One of the prices of being a player in my D&D group is suffering the constant prodding and poking of my experimentations with gameplay and rules. My players endure amalgamations of monster, strange (and unpublished) fantastic terrains, bizarre ways of using skills, and new techniques for table and campaign management. One of my most common research specimens is skill challenges. I feel that skill challenges, as a new and relatively unexplored system, represent the biggest learning opportunity in 4th edition—and one of the best areas for innovation and creativity.
Mike Mearls’ “Ruling Skill Challenges” column on the Wizards of the Coast website does a good job of exploring this vast, undiscovered expanse of gameplay potential (you need to be a D&D Insider subscriber to access the articles, but I heartily recommend them to DM and player alike). The trouble with skill challenges is they’re not as easily defined as combat rules, because so much depends on who’s at the gametable, both in terms of DMs and players. A Dungeon Master can wing a skill challenge or go to agonizing lengths to prepare a prescribed challenge. I usually run my skill challenges somewhere in between.
One aspect of skill challenges I’ve been experimenting with lately is how to manage the flow of skill checks and actions. A skill challenge can take place over a very short amount of time (a few seconds in combat), or across days or weeks. Managing time and the narrative flow of a skill challenge can be a challenge for the Dungeon Master, especially if he or she isn’t great at improvisation. If a skill challenge lacks a narrative flow, players can feel lost and end up floundering to figure out which skills to use or how to apply them. In my last couple of game sessions, I’ve been giving out tokens to represent the heroic action a character takes during a skill challenge. While I frame the narrative of the skill challenge, the tokens serve as a reminder to the player. It represents the action his or her character will take, and it ensures that each player is getting a chance to act.
I’ve been in skill challenges in which the characters have acted in order of initiative or by going around the table, but I’ve always felt that it interrupts the natural flow of events. If characters are encountering a series of physical challenges, the characters who are good at that should have the opportunity to act. If the characters have entered a social section of the skill challenge, the characters skilled in Diplomacy and Bluff should be able to spend their tokens to shine. This system encourages a player to jump in to the narrative earlier. The player who dawdles knows to jump at the opportunity to use a skill his or her character is good at, because it’s going to be a lot harder to use a heroic action token if the narrative of the skill challenge leads toward a situation that is ill-suited for that character’s skill set.
Of course, you could just let players chime in as the skill challenge goes along. What I like about the heroic action token is that it makes sure everyone gets a chance, and it gives players an idea of the difficulty of the skill challenge and how much “time” is left in it. If I hand out twelve tokens, the players can have a good sense that the skill challenge is going to be fairly protracted; they also know when it’s about halfway over with. If I only give out one token to each player, it represents a much shorter challenge. So far, I’ve been giving the same number out to each player, but I might also try having a pool of tokens, so each player has one token and then there’s a pool of 3 or 4 tokens that can be used by anyone at any time.
The last advantage to this system of skill challenge management is it gives action points a tangible use in a skill challenge. In one of my sessions, the characters were making their way through a hedge maze that had been frozen over to form a series of ice caves. The goliath warden had already spent his two heroic action tokens, but because he was well-suited for this particular challenge (having Athletics, Endurance, and Perception), he spent his action point to gain another heroic action to help offset some of the other characters who were having trouble finding use for their social skills.
I’m not sure this system of skill challenge management is ideal for every situation, but it has definitely served me well in the few sessions I’ve been using it. Like all my experiments, I’m bound to keep tweaking and finessing it until I get it right or decide to throw up my hands and try something new.
Next blog: “A Board Game in Review: Chaos in the Old World” (Saturday)