Reusing Skills in Skill Challenges

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 26, 2010

Does this sound familiar? The PCs begin a skill challenge. A couple of PCs have creative ideas and they go at it. They explain what they want to do, use a bit of role-playing and then make their rolls. Right off the bat you’ve got a couple of successes. But as you look around the table at the rest of the players you get blank stares. They either don’t know what to do or don’t want to risk getting a failure since their skill numbers are so awful. So they essentially repeat what the last PCs did.

I find this happens most often in social encounters. The first player has a great idea and uses Diplomacy. The next guy paraphrases what the first guy said and tries Diplomacy as well. Experienced PCs know that many skill challenges allow for multiple successes using the same skill. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it doesn’t encourage creativity. In most skill challenges PCs can earn successes with seven or more skills (as recommended in the DMG). Relying on the ingenuity of another player to determine your course of action is just lazy.

If the skill challenge indicates that PCs can use the same skill I have no problem allowing it. But I’ve come up with a few suggestions for how to handle situations where PCs try to earn multiple successes using the same skill.

  1. Each check must bring something new to the table.

  2. If you’re just repeating what the first player said then your Diplomacy check doesn’t get you any further ahead.

  3. Mistakes make things worse.

  4. When a PC tries to use the same skill as someone else, caution them that if they roll really poorly there is a chance that they make cause more harm than good. I negate a success rather than incur a failure if they really fail the check.

  5. Make subsequent checks harder.

  6. Every time a PC tries to earn a success with the same skill each subsequent check becomes harder. So not only do you have to bring something new to the table, you have a harder time of it. This encourages the PCs with low skills to actually act first since the DC will be lower. Let the guy with the disgustingly high Diplomacy speak last.

If you’re going to take this approach to skill challenges then you have to be open and honest with your players. Give them an out-of-game heads up that this is you expectation. Once they realize that you’re going to tweak skill challenge in this way I suspect that they’ll put more thought into how they’re going to approach the next one. Throw a few small complexity 1 challenges at your players to let them see these adjustments in a real scenario.

How do you handle situations where multiple PCs try to earn successes with the same skills? Do you use any or all of the points I describe above? Now that you’ve read this article for you think you’ll be more likely to use my suggestions in the future? Or do you think that if the skill challenge states multiple successes are allowed that they should all be treated individually and have the exact same DC?

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1 Mike Katz January 26, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I’ve always played under the assumption that each “success” has to be unique. That is two characters can use diplomacy but they should imploring different NPCs, or they should at least be two separate conversations, where the second PC comes with new information, or the situation has otherwise changed. It doesn’t make sense to do the same thing twice. Let’s say instead of diplomacy the check was a Nature roll to calm a wild animal. Once the animal is calmed, it doesn’t make sense to recalm it.

In the diplomacy situation, it makes more sense for the second PC to instead “aid another” and grant a +2 to the first’s check. Instead of making the pleading speech, he pipes up with an additional argument or evidence.

If the second player is having trouble coming up with something to say on the spot or has duplicate skills, that is a different problem.

One exception would be an in-combat situation, where a trap might need three sucessful Arcana checks to be disabled. Then you could have multiple players all do separate arcana checks to count for successes, but I bet that might already be written into the challenge.
.-= Mike Katz´s last blog ..Reputation as a matter of system =-.

2 Ameron January 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm

@Mike Katz
You and definitely on the same wavelength here. I agree with everything you said.

I think you’d hate playing at my FLGS. The DMs have little control over the game table and people are always rolling whenever they feel like it during skill challenges. Usually we’re so pressed for time the DM doesn’t even ask for an explanation of what the PC does. Three guys yell out “I make a Diplomacy check” and roll. If they roll high then we’ve earned three successes. It’s this kind of free-for-all that turns people off of skill challenges.

I think your exception of when multiple checks are acceptable is bang on. During combat situations some checks just need to be fast and dirty (like Thievery).

3 Zamrod January 28, 2010 at 11:06 pm

It’s not a great idea to allow Aid Another in a skill challenge. The rules don’t specifically prohibit it, but the people at WOTC have said in some of their articles that the DCs listed in the book are assuming no one is allowed to Aid Another. This is the reason the errata’d numbers are so low. This allows someone who in untrained in a skill to have a reasonable chance of succeeding without any Aides.

Unfortunately, the Skill Challenge system kind of requires constant adjusting on the fly. It works much better in home games than it does in something like Living Forgotten Realms. A recently Skill Challenge article in Dungeon was discussing the problem of specialists, where one guy can succeed in a certain skill without even rolling. They suggested specifically avoiding using that skill in your skill challenges, limiting that skill to one use, and purposefully putting in a new “extremely hard” DC just for that character and giving out XP in exchange for passing it.

It’s the one part of the rules that needs the most fixing.

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