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Skill Challenge Dilemmas for Jocks, Nerds, and Drama Geeks

skill challengeWith the coming of Memorial Day, and the promise of three-day weekend, my Dark Sun campaign ended up getting cancelled this week, with about half my players heading out of town to visit friends or relatives.  Despite the fact, I might add, that I left last session on a massive cliffhanger: while battling a pack of the Iron Rats gang, the heroes found themselves plummeting into the Under-Tyr when the crumbling basement hideout collapsed under their feet!

Did the heroes survive?  And if they did, can they find their way out of the horrible dangers said to be lurking in the ruins beneath fabled Tyr?  Guess we’ll have to wait another week to find out… *sigh*

But having a free week gives me time to work on a problem that has plagued me in not only my Dark Sun campaign, but occasionally in my Forgotten Realms campaign as well.  Basically, I’m having problems making skill challenges exciting – or at least engaging -for all the players at the gaming table.

Three Types of Challenges

Basically, it seems to me that there are really only three types of Skill Challenges: Social, Physical, and Research.  Most of the Skill Challenges published in the DMG and DMG2 fall into these three categories, although there are several hybrid skill challenges in DMG2 which work hard to cover two or even all three of the challenge types in order to engage the player-characters.

socialSocial Challenges tend to be interactions with sentient creatures, NPCs, or even groups of people.  Negotiations, interrogations, and diplomacies are the hallmarks of these types of challenges, and they draw upon the skills of Bluff, Diplomacy, Insight, Intimidate, and occasionally, Streetwise.

Examples of Social Challenges: The Negotiation (DMG), The Dead Witness (DMG), The Interrogation (DMG), Hunting the Mastermind (DMG2), The Restless Dead (DMG2)

Physical Challenges involve dealing with real obstacles to be overcome.  Navigating across a desert, crossing a river, climbing a cliff face, or shifting rubble to clear a dungeon passage all involve interacting with the environment, and heroes deal with it using their bare hands.  Skills for Physical Challenges include Acrobatics, Athletics, Endurance, Perception, Stealth, and Thievery.  Occasionally, one of three knowledge skills is called upon to deal with a Physical Challenge, usually Nature (outdoors), Streetwise (urban), and Dungeoneering (underground).

Examples of Physical Challenges: Urban Chase (DMG), Lost in the Wilderness (DMG), Chasing the Bandits (DMG2)

Research Challenges represent puzzling out mysteries, unearthing clues, or deciphering forgotten or forbidden lore, and tend to draw heavily on the knowledge skills.  So having skills such as Arcana, Dungeoneering, Heal, History, Nature, Religion, and Streetwise are key to dealing successfully with a Research Challenge.

Examples of Research Challenges: Discovering Secret Lore (DMG), Closing the Portal (DMG2), Opening the Ninth Ward (DMG2)

Now there are a few oddities among skill challenges however, and not all fit neatly into the three categories – but usually they favor one category more than another.  For instance, The Rushing River (DMG2) is mostly a Research Challenge, depending more on Knowledge Skills than physical ones to navigate its course, with a bit of Social and Physical Challenges tossed in, which attempts to make it involve all types of characters.  Traveling through Gorgimrith (DMG2) is a half-Physical Challenge half-Research Challenge but does not involve any Social skills.  And War by Other (DMG2) is a half-and-half mixture of Social and Research Challenges, but has little to offer characters who excel at Physical Challenges.  Moving through Suderham (DMG2) is possibly the best example of a skill challenge which can allow all types of characters to participate, but it is also a fairly complex encounter in order to encompass the challenges of heroes skulking through an evil city.

Three Types of Characters

The real difficulty for a Dungeon Master, in trying to engage all his players during a skill challenge, is that characters, like physicalskill challenges, tend to come in three types as well.  I sort of had an epiphany regarding this when dealing with the Dark Sun characters who tend to be quite one-track in their skill selection, and came to realize that characters tend to be jocks, nerds, or drama geeks – with the occasional ganger thrown in for good measure.

Yes, it sounds a bit like high school all over again, but that seems to be the trend.  And it’s also what makes it tough for DMs to engage all the players during a skill challenge – just like it’s hard to get jocks, nerds, drama geeks, and gangers to all get along in class!

Jock characters tend to be really great at handling Physical Challenges, but have few if any Social or Research Challenge skills, which tends to make them cranky.  Nerd characters excel at Research Challenges, but are typically lacking in Physical or Social Challenge skills unless they call for a knowledge skill, where they can chime right in with the correct answer.  And Drama Geek characters are perfect in Social Challenge situations, but grow frustrated at Physical Challenges, or bored with Research Challenges.  Ganger characters usually tend to be jocks, but with additional skills in Stealth, Streetwise, or Thievery.

So with three types of Skill Challenges, and three types of characters to match, it really comes down to the DM to figure out ways to write a challenge to engage all the players.  But there is also another way – an alternative is to let characters use skills in a bit of an unorthodox way to meet the challenge criteria.

Alternative Skill Solutions

So rather than having to write specific elements into a skill challenge to let it be solvable by all characters – something I personally hate doing, as I like to sometimes create a skill challenge on the fly – I think it is easier for a DM to just think of a few ways for characters to use alternative skills to aid a skill they are deficient in, or as an outright substitute for a skill roll.  For Research Challenges, it’s nearly impossible to substitute a non-knowledge skill and expect success, but there are alternative skill uses available for for Physical Challenges and Social Challenges.

Using a non-standard skill to add assist a skill should be a little harder than usual, so I’m going to use a DC12 to generate the +2 assist roll.  Of course, assist rolls do not count as successes or failures in a skill challenge, so there should be no concern about giving it a try.  But using a non-standard skill to resolve a specific skill in a challenge should definitely be more difficult, and increasing the DC to a new challenge level (Moderate DC becomes Hard DC) would probably be appropriate.

Physical Challenges

If you know what to look for…” (Nerd – Assist Roll) – use a knowledge skill like Arcana, Dungeoneering, or Nature to figure out a way to improve an Athletics or Acrobatics skill roll.  For example, while climbing a cliff face, a character could make a Nature check to find better rock to grab, and assist their Athletics check.

My faith shall overcome this trial.” (Nerd – Substitution Roll) – a devout character might opt to use their Religion skill to replace an Endurance check, as a test of faith.

Don’t worry, this will be easy!” (Drama Geek – Assist Roll) – using Bluff or Diplomacy, a character could encourage his allies to overcome an obstacle, giving them (false) courage to succeed.

Social Challenges

C’mon, look who you’re talking to here.” (Jock – Assist Roll) – In many Social Challenges, using Intimidate can result in an automatic failure, but a bit of swaggering and bluster can go a long way.  Demonstrating physical prowess in a non-threatening way, such as using Athletics, Acrobatics, or Stealth, can be an effective bargaining technique to give a bonus to a Diplomacy or Bluff roll, convincing others that the heroes are right.

Of course, if you take into account the… <insert babble here>” (Nerd –Substitution Roll) – using a knowledge skill to overwhelm an NPC with techno-babble and jargon can be just as effective as a Bluff check for convincing others that the heroes know what they are doing.  Of course, such a skill check could be opposed by an NPC with training in that knowledge skill.  Devout characters can also use a Religion as a substitute for Diplomacy, by citing parables and scriptures which might have bearing on the case at hand.

So really, it just takes a different perspective to find new ways for player-characters of all types to be able to succeed at skill challenges of all kinds.  And for Research Challenges, a Dungeon Master can always throw in a few angry monsters trying to stop the party from solving the mystery for the jocks to go beat on while the nerds are reading the hieroglyphics.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


One Response to “Skill Challenge Dilemmas for Jocks, Nerds, and Drama Geeks”

  1. This is pretty much entirely the reason we didn’t bother with Skill Challenges at all in our 4E play… What 4E calls a skill challenge (by the current/new definitions, not the original DMG characteristics) is (IMO) the same thing good DMs have been doing all along — devising a challenge, setting benchmarks and then turning the PCs loose on it.

    When a “skill challenge” situation came up in game, instead of agonizing over what skills were proper or if we could use Aid Another or what substitutes for what, we just played it through, rolling skills when they came up and letting everyone play to their strengths, both personally and in character.

    The only mechanical value skill challenges seem to have is getting rid of the “infinite do-over” that sometimes happens in games. “Oh, the rogue failed, well, uh, let the cleric try…” Otherwise, we, as a group haven’t used skill challenges since the beginning.

    And your article here about working around the issues they create (well-written and interesting as it is to read) articulates a prime reason why my groups have found them kind of pointless.

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