I was quite nervous about running my first skill challenge. There isn’t really an old school analogue for skill challenges, so they felt quite foreign to me. I wanted to make sure I was “doing it right”. I decided it would be best to run the challenge via email in between sessions. This would let me dodge the issue of having to extemporize when I didn’t know what to expect, and would also be a good way to keep the campaign fresh in my players’ minds throughout the week.
My first email to the group detailed exactly what was expected of each player. I told them they were participating in a skill challenge, in which they would have to successfully use ten skills before they failed three times. I informed them there were certain skills that would be more appropriate than others, and these would require easier checks. I didn’t tell them exactly what skills to use, though I offered my young son’s character (skills picked ahead of time) as an example. The players were to choose two skills, describe their character’s actions, and roll the checks to include in their response.
My players were very creative, and did an excellent job in their replies; they seemed to really be pushing themselves as far as the roleplaying aspects went. As I had unfortunately expected, many of the skills they decided to use were not “primary skills” for the challenge as presented in the adventure. This made the checks tougher, and as a result, the group had failed twice while succeeding eight times.
Now I was faced with a dilemma. According to the adventure, they needed two more successes, or there would be additional complications in an upcoming battle. Should the two players who failed try again, so they wouldn’t feel left out? Maybe I should ask two who succeeded easily to use the same skills again. Or, I could throw it back out to the group and let them decide.
I chose to let two players who had chosen “primary” skills to roll again. They both succeeded, for which I was thankful. I didn’t want the party’s first skill challenge to be a failure, as that would have been very frustrating to them this early in the campaign. This decision felt heavy-handed to me, and I worried I was railroading them, but I thought it was for the best. Paraphrasing the players’ emails, I sent the results out the day before the next session. Here’s a quote.
The power-hungry Tekel felt that assisting the rabble was a waste of time, and instead devoted himself to study. He used various tricks of scrying, drawing upon his knowledge of the arcane, in order to divine whether the Iron Circle would be using magic in the fight. He was able to determine that a sizable group of dark adepts ride with the enemy army to Albridge. By meditating and drawing upon his knowledge of history, Tekel recalled a familiar symbol, seen carved into a staff of one slain Iron Circle wizard. This symbol indicates that the Iron Circle has ties to the foul devils who inhabit Nine Hells. Sobering news indeed. (OOC: Arcana and History successes.)
So, what did I learn from my first real skill challenge?
“Meta” gaming can be counteracted
I will readily admit that my presentation of the skill challenge was totally out of character, more about numbers and minutiae than about a natural extension of role-playing. That bothered me, and I am certain that many other DMs are totally turned off by such mechanical talk. But I had little choice in this instance. I barely understand skill challenges myself, and wanted to make it as clear as possible for my players. Being transparent with the requirements and expectations was a necessary evil.
But doing so dilutes the flavor of the game. I countered this by requiring descriptions from my players other than “I’ll roll for Arcana”. By adding to their descriptions, it was easy to develop in game results for their efforts. Many have pointed out that skill challenges are really just combats in which you roll with different numbers. Though I can see that point, a good DM can use collaboration and storytelling to make sure a skill challenge feels far different than a fight.
One “meta” aspect I felt strongly about was not sharing with my players what skills were required. Instead of limiting their choices to the prescribed list of primary and secondary skills, they could choose those that they felt were best, not what I or the designers decided were best. Keeping the players guessing about what skills to use is extremely important to running a successful skill challenge.
Let the players be creative
I was totally surprised by a few of my players’ choices. They seemed more interested in using their highest skills than more appropriate skills that they were less proficient in. One player wanted to use Stealth to steal enemy weapons, and another chose Athletics in order to teach the local farmers some martial arts moves. I was glad this didn’t happen at the table because I really didn’t know how to proceed.
In the end, saying “yes” to the players won out. I told my Thief that his plan to use Stealth was probably best run as a short solo adventure, but perhaps he could use his skills to help camouflage or find good hiding places. The martial arts training was allowed with no modifications; even though it was a stretch, it was still in character and certainly flavorful. The players both ended up failing their checks, but the group still prevailed. If you don’t tell players exactly what skills to use, you need to be flexible when they come up with something you don’t expect.
“Repeated” skills can detract from the experience
Two players rolled against the same skills they had already used once when the group needed more successes after the first series of checks. This bothered me; the way skill challenges are presented (as far as I can tell in my limited experience), primary skills can often be used multiple times. I’m not sure if individual characters are supposed to be able to repeat skills or not, but if this indeed the correct interpretation, I don’t like it, for several reasons.
The first is story-based. I have trouble seeing how, for example, a shaman can consult with nature for assistance, get a result, and then do the exact same thing again. Or, if the paladin smooths things over between argumentative factions, how can he do it again? Speaking from a purely role-playing prespective, it seems like multiple uses of the same skill are redundant and make little sense.
Stifling creativity also leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If a player uses a skill successfully the first time, they will almost always choose to use the same skill again if they can. They do not have to come up with a new way to solve the problem, they can just do the same thing again. There’s no incentive to stretch themselves. They’ll probably just ask how many times they can repeat it, plunging the conversation straight into “mechanics” mode. I’d rather see players looking at other skills and coming up with new ways to use them, rather than relying on Diplomacy or Arcana for the umpteenth time.
Finally, exactly how is the number of times a skill can be used in a challenge determined? Is there a rule for this somewhere that I have, in my ignorance, missed? Arbitrarily decreeing that Nature can only be used three times, for example, seems quite random. I think cooperation and creativity would both be improved if repeated skills were disallowed, though the overall number of successes required to pass the challenge would probably need to be decreased to compensate.
Skill challenges can be very tricky, especially for beginning DMs like myself. Look around the D&D 4E blogosphere and you’ll see that even accomplished referees struggle with running them. As with most changes to the game in 4E, there are benefits and drawbacks to the system. The key is to alter skill challenges as you see fit in order to best serve the needs of your campaign.