Deviance #24 – Diceless Skill Challenges
It never previously occurred to me that God might care about what I talk about here on Aberrant Rules. Thing is, when Michael (pronounce Mee-Ka-Hell) Croitoriu (pronounce KreuWha-To-Ree-Yu) keeps writing to me about diceless skill challenges and then Quinn Murphy utterly independently proceeds to run something very similar in the Wave game I’m participating in, I kinda have to chuckle and reconsider.
As I mentioned when I was on the Power Source last, I have some deep-seated problems with diceless skill challenges. Dice provide a neutral arbiter between DM and players. When the DM doesn’t want the monster to get hit with a sword but the players do, the dice decide what happens. They also add drama and a level of randomness that forces everyone to stretch their imaginations from time to time. If you’re going to take that away from me, you better give me something just as interesting in its place. My other issue is that it creates a situation that relies almost completely on the skill of the DM. A good DM will in fact be able to run a “skill challenge” based on pure player ideas without dice by knowing what interests the players and having a good sense of dramatic tension, but that doesn’t equate to good game design. At that point, you’re sitting around roleplaying or maybe solving a puzzle, both of which are perfectly fine, it’s just no longer a skill challenge. The point of a skill challenge is to test the characters’ abilities as much if not more than the players’ ingenuity. Ultimately, I’m not sure if I’d ever use such a system. If the situation is obvious enough to just roleplay or is intended to challenge the players’ thinking, I’ll just do that. If on the other hand it’s complex or relies heavily on character ability, I want the dice so that everyone feels like they got a fair chance.
But let’s say that you’re dead set on doing this anyway. You want to run a skill challenge in 4th edition without rolling dice or overly crazy houserules. How? Admittedly I haven’t playtested this yet – it’s more of a thought experiment – but here’s my idea. The crux of the system is figuring out what constitutes a success or a failure outside of ‘the DM thinks that will work’ because sometimes even the best ideas fail for bad execution and the worst ideas succeed due to circumstance. You need a ‘luck’ factor involved somewhere. How about we roll that in with some classic resource management to make a game of it? Choose your DCs and primary/secondary skills as normal or just decide what the effect of a primary or secondary skill check is and determine their status on the fly – I’m alright with that part because the character still gets something for their effort even if it’s not a full success. Next, add 10 to everyone’s skill modifiers so that you’re essentially working with passive skills. Finally, hand each player a number of poker chips or M&Ms or something equal to 1 plus the Complexity of the challenge. On his turn, a player may pay one of these tokens to add 2 to whatever skill roll is currently being evaluated. Now, proceed around the table comparing the passive skills plus tokens to the DCs as if you were running a normal skill challenge – but here’s the kicker. You as the DM also have three tokens that subtract 5 from the skill. Other players may take a -2 to their next skill to aid (+2) the current skill. Tokens the players pay simply disappear after use, but tokens you play then become player tokens for whomever you played them against. Over a long enough challenge, I think this will tip the odds in the PCs’ general favor but the first couple rounds should be pretty tense. It should also encourage the use of secondary skills for extra bonuses since the players can’t bank on high die rolls to cover their poorer skills. Again, I’ve yet to try this out so the numbers will likely need some tweaking, but if you’re looking for something halfway between a dice-based skill challenge and freeform roleplay, I think that’s where I’d start. If anyone tries it, let me know how it works.