Friday, January 14, 2011

How I DM: Skill Challenged

How I DM, is a series of articles that reflect back on my time as a dungeon master over the past year plus. I am currently DMing a Dark Sun 4e campaign for a group of friends and family. Today's article will focus on my use and experience with skill challenges.

I mentioned in the recap of my first Dark Sun game night that I was frustrated with the way skill challenges are presented by WotC. As a DM, who is still learning the ropes, I shied away from using them at first. I wasn't quiet clear on how they would fit into the story. My first attempt at using them was four or five game nights into the Bloodlines of Fate campaign I ran this past summer and fall.

Assuming that the company that puts out the game I run for my players knows what is fun. I ran it word for word like they write it. The group needed to get behind a tavern to stop a weapons deal a cult was brokering. So I presented them with a pass/fail criteria like every module I have seen come out of Dungeon magazine. Something to the effect of "you need to make six success rolls before three failures and here are the skills you can use to do that: 2x Stealth, 2x Bluff, etc...". My players were confused. I ended up explaining it two more times before they ever rolled a dice.

It didn't add to the story and felt shoe horned into the evenings other events. Afterward I determined that I must have been doing something wrong. So for the game this past Saturday I took the the approach of wrapping it in story. I started by letting my players know they had 3 days of rations each and that traveling to their destination would take 3 days. Each day I presented a scenario that was coupled with a skill check.
On the first day of your journey you all come across a fork in the path. One way leads into a valley and the other over a craggy slat flat. Go ahead and roll a nature check to determine what you might know about these two terrain types.
If they passed, they add no time to their trip. If they failed they would add a day to the trip and increase the chances of sickness or death by travelling without supplies. I allowed both trained and untrained rolls, but noted that any untrained failures would cancel out successes. It worked fine I guess, but still felt like it was not a part of the game or story. After that night I think I have finally determined where they fit and don't fit at my table.

During Combat
Using multiple skill checks or challenges during combat can build drama, risk and role play into an otherwise boring encounter. The best experience I have had with it are traps that round after round will damage the players until disabled. An arcane based trap that requires 3-4 successful skill checks before it is disabled forces a player to choose between killing creatures or deactivating a constant source of damage.  Better yet a trap that works like an alarm system. Allow it to go off long enough and it will bring more enemies to the fray.

During Role Play
This is how I always have understood skill checks. Want to lie to a town guard, skill check. Want information from the town drunk who isn't cooperating, skill check. It plays out naturally on it's on and usually falls to me to be reactive to player decisions. On occasion I have a few planned out ahead of time. E.g. A NPC will lie to the players and not reveal his/her true intentions unless they call him on it. If it takes away from the story or leaves out a crucial piece of information I might lead them to it. They usually are quick enough to ask on their own. "Can I roll insight to see if he is telling the truth".

Crammed Between
The formality of either announcing "this is a skill challenge" or putting book ends on the mechanic by changing tone is what makes them feel out of place. To my mind all of the fun that a formal skill challenge should offer is already covered by skill checks in combat and role play. So why have them at all? The more I think about their inclusion into 4e, the more I think they were added as a way to make sure skills got used. Not to justify the inclusions of skills, but as an easier way to present skill use to first time dungeon masters. It's a poor substitute for just integrating it into regular play.

1 comment:

Ethan said...

As a player in your campaigns, I kostly shre your thoughts about what has worked and what hasn't. The in-combat challenges to turn off a trap or turret are funa nd fit with the flow of the story. It makes me glad that i took whatever that skill is. For me, I think the "roll a bunch of times and tally the success and failure" is imemrsion-breaking. The "roll once per round" is much more tense and meaningful. One thing I'd like to do more as a player is proactively use skill in combat. Like using Nature to try and determine a creature's defenses.

I like having skills. I want it to mean something that I'm trained in Streetwise or Arcana. But I agree completely that Wizards abstracts them too much with their standard skill challenges.

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