Skill challenges carry the narrative of the story forward in a manner that includes the players in the telling. Through participation in skill challenges players can work with the DM to craft the story. While the DM holds the power of the overall direction of the story by creating the challenge, players control the tiny details by how they react to the situation and what skills they use to overcome the obstacles presented. It’s a great collaborative system that ends up being a win-win.
Of course skill challenges have a drawback. Players often pigeonhole themselves into decisions based on what skills are presented on their character sheet. Worse, many players only fully consider those skills that they are trained in. All this leads to some very boring skill challenges where players decide what skill to use to complete the challenge, rather than deciding on an action that creates role playing opportunities.
Too often skill challenges are used to tell the story, but they aren’t given the time they deserve by the DM. They are seen as an unnecessary addition to the game, something that distracts from combat encounters. As a result, players simply shout out the skills they are going to use and make the required check. This is boring. Worse it serves no purpose and certainly doesn’t drive the story forward.
If you are a DM and this is how you handle skill challenges, do every player at your table a favour and stop. Just encapsulate the challenge as a narrative and read it to the players, then you can get on with the combat.
Skill challenges drive the forward story, but this only works if everyone is committed and does their part to make it work.
The DM’s Responsibility
Take skill challenges seriously and give them the time that they deserve. Skill challenges are worth experience. We don’t fast forward combat and it too is worth experience. Part of the problem may be that 4e has a higher focus on combat with all the various powers that characters now receive. Players and DMs alike want to use these as they are fun and exciting. Role playing is also a more difficult concept for people to get involved with. Some players aren’t comfortable with embracing the personal of a character, it’s easier to speak out of character.
DMs need to encourage players to role play and embrace the skill challenge. DMs can be accomplished in two different ways. First by effectively role playing themselves. This creates immersion and assists players in feeling comfortable with role playing. The second technique is to reward the players. This can be extra experience or items. Going this route can be dangerous as your players may begin to expect this type of behaviour from you all of the time. The better way is to provide small-in game rewards, perhaps a short-term benefit to certain skill checks or access to resources not normally available. Using this type of reward system reinforces the importance of the skill challenge and encourages players to participate.
The Players’ Responsibility
The DM can create engaging and creative skill challenges, but if the players aren’t willing to participate it’s all for nothing. Players suffer a serious disadvantage in that they have a list of options in front of them, namely all of the skills. The skills end up becoming a crutch that players lean on during skill challenges. While one player is complete their action everyone else is looking at the skill list to determine their next action. This is the wrong way to approach skill challenges as it limits creativity and detracts from role playing opportunities.
Rather than looking for skills that fit the mold of the skill challenge, think of actions that will assist the party in completing the objective of the skill challenge. Next describe the action that you are going to take, give it detail and make the description vivid. Doing this will get every other player’s nose out of their character sheet and will inspire new ideas in them. Once you’ve determine the action and described it, look for the skill that fits best. It may not be a trained skill, but that’s OK you should be using more than just the skills your trained in.
By removing the choice that the skill provides you open up more possibilities for yourself. Rather than saying what skill should I use or what does this skill allow, instead figure out the action and then assign the skill. It’s great that we have a a short and concise list of skills to select from, but don’t let it limit your decision making process.
How does your group handle skill challenges? Does your DM skip them in order to get to the combat? Do your players put in minimal effort?