Forget Training Skills; Let’s Go Back to a Skill Point System

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on July 22, 2011

We’ve written a lot of articles about skills. One thing that we’ve mentioned repeatedly in recent articles is the reluctance of some players to use skills they’re not good at. It’s a common problem and we’re still looking for the best solution. While brainstorming we came up with a proposal that we think will work and today we want to share it with you. We look at what’s worked in the past and used that as our starting point. We’re proposing that we ditch skill training and return to a skill point system.

When 3e hit shelves, one extreme change from previous editions of D&D was the introduction of skills and the ability for all PCs to spend points in those skills. This was a great way to differentiate two nearly identical characters. It allowed anyone to spend points in any skill they wanted their character to excel at. Now Pick Pockets or Moving Silently weren’t just abilities unique to Rogues.

With 4e D&D the list of skills was reduced to a mere 17. You no longer spent points in each skill; rather you selected a few skills based on your class that you were trained in. All other non-trained skills were just an extension of the relevant ability score. This change had its ups and downs.

One of the biggest problems was that each class had a very limited number of skills to choose from and most of the skills were extensions of the ability most closely tied to that class. The result was a tendency for PCs to be really, really good at a few things and horribly bad at all the rest. In circumstances where PCs needed to make skill checks (like during skill challenges, for example) the players would always try to roll on their best skills in order to have a greater likelihood of success.

However, many of those same players would often neglect to roll on any of their other skills because the starting number was so low. The players knew that if they rolled and failed the check that it was a strike against the overall skill challenge. Rather than hurt the party’s chances at victory, they figured it was better to sit back and let those who were good at the task at hand do their thing.

I can understand this kind of reasoning – in some situations. And in those situations that it seems plausible, usually when time isn’t a factor, I’m ok to let this kind of decision prevail. But when there is no in-game reason for the PC not to make the check and the player is just using meta-knowledge to try and avoid failing a roll I have a huge problem.

In order to address this problem we tried to figure out a way to give players more say in which skills they were good at and which ones they were not. We decided to keep the 4e skill list but adjust skill training and go to a system that’s more like the one used in 3e. Your PC would get points based on their class and then you’d assign skill points to the skills you felt were important. This would open up the entire skill list to every character. The poor Fighters could finally spend some points to be good at Perception, Stealth or even Arcana if they wanted to.

Each PC would get skill points every time they hit an even level (which is when they’d usually see their skills improve) and let the player assign the points as needed. The points would remain in a skill point pool until needed. This gives players the choice to spend the points immediately or wait and spend them later. After all, you don’t know if you’re going to need to be good at Endurance, Nature or Thievery over the next couple of levels. With a point pool you could spend a couple of points in the skills you want when you need to use them. This makes more sense to me because it has an in-game rationale for why the skill improved. If you still have points left when you hit the next even level, you’d have to spend any remaining points in your pool before your pool was replenished.

By giving the players the freedom to get better at any skill and to choose how good they wanted to be at it, I truly believe that they would be more likely to participate in skill challenges regardless of the situation. The Fighter can’t complain that he has a low Diplomacy and can’t talk to the Duke. If it’s necessary for him to talk he can always choose to spend his points in Diplomacy and improve his chances of success right there and then. If he chooses not to (for whatever reason) then he’s made his choice and must roll the skill check on the low number.

Of course this kind of mechanic still has potential for abuse. A player might still just load up on a few skills and nothing would have really changed. I think a few guidelines about how to distribute the points could minimize abuse. Something like you can only spend 1 point to improve a specific skill until you get your next point allotment upon hitting an even level.

Introducing this kind of open skill point distribution system will likely make more PCs better at a wider variety of skills. We’d certainly see more generalists and fewer specialists. I think we’d also see less of a gap between a PC’s best skill and his worse skill.

Any change like the one described here would obviously need to be house ruled. Given everyone’s near dependence on Character Builder this would certainly mean more pencil and paper bookkeeping. So the question really becomes is this kind of change going to make a noticeable enough difference (on the plus side) to make the extra work worth it? The Character Builder issue aside, what do you think of this proposal? Do you think it would make a difference? Would you be willing to try it? What kind of specific details do you think are necessary for this to work?

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1 Megan July 22, 2011 at 10:24 am

Is the character builder that common? Nobody in my group uses it, and the ones who have in the past say that it’s slow and not worth the cost of subscription. There are 6 of us all using pen and paper, and none of us are considering switching.

2 Blinkey July 22, 2011 at 10:45 am

First up:
Great to see a really rapid follow up to one of the major issues raised in the discussion of this week’s ‘5 reasons to say no’ article. I swear this Blog gets better and better and I love what you guys write.


I like this idea. I don’t think my group would go for it but it does seem a far far nicer system in concept. Thanks for proposing this. I completely agree that it could work well to diversify characters by giving classes more out-of-role skills. If presented beneficially (as above) to the game’s player-base as a whole I can see a significant portion genuinely considering its uptake.

The major problem with convincing (my) players to run with this is the reliance on the character builder. Laziness and convenience seem to win out with the majority of gamers these days. I also get the feeling that some players won’t perceive having a select few power skills as a detriment to the game. I think you really need to have been on the DMs side of the screen to appreciate the problem directly where you get to observe the same players roll the same skills constantly.


Blinkey 😉

3 Blinkey July 22, 2011 at 10:49 am

Apologies for the double-post
At least in my limited experience, a large number of players ‘borrowed’ their friends’ ddi accounts to get the old offline builder. This is probably partially why the switch was made to the online builder. Use of the old offline builder is still widespread within the more computer-literate parts of the community 😉 I don’t know how much more I can say without causing trouble.

4 Mike Karkabe-Olson July 22, 2011 at 10:52 am

Hmmm… I’m not sure your proposal would solve anything. It seems to me the point system you are proposing just adds unnecessary complexity to the existing system, and be more difficult to keep track of. If the current class limitations bother you, I suggest eliminating the current class limitations instead on training (so a fighter, for instance, can train ANY of his skills using his all allotted 3 choices at first level instead of just athletics, endurance, etc.). Also note that you, as the DM, can allow players to select character backgrounds currently available in 4e that also allow PCs to train in skills not normally available to that class.

By contrast, if skill availability is not the problem for you and instead you are bothered by the fact that PCs are highly trained in some skills and not trained at all in others, you can instead do something like this: add up all training bonuses normally available at first level to that character and allow the player to distribute them amongst all the skills any way desired. That way a fighter at first level would have 15 training “plusses” to divide up between all his skills in any way he wishes.

5 Cody July 22, 2011 at 10:56 am

This sounds like a really cool idea. The way skills are handled was one of my complaints about 4e (and Star Wars SAGA). While I like being able to use any skill I want, I don’t like the fact once you have trained certain skills, you can train others without taking a feat and the other skills are obviously weaker. This would really fix it up, and I don’t care about the character builder, since I only use it to print out a power sheet. I do my character sheets by hand.

6 Nex Terren July 22, 2011 at 10:58 am


My group (we run four different 4e games, around a dozen players and DMs all told) use nothing but the builder. Although when I say “the builder” I mean we’re still using the *old* builder; from what we’ve heard of the new builder we have no reason to subscribe to move over. Now I might have gotten an overly negative view of the new builder from the wrong sources, but at any rate I can only really speak on the old builder from personal experience. The old builder is quite effective at laying out your options (be it feats, powers, magic items) in an effective, easy to find manner; this is (to me) it’s strongest point. Besides this it also does the math for you and keeps your creation organized. Now, I’ve made a few characters with pencil and paper and I don’t mind that method, but I find I often don’t hunt down the feats, powers, or items that I *really* wanted for my character. It’s also an easy way for the GM to check for errors in the player’s characters; the Builder says if there’s an error, and provides a hyperlink to the section so the GM can give it a once over.

As for the skill system itself suggested in this post, I think this is a great idea. Seems like you should work something in, however, for the skills (or use of skills) that require training so that the character doesn’t just have to spend a single point and take the skill. As far as dropping all the points on certain skills… maybe use an escalating point buy system as is done with the ability scores? Just a thought.

About depending on pencil and paper, if the DM or player already wanted to stick with the builder (and by extension, using computer tools) it seems like it’d be fairly simple to create an excel document that’d keep track of it for you, and compute any math needed. Then you could host it on either Skydrive or Google Docs so players who lack Excel could access it easily.

At any rate, I’d be interested in reading over a more fleshed out take on this system, if Dungeon’ ever decides to do so.

7 Toldain July 22, 2011 at 11:09 am

However, many of those same players would often neglect to roll on any of their other skills because the starting number was so low. The players knew that if they rolled and failed the check that it was a strike against the overall skill challenge.

In my opinion, this is more of a problem with the structure of skill challenges than with the skill system, per se. Does anyone sit out of combat because they will hurt the party’s chances?

8 Jason July 22, 2011 at 11:10 am

Very Interesting concept. I am curious if this would affect set DC’s for skill checks? or what target DC’s would you use per level?

9 William July 22, 2011 at 11:41 am

I know I am likely in the minority here, but I just want to voice my feelings. I HATED skill ranks. I loathed them. With a passion. When they disappeared in Star Wars: Saga I house rules my 3.5 game at the time over to a home-brewed version of what we now have in 4.0. Skill ranks leads to some people being mediocre at a lot of things, some people specializing at a few (the same system we had now) but the difference is that now, even things you’re not proficient have a chance of succeeding as you level up. I can make a simple athletics or Acrobatic check with my low strength Swordmage as I level thanks to a half level bonus and training. I can’t keep up with a fighter, warlord, or Barbarian. But as I level up I pick up some competency, AND manage to focus my knowledge skills that I use more often. I think a skill rank system will just heighten the divide between amazing specialists and people who are blunderingly incompetent when it comes to skill checks.

10 Jeremy Mac Donald July 22, 2011 at 11:52 am

I basically don’t see how this solves anything and in fact may make things worse. The classes are, more or less, designed to give each class a social skill, a physical skill and a knowledge skill. With all the classes around and all the choices available its not perfect but its roughly there. That means that most skill challenge type situations have a reasonably descent chance of needing one of the skills the player is trained in since the things people use skills on can, very roughly, be broken down into challenges dealing with environmental obstacles (where physical skills predominate), social obsticles (i.e. talking with people) and information gathering.

Furthermore not all skills are created equal. Perception is probably the best while Insight and Athletics are also very good. Streetwise and bluff pretty far down the list. So now you have most of the players in the party strongly encouraged to use their skill picks to focus on the ‘good’ skills and no one in the party has the ‘bad skills’. Makes sense in that you never really know what a Skill Challenge will need but you can evaluate which skills will likely do double duty in combat…of course the net result is that the party as a whole has a lot more ‘holes’ in their skill suite when the skill challenge comes up…while at the same time everyone is making sure their perception skill is up to snuff. Never know when your going to need to try and see a trap or identify an invisible enemy combatant after all.

Players will just focus their choices, broadly, on the skills they have the best stats in anyway – except that they’ll choose the ‘good’ dex based skill and not the ‘bad’ dex based skill. The end result is more overlap with the party having, as a whole, even more weak skills then they did before this fix was implemented.

I agree that the main issue is Skill Challenge design itself but think it should be clear that the world does not end if some players, some of the time. don’t need to contribute to te current Skill Challenge. If you want them to be forced to participate then make more of your skill challenges ones with group checks or at least interweave a group check, or a few, into the design of more open ended Skill Challenges.

11 Jeremy Mac Donald July 22, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I feel this article misses what 4Es skill system was trying to achieve and why that was an improvement over 3rds system. In 3rd the skill system was great until about 5th level when things began break down. Essentially until 5th level everyone had a reasonable chance of pulling off a skill check because the d20 roll was such a big influence on the result. After about 5th the DCs started to get so high that if you had not been pumping a point into a skill at pretty much every level you had little chance of using the skill.

Meanwhile those that had great stats and had been pumping up the skill where so good that there was no reasonable likelihood of failure…and we really did not want the character to fail anyway. After all they have been turning themselves into, say, one of the worlds greatest lock pickers ever…so when the locked door finally shows up after however many adventures and the character cracks out the lock picks to show the kiddies how its done neither the player nor the DM want the player to fail – its just such a downer to finally get to use your skill with +[obscene number] and blow it.

We see evidence of this effect in Dungeon adventures of teh era – low level adventures feature skill checks all over the place because the system works well at low level. High level ones rarely feature a skill chekc at all because the system has ceased to work very well and no one wants the adventure to come to a crashing halt if the players don’t have a character pumped up in skill X.

4E is basically a method for mimicking the low level part of 3rd. Players start with some skills but those skills don’t really improve much. More or less they get better at the skills roughly as quickly as the DC by level gets harder. The beat the system mainly only in getting some magic items and if they have training is a skill based off a stat that they pump up every chance they get.

Still they almost always have some chance of using a skill – they may need to roll high on the d20 but its possible (usually). In 3rd past a certian point it just is not possible. If player X has +17 to a skill and player Y has +3 (because they never put skill points into this skill) its pretty close to impossible to make a DC 24 check for one of the players and fairly likely for the other. The ‘spread’ is much larger in systems where the players choose their skill points…but this actually makes the chance of encountering skill use in the adventure less likely.

12 Rabbit is wise July 22, 2011 at 12:21 pm

*old CB* user- I like the new way of doing skills, but I hate skill challenges. I DM one game one week, and my buddy DM’s his the next. We have never used a skill challenge, they’re dumb. They’re are some arcane classes that dont automatically train arcana, if a warlock opts to train something else then sometimes what you end up with is the Warlock not participating in skill challenges pertaining to arcana.– The waywe do things is instead of rolling a diplomacy check (to say something witty to the duke) you say something witty and then roll diplomacy to see how it was received. that sort of thing. I’m doing a bad job of explaining… but the bottom line is SKILL CHALLENGES ARE DUMB,

one change I would make if i could reprogram the builder to make the discrepency between trained and untrained skills greater at high level, I would have the untrained skills add a quarter of your level instead of half…

13 Nex Terren July 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm

@ Rabbit

I entirely agree on the point of skill challenges, and the groups I’m a part of (the one I DM, and the three I play in) do it in exactly the same manner.

Skill checks are pointless, largely void of tactics, flat from an RP perspective, and simply inferior to doing what you said: Performing the action, and then rolling to see how well it was received. After all, that’s fairly close to what you do in combat; you don’t roll your attack roll a few times and then call it a day, but instead you consider tactics, placement, select which power you want to use, and then at the end make that roll.

Instead of powers and grid locations you use RPing and creative thought, but the same principle carries over.

14 Alphastream July 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm

3E was actually much worse when it came to PCs not doing anything with untrained skills. What would happen is that the PC that had a skill rank every level in skill x became the baseline for how the target DC was determined. A target DC either challenged or was comfortable for that PC. For everyone else it was barely worth attempting. 10th level? That’s some 13 skill ranks you don’t have, even if your ability matches! No thanks. It led to “skill challenges” in 3E consisting of the one “face” PC handling everything and everyone twiddling their thumbs. It was terrible in organized play. Or, the arcane gate where the bard and the wizard handled it and everyone yawned.

I do miss skill ranks, because I love how 3E let PCs customize the skills and tell a story like “I am a master tracker”. That was awesome. But, the gap between trained and untrained was detrimental. My ranger could hit 30-40 higher on a tracking check than an untrained PC, even if they rolled well! Enlightened Grognard lowers the gap somewhat, but the problem is fundamental: as you reward the trained PC the participation of the untrained will drop.

15 iserith July 22, 2011 at 5:17 pm

I never cared for skill points. I was happy to see them go in 4e. Do I put this one point in Craft or Use Rope? Who cares, it will never come up anyway. With the exception of dedicated roleplayers, few players I came across in those days did anything other than what 4e does by default – put stuff where you have ability scores and a good chance to pull it off. Sure, I liked putting points where I thought my character *should* have them based upon his background, but most people don’t.

The problem is not the mechanics of skills and skill challenges; it’s the execution. For every player that has come to me and said they hate skill challenges, all it takes is one of my games to change that opinion. Most DMs simply don’t know what skill challenges are for, how to write them, or how to make them interesting enough that players WANT to participate in them. I’ve seen so many skill challenges, even in published materials, where I looked at it and said, “Why does this even need to be a skill challenge?” So I can see why a lot of players and DMs alike don’t care for them.

Skill challenges are only necessary if *the consequences of failing it are interesting.* Thus, if you truly understand skill challenges, you know that FAILURE IS FUN. Nobody remembers climbing the mountain to find to the reclusive hermit – they remember falling off it because Bob the Mage sucks at climbing and the whole party was captured by crag trolls as a result. This is why my players are happy to use untrained skills when it makes sense to do so in the context of a skill challenge – because if they succeed on the check, it’s awesome… and if they fail… it’s still awesome!

And once you understand that about skill challenges and the basic mechanics therein, you can rework them to have combats that consist entirely of skill checks, mid-combat challenges that players can use to significantly alter fights midstream or cinematic, multistage skill challenges that become stories in and of themselves.

By figuring out how skills and skill challenges can improve your game, like the chicken and the egg, your players will start to really value their skills and you’ll see them design characters accordingly. I bet my players make as many or more skill checks in my game as attack rolls. Now THAT’S fun.

16 Jeremy Mac Donald July 22, 2011 at 6:09 pm

@ iserith
I very much agree. I’d add that they really can be pretty difficult to master and I think that this turns a lot of people off. You can do a fair few bad skill challenges before people start to get a better handle on how to run them and even then, since every one is different you don’t immediately flip to a point where every skill challenge works but instead just start to get higher percentages of good skill challenges. The DMs talent in running things in this regard plays a big part as well. DMs have different strengths and weaknesses and this can come out pretty dramatically with Skill Challenges where some DMs grasp them faster then others.

I’ve found that much of the time a good rule of thumb is usually not to mention that the players are in a Skill Challenge at all but have the scene be such that the players that are driving the action. Telling the DM what they are doing and the DMing is tracking the Skill Challenge without really letting on that the players are in one (they usually figure it out after a few rolls anyway but it still helps to set the stage and make the play organic.

I’ll also often interweave group checks into the mix – a group check gives the DM an out if the Skill Challenge seems to be floundering. You can make everyone roll something and hopefully get things back on course…especially as group checks often motivate the players to try a little harder to take control of the action as group checks don’t necessarily target their better skills.

17 Jim S. July 22, 2011 at 9:56 pm

I’m with iserith. Sure, the examples of what skill challenges are in the DMG are pretty poor, but that does not mean the concept of the skill challenge is bad, or that it is somehow a replacement for roleplaying.

Regarding the article in general, I’ll repeat what others have said: it does not solve your stated problem. If the fighter trains perception instead of athletics, it just means that he is going to sit out athletics-heavy skill challenges instead of perception-heavy challenges.

The only way I can see to get a system you want would actually rely on skill points. However, it would be more complicated than anything else we have skill wise, because progression would be logarithmic, instead of arithmetic. It would essentially mimic the point-buy system for attributes: after you’ve brought an unmodified skill up to X, the cost to increase that skill by an additional 1 goes up to 2. Bring it up another X, and the cost goes to 3, etc., etc. This prevents challenging DCs from inflating beyond the reach of the dilettante, and encourages players to spread out their specialties. But, it’s more complicated.

I think 4e does a good job of threading the needle. By reducing the number of skills and making them more general, 4e has made it more likely that there is something any player can do at any given moment and be competent skill-wise. It’s still up to the DM, however, to make sure those opportunities exist.

18 Sunyaku July 23, 2011 at 1:24 am

Hmm… perhaps with this point system players start with points to allot somehow related to their modifiers… for example, if you specialize and have a +5 in strength, and a +1 somewhere else, you would have 6 total points to allot. But if you had a 16/16/14 spread etc, you would have 8 points per level.

I like this idea because it slightly discourages over-specialization, which, in itself, is a form of weakness.

19 barbiomalefico July 23, 2011 at 5:18 am

The skill point system was one of the worst thing in the 3e, you are right that the new skill system is bad, but the oldest is bad too.
In a short period of time I found two articles who tries to find a solution related to a problem looking back to the past time (the second artical was the one of the wizards where they prose the new adventure model).
I think that the only way tu use the past knowledge is to learn from error and not get back to find “new” solution.

20 Kilsek July 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm

The streamlining of skills in 4e is great. Their action cost, however, is not – too high on average.

And finally, I’ve tried skill challenges multiple times, including the earliest “scoreboard”-style immersion-killers, and though we’ve learned a lot since then about what NOT to do with skill challenges, I still think they’re typically excessive and gamey for a part of the game that’s more storytelling-oriented by nature anyway.

Most situations? A skill check or two is plenty.

21 Mike Karkabe-Olson July 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm

@ Rabbit is wise: hmmm…I don’t understand the backlash you have toward skill challenges. I also find your comments odd. To me, they seem at odds with how you supposedly “avoid” using skill challenges. I don’t see a discrepancy between what you do (a single skill check after the player describes his action to see if he succeeds) and how a skill challenge typically operates, which also uses skill checks after a player describes an action worthy of a roll that is then followed by another skill check after the player describes his next action, etc. I would hazard a guess that you are, in essence, running skill challenges without even realizing it, which is fine, and if that is what it takes for you to run them smoothly, well, more power to you. Each to their own, I guess. But I think you are missing the point of a skill challenge and how they are supposed to operate. Instead of hinging all the party’s hopes on one roll, they allow the PCs to roleplay out an entire scene with success or failure hinging on several rolls. Perhaps you wouldn’t think they were so dumb if you simply thought of them as a series of skill checks similar to the ones you are already making in your above example with a duke, rolls made in response to individual actions/words of the player (i.e. the player says something witty: he makes a diplomacy check. If he makes it: 1 success. If he fails: 1 failure. A failure does not mean the challenge is over; it is only a setback. Perhaps the duke gets red in the face and says get out of my office NOW! The players can then attempt to calm him down, say something else lighter in tone, etc., which would then allow them another roll to continue with the discussion if they succeed). The only real difference between the single roll you are describing and a skill challenge is that, with a skill challenge, success doesn’t hinge entirely on one player’s single action/description and roll. When run properly, skill challenges are exciting. I can tell you this from experience. I like them, and so do my players. In fact, when run well, we often enjoy them more than the combat encounters we run.

22 Mike karkabe-Olson July 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm

One more note: skill challenges offer a standardized/formalized way of rewarding players experience points based on the risks they face and the level of the challenge. Without them, PCs don’t have a way to gain experience from a non-combat encounter unless they are being rewarding for completing a quest.

23 Jeremy Mac Donald July 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm

I think the idea that a Skill Challenge is a scene is an important one. They are not always that, especially if they are embedded in combat, but they are often that. In particular I’ve found they often work in what is something of a complex scene. It can be difficult to use them for a simple interview with just the Duke because he is just one person – it may be better to just do that scene as role playing with a couple of diplomacy checks depending on the circumstances. On the other hand a scene involving multiple NPCs, some of whom may have different agenda’s with the PCs attempting to get their agenda forwarded is easier to work as a Skill Challenge.

More often then this I have used them to fulfill a gap in the games structure in which we consider an interesting or important scene that is meant to represent a chunk of game time but not tonight’s session. Consider a burning building in which the PCs want to rescue an important political contact and maybe some one else from (maybe the important contact has a daughter in the building as well). You could put the whole thing into the actual rules with a map and ‘encounters’ etc. but if there is not going to actually be combat or a slew of traps that is pretty much overkill. It makes an exciting scene that is meant to run reasonably quick and move the plot forward into a bit of a drag on game time.

On the other hand having ‘we rescue the VIP’ as little more then boxed text of a single skill roll (which skill?) does not do the scene justice.

Here is a good example of where a Skill Challenge can come in and provide enough background to make an exciting, action packed scene with a chance of success or failure, while not making this the focus of a whole session while trying to work burning building into the actual rules.

Notice that such scenes are close to unique to 4E because of the Skill Challenge mechanic. In earlier editions it had to be a whole dungeon most of the time and to be worthwhile as a dungeon there had to be villains etc. so we just did not get these kind of scenes very often at all in earlier versions of the game – the all or nothing nature of rule set worked against their inclusion.

Furthermore notice how the ability to include such scenes goes a long way to helping with the role playing elements of the game itself. Its now easier to set up adventure worthy scenes that are still reasonably sized and their inclusion results in more places for the PCs to encounter interesting NPCs which can help to further the plotline…often causing more such interesting scenes. The existence of this kind of mechanism for ‘mini-adventures’ makes it easier for the DM to pull away from the extremes of either everything being a ‘dungeon’ or everything being non-combat talking encounters back at the town. It helps to support dynamic play which does not have to be one extreme or the other.

24 Chris July 24, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I feel like we’ve lost more and more of the customization that made character generation great with each new edition of the game. I used to moan about how limited 3rd edition was compared to 2nd edition – and 4th just takes it to a sad new level. 🙁

25 iserith July 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm

A couple of other comments stood out to me regarding skill challenges that could be easily answered:

@Nex Terren
Skill challenges outside of combat are generally narrative and “tactics” need not apply since the goal is the most interesting story possible. Many scenes around which skill challenges are often concocted are completely unnecessary, especially when the goal is, essentially, good roleplaying. You don’t need a mechanics framework for that – again, unless failure is interesting… a plot twist, a sudden reversal, a new story arc, etc. Most DMs aren’t willing to do that because it hinges *their* story on the outcome of some rolls (modified by good rp). The DM would have to write or otherwise devise a shift in the plot that might derail previously laid plans. Almost nobody wants to do that kind of work. In this case, you’ll generally see a roleplaying scene with a pre-determined outcome on the part of the DM (which is fine as long as it is entertaining) or a badly inserted skill challenge thrown on top of a scene whose outcome is not changed by success or failure (in which case, why bother).

However, in the context of combat, you can come up with a ton of great skill challenges that can be used tactically by players to great effect. I took Sly Flourish’s advice from a while back and started handing my players a printout (or in the case of an online game, a copy-paste) of the skill challenge details: the title, the “point” of the challenge, the number of successes required, the relevant skills (IMO) and the DCs, plus any special notes such as bonuses gained by using said skills that the PCs gain in addition to successes in the challenge. By creating skill challenges that can alter the combat by making it more interesting or giving a good advantage to the PCs, it becomes not only narrative, but tactical, giving you what you believe is lacking from the system itself. I often use skill challenges in combats with elites or solos that allow the PCs to negate or ignore certain of the creature’s abilities. You can imagine the PCs are eager to try those out!

The action cost of skill checks in the context of a skill challenge based on narration is negligble. I assume you’re taking about during combat which is the only time it would matter in that regard. And regardless of what “the rules” say, the action cost is completely up to the DM. Almost all of my mid-combat skill challenges are minor actions and generally those minor action skill checks will come with a bonus of some kind you can use. The only time I make a skill check a standard action in a combat is if completing the skill challenge removes a threat, be it a monster or a trap, because it has the same essential effect as attacking with a power.

For example, I recently had a skill challenge in which the PCs could rally a crowd of arcane and divine students that were nearby while the PCs were fighting. They could take *minor action* skill checks that would allow them to apply damage to enemies, heal themselves, grant defensive bonuses, or allow them to stand up from prone (since the enemies were good at knocking prone).

In the same adventure, there was another combat, this time with the ghost of a dead scholar in a library. I wrote an optional skill challenge (4 successes) that the PCs could engage in to dismiss the ghost instead of outright killing him. Those were *standard actions* because they removed the threat. Building on that, in addition to counting as successes, I gave the PCs “clues” which would help them understand why the monster was important in the context of the story. I also added some minions (flying books, like you might find in Ghostbusters or a good poltergeist movie) that had a cumultative aura that would put a -2 penalty on skill checks. So while some PCs were focused on the skills to understand and dismiss the ghost, others were swatting books to make it possible to do the skill challenge.

End result: The PCs dismissed the ghost, had a great time trying to figure out the combat tactically, and learned a ton about the ghost which enhanced the story.

Skill challenges can be great and by making them so, you can encourage your players to focus on their skills. The trick is getting past how they’ve been traditionally presented in the past and reworking them to function both narratively and tactically in the context of the scene.

26 Mike Karkabe-Olson July 26, 2011 at 10:48 am

@ Iserith regarding your comments to Nex Terren and Kilsek: Great examples, and I’ll bet that ghost encounter with the books was a lot of fun: very creative and visual. I, too, have had a lot of fun spicing up encounters in the exact way you have described (including my own version of an optional skill challenge inserted into a combat in which the PCs could choose to dismiss undead through the challenge instead of fighting them. Great minds think alike, right 😉 ). Anyway, I agree that combat counters are a lot more unusual and fun if you can also include an optional skill challenge in them. But this brings up another point (that you have perhaps unconsciously, or consciously, stated): that I think skill challenges, most of the time, whether in combat or out of it, should be optional (there should typically be another route or solution that the players can pursue if they wish, whether that is beating the enemy to a pulp the old fashioned way or simply ignoring the challenge altogether to move onto some other scene or room). I disagree with your comments that skill challenges are somehow less useful or exciting outside of combat, though. I have ran many of them that had nothing to do with tactical combat (or at least nothing to do with them until the players failed the skill challenge, for I often have them result in a battle they could have otherwise avoided), and my players seem to like them a lot. Also, I don’t really mind using skill challenges with the possibility of “derailment,” but that may be a matter of personal taste. Perhaps it is because I tend to run a very broad story arc, one in which I don’t plan ahead for more than one or two encounters or scenes in the future, mostly because I know my players will likely do something I don’t expect anyway (I find that too much planning ahead gets in the way anyway, and often “ruined,” even if you let players play out scenes without a skill challenge). Players almost never do what you expect them too! This, of course, is a personal preference, though, and I understand your concerns: I can certainly see how many DMs might not like using them in certain situations when they pose the possibility of destroying something they’ve spent many hours creating, especially if you are not the type of DM that likes to “wing it” like I do.

27 iserith July 26, 2011 at 1:04 pm

@Mike Karkabe-Olson
I agree that skill challenges in combat should generally be optional as a point of game design. In practice, and perhaps this is just my players’ preference, they always take the skill challenge option in my games, believing (often correctly) that it will be the more entertaining path. I make it clear at the outset that it is optional (if it is). Sometimes, a creature simply can’t be defeated except through a skill challenge, but that’s a rarity. I’ve only done that twice over two different campaigns for story reasons.

As to non-combat skill challenges, I apologize for being unclear. I think non-combat skill challenges are great, too. My point to Nex Terren was addressing his (or her) position that skill challenges lack tactical appeal. I agree that’s the case for many skill challenges that take place outside of combat which, by 4e’s mechanics, is very tactical. Few players in my experience take feats and utility powers (tactical elements) that help during skill challenges simply because you get more bang for your buck generally by focusing your powers on damage and states, seeing as combat is likely the most common element of your average 4e D&D game. Thus, mechanical tactics are not often found in a narrative skill challenge. As such, narrative skill challenges can fall flat for some players woh have an eye for the tactical elements of the game. And given some of the crappy narrative skill challenges I’ve seen, even in published materials, I can’t blame them for arriving at that particular conclusion.

As to the outcomes brought about by failing a narrative skill challenge, it is clearly easier for an improvisational DM to deal with the repercussions of failure. Again, failure needs to be interesting, otherwise the skill challenge shouldn’t exist. Thus, DMs should be aware of their limitations in this regard. If you’re not prepared to have the king throw the PCs in prison or the hobgoblin army to sack a major city in the campaign on the outcome of a 12 successes and 3 failures (or whatever complexity you set), don’t do a skill challenge! Otherwise, you’re just running the PCs through a roleplaying scene with a predetermined outcome or an outcome of uninteresting or unsurprising developments. No rolls are required for that.

28 Psynister July 29, 2011 at 11:07 am

Having just started to dip my toes back into D&D after several years of not playing at all (save online arena style games) this post and especially the comments have been one of the most intriguing things I’ve read lately for solving some of the problems of 4E.

29 Jeremy Mac Donald August 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm

While the improvision heavy DM definitly has an easier time dealing with the ‘interesting failure’ element of a skill challenge I’d not write them off for the AP style DM. In this case its often a matter of sticking in all sorts of elements that the players might get access to, that influence the story but do not change its overall plot line if the result is a failure. Inside access to the halls of power might be useful to the PCs but if they fail to rescue the councillor from the quicksand then the adventure still moves forward. Its just that now they don’t have some one who tells them what is ‘really going on’ when they receive their marching orders.

Its really more a matter of what the DM is peddling. Bonus information, important NPC henchmen turned from enemies to allies (or vice versa), companion characters lost or gained. Most AP style campaigns ae riddled with sub plots – in fact probably a good deal more then 50% of what your PCs are up to is actually just a sub plot in such a campaign – so long as your careful never to endanger a key element with a skill challenge you can afford to let all sorts of elements of the sub plots live or die on the roll of a die.

On a related note I’ve got nothing against optional skill challenges but some of the better ones are not so optional – when the damn bursts and a wall of water 30 feet high is racing toward our PCs that is not optional – the Volcano that blows sky high with the PCs nearby is not optional etc.. Choice is a good thing and I applaud its inclusion in the game and your PCs will to but I’d be careful of taking that to an extreme and turning more options into a straight jacket that constrains the DM.

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