A skill challenge by any other name still needs a little thought

I’ve seen them being talked about on other roleplaying message boards, usually negatively, and I thought I’d have a few words (or rather paragraphs) about this. This is a mechanic that can be discussed for both Star Wars Saga and Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. What am I speaking of? The Skill Challenge!

No, that’s not it. I am speaking of a way to get past obsticles by using skill rolls, a succession of skill rolls as a skill challenge must not be just one roll, but a combination of them. They can be all the same skill, though.

The main complaint I have heard about skill challenges, and I share this myself, is that they can seem rather contrived and artificial. Another complaint is the fact that if they rely on one skill, such as Diplomacy/Persasion, which may mean that it’s only something one person in the group can do as they have it trained and everyone else had Charisma as their dump stat.

A Closer Look at Skills

For a better look at how skill challenges can be made better, it is worthwhile to look at the mechanics of skills themselves. Here is an interesting comparison.

This is just a baseline, omitting the fact that some races/species permit more trained skills than from the base class specifics.

However, looking at the table does give some rather interesting information how skills are dealth with on a class basis. With Star Wars, it is not difficult to notice the correlation between the nature of a class and thenumber of trained skills. The Soldier and Jedi, who have quite a lot of combat advantages as well as rather impressive hit dice, have the lowest number of trained skills, perhaps as a way of complimenting this apparent beefiness. On the other side of the coin, there’s the Noble which I consider to be the Squishy Wizard of the game, they start with six trained skills not including any more from their Intelligence modifier. I once rolled up a Neimodian Noble for a friend, and the guy had ten trained skills, I triple checked the numbers as I thought this could in no way be right, but it was.

Personally, aside from NPCs the Noble is good for one thing in my book: a good class to multi-class from as you can get some half-decent hit dice.

A similar assessment of the Dungeons & Dragons side of the table is beyond the knowledge of this Level 1 GM. How does it work? As you have meatshields in the same category as the squishies and the in-betweens. Is there some logic too it? I can’t fathom it and I welcome comments from anyone who can.

This table is only really useful on the Star Wars side, and a good guide for GMs who think of putting a skill challenge into a Jedi-centric campaign, as this could need a little thought.

Before going on to the nature of skill challenges themselves, a comparison needs to be done with skills and their reflective modifiers.

Here is I think the best example outside of combat where the similarities of these two systems can be seen, as it’s clearly seen that the majority of skills have equivalents. Of course, there are some that are just too different such as Pilot as opposed to Arcana or Religion, and Knowledge is somewhat different in D&D though History is somewhat similar, but no matter.

This table needs to be looked at in comparison to a general summary of the players ability scores, it doesn’t reveal what is important, rather what isn’t. That group with Charisma as a dump stat that I mentioned before? They are going to be very unhappy in a skill challenge that is based on talking and convincing, as they’re relevant skills are going to be abysmally low. That doesn’t mean that roleplaying needs to have Charisma-based skill rolls, or even to suggest that you can’t give it a try untrained, but there are more ways to kill a cat than beating it to death with a plastic spoon and breaking the spoon into the bargain.

How to Make Better Skill Challenges

The first rule of this would be to pay attention to what skills the players are good at, even with a well-rounded party at one’s disposal. Another hint is to pay attention to the skills which players are willing to use, and this could mean you go along with that or try the other direction for something different. Finally, have more than one option of a skill, even if this means winging it when a player tries something unexpected.

Finally, we get to the part which I talked about in the beginning: the artificiality of skill challenges.

I actually used skill challenges long before I got my hands on the Dungeon Master’s Guide and used them in concert at times in my games, as it makes sense to have a skill challenge for skills such as Mechanics, Use Computer and Treat Injury, I just had no idea it was an actual game mechanic!

When I played in the only D&D game I have sat at the table for, the DM actually said “this is a skill challenge, make five Nature rolls” and there was not much more than that. This is my only complaint about him, as I actually describe every step of the skill challenge as to what is happening, what the options are and any mitgating factors or penalties, such as attempting to perform field surgery in the back of an airtaxi.

So that’s my last rule about skill challenges, role play more, it makes it seem more real.

Note: I will be leaving for Sydney in a few days and I am as yet unsure as to how much Internet access I will have over the Christmas and New Year period. So do plan to finish my series of articiles on gaming an continuity soon, and I’ll have more to say on it this time as it’s personal.


~ by katanageldar on December 12, 2009.

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