Skill Challenges Suck! Or Do They?

Fantasy FiguresI have been in some awful skill challenges. They added nothing to the game and actively hurt the story we were playing. Is this because skill challenges suck? No. In every case I have played in a bad skill challenge the DM has actively undermined the challenge. They didn’t get the concept, or were so combat focused that they just didn’t like it. So how can skill challenges be improved so even those DMs like them? I have a couple of ideas, but first lets look at how they go wrong.

Good skill challenges I have been in are relatively seamless parts of the story. Good parties realize they are in a challenge and look for ways of helping out, but keep it reasonably in character. ‘My Bard will talk to the guards while the fighter hefts the rogue onto the roof to look for trapdoor.’ In bad skill challenges the DM says ‘You can use diplomacy, bluff, stealth and fernpicking, give me your rolls.’ The DMs in bad challenges look at skill challenges as a poor social combat system and players in bad challenges just play the numbers.

In combat we have roles that help explain what everyone is doing, strikers deal damage, leaders buff and heal, defenders block and controllers restrict the enemy. Even with everyone having a role, the whole party can still contribute to taking down the enemy by doing a bit of damage as they fill their role. One of the problems with skill challenges is that it is all or nothing. To be safe only a diplomacy striker should attack, everyone else can aid but that is all they should do unless they have the highest stat bonus. In straight combat everyone attacks every turn, on average four out of the six will hit every round of combat and there will be around four to six rounds of combat.  Everyone will normally hit at least once a fight and misses don’t really hurt that much if others are hitting. In a routine skill challenge, more than a couple of misses and the whole thing is in danger. So I understand and sympathize with the roll players in this situation, they look at this and say ‘role play will hurt us here’ and try to provide ‘better’ answers.

How to make a more role play friendly skill challenge? Mike Mearl’s in the WOTC Podcast suggests a couple of tricks. One I like is stringing together a series of short challenges rather than one long one. This reduces the impact of a single failure and allows more rolls, my only worry here is that it could slow things down and put up a lot of milestones. This is also more work for the DM, but I have to admit I can throw up a skill challenge framework on the fly pretty well so I don’t think it is fatal.

Another idea is to allow recovery rolls from people with higher skill bonuses on a miss, perhaps costing an action point. A recovery roll could be a straight roll of the skill, or it could be an aid action done after the original roll failed. This allows those with skill to recover a situation and might make others less worried about participating.  I would still want those with skill to lead the way, but it wouldn’t be fatal if someone else tried. This also ties in the regular combat system to the social one by using action points, the downside however could well be less action points when combat comes around.

A commonly used idea is giving bonuses for good role playing.  I tend to do this, but it drives the mechanical gamers crazy as it gives the DM discretion and sometime in the last twenty years that became a bad thing. I tend to trust my DMs with this sort of thing, I know I can tell the difference between role playing and clever but gamey justifications to use your highest bonus skills, I suspect most DMs can do it as well. This has the benefit of being fast, and easy, but some people aren’t happy unless there is math to it so perhaps some limits are in order, say a +2 for run of the mill role play and a +4 for really good stuff. Now the bad news, I have no easy system to explain the difference between gamey justifications, ok role play and great role play.

So in the end, do Skill Challenges suck? My answer, even as someone who likes them is that as a system they kinda do suck compared to the rest of 4e. Doesn’t mean the system can’t be recovered, but between the errata, the Dragon articles, the podcast and what I see in the LFR system I think Skill Challenges still have a way to go before they are as sound as so many parts of the new rules are. I will still play in them and DM them with as much enthusiasm as ever. I want them to work in any game I run or play in, but I won’t rant at the players or DMs who balk at them. Skill challenges are a new mechanic for D&D, they didn’t come out of R&D fully polished,  it is getting better but it still isn’t a gem yet.


Robin Law’s Poker based Skill Challenge system. An interesting mechanic, but does it get us any closer to a social ‘combat’ system to bring out role play?

Newbie DM’s Thoughts on Skill Challenges is good as well.

Calite on the RPGA Forum had an interesting example using the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Stalker0 on Enworld’s forums has an interesting system, but it is a bit complicated.

Antioch at Points of Light likes a more story based approach to Skill Challenges.

At Will has a series of articles on Skill Challenges as well. The idea of using base templates for different types of challenges is a good one, I wonder if Wotc could do a book of skill challenges frameworks.

Somehow I missed Critical Hit’s great Skill Challenges section, lots of good stuff here.

  1. Ameron says:

    You’re swimming in dangerous water with this article. Get ready for a very polarized discussion.

    I happen to be on the side that likes skill challenges a lot. I’ve found that one reason some DMs don’t use skill challenges is because they don’t know how to make one. We have a bunch of sample skill challenges on our site so we’ve taken care of that for you.

    I’ve also found that the PCs need to have a good idea of what they can do with their skills. The more imaginative the PCs are the more fun skill challenges can be. In our skill focus series we provide 10 new and alternative ways to use skills.

    I think you get out of skill challenges what you put in them. If the DM encourages creativity and good role-playing then the skill challenges work. If everyone just looks at it as a number crunch (like combat) then you’re less likely to enjoy the experience.

    • Brett says:

      I agree Ameron, but with the caveat that it doesn’t take as much work for a DM to get the regular combat side of the game working well. A party that thinks about how to work together in a combat is stronger, and it works that way in skill challenges to, but more parties seem to realize it for combat than for skill challenges. As for DMs, the ones that don’t believe in the skill challenge aren’t likely to put in the work needed to make them good ones, so how can we bring them along? As I said, I like skill challenges, they are great fun when they work, but I am not sold that they are a finished product in the system yet.

  2. newbiedm says:

    I need to *hear* examples at play, not read any more sample skill challenges! These are a dime a dozen on the web! I want to hear something other than “a conversation with the duke” being played out by a good dm at a table.

    Give me “crossing a lava pit by jumping on the pools of floating rock while enduring the blazing heat” or something like that.

    I want to hear it being run. Not suggestions on how to buld it!


    newbiedm’s last blog post..Nice! Subtle changes to Keep on the Shadowfell

    • Brett says:

      Ok, I understand that, but did you need to hear combat in order to ‘get’ it? I think skill challenges can and do work, but I think the presentation is lacking in the DMG and the Wotc’s follow ups, while good, show us how far we have to go before we have it right.

  3. Cedroc says:

    I sorta agree that the current system in the core books (and as implemented by LFR authors) leave a lot to be desired.

    I personally like the concept of skill challenges (attaching XP and consequences to skill use), and I hope to someday find a good way to execute it. But for now, all the tweaks that people suggest are just patches to a poorly thought out system.

    To compound on the problem of the mechanics of the system are the expectations of the DMs and players. Enthusiasm and knowledge of the skills system plays a big role in making skill challenges work, and for the most part, people seem to be more interested in either pure combat mechanics or pure roleplaying (i.e. roleplaying without needing to roll skill checks), and the type of player/DM that enjoys a mechanics-based roleplaying session is somewhat rare.

    Cedroc’s last blog post..Wake Up Service

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