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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Playtesting D&D 4E Skill Challenges

by Ken Newquist / July 22, 2008

D&D 4th Edition -- particularly the Player's Handbook -- taken a lot of criticism for being 99% crunch, and 1% fluff. It's also taken hits for the gutting of many of the role-playing aspects from earlier editions, including skills like craft, profession, and perform. All of this is true, but 4E's saving grace is the Dungeon Master's Guide which provides much of the framework for supporting role-playing that the PHB is lacking. Now it's a legitimate complaint that this is putting almost all of the role-playing heavy lifting on the DM's shoulders, but in truth, I suspect that's where it lies in a good many campaigns.

One of the DMG's better ideas is the Skill Challenge. It's not a new concept -- we've seen things like this before in other games, like Spycraft 2.0 -- but it's perfect for providing players with tasks that don't involve smashing some orc's skull in. The idea is simple: each challenge requires players to achieve a certain number of successes before getting a certain number of failures. The DCs of the challenges vary based on level and difficulty of the task -- at first level, the challenges are DC 10 (easy), DC 15 (moderate) or DC 20 (hard), based on the 'ad hoc task resolution' chart on Page 42 of the Dungeon Master's Guide (yes, I know there's a problem with those numbers ... read on padawan).

As with all skill checks, players need to meet or beat the DC in order to successfully resolve the task. Now some have slammed Skill Challenges as replacing role-playing with a series of dice rolls, but personally I agree with Keith Baker (of Eberron fame) that this provides an excellent framework for encouraging role-playing. For example, instead of just having one simple "Gather Information" check to try and learn something about a villain combined with perhaps a role-playing encounter, you can now have an epic challenge involving multiple skills and multiple party members, all the while making every task into an opportunity for role-playing!

The Challenge at Hand

For the third session of my gaming group's Planetorn 4E playtest campaign, I decided to use two Skill Challenges. The party -- comprised of five first level characters -- was adventuring through the Burning Sands of Fierth, an alternative material plane on the eve of destruction by a red dragon sorcererous named Sulara. The heroes were charged with learning the nature of the threat, and to that end were traveling to the volcano known as Mount Infernus, the probable lair of the dragon, as well as a long-sealed portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire. Getting to the mountain Skill Challenges:
  • The Run Across the Desert: Sneak across the desert plans, avoiding the watchful eyes of kobolds camped in a formerly abandoned keeps on the foothills of Mount Infernus.
  • The Tunnels of Fire: Finding and exploring a network of lava tubes that lead from the foothills to the chamber at the heart of the volcano.

The first test was straight forward, and was led primarily by the party's rogue Gavin, with some assists from the dragonborn wizard Thrax, who suggested how to use the inferno of the nearby ley lines to cover their approach. The second challenge was Complexity 5, and was far more complicated. It's primary skills -- the skills that were essential to completing the challenge and thus had moderate DCs -- were Acrobatics, Athletics, Dungeoneering, Endurance and Nature.

It's Complexity of 5 meant that it counted the same as a combat encounter as far as experience rewards, and required 12 successes before six failures. Success for the challenge indicated that the heroes made it to the heart of the volcano, the basalt island at its center holding both the dragon and the portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire. Failure meant they got lost, and had to turn back, unable to navigate the fire tunnels.

Dungeoneering (DC10): One character needs to make a dungeoneering skill to determine which of the myriad tunnels leads toward the heart chamber. Failure means characters lose a healing surge as they wander aimlessly through the caverns, trying to find the right path.

Nature (DC 10, DC 15): One character needs to make an Nature check to figure out the best way to protect the party from the dangerous of the tunnels. DC 10 means they think to take minimal precautions. DC 15 means they take exceptional precautions, and their next physical-related check is at +2. Failure means that there's a flaw in their preparations, and they're at -2 to their next check.

Endurance (DC 15): Brave a poison gas surge. Failure indicates you lose a healing surge.

Endurance (DC 15): Figure out the best way to avoid exceptional heat of exposed lava pulsating through the tube.

Acrobatics (DC 15): You find a chamber filled with razorsharp shards of obsidian glass. You deftly avoid the blades, and scout out a path for your fellows to follow.

Athletics (DC 10): You find a bridge over a lavaflow, and are able to sprint across it before the thing collapses. Now someone will need to make a dungeoneering check (DC 15) to successfully ford the breach.

Acrobatics (DC10): Earthquake! The entire room shakes as the volcano rumbles. You deftly dodge the falling debris, and shout warnings to your friends. Failure: Lose a healing surge.

Nature (DC15): You identify the tell-tale signs of a clutch of thunder scorpions, and can avoid them if you wish. Otherwise, you inadvertantly stumble into the lair.

Dungeoneering (DC10): You find an old resting place once occupied by other explorers of this complex. Their bodies were long ago mummified by the heat, but their supplies look to be in good order ... including their canteens. Regain a healing surge if you lost one. You also find the following items:

  • A bag of holding.
Inside the bag, you find:
  • Ritual Book: Endure Elements
  • One potion of healing + 330 gp
  • Misc. equipment (ropes, pitons, hammers, etc.)

Running the Challenge

One of the arguments I've seen against Skill Challenges is "why not just role-play this?" or "Why not just map it out?" It would have been easy enough to key the above Skill Challenges to a map, and be done with it. That's what I typically did under 3rd edition, and it works well enough.

The advantage of Skill Challenges is that it's not just me describing the lava tubes and chambers that the party is crawling through. The nature of the encounter means that the players describe to me what they're trying to do, and I work that into the challenges I have planned, or come up with something on the fly. At the same time, it allows players to draw on abilities that they might not normally use because the focus is firmly on skills rather than combat powers.

Other suggested Skill Challenges include negotating with a baron, gathering information, and chasing (or escaping from) and enemy. Under 3rd edition, each of these (with the exception of the last one) would likely have consisted of of some role-playing followed by a skill check (at least in our games; in other group's it could easily have been just a skill check). Making it a skill challenge doesn't negate the role-playing, as some have claimed. Instead, it provides a framework for that role-playing, much in the way that combat abilities provide a framework for physical conflicts.

That said, this isn't something I'd want to do every week -- it worked pretty well, and we had a lot of fun with it, but it felt a bit forced in places, and for the most part I think our role-playing encounters work better as freeform affairs. What I think Skill Challenges works best for are skills-heavy set-pieces: something more than straight role-playing, but not something you'd want to map out. It's a good way of getting skills-heavy characters involved in the game in a way taht's every bit as meaningful as combat. It's ironic that this system arrived with 4th Edition, which has done everything in its power to minimize and downplay role-playing oriented-skills and it's just begging to be backported to 3rd Edition.

Bad Math

Overall, our skill challenge playtest went well ... except it turns out we did it wrong. I calculated all of the Difficulty Challenges wrong. It turns out that the page 42 chart has a footnote ... and that footnote increases the DC for any skill checks by 5. As a result, the DCs go from reasonabl to unreasonable in a hurry: DC 15 (easy), DC 20 (moderate) or DC 25 (hard).

Because I missed the footnote, both of the challenges I ran during the playtests were effectively "easy" ones, since I set the moderate DC to 15 instead of the necessary 20. As a result, my group easily passed both challenges without accruing more than a handful of failures. This is not the case in proper Skill Challenges, which stack the deck heavily against the players. There are two good posts available that run through the numbers:

Keith Baker's "Skill Challenges" article discusses how he uses Skill Challenges in his campaign, and how his players are able to pass them through a combination of creative play, utility powers, and aid another rolls. I agree with a lot of what he says here, particularly in how Skill Challenges can be used to seed a role-playing encounter, and how to mitigate some of the problems with the subsystem. In the end though, the math just doesn't work out, as Mike Mearls (D&D 4E developer) admitted in this Gleemax thread. Apparently Wizards R&D is looking into the problem, and there was a disconnect between the different versions that were playtested, as well as how they were playtested. All in all, I think Skill Challenges are a good idea poorly implemented, and I'm hoping we'll see an errata fix sooner rather than later.

Update

Since writing this, we've done a playtest of the updated Skill Challenge rules. Check them out.

Comments

The whole table on page 42 DMG has been revised in the latest errata (or as they call it "Updates") at: http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/updates

In another podcast (can't remember which) Mike Mearls almost promised a Dragon magazine article on Skill Challenges as the design team also isn't that happy with how it came out in print.

That was quick -- I'm glad to see they've dealt with the issue already. With these revised rules, they ditch the "+5 for skill checks" foot note, and lower the DCs so that at 1st-3rd level the challenges would be DC 5 (easy), DC 10 (moderate) or DC 15 (hard).

I'll need to run another one based on these numbers. At first glance (and based on our playtest) these numbers seem a little low, given that our Complexity 5 challenge was +5 harder for all these checks, and the PCs still beat it handily, 12 successes to 1 failure (IIRC correctly).

Then again, that's the same sort of odds we see in combat, which the PCs are usually going to win and my players did have to work to complete the challenge. It wasn't just a series of die rolls, they really had to be creative to work their way through the Burning Tunnels.

The other significant change to Skill Challenges in the "errata" is that it's now fixed at three failures, independent of number of successes. This makes it exactly the "Complex Skill Checks" system from Unearthed Arcana (p81, or p85 for the maths, if you've got the hard copy).

The other thing to come out of the En World threads of extreme longness on the subject was that "Aid Another" is incredibly important: a few aid anothers on a Skill Challenge very rapidly change it from "no chance at all" to "sure thing", which is the reason for the paragraph about this in the errata.

It's the second thing which is why this is still problematic for me: the - graph is much steeper for Skill Challenges than it is for normal skill checks, which makes it very sensitive to any bonuses or penalties which the players may have at the time: while normally a +2 bonus means a 10% greater chance of success (not much, but good to have), on a skill challenge, it means much more than that (how much depending on the challenge). This is going to make Skill Challenges a very hard thing for DMs to get right when using in their adventure, especially if WotC aren't going to give any sort of table indicating chances of success in the DMG.

Great. I'm glad they are addressing the issue, but it frustrates me to no end that the game's been out for what, like two months, and we've got very important rules that I can't use my DMG for. Now instead I have to reference their stupid website to play the game.
And, a lot of good it does to promise us a Dragon magazine article when the don't publish Dragon magazine anymore (stupid online only format).
I was hoping that even with all the changes to the game, I'd at least be getting a finished product when I bought the books.

Yeah, I'm glad they're dealing with it too, and quickly, but while I appreciate the errata this form factor *sucks*. Given the scope of the problem, it seems to me it would have been better to re-write the Skill Challenge rules with the errata and then throw those rules up on the site as one coherent PDF.

As is ... well, the information's out there, but it's not exactly user friendly. Isn't this exactly the sort of thing that the brave new era of D&D Insider was supposed to help with? I mean heck, the DMG isn't even in the Rules Compendium, so you can't fall back on that.

Ugh.

Yeah, I think skill challenges will always be a matter of art as much as science, for the reasons you identify. But I'm ok with that; if my players are being creative about coming up with a solution to a problem (and thus, earning that +2 bonus from aid another) then I'm ok with auto or near-auto) successes. That's better, IMHO, then simply saying "I aid another ..." and then roll a die.