Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Skill Challenges

I thought I was going to hold off on commenting on the numerous Excerpts that WOTC are releasing lately, but the one on Skill Challenges changed my mind.

I really like this idea. They hinted in the past at how skills were going to be improved, but this is better than I had hoped. As a DM, I found that 3.0 was quite lacking when it came to skill balance -- that some went unchosen by every class. The 3.5 rules moved a few things around and changed some others, the most notable was the large set of synergy bonuses added to the Knowledge skills.

But turning skill checks into challenges is just terrific. I often tried to use the more esoteric skills throughout a campaign, so those players that had chosen some odd ones for their characters would be able to justify them. I think Don caught on to that pretty early, putting a rank here and a rank there. While a rogue could often be relied on needing his or her sneaking or thieving skills at some point in a campaign, the limited selection of a fighter, almost all Strength-based, went unused unless there was a lot of Jumping, Swimming and Climbing going on: "The goblin king demands that you climb to the top of that cliff and jump into the lake five times, making the biggest cannonball splash you can each time -- OR HE WILL BURN THE VILLAGE."

But now the Cannonball Clan Conundrum can be fully fleshed out as an encounter, whether the party decides to splash or slash to save the village. In the past, I would struggle with having to decide whether taking the skill-based solution should warrant the same amount of XP (and rightfully, it should, I feel) or whether the only true way to earn your experience was to slay everything in your path.

The example Challenge shown is a perfect example of the hand-waviness of the more role-playing aspects of skill checks in the 3e rules. To make most Charisma-based skills worthwhile at all, you needed to roll them, but on the other hand, these situations were usually role-played speech between the players (their characters) and myself (the NPCs). I'm fortunate that my group are really good at role-playing these encounters -- they can theaten, cajole, persuade and bribe according to their needs and according to how they feel their character should behave. But every so often -- usually at the turning-point discussions and suasions -- I would have the player roll the appropriate skill, which would then either advance or backslide their role-played efforts. I think we worked it well, for the most part; sometimes the roll filled in that argument that the player couldn't quite make (to me, or to the NPC), and other times it would clear the NPC's head and make them realize they've been duped.

Having these Skill Challenges spelled out, though, doesn't lessen the role-playing aspect of the game. Just because a challenge "requires 8 successes before 4 failures" doesn't mean that I'll tell this to the players, they'll roll up to 12 times, and that's that. It means that these encounters can be designed a little more structurally, perhaps with conversation trees showing where rolls might need to be made, and how the NPC's reaction will be at those various points (instead of me winging it on the NPC's behalf). In fact, published modules (or pre-planning DMs) could go so far as create such an encounter as a choose-your-own-adventure conversation, where instead of choosing you roll.

The cutpurse just asked why she should help you recover the amulet. Roll Diplomacy. If you roll 13 or higher, turn to page 4. Otherwise, keep reading.

While I've been warm and cold about the various changes we've seen in 4e, this one is by far my favorite. Nothing but good.

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