Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fiddling with Skill Challenges: Part 1

I like skill challenges. I like the idea they can serve as a structured framework for outlining milestones during a RP session, and more importantly, offer a set way for awarding experience. I love the idea that RPing an encounter can be rewarded with XP, similarly to cutting through a swath of kobolds. Skill challenges are a neat addition to 4ED.

Running skill challenges however is a bit clunky. I’m expecting the Dungeon Master’s Guide II having a larger section on skill challenges, including a lot of rule variations. Combined with the cooperation rule (PHB pg. 179), players can easily take a challenge that is supposed to be engaging roleplay to new heights of drudgery, rolling dice simply to give that one character with skill training the ability to trivialize any skill challenge the DM throws their way. I felt skill challenges could be tweaked a little.

There are a lot of alternate rules out there for running skill challenges. One alternate set of rules I found particularly interesting was the Obsidian system for skill challenges. But I did not want to wander too far away from the 4ED rules. I liked the ones laid out in the DM manual, but I just wanted to tweak them a little. So I took one concept from the Obsidian system and put another result in skill challenges, a Partial Success.

A partial success is a result 1-2 less from the total needed to complete a normal skill challenge. So complexity 3 skill challenges would require 8 success results for a complete success, 6-7 successful results for a partial success, and either must occur before the players tallied 4 failures (failing the challenge entirely). The exception for this would be a trivial challenge, where a partial success is simply 1 less from the total needed for a complete success (4 for a complete success, 3 for a partial success, all before getting 2 failures).

So what does a partial success mean? At its core, the players complete the challenge. They successfully negotiate a price, obtain a ritual, or make it across the desert. A complete success rewards the same thing, but they have some advantage by winning the challenge, such as getting an even better negotiated price, obtain the ritual along with components to cast it, or make it across the desert without losing any healing surges. Using a two-tiered success results allows me to give varying rewards instead of a ‘pass/fail’ result. As for experience with a partial success, I reward ½ the XP players would normally get from completing a normal skill challenge.

There is a trick to running these though. Everyone states what they are doing. The DM and players wrangle over what skills would be appropriate. Then each player rolls a D20 and checks against the challenge DC. All players roll during each round, and every roll is tallied during each turn. A success always trumps a failure after the totals are summed each turn (something that could happen with large groups even with simple challenges). I allow players to aid another player also, but I’ll put a few more details on that in the second part.

Overall, it does make skill challenges a little easier for the players. But if they really want an advantage and serious rewards, they have to push their luck making active skill checks. With a partial victory the skill challenge is a success, however they just barely fulfill the conditions for doing so (and get half the XP).

This isn’t the complete set of rules I use for skill challenges. I have a little more on primary and secondary skills needed for a challenge, plus critical failures and successes on those 20s and 1s, but I’ve outlined the framework here. Adding another tier to the challenge allows me to tinker with the rewards and outcomes. Much better than the simple ‘pass/fail’ results of the typical 4ED challenge. I hope some folks are willing to give this a spin and give their feedback.