Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Skill Challenges

I found an interesting post (and comment thread) at Tales of the Rambling Bumblers, concerning Skill Challenges in 4th Ed D&D. If you're familiar with the latest D&D incarnation, and have some time to kill, it's a good read.
The basic mechanism is ... a Skill Challenge of a particular difficulty: you need to score N successes before M failures (N >M in most of the examples I’ve seen) or you fail. N and M, and the difficulty of the skill rolls (DC in D&D terms) are determined by the difficulty of the Skill Challenge.
After a bit of rambling, he narrows in on about the "M-Strikes Rule", singling out the fact that if the group fails M rolls they fail the challenge as a whole, regardless of what the Mth roll was about.

The example challenge involves catching some Kobolds, and you can roll Nature to track them or Athletics to climb a tree and spot them. If a PC loses sight of the tracks, if it was the Mth roll, then the other PC can no longer roll to climb a tree. That's a bit odd - logically, climbing a tree to spot the kobolds is the sort of thing you'd do if you lost their trail, not necessarily the sort of thing you could no longer do because you lost their trail. Because of interactions like that, he's a big critic of the system.

I absolutely agree with him that the "M-Strikes Rule" is the fatal flaw of the Skill Challenge system. Suspension of disbelief is easier if individual actions had their own consequences, as opposed to an overall success/failure ticker (where-in, as you point out, my failed history roll stopping us before you can make your climbing check). It would make more sense and be less metagamey. In that sense, I feel "M-Strikes" does much to undermine the very thing that skill challenges are trying to accomplish.

That said, it'd be very difficult (and might even require a book of it's own) to balance all those possible consequences of every individual action. One of the design goals of the Skill Challenge system is to provide rules by which skill rolls and logic puzzles can be rated and compared against each other and against combat encounters to determine relative degree of difficulty and appropriate XP awards. 4E's Skill Challenges system is attempting to do for problem-solving, skill use, puzzles, and role-playing what 3.X had done for traps.

In other words, the designers want to give out XP for using your skills, but they don't want it to be a flat rule in which the danger or difficulty involved had no impact. (25 xp per skill roll would be trivial and pointless to track at mid-to-high levels, 200 xp per roll would be way too generous at low-level.) Nor do they want it to be a tremendously complicated system, where ever possible factor and consequence needs an entry in some gigantic reference section.

Yet within those constraints, they also needed some element of danger and/or chance of failure. Without some way of doing so, Skill Challenges would become a source of easy no-threat XP, and large sections of game mechanics would buckle under the weight of that overflowing XP chalice.

So they hit on an abstraction - that abstraction being the "M-Strikes Rule", and the Complexity Rating - to determine when you fail and the consequences kick in.

Just like hit points, M-Strikes isn't realistic enough for some people's tastes. As I said, I'm one of those folks who'd rather have detailed consequences stemming from specific actions rather than an overall out-of-character ticker.

I wouldn't have made the decision that 4E's designers did, but I can still see why they made that call, and why they felt it was beneficial to go there.

While I'll probably never use the M-Strikes Rule as written, I still think the core idea of Skill Challenges was a step in the right direction. It provides a framework that is a good starting place, encouraging the GM to make your skills not just something you roll once every 3rd session, and empowering the player to role-play a character whose Intelligence and Charisma exceed their own. Provided, of course, that the GM has a flexible mind and isn't too inclined to say "no" when the PCs come up with unique actions and solutions that are outside the script of the Skill Challenge.

1 comment:

r_b_bergstrom said...

Some more good posts on skill challenges from one of the other blogs I read fairly often: