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 Skill Challenges

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thanson02
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PostSubject: Skill Challenges   Sat Nov 23, 2013 12:09 am

So here is a question for folks.

What is your take on Skill Challenges?  Do you love them or hate them and why?  Do you use them?  What are some unique things you do with your Challenges?  Which ones do you find you use the most in your games?

For me, I like them.  I found Skill Challenges to be a interesting way to basically customize my game in any way I want!  It took me a while to figure out how they are suppose to be constructed and used, but once I did (thanks to PHD&D and At-Will) I ended up running with it.  Right now I have around 20 generic Challenges that I set up that I can use in my games.  Of all of them, my party ends up using chasing someone and interrogations the most.  One thing that I did with my challenges was in situations like chasing someone, I found there were basically 4 different things people would have happen, so I decided what happened next in the challenge was determined by a D4 roll.  That way, my players never had a static encounter and it keeps me on my toes so I have to stay adaptable to whatever comes up.
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PostSubject: Re: Skill Challenges   Sat Nov 23, 2013 4:53 am

What's PHD&D or At-Will? I'd like to see their take on Skill Challenges.

I DM'd LFR when I first started with D&D. IMO LFR (the early seasons, may have gotten better once WotC pulled out of it) were awful, particularly with skill challenges. They were too formulaic and the skill challenges often felt forced.

That said, when I wrote my first adventure for a home campaign I discovered I needed to include several skill rolls. After I wrote the encounter up I realised I might as well make it a skill challenge because it basically already was.

I'm not a fan of skill challenges having a failure condition. IMO skill challenges work best as rewarding XP for roleplaying. Pre-4th ed there were skill challenges (The Pathfinder adventure Path Serpent's Skull has good ones in the first book where you're struggling to simply survive). The failure condition was simply requiring more time in order to complete the goal (The Carrion Crown adventure Path has them all throughout the books). More time could result in bad guys getting to do more things before they're caught. But it didn't mean "the PCs failed so many times now they just can't progress any further or they have to start from the start, ignoring the successful checks they've already made).

For me skill challenges work best for interrogations and chase scenes where there's an obvious outcome and failure has a good chance. Most of the other time they're simply better to use as guidelines for handing out story award XP.
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PostSubject: Re: Skill Challenges   Sat Nov 23, 2013 8:36 am

thanson02 wrote:
Right now I have around 20 generic Challenges that I set up that I can use in my games.  
Please feel free to umm elaborate so that "borrowing may occur" ;p
thanson02 wrote:

Of all of them, my party ends up using chasing someone and interrogations the most.
Chases are a favorite here. Have you used them for infiltrations?

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thanson02
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PostSubject: Re: Skill Challenges   Sat Nov 23, 2013 12:09 pm

JohnLynch wrote:
What's PHD&D or At-Will? I'd like to see their take on Skill Challenges.

I DM'd LFR when I first started with D&D. IMO LFR (the early seasons, may have gotten better once WotC pulled out of it) were awful, particularly with skill challenges. They were too formulaic and the skill challenges often felt forced.

That said, when I wrote my first adventure for a home campaign I discovered I needed to include several skill rolls. After I wrote the encounter up I realised I might as well make it a skill challenge because it basically already was.

I'm not a fan of skill challenges having a failure condition. IMO skill challenges work best as rewarding XP for roleplaying. Pre-4th ed there were skill challenges (The Pathfinder adventure Path Serpent's Skull has good ones in the first book where you're struggling to simply survive). The failure condition was simply requiring more time in order to complete the goal (The Carrion Crown adventure Path has them all throughout the books). More time could result in bad guys getting to do more things before they're caught. But it didn't mean "the PCs failed so many times now they just can't progress any further or they have to start from the start, ignoring the successful checks they've already made).

For me skill challenges work best for interrogations and chase scenes where there's an obvious outcome and failure has a good chance. Most of the other time they're simply better to use as guidelines for handing out story award XP.
First, here are the links to PHD&D and At-Will

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7b2Q-nQSBOKzWMpPGkw4WA

http://at-will.omnivangelist.net/

PHD&D has several videos on skills in his Moving Fourth series, including how to structure skill challenges. At-Will has several blog post on the structure of Skill Challenges and go far beyond what WotC came up with in structure and use.

One of the strengths that I saw come out of Skill Challenges was that it gave DMs a structure to construct rules for non-combat scenarios that players run into.  And many of the times, it ends up being a reference sheet for DMs to hand out XP or other rewards.  But if your running a good Skill Challenge, your players shouldn't know they are in one. They also do need to be task specific.

Many of the examples WotC presented sucked, no lie.  They came off too much like railroading events and they didn't give DMs guides if the players went off in some random direction.  The only good Skill Challenge that was published that I didn't have to rework from the ground up was the one presented in the Essentials Monster's Vault.  The structure they choose for that is very similar to what I came up with in my Challenges.

Also the point you made about making things difficult for failures vs. you cannot progress was brought up in either the PHD&D's videos or DMG2, I don't remember off the top of my head.  When I run Skill Challenges, I don't cause failure to progress, I just make life difficult for the PCs if they fail the Challenge, like they might get ambushed by bandits or a trap goes off that leads to combat while they are on their quest.

But that is why I ended up liking Skill Challenges so much!  You can really make them into anything you want them to be.
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PostSubject: Re: Skill Challenges   Sat Nov 23, 2013 12:48 pm

Garthanos wrote:
thanson02 wrote:
Right now I have around 20 generic Challenges that I set up that I can use in my games.  
Please feel free to umm elaborate so that "borrowing may occur" ;p
No Problem.  Smile  And I rechecked, I have 15 made up and another 10 on the drafting board.

Here is the layout of the Chasing scenario that I have been using:

Goal: Chase After Someone
Type: Group Progressive Encounter
DC Level: Same a Party Level
Party Size: 4
Complexity: 1 (4 Successes before 3 Failures)
Primary Skills: Acrobatics, Athletics, Endurance
Secondary Skills: Perception, *Streetwise*
Note: *Streetwise* can be replaced with Nature or Dungeoneering depending on the environment you are in.

Encounter Type: Hard sprint over open areas: As a group, run hard and fast to shorten the distance between you and your quarry.
Endurance ( DC Hrd.): Character focuses on pushing themselves to close distance.
• Success: Able to shorten the distance between you and your quarry.
• Failure: The distance has lengthened between you and your quarry:  loose a healing surge.
*Streetwise* (DC Mod.):  Know about the environment to help cut off your quarry at the pass: Cancels one Failure: Can only be used once.

Encounter Type: Get past natural obstacles: Your quarry uses the obstacles around them to slow you down and discourage your chase, such as traversing rock slides, swimming in fast moving rivers, maneuvering through crowded streets, ect.
Athletics ( DC Mod.): Scale walls, climb boulders, swim a channel, ect.
• Success: Able to shorten the distance between you and your quarry.
• Failure: Obstacle was difficult to navigate around:  loose a healing surge.
Perception (DC Mod.): See what is around you to see your options.
• Success: Discover some clue to help you make it through the area: +2 to next skill check.
• Failure: Find nothing conclusive above the obvious: -2 to next skill check.

Encounter Type: Get through difficult terrain: As a group, navigate across narrow rock ledges, heavy tree cover with down trees, or diving through windows to continue pursuit.
Acrobatics ( DC Mod.): Vault over crowds, cross narrow passages, ride horses, drive vehicles, ect.
• Success: Able to shorten the distance between you and your quarry.
• Failure: Stumble, run into something, ect:  loose a healing surge.
Perception (DC Mod.): Try to see if there is anything around you that might help you get closer to your quarry.
• Success: Discover some clue to help you make it through the area: +2 to next skill check.
• Failure: Find nothing conclusive above the obvious: -2 to next skill check.
-Note- If the characters find an alternative method to chase after quarry like riding a horse or some other mount, how it effects the chase depends on the situation.

Encounter Type: Get past obstacles being thrown at you:  As a group, avoid it when those your perusing are throwing obstacles in your way to slow you down such as attacks from ranged weapons, turning over carts, items on walls, rocks, or any other thing they might have at their disposal.
Acrobatics ( DC Mod.): Vault over obstacles flying at you.
• Success: Able to avoid objects as they fly at you and shorten the distance between you and your quarry.
• Failure: The items slam into you and the distance between you and your quarry lengthens:  loose a healing surge.
Avoiding Attacks (Attack vs. Ref.): Avoid attacks on the move.
• Success: Avoid being hit and shorten the distance between you and your quarry.
• Failure: Take the hit while on the run: receive normal damage and distance between you and your quarry lengthens.

Consequences and Rewards:
Dependent on how many Successes received before 3 Failures.
 1:  Loose quarry, but found out where to look next for clues.
 2:  Loose quarry, but found out where they went.
 3:  Catch Quarry
 4:  Catch Quarry with little issues.

Additional Notes:
• This is a Group Progressive Encounter: Each encounter type marks a different stage of the Challenge.  Skill use limits reset between stages and each stage marks towards a success of failure of the overall Challenge.  Which encounter type the Players run into will be determined by a dice roll: D4
• If they run out of healing surges, then they acquire the Slowed Condition until they take a short rest.
• DCs will vary depending on what the particular situation the party is dealing with.

This layout is different then most of the ones that have been published, but my players find it more enjoyable and I find it fun as well.  I have also noticed that I can use this structure in conjunction with the published challenges which provide info for what the results are.  So here is how it plays out.

My party sees their quarry and the quarry notices they are being followed and runs.  The party chases after them.  It is a group challenge, so they all have to roll the checks and majority determines success or failure.  I start by rolling a D4.  I get, lets say a 3.  I go to the third Encounter Type, which is difficult terrain and I explain that the person goes over a narrow ledge to get away.  Most of the time, the players just chase, sometimes, they use perception or insight to figure out other options and use them.  Whether they succeed or fail, I roll a D4 for the next stage.  I continue this until the Challenge is done.  If they win, they catch the quarry.  If they fail, they loose the quarry, but they find something that will tell them where to go next or in the case of the last time I used this, the player who got his pocket picked lost his money.  In the end, the sheet is a guideline for tracking success or failure.

Garthanos wrote:
thanson02 wrote:
Of all of them, my party ends up using chasing someone and interrogations the most.  
Chases are a favorite here. Have you used them for infiltrations?
Not yet in a actual game, but my players are coming up on a situation where they have to do an infiltration.  I am looking forward to seeing how they use it.  I have a Infiltration Challenge made up and because of the way I construct my Challenges, I end up having to Play-test them and rework them multiple times to do what I want them to do.  Some are play-tested more thoroughly then others.  Right now, I am developing a Challenge to have players travel down a canyon or chasm they do not know and the encounter types will express the different challenges they will run into while doing so.  I am also planning on using the dice roll to spice it up.  Smile
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PostSubject: Re: Skill Challenges   Sat Nov 23, 2013 11:56 pm

When I first read about skill challenges, I absolutely loved the concept. Then, when I came across some of the ones written by WotC, I absolutely hated them.

I played in a campaign where I got to run through one that was very well executed. And then I loved them again. After that, I tried to implement a couple in my campaign and I hated them again.

So I have had a love-hate relationship with Skill Challenges.

I love the idea of having an encounter that is not combat-based. It gives the players the opportunity to see that the non-combat skills and such that they can take have a place in the game. I also love the idea of "abstracting" a scene in such a way that it isn't a "round-by-round" progression. You can narrate the results of the characters' actions based upon their skill check rolls. And I also love the idea of having a more "concrete" method of determining an XP value for a non-combat encounter that maintains the concepts of balance that is inherent in 4E. However, as they were described in the DMG and written in the WotC adventures, they pretty much completely failed to engage the players in a meaningful way.

What tended to happen was that the players, when it was their turn to act, would look down at their character sheet and pick the skill with the highest bonus and then ask "So, can I use {highest skill} to do anything here?" or "I want to use {highest skill} to evade the zombies". This drove me nuts. Then, the players would lose the "sense of urgency" that would normally drive them to try to figure out a solution. And the result of that would be that they would just roll the die, give the result, then stop paying attention until their turn came up again. It was an exercise in rolling dice, nothing more.

But I've been working on implementing them in a much more subtle way.

First, I've put out an informal house rule that no one can every use the name of a skill to describe their action. I have told my players that I NEVER want to hear "I use Athletics to jump the pit". I just need to hear from them "I try to jump over the pit" and then I tell them if they need to roll or not (and what skill to use). This keeps the players in "narrative mode" so they aren't just staring at their character sheet and picking skills with high modifiers.

Second, I NEVER announce that a skill challenge is starting. I narrate the action that happens and then I ask them what they do. It can be a chase scene, a negotiation, or an attempt to disable a complex mechanism. It doesn't matter. I simply explain to them what they see and let them go from there.

Third, and this is something I just started doing recently, I don't just ask the players "what do you do?" to an overall description of action. I put them "in the scene" and narrate specific moments. This is different from how I've seen them written in published adventures. Typically, there is a list of skills that will accomplish "successes" and then (sometimes) a description of what a success by using that skill would look like. But the problem I have with this is that it requires the players to not only say what they are trying to accomplish, but also why they are trying to accomplish that. If the overall goal of the skill challenge is to infiltrate a noble house to get to the base of the tower at the center, there are many different things that the characters may face on the way. If I leave it up to the players, they typically will say "Uh... I use Stealth to sneak towards the tower. I roll a...17. does that work?" What I do is set up particular "mini-scenes" that typically have a (more or less) obvious skill that will allow the character to overcome the conflict. They can choose to face the conflict or try a different way.

I got very lost in that explanation. And I feel I may have lost those reading this. So...

In my current campaign, the party was trying to infiltrate a noble house to get to the towers at the center of the manor. So I narrated the story until they got to a decision point. For example, they had snuck around outside at night until they got outside of the main building. They looked around and saw a door at ground level and windows on the second and third floors that didn't appear to be barred. Their decision point was to enter on the first floor or try to climb up to the second or third floor. They chose to climb. And no one said "I use Athletics to climb the wall to the window". They just said "We want to climb up to the window". And so I asked who was climbing up first. They actually figured out a way to fly a rope up and tie it to the third floor (which reduced the difficulty of the climb) and went up to the third floor. So that's a success. But just one. Not one for each successful Athletics check.

Some of the other things they came up against were:

-Surprising some servants when they walked around a corner. A Bluff check was used to convince the servants that they were guests and they had just gotten lost.

-Seeing guards stationed at a large hallway near where they had to pass. A Stealth check allowed them to pass unnoticed.

-A magical alarm that would notify the residents of the noble house that someone was headed up the tower. An Arcana check suppressed the magic enough to let them pass undetected.

So I would put them into specific "mini-scenes" and they would describe what they were trying to do. I would call for a skill check (just one) and they would earn a success or failure based upon the result.

After the game session, I asked for some feedback from them. First of all, they all said that they had no idea that it was a skill challenge. They thought I was just narrating things on the fly. That made me very happy. Secondly, they felt like all of the skill checks were important. Like their success or failure hinged on these rolls. That made me happy as well because I feel that too much rolling of dice takes away from the story, but not enough tends to make the characters feel ineffectual. So it seemed that I struck a good balance. And lastly, they all said that it really did feel tense, like they weren't certain if they would succeed overall or not. And that really made me happy because that's exactly what I was going for. I wanted them to feel challenged. And I definitely don't want them to feel like anything they try will automatically succeed.

Anyway, I feel like I've rambled on (like I often do) and perhaps not fully explained what I dislike about skill challenges or what I like about them. But I can say that I really do like the way I've found to implement the concept of a skill challenge.

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PostSubject: Re: Skill Challenges   Sun Nov 24, 2013 12:09 pm

skwyd42 wrote:
When I first read about skill challenges, I absolutely loved the concept. Then, when I came across some of the ones written by WotC, I absolutely hated them.

I played in a campaign where I got to run through one that was very well executed. And then I loved them again. After that, I tried to implement a couple in my campaign and I hated them again.

So I have had a love-hate relationship with Skill Challenges.
You and I ran into the same thing.  I loved the concept, but I hated the examples.  When you have to rework something from the ground up, it gets frustrating.

skwyd42 wrote:
But I've been working on implementing them in a much more subtle way.

First, I've put out an informal house rule that no one can every use the name of a skill to describe their action. I have told my players that I NEVER want to hear "I use Athletics to jump the pit". I just need to hear from them "I try to jump over the pit" and then I tell them if they need to roll or not (and what skill to use). This keeps the players in "narrative mode" so they aren't just staring at their character sheet and picking skills with high modifiers.
I did the same thing.  I had to remind them that the DMs job was to narrate and be the interpreter of the rules.  "Tell me what you are doing, I will let you know what you need to do mechanically to get there".

skwyd42 wrote:
Second, I NEVER announce that a skill challenge is starting. I narrate the action that happens and then I ask them what they do. It can be a chase scene, a negotiation, or an attempt to disable a complex mechanism. It doesn't matter. I simply explain to them what they see and let them go from there.
Agreed.

skwyd42 wrote:
I got very lost in that explanation. And I feel I may have lost those reading this. So...

In my current campaign, the party was trying to infiltrate a noble house to get to the towers at the center of the manor. So I narrated the story until they got to a decision point. For example, they had snuck around outside at night until they got outside of the main building. They looked around and saw a door at ground level and windows on the second and third floors that didn't appear to be barred. Their decision point was to enter on the first floor or try to climb up to the second or third floor. They chose to climb. And no one said "I use Athletics to climb the wall to the window". They just said "We want to climb up to the window". And so I asked who was climbing up first. They actually figured out a way to fly a rope up and tie it to the third floor (which reduced the difficulty of the climb) and went up to the third floor. So that's a success. But just one. Not one for each successful Athletics check.

Some of the other things they came up against were:

-Surprising some servants when they walked around a corner. A Bluff check was used to convince the servants that they were guests and they had just gotten lost.

-Seeing guards stationed at a large hallway near where they had to pass. A Stealth check allowed them to pass unnoticed.

-A magical alarm that would notify the residents of the noble house that someone was headed up the tower. An Arcana check suppressed the magic enough to let them pass undetected.

So I would put them into specific "mini-scenes" and they would describe what they were trying to do. I would call for a skill check (just one) and they would earn a success or failure based upon the result.

After the game session, I asked for some feedback from them. First of all, they all said that they had no idea that it was a skill challenge. They thought I was just narrating things on the fly. That made me very happy. Secondly, they felt like all of the skill checks were important. Like their success or failure hinged on these rolls. That made me happy as well because I feel that too much rolling of dice takes away from the story, but not enough tends to make the characters feel ineffectual. So it seemed that I struck a good balance. And lastly, they all said that it really did feel tense, like they weren't certain if they would succeed overall or not. And that really made me happy because that's exactly what I was going for. I wanted them to feel challenged. And I definitely don't want them to feel like anything they try will automatically succeed.
And that tells me you ran into the same thing I did.  What you described here is the structure I went with with my challenges.  If you don't mind, I'm going to use what you presented and modify my infiltration Challenge.  Smile

skwyd42 wrote:
Anyway, I feel like I've rambled on (like I often do) and perhaps not fully explained what I dislike about skill challenges or what I like about them. But I can say that I really do like the way I've found to implement the concept of a skill challenge.
No, it's fine.  I am happy to know that I am not the only one who came up with this format.  And we need more people sharing what they have come up with.  If you have any other Challenges you like playing with, bring them to the board!!
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