Skill Challenges… yet again…

Posted on September 5, 2009 by


This may be like my 5th post about this topic.  I’m not sure why the thought of skill challenges reared its ugly head yet again as I was sitting at work, but I thought of something that hadn’t occurred to me.  While the DMG urges you to lay out the challenge to your players (as if they couldn’t figure out they were in one after you asking for the third roll), what if instead, you don’t tell your players what skills are necessary at all in the challenge?

My thinking is that the DMG is telling you to tell the party “Okay gang, only your skills in Nature, Endurance and Athletics are going to get you through this challenge, perhaps a little perception may help…”  Right off the bat, the players will look at the numbers on their sheet and say “Hmm, okay, well I got the highest endurance.. blablabla”

Not quite the intent of the mechanic perhaps, so I think I’d rather turn it around on them.  “The passageway winds down another 300 yards and drops off on the banks of a river made completely of lava.  Unfortunately for you, the map says that the Crown of the Windswept King lies on a pedestal in a cave downstream.  Good luck getting there.”

Now here I wouldn’t even tell them what’s next.  I may even not have anything planned on how the heck they are supposed to cross this river at all.  All I know is what happens if they fail or if they succeed.

The stuff in between?  Let them figure it out, they’re the players.

At this point I’m forcing them to have to come up with the solution, rather than me giving them hints through Primary Skills being identified.  I’m making even the guy who may not have the adequate skills for this challenge throw something out there because I gave them zero guidance whatsoever.

So now they start throwing ideas out there, and are forcing me to react to them.  The stress is on me to quickly react to whatever plan or way of getting to their success they’ve come up with.   I decide then if what they are doing is feasible or not, and if that skill use counts towards a success.

“Can I use my knowledge to see what I know about lava?”  Rolls a 15.  “It burns.”  Not quite a success, that’s a stupid waste of time even if he had rolled a 45, but not a failure either.  It wasn’t a crucial skill check for the challenge. DM’s judgement plays a roll here.

“Can I use my dungeoneering skill to try and find some natural material within the caves that’ll float and not burn?” Then another guy chimes in… “What do I know about his place, how did the crown get here in the first place. How did they cross the river the first time?”  Okay, Dungeoneering and History.  Make your checks and yes, good ideas.  Now I better react and come up with something (of course, you’d anticipate these types of questions and suggestions).

This is just an idea I though of  that I may try out the next time I game.  Letting the player dictate what they think will work or not in the challenge and me as DM reacting to it.  I don’t have the script, rather they create it on the fly.  Remember, most published skill challenges will have something like this:  Nature (DC 15) – A PC will use his nature skill to find and forage enough food and water….  I want to eliminate that pre generated skill use script by instead having the PC come up with what the skill does, and me decide if that’s a good idea.

I don’t know, I keep thinking of ways to implement these in my game, but they aren’t easy to grasp.  At least not for me.  I’m still hoping for the good folks at WOTC to release a series of podcasts with Skill Challenges being run…

Here’s an idea, if you were a player and a DM presented this example situation to you, how would you react to it, what would you propose?  I want to see how a group of players would handle a similar skill challenge situation without being told what skills are relevant, or how many successes they need.

I’d also like to know how you feel about skill challenges more than one year after the launch of 4e.  Do you use them much?

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Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming