Friday, July 29, 2011

Why I dislike skill challenges

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. 
  1. 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. 
  2. 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.


  1. I largely agree but two things I'd like to add. First, I do not find that skill challenges stand in for creative skill use like before, if anything they discourage it even more than you mention. I've found across a couple of groups that if I let on at all that I have a set of possible skills- the primary/secondary skills, behind the screen players tend to try and figure out which of those skills they are best at and then let the people with the best mods role as many time as they can to try and ensure success. I think the best skill challenges I've ever run are those where I did not have a set list of skills for a section but just used the general skill challenge framework with the party.

    My second point would build off that in that I think the overall structure that they put out with the rules compendium actually has a little more merit as long as you do not assign specific skills to the challenge. Things like advantages- letting one skill aid a different skill or letting a skill make up for a failure- are good ideas that a GM could certainly come up with on their own but could stand a short write up as well. Also the idea of tracking success/failures and importantly making sure failure means something different rather than a stop in the adventure. Again, I know a good GM can do this without the system but given that it is out there not sure it all needs to get tossed. Basically I think the system has some uses, provided you toss out the pick skills section and leave that up to on the spot creativity.

    Maybe you don't need a full retrofit of the system, you probably don't in fact, but could something like a few "principles of creating/running noncombat challenges" with an example or two be of use to the game?

  2. I wouldn't disagree with any of that. I concur that skill challenges seem to kill creativity by funneling you towards a route. I talked about this when I first discussed Good Design-Bad Rules wherein because we look for ways to narrow down the list of possible options, we immediately look to what we are good at. For skill challenges, this means whatever the GM puts in front of us. That kills creativity.

    Like I say, the structure has some use because *any* structure could be helpful. But featuring it as a system I would not recommend. This should be a one-page sidebar with some general ideas for running encounters with just skills, not an ill-designed system that takes up 5% the DMG.

  3. I have been thinking about changing the way skill checks are performed. Not sure who put the thought in my head (might have been you), but instead of rolling 1d20, the player rolls 2d20 and uses the highest die. I like that a single roll can't screw you over. When rolling 1d20 and the entire party is trying to sneak past the monsters, one of the rolls are bound to come up low. (Some people simply require half the group succeeding, which I like - it is like a mini-skill challenge).
    I've considered another skill challenge format though. It also requires a number of successes, but instead of having a target DC that determines success or failure, a better roll simply gives more successes. So a skill check of 12 might give 1 success, rolling 16 gives 2, etc. There is no reason not to attempt a roll, as you are not penalized for it. A time limit can be added when it makes sense.

    The difficulty of the check might be something like:
    Easy check: 5 successes (in a 5-player party)
    Medium check: 10 successes (in a 5-player party)
    Medium check: 15 successes (in a 5-player party)

    (all example values of course)

    This can be used for a single check by a single character, a single check by the entire group or an actual skill challenge, as it scales easily. The GM could also in a situation where the Wizard finds a mysterious book in a language unknown to him. This would be a skill challenge with a high number of successes needed (perhaps 20 or more?), so every time the party camps, the Wizard's player tells the GM he studies the book and makes another roll that counts towards the number of successes needed. This is similar to the "extended skill challenge" system in World of Darkness.

    This is the basic framework and the GM can add stuff on top of this:
    - Restricting skills in certain situations/requiring uses of certain skills
    - Penalties when failing (such as losing a Healing Surge).
    - Advantages, as Mike mentioned.
    I wasn't planning on adding rules for this, but simply letting people go with their gut.

    A few other comments on the 2d20 "system":
    - Ties can be broken using the value on the second die.
    - Doing this would mean that a rule like taking 10 is worse than an average roll (something that always irked me a little, not sure why).