I really like the concept of Skill Challenges for non-combat encounters because they offer the opportunity to scale up a scene that would otherwise just be handled as a single skill check to make it more interesting. Unfortunately, when I try to use skill challenges in actual games, I usually run into a few problems that have ended up impeding their usefulness. I have some ideas that I’ve been implementing to try to solve some of these, but I want to start the discussion with just the problem statements before exploring the solutions that I’m trying.
Play Example #1
DM: The three leaders of the refugees are bickering amongst themselves, and none of them agree with your plan. You’ll need to do something to convince them.
Player: [rolls dice] Okay, I got a 32 on my Diplomacy check. Does that help?
DM: They’re willing to listen to what you have to say, but they’re not convinced yet.
Player: What? That was an 18 on my roll… Does anyone have a higher Diplomacy skill?
Other Players: No… nope, not me… no…
DM: Your check was successful, but maybe it’s just going to take some more work to convince everyone.
Player: Oh, it’s a skill challenge! [rolls dice] Nice, 28 for my next Diplomacy check.
Introducing the Challenge
As that play example illustrates, skill challenges can get a little awkward right away because my players have a tendency to interpret any result other than a total success as a failure to hit the DC rather than as needing additional skill checks. Some of this could be a result of our experience with previous versions of D&D before the skill challenge mechanic was introduced, but I have to hope there is a better solution than just leading with “This is a skill challenge.”
Mechanics to Actions
Another problem is that when confronted with a non-combat challenge, my players turn to their list of skills for ideas and immediately jump to skill rolls rather than describing what they want their characters to do. In the example, the player just rolls a Diplomacy check and gives the result rather than providing any description of what his or her character is doing.
Sticking with What Works
Once my players have a success in a skill challenge, they tend to double down on the skill choice that worked rather than exploring other potential avenues to success. Because each character has a different set of trained skills, this tends to lead to the next problem on my list.
Where all of my players like to participate in combat, during skill challenges one or two players tend to dominate while the others sit back. This isn’t always the same set of players, but instead it tends to be driven by which players have the highest bonus for a particular skill.
Play Example #2
DM: Okay, you guys are making progress through the sewers, but soon reach another intersection and need to choose which tunnel to take.
Player: Can I make a Dungeoneering check to try to figure out which one will get us out of here?
Player: [rolls dice] Darn, only rolled a 3. I guess that’s a 13.
DM: Okay, you take the lead, but after a couple…
Player: Wait a second! I was just trying to figure out which way to go. I’m not taking the lead if I don’t know.
A complex skill challenge that takes the place of an encounter can require as many as 10 or 12 successful skill checks. Where in combat, players get feedback as minions drop and monsters become bloodied, delivering progress during a skill challenge is a little more difficult.
The length of complex skill challenges can also cause players to start to get restless. While combat offers more structure and requires players to pay attention to other player’s actions for tactical opportunities, a skill challenge doesn’t offer much interest for a player who isn’t currently acting. If dealing with limited participation, this can be an even bigger problem.
Once players know that they are in a skill challenge, they know that three failures results in them failing the entire challenge. I think this causes my players to be extra risk averse and focus only on the skills where they have a higher bonus rather than exploring others skills that might be better suited to the situation. This risk aversion also ties in with the next problem.
Failures of Knowledge
As the second example shows, knowledge-related checks can be a pain for me during a skill challenge. The common way to interpret a knowledge check it that it determines whether the character knows something or in the case of a failure doesn’t know it. This interpretation breaks from the skill challenge model though where a failure is supposed to have consequences.
Those are the main problems that I consistently hit when I try to use skill challenges in my games. I have implemented some changes to how I run skill challenges to help with some of them, but for others I don’t have a good solution yet. I’ll post the ideas that I’m trying later this week.
In the mean time, have you encountered similar problems, or entirely different ones, when using skill challenges? If so, what changes have you made to deal with them?