I’ve noticed a rather startling trend over the past year in my two D&D 4E campaigns, and one that I think needs to be addressed: Skill Challenges never fail! I’ve run scores of skill challenges in my campaigns, usually Complexity 1 or 2, and I cannot recall any that the player-characters have failed to dominate – and often without a single failed check.
Now some would argue that since a skill challenge of Complexity 1 or 2 is equivalent to one or two monsters, then the party should always manage to be victorious. But that logic is a bit skewed, as a skill challenge is not a combat encounter, and failure does not result in the death of one or more characters in the party. Numerous sources tell us that a skill challenge never ends an adventure or stops a plot. Instead, a failed skill challenge simply changes the direction of the adventure plot, or possibly imposes a penalty to the next combat, or if used in during a combat, can make that combat harder in some way. And a party of adventurers will still get experience points for a skill challenge, regardless of the outcome, so failing a skill challenge should not be a big deal. Sometimes, as a DM, you kind of want the characters to fail a skill challenge, forcing them to have to take less direct path to resolving the adventure plot…
…except there is the real problem that Skill Challenges CANNOT ever fail!
The Mathematics of Skill Challenges
I know for some folks, statistics is a bad word in their gaming fun-zone, but when dealing any number system and probabilities (ie. dice), we have to deal with it. I’ll try and keep the math to a minimum, even though it’s the problem behind the breaking of skill challenges.
Skill Challenges have evolved only a little, while the Difficulty Class for Skill Checks have changed twice now since they were initially set down in the Dungeon Masters Guide. The latest and greatest version of Skill Difficulty Classes was published in the Rules Compendium last fall, and it determines how hard it is to overcome a Skill Challenge. But based upon those numbers, it is almost statistically impossible for a skill challenge to fail.
Assuming that a character is trained in a skill, and that skill is based upon a primary class ability score of 18 or 20 (+4 or +5 bonus), that character is automatically success with Easy Difficulty Checks, and will fail a Moderate Difficulty Check only 5%-10% of the time. If a character is trained in a skill, and that skill is based upon a secondary class ability score of 14 or 16 (+2 or +3), that character is also automatically successful with Easy Difficulty checks, and will fail Moderate Difficulty Checks 15%-20% of the time. Now if you present the party with a skill challenge, you are likely to find that there is at least one character which has that skill trained and with a decent ability score. Statistically, this means that the characters will garner approximately 6.5 successes and 1.5 failures across a series of 8 skill checks. And that means an automatic success for a Complexity 1 or 2 Skill Challenge.
Now admittedly, this number changes if you have untrained characters making attempts at skills just to be included in the challenge, or if a DM designs a skill challenge which specifically targets skills which the party has little or no training in. And one could argue that there is supposed to be a Hard DC thrown into the mix for any Skill Challenge beyond Complexity 1, which can have a failure rate of 40% to 60% even for characters with training and good ability scores.
But here’s the kicker…
The statistics used above only assume a Skill Bonus equal to Training (+5) + Ability Score Modifier (+2 to +5) + Half of Level. But as we all know, characters can cooperate using skills and gain an “assistance bonus” of +2 with just a single DC 10 roll. And the calculations also did not include the HUNDREDS of bonuses to skills that characters can have from Backgrounds, Feats, Themes, Items, and Race!!!
A “Monty Hall” Choice of Skill Bonuses
Pick a skill, any skill, and it is possible to increase skills using additional stackable bonuses in the amount of anywhere from +4 to +8 to it! And if you factor those into the statistics, they further reduce the chance of skill check failure by 20-40%!
Characters have literally hundreds of ways to add bonuses to existing skills, all of which stack, and can make it impossible for someone trained in a skill to NEVER fail an Easy or Moderate Difficulty Check, even without a decent ability score modifier. Let’s take Diplomacy as an example, which is one of the most common skills used in social skill challenges. There are 73 Backgrounds offering an untyped bonus, 97 magic items offering an item bonus, and one race (Half-Elf) offering a racial bonus, all to Diplomacy. There are also several feats which offer bonuses to Diplomacy, dependent on class and race, as well as several utility powers which can add substantial bonuses to the skill, again depending upon the class. And even if you have a class without a utility power that adds a bonus to Diplomacy, there are a half dozen of the new Themes that add a power bonus to the skill at 5th level. Many other skills commonly used in Skill Challenges have even greater numbers of additional bonuses, such as Perception, with 79 Backgrounds, 4 Themes, 166 Magic Items, and 5 Races to garner bonuses from.
Now certainly, not every character is going to stack bonuses on their skills like this, but I think you will find that most players are drawn to the “honey pot”, and simply can’t resist selecting one or two of the above to augment a favored skill. But unfortunately, this makes all but Hard Difficulty Classes auto-successes, and even Hard DCs are still more likely to succeed than fail.
So if it is a statistical improbability that the heroes will ever fail at a skill challenge, why do I, as a Dungeon Master, bother to make them? From what I’ve seen played out in my games, the chance of failing a skill challenge, unless I specifically “cheat” and stack the deck against my players buy using oddball skills or forcing the untrained heroes to roll against the challenge, is almost negligible. And it looks like the real problem is the ease by which a character can be created with amazingly strong skills, capable of overcoming almost any Difficulty Class except for Hard.
It would seem like the only real solution is to either artificially cap off skills based upon character level, or that the way Skill Challenges and Skills are handled needs to be addressed. I’ve already started working on some ideas on that topic, and in Part 2 of this blog, I’m going to be taking a look at some possible solutions to the problems with skills and skill challenges that I’m going to be trying in my own campaigns!
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!