Hey guys, after a fun gaming weekend, it’s time to continue on with what I started last week, the Encounter Builder Checklist.
Skill Challenges are explained in detail in the DMG, but are essentially an extended contest wherein the players attempt to utilize their skills against a series of checks. The skills used are suggested by the players, but the GM is encouraged to come up with a list of eligible skills and appropriate DCs for any given task. That being said, it’s a great system to bring D&D out of it’s purely combat focus and to emphasize creativity and clever skill use. In addition, it’s pretty handy in things like social conflict, or intellectual conflict.
- Failure isn’t Losing – When handling Skill challenges, it’s always good to remember that failing a skill challenge doesn’t always mean that all hope is lost. A failed skill challenge is an opportunity for GMs to implement complications, and to raise the stakes. Consider putting yourselves in the shoes of your players in this case. Rather than making them feel worse about losing the challenge, ramp up the difficulty a notch and watch your players buckle down to give their best to handle the consequences.
- Be open to suggestions – Players are a wily bunch and I’ve often been surprised with their resourcefulness in the field. Like I mentioned in the earlier playtest report, the team of players I ran for last saturday managed to find a way to deal with two Fire Beetles that were giving them trouble by Comboing some spells with Skill Checks. While not completely a skill challenge in an of itself, I certainly didn’t plan for a Flaming Sphere with Ghost Sound on it to seduce Fire Beetles in the game.
- Be Dynamic – Skill Challenges are mechanically a cool system, but what it doesn’t come with is instant excitement. Build up your skill challenge and heap on the descriptions. Much like combat, that can quickly lose the excitement of the moment as soon as the GM and a single player end up haggling on the finer details of a power description, Skill Challenges must keep moving. Pacing is once again crucial as you don’t want them to breeze through a skill challenge without any sense of Tension. When handling a chase scene for example, give descriptions between rolls, making it so that they never consider the fact that all they’re doing is rolling dice in sequence.
- Be Diverse – 4e might have a smaller skill list than 3e, but it’s still important to use all of them. The more commonly rewarded skills include Theivery, Bluff and Diplomacy, but that doesn’t mean you should stop there. Unless the skill really has nothing to do with the task at hand (like using Nature against a complex Arcane formulae building on sprit binding and true names) give the players a chance to exercise their skills to the fullest.
- Reward Roleplay but don’t penalize rolls – This is an interesting issue that pops up now and then whenever rules encroach into roleplay territory. Which matters more, a natural 20 roll or an eloquent delivery by a player that leaves the table in stunned silence out of sheer Awesomeness™? Consider merging the two. A good speech should provide a positive bonus to the roll, perhaps even lowering the difficulty of the task. Or, a not so tactful statement might have been offset with a sufficiently high roll. Another possible alternative would be to roll first, and roleplay the result. It might not necessarily be advantageous to the silver tongued player, but it’s certainly more fair to those without the same level of skill as a player.
Skill challenges are a great “sub-game” when used properly, and will reward players who are quick on their feet, even if they’re not tactically minded. With a little forward planning, the GM will find that skill challenges are a great alternative to yet another combat.