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I think I don't get skill challenges.

As I understand it at some point I break the narrative by proclaiming:
"This is a skill challenge. You need 5 victories before you reach 3 failures. Go" And then each player in turn chucks a die for his primary skill and after x rolls the consequences are faced.

I tried it a few times and each time both the party and myself felt like it was too artificial. What am I doing wrong?

Update
After reading the answers I feel like I have to elaborate on the problems I'm still struggling with.

  • How do I have all but the last check linked to a notion of progress if the system is supposed to be kept behind the scenes?
  • What makes rolling multiple checks more interesting then one single skill check?
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I had the same question as you and these articles helped me a lot. The 4e system leaves a very broad definition, but this approach is just one of the many other players have designed. at-will.omnivangelist.net/series/howtodesignskillchallenges –  Eilleen Jun 28 '13 at 6:45
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Other gamers have also told me they prefer this method! enworld.org/forum/…! –  Eilleen Jun 28 '13 at 6:46
    
For anyone bumping into this in the future: do check out angrydm.com/2012/12/… –  Boris Callens Oct 18 '13 at 13:20
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13 Answers

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Skill Ladders

Preparing for a recent Alternity game and I came across something called Skill Ladders whilst reading Wolfgang Baur’s Dataware book. Much of what I learned can be applied to running 4e skill challenges.

Skill ladders are presented by Wolfgang as a way to avoid the monotony of complex skill checks. A complex skill check requires a certain number of successes before a number of failures, just like in 4e. Again just like the OP's problem, this can descend into just totalling successes and failures at the table until you’ve either succeeded or failed.

Wolfgang outlines skill ladders as quickly written lists of what each success or failure means for the characters. Here’s a quick example from my prep for today.

Hacking a locked bio tagged laser weapon

In this example 4 successes are needed before 3 failures

Successes

  1. Removed take down pin
  2. Gained access to internal ciruitry
  3. Bypassed authentication routines
  4. Weapon unlocked for any user

Failures

  1. Mild electric shock
  2. Ammo halved by power discharge
  3. Weapon still locked. Power discharged. Ammo depleted.

As each success or failure happens then you have a brief thing to tell the players. These don't take long at all to write and you could probably even knock them up in game once you've done a few.

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At the moment you said "go" you probably break it.

A skill challenge is a complex situation or task that has multiple skill checks, but it's still meant to be a roleplaying scene. I think it's ok to let players know they have to accumulate X amount of successes before 3 failures, but you also need to have set up consequences for success and failure:

Also: the consequences for failure should not be 'shut down"/"miss out on the adventure". Here's some controversial advice: whenever possible, the consequences of failure should be more interesting than success.

An example of a couple of skill challenges: Crossing through a dangerous forest or swamp, deactivating a magical artifact, consecrating a temple beset by demons, a scavenger hunt, meeting the right person at a masquerade ball.

Think in terms of scenes that could happen: (insects attack in a swamp, or the players have to navigate an alligator-filled area, or improvise a bridge out of a fallen tree..)

Handle skill checks scene by scene, and for a fail have the consequence in mind: For crossing the swamp- The players are lost in the swamp and end up near an alternate encounter- a witch's hut, or one of the player characters gets swamp fever.. something interesting.

But the failure has to be on your mind.

Also, another tip: YOU (the DM) determine both the skill used, the DC, and the PC who should roll it. If you just throw it up in the air like that- the wizard will roll all arcane checks and the dwarf rolls all endurance checks, and the skill challenge ends without anything happening. If you determine what happens (for example- let's say the wizard gets stung by a poisonous snake in the swamp and has to make an endurance check) that makes the skill challenge still interestingly failable. If a player wants to try something alternative (let's say the ranger character says "before the wizard rolls endurance, can I use nature to see if I can gather an antidote?" you should allow it but at a slightly higher DC.

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Make it stunt driven helps. The player describes an action, then roll, then give the result are given collaboratively. The crazier the ideas the more fun for us.

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Not sure I'm getting you. Who's describing the action? –  Boris Callens Aug 31 '10 at 23:27
    
Both the gm and the player –  anon186 Sep 1 '10 at 0:09
    
Yay stunts! "I leapt up the wall swinging the sword down brutally onto the trolls head".. etc, SC for high jump, then attack check, then landing check.. all from the players mouth! He might kill the troll but break his ankle landing, or he might slam face-first into the wall and get eaten.. all fun and games! –  Grizly Sep 15 '10 at 1:39
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How I do it: we play the scene or event in just the same way as I would a scene in any non-skill-challenge-having game, but I make sure to call for a skill check whenever someone is doing a thing (and exactly one skill check... if it's a thing where I might in my old habits have called for both an Arcana check and a Stealth check, I'll pick the single skill that seems most relevant to the task as a whole, or ask the player which single skill they think is most relevant, which actually I prefer because it gives the player a chance to make a case for why their Arcana +14 is a better skill for what they're trying to do than their Stealth +2... I also am careful to call for a skill check every time, even if it's the sort of trivial thing that I wouldn't normally call for a skill check for, because it should count as a success, and the simple exercise of setting the easy DC and noting the success helps me to stay within the skill challenge framework).

If they succeed on that skill check (based on the Easy/Medium/Hard DCs by level in the DMG errata) then I note a success, and if they fail I note a failure. Usually a failure brings with it the loss of a healing surge, whether it's a failed Athletics check that results in taking a tumble down a hillside or a failed Diplomacy check that gets the PC frustrated and annoyed and less ready to fight. When the party has accumulated enough successes, they've succeeded at whatever they're trying to do, and when they've failed, same deal but with failure.

One thing I go out of my way to avoid is skill challenges like "make friends with Duke Stands-on-the-Mountain," that ought to be resolved with just a single skill check. Sometimes players hit on a really on-the-nose way to resolve the challenge, which I'll either run with, or introduce some new complication to draw the scene out, depending on pacing and group interest.

I never say explicitly when a skill challenge has started, I just let it grow organically our of the previous scene.

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I do like the idea of using the system behind the scenes, but I'm still not sure of why I should provide the available solutions to the problem rather then handing them the problem and make them improvise a way out of it. –  Boris Callens Aug 31 '10 at 23:09
    
I'm not sure what you mean by "provide the available solutions." Can you elaborate? –  Drunken Carp Sep 1 '10 at 13:39
    
@boriscallens: this is arguably done to avoid smarter players from winning all challenges and dumber ones from losing them outright (you still play the challenge, even in front of good ideas) but more so for avoiding a DM that uses challenges as a "roll stealth once more (till you fail)" railroading. Upon a set numeber of wins, you get the objective. –  Zachiel May 19 '13 at 11:39
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Running Skill challenges is tough. They are in the category of "nice idea / poor implementation" I'm not sure we'll ever figure out the one true way(tm) of doing skill challenges!

I have some suggestions to break up the monotony of going around the table to roll vanilla skill checks.

  • Do a skill challenge during combat. Forcing the players to choose between killing bad guys and stopping their evil plot will get them to focus better
  • make the player describe how s/he is using the skill to address the challenge. If it sounds plausible at all, allow it. If it sounds great, give them a +2 circumstance bonus
  • have the whole party do the same skill check every round (endurance/stealth/athletics are good for this). Each character that fails can take a penalty, if too many fail it increments the failure count of the challenge
  • Don't forget the new errata that changes how Aid Another works, the DC is now 10 + 1/2 level, and they get a +2/-1 to the Aided character's check for success/failure
  • limit the successes that can be obtained from any one skill. It is quite boring to see the same character pumping out History checks repeatedly

As a meta note, if your group doesn't have access to a wide variety of skills you should consider doing fewer skill challenges. When 4 out 5 characters load up on Perception/Insight and one other each they are strongly implying that they don't care too much about skills. You can punish them for that choice, or slant the campaign away from skill challenges.

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When I first tried skill challenges I tried to make them the encounter. So I'd put one in and everyone would roll their dice and like you've noticed, it kinda sucks. I mean you have players who can't help but auto win, you have players that have to sit back and assist (giving a +2 is seldom a very exciting use of your turn) and overall they felt pretty artificial.

One thing I did to make them better was to almost always run them in a combat situation or with significant consequences for failure. The great thing about running SC in combat is you can use them to effectively "lock down" a party member. I'd use an arcana/history challenge to keep the wizard out of a minion heavy fight or keep include an endurance/athletics SC in a fight with a lot of strikers/lurkers to keep the defender busy. The obvious upside of doing it this way it that you never have someone standing around who can't contribute since there is a fight going on.

Skill challenges are, in my opinion, the hardest thing in fourth edition to DM correctly.

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Yes, combat related challenges is what I'm going to implement next time. Indeed a "shut down the portal" or "disable the fudge machine" can make both the encounter and the skill check interesting. –  Boris Callens Aug 31 '10 at 23:17
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Don't bring up the game mechanics in play until absolutely required.

There's no need to announce it's a skill challenge, how hard it is, or how many successes or failures are required. That's meta. It breaks flow.

Instead, stay in the flow. Give the players enough background to know what problem faces their characters, and what some of the options might be.

DM: You have followed the road through the grasslands into a hilly jungle. There the road ends, probably consumed by centuries of aggressive forest. The way is dangerous, for dark things dwell here, but also because the terrain is difficult. Looming in the distance are some big mountains.

DM: What do you?

Now you have their attention. They know what the problem is. They're thinking about solutions.

Player: I want to see if I can pick up the trail of the old road through the jungle.

DM: How?

Player: I have keen eyesight. I'm just scouring the ground for stone markers and such.

Now you interact with the system, because you know specifically what is required.

DM: Make a Perception check. DC 18.

Player: 19! Thierra scouts ahead, finding bits of stone rubble here and there. It's slow-going, but we can follow the road for a bit.

Sometimes you need to tug the players back to the fiction.

Player: Can I make a History check?

DM: I dunno. What is Thierry doing?

Notice, the DM doesn't have to argue or be confrontational. Gently nudge the player back into character.

Player: Um... I want to think back to my geography class at the Arcane College. Do I remember any maps that showed how the road used to plot its way through the jungle?

DM: Maybe you do. Check History at 20.

Player: 22!

DM: (Quietly noting another success.) There was this map of Ancient Belarsana that had a trade route along the Sana River, which should be near here. It should wind you toward a mountain pass that you might be able to see, if not for the trees.

The DM here is just going with the flow, and leaving mechanics in the background. Even noting the progress toward the skill challenge should be handled quietly, but give feedback to the players in the form of narration, not numbers.

DM: As you trek carefully into the heart of the jungle, the remnants of the old road occasionally guide you, and you follow the river and head toward the mountain pass in the distance. The ground becomes very marshy and the jungle canopy gets dark and impenetrable, and there's a deep and ominous bellowing noise coming from the direction straight ahead. Following the river is no longer an option unless you want to find out what that bellowing is.*

You've presented the players with a new obstacle. They can't just use History and Perception again, even. If they choose to go through the swamp, you can hit them with a combat encounter. If they choose to go around, they will lose their way unless they get another success. But they're creative and will suggest things. Let them!

Also, you've hinted at something: them getting above the trees. Maybe they have a spell or power that lets them fly. Maybe someone wants to climb up and scout (Athletics check!). In any case, you're concentrating on narration and not on the dice.

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Thanks! Your question would make a great Question! Consider asking it formally! I actually use Stalker0's Obsidian Skill Challenge System (goo.gl/fd7o), which is designed with role-playing in mind. Its answer to your question is to revise how skill challenges work. There are three segments of skill checks and every player can go once per segment. The goal is to accumulate a certain number of successes before the three segments are over. So players don't have to participate, but it may hurt the party if they don't. –  Adam Dray Aug 31 '10 at 21:09
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I suggest you fold the link to Obsidian (with maybe a few words of explanation) into your answer itself to make it more visible, since it provides a great alternative that fits with the approach you suggest here. –  Skeolan Aug 31 '10 at 22:55
    
posted related question here rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/2016/… –  digitaljoel Sep 1 '10 at 14:22
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I tried to add this as a comment to your edited addendum:

"How do I have all but the last check linked to a notion of progress if the system is supposed to be kept behind the scenes?"

You don't have to keep the system behind the scenes. A progress report is a good idea during a skill challenge- improvise details- "you're about halfway through the swamp." "Ok, you've almost got the trap mostly disarmed, but now the tension wire you were using suddenly snaps sending the razor-wheels into a frenzy..", etc. Progress reports are good.

"What makes rolling multiple checks more interesting then one single skill check?"

As for what makes multiple checks more interesting than a single check? Because multiple tasks make more interesting and complex situations. Crossing a swamp (for example) might involve a nature check, an athletics check, a heal check, a group endurance check, a history check.. these are roleplaying scenes. They aren't meant just to be a series of dice rolls.

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Running Skill Challenges is easy (just to be contray), the basics of a skill challenge were in the Unearthed Arcana rules for 3.x and were used lots before that (all those THIS TRAP TAKES TWO SUCCESSESS TO DISARM, traps are infact proto-skill challenges).

Making them sing is something else, so I will share with you my guiding hints.

Hint A> Investment cannot be forced, sometimes a skill challenge is going to fail flat and the approiate thing to do is let the party walk away from that. Sometimes when I run a skill challenge (which i generally run behind the scenes). I'll get 3 rolls into it, and the players will be all like "So is there anything intersting in this other room that has nothing to do with it" and thats the end of it. Let your players walk away from a skill challenge is just as valid as sneaking past a monster guard or fleeing an oncoming assault. Generally I default to the Failed Skill Challenge option, but most of the time the players don't know because they are hanging cats by their tails over dungeon wires or something.

Hint B> Make sure your skill challenge is a skill challenge. Lots of times I see something that is wrote up as a skill challenge that should not really be a skill challenge. Generally if your best bet is going to be to roll the same skill 16 times (either by in-game or player logic) its not really a skill challenge. Skill Challenges are events in which everyone with various skills can contribute. The book itself kinda sets a bad presedence here (with mini skill challenges in some traps and some rather boring not really a skill challenge , skill challenges) but they learn by dmg2 where they start making this point more well placed.

Hint C> This is a houserule. I got it from go but really it makes this roleplay stuff work a bit better. Play must vary. In Go, theirs repetition rules, in Dnd this becomes you can't roll the same thing twice in row (regardless of who's rolling it). At times this is a little awkward to explain, but if its a skill cahllenge (ie a variety of skills) simply saying that , "That's already been done just now, what else do you want to do" works fine.

Really the dmg's are pretty good about the meat and potatoes, I hope this helps.

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I like your last hint. Creating this limitation is a bit artificial, but makes the mechanic on itself more interesting. –  Boris Callens Nov 30 '10 at 12:05
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To give an example of a Skill Challenge...

You're being hunted by the Evil Duke's army, and, facing a terraced cliff, and the friendly fort is at the top of the cliff. You declare each 40' terrace is a DC20 climb, there are 5 terraces, and that you only have time to make 10 rolls. Each success is a terrace accomplished; if you get 5+ failures, the duke and his archers will be able to shoot you before you can make the top, and further, each fail is 2d6 falling damage... Each step is easily narrated.

The trick is to make players describe what they do to earn the roll.

In this case, have them describe if they are doing it by human pyramids, or the rogue climbing, etc... don't hesitate to alter the roll or grant DM's for good descriptions of plausible methods.

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See, I think that's a terrible example of a skill challenge. I'd just ask for an Athletics for this. I use skill challenges when a variety of skills are useful and when the obstacle requires a longer duration to overcome. I totally agree with you about reminding players to describe what they're doing, though. –  Adam Dray Oct 12 '10 at 16:09
    
I fear this is close to what I used to do. The problem with this is that it becomes quite repetitive and artificial. I would prefer to not dictate the rolls, but make them suggest a way to overcome an obstacle which the DM translates in a skill check. –  Boris Callens Nov 30 '10 at 12:00
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I'm new to DnD4e but was a well heeled AD&D DM for about 20 years... Skill challenges are completely new to me, and resources such as this one are very helpful in helping me think about designing mine.

Here's a great link that I haven't seen shared so far, called "Everything you need to know about Skill Challenges but were afraid to ask" over a Greywulf's Lair. If you're completely new to this, like I was, this unlocks some of the mystery....

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I've toyed with describing a game of chess like a physical combat. Each player's position has some number of "Hit Points", which are reduced during play; however, much of that damage is inevitable, as players trade pieces. If both positions are reduced to 0 HP in the last turn, the game is a draw.

The two players have chess maneuvers like combat maneuvers. A player may try to trade material for initiative with a gambit. A player who knows his opponent's style of play may gain some advantages over his opponent. A player may try to play for a draw by using maneuvers that simplify the game fast.

There should be room for critical hits and fumbles. Given the setting, it is unlikely that the rules of chess has standardized, so that two players from different cultures might not even realize until it is too late that they haven't agreed on rules. Even if they have agreed on the rules of the current game, they might need to make some sort of Psychology check to show that they understand the implications of the different rules.

The rules might affect game play. For example, a standard chess game might have limits on total damage for the first two turns of the opening. A game without the 2-space initial pawn move might have the same limit for four turns. A game with dice rolling like Indian Chatauranga would include the possibility of Luck rolls or of Sleight of Hand rolls. But watch out if the opponent notices that.
Barroom games might have more possibilities, as an unscrupulous player might try to get his opponent drunk (and then shift a knight by one space).

The other player-characters, even as spectators, might have skill rolls to make, as they might notice chicanery, try to pickpocket other spectators, flirt with barmaids, and so on.

Chess might be a complementary skill for military leaders.

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What does a homebrewed chess-as-combat idea have to do with answering this question about Skill Challenges? –  SevenSidedDie May 19 '13 at 3:00
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I'll try to give an example i have made up to demonstrate one of my players how this actually works. He is evil rogue and wanted to steal something worthy from someone in a crowd.

How it works. His plan was to: 1. Create a crowd by making a bard play music (let's say History or Arcana check to be sure his song is interesting). What we are checking - is his music/story good enough for everyone to be pleased. 2. Next point is choosing victim. Perception check to notice someone nice to steal from. 3. Determine risk - Insight check to understand if he is worth stealing from. 4. Diversion - another PC pushes victim to take his attention. Athletics check if he is pushing with just right power - not to much to drop prone, not to weak - so he pays attention. 5. Bluff to make sure victim thinks it's just accident. 6. Stealth - to hide your face so victim will not remember him. 7. Thievery - actual thief trying to steal item. 8. Stealth - has he be sneaky enough for target not to notice him being close and somehow worth attention.

So. All this is a flow of how they try to steal. If they will change plan - you just need to adjust skill checks to look relevant.

What we get. It's 6/3 challenge. They need 6 success before 3 fails.

With success it's all simple - they get their reward. But fail. Pick any 3 and make up story.

Example 1. Bad risk determination (powerful merchant with connections in city) + failed stealth by one of PCs + bad music = target been angry about bad music and noticed someone hanging around him. After 10 minutes it notices that item is missing and call for guards. As he is very respected here - thieves are being searched by every guard and will be found within an hour. You decide consequences - take money from them. Beat and throw out of city. It all depends on your campaign.

Example2. Bad diversion - victim falls on ground and is looking straight at a person who pushed him (add +2 to stealth DC) + stealth failed (he remember the PC well) + bad music makes him very angry = just enough to grab the thief as soon he even attempts to steal. And there comes the guards...

And so one - with every 3 you can make up nice story. You can even improve price of item if no fails been made at all. Or vice verse.

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