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Non-Combat encounters should be fun, not frustrating!

I'm a veteran (AD&D) DM running D&D 4e, and my first-time players really enjoy the game I'm running for them. Though, the skill-challenge mechanic is frustrating for all of us - DM and player alike.

Specifically, the pure pass-fail mechanic is demoralizing (even though combat doesn't seem to feel that way to them.) A player thinks up a clever way to overcome a portion of the challenge as-written, I give a +2 for cleverness, the party helps for another +2 and BAM, a bad role or untrained skill means it didn't work.

I know this is an old complaint, and entire RPGs have been designed around this very problem. But I don't want to play another system, I just want skill challenges to feel a little more "yes-and" or "yes-but".

What existing systems have you seen (and played) that are successfully adapted for play with D&D 4e? A big bonus to any system that doesn't penalize player agency heavily just because the appropriate character-skill is untrained...

Please: Don't just name a system and call it "better", describe it and explain how it fits with D&D 4e.

Clarification: The frustration isn't with the entire challenge being failed, that seems to never happen - the problem is with the pass-fail nature of each individual skill roll... For counter-example, I've heard of systems that have trinary logic: Pass/Pass-with-complication/Pass-with-benefits...

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My reading of the DMG was that the entire skill challenge shouldn't completely derail the characters on a fail, so fail for the challenge itself is not a penalty but a plot branch. For example, a skill challenge might mean the difference between (a) negotiating a better deal with a shopkeeper and saving some money, or (b) failing the negotiation and getting a combat encounter with some criminals when they leave the shop. In one case, they get extra XP, in the other case, they get extra treasure. –  detly Oct 21 '13 at 22:00
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The way a fail is supposed to work "ideally" is that it simply switches the events path from the "easy" fork to the "more interesting" fork. However, this isn't systematised in any way, so it's left to the DM to devise "fail forward" outcomes for failed skill challenge rolls. A way to systematise this would be a good addition to the 4e toolbox. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 21 '13 at 22:30
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One unofficial alternative I've used is a challenge that requires players to reach a certain "total" of skill rolls. For example, a locked door that requires a total of 100 thievery to unlock it. Players can make thievery checks as standard actions on their turn, but the monsters are attacking them. They have the choice of fighting and leaving the check until after the battle (auto-success, no thievery rolls) or trying to unlock it to evade the monsters (requires standard actions and multiple rolls). Is this what you're looking for? –  Soulrift Oct 22 '13 at 16:55
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@SevenSidedDie, that phrase "simply switches the events path from the "easy" fork to the "more interesting" fork." is excellent. It clarifies nicely the whole point of rolls in an RPG. –  Greenstone Walker Oct 22 '13 at 22:13
    
@mikeshea - I'll bet you have an answer for this! –  F. Randall Farmer Oct 24 '13 at 22:21
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7 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted
+100

Know that Skill Challenges aren't "pass-fail" in the traditional sense

One of the common mistakes about D&D 4e Skill Challenges (and arguably one perpetuated by many of the early printed materials) is that a skill challenge must be passed for the adventure to continue. Some early adventures included skill challenges and didn't even explain what happens when you fail. Do you try again? Does the game just end?

A skill challenge isn't meant to describe whether or not the players succeed at a task; the success is presupposed. The purpose of the challenge is to determine how the players succeed at the task.

For example, if there is a skill challenge to get through a door locked with arcane seals, alchemical traps, and ancient dwarven plating, then the players will get through the door, no matter how they progress through the challenge. The question is how they get through the door. The how generally describes the consequences of the action. It doesn't say whether or not they succeed, but what happens as a result of or during this course of action.

Do they dispel the seals with arcane knowledge, thereby gaining knowledge of arcane locks (and learning a new ritual) or did they merely scuff off the runes, destroying the locks and the knowledge behind them? Did they disarm the alchemical traps carefully, or did they trigger them and take lots of damage from acid sprays and fire jets? Did they carefully pry off the dwarven plates, gaining some rare treasure to sell back in town, or did they smash them to pieces, perhaps breaking a weapon in the process?

Think of skill challenges as opportunities to spice up the story, adding rewards or penalties that are meaningful because they are tied to an epic accomplishment the players achieve. The accomplishment itself is a given: it's needed to progress the story, so you're not rolling for that. You're rolling for the embellishment: the story flavour, whether good or bad.

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Could you point me to a writeup of a formal skill challenge for getting through a door? The example you give doesn't sound like a skill-challenge-encounter, but a simple (series of) skill check(s). –  F. Randall Farmer Oct 22 '13 at 5:48
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Well, at its core, a skill challenge is a series of skill checks, if you want to reduce it. The flavor and the different consequences Soulrift mentions are what makes a skill challenge particular. That, and mechanically there's XP involved. As for examples, the Essentials DM Book contains a good one, and there's a thread here: community.wizards.com/content/forum-topic/3140221 –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Oct 22 '13 at 13:52
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@F.RandallFarmer Recently in a season of encounters there was a big skill challenge to set up defenses for a town that would come under attack from some orcs. Characters justified their skill actions (some of which was already in the accepted list on the DM side) and then made rolls to actively prepare defenses. Everything from rallying morale, to building barricades, to establishing patrol intervals was used. The number of successes directly influenced the number of and difficulty of the monsters when the siege came. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Oct 22 '13 at 16:38
    
A skill challenge should only be pass/fail if it doesn't advance the plot. Your party comes across a door and you, as the DM, know that behind this door is only treasure, not the way forward. The party checks perception, for mechanisms; strength, to sunder/pry the door; spells, to teleport; or various other checks. A fail on strength could be they hit the door so hard it breaks, but so does the surrounding frame, barring entry into the room, and a magic barrier prevents teleportation. This party has technically failed the challenge but has not prevented further progress in the dungeon. –  Jason_c_o Oct 25 '13 at 8:57
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I disagree. I think a skill challenge should only be used in order to advance the plot. You should never use a device as complex as a skill challenge when there is the outcome of a null possibility. You should never go through all that role-play and dice rolling and say "Oops, you rolled badly, the end. No treasure for you." –  Soulrift Oct 25 '13 at 11:24
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Looks like a lot of folks already gave you good advice. I'll add a few things.

  1. Consider giving everyone the Jack of All Trades or Bard of All Trades feats for free. This helps smooth out the huge gaps that show up between trained and untrained feats by boosting all untrained skills by +2 or +3. Because attributes boost skills a lot, having the +5 bonus on top of that is huge spike and ends up meaning that most people succeed or most fail on any given skill check. If you do this, you'll want to stick to medium and hard checks and assume that an easy check is already a victory.

  2. I'd let go of Skill Challenges. They rarely work well. Instead, just build interesting dynamic scenes and have people navigate through them organically instead of some convoluted system of some number of successes or failures.

  3. Add in some "awesome success" and "terrible failures" on really high or low rolls. I wrote about this more at my blog.

  4. Because 4e is so combat-focused, I love to add skill events within combat to help unlock stories or change the battlefield. I wrote about that here.

That's about all I have. Good luck!!

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A few game systems use levels of failure and success. So you can implement a house rule following a similar process.

The system can be very simple or as complex as you want it.

  1. Use a % table (% of target number made after roll and all additions/subtractions)

    e.g.:

      0% – 10%     spectacular failure  
     11% – 70%     normal failure  
     71% – 99%     poor success (yes it worked, but)  
    100% – 125%    normal success  
    125%+          spectacular success   
    
  2. Use a table with "resisted" effect

    Here the table would contain columns where the top row would be the skill check of PC and the left most column would be the defender skill check - (Skill check of person creating the trap, or in haggle the other persons haggle check). Not as easy a table to create but a lot of fun. Because now just because you fail or succeed does not mean as much since maybe your opponent had a spectacular failure or success.

There are a few more options you can come up with,remember no rules are set in stone. And you can always implement house rules to make the game system work better for you.

It is always good to look at how other systems implement resistance roles, look at the Call of Cthulhu system and Warhammer Fantasy RPG they use two very different systems. And so there are many systems using various means some extremely complex and time consuming and some simple and fast.

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Borrow the skill check system from Vampire!

After trying the Vampire: The Masquerade Quickstart, I've considered bringing in their "levels of success" into other games. Frankly, I just haven't had the chance to try it out in an actual game.

How it works in that game PCs are versed in certain skills. Instead of just adding numbers as d20 systems do, each number represents a number of dice. If my character has physical four, then any task they undertake using physical ability is one in which they roll four dice. Based on a DC, they can get anywhere between zero and four "successes," signaling a) whether they accomplished the task, b) how well they did so and, as a result, c) repercussions.

To illustrate, my character is fleeing for their survival from some angry monsters. Upon reaching a dead-end, there's a grate high up on the wall, too far to grasp but near enough to try and get to. A running jump at the wall and an attempt to get ahold of the grate is physical. Say my character has three physical and the DC is moderately high (4, it's a d6 game). Rolls: 1, 3, 4 = one success, my character is pulling themselves up the wall, but the monsters have harmed them and are trying to pull them down. Or, two successes could be that they made it but one of the monster hurt them. Three successes? They've barely managed to escape unscathed.

Opposed skill checks work a little differently. The DM/GM/Storyteller sets a DC and each character rolls against it. The one with more successes wins.

Bring in multiple rolls and have them measure up against the DC multiple times. There's room for a gray area because no longer is there the pass-fail binary. Do they pass and by how much? Also, for very skilled characters, a total failure is much less likely. Now, I wouldn't have my players roll 10d20 for any given skill check, but you could easily cap it at four or five and still see much of the benefit of that Gaussian curve.

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Consider giving an option when it comes to failed checks in a skill challenge. If they came close to a success (within 5 or 10) they can choose to expend some resource (generally a healing surge, action point or daily power) to turn the failure into a success.

If they failed by a large margin they can choose to expend something to just erase the failure.

An example:

Alice, Bob and Carol are in a dungeon; and need 15s to succeed on checks.

Alice scouts ahead, succeeds on a perception check and finds the traps before they hit them.

Bob goes in to disarm the traps, but only gets 13. The traps are fiddly and it'll take some time to work out the mechanisms, without seeing one in action.

He spends a healing surge as he triggers a trap, and the failure turns into a success as they speed past the trapped area.

Carol tries to work out the quickest route to their destination. She makes a dungeoneering check and gets 2. After swearing at the dice, she realises that she's gotten everyone lost.

She could spend an action point to cancel out the lost time (by hurrying along to catch up) but she decides to accept one failure... they're going to be slightly late to the battle.

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Some thoughts here:

  • First and foremost for a skill challenge I find that the most interesting thing to do is to determine the level of success based on the number of failures that are amassed. Example: Scene the PCs are attempting to escape from a burning building surrounded by enemies.

    • No failures: PCs escape unharmed and avoid combat
    • First Failure: PCs are singed, all lose a healing surge, avoid combat on exit
    • Second Failure: They will exit together but into a battle with their backs to the building
    • Third Failure: They exit to combat separated, on this failure the skill challenge ends (skill challenges always end after the third failure)

This makes the failure both consequential and interesting.

  • Skill challenges avoid single check failures being plot stalling, however it's important to have an idea of what happens if they do completely fail the challenge. Rather than using skill challenges to advance the plot, use them to branch it. Have the success be a favorable outcome and the failure be a less favorable one.

  • Design your skill challenges around the skills the PCs are trained in. It's a pretty big hit when your PCs think on their feet and still fail, consider reducing the DC of a challenge when none of your players are trained in it.

  • Offer secondary skills to remove failure or accrue a reroll. Model this as taking back the momentum after the situation has gotten out of control. There isn't really any RAW for this, but skill challenges are a fuzzy bit of RAW anyways, a reroll is totally within the bounds of creative freedom.

  • Make sure you have your PCs tell you why they failed. It helps to roll first and roleplay second in skill challenges. Have the results of the roll dictate the direction of the roleplay. Encourage your players to tee up another player with their failures.

  • Make bonuses last the entire skill challenge. This reduces the importance of any single roll and doesn't make a conditional bonus feel wasted on a failure.

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+1 for "level of success" for overall skill-challenge results. I did this with the "Recruit the Locals" challenge in the Reavers of Harkenwold: 12 tests, each with a different "motivation"/challenge. Each success added forces/resources to the heroes side, making the upcoming siege encounter easier. –  F. Randall Farmer Oct 23 '13 at 2:14
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Just steal some goodstuffs from other RPGs such as Fate!

Only require a roll when failure is interesting. If your thief stole a small lockbox from the local baron and took it home with him so that he has basically unlimited time to pick the lock, why bother making him roll for it every X minutes? Just say he opened the box and tell him what's inside.

Instead of saying "no" to a failure, try to figure out ways to say 'Yes, but...' I actually ran into a situation sort of like the one above in a (non-DnD) game I ran recently. The party had shooed the badguy out of his office and were more or less free to ransack the place. The players found a hidden safe in the wall and I rolled to have them crack it. In this case, they failed the roll so what was decided was that while the player opened the safe, they did not notice hear the self-destruct mechanism click and so instead of a set of plans all they got was a bunch of charred paper. In this context, charred paper was still better than nothing; they were able to take this to a scientist friend (one of their aspects!), who agreed to figure it out in exchange for a little favor...

As a corollary to the above, ask the players what a good consequence might be. If your players aren't used to narrative-focused gaming, this might not work; I know I've done this before to classic "roll-players" and I get stuff like "as a result of failing my roll, how about... I get a free pony!!!". But if your party has gotten used to the fact that failure and complications are actually what make the game fun, not just "winning", often they'll come up with predicaments far more dastardly than what you can cook up (and if they have a Long Game in mind about how to thwart those predicaments, all the better!).

Involve a clock when you can for the sake of suspense. In the above "yes, but..." mode, one classic way of narrating a failure to, for instance, pick a lock on a door is that the guards notice you before or just as you finally get the thing open. If you're uncomfortable with "yes, but..." or if you wnat to introduce something else to the fray, give the player, say, 3 chances to open the door, and each time narrate how the footsteps of the guards are growing ever closer.

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I don't really agree that failure should always be "interesting" per se, but there should be alternatives to success after failure. In the lockbox example you gave, failure could jam the lock, forcing the player to find some alternative method of opening the box. Either by finding and paying a locksmith or breaking it open (which could damage the contents). Not all skill checks need, or even should, be pass/fail, but failure is always an option for characters and it's up the the players to figure out new ways to tackle the problem. THIS, I believe, is the point of failures. –  Jason_c_o Oct 25 '13 at 9:00
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