An Alternative for Skill Challenges

Collaborative and narrative play are more my jam when it comes to roleplaying games. I like to leave breathing room for the players to be creative and inject something into the narrative within the confines of moral dilemmas and hard choices. Back in my Dungeons and Dragons days I made heavy use of skill challenges for action scenes as opposed to always using the combat game structure. This allowed me to confine my players to a particular situation whilst providing the aforementioned breathing room. However, I did find skill challenges had the danger of becoming too ‘control panel’ for my players so to rectify this I wanted to change the way players interacted with the mechanic and adapt to other d20 systems that use the 6 attributes but potentially not skills.

Some lovely dice spilled on a table! I find it nice to just break up text with an image.

What is a Skill Challenge?

A skill challenge was D&D 4E’s approach to providing structure to a scene of action that was not combat to encourage players to make more use of their varied skill lists. This structure was later popularised by Matt Colville in his YouTube series, Running the Game, in which he encouraged Dungeon Masters to incorporate the structure in their D&D 5E games.

The short of it is there are some number of successes that are required for a given scene before some number of failures is reached. These numbers are determined by the Dungeon Master. Players can then utilise each one of their skills once throughout the scene to help the party overcome it. They make their roll and mark whether or not it was a success or failure. All the while this scene is narrated and eventuates in either total failure or success. You can read more about it and find some examples at dungeonsmaster.com.

Some potential issues of Skill Challenges defined by D&D 4e is the risk of boredom from players utilising the same kind of skills, taking too long, and determining who has the greatest chance at using a particular skill, and the preparation for these could become quite a slog if you are hellbent on utilising each skill or even half of them – though of course you could be lazy and wing it like myself and likely many others. My new approach to utilising skill challenges takes the skills out of it and meshes it with elements from the One-Roll Engine (ORE).

A New Approach

This new approach involves the 6 attributes of your traditional d20 systems. The players will contribute varying dice sizes based on these attributes in a given round after which the collective pool of dice is rolled to determine if success was met. Success is determined by adding up the values one each dice, if it meets or exceeds 20, then the party is successful, otherwise the party has another round, but they must each use a different attribute than they already had individually.

Example: if the party consists of three players and they used Strength, Wisdom, and Charisma in the first round. Player 1 can no longer use Strength, player 2 can no longer use Wisdom, and player 3 can no longer use Charisma for any future rounds in this challenge.

Now, this may make it seem like the players cannot fail and that’s because failure is entirely up to them. After a pool of dice has been rolled at the end of the round, the players can choose to give up on the challenge and deal with the consequences. Consequences? Yes, for every duplicate result on the dice in the pool and previous pools of the challenge, a bad thing will happen to those involved. This could be anything that makes narrative sense or could be something as simple as some damage, a lost item, a drop in standing with an NPC, etc.

Procedure

  1. The Game Master outlines the situation, and determines a target number, and agrees on a goal with the players.
  2. The first round begins, and the Game Master asks each player in turn what attribute they would like to use for this round and a number of dice of maximum face values summed up to their attribute value. E.g., A player with 16 strength could use 1d12 or 1d8+1d6+1d2 or 2d8 or any other combination of maximum face values that is equal to or less than 16.
  3. Roll the dice: The collective pool of dice is rolled after everyone has the opportunity to contribute.
  4. Check for success: The dice values are summed and if it exceeds or meets the target number then the party is successful.
    • If they are not successful, repeat this procedure but the players can now not use their prior attributes and you must keep the individual dice values from this and all prior rounds.
  5. For each duplicate result, a bad thing happens. The Game Master determines this.
  6. Narrate the outcome including the consequences.

In Practice

Okay, so the procedure is there along with a preamble but how do you prepare for this and bring everything together? I have a brief example below alongside some general tips and caveats.

Firstly, the purpose of this is provide a structure for a scene in a game that has some stakes. The main question you are asking is: “How much are the players willing to risk reaching their goal?”. The more they invest into overcoming the scene, the more likely there are to be consequences, especially if it hits multiple rounds as they become more limited by which attributes they can choose.

Secondly, the target number should be chosen based on the system you are playing and what tone you are trying to set. You may find 20 is just too high and the players are having to use too many rounds to overcome the challenge or maybe you are playing some more heroic and 20 is easily met with too little consequences. I think a good rule of thumb is to aim for one round is usually enough alongside a 1-2 consequences per player and maybe a second round every now and then.

Thirdly, it may be prudent to prep the situation (NPCs involved, the general stakes, locations, etc) with some general goals in mind but remain open to what the players want out of this too as they have a say in step 1. Alongside this, the only other thing I would prep is just some general consequences that could happen and some specific consequences for the situation, however you could always just improvise this.

Example

Our cast:

  • Jimbob Jabowski, the cankerous healer played by Marley
    • STR: 12, DEX: 14, CON: 10, INT: 14, WIS: 14, CHA: 10
  • T-Rex, the cowardly gang boss played by Charli
    • STR: 14, DEX: 10, CON: 8, INT: 13, WIS: 10, CHA: 14
  • Hankering Hucklehugg, the oversharing pastry baker played by Fihr
    • STR: 14, DEX: 9, CON: 12, INT: 11, WIS: 14, CHA: 12

The Game Master: Each of you are lounging around in your makeshift den of mismatched, street furniture hosted in a long abandoned warehouse on the docks. It reeks of sweat and something like dead rats. A subtle smell of bananas lingers in the air – that’s new.

Charli: I am going to walk away from wherever that smell is strongest and eat some of Fihr’s old pastries.

Marley: Where is the smell coming from?

The Game Master: As you all become more aware of the smell, a crazed and gargantuan sentient banana smashes through the door to your sweet digs. It looks to your portable kitchen on wheels Fihr. Large globs of saliva spatter on the stone ground. It is clearly hungry and it is not going to let anything get in its way of your delicious pastries.

Charli: yeep

Marley: Ouch, my ulcers. It smells too great!

Fihr: Yee gads, me pastries!

The Game Master: This is a target number 20 challenge. What is your goal here? Are you going to take it down with brute force, lure it away, or something else?

Party (in unison and maybe song): We’re going to kick its peel off!

The Game Master: Okay, it’s bearing down fixated on the portable kitchen. Marley, what are you contributing to this effort?

Marley: I am using my Dexterity to intercept the banana and trip it up with some fishing wire attached to a support beam. I have 14 in my Dexterity so I am going to contribute 2d4+1d6.

The Game Master: Charli? Same question.

Charli: I am using my Strength to run away with the portable kitchen. Those are my pastries dammit! I want to try to avoid any duplicate results so I am going to contribute just 1d12.

The Game Master: You’re up Fihr!

Fihr: Hmm I don’t really care about those pastries but damn, I loved that door. I am going to try and help Marley trip this thing over by tackling it with my Strength. So I will contribute 2d6.

The Game Master: Okay, *rolls 2d4+3d6+1d12* and the results are {3, 1, 3, 3, 2, 3}. Ouch, that only totals to 15 and you have 3 duplicates! Okay, Marley you stretch the fishing line across and the banana trips up and crashes down onto Fihr and then rolls over and pins you to another support pillar Marley. Both of you take damage. Charli, you took off running but the banana had launched some smashed banana from its split open head as it fell which caused you to slip over, you have the wind knocked out of you. The portable kitchen has rolled out through the backdoor where another banana was waiting! Are you all still invested in this?

Marley: No way! How many bananas are there? I’m out!

Charli: Do you even need to ask? I’m gone.

Fihr: They busted me door! But I suppose I look around and see that I am not backed up, I think I will have to retreat for now.

The Game Master: You cowards flee your warehouse, the sound of sloppy munching can be heard. You all have the sinking feeling that these bananas have just found their new hunting ground.

Interested in reading more?

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