Skill Challenges: Changes Over Time

In the Adept Play discord chat, I said,

I have been buying some D&D 4th edition books, because it’s a game I’m keen to run. Finally yesterday I had enough of a spread to look at Skill Challenges throughout the edition. I had heard the math was “bad” the first time they printed the rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and that they subsequently fixed it.

The reality is much more complicated. Much to my surprise, every time they printed these rules they changed, sometimes significantly.

The attached document details changes to the Skill Challenge rules across the D&D 4th edition line. Originally I wanted a nice clean spreadsheet or a grid of some sort but the changes are multifarious, complex, and not always directly comparable to one another, so I took a different approach. It requires more work on the reader’s part to piece together the changes (comparing across sections of notes, and so on), but it was the best way I could think of to capture the data given its sometimes fuzzy nature.

There’s a lot to notice, but here are some things that stick out to me:

  • The meaning and role of Secondary skills changes a lot. Any group playing 4th Edition is going to have to come up with their own way of doing it, whether pulled wholesale from a version of these rules or taken in bits and pieces.
  • The meaning of failure shifted from failure to success with a cost.
    • Along with this, failure changed from not rewarding XP at all to rewarding the full XP, no different than success.
  • Not just one pass but lots of iteration on the math, from obvious things like updating raw numbers, to changing DC recommendations, adding the Advantage rules, and so on.
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8 responses to “Skill Challenges: Changes Over Time”

  1. I greatly appreciate you compiling this. I only have the two DMGs, or rather, those plus playing this version of Gamma World.

    In discussing these and other rules-comparison compilations, I want to avoid notions of finding the true way, or what is or isn’t officially abrogated, or anything like that. There’s no point. Whoever plays, they have the texts they have, and they read them or alter them as they will.

    That doesn’t mean we abandon critique though. That phrase “as they will” is a big deal, assuming as I do that you would prefer to “will” things which are sensible, effective, and well-considered.

    So these two strands intertwine: let’s examine the procedures both as personal artifacts and as topics for examination.

    In my case, the immediately obvious concern is the order of action. I didn’t know about abandoning initiative for Skill Challenges, and I’m not sure why one would. The discussion across the texts seems jumbled or mumbled to me, now that I look at them and consider the following. (Also, to a great extent, I’m merely thinking as I write, not presenting an argument.)

    1. If a Skill Challenge is being conducted in isolation, i.e., not in tandem with a fight, then either the situation is a rapid-fire time-crunch or it’s not. If it’s not, no initiative is involved in the first place. If it is, then initiatve would seem to be relevant to addressing the challenge, at least in some cases.

    2. Specifically, I’m thinking about some crisis in which A has to be done before B, and two different people are good at A and B respectively, so who goes when is important in terms of objective time. Also, before we get too uptight, even that isn’t absurdly constraining, because altering the initiative order by “falling back” in line is always an option. So maybe I am being too uptight: the nosebleed-timing that I’m imagining would be such an edge case that we might as well call it combat in which we’re “fighting” with skills.

    3. All the textual wiggling about Primary vs. Secondary, and what each can achieve, and whether you can shoehorn in other skills, is overwhelming and strikes me as people scaring themselves and trying to write through buckets of if’s. In practice I think I was satisfied with knowing what skills were absolutely central to dealing with this challenge and basically denying anything else. (Telling the players outright which skills matter vs. having them figure it out the hard way is another variable, which I don’t find problematic.)

    4. The thing I picked up from the DMG 2, or at least I think I did, was the understanding that Skill Challenges could be handled via combat actions, in tandem with (“inside”) genuine combat, and also that, conversely, combat could itself be a subroutine inside a bigger-scale Skill Challenge. To repeat, there may be Skill Challenges inside combats, as well as combats inside Skill Challenges. I like this notion a lot.

    5. Another, related matter which I think I grasped pretty well was that sometimes a Skill Challenge might be necessary in order to get out of combat, and conversely, sometimes a Skill Challenge can be abandoned in the middle because we’ve shifted to combat. So instead of outside/inside, this point concerns transforming from one into the other, in either direction.

    6. Finally, I saw that Hans lost patience with some of the weaseling text, and I totally sympathize. For me, the same applies especially regarding language in a couple of places about tuning Skill Challenges perfectly to the capabilities of the party, and a certain denial, throughout, that failing a Skill Challenge is a legitimate outcome of play.

    All of the above is made available by Free Association ™ without a desire for debate or helpful explanation from anyone. This is a good opportunity for reflections and spitballing instead.

    • I agree wholeheartedly regarding textual wiggling and anxiety. I happened to recently come across something from Mike Mearls [1] which confirms this sort of worrying behind the text, if it needed confirming.

      Anyway, what I’m starting to see throughout all these changes and wiggling is a group of people trying to wrangle a powerful procedure they came up with (i.e., allowing the skill system to do something big and interesting and consequential) into something foolproof. What interests me in *that*, and what I think is germane to our discussion, is not the historical facts of whatever people did what and why, but to realize that this *is* a powerful procedure.

      We have a legitimate instrument on our hands. A table is going to have to do some design to make it functional, at least if we’re looking at the entirety of the changes at once, but beyond that work we can actually play, and get better at this procedure. Maybe I’m not getting beyond the obvious, but for me this is exciting, and investigating this question is part of what drove me to create this document. The first RPG book I picked up was the D&D 3.5 Player’s Handbook, and the long list of sometimes esoteric skills was very attractive to me in terms of a concrete way to make a character come alive in play (have agency, and be reincorporated, in language I’d use now). My encounters with that skill system in play were very flat without much experience of agency. Just to explain my personal interest a bit.

      What you describe in 4 (yes, from the DMG 2) and 5 are particularly interesting and dynamic applications of the system, with 5 being something I hadn’t seen quite so clearly until you explained it concisely.

      [1] https://twitter.com/mikemearls/status/1041058135379607552

    • For context, Mike and I have significant friendly history, including developing the original idea for the Forge together with Ed Healy in 1999. If we get a chance some day, I’ll see what he thinks of the following.

      Which is: that if he and Rob Heinsoo did embrace the tragic and disturbing content in the quote you’ve linked to, then how could they have thereby produced the single textual version of D&D since 1980 which facilitated player-driven, personal, cathartic play. It is systemically pointed 180 degrees away from “consistent from campaign to campaign and from table to table.”

      As I type all that, I think it comes down to the distortion of “game master” from merely a designated profile regarding rules of play (and by no means a single one), into “The Game Master” as curator, nanny, den daddy, and storyteller of widgety non-play. Perhaps, as long as the authors were thinking about enjoying play as players of characters, they designed (as you say, Hans) powerful systems. When they shifted into “The Game Master” head-mode, the only possible priority was to shut the systems down.

      So: no wonder the Skill Challenge text is so schizophrenic. The more its design generated diversity of approaches and diversity of potential outcomes, the more the text, in “The Game Master” mode, has to run away from the very system it’s explaining.

  2. Here are some more thoughts that I developed a couple of years ago. Let’s assume that “level up” is an enjoyable component of play, and that the DM prepares a lot of material including at least enough XP for the next level-up and probably more. I stress that I think both of these are reasonable assumptions; I mention them as they are necessary context.

    1. Fiddly XP counting aside, a level-up is equivalent to 10 party-level rated Encounters. A given Encounter is bigger, equal to, or less than this unit; let’s stay wth “equal to” for simplicity. Somewhere in the books, the text mentions just bagging XP and rating level-ups in these terms alone; also, it mentions cutting it in half to 5 rather than 10. So that is the metric to keep in mind: 5 or 10 equal-to-party Encounters = the next level-up.

    2. Regarding Skill Challenges, there’s a formula to derive the XP for overcoming these, which basically translates into the same as fighting monsters: a given Skill Challenge is “more than” “equal to” or “less than” the party level. For sanity’s sake, assuming that it’s party level for the number of party members, you have exactly the same value, i.e., an Encounter. So, long story short, a Skill Challenge is an Encounter.

    3. Regarding Quests, fulfillling a Minor one is the same as defeating a foe, and fulfilling a Major one is the same as defeating a full complement of foes in a party-equal value Encounter. Huh – same thing! So, keeping “equal to” in place, 1 Major Quest = 1 Skill Challenge = 1 Encounter. [An important side point: a Quest offered by the DM is voluntary, and players may declare Quests without DM guidance.]

    You’re seeing what I’m seeing, right? A given level is a lot more rich in content and potential than “ten fights.” Given at least one Major Quest (maybe a few Minors), and addressing difficult situations with Skill Challenges to some reasonable degree, a whole level-up is not going to be just a string of fights at all. Mathematically it is now considerably less than ten fights, perhaps as few as four or five … and if you use the option for five rather than ten, then, well! A given level-up adventure may have only a couple of classic 4E fighty-fights in it.

    I would really like to see people connecting these dots in play.

  3. So my thoughts here are fairly limited, although I think there’s something maybe worth digging out at some point with the equatability of Quests/Skill Challenges/Encounters, the way in which each one relies on different degrees of preparation and from different players, and the simple observation that they can easily be nested into one another (called out in these various texts with Skill Challenges and Encounters).

    But we’re talking Skill Challenges first and foremost, and my experience with 4e is mostly built around a separate discursive community (the Traditional Games subforum of the Something Awful forums circa 2011-2016) and
    play group, along with some subsidiary abortive play and a bit of experience with a game derived from 4e. The discursive community’s general opinion of Skill Challenges was that they were a failure of 4e, typically expressed as them being “boring” or “generic” by comparison to the use of powers in Encounters, and with them having a defined structure derided as “one-size-fits-all.” There were several suggestions that each Skill Challenge really ought to be its own tiny board game… but that goes outside the scope here, I think.

    The play group (consisting of a friend and friends of that friend) began playing with 3.5e and transitioned to 4e (in the interregnal period where 5e was in development but not public-facing yet, fascinatingly) because the DM had much more experience with 3.5e, and ran 4e with many assumptions of 3.5e embedded. Skill Challenges did not, in my recollection, come up at all.

    (As a little side note, it’s rather amusing in retrospect to note the clear design trajectory between these iterations, because the discursive community generally saw the books branded with “Essentials” as a clear break from what had gone before, but it’s more apparent now that these were evolutionary developments (and also responding to fandom reactions and so on).

    So I have very little direct, practical experience with Skill Challenges. I should probably sit down with my little library and play with the definitions of 4e’s Skills, the various iterations here, and see what comes out. Something that immediately strikes me is that a Skill Challenge by the DMG iteration is presumed by the text to be encompassing like an Encounter, where everyone takes turns dealing with the situation immediately in front of them, but this is of course contradicted by Skill Challenges being nestable within Encounters and by implication being interchangeable with equal-level standard monsters at a 1-per-Complexity ratio. (The presentation of players being *required* to roll a skill when their turn comes up in a Skill Challenge is also contradicted by this, and that part of the procedure was a major point of dissatisfaction, as I recall.) So somewhere between an interpretative maneuver and an instance of addition to the procedure would be to disentangle “turn” in a Skill Challenge from a presumed unit of time, and have it be treated more as an “attempt” or “go”, make explicit the option to treat your turn like a turn in an Encounter and delay it or pass it, etc. Something to be designed at the table for actual play, but it does capture my imagination to think about Skill Challenges that are broader in scope and less “anxious” than what’s presented in the text (which does present ones that are implicitly narrower in scope)- you could go very big and abstract, but even something as “simple” as a locked door could be a Skill Challenge at a scope which can operate in the background of moment-to-moment actions- while Encounters or discussions or general interaction with the environment happen, players also each have their own attempts to have their character crack the door open or circumvent it or whatever, going around in rolled initiative order.

    • Another immediate follow-on thought: solo and elite monsters were seen by general fandom discussion as inadequate or underwhelming when used as presented, because they replaced two actions with one action, or five actions with one action, etc., and were thus typically locked down and rendered impotent (in accounts of play and in assumed outcomes of play both). It would be interesting to play with Skill Challenges as something to soak up player actions in Encounters containing these monster types, especially ones that are only indirectly related to the monsters, aren’t existential concerns for the player characters, or both.

    • Regarding:

      I think there’s something maybe worth digging out at some point with the equatability of Quests/Skill Challenges/Encounters

      Absolutely! By coincidence, we’re in the middle of my course The Ronnies right now, and since part of it includes “instructor suffers too,” I’m working with exactly this concept in my particular class project, titled The Feast. (For those of you familiar with the Ronnies concept, it uses the terms witch and meat.)

      I don’t want to dig through the texts for which book says which thing, but I learned from at least one of them that Skill Challenges were wide open in terms of scale. One might concern the arcane widget that you want to get working, or stop working, as your companions trade Encounter Attacks with slavering foes (the kind of thing depicted in the Dungeon Master’s Guide lead image for the Skill Challenge chapter), but another might concern weeks or months of diegetic time, during which fighty-fight encounters might occur independently from the Skill Challenge, “outside” it I guess one might say, or even as a given step within it, or as the consequence of failing a step within it.

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