The Alexandrian

Skill Challenges – WTF?

May 31st, 2008

Dungeon Master's Guide - 4th EditionEarlier this month, I included some analysis of skill challenges in my essay on the dissociated mechanics of 4th Edition. Because the core rulebooks had not yet been released, I included a disclaimer in that essay saying, basically: “Hey, I might be wrong about this. There might be more details in the core rulebooks that will clear some of this stuff up.”

Well, I’ve now had a chance to glance through the core rulebooks. I haven’t even come close to reading through (let alone thinking about or analyzing) the 4th Edition ruleset, but one of things I did make a point of looking at were the skill challenge mechanics.

And having done so, I can now safely say this: I was wrong. The skill challenge mechanics are not as bad I said they were.

They are much, much worse.


So, here’s a quote from the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide:

Roll initiative to establish an order of play for the skill challenge. If the skill challenge is part of a combat encounter, work the challenge into the order just as you do the monsters. In a skill challenge encounter, every player character must make skill checks to contribute to the success or failure of the encounter. Characters must make a check on their turn using one of the identified primary skills (usually with a moderate DC) or they must use a different skill, if they can come up with a way to use it to contribute to the challenge (with a hard DC). A secondary skill can be used only once by a single character in any given skill challenge.

That’s just one paragraph out of the 8 pages in the DMG dealing with skill challenges, but it boggles the mind to consider how many things are wrong with it.

ROLL FOR INITIATIVE: It’s not just the rolling for initiative that’s problematical, it’s the fact that the characters “must make a check on their turn”. In other words, if you’re engaged in tense negotiations with the Duke the barbarian can’t simply decide to stand back and let the diplomat work — the rules mandate that they get involved. If the rogue is working to defuse a bomb, Joe the Bumbler can’t just wait in the next room — the rules mandate that Joe has to start yanking on the wires.

WotC claimed that they wanted to design a set of rules that made it possible for everyone to stay involved with the game during every single encounter. Apparently, however, the only way they could think of for doing that was to mandate that everyone stay involved… whether they want to or not.

BE CREATIVE… AND PAY THE PRICE: If a player comes up with a unique, clever, or unanticipated way of dealing with the skill challenge, make sure to hit them with a hard DC to encourage them to stop being unique and clever.

A little later, in a section entitled “Reward Clever Ideas”, the DMG actually says this: “In skill challenges, players will come up with uses for skills that you didn’t expect to play a role. Try not to say no. Instead, let them make a roll using the skill but at a hard DC… This encourages players to think about the challenge in more depth…”

Of course, it does no such thing. If the only “reward” for “thinking about the challenge in more depth” is that the challenge will be harder, why would you ever think about the challenge in more depth?

BE CREATIVE… BUT NOT TOO CREATIVE: And just in case we haven’t already dissuaded you from trying to think creatively, let’s hammer that final nail into the coffin by making sure that you can only use a secondary skill (i.e., a skill not defined in the skill challenge) once in any given skill challenge.

And it’s worse than that:

When the PCs are delving through the Underdark in search of the ruined dwarven fortress of Gozar-Duun, they don’t necessarily know how the game adjudicates that search. They don’t know what earns successes, to put it in game terms, until you tell them. You can’t start a skill challenge until the PCs know their role in it, and that means giving them a couple of skills to start with. It might be as simple as saying, “You’ll use Athletics checks to scale the cliffs, but be aware that a failed check might dislodge some rocks on those climbing below you.” If the PCs are trying to sneak into the wizard’s college, tell the players, “Your magical disguises, the Bluff skill, and knowledge of the academic aspects of magic—Arcana, in other words—will be key in this challenge.”

“Be creative”, they say. But you’ll be punished for it with a harder skill check. And you can only be creative once per encounter. We don’t want all that creativity to go to your head. After all, the DM has a script for you to follow and he’s going to tell you what it is.

In virtually every roleplaying game I’ve ever played, the default style of play was for the player to tell the GM what they wanted to do and for the GM to figure out how to adjudicate that with the rules.

But the new DMG is telling us that, in 4th Edition, the DM is supposed to tell the players what they’re going to do and then, if the players want to deviate from that narrow CRPG-style script, they’re going to suffer the consequences and the DM will only let them get away with it so many times.

It’s certainly true that, in other games, you could get a bad DM who would railroad the players and force them to do what he wanted them to do by making everything else difficult or impossible. The difference is that, in 4th Edition, making everything else difficult or impossible is what you’re supposed to do. Those are the rules of the game.

In terms of the rules it’s hocking, the philosophy it’s espousing, the advice it’s giving, and the style of gaming it encourages, this is some of the worst material I have ever seen in a roleplaying manual. It’s literally right up there with World of Synnibar, which prohibited the GM from making house rules and informed the players that, if they caught the GM deviating from the official rulebook, they should chastise the GM and reward themselves double XP for that session.

Playtesting 4th Edition: Skill Challenges

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6 Responses to “Skill Challenges – WTF?”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    Trackback message
    Title: Some House Rules: Skills
    Excerpt: Due to the importance and ubiquity of the sea with the setting, a couple of extra skills are present; sailing and navigation. The skill challenge system will also be modified for this campaign.
    Sailing (constitution)
    Handling a small boat, or con…
    Blog name: Infinite Isles
    Monday, June 01, 2009, 7:23:06 AM

    Justin Alexander
    Jeff Rients made an interesting point many moons ago that, although 4th Edition greatly reduced the scope and flexibility of character creation in order to impose a one-size-fits-all “balance” onto each character, the system still lends itself to “team optimization”.
    Monday, March 02, 2009, 10:28:47 PM

    This strikes me as a shift from tabletop roleplaying to videogame RPGs: Battle through all the enemies; divide your soulless group into the most efficient work pattern; win with one strategy only.

    I lik D&D 3.5E for the sense that I am my character, not some force of fate making my character arbitrarily more difficult to kill so it can kill even more things.
    Sunday, March 01, 2009, 11:54:21 PM

    Paul Melroy
    Sounds good to me: I experienced one game which limited characters who were fighting to moving 6 feet in a round – but characters who weren’t were free to move 120 feet. Another player insists on an totally useless and unnecessary fight? Leave him to it and suddenly be far far away!

    All right, it was silly – but so was the mysterious combat glue that took effect if you admitted that you were entering combat.

    As for World of Synnibar, I have a copy. I have Army Ants, Little Fears, and a host of others. Sadly. 4’th edition looks like a very low priority.
    Monday, July 07, 2008, 5:26:38 PM

    Justin Alexander
    Strange_Person wrote: “If, by default, the DC for alternative skills is the same or lower, and a single alternative skill can be used to completely resolve the challenge, then for the character with maxed-out Hammer skill, everything actually is a nail.”

    I’m not arguing that the default DC should be the same or lower. I’m arguing that there should be no default DC. The difficulty of a task should be determined by the difficulty of the task, not by whether it was the player or the DM who thought of it.

    I’m baffled that some people apparently consider this to be a radical idea.

    Re: Initiative. Based on discussions in various other forums, I’ve come to the conclusion that my initial reading on this was overly harsh. There are Aid Another checks which can be made — so it’s not so much that the barbarian is forced to reach over the rogue’s shoulder and start yanking wires out of the bomb the rogue is trying to defuse, it’s just that the barbarian is forced to lean over the rogue’s shoulder and give advice (whether the barbarian’s player wants him to or not).

    As for the argument, by Josh, that a character who doesn’t want to participate in an encounter simply doesn’t have to roll initiative… that’s quite a bold claim, and I’m wondering if he’d apply the same logic to combat. “I’m sorry, I don’t feel like fighting these orcs. So I’m not going to roll initiative.”
    Wednesday, June 11, 2008, 1:26:39 PM

    The underlying assumption is that the player who figures out a clever way to work a nonstandard skill into every situation will be maxing out that skill in every way possible, like Red Mage’s explanation of how the ‘pick pocket’ skill can be applied to everything from safecracking to social interaction.

    If, by default, the DC for alternative skills is the same or lower, and a single alternative skill can be used to completely resolve the challenge, then for the character with maxed-out Hammer skill, everything actually is a nail.

    When the players come up with a truly unexpected way of resolving a problem, don’t try to shoehorn the brilliant scheme into the skill challenge you already had planned; figure out how to represent what they’re going for as a completely new skill challenge.

    Also, I think the “every player character must make skill checks to contribute” bit could be interpreted as ‘skill checks made by player characters are the only thing which contributes’ in order to make it easier for the DM to say “no, Gruk, you can’t persuade the Duke with an attack roll.”
    Wednesday, June 11, 2008, 5:51:05 AM

    Justin Alexander
    Actually, Josh, there are a couple of legitimate ways to assign difficulty numbers (IMO):

    (1) Making a reasonable assessment of how difficult the task is.

    (2) Making a task easier in order to encourage players to attempt certain types of tasks that realistic assessments would otherwise discourage (for example, executing cool stunts in a wuxia-inspired game like Exalted or Feng Shui).

    Which one is more appropriate for a particular game or campaign depends on what your goals are for the game or campaign.

    In the case of D&D, I prefer the former.

    But the 4th Edition DMG doesn’t recommend either one of those. What the DMG mandates (by rule) is a third option:

    (3) Make the task more difficult if the player came up with it.

    You claim that this is OK because a player-generated idea will always be more difficult than the ideas the DM had.

    In the case of someone using an Arcana check to climb a cliff, you’re absolutely right. But that’s entirely coincidental. It’s just as possible that the players will come up with some path to success which is easier than what the DM had planned.

    In fact, this is usually my experience. I’ll carefully plot out the characters doing X, Y, and Z to accomplish their goal… and then they’ll have some clever idea that short-circuits the whole process and gets them there three times quicker and five times easier.

    And, personally, those moments are the reason I DM. I like it when my players surprise me and try to think outside of the box. So when I look at a rulebook that tells me, “If the players think outside of the box, you are required to punish them for it.” I say that’s a shitty rule.

    Can you, in fact, think of any reason to assign a DC not based on the difficulty of the proposed task or whether or not it would result in a fun game, but on whether it was the DM or the player who thought of it first?

    Because I sure can’t.
    Wednesday, June 11, 2008, 12:17:32 AM

    This is a copy of the response I posted to someone who linked you on RPoL:

    A rebuttal to at least part of the linked blog, with the caveat that I have not read the DMG yet myself and am therefore just going off of what that person said himself:

    “the only way they could think of for doing that was to mandate that everyone stay involved… whether they want to or not.”

    Unless it specifically says that in a different paragraph than the one that was quoted in the blog, that’s ridiculous. A character who doesn’t want to be involved in a skill challenge doesn’t roll initiative and doesn’t get a turn. Problem solved.

    “Of course, it does no such thing. If the only “reward” for “thinking about the challenge in more depth” is that the challenge will be harder, why would you ever think about the challenge in more depth?”

    Okay, maybe the DMG didn’t quite word it right, but the system still makes sense. If you have a challenge that involves climbing, and a creative player comes up with a way that they should use their Arcana skill for it instead of Athletics, that’s fine, but unless they can spin it in a way to grant a lot of circumstance bonuses, you’d better believe it’s going to be more difficult than if they had just tried to scale the cliff by climbing. The solution that the Alexandrian seems to want here is identical to a complaint that one of my friends has against stunting in Exalted – it rewards people for making things more complicated rather than less complicated. Same deal here.

    I do agree though that it’s stupid to only allow one use of non-recommended skills per challenge. But at least that’s an easy enough mistake to fix.
    Tuesday, June 10, 2008, 4:22:18 PM

    I fear your use of “script” might well be a correct one (in the computer languages meaning).
    The more I read about 4e, the more I feel like the DM is meant to be a server sooner or later, designers’d better make the system compliant with this. (and this is sad)
    Thursday, June 05, 2008, 8:05:58 AM

    Your World of Synnibarr reference was a thing of beauty. And sadly apt.
    Sunday, June 01, 2008, 3:14:05 PM

    Justin Alexander
    That’s the open question. I’m still withholding final judgment on how the overall game will actually play until I’ve had a chance to play it. (Which looks like it will happen on June 7th.)

    However, skill challenges are a key component of 4th Edition’s core mechanics. And they’re suffering from multiple problems that I find intolerable:

    (1) In their general applications, they’re dissociative.

    (2) They avoid this dissociation in specific applications where they’re effectively just complex skill checks, but in the specific example of traps (as seen in KOTS), their potential advantages aren’t being used and their use appears to result in turgid and uninteresting gameplay.

    (3) The rules for using them in play mandate railroading.

    My incredulity over the skill challenge rules in the DMG was triggered over the railroading passages, but there were other things to object to, as well. For example, many skill challenges involve the PCs competing with or trying to overcome NPCs. But the difficulty of the skill challenge is determined not by the skills or abilities of the NPCs… it’s determined by the level of the PCs.

    For me, it looks as if the skill challenge system is virtually unusable. And, certainly, I can lather on some house rules. But there is a palpable difference here: When I started playing 3rd Edition, there was nothing that I felt the need to immediately house rule. As I played the game over time, certain weaknesses became apparent.

    But these weaknesses with 3rd Edition consistently remained in relatively isolated sub-systems. I mean, it’s one thing for Diplomacy to be busted and in need of fixing. It’s another when one of the core mechanics of the game is busted and needs to be fixed.
    Sunday, June 01, 2008, 12:15:02 PM

    Good points – these passage certainly seem badly written and plain silly, which as you say is hardly excusable from a professional company working on a game product with 30 years of hard core backstory… but can we get away with ignoring them? You’ve published loads of house rules and variants for d20 3.5, some of which fix game-breaking errors.

    Is the 4th Ed core mechanic okay? Are the classes balanced and fun? Can we play this game with the usual bunch of house rules and tweaks we old-school gamers use to make OD&D to 3.5 work?
    Sunday, June 01, 2008, 7:02:23 AM

  2. Anonymous says:

    “I’m not arguing that the default DC should be the same or lower. I’m arguing that there should be no default DC. The difficulty of a task should be determined by the difficulty of the task, not by whether it was the player or the DM who thought of it.”
    I think that’s what both Strange_Person and the book meant. ‘Default DC’ just means ‘the DC if you use the skill or skills that are obviously appropriate’.

    The ‘default DC’ for climbing a wall would be the DC you’d go up against if you tried to do it using the climb skill.
    Trying to climb a wall using a skill other than climb would, in 99% of cases, be more difficult than simply using the skill that was specifically designed for that sort of thing.

    I am almost certain that the book meant that if you don’t have the proper skill, you can substitute another, but it’ll be more difficult.

    “I’m baffled that some people apparently consider this to be a radical idea.”
    Do they, though?

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    The book was quite explicit. What you are saying is not what the book said. I directly quoted what the book said and it’s not what you claim it said. ‘Nuff said.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The book says “In skill challenges, players will come up with uses for skills that you didn’t expect to play a role.”.
    Any sane human being would expect skills like Climb to play a role when climbing.
    If the players suggest a skill the DM didn’t think of, 99% of the time the reason he didn’t think of it was because it would be less suitable for the task at hand than the obvious ones.

    How common do you think the following exchange is?
    DM: ‘You have decided to climb the wall. What skill do you use?’
    Player: ‘Climb.’
    DM: ‘Oh, damn. I didn’t expect anyone to use the Climb skill to climb stuff. That’s insanely creative. Guess I have to increase the DC now.’

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    I don’t understand how you can directly quote the book saying something and then claim that the book isn’t saying that.

    I’m also unclear on why you think “climb a wall with the Climb [sic] skill” would be handled by the skill challenge rules. Is it possible you’ve never actually read or played 4E and simply have no idea what you’re talking about?

  6. Gooseberry says:

    I’ve checked that “World of Synnibar” book you mentioned.

    Oh wow, even the Amazon product description is amazing. “The compolation designed to push every boundry of the imagination. Synnibarr is actually Mars”. Truly, an amazing “compolation” 😀

    I’m crying here, Justin, crying real tears. I knew reading your old posts was a good idea.

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