How To Make A Skill Challenge Fun, Part 1.

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A lot of people have enjoyed the original skill challenges that I’ve posted.  The response has been really great, but always the follow-up question is:

How do I run one of these things?

Which is, you know, a pretty darn good question to ask.  The way skill challenges are presented, it seems just another method for rolling dice.  Dragon is chipping away with some articles on skill challenges on how to design challenges, and I almost did a design post myself, but…no one has problems with design.

How do I run one of these things?

Geez, you’re sort of persistent.  OK, let’s start with fundamentals.

Skill Challenges are Structured Roleplay.

When you start a skill challenge, you are setting up a roleplaying situation that is all about the actions that players are taking through their characters. Why then, I hear you ask, am I not just roleplaying?  You can always put the dice aside and act as your characters.  This is always an option, but discussing when and when not to use a skill challenge is more a job for the (soon to follow) design articles that are approaching. So, uh…keep reading!

Needless to say, when you are in a skill challenge, you are explicitly setting a goal — you want to convince this person to do something or not do something, you’re trying to find something, you must overcome an obstacle — and you are moving towards that goal by way of character actions. Your players are going to roleplay what they are doing, roll dice, and you as GM are going to act out the outcome of the action.  You are roleplaying towards a discrete goal, which differentiates it from more ‘freeform’ roleplay, which can tend to meander or shift goals repeatedly.

One advantage of structured roleplay is that it helps people who are prone to freezing during freeform roleplay.  “What do you say to the guard?” is a different question depending on whether you are talking to shoot the breeze or because you’re trying to convince him to let you in the castle.  Some players can do fine no matter why you ask them to talk to the guard, but other players are like Method actors –”what’s my motivation?”  Skill challenges let you hand them this motivation, and get both the introverts and extroverts at the table into character and contributing to the roleplay and world-building.

Skill Challenges are About Actions, Not Skills.

I have an Utterli post on this, but it needs to written.  The tendency surrounding this roleplaying device is to look at your character sheet and try to find the right skill to fit into the slot, then find some way to work it in through roleplay.  Since skill challenges are structured roleplay however, what’s important first and foremost are the actions your PCs take.  Instead of:

PC:”I’ll intimidate. I rolled an 18.”

GM: “The kobold shakes in fear. One success.”

It is:

” I grab this kobold by the shoulders, nostrils flared. ‘Where is it, you worthless maggot?  WHERE IS THE JEWEL?’ Intimidate…got an 18.”

GM: “‘ I-I-I-I can’t tell you, the master, he…he will kill me if I tell you! ‘  The kobold is trembling now, though.  He looks ready to crumble. One success.”

Roleplay makes all the difference between an exciting and fun skill challenge and a boring bland dice-roll.  Conversely, you get maximum action out of your players by giving them good reaction and feedback to their actions.  If PCs aren’t getting it, you can shake them up.  Roleplay and withhold some of the feedback to draw them in:

PC: “I’ll intimidate. I rolled an 18.”

GM: “‘Aaaaaaagh! No! Don’t hurt me!’”

PC: “‘…then tell me what I want to know.’”

GM: “I can’t!  My master will kill me if I do!”

PC: ” ‘You’re not dealing with your master right now, are you?’”

GM ” Good stuff.  One success.”

In the next part of this series, we’ll discuss the special rules for setting scenes in skill challenges, and the art of back-and-forth.

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About the Author

A Jack of All Trades ,or if you prefer, an extreme example of multi-classing, Gamefiend, a.k.a Quinn Murphy has been discussing, playing and designing games straight out of the womb. He is the owner and Editor-in-Chief of this site in addition to being an aspiring game designer. As you would assume, he is a huge fan of 4e. By day he is a technologist. Follow gamefiend on Twitter