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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.

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(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.
Judd, Juddski, Chaim, Judah, Judd-oh & Pakajudd_sonofbert on June 16th, 2008 03:15 pm (UTC)
Actual Play Examples
I'd love to hear some examples of your table's skill challenges in play.

Thanks for the post.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 19th, 2008 08:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Actual Play Examples
Sure, here's the adventure I ran last night. The party has been shipwrecked in Lamannia. As of the start of the adventure, they discovered that their fellow survivors had been attacked and either killed or kidnapped.

* A skill challenge as they investigated the aftermath of the battle. Through a combination of skills and roleplaying - including the Medani warlock improvising a disturbing ritual to see into the near past - they discovered that the people had been dragged off by unusual wolves, and found their trail.

* Following the trail, they used some skills - such as Stealth - in a casual manner (IE, NOT a skill challenge) as they attempted to sneak past lupine guards. They were spotted, and there was a fight.

* A fey trickster they've been dealing with shows up and offers to help them in a variety of ways - but they'll need to wager on it. This became a skill challenge (not immediately; it began with pure roleplaying until there was actually a CHALLENGE) with success or failure determining what they get and what they lose. With partial success, they didn't get the silver dagger that would have proven very useful in the future, and some of them owe favors that may be called on in later games - but they did get information about where to find a guide.

* They need to convince the guide to come down from her tree and deal with them. This is not a skill challenge; I required a skill roll or two during the conversation, but again, casual use. it's just an extended roleplaying scene as they convince her to come with them, discover what she knows about the kidnappers (a pack of vicious werewolves), and generally learn about the culture of lycanthropes in this part of Lamannia.

* Eventually, they go to face the werewolf who's kidnapped their firends. They want their friends to be released, and to leave Lamannia, they'll need a treasure the alpha werewolf possesses. This begins as a pure roleplaying scene, until the PCs reach a point where they have to decide a path to take. It could just become a combat- but there's a LOT of wolves and werewolves. Or it could become a skill challenge as they challenge the leader of the pack. Again, it plays like a combat, with each character present taking a turn and having to come up with a way to apply his skills to the situation. The warlock and paladin alternate between intimidating the alpha and using Diplomacy to influence the mood of the pack. The wizard tries to use Insight, but fails; not so easy to read wolves. The ranger tries the same thing using Nature. He's trying to read the dynamics of the pack, and identifies the challenging beta and its followers, and the group plays to that, shifting the tone of their diplomacy to support the challenger's claim. Every Diplomacy or Intimidate check is an actual speech made by the player, and answered in turn by me. The warlock mocks the leader for wearing an amulet, saying that he's collared like a dog; good approach, and I give him a bonus to the check. But he rolls a one and fails. The lord laughs, strokes the amulet, and says that his people know he is no dog - and they know to respect the power held in this chain. At another time, it could have been a decisive blow that turned the pack against him. It's a good idea - but the best laid plans don't always work. This scene lasted for an hour. Every character was involved, and it took skills, powers, action points, and a lot of clever roleplaying; it was harder than the fight (though it could have also been a fight, had they failed).

Absolute failure could have turned the pack against them. Partial success would have allowed them to negotiate the release of their friends in exchange for battling a murderous werebear that's been troubling the pack - but before he'll make the deal, the leader wants the group to demonstrate their skill by fighting the beta, who by now the group realizes is a more decent werewolf. With total success (which they achieved), they shifted enough support behind the beta to prevent this challenge; they still need to defeat the bear, but the beta is alive and in a stronger position, and when they return from their task, they may be able to unseat the alpha once and for all.
(Anonymous) on June 16th, 2008 01:44 am (UTC)
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 had to chuckle at the "min/max" comment.

I play in Living Greyhawk, and what I'm looking forward to most in Living Forgotten Realms is the skill challenges. Why? Because 3E didn't have great rules for non-combat encounters, and as a result LG didn't give any experience for non-combat encounters (other than a small amount for RP and goal attainment). This meant that talking your way out a fight was actually *counterproductive* - you got no XP, and no cash/prizes. It was literally a fail. So everyone min/maxed for absolute combat - it was the only way to "succeed".

So, I'm looking forward to people "min/maxing" into skills, or at least having to choose between combat and skill encounters.

As for the other complaints, I file them all under "add salt to taste" - each group will find it's balance for how hard they should be, same as for combat (my 3.5 group has three members and will regularly fight encounters two or three levels higher then they should - it's just the way they roll.)