D&D4E Skill Challenges: Changes Over Time

@Hans made a review of the evolution of Skill Challenge rules in D&D 4th Edition on Adept Play. I think it’s worth reading.

There’s a lot to notice, but here are some things that stick out to me:

  • The meaning and role of Secondary skills changes a lot. Any group playing 4th Edition is going to have to come up with their own way of doing it, whether pulled wholesale from a version of these rules or taken in bits and pieces.
  • The meaning of failure shifted from failure to success with a cost.
    • Along with this, failure changed from not rewarding XP at all to rewarding the full XP, no different than success.
  • Not just one pass but lots of iteration on the math, from obvious things like updating raw numbers, to changing DC recommendations, adding the Advantage rules, and so on.

I was very involved with 4E play when it was popular, and this brought back a flood of nostalgia and memories. What stands out to me is that this edition was constantly updated and patched, almost like the updates of a videogame. The Skill Challenge rules were one of the most revisited parts of the game. Other than the basic rules, I remember playing using the popular homebrew Obsidian Skill Challenge system, which you can find on ENWorld here.

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Hi @Froggy, would you mind sharing an actual play example of a skill challenge that you particularly enjoyed?

It’s been a really long time, 10+ years, so recollection is fuzzy at best. But I’ll make an effort.

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So, this is very general, but I’m making an attempt to summarize some of my D&D4 play.

The important thing to distinguish here is that what people that didn’t play much D&D4 commonly think of as D&D4 play—that is, a railroad sequence of planned encounters—is not at all what we’re talking about here.

There was genuine conflict, as often happens in mainstream publications[1], between the rules themselves and the railroaded nature of the published adventures, especially the ones built for organized play. However, please consider:

  • D&D4’s publishing model was never reliant on published adventures, not like D&D5 is now. The vast majority of first-party published content was player options. We liked to fiddle with new things.

  • The backlash to D&D4 from established D&D3 players caused the effect that whoever embraced the new edition was committed to exploring its rules playfully. The result is that a vast part of the 4E online community actually produced material which was play-oriented. The Obsidian Skill Challenge system I linked in the opening post is an example of that.

  • There was plenty of non-railroad materials in settings. Read the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, it’s one of the most excellent books Wizards of the Coast has published yet, in my opinion. It provides instruction to do situation building in Neverwinter with various factions with different conflicting goals.

Regarding me, this is how I used to run the game. I have been blessed/cursed by ADHD, and the result of that is that I cannot for the life of me read a published railroad—I get too bored. I have adapted bits an pieces of some adventures, but mostly I’ve used the beginning hooks as starters. First of all, I embraced digital tools. I’ve never, ever, prepared an encounter beforehand. I had the monster database open, selected stuff on the fly, and put it there to fit the situation. I had a couple of maps with interesting features that I also reskinned based on the situation. This open reskinning of monster blocks was very common in 4E, just as the open reskinning of powers was. All of the functional 4E players I’ve seen did this.

Reskinning in this context means applying the mechanics but changing the fictional description, similarly to how it’s done in early Champions, Sorcerer, or Champions Now. I see a direct through line to 4th Edition coming from early Champions.

I’m not going to claim that this play was particularly enlightened or successful—certainly I wasn’t as good of a player as I am now. What I am going to claim, though, is that when I moved my campaigns to Dungeon World, inspired by the lower prep necessary, I ended up having much less fun on average, and I actually attribute much of my success with Dungeon World to 4E, including the onion method as a conflict-resolution mechanic which I developed instinctively in my first campaign, inspired by my positive experiences with D&D4 and skill challenges.

Regarding skill challenges: some of the most fun encounters I had were when a skill challenge was mixed with combat. You can see in the Obsidian 1.2 rules quite a lot of thought went into integrating these. Oftentimes, a tough tactical choice needed to happen between positioning oneself to advance the skill challenge and make skill rolls and effectively fighting the monsters. That was fun, for me.

Also, I never noticed the reinterpretation of skill challenge failure to success with a cost. For me, it was always failure, but I never had a need to lead players to a planned encounter, because there wasn’t any. That change surprised me when reading @Hans’s review.

  1. One only needs to look at the clashing suggestions between the text of One Ring 2E and the introductory adventure, which I mentioned here. ↩︎

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That’s really interesting, Claudio.

I have never played 4E (although I have the books at the moment - someone just gave me a set!), but the description of a skill challenge integrated with combat sounds really interesting and appealing. (If it’s possible to give a very brief description of how that works, I’d love to hear!) I bet you could do a lot of things with that, and make combat much more exciting.

I’m curious to see if I understand this correctly. Are you saying that playing Dungeon World was less fun for you, but the parts which were fun were inspired by your 4E play? If so, I’d love to hear what that looked like, as well. Exciting combat scenes? Structured conflict resolution? Something else?

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A post was split to a new topic: How I made Dungeon World work for me, thanks to D&D 4E