Event-Based Skill Challenges

Warning: If you’re a player in my game, don’t read this.

I generally steer away from using skill challenges. I don’t find that the framework contributes much to the way I run games. It usually leaves players trying to figure out what’s going on. I use a fairly free-flowing narrative in my games, which isn’t particularly aided by the structured skill challenge format.. To that effect, I’ve tried to create an alternate format for skill challenges that provides a series of events that help a Dungeon Master frame the narrative.

I’m not sure the stat-block format is really necessary here. This skill challenge could probably just be presented as part of the normal adventure text. Still, it helps break out the challenge from the rest of the body text, and when you’re dealing with a document that is 40-pages long, it helps.

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11 thoughts on “Event-Based Skill Challenges

  1. @pdunwin You’re exactly right. I just like this format because it gives me a better outline on how to steer the narrative. Basically it flips the emphasis, so it’s less about which skill a player chooses to use and more about what they choose to do. In other words, a person might react to the narrative and say “I want to spit in Tithian’s face and call him a coward,” to which I’d respond, “Okay, make an Intimidate check.” Rather than the player saying “I want to use Intimidate to cow Tithian.” Of course, this is all theoretical. We’ll see how it works in practice.

  2. My only concern with this format is that most games you will have a couple main issues:

    1) Players that are strong participators vs those that sit back more. This format can leave the latter group sitting out the entire time. Similarly, players who don’t come up with their ideas for skill usage as quickly, or are RPing less outward characters (or whatever relevancy to the skill encounter) may end up being skipped over.

    2) Often times the characters choosing responses may pick something that their character doesn’t actually have skill in (ie the Fighter choosing to spit, but didn’t take Intimidate). Which means you have to either adjust the average DC down by 2-3 points to account for players using untrained skills more often, or come up with another solution to prevent these encounters from being highly prone to failure.

    1. You raise some good points, Scott.

      I recognize the first concern, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that if a player doesn’t want to participate in a RP scenario, he or she shouldn’t have to. The DM should certain try to engage the player, but as the DMG says, there are different types of players (the observer, for example). Roleplaying (and skill challenges) aren’t for everyone. I don’t think a DM should force each player to make a skill check. On the other hand, if players aren’t making checks because certain players are dominating the challenge, then that is a problem, as you say.

      If I know a player is trying to use a skill his or her character isn’t that good at, I’ll often adjust down the DC, especially if he or she does something or says something particularly appropriate for a situation. In this scenario, I recognized that many of the characters won’t have social skills, which is why I incorporated the advantages.

      1. True about not having to engage, but what happens if you have a 4-5 player group, and 2 people who regularly don’t participate much?
        Then if one person is a skill-monkey bard
        (Bard with a int/cha build. 8/13/12/16/13/18 level 1 stats. Level 1 feat is Bard of All Trades.)
        then he can ‘carry’ the party though every RP situation, which just ends up being boring, no matter how interesting the encounters are.

  3. I like it, though I find it a bit busy format-wise for someone to prep. I wonder if there is a way to format it so that it could be easier. I like the event-driven nature, but could see a broader set of events and then an underlying more loose bullet list for each section that has bits to which the PCs can respond. The DM can choose the ones they want.

    When I run I like to have some scenes (similar to phases) and then for each have some good ideas with which I can play. When I write that for others to use, those ideas then have to be brief and easy to read with a quick glance. The “format” I use is usually a header title for the scene, then a brief paragraph the DM can read for the basic concept, then bullets they can use to adjudicate. I always wish there were a nice stat-block that could marry that concept, but I don’t know that it is possible. It often ends up too big.

    Regardless, what I really am turning away from is the idea of a block listing a bunch of primary skills, some secondary skills, and then listing each skill and explaining what they do. I find that really drives DMs toward creating flat scenes that revolve around dice. The key is always to have the story drive things. The DM has to feel that and lead with story so the players follow suit, in-character.

    The sole exception is when you want to purposefully be gamist. It can be fun periodically to feel like a game, where the task is challenging, the pressure on, and the players are enjoying that aspect. An example might be piloting a ship, where the fun is whether you can pull it off and you know the dice are a factor. You choose clear tasks, like athletics to hoist the sails, and roll and it can be fun. But, outside of that, I like the players never knowing if they picked the right skill. And I take as indication of a good skill challenge when I know the players are using skills that fit, and not the skills in which they are necessarily good. They do that most when they know the narrative is the most important aspect.

  4. This skill challenge seems perfectly designed to allow for the sort of “dual-personality” roleplaying that the DMG and DMG2 discuss, where some players control NPCs while others control the PCs. If some of the PCs are not the diplomatic sort, then have them play the part of the council members.

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