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Put Away Your Skill List

May 5, 2010

Characters in D&D 4th Edition have it easy. Whenever a situation arises, they have this handy little list that tells them every skill they are good at. Not only that, it also quanitifes just how good they are at each and every little thing. I found myself wishing I had it as easy as I tried to decide whether I should use Bluff or Diplomacy on the police officer that had pulled me over this morning or whether I should risk Intimidate. I mean, I know I have the sort of Charisma¬†that bards would praise in songs if they had the Charisma to do it justice. I’m just not sure which skills I have trained, which skills are even on my class list, and what my class is anyway.

While failing an Athletics check to evade said police officer and then an Endurance check against a taser, I further reflected that these characters also have it easy in another way. With just a tiny shred of creativity and some well-chosen sweet talk at the DM, they rarely get stuck trying to use a skill they are particularly bad at. If they can rationalize it, they can roll it.

And for future reference, Intimidate is one of those skills that automatically fails in Police Officer skill challenges and immediately turns them dangerously hostile.

The lesson here, apart from the Intimidate thing, is that players have a lot of advantages when faced with skill challenges. But those same advantages can limit the fun of playing in a skill challenge and turn the skill challenge into a dull, mechanical exchange of modifiers, skill names, and gamespeak.

Understanding Skill Challenges

In a skill challenge, the skill list on the character sheet has a tendancy to become something like the list of answers on a multiple choice test.

It’s funny that there is so little for players to read on skill challenges in any of the published rule books. After all, every tiny nuance of combat is spelled out for players in excrutiating detail. But players don’t even encounter the concept of skill challenges until their DM springs one on them. This strikes me as pretty silly because of the universal gaming truism: if something is going to be screwed up at the table, it’s going to be screwed up by a player.

In theory, a skill challenge works like this: First, the DM presents a situation. A player then describes the action their character attempts to resolve the situation. The DM assigns a skill to that action and asks for a roll. The DM then describes the outcome based on the roll. This repeats until the players have acheived a fixed number of successes or failures, at which point the story moves forward based on the result.

In practice, skill challenges work more like this: the DM presents a situation. A player then scans down their skill list for the highest modifier they can find. The player tells the DM they “use” the skill. The DM dubiously questions exactly how a working knowledge of the fundemental laws of magic actually applies to the character being trapped under a beam in a burning building. The player sighs, thinks for a bit, and tries to use Acrobatics instead because it has the next highest modifier. This time, he describes the action of “acrobatically” trying to get out from under the beam. The DM accepts this because its the best he’s going to get.

Exaggeration? A bit. Unkind? Certainly. But, that’s what happens when you look to a guy named The Angry DM for advice. And honestly, the thing that bothers me is not the blatant attempt to shoehorn a skill into a situation into which it doesn’t really fit. What bothers me is that moment of: “pause, look down the character sheet at the options, and try to game the system.”

Compare that to the real life situation of being trapped beneath a beam in a burning building, a situation with which I am sure we are all quite familiar. A person doesn’t lay there considering whether that semester of freshman-level physics prepared them better for this situation than that course in moral philosophy and vaguely recalling something about “thermodynamics.” They try to dislodge the beam. And then, for good measure, they make an Endurance check to avoid passing out from smoke inhalation. And then, if that person is me, they pass out and get rescued by firemen.

The real problem is that players don’t actually know that much about skill challenges by default. And that leads them to think they need to do these things to succeed. Which is a shame because it cheats the player and the DM out of a potentially interesting (and possibly comical) bit of story.

The DCs: Doing Things You Aren’t Good At

Of course, everyone wants to be in situations they can cope with. This is true in the game as well as in real life. But that’s not always possible. In the game, however, players have all the time in the world to decide what to do. DMs are strongly advised to let the players try anything they can justify. Because players want to succeed, this means that they are inclined to pick their skill first and then try to rationalize it in terms of the situation.

The fact is, though, that most players don’t realize that this isn’t really neccessary. The moderate DCs given for any skill challenge are such that a character who is EITHER trained in the skill OR has a reasonable ability modifier for that skill has a decent chance of success. A modestly strong character, untrained in Athletics, still has a good chance to move the beam before succumbing to smoke inhalation. If the skill challenge is written by a good DM for the party at hand, the DCs are even more likely to allow the characters to succeed regardless of their training and talent.

The Skill List: Names and Numbers

In a skill challenge, the skill list on the character sheet has a tendancy to become something like the list of answers on a multiple choice test, except that each answer also lists how likely it is to be a good answer. This, coupled with the name “Skill Challenge” creates a sense that the idea of a skill challenge is to pick a skill you want to use instead of an action you want your character to attempt. In the game, this does a great deal to detract from the narrative aspects of the skill challenge.

Success and Failure: Playing to Win

In a D&D combat, there is often a very real and terrible consequence of failure: someone dies. This may not be true in all games, but the basic assumption is that if the party really screws up a fight, someone isn’t walking away from it. Unfortunately, this also creates the assumption that all parts of the game have the same gravity: succeed or die. A well-designed skill challenge is not like this at all. The skill challenge is there to provide a branch in the story. There should be consequences for failure, but the game will proceed and the party will have chances to make up for the failure. At the very least, the party can usually live with the consequences rather than die from them.

Active Participation, Aiding, And Just Standing Around

The one thing that most players pick up on pretty quickly is that if¬†they don’t actively participate, they can’t bring about a failure. For the most part, barring forced checks or group checks, this is true. And now, with the changes to Aid Another, even just a helpful nudge can lead to failure. So, the tendancy among players is to just not get in the way if they don’t have a really great skill that obviously helps.

Sometimes, this works. If the party is tracking an enemy across wilderness terrain, a player with no wilderness or tracking skills will probably just follow along. And a good DM will recognize this and reduce the complexity of the challenge accordingly. Other times, though, this thinking can leave a heroic PC standing around picking his nose while innocent NPCs are in terrible danger.

Being a Better Player in Skill Challenges

So, what can you do to be better a player in a skill challenge and hopefully have more fun in the process?

  1. Drop the “Need to Win” Notion – A hero is somone willing to make a stand against impossible odds. If the heroes in stories only did things they thought they could succeed at, we’d all be speaking the Black Speech of Mordor right now. Would your character stand by and do nothing when an innocent person was trapped in a burning building? Be willing to do things you might be bad at and trust things to work out all right because you are one of the good guys.
  2. Hide Your Character Sheet – Don’t look down at your skill list until you actually have to make a roll. Cover it with a piece of paper if you have to. Your skill list is not a list of options and treating it as such limits your creativity. Instead, look at the situation and try to picture what a reasonable person might try to do about it.
  3. Know Your Character Narratively – Take the time to think about your character in terms of the story instead of the skill list. Describe the things your character knows he is good at without using skill names and keep it in the back of your head during skill challenges. If you describe your character as a hardy and skilled outdoorsman and an attentive and intuitive druid, you have all you need to know what sorts of things your character would try to do. So long as your ability scores, skills, and feat choices are in line with your description, it won’t steer you wrong, but it will give you a lot more freedom.
  4. Go With Your First Impulse – If the DM describes a situation and it immediately implies a course of action, do that. More than likely, it would be the first thing that occurs to your character, too. And it will probably work well because the DM is obviously thinking of it too.
  5. If Your First Impulse Is Something You’re Bad At, Improve The Odds Instead of Changing Skills – When the beanpole academic wizard comes upon someone trapped under a beam in a burning building, the first impulse will be to free them from the beam. Well, the beanpole academic probably knows he can’t lift the thing himself. While the stress of the situation will probably keep him from coming up with a better solution, his intelligence might remind him that a handy fallen board will make a good lever or that the trapped person can probably provide some help. Either way, its worth making the attempt first. If it fails, he can always try something else.
  6. Participate – Its more fun to be involved than not be involved. At the very least, if your attempt at participation makes things worse, you create an interesting roleplaying situation in which the other players get to yell at you to “stop helping.” Of course, there are times when your character will look at a situation and truly have nothing to contribute. But these should be rare. Lets face it, as soon as any social situation starts to turn sour, the barbarian is likely to shove his way to the front of the group and try to intimidate someone.

Just don’t try to Intimidate the cop.


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