I’m starting to make an effort to publish more generalized tabletop content to this blog instead of merely making it a repository of builds and stat blocks, and for the first “article” I want to discuss my ideas on a topic that seems to be generating a fair amount of discussion on various gaming blogs: Skill Challenges.
The concept of a Skill Challenge, a codified set of rules for adjudicating success and failure in a non-combat scenario was first introduced with the launch of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, and has been revisited, restructured, and streamlined again and again. However, there was another release of the rules with the Star Wars Saga Edition line in Galaxy of Intrigue, and that continues to be my go to for ideas on running skill challenges.
Skill challenges can be something that is really difficult for some players to get their heads around, while some of them will take to it like ducks to water, much like anything in a tabletop game. However, the skill challenge can be hard for the soldier or Jedi characters to get excited about, regardless of how the player feels about them, with their skill spread lending itself mainly towards the physical and combative tasks during the game.
Then again, it’s just as often that I see the GM afraid of putting the skill challenge into their games, because they don’t understand what their supposed to represent or because they’re afraid their PCs won’t enjoy them, or they’re simply worried about not doing it correctly.
However, it doesn’t take much looking to see how many of the scenes from the Star Wars movies could be run as a skill challenge and in doing so, it becomes readily apparent just how integral the skill challenge mechanics can be to a great Star Wars Saga Edition experience.
For example, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s investigation of Jango Fett that eventually leads him to the knowledge of the clone army and the Separatist plot is most definitely a skill challenge being run with intervening action and combats.
Luke’s Jedi training on Dagobah could also be envisioned as a skill challenge (and is a great way to show how the physical skills can be used in these challenges).
The Millennium Falcon being chased through the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back could also be easily represented as a skill challenge.
Sometimes these problems can disappear just by talking to the players (or looking at them from a mechanics standpoint if you’re the GM) about these scenes. Sometimes, putting it in a cinematic perspective can help them come around to the idea of what a skill challenge is supposed to represent in game.
This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg in what can be major problems in putting skill challenges into your game, a problem that I like to call “the one trick pony syndrome.”
This is the idea of the PCs looking at their character sheets to find their skill with the biggest bonus and then spamming it through the challenge, or worse yet, simply abstaining from making rolls because Jump or Endurance doesn’t have a place in this particular challenge. This can be a fairly prevalent tactic; especially in younger gaming groups that have grown up with systems that have strongly codified skill systems (though older gamers can also be put off by the idea of needing to roll a dice to see if there idea has merit). This can be a tough idea to break, but once again, you have a strong resource in your inventory that you can use to help with this.
Once again, point to the movies. Ask the players if the movies would have been nearly as exciting if Leia had handled all of the negotiations? What if R2 had handled all the Mechanics? How about if Han had taken care of every single piloting roll? The answer from around the table should be a resounding “No.”
As a matter of fact, we see the heroes (and villains) in the films making attempts with skills that they are not trained in, or at the very least, skills they don’t have the highest modifiers in. Luke attempts to make multiple Persuasion checks while in Jabba’s Palace. We see (or at least hear about) Threepio making Mechanics checks while aboard the Millennium Falcon. Padme’s making Climb checks while in the area on Geonosis, and in the same scene, Anakin is even making Ride checks. Heck, we even see Leia making an untrained Use the Force check in Episodes V and VI to get a sense on where Luke is.
Heroes are called upon to make checks in skill that they aren’t “trained in” all the time under stressful conditions. The difference is, the heroes in the movies, books, and comics don’t have the meta-problems that characters at the table have. They don’t have the luxury of stopping the action, looking at their character sheet, and realizing that they only have a +5 bonus on that particular skill and would need to roll a natural 20 on the die to achieve a successful result. They simply know they have to get to the top of the column, isolate the reverse power coupling, or convince the crime lord to let his friends go free.
So, it becomes a matter of getting your players into the mindset of not looking at their skill list during a skill challenge. Even go so far as to ask them to turn their sheet over, and then get into the mindset of their characters. What would their character want to attempt in a given situation? What reaction would they have? Figure out as a GM what skill would be best represented by that action, and then, and only then, have the player check out what that modifier is. This doesn’t mean that the player shouldn’t also be encouraged to take an action that does line up with their skills (after all, they did spend valuable resources to train in the skills they did).
There are a number of ways that you as a GM can help to encourage this kind of behavior at the table. The first and most important is talking frankly with your players about just what a skill challenge is, and more importantly, what it isn’t.
A skill challenge, at its core, is nothing more than a way to advance the narrative in a number of directions while using existing game mechanics as an arbiter for determining which way the narrative will progress. It’s incredibly important for the players to know that they aren’t going to suffer character death just because they’ve botched one Persuasion check. It’s also just as important to know that they aren’t going to be “stuck” should the skill challenge wind up a failure.
Yes, they may find themselves a little banged up and worse for the wear, and yes, they may find themselves faced with a brick wall in their path. However, this also means that they are simply going to have to find a way around that wall, and may very well experience some side plots and other parts of the story that they might not have gotten a chance to if they had passed through the skill challenge with flying colors.
What this does, is take the fear of failure out of a skill challenge. By doing this, you’ve put a big safety net underneath the players during these encounters, and one that they will stop noticing after a while.
Next, it’s important to let your players know that just because a skill isn’t listed as a “primary skill,” that doesn’t mean it’s shut off from the rest of the skill challenge and completely useless. Make sure that you as a GM make it very clear to them that if a player comes up with a creative use for a particular skill that makes sense in the given situation; you are probably going to roll with it and allow them to at least try it.
This show the players that while you may not have planned for all contingencies, you are willing to go along with their ideas, and a little bit of power (even perceived power) in the players hands can go a long way towards helping them to enjoy the process.
Finally, make sure you’re throwing the occasional bone to the soldier and the Jedi in these skill challenges. Throw in some skill checks that are going to allow these characters to shine and give them the opportunity to pull the rest of the party out of the fire.
What this shows the players is that you are taking their abilities and the resources they have invested into their characters into account with your planning.
Running a successful skill challenge requires you as a GM to walk a fine line between planning and execution, but the payoff when the players finally “get it” and start getting down and dirty, and most importantly, having fun with it is worth all the time and effort you put into the entire process.
Now, this entire process can take some time, but there are a number of ways that you can give the players a “push” into making the transition to this idea of participating in a skill challenge. They may not work with all groups, but they might be worth trying.
The first one is the easiest: Reward the players for their creativity. Now, I don’t mean reward them in game with bonus experience points or better gear (though you might be able to get away with that occasionally). Here’s what I mean. Say a player comes up with a really creative use for the Acrobatics skill during a skill challenge. Whether or not they blow the check out of the water, barely succeed, or even fall flat on their faces doesn’t matter. The fact is that they thought outside the box, put the idea out there, committed to the idea, and actually tried it.
Look at them after the session and say, “Remember that trick you tried with the Acrobatics skill? That was brilliant/great/really good/whatever you want to say here.” Sometimes that all that’s necessary to get player buy-in, and encourage him to try something equally as daring and creative during the next skill challenge.
The second piece of advice is simply this: Don’t tell the party that they are in a skill challenge. Set up the scene as normal, but don’t let the party know that this is an obvious challenge. Just start asking them what they want to do in the given situation, and keep track of successes and failures in secret.
Particularly astute players might be able to pick up on the fact that they are in a skill challenge, but probably not for a couple of rounds, and that might be all that’s needed to get TPBI (Total Party Buy-In). If, by some chance, no one does pick up on the challenge, finish it out, and then after the session, drop the bomb on them. “Remember that scene where this and this happened and you did that in response? Yeah? That was a skill challenge. That’s how they’re run and that’s all the more that needs to be done in them.”
If, after all of this, things still aren’t clicking, you can institute a few table rules for skill challenges. One you can institute is one gleaned from listening to the Critical Hits podcast. A player cannot use the same skill two rounds in a row, and they cannot use the same skill as another player has used in the same round. This forces the players to start diversifying their skill choices during the challenge.
Secondly, you can institute the rule that the only way for the PCs to accrue a failure is when not every PC attempts to contribute in some way. Oftentimes, the removal of the fear of failure can get a player to start thinking outside the box a little bit and take some more risks. It might takes some fighting,, especially if the player is set in his ways opposing skill challenges, but after a few challenges run like this, you should be able to transition into the “normal” skill challenge rules after that.
Finally, remember, keep it cinematic, keep it cool, and keep it fast, but most importantly; remember to keep it Star Wars.