Three Against the Dragon: Skill Challenge

Our three heroes have fought the young Black Dragon to a standstill with both sides taking hefty damage. The Dragon has called Parley and stood back. It’s time for a Skill Challenge.

“You fight well for softskins,” the Dragon says, “and this farmhouse is not where I would choose to die. Do we continue to fight and I slay you all before my wounds force me to lay beside you, or………..”

The Dragon lets the words hang in the air.

I’ve set the Skill Challenge at 5 successes before 3 fails. That’s a very tough challenge for just 3 players – 3 against 2 would have been better with hindsight, but hey.

Rhuryn makes the first roll – a Nature check – which just confirms that the heroes know what the players know about Black Dragons: they’re usually evil and prefer swamps. Well, duh. But it’s a success, and it counts.

Berrn’s player asks for an Insight check and gets it at DC15. I tell him that this Dragon has been taking the baubles and trinkets off the pilgrims who travelled the temple, but not killing them – barely even injuring them, in fact. Hmmmmmmm.

Inspiration hits. His eyes narrow, and Berrn says “You’re looking for something, aren’t you?”

I hadn’t considered the session taking this direction at all, but a Lazy GM knows when to follow the players’ ideas and pretend they’re his own.

“That is correct, Dwarf of the Greataxe clan. A gold sceptre formed from the still living egg of a black dragon. I have sworn to find and destroy it, and that is why I have no wish to die this day.”

Lady Ramona flubs her Diplomacy check, and the Dragon takes her offer to help to imply that he’s not up to the task. I’m sure Berrn yelling “I won’t make a deal with no Dragon!” didn’t help matters either.

Rhuryn manages to calm things down, and Berrn makes a Perception check as he looks over the Dragon’s meagre treasure pile. 3 successes, 1 fail.

“There’s no sceptres here, laddie. What makes you think it’s on the way to the temple?”

The Dragon hesitates before answering.

“I tracked it as far as Solmner Coast where an accursed Cleric of Pelor told me he had seen it in the hands of one of his kind making their way here as part of a pilgrimage. There is much you do not know about the Temple of Pelor, little softskins.”

I ask Lady Ramona for an Arcana check, and she easily breaks DC25. That’s 4 successes.

I tell her “To forge an item and still have the egg living at the end of the process takes great skill and magical ability. You’re not sure, but that sounds like the way to make a Sceptre of Black Dragon Control…………”

No wonder this Dragon wants it destroyed!

The final (if it succeeds) roll is with Rhuryn, and he suggests a battle of wills. He, Berrn and the Dragon all roll d20 and add their Wisdom bonus. Rhuryn gets +2 because Lady Ramona lends her support (ie, Aid Another). Berrn gets +2 because he doesn’t want to help no steenking Dragon, and the Dragon gets +2 because of his inate Draconic pride.

…..and Rhuryn makes it, by just one point.

The Dragon agrees to leave and never return if our heroes find the Sceptre. In the meantime he will stop attacking pilgrims. Berrn grudgingly agrees to find the sceptre because it’ll get the Dragon gone, and a Sceptre of Black Dragon Control is a Very Bad Thing Indeed. Lady Ramona agrees to find the sceptre….. but I suspect she may just decide to keep it for herself.

Just to be clear – this is a summary of over an hour of solid role-playing with the skill checks forming the basis for how things turned out. Add in about 40 minutes of combat and setup, and the end result is about 2 hours of pure role-playing goodness. 4e rocks as a role-playing game, and anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn’t played it or is playing it wrong. There I said it.

Whether you like it, however, is entirely a matter of personal taste, and that’s cool.

And with that, I’ll end on another rant. Hope you don’t mind.

There’s a misconception developing that having a skill system is somehow “old”, and having one is “new”. This is, frankly, Just Plain Wrong.

The first RPG I played was First Edition Traveller, the year it was released. That had an (excellent) skill system. So does the Classic D&D Rules Cyclopedia which is, y’know, frickin’ Classic D&D. For the longest time we played Rolemaster, one of the most beautifully skill-heavy systems there is. Call of Cthulhu and Runequest both have skill systems. All of these systems are what I would call unashamedly “old school” in the best and most positive meaning of the words.

That’s not to say there aren’t games that don’t have a skill system (or that they’re necessarily weaker games for it), but they exist right across the history of RPGs. From the wonderful Tunnels & Trolls to Risus (in which Cliches entirely eliminate the need for a skill system at all) and beyond, skill-less system are an important part of the hobby.

Just don’t try to revise history and categorize them as “old school” because of that, ok?

Thanks for listening! I feel better now.

22 Comments on “Three Against the Dragon: Skill Challenge”

  1. I think the difference between what you did and “old school”, is that there are plenty of benchmark values to help peg how hard you want the task to be. If the players pitch me a really weird idea, I’ll often let them give it a shot at “hard DC”, perhaps a bit higher if its REALLY out there.

    I like your style of letting a player’s idea or action shift the direction that the plot is going. Improvisation makes for really great games, especially if the players as you say think that its your idea all along. In my Songs of Erui campaign, one player tried to talk his way past an undead servitor, and it might have worked had he not totally botched his Diplomacy and Insight rolls. Might have helped if he had been trained in the first place, but you cant win them all…

    Antiochs last blog post..Assassin Class and Assassin Feats

  2. Greywulf, you did it wrong! As anyone on the intertubes will tell you, 4e is all about combat and has nothing to do with role-playing. ;)

    Seriously though, great job illustrating use of the skill challenge. I especially like your letting Players participate in the selection of the skills used and to what end. Nicely done.

    I’ve been visiting your blog for months now, and I’d like to commend your enthusiastic approach. An extremely welcome departure from the often hate filled dreck that veritably clogs the internet.

  3. people see what they want to see.

    Skill challenges suck if the people in them do.

    A shocking amount of people play all editions of D&D with little or no imagination involved. Rules lawyering is the softer side of that :)

    Skill challenges are NOT a “substitute” for RP, they are a framework for making the same skill checks we’ve been making for a decade now – as a team.

    BTW – Excellent use of a skill challenge. I am SO ripping this off – with credit :)

  4. Anyone can roleplay using any ruleset, so it’s silly to say one can’t roleplay using 4e. What’s interesting to me is how a ruleset immerses the player in the setting enough to encourage the player to roleplay. Is there a mechanical incentive or “encouragement” to immerse in the setting, or do the mechanics only describe combat-related activities?

    One question about inserting skill challenges into combat is whether it enhances roleplaying immersion, or if it reinforces the combat-related nature of the game. I do not have an answer, I’m more interested in the question.

    Sounds like an awesome session you had!

    Propagandroids last blog post..The +1 Road to Happiness in RPGs

  5. Thanks, all!

    @Antioch I agree – 4e has done a great job of following on 3e’s lead and providing plenty of benchmarks and examples of Skill use. That’s something which was lacking in many older games.

    @The Last Rogue Yeh. I hadn’t planned to do any gaming at all for a couple of months, then this happens. There’s going to be a follow-on session next week. Sheesh………..

    @VegasAndorian I hang my head in shame at all my badwrongness :D

    Seriously, I am making a conscious effort to give this blog an air of positivity. Sometimes that’s mighty hard though.

    @Donny_the_DM Yup. I love the way Skill Challenges make you think about how to involve every player in the areas of the game where skill checks are an appropriate aid to role-playing. They’re not a new idea, but I think Wizards’ have done a very good job of bringing them to the fore.

    @Propagandroid Good questions. I do think that the way that 4e has been presented (particularly in the PHB) over-emphasises combat to a massive degree, and that’s a Bad Thing. I’ve said before that if you took everything related to combat out of the PHB and you’d end up with a 32 page booklet, and that would include 16 pages of art.


    The rules and frameworks are there for non-combat interactions and role-playing – and they’re bloody good. They’re just buried in between all the fighting stuff, and easily overlooked as a result.

    The Skill Challenges system goes a long way toward that, but add in the Major and Minor Quests and the majority of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (the best DMG ever written, imho) and you’ve got a system more than capable of holding it’s own as a true immersive rpg. It’s just a shame that the over-emphasis on combat makes it hard to spot.

    Hmmmmm. I feel another blogpost coming up!

    I’ve run a few Skill Challenges now where they frame the whole adventure and the outcome of a combat counts as one of the successes. For example, in one session the heroes had to gain access to the inner sanctum of a Temple of Vecna. 5 successes before 3 fails, and “killing the undead guardians” was one of their challenges.

    I’ve written more about Skill Challenge-based adventures, here and here.

    Thanks again, all!

  6. @Alex Lol!

    What can I say? I love all versions of D&D (well, apart from AD&D ::shudder::), and think 4e is an unfairly maligned system. I’m just trying to give it a bit more positive press :D

    please don’t shoot me now

  7. Yeah, 4e really needs more apologists. :p

    Your description seems accurate to me, Greywulf. If we assume that such a thing was done on purpose, then there are two observations: either 4e was designed to downplay the roleplaying aspect of the game (for which we can consider Mike Mearls’s 2005(?) statement on his blog that roleplaying was not a necessary element for a roleplaying game), or it was designed with the assumption that everyone that picked up the game already knew what roleplaying was, how to do it, how to build a setting, etc.

    The DMG might be great, but 5/6 of a group is the players, and if their book focuses 90% on character combat abilities then the game’s going to take shape that way. It’s what I’ve been saying about the RPGA-type focus of 4e design…it was created for people who *are* interested primarily in character abilities, combat, and the acquisition of pieces of cardboard with new options on them. Of course people who aren’t primarily interested in those things can use the rules as a framework to play the kinds of games they’ve always played, but why should they when they aren’t supported?

    Propagandroids last blog post..The +1 Road to Happiness in RPGs

  8. As a followup, to specifically address skill challenges, it’s great what you and other bloggers have made of them. As presented in the PHB, though, they are an afterthought. They’ve been radically altered already with a pretty weak mea culpa, and they’re only now getting around to meaningfully including them in adventures. Same goes for rituals, which seem like a vestigial appendix.

    Anyone can make anything out of a ruleset, and the fact that D&D has so many players means that all the shortcomings of 4e will eventually have good houserules created for them, but my criticisms are aimed at the game as presented, and at the attitude and choices of the designers, not bloggers and players. I don’t consider our ability to make the game whatever we want it as a valid excuse for the game’s shortcomings and radical alterations of D&D tropes.

    Propagandroids last blog post..The +1 Road to Happiness in RPGs

  9. @Propagandroid Yeh. Skill Challenges were not presented or detailed well in the core books at all – and that’s something I *really* hope they fix in the DMG2 – not that they should have to, of course, but, y’know…. they should put something in there to fix things properly. Articles in D&D Insider just don’t cut it for me as being adequate coverage.

    It’s taken a good chunk of time for folks to get their heads around what Skill Challenges really are and what they represent, and that’s a shame as I rate them as being the single best, most brilliant element in 4e.

    Be interested to hear more about what you think really are the shortcomings and radical alterations of D&D tropes, now that the dust has settled, btw. Just curious :D

  10. @Greywulf: Over the summer I’ll be working on a couple of essays on the subject. In the meantime I’ll be hashing things out on the blog. There’s so much to say I’m not sure how to organize it all. :)

    I agree with you that DDI is not an effective outlet for errata and important game elements. I don’t subscribe to it, and I’d like to actually have the benefit of the fixed versions of the incomplete books I purchased. :)

    Propagandroids last blog post..The +1 Road to Happiness in RPGs

  11. Rolemaster is robustly skill based. It’s a little better than GURPS. Over on the Iron Crown forums, there’s talk of revising the game again. This time, some people are calling the allowance of the developers to go hog wild with it, to produce something else that is truly unique.

    Eltons last blog post..The Myth, the Lady, the Legend . . .

  12. @Propagandroid In this case that’s an easy one; the Dragon roars out “My patience is at an end, little little softskins!” and combat resumes – to the death.

    I’ve got a blogpost planned which deals with the consequences of failure in Skill Challenges. Watch this space!

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