I like the concept of skill challenges in role-playing games.
For those unaware, skill challenges were an encounter “type” that rose to some prominence in D&D 4th edition. It pits the characters against some task, requiring them to achieve a number of successful skill check rolls before a number of unsuccessful skill check rolls.
The problem, then, with skill challenges is in their execution, hampered by a lack of rules clarity, a lack of narrative structure, and general human nature. First off, it’s never explicitly stated if skill challenges are supposed to be run like combat, with each player taking a turn, or if they’re supposed to be freeform. And it’s never really explicitly said if you’re supposed to tell the players the list of skills relevant to the skill challenge. While I supposed any constellation of options is possible, there is a severe lack of creative freedom when you tell your characters flat out what skills to use. Heck, at that point, why not just roll the dice for them; they’re no longer active participants in the session anyway.
The second problem is that the majority of skill challenges in published adventures are horribly written. Continuing on their efforts to reduce “imagination” and “active participation,” most skill challenges seem to assume that the skill check result tells the player what they did, not the other way around. This just adds to the horrible nature of skill challenges, as many GMs will use published adventures as their “training wheels,” leading to them learning badly.
Lastly, human nature makes skill challenges a decidedly bad proposition. If you succeed on a check, you progress. If you fail, you regress. If you do nothing… nothing happens. As such, players, being human beings that are risk-averse, will do everything in their power to not fail the check. Again, this limits creativity and interaction.
So how do we fix skill challenges? You integrate them better in the game. You make better win conditions. You use a smarter skill check system (in this, I’ll admit I cribbed liberally from some smarter GMs than me, such as Angry DM).
First, the skill check system. There are a lot of good ways to modify the default skill check system, but one of the best ideas I’ve ever come across is to force players to stop thinking of skills as this discreet list of actions they can perform. I don’t want to hear you say, “I make a Stealth check to sneak into the tent,” I want to hear you say, “I quietly slip around the back of the tent,” to which I’ll respond, “Make a Stealth check.” See the difference? “I make an Intimidate check,” is different than, “I remind the guard that we’re duly appointed members of the Order of Torm.” The hidden added benefit of this is that it drags players, kicking and screaming sometimes, away from sorting their skill list by the size of the check bonus number and only using the top 3 skills. If the situation demands stealth instead of Stealth, even the chainmail wearing Cleric who would (and can) wake the dead might try it.
Once you’ve got a better skill check system, you need better win conditions. This is in terms of individual checks and the challenge in general. Consider that, in the rules-as-written implementation, a failed Diplomacy check with a guard would count the same as a failed Diplomacy check with a king. That’s madness. There also have to be degrees of success and failure: Flawlessly finding the hidden temple to Bhaal might not allow the enemy any time for reinforcements. Completely botching the search, alerting the cultists, would allow that time. But a few missteps along the way may or may not substantially change the outcome.
Which goes to a minor point: Not every skill check has to add to the success or failure counter. Not every action is relevant to the skill challenge, and if it’s irrelevant, it shouldn’t count. Note that I’m not advocating rolling irrelevant skill checks, I’m just saying irrelevant to the skill challenge. If it’s relevant to the game world at large, then yes, by all means, roll those bones. But it might not progress toward your goal; heck, it might hurt, since it’ll take time you might not have. Those cultists have Amazon Prime, and their new zombies are being delivered soon.
Lastly, and the biggest change, is how to integrate skill challenges into the narrative. Instead of having this awkward, check-based exercise, you might think about better options. And one of the options that might seem good is the developement of “arena” or “levels.” If the players successfully make checks in the first arena, they move onto the second. If they make certain choices and succeed in the second, they go to the third, or maybe the fourth, since we can create branching paths. That’s a staple of dungeon and adventure design, so why not just apply it to skill challenges, right?
stupid unpredictable. Your carefully crafted tree of investigation and skill check locations will be burned to the ground faster than a pine tree on a pagan midwinter holiday. Players will take a look at the dead body, with the mayor’s personal sword stuck through it, and the bloody footprints leading 10 feet to the door of the mayor’s house, and decide to head to the tavern to see if anyone had a problem with the victim. But as a GM, we don’t want to limit players’ creativity. Because for every set of bloody footprints they don’t follow, they’ll think to just pull down the mindblasting statue with a rope instead of destroying or disarming it, since it’s a freakin’ statue and isn’t going to change the aim point on its blasting attack.
So, instead, populate your skill challenges with what I’ll call “nodes.” Each node is a piece of information that you want the characters to have (and may or may not be required to win or progress the skill challenge), why it’s important, and where the characters might be able to obtain it. Use the classic journalism questions of “Who, what, etc.” with the addition of who has that information. Keep the answers simple. One node from the last skill challenge I had read like this:
Who: Merchants and orphan children.
When: Over the past 3 months.
Where: Bridge camp.
From: Merchants or orphans. NOT paladins.
Note that a few of those things aren’t filled in. That’s okay; in fact, that might be the whole point of the adventure. And it’s okay to have a few curveballs in there, as long as you justify them. In this case, the paladins are completely oblivious to the disappearances because they don’t like the merchants and orphans to begin with, so fewer of them is a-ok with them. They’re not great paladins.
Now, you start making your skill checks. Let the players’ natural exploration and creativity come out, and when they get to somewhere where a node might be in play, such as speaking with a merchant, they have the opportunity to get the information on that node. If they stray off your map of nodes, that’s okay. Let them continue to explore, with consequences. If there’s a ticking clock, make sure it’s ticking loudly as they get drunk in the tavern instead of investigating the disappearances. Once they have all the nodes you’ve created for a skill challenge, or that ticking clock stops ticking, end the challenge and move on.
What you have, then, is a far more organic and creative experience in a part of the game that’s notorious for bogging things down and causing players and GMs frustration and angst. Information is achieved, effects on the world are resolved, and your players can get on with the adventure at hand!