Apr 12, 2011

How I Learned to Love the Skill Challenge

AKA: Creating My First Skill Challenge

Recently, I was working on an original adventure for my gaming group. My goal was to try and apply the principles from Wolfgang Baur's excellent Adventure Builder article series from the WotC archives but something unexpected occurred as I was reviewing my work. As I looked over the adventure, and the party's goals, it started to occur to me that I had unwittingly left myself open to incorporating a skill challenge into my adventure.

Needless to say I was quite shocked... especially since I'm running a 3.5 edition D&D game!

When I first heard about the Skill Challenges concept, my initial thought was this was the death of "Role" Playing; that the new edition was trying to codify and distill some of the most exciting, spontaneous, and free-form moments from my games into a series of dice rolls.

The more I thought and read about Skill Challenges, as well as listening to several different podcasts from the community at large as well as commentary from Wizard's employees, I started to see a different picture. A picture where skill challenges and "pure" role playing can function side by side.

The first and most obvious thing to realize is that Skill Challenges have always been a part of the Dungeons and Dragons game. The 4th edition may have been the first edition to give it an official name, but when my first edition thief repeatedly used his Move Silently skill to sneak past guards on a quest to locate the kidnapped princess, I was effectively engaged in a Skill Challenge.

Once I accepted this, I started thinking about all the times, as a DM, I've used role playing encounters as a means to advance my stories, as opposed to just social interaction (like haggling for the price of an item with a merchant).

In one case the PCs needed a certain item from a local noblewoman, and the party's Knight of Solomnia was not about to condone stealing. Instead, he and the party's bard approached the lady and tried a number of tactics to gain her trust, her compassion, and eventually convinced her to loan the party the item they needed. (Hopefully from that last sentence, you can start to see the rough outline of what was effectively the skill challenge.)

The players did all this through role-play and never once reached for their dice. As DM, I had to adjudicate their efforts on the fly based on how convincing the PCs' arguments were (as well as bonuses for how well they were role playing their characters). I didn't have a lot of structure planned around this encounter, in part because I was a new DM, also in part because the rule set at that time never considered how complex such an encounter could be.

But now, with 4e we get a set of guidelines, or "framework" as it's referred to in DMG2 for setting up a series of skill events that allow a PC, or group, to achieve an objective. I think it's telling that in the revamp to the Skill Challenge rules in DMG2, that they use the word "framework". I do think that was intention, as that word doesn't appear in the original DMG section on Skill Checks.

In software development, a "framework" can be thought of as a collection of code that can be used to build an application. In 4e, the Skill Challenge framework is used to build out the structure of a non-combat encounter. Thanks to the processing capabilities of our brain, the implementation of the Skill Challenge framework doesn't need to be exhaustive, only representative of how to achieve the set goal. As DM, we can interpret if the players try unexpected strategies against our structure.

Similarly, we can interpret pure role-playing as it relates to the skill challenge structure. If the player is acting out his or her character being threatening, we don't need to ask for an Intimidate roll, we can judge the effectiveness of the role-play and consider it a success, a failure, or ineffective as it relates to the challenge. And, if needed, we can call for rolls when appropriate, or in the case of players not comfortable with fully immersive role-playing.

Looking at Skill Challenges in this new light has really changed my perception about what it can give me as a DM regardless of which edition I'm actually running. Instead of seeing this as the death of role-playing, I now see just another tool in my DM arsenal for telling stories, one that allows for all the role-playing or roll-playing I want.