I’d bet that skill challenges are the most analyzed, discussed and tinkered-with elements of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons. On a whole, the writers, designers and players want the system to work, but the whole thing doesn’t seem to hang together yet, especially when compared with the rest of the game. For example, if an adventuring party has an encounter that’s within the normal experience budget, it will be dependably challenging. The math is clean, and it applies well to actual play.
It’s much more difficult to make a skill challenge interesting and, you know, challenging. While I’m no pioneer on running or designing them, it may be useful for others to hear some of my dungeon mastering principles when designing and running skill challenges.
Every success should matter. In fact, every roll of the dice should change the environment. The characters have interacted with their world, they’ve used their skills, and the players have rolled some dice. What’s different now? In last week’s game, my group had to repair the mystic/mechanical defenses of a small town in advance of a bandit attack. Each success earned them more functionality, and each attempt took about an hour. If the characters got distracted, or wanted to spend their time on other preparations, the earlier portion of the challenge wouldn’t be wasted. If they failed three times, the mechanisms would break, the magic would discharge and they would lose their asset.
When designing social skill challenges, I parse out key bits of information and/or specific behaviors. With each success, they either learn something key, or they earn a new level of cooperation. In last week’s game, the villagers could be convinced to participate in their town’s defense. However, convincing someone to assist is very different from recruiting someone to fight on the front line, and recruiting someone to fight is different from having a genuinely useful ally. During actual play, the party’s warlord wasn’t interested in putting the villagers in harm’s way, but he did want some indirect, supportive help during the battle. As a result, he broke off the challenge after a single success, and I didn’t push it.
I’ve had the most success by including a lot of structure to my challenges, and then playing them with flexibly. It works, though I struggle to find target numbers that create a sense of possible failure without making them impossible.