4E: Approaching & Setting Up Skill Challenges

September 11, 2011

Someone recently asked me about Skill Challenges and a bit more on how to apply what I wrote earlier on them.

The Secret to Easy Times

Here’s something that will set any GM at ease – remember that at the heart of a skill challenge, here’s really the crux of your job:

Tell the players if what they want to do is Easy, Average, or Hard, and look up the difficulty number for that.

If you can exercise the brain power to say, “That sounds tough, but not too tough, so I’ll call it Average”, then you can make a Skill Challenge work, even if you have to do it on the fly. (Yes, you can also say something is automatically successful, or automatically fails, but you get the point)

So, just keep that in mind- all the rest of what I’ve written before, and am writing here, is really just extra stuff on top of that.

Prepping vs. On the Fly

Sometimes you can prep things, sometimes you do it when it comes up.

For prep, it’s easy if it’s been an established goal, whether the party is following orders (“The Queen has ordered you to negotiate with the Dwarves”) or have established their own goals in a previous session (“Let’s head up the mountain and see if the Temple is still up there.”)

For on the fly, there’s a couple of extra steps, but not terrible ones, since, as I mentioned, in the end, it comes down to calling things Easy/Average/Hard.

Stakes and Scale

Make sure you know what the party is trying to do, and whether it’s worth making into a Skill Challenge. If it were a movie, it’d be a scene or several scenes tied together. If it were a videogame, it’d be a level unto itself or at least a section of a level.

Unlocking a door isn’t worth a Challenge, but breaking into a castle and getting the prisoners out is worth a challenge.

Some players are used to hiding their ultimate intentions from the GM, mostly because they’re used to playing with “Gotcha!” GMs who would retcon the world to sabotage anything clever they might do.

First, don’t do that as a GM, second, explain to them that you’re not going to do that as a GM.

Remind the players that IF they succeed at the Skill Challenge, THEN you will absolutely honor that success- they WILL get their stakes. If they aim too high, let them know what a more realistic goal is (“We’ll win the war!”, “Not with one Skill Challenge. You can take this city, and it’ll take hours to do so, but that is within your range.”).

Second, consider the scale of events. A Skill Challenge is what I imagine to be 10 minutes to hours of effort by the characters, at least. If you think it can happen quicker than that, ask yourself if it really needs to be a Challenge.

I mean, sometimes, but most of the time not so much. The number of skill challenges that involve acting quickly, like getting your boat to a riverbank before it goes over the waterfall, are pretty rare. And a lot of skill rolls are just boring. If it’s not a big deal, skip it, skip it, skip it.

Planning – Players’ and Yours

If this is on the fly, and the PCs can have a few minutes to plan, let the players do so. Meanwhile, you’re going to write down some general goals for the Skill Challenge – while listening in on what they’re saying.

Write one Goal for each Success the players will need.

For example, “Breaking prisoners out of the castle” might have these goals:

– Get into the Castle
– Get to the Dungeons
– Keep the Guards out of the Way
– Break out the Prisoners from the Dungeons
– Get the Prisoners out, unharmed
– Get the whole Party out of the Castle

Notice that none of these say HOW the party is going to accomplish any of them. Which is fine, because the players can be as flexible as they want to be in doing so.

Don’t be super secret about these goals either- the players can look at them – and make suggestions if it doesn’t fit or they have really different plans about what they’re doing. Mostly, though, if you have to revise these a lot, you probably should be taking more time to figure out the initial Stakes.

These Goals don’t have to be set in stone- if something happens during the Challenge that makes something better or different (“Oh no, we weren’t planning to leave, let the prisoners go, we’re going to corner the Duke instead”), then go with it – add or change goals as fits.

Playing it out

Let the players say how they attempt to do various things.

Remember, is it Easy/Average/Hard? Is it an auto-success/failure?

If they fail, that doesn’t mean the Goal can’t be achieved, it just means they have to try it a different way. If they can’t get to the dungeons through the normal entrance, maybe they have to go through the Palace instead.

A slick trick is that if the player fails at one attempt, to give them an opportunity at a different goal. “The dungeon entrance is guarded, but you realize that if you can get to the wall, you could drop the porticullis and leave most of the guards trapped in the courtyard…”

I like to use successes to point to advantages outside of the Skill Challenge- useful equipment (“Sneaking through the stables, you see the new saddlebags the Duke had made, unattended, and brand new…”), information (“The guards mention they’re glad they’re not posted on the Wyvern watch in the north, it’s been a lot of casualties…”), or allies (“The prisoners come running out… and your old friend Namal the rogue was in a cell as well!”).

The trick to this is that it really rewards success, or at least gives some prizes if they fail a skill challenge, and generally pushes players to do something after this challenge is over, as well.

Getting Everyone Involved

There’s two ways to do this.

First, you can target the PCs who aren’t doing anything with either opportunities, or problems.

“She sneaks in, and you’re keeping watch, and you see a boat full of troops coming down the river. They’re coming back from an expedition and will be that many more for you guys to deal with- maybe you can distract or delay them?”

Second, you can penalize the “do-everything” players. You can simply give a harder rating, or a -4 to every successive roll they make until someone else takes over. This shouldn’t be arbitrary- give reasons. “Yes, you snuck in and you got to the dungeon, but there’s no way you’re going to both pick the locks AND keep the guards at bay at the same time…”

Remember, there’s several goals, and players should be thinking about how to get them done all at once, or in short order.

Yes, this means some players will end up doing sub-optimal tasks for their characters- that happens! Maybe they’ll find a creative way to use the things they ARE good at to handle the problems.

Reward Good Thinking

Smart choices, good roleplaying should get easier rolls. I know the most recent Skill Challenge rules ask for a certain ratio of Easy/Average/Hard rolls, but skip that mess- just pick what makes sense based on what choices the player is making.

Give Auto-successes for perfect choices- don’t plan ahead what a perfect choice looks like, just when a player describes an action and you go, “That’s perfect!” go with it. Did the wizard use Ray of Frost on the burning cottage? Auto-success. Did the knight swear an oath of honor in front of the veteran knight in exactly the right way? Auto-success.

Likewise, pure dumbassery should get auto-failures. Using Intimidation to try to get on someone’s good side, trying to impress someone by displaying the opposite of their whole life’s philosophy, etc.

Most of the time, stick to the Easy/Average/Hard rolls, but definitely let players know that good choices significantly impact their odds.

Action vs. Social Challenges

Action challenges are about going around and doing stuff. These are pretty easy to work with, since the players will come up with ways to achieve the goals.

Social Challenges work a little differently! If it involves a group of characters (“Impress the Council of 9”) you can write down a single sentence for what each character is looking for.

Mostly, you can win these challenges if you get X number of folks on your side, and, keeping in mind some folks count for more (“The Elder of the Council counts as 3 successes, since he’s got the most pull”).

– Markus wants to know the PCs are reliable.
– Hande only respects a good drinking buddy.
– Fenzel respects wisdom and knowledge. A level head.
– Jira won’t respect cowards or weaklings.
– Anam wants someone to back his power play.
– Ravik loves history and tradition, dislikes ignorance.

Roleplay how they interact! Go with the classic Autosuccess/failure, Easy/Average/Hard. Successes might impress these characters and make lasting supporters, failures might make it harder to get their help in the future.

If you have just one character, or a few, then you can list several goals they have, much in the same way:

– Show me you are civilized, can you adhere to polite tradition?
– What is your intent, and why should I support you instead of sending my own servants?
– Tell me of your deeds and your family. Are you courageous?
– Why does a foreign cleric travel with you? Are they a simple huckster?

In conclusion

All said and done, it’s actually a lot easier to improvise a fun Skill Challenge than it is to improvise a fun encounter. There’s less math, less considerations, and less balancing you need to worry about.

Get the gist of what they want to do, lay down some broad goals, and let the players figure out how they fix the problem, and support them in making any reasonable choices to do so.

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