I’ve praised D&D fourth edition’s skill challenges before, but they warrant some more love. Initially I dismissed the system – I thought it was just about Wizards branding the concept of rolling for a skill outside of combat or something.
But they’ve taken a leaf out of new wave roleplaying games, with their non-negotiable open systems, designed to direct the roleplaying in the table instead of being just a tool used for a purpose (say, combat). I find that I’m using skill challenges all the time, and my players love them. (I like to think so, anyway!)
Skill challenges are a stuctured way of approaching out of combat conflicts. The players want something and in order to make it interesting, they risk something.
The system could use more structure with what’s at stake – as it is, it’s left for the game master to determine how failures are punished. Typically you lose some healing surges or take some damage, but as seen with my example of the city defense as a skill challenge, you can think of more substantial wagers.
Players get experience points for completing a skill challenge (even if they fail it), so they’re automatically invested to a degree. But what really makes them pay attention – much like a combat encounter – is that the skill challenges require them to start their imaginations. You don’t just propose a solution and ask for a roll – as the Dungeon Master, I set the goal, lay out the terms (this is what you’re risking, this is how many successes you need), and then ask the players how they’re going to approach the situation. What they’re doing is rolling, but what it requires is team-play and imagination. Typically everybody chips in with assisting skills.
I have never seen more active and imaginative use of player skills in any game. The characters are coming alive just by virtue of their different skills coming to the fore, players thinking of ways to justify rolling with “Athletics” in an academic challenge, say. As a game master, I don’t have to pre-think of ways to make everybody’s skill choices meaningful to the campaign: they’re going to do that on their own – and enjoy it!
To me skill challenges are the best part of D&D 4E Essentials, along with combat that keeps everyone alert. Indeed, 4E has made some age-old RPG tropes exciting again.