Skill challenges and why they rock

A very hot topic ever since 4E dropped has been skill challenges. No one likes them, apparently. Or if they do like them, their players don’t. I honestly think that these very useful plot and encounter devices are getting a bad rap. The problem is when a DM throws down a skill challenge it totally throws the brakes on the game, usually because either the DM themselves say “Okay, this is a skill challenge…” or someone throws their head back and groans “Oh no, a skill challenge!” What is so bad about the skill challenge that makes players drop their head in their hands and DM’s loathe to put them in? The only issues I can see are pacing and cinematics.

A usual first time skill challenge seems to follow the “what do you do?”-“what can I do?” pattern. A DM puts together their first skill challenge and it winds up being a sterile, bland “this-skill-this-skill-that-skill” pattern, and players hate it, the DM hates it, and no one sees how versatile and enthralling a well played skill challenge can be.

In every action movie there’s some scene where the hero has to try to deal with something while under duress. He’s diffusing the bomb just before it goes off, driving the car while getting shot at, he’s trying to convince the mayor that his aide is a terrorist while getting dragged off by security. SOMETHING happens in the movie where you’re on the edge of your seat biting your lip and hoping he makes it through. Those are skill challenges. If used correctly they can be dramatic, action packed and nerve wracking. Say your players are in battle and a trap causes gouts of magical fire to shoot up randomly through the floor grating. You’re fighting an efreet, so he doesn’t mind, but your party members are getting a little hot under the collar. This could be a worn out, drag down, long ass battle that leaves your players scorched, beaten and unhappy, or this could be a skill challenge scenario. Now this takes a bit of creativity, but the result would be well worth it. The fighter of the group could distract the efreet and keep his attention while the rouge attempts to disarm the trap, with the ranger laying down cover fire and the wizard either dampening the flames or trying to change the flames into blasts of cold. The rolls for these would be intimidate/taunt, disable device, perception, and arcane knowledge.Again, this takes a bit of creativity and some planning on the part of your players, but many situations can be made into a fantastic encounter with proper use of skill challenges.

Another use can be for cinematic scenes, such as chases or retreats. The party has just defeated the evil dark lord Muhalech, and his keep is crumbling around them. Normally they will react by saying “Well, we leave.” Obviously you leave, but how easy is it to just stroll out of a castle that’s falling in on itself? Break out the skill challenge. The flagstones in the hallway are cracking and buckling, give us a balance check. The walls are falling down, acrobatics or endurance. The doors barred themselves after you came in? Strength checks. That is another thing I think many DM’s either have forgotten, or never even thought of, the use of statistics as base skills. Adding half your level plus your attribute bonus to the roll makes your stats as much of a skill as the named skills. Would you try to intimidate a solid oak door open? No, bust it down!

Skill challenges can basically be seen as skill checks with immediate, discernable results. Your players could use them to attempt to haggle for better prices in a shop, convince a mob to stand down, talk their way out of custody, almost anything. The ever-dreaded skill challenge can even be used in player progression. Falling back on another of my old games, meet Harven Ulamor; a somewhat mad human wizard with ridiculous stats and a penchant for collecting fresh reagents from his fallen enemies. Harven and the party cleric got together and started experimenting in the combination of arcane and divine magics, starting small at first, then advancing in complexity. The DM running this adventure ran us through half a dozen small challenges in 3.5E where our die rolls had to match within a small window to simulate our synchronizing the spells. In the end, we managed to perfect the technique and develop a new feat for ourselves. In this situation, imagine one of your players expresses a desire to be able to perform a new, interesting attack, or learn a new skill. A few quick calculations and you’ll have the appropriate DC’s for the skill challenge and you can let your player actually role play becoming better through training by use of the challenge. Not only have you given your player something that will make the game more exciting to them, but you have probably made them see skill challenges in a better light.

The skill challenge was developed to bring skills into play and show exactly how much of an impact they can make on a situation. In combat, in dialogue, in character development and for cinematic situations the skill challenge can really bring the players into the scene and make the danger or situation seem that much more real.

The Balvine: A scotch I picked up after playing Fable and misreading the label “Balverine”, this single malt is first aged in an oak whiskey cask, and then a first fill oak sherry cask, lending it a vague sweetness and a soft cinnamon flavor, rounded off my a slow, warm finish hinting of fruit and sherry. A real treat for sipping after a nice dinner.

Macqueen: Suggested to me by Pete, a shifty kobold, I checked out this site and they have some of the nicest looking churchwarden pipes I’ve seen in a while. Clean, smooth and very well made at a reasonable price. If you want a good wizard pipe, this is the place to go.

~ by darkpatu on April 12, 2011.

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