The Problem with a Skill Challenge

Skill Challenge

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.

Tom Liberman

The Fun of a Support Character

Support Character

When it comes to role-playing games, I enjoy running a support character. What’s the appeal, you ask? That’s a fair question. What is a support character ask those of you not into gaming? Another good query.

My newest support character is the Staff Magus Ahmotep from the Mummy’s Mask of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, no worries, I’ll explain without getting too technical.

In role-playing games there are generally two kinds of characters, those who take the lead in various situations and those who tend to support them. The people who do the supporting are called Support Characters.

What is a Support Character?

I think most people prefer to play lead characters. That is to say, they like taking on the bad guy, stealing the treasure, blasting a roomful of enemies with a destructive spell. It’s pretty fun to play a lead character and I’ve done it plenty of times.

Meanwhile, a support character doesn’t really do any of those things. A support character tends to hang back to help the others. Maybe increase the damage done by the big fighter or turn the rogue invisible so she can do some good back-stabbing. In the case of Ahmotep, she grants a two-point bonus to any other character in the same location.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to understand game mechanics and I’m not going to bore you to death with anything too detailed.

My Love of the Support Character

Why do I enjoy playing a support character more than a main character? I think the appeal is I’m required to really pay attention to what is going on with all the other characters. Ahmotep can do some of her own exploring and fighting, she’s not a bad character by any means, but her biggest strength is that two-point bonus.

This means I must be aware of where the other characters are and what they are doing. I need to keep track of which character most needs that bonus and when. It’s not so easy because it requires me to think about the entirety of the situation. The more characters in the game, the more nuanced becomes my task.

Do I help the rogue in the Crypt or the mage in the Bazaar? Being a support character requires me to really pay attention to what is going on in the game. This keeps me engaged and improves my experience. I don’t let my mind wander as I complete tasks simply related to my own character. As the big fighter, it’s fairly easy to shut off the brain, rush in, and attack the biggest foe. It’s fairly straight-forward and simple and I don’t have to pay too much attention to what anyone else is doing.

I’m not Saying the Support Character is the Best

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy playing the brute or the damage specialist mage and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone else who does so. I’m also not saying just because someone else plays those types of characters they aren’t paying as much attention to the game as me.

What I am saying is that when I play a support character, I’m kind of playing all the other characters at the same time. If I don’t buff up the right character at the correct time it can be a disaster for the entire party. I’m more aware of the bigger picture, all the moving pieces. I enjoy that.

What about you?

For my gaming friends. Support character or main character?

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Tom Liberman