Mini skill challenges

In tonight’s all-RP session, we had what I can only surmise was a series of small skill challenges.  These were basically a series of skill checks followed by a short resolution which resulted in a prize bonus. As an example, we encountered a dancing Satyr and his friends in the woods; using diplomacy, “perform,” and athletics we provided them with a good time. In return they helped us with a Communicate with Nature ritual (+4 to the nature check). Earlier in the night we had a similar set of small diplomacy and intimidate checks to get some info about our enemies.

These encounters didn’t feel like formal skill challenges, and that’s why I’m assuming our DM was trying out something newer and more versatile. The reason why I don’t think they were standard skill challenges was that it was not always clear if we were succeeding or failing, and the consequence of success/failure was not apparent. Also it just didn’t seem like enough rolls, usually there’s a lot more rolls in a “x successes before y fails” situations.

These encounters worked very well for us. It didn’t detract from the story, and when things went well we felt pretty good. The downside from the more structured challenge is that we were sometimes scrambling to come up with the right skill to use for the check. For instance, we discussed for a long time what skill the bard should roll to entertain with a song, or the right skill for a monster knowledge or whether detecting an illusion might be arcana or perception.

The other issue (and this I think is common with regular skill challenges) was that the participation was uneven. I think tonight the warlock felt redundant to the bard and psion in the arcana department. What should the players do when three characters all have high diplomacy? It’s not really fair if one person does all the talking for the party. The social skills (diplomacy, intimidate, bluff) present this challenge to any group in any gaming system, and I would like to explore this area more in later posts.

The less obvious challenge is what do you do when three party members all have a high history or arcana skill? Mathematically it only makes sense for the guy with a 14 in the skill to make the roll and the one with a 13 make the “aid another” check. But it sucks to have built a character to be really into history and have that 13 score, but the party member have a higher score because of his race. In some ways it must be like having a masters in one topic and being on a panel with a guy with a PhD in the same topic. And unlike real life, d&d doesn’t have the nuance in the skill checks to have people be the experts in a sub-specialty.

The only solution I can think of is for the DM to present situations where each person can shine in that skill and somehow prevent the other from participating or being the lead. As a player I could suggest that the party members should take turns making the skill, but that is not the optimal solution and it feels a little sour and forced to me. The ideal situation would be that each player has to make a choice between using that skill and performing some other action, and so the guy with the 14 in history instead chooses to do a religion check, leaving the guy with a 13 to do the history instead. I can see this being workable when making skill checks during combat: the way disabling a trap or magical device comes up in the published modules. It’d be interesting to see a history check as an action in combat (it’d have been one where it was more useful than using an attack power).

How else can actions be restricted, without combat, so everyone gets a turn?

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2 thoughts on “Mini skill challenges

  1. The skill challenges were the normal ones, mainly done on the fly in response to player requests. Skill challenges don’t need to be so rigidly run that they are announced and results are known right away. I believe the DMG2 even has information about running them over a long time period, without the players knowledge.

    In regards to the particular game, you guys seemed to be a little paralyzed by too many possible avenues so I decided to give you guys a chance to take one of them off the table. It happens that figuring out the goblin’s terrible, horrible name was the easiest and I spotted the commune with nature ritual while we were looking up rituals and came up with the idea of the whispering tree. The satyr made an appearance because I was pretty sure no one in the group had a good nature check and I wanted to make things a little easier (and spread the fun around to everyone). So that’s an example of how I tend to work things. But I’m learning so I appreciate any feedback.

    As for the other issue, it’s weighed heavily on me the last few weeks. Part of it is a social dynamic issue. There are a few people in our group who are very competitive and a bit more outgoing. Heck, if I wasn’t DMing right now, you probably would hardly hear from me as well. But I am trying to think of a way to make things go more evenly and if you come across any tips, I would love to hear them.

  2. In today’s Dragon magazine editorial Stepping Out of the Spotlight, Chris talks about sharing the spotlight. I think the thing that makes it work in that situation is that the characters are good friends (and assumedly have compatible goals) and that they know that for x sessions it’s going to be about them.

    I guess another thing to do would be to enforce who is talking to who, in what room, and when and make sure its balanced? Its tough to do, and I think that it would require a “gentleman’s agreement” amongst the players.

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