I was done with skill challenges.
I don’t know how I got to this point. Perhaps it was my approach to them, trying to account for multiple options or not having a clear objective. Maybe I wasn’t introducing the skill challenge correctly, confusing my players. It’s possible that what I perceived as a skill challenge was better off handled with a few skill checks. It might even have been that I enjoy the tactical nature of 4e combat that I was willing to sacrifice one aspect of the game for the other. Finally, maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe it was my players who either found my challenges boring, lacking in direction, or they themselves desired more combat, less talk.
I’m not going to pretend to know the answers to my skill challenge troubles. What I do know is that this past week everything clicked.
I think what I was doing in the past was over-thinking things. What I decided to do this past week was to allow skill challenges to be slightly more organic. I’ll paint the scene briefly.
The party needed to enter a ruined city undetected. After a few bluff checks where the party posed as a local scavengers work crew the party found themselves in the basement of a ruined barracks. The work crew was to extract any usable wood, iron and supplies. The party suspected that a secret tunnel might exist in this basement that would take them into the palace.
Upon investigating the party discovered that the basement was partially collapsed. It also appeared that the scavengers the party was impersonating had the same idea. The collapsed basement has equipment and supplies to excavate the rubble.
At this point the skill challenge began. Now, removing rubble from a room might not sound like a very exciting skill challenge. Actually, it sounds down right boring. However, the party is surrounded by enemies and up against a time deadline. These two elements add a level of drama that justify a skill challenge.
Now at low levels this would be a very easy skill challenge. A successful Dungeoneering, Perception, Athletics and Endurance check would be all that is required. However, our party is in the high paragon tier. As a result I decided to make it a very complex challenge, requiring 12 successes before 3 failures. The challenge had the following tasks incorporated into it.
Moving The Rubble
No shock here. The players need to move the rubble and debris out of the way to make their way to where they believe the secret tunnel is. Some skills are a standout for this task. Athletics to physically pick up and move the rocks. Endurance to avoid tiring and to avoid injury while moving the rocks. Dungeoneering to ensure the rocks are moved in a safe manor to avoid an untimely collapse.
Simple, easy tasks. The drama exists in the tensions surrounding the challenge. Not being discovered by the enemy, working quickly, yet quietly. All of this raised the difficulty level of the skill checks.
The only aspect of the challenge that I advised the players I didn’t want to hear was everyone going around the table saying, “I use Athletics to move the rocks.” Wrong answer, there is much, much more to do in the challenge than just move rocks. As a DM I simply expect more of my players when they are at the high paragon level.
Make Order From Chaos
Yes, some initial work and supplies were left behind, but the scene is far from organized. Given the factors surrounding the skill challenge, time and nearby enemies, moving the rocks isn’t good enough. The party needs to move the rocks quickly and efficiently.
A Diplomacy or Intimidate check to get the party working together as a team. A Perception check to organize what supplies have been found. It doesn’t sound like much, but there is more to do than just move rocks.
I’ve Got Your Back
The players are surrounded by foes and working quickly. It makes sense that a preemptive Heal check might be made to offset a failed Endurance check or to provide a bonus for a character in need. The party is also surrounded by enemies, so a Stealth check followed up by Perception to determine of the enemy has grown wise to the parties deception might be in order.
Hiding The Evidence
The party has deceived those around them and are looking for a secret passage that the locals aren’t aware of. It might make sense that the party find a way cover their tracks. This allows for some Perception and Thievery checks to be performed to cause the excavation to collapse behind the players.
Putting It Together
Suddenly, a simple skill challenge to move some rocks became a complex and intriguing challenge. There are more than enough things to do to keep the entire party engaged in the challenge with a variety of objectives. When skills are reused, they are done so for a different purpose than the original check.
However, the greatest part of the skill challenge this past week was that the party failed. With 10 successes in the bank the party realized their third failure. The tunnel collapsed prematurely and the party attempted to dive through the narrow opening they had created.
I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again, failure is fun. Failure is a lot of fun! Instantly the players were scrambling to find a way to keep a bad situation from getting worse. A few failed Acrobatics checks later and 75% of the party had taken damage and lost a healing surge due to being partially caught in the collapse.
The best part is the party is on the other side of the rubble. They have no active light source and they don’t know if there is even a secret passage.
What I learned, or reminded myself of, was to give the players as many options as possible while still keeping the task that needed accomplished very focused. Make the DCs hard when necessary, but not to the point where players are afraid to use untrained skills.
Skill challenges work best when they are organic and encourage role playing. I didn’t want to know what skill my players were using, I wanted to know what action they were taking. The session was refreshing and one of the most enjoyable I’ve had in weeks.