I actually try really hard to use skill challenges, because I think when they are done right, they are excellent. However, when they are done wrong, they are just boring.
I'd like to point to "Lord of the White Fields" an adventure in Dungeon magazine. I'm a big fan of the adventure, and it has skill challenge in it that worked really well for me. The adventure is basically a zombie movie. The town has become infested with ghouls and is over run. There is a skill challenge presented to have the party move from location to location around the town. I presented the scene of the players at the edge of the town, and they hear the ghouls howling and moving throughout. They said they were going in, and I simply asked how, were they sneaking, or were they just bounding in. I then basically went around the table, describing the scene and asking everyone what they were doing, asked for a matching roll, and narrated the scene forward. Each person's success and failure moved the events forward, until they passed or failed.
DM: You are sneaking down the alley way, you hear the howls and moans from horde of ghouls echoing around you.
Player 1 (Brock Cleavewell): Ok, I tell everyone to hold back and I bring my shield up and peek out and see if the coast is clear.
DM: ok, give me a perception check, as you poke out of the alley and peer around the low town market square.
Brock Cleavewell: bah, I rolled a 9
DM: It looks clear.
Brock: Alright team, let's move out.
DM: as you exit the alley way, you hear the blood thirsty roar as a pack of ghouls look up from an over turned cart next to the flower shop. Their heads turn toward you, their eyes vacant and mouths dripping of blood.
Player 2 (Neris): I thought you said it was clear!
DM: you fall back into the alley, scrambling to find a better route.
Even though they had a failure which caused them to stumble upon monsters, I quickly rerouted them to prevent a random encounter and just moved on to what the next player was doing. In this case they decided to climb to the rooftops to find a clear path. (Actually they decided to complete the "Pitch Black" reference/joke of "I thought you said it was clear", "I said it looks clear", "Well how does it look now!", "Looks clear".
I used this challenge each time they moved from one location to another around the city. After the first bit of the skill challenge, I find players catch on and figure out what to do. Once that happens, things seem to fall into place.
However, as others have said, there are some tricks to running them well. I think the first is to never announce it's a skill challenge. With some gentle nudging players catch on. I think they work best to spice up events that take place over time. Travel is a good one. Diplimatic relations are good as well. I think making these simple challenges work the best. I think you not only need to get the hang of them, but you need to your players to get the hang of them as well.
Darth Jerod (08-16-2011)
If "making skill checks" has been a part of the D&D experience for a while, why did we need the skill challenge? What does the skill challenge provide that the previous mechanics did not, or did inadequately?
Skill challenges provide a framework that the DM can use to provide "rewards" for actions outside of combat in a more exact fashion. That might sound sacrilegious to some but let's look at the actual evidence.
Previously, when a DM wanted to reward his players for the "roleplay" aspects of the game, like when they negotiated a truce between nations, escaped a prison without getting into combat, helped a local warlord make war plans, or wooed the damsel, he would have to make the reward up. It was called ad-hoc experience awards. He would come up with what he thought was a fair reward for the actual events the characters got involved in. As with anything ad-hoc this was not consistent or even used much by DMs as a way of rewarding. Some DMs even went as far as thinking that surviving the challenge was reward enough.
With skill challenges he now has a framework that allows him to determine how "difficult" that particular task is going to be, and reward it "appropriately" within the boundaries of the framework. If a task does not relate well to using the framework then it probably does not need a separate award for experience anyway. So climbing to a roof involves a skill check, but it does not constitute a skill challenge, and does not need a separate awarding of XP. Escaping from a city being destroyed by a volcano, might involve climbing a rooftop, or plowing through a crowd, or finding a more direct route to the outside. All those things are skill checks individually, but when combined with the goal of escaping the city, they become a skill challenge.
So the DM is given a tool for giving out rewards. If he looks at it as that, he will never have an issue with skill challenges. How he uses the tool is entirely up to him. An easy goal might only require 4 successes to accomplish, and it would be a complexity 1 challenge, and so on down the line. For example the escape from the city in ruins could be easy, if the DM deems it so, or it can be very challenging. There are no predetermined limits.
IMO and experience, the worst thing a DM can do is tell everyone, "Okay, Skill Challenge time." To me that is the most "forced" approach and immediately hurtles the players out of the immersion in the game and the moment. The best skill challenges are those where it feels totally "organic" to the play experience. The players are making rolls because they come up with ideas for the current situation, or the DM is prompting them for a roll based on the situation. But for the play to remain organic the DM cannot be a "roll nazi" or a "rules slave." If you don't tell the players they are in a skill challenge you do have to make sure that they totally understand their goal and current situation.
For instance let's say you decided to have a skill challenge in which the players have to impress the lord's chamberlain before gaining an audience with the actual lord. The first thing about this skill challenge that you have to determine is what happens if the PCs don't impress the chamberlain. If that is the only way to meet with the lord, and not meeting with the lord is a "show-stopper" you just painted yourself into a corner, and this is not a good use for a skill challenge. The idea is that failing a skill challenge doesn't put a brake on the adventure/game, it just makes things in the future more difficult/challenging.
If you don't tell the players they are in a skill challenge, you might have the PC with the lowest possible chance of impressing him be the one that starts the conversation. "Hello there, I really like your pointy wig, and wow it totally smells like ammonia..." I rolled a 2 on my diplomacy. According to the "rules" this would probably be a failure. If you decide to be a "rules slave" then you let the die fall where it may and the players get penalized for you not telling them they are in a skill challenge. Whereas by knowing, they might have put their "best foot forward". However, you can still keep the challenge entirely organic and point towards the "face" character and say, "You notice that the chamberlain is totally put-off with the previous comment. You sense that you might be able to avert disaster and still get to impress him, but it might be more difficult. How would you like to handle it/say to him?"
All of a sudden the players are still in the moment and you have not lost anything. The skill challenge should always flow like that. Something happens, the DM reacts, and makes something else happen, then players react, etc.. By keeping the challenge organic you rarely come up with the situation where the challenge is simply dragging.
The X successes before Y failures mechanic is crap. The DM knows when a skill challenge has failed and when it has succeeded. The success/failure thing is an okay guideline but very poor at providing a good experience at the table.
Don't limit yourself to what the "rules" say, you are not a referee, you are a DM. Your "job" is not to parse the rules and make sure that everyone stays within them. Your "job" is to provide the most awesomely fun experience at the table. Becoming a "rules slave" by choice to provide a consistent experience at the table is a very poor substitute for some awesome DMing.
The tools are there to help you, if the tools don't help, modify them to work for you or discard them.
Last edited by D'karr; 08-16-2011 at 03:23 PM.