Posts Tagged With: D&D 4e

D&D 4e: How to Challenge Skills

There’s no shortage of articles on the internet about how to construct skill challenges in 4th edition D&D. I would know – I browsed a great many of them trying (and failing) to wrap my head around how the hell they were supposed to work. It doesn’t help that across the range of Wizards’ official 4e modules the way skill challenges are handled changes from author to author as they try to make sense of the same system.

But! Having played some 4e over the past few weekends, including a pretty good skill challenge involving the most idiotic magical construct ever*, I think I have at last got a sort of handle on how to structure them so they avoid most of the pitfalls of the basic system.


The key to constructing a good skill challenge is to divide it up into stages: a series of possible hazards and difficulties that the characters might face in pursuit of a greater goal. Ideally you want one stage for every required success + 2 (because the maximum number of die rolls in a skill challenge is a victory while remaining only one step away from failure) but a few less than this is okay**. Every stage should be conquerable in one or two die rolls.

Note: If you can’t divide your skill challenge into stages then it’s not a skill challenge. It’s either a stage in a larger challenge or it’s a simple skill check.

Example: The journey to a distant ruin is going to require overland navigation, contention with difficult weather, booking passage on various forms of travel, and dealing with a border patrol. That’s only four stages, but I reckon each of those is good for 1-2 skill rolls so it should be okay for a complexity 2 skill challenge.

Then flesh out each stage, noting the problems that will appear and how the characters will have to handle them. Try to include a wide variety of skills and hazards which force all the characters to make checks, not just the ones who are exceptionally good at what they do. Also note if any checks are required (the challenge can’t succeed without at least one success in that skill), support (rolling the skill doesn’t count as success or failure in the challenge, but modifies other rolls), group (have to be made by everyone; if more people succeed than fail, then it counts as a success), have a maximum utility (i.e. “you can only get one success from this skill in this challenge”) or have other special effects. To flesh out the example:

The Journey to the Tomb of Gorthag (Complexity 2 Skill Challenge)

  • Navigation: Nature (Medium) is the skill which you navigate with, and one Nature success is required for this skill challenge. There is no limit to how many successes you can rack up with Nature. Navigation is supported by History (Medium) and Religion (Medium) to know more about where the tomb is – success on a check in either of those skills grants a +2 bonus to Nature, while failure adds a -2 penalty. Religion and History can only be rolled once for this stage.
  • Terrible Storm: This is a group Nature (Hard) check to find shelter. Characters can cover additional people with a single Nature check by increasing the DC by 5 per person. Everyone who fails the check (or is not covered) loses two healing surges.
  • Forced March: This is a group Endurance (Medium) check. Everyone who fails loses a healing surge, regardless of whether or not the check succeeds or fails as a whole.
  • Finding Passage: This is a Diplomacy (Easy) or Streetwise (Easy) check to locate transport. On a success every character must either buy passage ([suitable amount] gp) or work. Working requires an Athletics (Hard) or Endurance (Medium) check; success or failure does not affect the skill challenge but failing costs two healing surges. If characters do not pay or work for their passage this check counts as a failure for the challenge instead of a success. The party can gain a maximum of two successes by finding passage.
  • Border Patrol: The patrol can be avoided using a group Stealth check (Medium), deceived using Bluff (Hard) or bribed using Diplomacy (Easy) and [suitable amount] gp. Failure not only counts towards a failure in the skill challenge but also costs a healing surge for everyone in the group in the ensuing struggle. [Note: You could play out the fight, but that would get tedious fast and the net result – lose one healing surge – is about the same.]

Pass/Fail: If the characters succeed at the skill challenge they arrive at the Tomb of Gorthag in good time. If they fail, then they still get to the tomb but have taken such a circuitous route that Gorthag the Undying has had time to reinforce his undead legion with [suitable penalty, like extra undead minions in every encounter].

And then all that’s left is to run the challenge – the best way is to pick and choose which events to hit the characters with based on what they do and let the skill checks flow organically from the story.***

With a group that strikes out into the wilderness I might run this challenge as a navigation roll followed by the storm, then another navigation roll as they push on across the hills. As they cross the border they meet a patrol, then they have to make a forced march check because they’ve been travelling for days, then they encounter another patrol in the hinterlands, and then one more navigation and forced march roll if they’re still 1-2 successes short of victory.

A different group might open by seeking passage to the approximate area, travelling first by ship and then inland by barge. They encounter a patrol as they cross the border. Then they must locate the tomb with a navigation roll and head cross-country to it (navigation or forced march, depending on approach). En route I’d hit them with the storm to get that final sixth check they need for success.

Or maybe a group would fail their navigation roll, fail to weather the storm, then seek passage on more sheltered transport – except they fail the roll to bribe the guards at the border and by the time they’ve sorted out all that they’ll be late to the tomb.

Or perhaps they pick up a teleport ritual and zap there overnight. These things happen to the best of us.

*As judged by my character R-12, who as a warforged considers himself in a good position to judge the quality of intelligent magical constructs.

**Yes, this means that the higher-difficulty skill challenges should have about 20 separate bits. No, I still have no idea how to make that work.

***If you ask me, this is the problem with most skill challenges as written: because 4e specifically removes causal power from the narrative fiction of the game, skill challenges can often feel very disjointed unless you break them right down and take steps to control the pacing.

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Fiction and Mechanics

Roleplaying games can be divided into two pieces: the fiction of the game (the story that everyone at the table is telling) and the mechanics of the game (the bit where you roll dice and find out what happens). The relationship between the two can be quite interesting when you dig into it, and can also explain the reaction of some people when faced with games which play with the relationship in unfamiliar ways – if you’re not used to thinking of the game as two separate threads it can be jarring to play a game which has that as its baseline assumption. (See also every blog post about ‘immersion’ and ‘dissociative mechanics’ ever.)

D&D 3.x

In D&D 3.x and other ‘trad’ roleplaying games most* mechanical elements are linked to a specific element of the fiction. The mechanics generate the fiction – when you make a trip attack, for example, your character is actually trying to knock down their opponent – but the fiction also generates mechanics to go with it. Creatures with extra legs have a mechanical advantage when defending against being tripped, and creatures with no legs (oozes) cannot be tripped at all. When the fiction seems like it should provide an effect but doesn’t – like enlarge person failing to provide an increase in movement speed – people find it incongruous.

You can also make the case that this is part of why games like this tend to get so rules-heavy: when you introduce new fictional elements, every element has to have a rule that goes with it and that rule has to interact with the rest of the system – if the system breaks, the fictional elements attached to that part of the system also break and the game suddenly becomes very surreal. You can see an example of this in core D&D with elementals: water elementals are made of water, yet have no special resistance to fire damage. This means that in the fiction of the game a spell like inferno can cause a water elemental to catch fire and burn to death. Which is a little odd.

*Hit points, of course, have never been linked to anything in the fiction except in the most handwavy way.

D&D 4e

The fourth edition of D&D takes a different approach: the mechanics still generate the fiction, but the fiction does not drive anything mechanical. When 4e was first released a lot of people took umbrage at the warlord’s healing word power (I forget what it’s called) because they could see no way to tie the fiction – the warlord says something – to the mechanical healing effect. How does a warlord shouting close wounds generated by an axe to the head?

The answer according to 4e is ‘however it makes sense’. Perhaps that axe to the head was just stunning rather than wounding, or perhaps the loss of hit points was panic and not a direct physical hit – in either case, having a drill sergeant get on your case can get you back in the fight. You’re expected to tailor the fiction of the game to reflect what the mechanics tell you has happened, but the fiction has no reciprocal effect on the mechanics.

For another example, consider a 4e character’s ability to knock a gelatinous cube prone**. The fiction – that a gelly cube has no legs and no real facing – does not create a mechanical imperative that the cube cannot be knocked prone. Rather, when you bash the cube with a prone-making power you are expected to justify the mechanical effects (-2 on attacks, grants CA, can’t move) with some other fictional explanation, like “I’ve disrupted its membrane!” or something.

**I have vague memories of this being fixed in the Monster Vault – but you can still grab swarms, so the basic point remains.


FATE doesn’t veer too far from the trad games setup in that mechanical elements and fictional elements are specifically tied together, but it does offer the interesting ability to translate the fiction into mechanics just by writing it on your character sheet. Is the dungeon collapsing? Well, now there’s a Collapsing aspect on the scene. Get hit by a hammer and suffer a broken arm? Well, now you’ve got a Broken Arm that affects how you act.

This neatly avoids the problem of D&D 4e where the fiction seems to demand something that the mechanics don’t support*** – the fiction simply becomes the mechanics – and also the excessive rules pile-up of D&D 3.x by allowing the mechanics to interact with plain English phrases rather than requiring the translation of those phrases into mechanical code that can be plugged into the rules engine.

***Just why are mindless undead still susceptible to psychic damage?

Dungeon World

Dungeon World also follows the trad games method of tying specific fiction actions to specific mechanical effects, but explicitly gives primacy to the fiction. It’s not quite an inversion of the 4e model, but it does create a situation where the results of mechanical dice rolls have to fall in line with the fictional paradigm already established – and if the fiction disallows a certain action, such as the frequent example of a dragon which is just too mighty to be fought with regular weapons, then the mechanical action cannot take place.

To be honest, I think this is what gives DW its ‘old-school feel’, since your Labyrinth Lords and your Swords and Wizardrys operate along very similar lines: declare fictional intent to stab goblin, roll to stab goblin, translate roll and damage back into fictional wounding of goblin; declare fictional attempt to climb wall, GM tells you wall is too slick, find another way around or break out some equipment; etc. etc.

So What?

Well, nothing really. But I have a post on D&D 4e skill challenges in the pipeline and I didn’t want to digress in the middle of that in order to a) explain what I mean when I say that the fiction in 4e is an epiphenomenon of the mechanics and b) defend that opinion when the post is about something else entirely.

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PbP 4e D&D now An Actual Possibility

I’ve been looking for software that does exactly this for a while:

An intuitive, detailed map-making program that works right in your web browser and allows export to jpg and png. It’s got a built-in grid for D&D goodness, and – although I haven’t tried it – a “scene-builder” designed specifically for PbP games.

I’m so pleased! PbP 4e D&D is now a possibility! 😀

I mean, it was before, but what with my workplace blocking all known image-hosting sites and Google Docs, my ‘post-from-work’ habit would have been untenable.

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