Roleplaying and skill challenges

Skill challenges are something new for me… I haven’t had much exposure to it besides what I read in the DMG, a few mentions in some posts by ChattyDM and the mysterious author of At Will who seems to really like them.

The concept seems cool, but it somehow is nebulous to me… how do you actually play these?

I usually handle situations covered by skill challenges by either skill checks based on the description of what the players tell me… or by plain deciding what happens.

For example, you might recall the premise of my first game with the kids: some children from the village have disappeared and the heroes must find them.

I played that scene twice: 1 test run played by my wife – which helped me flesh out possibilities, and the actually game with the kids.

Here’s how it went:

Setup

Playtest

The players (all played by my wife) started by questioning the villagers. She rapidly figured out that the kids usually play alone by the well. So they went to the well, expecting that the children fell in there – I did that on purpose. Minor investigation revealed that they couldn’t have fallen in there – the well is covered by a grid with a hole big enough for only the bucket. Hard to find footsteps as many villagers come in there daily.

The players then questioned the villages’ guards and a few more villagers and they learned that one of the guards fell asleep on his shift.

So the players investigated the woods near that guards’ post. They quickly found some fresh tracks of kids running around. Then, some evidence of lizard-like creatures hiding in bushes.

Then the kids’ footsteps disappear and the lizard footsteps get deeper.

The players quickly figured out that the kids mus have been kidnapped by lizard people – most likely Kobolds, and followed the tracks to their lair.

Actual Play

The players questioned the villagers. Found out about the well, but were obsesses with the well up to a point where I decided that I had to let go of the investigation and use the well to please the players.

The broke into the well and had to swim through an underwater tunnel (hold their breath and walk for the characters in full armor) where they eventually found the Kobold tracks and were led to the lair.

Analysis

Both playthroughs ended up being very satisfying for the players. And besides new re-newbie stress of being circumvented and not feeling ready for it in the actual play session, satisfying to the DM as well.

But I am wondering how it would play as a skill challenge.

Without even thinking too much about it, I can see that a challenge could be made with ranger-like skills for tracking and diplomacy-like skills for interrogating, every success bringing you near to finding where the kids have been taken to.

I could see a failure bringing the players somewhere else – perhaps a trap set by other kobolds and they could find a map and note on them taking them to the kobold lair.

I’ve seen a few challenge templates in the DMG and on the At Will blog and I can see the parallels very well.

What I haven’t seen enough of is actual play examples. The DMG has only one.

I have three possible interpretations:

  1. 1: Are the players picking choices given by the DM from the skill challenge?

To me, it feels like it would take away from the experience of role playing and move it too close to a multiple choice quiz.

  1. 2: Are they picking skills and trying to be creative in explaining their usage towards the challenge?

That’s somewhat interesting, even though the role player in me wants to object… but it ain’t really that different from picking powers in a fight, right?

  1. 3: Are they simply roleplaying and the DM maps their actions to the challenge?

That’s probably exactly how I played it (besides the lack or skill checks)

I suppose I should experiment with #2 – it seems to be the appropriate compromise between #1 and #3.

Now, I just need some more time to play (and players)…

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