice the spatter of blood... but that's where the paladin, who both knows the ways of war and has skill with healing, can use that knowledge to try to determine what sort of weapon was used. You COULD do this in 3.5; I wrote a sourcebook about it. But the default Investigate system in 3.5 Eberron is simply based on a feat and a Search check - no roleplaying or decision making required. You find the clue or you don't. As a DM you could expand on that - but that's exactly the point. ANY RPG system plays like a board game if that's how you run it. The skill challenge system CAN play like a board game. Or it can serve as an excellent framework for roleplaying - as you think about and justify your actions every step of the way.
Re: Alternatively - (Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Alternatively - gloomforge on June 16th, 2008 09:13 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Alternatively - seidl on June 16th, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Alternatively - tyroticon on June 17th, 2008 06:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Alternatively - (Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 09:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 08:15 pm (UTC)
Questions about your math
Interesting advice, but there are a few things you've got listed that don't quite seem to click for me. But then, I'm very new to 4e.

* You talk several times about a +9 to +11 modifier. Hmm, +5 trained, +3 from a good high stat, +2 from a racial bonus - but that's an awful lot of bonus stacking. Our current group of level 1 PCs has only a single character with one skill at a +9 bonus; everything else is lower. It seems to me like a +9 or more is really the exception, rather than the norm.

Further, you mention +10 to 12 at 2nd level - but the DC values are supposed to increase proportionally with skill, so this gets cancelled out.

* Aid another - I hadn't gotten the idea this was supposed to be an option in Skill Challenges, since the entire challenge, is, in effect, all the PCs aiding together to accomplish one end result. In fact, the specific example of climbing indicates this. If aid another is valid, it seems like succeeding at a Skill Challenge largely comes down to figuring out how to phrase most of your actions as 'aid another', and makes skills mostly irrelevant except for one person, since the DC 10 aid another checks will quickly be obsolete. Additionally, if the game is designed around 5 PCs using aid another, the system breaks down for smaller or larger groups.

* Partial successes seem like a great idea, but its not something that's mentioned at all in the actual Skill Challenges section.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 16th, 2008 08:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Questions about your math
Partial successes seem like a great idea, but its not something that's mentioned at all in the actual Skill Challenges section.

You're right. Remember, this isn't an argument. This is me telling you what I've done with skill challenges, which has worked out well for me so far. I'm not DEFENDING the core system; I'm just telling you what I've done with it, in the hopes that you may end up having as much fun with it as I have.

You talk several times about a +9 to +11 modifier. Hmm, +5 trained, +3 from a good high stat, +2 from a racial bonus...

I'm a little surprise to hear that you consider a 16 a good high stat. I tend to assume that PCs will have an 18 in at least 1 stat, and quite possibly two. The 18-in-the-stat is what produces the +9, which isn't MY basic assumption - it's the basic assumption I've seen in most threads on the subject. The racial modifier is far from an assurance, yet most races do get a +2 to two skills; as such, my halfling rogue does in fact have +11 to Thievery and Acrobatics at first level, along with +9 to Streetwise and Bluff.

Yes, these are in his specialty skills But that's one of the points of the skill challenge. Can I find a way to apply Acrobatics to this current situation? Instead of Diplomacy, can I come up with a clever lie that lets me use Bluff to help the scene, or is there some way my Streetwise could help? So you may not have that +9-11 in the PRIMARY skill - which is why you have the system of secondaries. And it's possible that a secondary skill may even end up with a lower DC than a primary - even if it can only be used once.

Further, you mention +10 to 12 at 2nd level - but the DC values are supposed to increase proportionally with skill, so this gets cancelled out.

Um... I actually haven't been seriously arguing about the math, but since you are, I assume you've read the difficulty table? The challenge ratings for skill challenges don't increase untill 4th level. At 2nd level the moderate DC is still 20.

Aid another - I hadn't gotten the idea this was supposed to be an option in Skill Challenges... In fact, the specific example of climbing indicates this.

Well, what the specific example of climbing indicates is that the DM can decide that a situation is a group challenge and allow people to use Aid Another; the "Group Challenge" is a form of Aid Another. I agree, I generally DON'T use Aid Another in skill challenges, because I prefer to have everyone take their own action. But if someone can JUSTIFY it, I may allow it.

In any case, with all that said, you seem to be under the impression that I'm making an argument here. I'm not. I'm providing advice based on personal experience. That advice is NOT entirely based on the RAW; in particular, the action point rule has been crucial to the success of my group. This isn't a defense of the system as it stands or a CRITICISM of anyone who hasn't been enjoying it; it's an explanation of why it's worked for me.

And with that in mind, I'm going to stop posting defenses of my points, because I have a LOT of work to be doing. If this is useful to you, great - if not, I'm sure they'll come along with improvements to the system soon.

Re: Questions about your math - (Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 10:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Questions about your math - gloomforge on June 16th, 2008 11:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Questions about your math - gloomforge on June 16th, 2008 11:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on June 17th, 2008 07:40 am (UTC)
Partial Successes
After reading the Enworld threads I could only conclude that skill challenges were, in fact, broken. Stalker0 and others have presented an airtight explanation and proof of exactly what is wrong with them and why. The fundamental problem is the 2X successes before X failures mechanic. I had previously concluded that without adjusting this ratio the skill challenge rules would not work as it causes them to scale in a non-linear fashion, which is very, very bad considering the entire system is designed to be linear.

That is, until read your post. All of your other suggestions (save for action point use, which is too limited to solve the problem on its own) simply adjusted the modifiers, which did not address the true problem of successes against failures ratios.

Your partial success solution, however, is absolutely brilliant and as I see it, completely fixes the problem. It changes the nature of skill challenges to one that is far more flexible and usable.

Under this model it is, in fact, perfectly fine to have "success" rates in the 10-25% range, because the system is no longer binary. You have something like complete failure, partial success, moderate success, and complete success.

Complete success is like a critical hit, the results are really, really good for you, but this outcome is rare.

Moderate success should come up around 20-40% of the time, possibly as high as 50% with a particularly strong group. This is a strong success, where most of your goals are accomplished, yet many others are not and there may be many conditions.

Partial Success is something that should come up 30-60% of the time, depending on how strong your group is in skill modifiers, roleplaying ability, creativity and challenge difficulty. This has the widest range, and represents half or more of your goals not being met, though still success on many. These are the hard negotiations where both sides most compromise, the thief you were chasing barely getting away but still leaving a valuable clue, the Mage uncovering a small piece of the ancient text that only provides enough information to get to the next step. This is actually an excellent outcome for moving the story along as it represents a long and difficult road to success. Most works of fiction primarily involve this level of success.

While only getting 1 success represents the distinctly crappy end of Partial Success, it still leaves you with SOMETHING to lead you into the next step. When you hit the failure limit before rolling any successes you get a Complete Failure. This outcome should come up around as often or perhaps a little less than Complete Success and represents a complete lack of useful results. When this happens, the party needs to start over from scratch and may have to deal with significant new challenges.

Under the model assumed in Stalker0's analysis, 75-85% of challenges result in Complete Failure, forcing the party to start over from scratch and likely suffer significant setbacks created by the failure. Under this new model, 80-90% of skill challenges should offer some degree of success, allowing the party to move on. Instead of either succeeding or failing, you have a DEGREE of success, with 100% success being relatively rare, yet extremely rewarding.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 17th, 2008 07:58 am (UTC)
Re: Partial Successes
Instead of either succeeding or failing, you have a DEGREE of success, with 100% success being relatively rare, yet extremely rewarding.

Certainly. Taking the one example from a game I've run a number of times where you're trying to track down a guy in an inn, COMPLETE success not only gets you directions and information, but the key to his room. In the ten or so times I've run it, probably 3-4 groups have had this level of success. Most get enough information to find him, but have to come up with another way to actually get into the room. So yes, I see complete success as being something exceptional... and the closer you get, the better the results. Obviously this will vary based on the scenario - not everything lends itself to this sort of spectrum. But it's something to think about.

I'll also note that in saying "Failure shouldn't be the end of the world", I've got nothing against failure having serious consequences; you just need to be prepared to deal with those consequences. When you're chasing the thief and fail so miserably that you don't even have a clue as to where his hideout is, then he can come back with his buddies that night to rob you again - a dangerous fight that could have been avoided if you caught him, but something that allows the story to progress. Lose the court case and you go to jail... so as DM, better have something in mind for what could happen IN jail!
Re: Partial Successes - (Anonymous) on June 17th, 2008 08:09 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Partial Successes - gloomforge on June 17th, 2008 08:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Partial Successes - _raide on June 17th, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Partial Successes - goobermunch on June 18th, 2008 02:30 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Partial Successes - jvowles on June 22nd, 2008 02:51 am (UTC) (Expand)
avjeweavjewe on June 17th, 2008 03:05 pm (UTC)
One thing I've never seen is a table with the chances of success for skill challenges. I have provided one below. To me, it points out quite strongly why the system, as printed, isn't all that much fun.

The row labels are the number needed on a d20 for a single skill check.

The column labels are the Skill Challenge Complexity

The table values are the percent chance of success, rounded to the nearest percent.

As you can see, for a DC 20 skill challenge, you'd better have at least +13 in modifiers before success is more likely than failure; and the distance from "almost impossible" to "almost certain" is very small.

You may have to scroll down to see the table, because (at least in the preview) LJ is doing something weird.


(Anonymous) on June 20th, 2008 05:55 am (UTC)
"To me, it points out quite strongly why the system, as printed, isn't all that much fun."

Your table points out why it isn't fun; meanwhile my experience, of having fun, says otherwise. Who am I to believe?

You're not having fun, and other people are. Convincing them they're not having fun either seems an odd reaction, and futile. Personally, I'd recommend you try to discover how it is that they are having fun so that you could have fun too. Perhaps by reading any blog posts they might make describing their secret fun-having techniques...
(no subject) - _raide on June 20th, 2008 01:13 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jvowles on June 22nd, 2008 02:59 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on June 17th, 2008 05:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the thoughts
An interesting assessment of skills. I have not had a chance to play 4 yet, so looking at the skills section had me a bit disappointed since it seemed like the whole skills idea had been 'nerfed'. I feel a bit better now after reading your ideas here. While I am still a bit concerned ... it =WILL= take a lot more work on the part of the GM and / or mod authors to make things work as well as you suggest here ... at least it feels more like it =COULD= be a whole lot more fun that I was originally thinking.

Keith Bakergloomforge on June 17th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks for the thoughts
it =WILL= take a lot more work on the part of the GM and / or mod authors to make things work as well as you suggest here ...

Absolutely. My point is that I put as much thought into a skill challenge as I do into a combat challenge. A typical session runs a total of 4-5 encounters, whether skill challenges or combat. Something that would have previously just been a single check with a DC is suddenly something where I'm trying to plug in interesting tricks the players can do - will anyone think to mention the name of their employer, which will give them a +2 bonus for the remainder of the encounter? Will they spot and recognize his religious beliefs and appeal to that... a successful Religion check lowering the DC of Diplomacy, as long as the Diplomacy directly involves a sensible appeal to his faith? It's more work, but the challenge feels like a real encounter in its own right.
(Anonymous) on June 18th, 2008 04:01 pm (UTC)
Skills in general.
Hey, I've been following the discussion on this LJ for a while now and have found it to be one of the more rational and interesting discussions of 4e I've come across on the web (and of course I'm happy to see that Eberron continues to be in Keith's capable hands).

I thought I'd raise an issue I've been puzzled about regarding the new skill system here and perhaps pick the brains of those who've been playing fourth edition for a while now. If, gloomforge, this is going to far off your original topic of skill challenges, feel free to give me the boot. :)

I'm a little confused about the level bonus to skill checks and the DCs that also scale with level. It seems the intent, in skill challenges and one-off rolls, is to have the chance for success at a, say, "medium" difficulty task be the same regardless of character level.

If that's the case,why not simply do away with the level bonus to skills AND the scaling difficulty and make things much simpler. Right now you have a situation, due to the scaling DC, where a 1st level ranger trained in perception has a roughly equal chance to track a scary monster as a higher level wizard also trained in perception. However, if the two were making an opposed roll--who finds the scary monster first maybe--then the wizard is likely to cream the ranger every time. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Do people see a value to the system as it is that I'm missing? Right now it seems in some ways more complex and less intuitive than 3.5, where the DC simply goes up and up as something gets harder to accomplish, with little benefit.

Telamoniades (who doesn't have a lj account)
Raide_raide on June 18th, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Skills in general.
Let's see... drawing comparison to combat encounter, is it fun if players are getting stronger while the challenge (monster, traps) aren't? If the monsters are gradually/always as strong as us, what's the point of raising your levels? Why not letting no one raise their levels instead, both the players and monsters and traps; isn't it much more simpler if they stay still only at level one?

Err... yeah. It looks like people play role-playing games to increase their PC's capabilities, but at the same time it's boring if the challenge are static, that's why it has to be more increasingly challenging as well. The only fun comes at more opening more options at higher levels, and in skill challenge I think utility powers and so much more potential for more role-rollplaying are the rewards.

The fun of Fortune resolution such as d20 opens the possibilites that the wizard is less likely to cream the ranger every time. Meanwhile the ranger is less likely to cream the wizard at nature, dungeoneering and other stuffs as well.

Just my 2 cents. Though I'm still interested in what Keith has to say. It's his blog and that's your reason to post here anyway^^
Re: Skills in general. - (Anonymous) on June 18th, 2008 04:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Skills in general. - _raide on June 18th, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Skills in general. - tchristensen81 on June 18th, 2008 04:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Skills in general. - gloomforge on June 18th, 2008 07:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Skills in general. - (Anonymous) on June 18th, 2008 08:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: Skills in general. - gloomforge on June 18th, 2008 08:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Pumadocrailgun on June 21st, 2008 07:33 am (UTC)
Very disappointed. :)
What? Only one orc in a 10 x 10 room? You should be able to fit at least 25 in there!
Jim Vowles: bitch pleasejvowles on June 22nd, 2008 03:06 am (UTC)
Re: Very disappointed. :)
I like a 30x30 room to store my orcs. That way when the fireball goes off, it fits in the room.
keeperofsorrows on June 22nd, 2008 01:57 pm (UTC)
I kicked off my first 4E campaign with a Skill Challenge of putting on the opening night performance at Sharn's newest theatrical venue and the player's near steamrollered through it, although admittedly after I'd adjusted the DCs to match those recommended on ENWorld.

I also did pretty much allow free reign for any skill (with things like base Charisma modifier +5 for singing for those who had an appropriate background. My players really did seem to get on board straight off with the idea of helping out with the wizard using catrips to create special effects, the warlord playing the role of director, and our fighter who had background in carpentry building sets and props. This led to the exclaimation at one point of "I just got a natural twenty on my 'making babies' roll!" This would have actually been less disturbing if it had actually been about sex...

The players really seemed to get a kick out of crafting the entire play "on the spur of the moment" from all these checks, with one of them actually working out all the musical numbers and even a few verses of lyrics, while plot development was filtered through via the "floor manager" making checks to keep an eye on a suspicious figure watching the show...

In all, I feel far more comfortable with using things more akin to the RAW in future, although the partial success addition is certainly one that is worth bearing in mind.
Baudotbaudot on June 25th, 2008 12:47 am (UTC)
Just how grim the odds are, and a design pattern to fix it without changing the rules.
I think you raise a lot of good points in this article. The problem, as I see it, is that the odds are so heavily stacked against the PCs during the Heroic tier that, leaving out house rules, even the tips you offer here won't give the party an even chance of success.

I want my players to have options to balance their stats rather than min-maxing, and play to novel concepts rather than the sterotypes of their race. That is, I want them to be able to win at skill challenges without having min-maxed into a +11. If they HAVE min-maxed into a +11 that's relevant to a skill check at hand, I want to let them have their easy victory for the few rolls governed by that skill. As such, to make the skill challenge system work for the style of storytelling I have in mind, the PCs need a decent shake at winning a challenge when their skill ratings are +9+level modifier. That's a character who's found a way to bring to bear a skill they're trained in, using their core stat of 18. Pretty optimistic already to assume they all manage to pull this off. The things they do to earn a +2 or an easy check from there should be what tips them over the 50/50 line, up to 80% odds or better.

From a mathematical standpoint, the problem is that the distribution of allowed successes and failures is distributed along Pascal's Triangle. On a complexity 5 challenge, there's 12,376 ways to roll 11 successes and 5 failures, but only 6,188 ways to roll 12 successes and 5 failures. In total, there are 9,401 permutations of rolls that translate to success on a complexity 5 challenge out of 131,072 possible patterns of rolls. The core problem is that the rules for failure are so unforgiving, that there become an overwhelming number of ways to fail the overall challenge even with the odds in your favor for the individual sub-challenges.

To get a sense of just how grim the odds are, I threw together a calculator. It's at As a fan of your work, I'd be flattered to know you'd used it.

These are the numbers I get from a quick look with that calculator:
With average skills of +13, a 1st level party has a 56% chance of success at a standard difficulty complexity 3 challenge.
If there skills are merely a min-maxed +11, the odds fall to 29%.
At +9, the party has an 11% chance of succeeding.
If we've got a party that's been caught slightly but not totally out of their element, with only +7 skills on average to contribute, the odds fall to 2%.
Needless to say, the odds are much, much worse at complexity 5. Let's not even talk about the odds of winning a "hard" challenge.

These odds aren't just bad, they're terrible. In the last case, it hardly matters how well the party plays. If they earn an easy check on every single roll through impeccable play, they've only just brought themselves up to even odds. Hardly seems right for a heroic party practicing a skill that they're good but not quite masterful at. Gaining levels doesn't help much here, either. Stat bumps give us an additional +1 or +2, but it's really the items with skill bonuses one picks up along the way that start making the system winnable.

A +2 or a +5 here or there is a good start. Letting players ferret out easy checks on a moderate challenge also goes a long way. The problem is we're starting so far down that neither is enough to even bring them back to 50% odds. Letting the characters assist each other is thorny. How much do we let them assist each other? We don't want the system to degenerate to the best player rolling with a +8 bonus from the rest of the party.

*** character limit exceeded. continuing in the reply ***
Baudotbaudot on June 25th, 2008 12:48 am (UTC)
Re: Just how grim the odds are, and a design pattern to fix it without changing the rules.
*** Continued from the previous comment ***

Let me offer my favorite fix. The thing I like the best about it is that it's a design pattern that can be worked into challenges without changing the rules as they're written.

It is:

Give the players opportunities to earn or buy a number of failures forgiven up to the challenge's complexity rating plus one.

For example, in the Persuading Duke Soandso challenge, complexity 2, we pick three members of the court who will speak up for the party and cover for their faux-pas, erasing a failure each. The greedy sensechal will do so for the right "donation to his humanitarian project" in gold. The duchess will do so in return for the promise to fetch her a certain bauble on the party's upcoming quest, and the captain of the guard will help if the party impressed him in an earlier encounter. As usual, it's up to the party to roleplay and figure all these out. Now we've given the party 3 more chances to fail die rolls without losing the challenge. They now win if they hit 6 successes, and lose at 6 failures. They can even lose the old fashioned way, have one of the NPCs approach them after they've been kicked out of court, and explain what s/he wants from the party in exchange for making the apologies (i.e. erasing the last failure) to get them talking again.

Either way, there are now as many ways to succeed as to fail. If the party has an average skill of +9 to contribute to the checks, their overall odds for the challenge are 50/50. From here, a handful of +2s or easy checks, awarded for sufficiently skilled roleplaying, go a long way towards tipping the odds from even to in the party's favor. At the very least, they'll feel like they had a fair shot, and can blame a series of unmistakably bad rolls if they fail in spite of good play.

One final point that I like about including the forgiveness design pattern in a challenge: It gives the party a buffer before failures start costing them. That is, for a party of average skill, odds are they're going to pay for nearly all of the failures forgiven that they get the chance at. For a party that has better than even odds per check, by min-maxed skills or skillful play, they'll typically get away buying fewer failures forgiven. It models approximately the same cost as a combat, where a party that's both on the ball and in its tactical element can come out the other side having paid very few healing surges at all, while a party caught with its pants down or with mediocre tactics suffers more.

After spending many of my hours the past week looking at this corner of the rules, those are the conclusions I've come to. I'd love to chat about it more. For now, I think this post has gotten quite long enough.