Wednesday, August 31, 2011

System Hacks: Skill Challenges

Whether you love D&D 4e or hate it, or just think it's okay, you might find skill challenges lagging.  They're not really bad, but they're about the most constrained part of the system.  I have a tendency to fudge them and add modifiers for roleplaying because they tend to be bland, even with good description.  So, here are a few things you can do to make skill challenges more interesting.

The first is to give a bonus for good or bad roleplaying.  This concept is used heavily in the Storyteller System, where characters can roleplay, or use their skills, or do both.  So, if you have a tendency to put your foot in your mouth, you can rely on the fact that your character is a smooth talker.  In the event of 4e, a +/-2 modifier is the standard.  So, if you're roleplaying through a scene and you say something so witty the Game Master thinks it would help you, get a +2 to the appropriate roll.  Likewise, if you improvise this great line that comes out of your mouth sounding like, "Wanna you wanna weenie me?" you'll probably get a -2.

Note that you can use this for more abstract challenges, too.  If the characters have to barracade a house, and someone goes into great detail about chopping up the furniture, using the pitons from his climbing kit as nails, and reinforcing the doors and windows, give him a +2.

A better way might be to warrant automatic successes.  So, if a character comes up with something brilliant, let him roll but give him a success.  Alternately, if he fails that roll, ignore his failure.

A final option, though slightly harder to adjudicate, is to dispense with skill challenges entirely, but still award experience.  To keep with the 4e skill challenge scheme, maybe you determine a number of "decision points" equal to the successes required.  So, for a complexity 1 skill challenge, you come up with 4 decision points — things that the characters have to overcome to win the challenge.  In a roleplaying challenge, each decision point might be a doubt the character has, or a counter-argument; in a stealth challenge, each decision point might be the passing of a guard, a patch of dry leaves, or a sudden complication like a barking dog.  If characters plan well enough that the Game Master is convinced of their success, dispense with the rest of the challenge.  Likewise, if failure is the only outcome, let them fail and suffer the consequences.  Note that this modified skill challenge can still call for skill rolls, but it flows more organically (also, you might do well to do this anyway, running skill challenges as a combination of scenes requiring player input and possible rolls).

Also note that you can do this with puzzles.  Maybe a complexity 5 puzzle has twelve moving parts, for example.

Finally, there are ways to completely ignore skill challenges.  You could always assume that overcoming a challenge counts as defeating a single monster of the party's level, or perhaps you award some form of Quest experience.  The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 recommends giving experience equal to a single monster of the party's level for every fifteen minutes of solid roleplaying; you can modify this to taste.  You can always avoid the issue by only awarding quest experience and experience for defeating monsters, and ignoring experience for roleplaying entirely (after all, your group will probably naturally tend toward roleplaying or not, so the incentive is probably unnecessary).

Admittedly rudimentary stuff, but something to consider for your next 4e game if you have found skill challenges lacking.

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