In How to Make a Skill Challenge Fun, we looked at factors to bring in when using a skill challenge during your session. In this new series, we will explore what goes into the design of a skill challenge. We went with how to run skill challenges first because that was everyone’s main question when approaching skill challenges. It was important to know what they looked like in practice. Now that we have practice, more theory will grace the site.
I’ll say it again: skill challenges are about actions, not skills. When looking at actions through the lens of a roleplaying game, we find ourselves staring at the most fundamental unit of game design: choice. It’s not simply choice, either. It’s meaningful choice. If I choose option A over option B, I will have different experiences, and play will proceed in a way that leaves me better off, in a worse position, or simply somewhere different. That sort of choice is meaningful. To gaze at it’s opposite, let’s assume that, between option A and option B, whenever I choose option B my character dies an immediate, gruesome death. I have choice, but it’s not really meaningful, is it? Assuming that one of my prime directives is to not die, I’ll never choose option B if I’m aware of the consequence. Only option A is viable, so in this scenario there is no meaningful choice –it’s clear to choose one thing all the time, and I’ll never explore the other option.
Now let’s add option C. Option C takes me somewhere different than option A. It offers my character’s demise at the end of its road, but not before offering a chance to avoid it, and offering multiple other options along the way. Now the choice is between a sure thing, a sure death, and a not-so-sure thing. My choices have started to become interesting again.
Let’s make it more interesting. Option C offers me death, but also promises greater potential rewards than option A. If I can navigate the the next branch of options correctly, I can come out further ahead than if I had picked the safe option A. Option A and option C now offer me something worth working with. We now have the beginnings of a game.
Skill challenges should likewise encourage player choice by presenting meaningful differences in the action that characters can take. It’s not enough just to have a diverse array of skills so everyone can participate. You want to force the players to choose this approach over that approach to see that using Heal in this circumstance is qualitatively better than using Bluff. Provide players with choices and their immersion in the challenge will naturally increase. So, to expand my skill challenge mantra:
Skill challenges are about actions, not skills. When you design skill challenges, you are designing choices, which drive action.
How then, to design choices? The good and bad news is that the options are nearly limitless when designing skill challenges. If you view the challenges on my site, you can see just about as many methods of choice design as there are skill challenges. In the next part of this series, I will share some techniques with you, but please don’t even begin to think that that’s all there is — I see people coming up with new bits every day and I am coming out with new techniques constantly myself. The design techniques you’ll see coming up should give a representative description of designing choice into your skill challenges to make them compelling for your players.
- How To Design a Skill Challenge #3 Part 3: Nesting
- How To Design a Skill Challenge Part 6: Strategies
- How to Design a Skill Challenge #2: Branching