I have had my share of successful skill challenges as well as some dismal failures. Some of them worked because of narrative involvement, some failed because of narrative dissonance, but a recurring tension involved has been due to the numbers. Throughout the lifetime of 4Ethere have been numerous rebalances to the numbers involved in skill challenges to address the issue of difficulty. Set the numbers too low and there is no chance of failure involved at it is no longer a challenge. Set the numbers too high and only specialized characters have a chance of success in their areas of expertise.
Rob Donoghue had a thought-provoking series on house ruling skill challenges that went in an interesting direction. Abstracted, the idea was to make skill challenges more active by using the combat rules as a model for skill challenges. I love this in theory, but I confused my players with it the time or two I tried it.
The idea of active skill challenges stuck with me though. I want skill challenges to be more active but I don’t want to complicate the system too much.
The existing system is a bit passive. Failure only comes about from the failure of skill checks. This has led to players meta-gaming and only using skills that have a significant bonus to them thereby reducing the possibility of failure significantly and players restricting their actions to skills that have a high chance of success.
The wizard only uses skills that are intelligence based that they are trained in (Arcana, History, etc) and is likely to sit on the sidelines for physical or social challenges.
The fighter only uses physical skills based on their strength and constitution (Endurance, Athletics, etc) and is likely to become inactive in social or intellectual challenges.
There are ways to engage these players and encourage them to work around this, but sometimes it is like pulling teeth.
To make a skill challenge more active and remove the action paralysis brought on by fear of failure, you could shift the challenge to the opposition. An active opponent in a challenge will make the skill challenge more active and will give the players something to vilify other than their traitorous dice. A guard catching you is more compelling than losing a skill challenge by rolling a 1.
Instead of counting failures in the skill challenge, have an active element roll each round against the same Difficulty Class (DC) as the players and tally the successes. The challenge, then, is to get 6 player successes before 3 antagonist successes. In this instance, the players have about 3 rounds to accrue successes before the antagonist reaches their target number of successes (unless of course the antagonist fails a skill check).
Even if you keep the target number of antagonist successes static at 3, the dynamic will change dramatically for the players between requiring 4 successes and 10 successes. Players might be able to get 4 successes in 1 round making it a walk in the park, but 4 players wont be able to get 10 successes even in 2 perfect rounds dragging the outcome down to the wire.
Making the number of antagonists or the target number of successes an active variable will allow you to tailor the challenge that much more without requiring a significant change to the system.
A number of times my players have wanted to directly oppose or interfere with the opposition in a skill challenge, using this model we can introduce this as a tactical element. Instead of Aiding Another, players could Interfere with the Opposition giving them a penalty on their skill check. With no guarantee that this will result in a failed skill check makes this a risky tactic that can increase the tension of the skill challenge, but still give players an interesting option other than sitting on the sideline or Aiding Another every turn.
A quick summary:
Existing: X successes before 3 failures >> creates fear of failure >> action paralysis
Suggestion: Give a skill check to an active opponent. X player successes before 3 opposition successes. Players can attempt to succeed, Aid Another, or Interfere with the Opposition with their actions.
This will require some kind of active element to oppose the party. However, the opposition could be monsters (patrolling, trying to catch the party, tearing down the walls, etc), environmental (swift river pulling, buffeting winds pushing, intense heat searing, etc) or something else entirely. This won’t work if you are doing something passive such as trying to find a book in a library, but I wouldn’t try to make that a skill challenge. You could make it a haunted library trying to prevent its secrets from being discovered or have agents in the library confounding the players progress to make it active though.
Let’s go with an example:
“You are being pursued by a pack of incensed Godsmen, not that they don’t have just cause to do so. The carved figurine in your satchel that you pilfered from the hands of the merchant-son was provocation sure enough, but this level of response is largely unwarranted. A job’s a job though.
Your mind returns to the task at hand, shaking off your pursuers.”
The assorted motley of building press upon streets already crowded with vendors in their stalls selling various wares and throngs of creatures of all shapes, sizes and persuasions.
Two players: Kalla [Githzerai Monk] and Heretus [Tiefling Psion]
Skill Challenge – Urban Chase
Complexity: 4 player successes before 3 Godsmen successes
Halla: I leap across the tops of the stalls to gain some distance.
[Acrobatics: 17 +11, 28 vs DC 12; Success]
DM: You leap and bound nimbly from stall to stall clearing clumps of gawkers.
Heretus: I startle the crowd to get them to clear the way.
[Intimidate: 10 +8, 18 vs DC 12; Success]
DM: You shout, “EVERYBODY MOVE” reinforced with psionic dissonance and and the crowd momentarily parts.
DM: The Godsmen shove their way straight through the throng of people, unrelenting in their pursuit.
[Athletics: 20 +5, 25 vs DC 12; Success]
DM: The Godsmen are still hot on your heels though they haven’t gained on you, yet.
Round Summary: Players 2/4; Godsmen 1/3
Kalla: I want to slip into a side alley to lose them.
[Stealth: 8 +9, 17 vs DC 12; Success]
DM: You slip unnoticed into a side alley gaining some breathing room.
Heretus: I feign ducking behind a stall to throw them off our tail.
[Bluff: 19 +10, 29 vs DC 12; Diversion!]
DM: You zig behind a stall towards a side road but zag behind a vendor into the alley behind Kalla.
DM: The godsmen try to use the side streets to cut you off.
[Streetwise: 9 +5 -2, 12 vs DC 12; Success]
The godsmen realize you aren’t down the side street, but half run down the side street in a ploy, while the other half resume pursuit down the alley.
Round Summary: Players 3/4; Godsmen 2/3
Kalla: I grab Heretus and scale a building!
[Athletics: 16 +9, 25 vs DC 19; Success]
DM: Despite the added weight, you scurry up the side of a tall building evading the encircling godsmen.
DM: The godsmen hurl curses as they vainly pursue despite losing sight of you. Their voices fade as you leave them behind like hapless bubbers.
Skill Challenge Successful!