Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Trimming the Fat, Part 2: Shooting Skill Challenges in the Face

Today we continue to take a look at certain aspects of 4e that will be left out of my upcoming zine, 4e Forever. I want to say that these are just my opinions. If you like some of the stuff I mention, more power to you. I want everyone to play the way they like, and I am not here to diss anybody's playstyle. That said, I freaking hate Skill Challenges with a passion.

For me, it is really pretty simple. Despite the myriad long-winded defenses of skill challenges that I am sure you have read, and regardless of all the usual tidbits of advice that have been floating around since their inception, it is my opinion that Skill Challenges do irreparable harm to roleplaying. I like roleplaying to be free-form. I hate adding structure to it. I much prefer calling for checks on the fly, letting the PCs actions flow naturally, and having the possible repercussions of their failure come to me organically, rather than devising some pre-plotted outcome based on how many dice rolls a party fails. It was just a bad idea. I can respect that they were trying to add another mechanism to gain experience points outside of combat, but the whole "Three strikes, you're out", "Let's make some lists that extrapolate hypothetical skill checks, then force a few into every adventure", etc, was just a bad idea.

I realize that products like the DMG 2 and the Rules Compendium try to massage this a bit and offer alternatives, but to me that is just back-tracking on a crappy idea; polishing a turd if you will. It is too much, too late. It is kind of like when someone says, as if it is the secret of the universe, "Don't tell them they are in a Skill Challenge." I get two things from that statement. One: Skill Challenges are such a downer that alluding to the fact you are running one hurts your game. Two: you must not have a very high opinion of your players' intelligence, because any fool can tell when you are running one, whether you say so or not. "But it's different at my table." Perhaps it is, and I am happy for you if you like them. Seriously, I am. I just do not use them, and you won't see them in the magazine's adventures.

Now am I saying that PCs having to use some skills during a combat is a bad thing? Of course not. Am I saying that there shouldn't be consequences for failure? Of course not. All I am saying is that in my experience, roleplay works best when it is loose and natural, and there is no solution to Skill Challenges that I have ever read (and I have read hundreds) that works as well as simply not using them.

I hope nobody took offense! As always, I am interested in your thoughts, so leave a post!


  1. Removing skill challenges instead of evolving them was IMO one of the biggest mistakes D&D Next have done.
    They had so much potential WotC were afraid to use of fear of pushing old school crowd even farther.

  2. Hate Skill challenges also. They kill improvisation for players that are weak RPers. They want to resolve everything with a roll of the dice and it's annoying as hell.
    Ditch the entire system. 4E is already ridiculous in the amount of conditions/effects/bonuses and minuses to track.
    It's truly a tactical game with a little bit of RP and Skill challenges are lazy RPing.

  3. I like skill checks. Skill challenges haven't been implemented very well. I did like how they used a skill challenge in an LFR adventure I ran CALI4-1 beautifully as the precursor to the final fight. Players concocted ways to render guards deftly using skill checks moderate DC left the enemy bloodied and exceeding hard DC incapacitated enemy. Depending on what the player wanted to do was left to his/her imagination.

  4. Yeah, I don't feel to bad if they aren't in there.

  5. See, I think the problem is that they were shoehorned into every in-and-out of combat application they could conceivably fit, even if it wasn't the best option on the table. They work beautifully for modelling chases, extended survival, judicial trials, and disabling traps or rituals (among other things), but I wouldn't use them for negotiating with a baron, or discrete actions like hopping a chasm.

    On top of that, they needn't be presented as SCs currently are. The basic "X successes before Y failures, plus some possible repercussions of some specific actions" structure is very flexible. I have a feeling a lot of the trouble with SCs comes more from poorly-presented or poorly-run SCs than the basic idea itself.

  6. There are very occasional cases where I find an SC-like mechanic comes in handy, eg if a group is trying to be stealthy, 3 strikes to fail works better than 1 strike. Likewise for picking a lock, I use succeed before 3 fails, so no take-20. But in general they were a bad idea poorly implemented.

  7. Gotta say, I love skill challenges, but for a very particular reason. My group doesn't RP well, y'know? I've got two old school RPGers who's philosophy mirrors DCC RPG (NPCs are there to be killed, ya know? Dungeons and loot and killing and taking their stuff) and two newbies who need all the prodding they can get to roleplay. The skill challenges helps them along by guiding the use their skillsets in a noncombat situation. I have them narrate the failure or success accordingly. It's worked very well for us so far and I enjoy setting them up, so they'll stay in my game. I understand how they could cause problems for some groups that want freeflow RP though; I would definitely NOT use them if I got together with my old high school group!