Antagonistic Viziers and Fleeing Pickpockets

Copyright 2010 Wizards of the Coast and the artistThere’s been an awful lot of digital ink spilled on many 4E subjects, but I can’t seem to find anything about skill challenges.

Har har. But seriously, I know what you’re thinking: “For crying out loud, not another skill challenge article.” In the words of the poets and philosophers, I feel ya, dawg. Even though one out of every two articles, podcasts, and posts are about these wacky and alien creatures, most of them turn out to be quite excellent, gland-squirtingly so.

It feels like there will always be creative space for more, especially the “how to create” and “how to run” variety. Just as a f’rinstance, Gamefiend’s Skillcast features a live-play example that is perfectly wonderful, setting my toes a-tapping, my knees a-popping, and my stomach a-clenching. Cease all activity (except perhaps breathing) and go listen to that right now.

Because of my obvious intellectual and less obvious game mastering deficiencies, I’m singularly incapable of offering advice on creating or running skill challenges. Sure, if you need help unoptimizing your character or coming up with up with obscenely, grotesquely, egregiously superfluous adverbs, then I’m your guy. If you need some good ole book-learnin’ on skill challenges, then you might want to look elsewhere.

You may have noticed that 4e gaming material is eminently scannable. By organizing traps, monsters, and magic items inside the glorious simplicity of a table, you enable any dope (me, for instance) to quickly process the relevant facts and act accordingly, even when the sections get a little verbose. Have you ever seen the Ghostly Possession power?

Wordy anomalies aside, the tabled data is pretty excellent. Of course, they didn’t just start that way. It’s been a long and grindy road, running over 30 years, and the official presentation of information has changed radically over that time. Consider the following examples from previous editions, which I edited slightly to protect the innocent and hide from copyright lawyers:

This large chamber is used for dancing, eating, and tickle competitions of the horkinforkin clan. There are many beanbags and futons set out, indicating the clan is preparing a sleepover. 4 horkins (AC 5, HD 1+1, hp 6 each, #AT 1, D 1-6, MV (30’), Save F 1, ML 8), 5 forkins (AC 7, HD 1, hp 5 each, #AT 1, D 1-6, Save F 1, ML 7), and 9 lorkins (who will not fight) are living here. Horkins have d10 silver pieces each, forkins 2d4 copper pieces. Under the biggest futon is an electrum crayon set, with a value of 30 g.p. for the set.

Oh brother, do you remember morale scores? I referenced those about as often as I had dates back in the day, so yeah, you do the math (hint: I was playing a LOT of D&D). Anyway, here you have a room description, monsters and stats, and treasure list, all packed into a solid chunk of words. Handy!
AD&D 1st Edition

FLOCKER: AC 4, MV 3″/12″, HD 8, hp 49, #AT 2, D 1-8; strangles prey in 2-8 rounds unless slain; surprises on 1-3 (d6). The flocker hides in the shadows of the ceiling, looping its tentacles around the throats of creatures that pass underneath. There is steady traffic because of the edible fungi, which means that things coming for food often wind up as food. Beneath the monster are dried bones and other remains but no treasure.

So the stat order has changed, with move earning a much higher billing, and also getting a makeover to be nearly unreadable: “Instead of feet, we’ll convert move to table inches, and separate different move types with some random character from the keyboard.” While some modules had started to introduce boxed text, it wasn’t yet a standard, which meant you might still see stats blended with location description.
AD&D 2nd Edition

The vault is guarded by scuttering plips, which take the form of small metal spheres with jutting spikes, which tumble across the floor like animated jacks. The spikes are coated with an oily poison; if hit, the victim must save vs. poison or fall asleep for 1d6 hours.

Scuttering Plips (30): AC 5; MV 6; HD 1-1; hp 6 each; THAC0 20; #AT 1; Dmg 1d4 (spike); SA spike poison; SD half damage from piercing weapons; MR immune to charm, hold, and sleep; SZ S (1′ diameter); Int Non- (0); ML fearless (20); AL N; XP 120 each.

Well, well, welcome to the party, THAC0. In the extremely old days, DMs would look up attacks on microtext charts, doing all sorts of cross-referencing and comparisons. With THAC0, you could easily determine the “to hit” value with some backwards and anti-intuitive math. Frankly, it was easier to set everyone’s armor class to zero.
D&D 3rd Edition

Crakkit: CR 3; Large outsider (earth); HD 4d8+3, hp 25; Init +3 (Dex); Spd 30 ft.; AC 17; Atk +4 melee (1d6+2, bite); SA Grinding chew; SQ 60-ft. darkvision, suffer half damage from slashing weapons; AL N; SV Fort +4, Ref +3, Will +3; Str 16, Dex 14, Con 14, Int 4, Wis 4, Cha 4.
Skills and Feats: Climb +9, Jump + 11, Listen +6, Spot +4.
Special Attacks: Grinding chew (ex): Opponents struck in melee must succeed at a Ref save (DC 13) or suffer automatic bite damage for 1d4 rounds. Victims may use a full-round action to escape the bite.
Possessions: Diamond necklace worth 150 gp.

Oh, the humanity. Please keep in mind, I’m using a short example. With the right monster stat example, I could have easily tripled length of this article (see dragon, red, ancient, big, scary). Well, you do get a full picture of the monster, there’s no denying that.

In the body of the modules, authors would reference the monster names, usually with a funny little horsey-head icon (I know, I know, it was supposed to be a dragon), and then run the lengthy and exhaustive stats in the back of the document like some sort of classified compendium. Instead of flipping through the endless pages of one of the several Monster Manuals, you could flip through the endless pages of the module you were running.

D&D 4th Edition

Oh yeah, get a load of that baby.

Now, it is not my intent to impugn the wonderfulness, excellence, or perfection of previous editions, but rather to explore how the presentation of data has evolved over time. And, just for the record, that stat block continues to evolve in 4E, making it even more eminentlier scannabler.

And Now, Skill Challenges

Considering the development here, one would assume that the presentation of skill challenges will also grow and evolve and develop over time, and hopefully to a place where I’m not confronted with 700 words in six paragraphs. For me, that may be the prickliest part of skill challenges.

Look, I am probably older than you. I have lost the ability to retain any information in my head, assuming I ever had it in the first place. I frequently forget the names of my spouse, children, and dog. When I go shopping, I often lose my car. When I travel, I never remember my terminal gate, my seat number, my airline, my luggage. And you’re asking me to quickly scan six inches of text and be able to recall any of it? Wait, what was the question?

We have already implemented the stat block, so there’s no reason we can’t adapt skill challenges into the same sort of format. I’m thinking along the lines of:

  • Header block, containing the name, description and goal, and complexity.
  • Primary skill blocks, containing DCs and results.
  • Secondary skill blocks, indented under the appropriate primary skill blocks, containing DCs and primary modifiers for results.
  • Boxes beside the skill blocks, allowing you to check for success or X for failures, and also track those skills that can only be used a certain number of times.

Take a look at this cataclysmically simple example.

I certainly wouldn’t suggest that this is the beginning and end of the skill challenge stat block layout. You could argue that it’s not even the beginning. But I know in my heart of hearts and my gut of guts that this is easier for me to read and process. And that’s all that really matters.


  1. Tsk tsk tsk. There are only 3 failures in a skill challenge since they have been erataized. No more, no less.
    .-= claytonian´s last blog ..Let’s Yoji: What I Know About Coins Makes Me Rich =-.

  2. MigarFrobert says:

    Nice little tracker – does make things a lot clearer from the DM perspective – though for me the difficulty is translating skill rolls to actual actions that the characters take or titbits of info they remember in a believable form at the table.

  3. Arkhein says:

    This is a great idea. Skill challenges were something I always had a love/hate relationship with. I loved the idea, but sitting down and actually running them could get confusing and rarely ended up satisfying. Kind of like dating in high school. Anyway, I have recently given up 4e, but this format of yours has given me some ideas for implementing something skill challenge-esqe-ish in Savage Worlds.

  4. I enjoyed this article and the skill challenge “stat block” is a great idea. I do think each skill does need a line of descriptive flavour text though to help the DM narrate what’s happening.

  5. Noumenon says:

    I love the vision of what could be, and I like the skill challenge too, especially the failure mode. Kickass.

  6. A great idea, though I’d tweak it so that primary and secondary skills were grouped separately, much as the new monster stat blocks do different types of powers. Sometimes secondary skills don’t have a direct relation to primaries.

    I also like the idea of more flavor text describing what the use that skill might look like for narrative purposes, though the DM should really be soliciting that from the players.
    .-= Kameron´s last blog ..Where are the 4E video games? =-.

  7. Shilling says:

    I’m a huge fan of ergonomics and frequently espouse their importance to the unwary. Well done! I suspect I will be using your template at some point.

  8. I like it. Consider it stolen for my next campaign.

    .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Classic Fantasy, Make Your Fantasy Setting Fantastic =-.

  9. I’m with Shilling and Tourq – I am totally using a form of this in the next adventure I write! Cheers to innovation!
    .-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Gearing up for Summer at Neuroglyph Games =-.

  10. That skill challenge template is cool – I’d tweak to merge separate lines for Perception in the example. I’d never appreciated just how effective the variation in block colours aided readability though I do miss not being able to note monsters in two lines…
    .-= satyre´s last blog ..the boar society =-.

  11. I love it!

    A series of check boxes for failures might be nice, too.
    .-= pworthen´s last blog ..Shinjo Nobunaga (CR 3) =-.

  12. The little horsie head was supposed to be a dragon?