I know many people have written on blogs about the proper implementation of skill challenges. I also know that I may not be able to add anything groundbreaking to the overall concept, but I’m writing this because I think I’ve created at least a stepping stone for DnD 4e groups. As a new-ish DM I also have a group of new players who don’t understand the system in all its complexity. While we’ve run numerous combat encounters and they are certainly getting a strong feel for combat, other game options and modes of game play are not so easily apparent to them. The skill challenge of course is the biggest issue here. I’ve been trying to stretch my command of the system by incorporating more encounters into a session than just combat. A few months back I wrote up a list of all the skills in the PHB 1 and gave a few examples of what each skill did. I printed off a couple copies and I distributed them amongst my players when I ran a few skill challenges. This alone greatly improved their performance. The examples on the list reminded them of the skills their characters were capable of using, and it also gave them some ideas as to how use their skills in creative ways. The skill challenges I have run are moving a bit faster now because of those skill lists, but I find that my players are sometimes stuck and don’t have much guidance.
I was discussing skill challenges in general with a player of mine, who has also DMed for a number of years, and he said that the problem with the concept is that it’s a very abstract mechanic in a game where everything has rules and guidelines. Thinking about this, I decided to do some reading and I think I may have stumbled upon something interesting. If you open your 4e DMG 1 to p. 72 you will discover a whole section for DMs to run skill challenges. It tells you how they’re made, how to design unique ones, different non-skill components, and even a few examples. There are eight pages of information on skill challenges in the DMG 1. Now go to your 4e DMG 2 (if you have it) and turn to chapter 3. There you have an entire chapter on revised rules for skills challenges, and a huge section of examples. DMs have a large amount of reading material available in relation to the creation of these non-combat encounters. Now, let’s look at the PHB 1. Go to p. 179 and you will find three paragraphs explaining to the players how to participate in a skill challenge. Three measly paragraphs are all they are given on how to play out an encounter that takes almost two chapters for DMs to design! 4e Combat requires multiple chapters on running combat plus the race and class entries in each of the PHBs just to get going. And here we have a non-combat encounter that should equal the same amount of experience as a combat based encounter yet the players have only half a page of information given to them on how to play. So maybe as DMs we should design our own section of “rules” to help our players out. Now at first I thought this was a bad idea because a skill challenge is supposed to promote creativity and not anchor a player down to the same rules that apply to them in combat. But, the more I thought about it the more I realized that players need some structure and hard rules to base their creative efforts off of.
Like my skill list handout that I give to my players, I thought that designing a list of actions that can be taken in a skill challenge would be fruitful. This action list would not be unlike the many lists of attack and utility powers a player gets to review and choose from during combat.
Primary Skills: This type of skill can be used in a skill challenge to achieve a single victory or success that would allow the players to move forward. This would require the appropriate skill check and an interesting explanation of how you’re achieving your goal.
Secondary Skills: This type of skill will not grant a success or victory in a skill challenge. It operates like the aid another action. Performing the necessary skill check and adding a description of your action would allow you to lend assistance to a fellow party member.
Group Skills: This skill check requires that an entire party rolls the same skill, if half or more succeed than the group succeeds. This would require a description but, this particular skill check usually applies to group efforts like a forced march, or a group sneaking through a dragon’s lair.
Rituals: Many rituals require components and skill checks, but will have grand results. Creative use of a ritual may grant your party more than just a single success in a skill challenge.
Powers: In combat, a player can roll a skill check to achieve something. In a skill challenge, a player could sacrifice an encounter or daily power in order to further the party’s goals. Utility powers are the best suited for a skill challenge.
Money/Resources: Adventurers come into possession of wealth and other goods. Using these resources to sacrifice, bribe, or simply pay your way through an obstacle could award you with bonuses to a skill check, a lowering of a skill DC, or even grant you an outright success.
With these kind of rules, I think players may get a better idea of what is allowed and what can be achieved using their abilities. Some players may stick to this list religiously and not really deviate from it at all. Then again 4e combat is very similar in that regard. Players may also use this list to gain a level of comfort when participating in skill challenges, and then start branching out later in the campaign as they start to come up with ideas of their own. My skill list handout was a great constant reminder for my players of what their skills could do. Maybe a list like this will remind them of other actions they could take.