Earlier editions of D&D were so basic that you *needed* to make up rules, often on the fly, to handle fringe issues that arose during the game. Because there were not tools in place, it fell heavily on creativity to fill in the gaps and a lot of this creativity was satisfied through the meager skills a character had. As the game grew more robust, more tools were put in place to resolve more issues. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and so when the need for creativity diminished, it felt, to many people, that the role of creativity in the game also diminished.
Skill challenges were an effort to restore skills back to a challenge solving mechanism in D&D. Once again, challenges can be circumvented or defeated through the use of skills and coming up with creative usages. Despite this, I think they miss the point and fail in two crucial regards.
- Skill challenges don’t allow creativity back into the game but rather insist it return. There is a significant difference between being receptive to creative input and demanding it on the spot.
- The quality of the creativity is dependent on the quality of the skill challenge. Those moments of player genius where the GM never saw it coming aren’t a *part* of skill challenges. Sure, those moments could arise, but not because of the skill challenge system, almost despite the skill challenge system.
I want to spend a moment more on that second point.
Consider combat. A lazy GM could pick a handful of monsters at random, toss them into a featureless space, and call for initiative. There is enough balance in the game and enough neat options that the players would still probably have a good time. The same approach to a skill challenge would be an unmitigated disaster. With skill challenges, you only get out what you put in. When we reconsider the role of skills in earlier editions of D&D, I frequently pitted the party against things I thought were interesting with no idea how they’d be resolved. They tried stuff, they rolled dice, and we saw what happened. The lazy moments, as often as the planned moments, lead to those great scenarios were creativity won the day. I like to call this ‘Failing in the right direction.’ Skill challenges do not set you up so that when you fail, you fail in the right direction.
I don’t mean to say that the skill challenge framework couldn’t be useful; any structure helps people understand things better. But the concept of “skill challenges” has been around for as long as someone decided it should take more than one check to complete something… this system is just dressing. Even so, it is bad dressing because it forces too many people to spend too many actions doing too many things they aren’t excited to do (i.e. aid another).
I’ve thought a lot about skill challenge-type systems these last few days and I really don’t see any redeeming feature of the 4e skill challenge system. The phrase, “some skill checks are not resolved in a single check, and may take multiple checks (possibly even from multiple skills!) to fully resolve” is basically as robust as the system. The reason being that all of the neat consequences are external to the system itself and follow from GM creativity (i.e. if you fail you anger the Baron and he pits additional resources against you) that would/could exist independent of the system.
The only neat idea is that failure might cost a healing surge to simulate arduous actions, and this is only neat because it makes the consequence of skills equal to that of combat and ubiquitious in its presence in the game. In other words, it actually matters. A skill challenge to sneak past a series of sentries and break into a prison unnoticed might be fun, but failure just means you have to fight some guys. You aren’t any *worse* off (other than having to fight) than you otherwise would have been because skills don’t use the same resources as combat.
In sum, the skill challenge system, like 4e skills themselves, are neat designs that ended up being bad rules. They feel tacked on, don't feel organic during the game, don’t foster the type of creativity that was lost, and don’t even do what they were designed to do well. I think it would be better to take a different approach than try and re-design or retro-fit skill challenges, particularly when the concept is so simple that it really doesn’t need much of a “system” to be in the game.