In my last post, I wrote "D&D4e is an outstanding tactical miniature games. The combat system, with it’s tactical and strategic resources for hit points, different levels of commitment to an attack with At-Wills, Encounter, and Daily powers, and the “exploding chess” elements of proper teamwork is like nothing else I’ve seen. Position is vital, with even a single square making the difference between taking out an enemy, and getting mobbed by the survivors.
The problem is that the Skill Challenge system is so paper thin that it barely works as a companion to the combat rules. The Skill Challenge rules are of the form “Roll X successes before Y failures,” with some advice to vary up which skills are in use. They all fail in similar ways: they encourage only the most skilled characters to interact with the challenge rather combining the abilities of the team. They don’t link the fiction of the narrative to the rolls of the dice. And most importantly, there is almost no interaction: no choice about what to do, when to press the advantage, and when to pull back. It’s not that Skill Challenges are a bad system; they’d be perfectly sufficient in almost any other game. It’s that don’t fit in with the D&D4e combat system and design philosophy, and the mismatch grates."
Let’s start with some design principles for this hack:
- Skill challenges are a way to resolve obstacles other than combat
- Skill challenges should showcase how the party is greater than the sum of its parts
- Skill challenges should have some degree of interactivity and choice, not just rolling dice repeatedly.
- It’s not about win or lose, it’s about how much it costs.
I’d like to propose:
A skill challenge is divided into a number of Areas, places where characters can use skills and powers to overcome the obstacle. Primary Areas directly contribute to successfully overcoming the challenge. Secondary Areas provide support to people in the Primary Area. The consequences of failure on a check should not go towards ending the skill challenge, but rather increasing the expenditure of resources required, either by making the players set back up, take damage, or both.
Formal description of Biff’s Skill Challenge hack:
Area: gamespace where the skill challenge occurs. Areas can be Primary (success contributes to overcoming the challenge) or Secondary (success does something else). Areas should be defined by one or more skills, how many characters can fit in them (might be zero), consequences for being in the space, and how they are connected to other areas.
Primary or Secondary
Skills: DC set by table on DMG pg 42, or an updated version
Size: 0 through All
- take damage on a check
- take damage on a failure
- take penalty to next check on the same skill
- forced to move to another area
- size of area decreases
- protect a character from a hazard
- increase the size of an existing area
- open up a new area on the board
- move another character to an area
- provide a bonus to another check
- heal damage, or let another character heal
- unrestricted: can move freely between linked areas
- restricted: movement requires a skill check
- highly restricted: movement requires a skill check in place of a check in an Area
Example skill challenge:
The Portal Seal:
The party has come upon a portal to the Far Realm, and has to seal it before unspeakable monstrosities from beyond come pouring through. Only a talented arcanist can seal the portal, but linking with it is dangerous and deals damage as the forces of unreality tear at a poor mortal’s mind. With the hazard set at 5th-7th level from DMG pg 42, a level appropriate wizard alone would take 9 rounds and over 100 points of damage to close the portal.
Some preliminary thoughts on designing Skill Challenges using this system.
- Everybody should be doing something every round, so have enough spaces with relevant skills that the entire party can participate.
- The core measure of how long the skill challenge will take is the number of successes divided by the probability of success. With a lot of rolls, variability in time taken goes down.
- There should be some consequences for participating in a skill challenge, since this stands in for a combat encounter in the overall plan of an adventure. I’d estimate that in an average round a party will take 2-3 hits worth of damage, and maybe 8-10 in an entire fight. Aim for similar levels of damage in your skill challenges. The one presented above is too easy. It might be a good idea to tack on some damage to the Calm Portal location, and reduce the number of successes required.
This is just the first draft on idea, so if you have any thoughts, or a skill challenge you'd like to see done in this style, drop me a line in the comments. My ultimate goal is to work up some sort of beastiary of common skill challenge zones and how they interact.