Skill Challenges Without Skills

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on August 18, 2010

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?

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1 Brian Engard August 18, 2010 at 9:37 am

This is exactly why I typically don’t tell the PCs when a skill challenge has started. I play through it by narrating what’s happening, asking what they do, and having them make the occasional check. This is the important part: if they describe what they’re doing, I’m going to call for the skill check that makes the most sense for that action, even if it’s not a skill they’re trained in. Another thing to note is that, if a player describes something particularly well or comes up with a particularly clever idea, I’ll award a bonus or even an automatic success. I’ve found great success with this method.

2 TheWizard August 18, 2010 at 9:31 pm

I’m with Brian, I don’t tell the PCs when a skill challenge is happening. It opens the situation up for them to figure out how to handle it just like any other roleplaying encounter without looking at their sheet.

3 VictorVonDave August 19, 2010 at 1:12 am

I agree with Brian and Wizard, I think skill challenges work best when they are grown organically between the DM and the players and become a bit ‘gamey’ when its suddenly announced ‘its time for a skill challenge’.

But I think that Wimmick illustrates some of the weakness of skill challenges in general. It would be really great if players stuck to his advice, but after losing a few skill challenges they might feel a little bit punished for not looking at their character sheet to see what skills they were trained in. The mechanics of the game encourage players to focus on their character’s strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Unless the DM is generous with bonuses its very difficult to get players to go against this grain.

4 Mike August 19, 2010 at 6:56 am

My group likes the “tactical” aspects of skill challenges so our DM lets us know when we’re in one and how we’re doing success-wise. However what we’ve started doing is announcing what action’s we’d like our characters to take and then work with her to figure out what skill should cover it and how hard it might be. That way we don’t restrict ourselves by the skill list, and can sometimes even argue for rolling against a less-obvious skill for that action.

5 Wimwick August 19, 2010 at 3:43 pm

@ Everyone
Great feedback. Different DMs are obviously going to handle skill challenges in their own manner. Sometimes I announce the start of a challenge and other times I don’t. It all depends on the nature of the challenge. Sometimes I think I’ve crafted a great skill challenge, but the players aren’t grasping it. Depending on the circumstances it’s entirely appropriate to tell them their in a skill challenge and what the expected outcome is.

At the end of the day keep doing what works for you group and find ways to make skill challenges an engaging and rewarding exercise.

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