I play role-playing games and one of the difficulties in running an adventure is something called a Skill Challenge. At its heart, the skill challenge creates a problem because the character being played and the player playing that character don’t have the same talents.
The person playing the heavily muscled but intellectually challenged warrior might actually be the most intelligent and articulate person in the group. Likewise, the crafty rogue might be a player who doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the ongoing game. Thus, the skill challenge conundrum.
Incompatible Players and the Skill Challenge
A skill challenge can be something as simple as breaking down a door or something as complex as convincing a truculent character to reveal vital information. In either case, the person attempting the challenge isn’t always suited to achieve the goal.
A player might not have the adroitness of language to fast talk the information out of a non-player character run by the game master.
Easy Fix, just Roll the Die
The easy path is to simply have characteristics or skills that allow to test for success rather than relying on player interaction. A powerful warrior makes a strength check to kick down the door. A crafty rogue makes a Fast Talk roll to convince the bartender to give him the key to the locked chest.
The problem with this method is that there is no role-playing, which is the nature of the game. The fun of the game is the player getting to pretend for a few hours she or he is someone else. With this method, it’s just a roll of the die.
What if they Miss?
Missing the roll is another enormous problem. If the warrior needs to open the door for the adventure to progress and fails, where does that leave the game? It can be much more complex than a simple roll to open a door, it can be about finding a series of clues. If the players don’t have the luck to get the information, then the game master must somehow get it to them in another way. This can come across as railroading the adventure.
If the game master is just going to give us what we need to succeed, why bother even trying?
Best Solution to the Skill Challenge Problem
I’ve been playing and running role-playing games for over forty years now and I’m sad to admit there is no perfect solution to this problem. If the character with the best chance to succeed isn’t great at role-playing or the dice just don’t cooperate, it’s a problem.
I think the best solution is to give the player the opportunity to do some role-playing if they want but never bother with the dice. Just give them the answer no matter what.
Player: I try to break the door down with a running shoulder bash.
GM: You smash into the door and hear a crack as a panel breaks but it remains closed.
I’ve seen far too many adventures derail simply because of a bad roll of the die or a poor decision by the players in a crucial moment. That’s no fun for anyone, well, the sadistic game master might enjoy it but that’s another matter altogether.
Let the players succeed, that’s the fun of the game.