The Three Rules of Failure in Skill Challenges

Heading into 4th edition, skill challenges were one of the things I was most looking forward to, and one of the things I’m most disappointed in.

Ultimately, it was just too ambitious. You can’t hope to make a framework that will cover all non-combat situations equally well.

That said, if we distill skill challenges to the most basic essence, it’s still a good idea. And that most basic essence is this: Make something dependent on several skill checks instead of just one.

Now, that said, there are three rules that I’ll go out on a limb and say do apply to every skill challenge.

  1. There must be the possibility of failure. There’s some subtlety here, though. For example, failure is not possible if the PCs can keep trying until they succeed.
  2. There must be a consequence for failure. In the most abstract terms, this means that the PCs are tangibly better off if they’d made every roll than if they’d lost every roll. This doesn’t necessarily mean something bad has to happen if they fail, though. For example, it might be that rather than something bad happening, something good doesn’t. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
  3. Failure must be an option. Just generally good advice. If you ever find yourself planning something that the PCs simply can not afford to fail at, then you’ve failed at planning.

If there’s no possibility of failure, there’s no reason to roll the dice. If there’s no consequence for failure, there’s no reason to have the skill challenge in the first place. If failure isn’t an option, then you’re setting yourself up for having to choose between fudging things and railroading the PCs into what you need to happen or completely ruining your game.

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10 Responses to “The Three Rules of Failure in Skill Challenges”

  1. There’s plenty ofgames with unified resolution mechanics such that everything, including combat, is handled by the same rules. They work just fine.

    That said, all yor principles are solid. They should apply to combats, puzzles and skill checks, at least. (With skill challenges and similar simply counting as extended skill checks.)

  2. Well, that may be true, but this post is specifically about D&D, and even more specifically about skill challenges. D&D’s certainly not a game where everything is resolved with unified mechanics.

    I agree with you that these rules apply to everything to some extent. There are exceptions, though. There are plenty of times when an otherwise pointless encounter is fine to throw in there for no reason other than it’s fun in and of itself. For that matter, I don’t really have a problem with an occasional pointless combat. I play D&D at least as much for the combat as anything else…

  3. Good solid advice. Point three is certainly one that I think can get overlooked in skill challenges.

    I would probably add one more: present options. Possibly the only thing more tedious than listen to a DM tell you their story where you have no input on events is listening to a DM tell you their story where your only input is rolling a dice. Players need meaningful options–Honesty or deceit? Subtly or violently?–to go with the dice rolls. It’s something that I think the core books themselves don’t always succeed at, especially in the area of traps.

  4. Asmor; sure, if combats are an end unto themselves, do pursue them with glee.

    (If D&D had a quick resolution option for combat, then it would be much better game for my purposes, but most people’s mileage seems to vary.)

  5. @Craig: I’m not really sure how much of the DM’s job it is to present options. Ideally the DM should present situations, and the players should figure out how they’re going to resolve it. Players are pretty good at making their own options…

    @Tommi: I’ve only played D&D since 3rd edition, but in both of those editions it’s always been a game where combat was central to the system. Having a quick resolution option for combat in D&D would be like rolling dice to determine the winner of a chess game. It might work… but why bother playing chess? There’s lots of games out there which don’t emphasize combat as much as D&D.

  6. Nice post. Keep it up!

  7. [...] Dicas muito importantes para Skill Challenges no Encounter-a-Day, ainda vou traduzi-las; [...]

  8. Asmor; I’m thinking about situations like the following: Assume high level party confronting an evil necromancer who protects her lands with various swarms of undead that are, frankly, little challenge to PCs of the relevant level. So, instead of playing through plenty of boring fights, roll one or few quick combat results to see if they lose hp/healing surges (depending on the edition in question) and then get on the interesting part, which is the castle.

  9. @Tommi: In a stuation like that, you could simulate it as a skill challenge. There’s plenty of precedent for skill challenges removing healing surges.

    Personally, I’d just hand wave it.

  10. [...] I’d promised this post a little while ago after reading Jonathan’s statistical analysis of skill challenge success rates over at The Core Mechanic.  I’m wary of the “echo chamber” effect — At Will has been posting a lot of skill challenges lately, there was a series of war-related challenges on The Core Mechanic recently, and Asmor offered some very good advice at Encounter-a-Day. [...]

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