One of the things that really grind my gears when I play LFR is skill challenges. When 4e first came out, I thought they were the best thing in the game. They got me really excited because they provided an interesting way to present an encounter that focused on a character’s ability other than simple spells. I saw a lot of potential to write stories with that.
However, my illusions quickly came crashing down when I began actually playing in the campaign... Skill challenges, instead of being used as story elements, became an endless series of meaningless dice rolls.
The Skill-Shopping Challenge
DM: You must do X, here are the skills you can think of right off the bat.
PC: Okay, I’m +6 who is better?
To me this form of challenge is the most boring of them all and the type that is encountered most often. It turns a game that is already all about meta-gaming (which I don’t like) into a series of number crunching and meaningless dice rolls. This skill challenge is about as interesting as a page full of boxed text.
The problem here is a mix of DMs just not caring about the story and players who just want to maximize and show off their abilities without care for the story is usually the reason for this.
When you get to such a challenge, look at the players around the table. See how many are interested in what is happening and how many are already shopping for next skill to use once they know success/failure.
The No-Creativity Challenge
PC: I try to use my Bluff to trick the city guard into thinking I’m with the caravan that just left. < <Succeeds>>
DM: With your Bluff, you disguise yourself and manage to pass yourself as one of the guard.
This challenge is frustrating for a player because you try to come up with a creative use of your skill and your creativity is completely killed by a result that had nothing to do with what you were trying to do. Usually after one or two attempts at creativity, the challenge turns into a Skill-Shopping challenge.
This problem is usually on the DM’s shoulder. Although WotC wanted to have "DMs Empowerment" which they did not tell anyone what it meant or gave a few examples of what they meant until they told people what they could not do with that. That term is now rarely used anything and most DMs simply run-as-written and don’t even care.
The Endless Boxed Text
PC: < <Succeeds>>
DM: < <Begins reading boxed text about what the PCs found or learned>>
There is something about boxed text outside of introduction and conclusion that irk me, there is no surprise there. However, in a skill challenge, most of those text assume or dictate a PC’s action "you go here, do this, then that." And that is something I strongly dislike. While in the intro "you all head to the bar" and the conclusion "you go to claim your rewards", during the adventure it is MY time as a player to do what I want.
This problem rest half on the DM and half on the author.
The One Character Challenge
DM: You can use Arcana, Insight or Religion
PC: I’m sitting this one out! Call me when you guys are done!
Some skills are a LOT easier than others to come up with a reason to use: Arcana, Diplomacy and Religion are I believe, the most common skills found in skill challenges (Arcana is almost always there). This creates obvious focus on specific characters and leaves others in the background. Rogues are no longer any better than anyone at being skill monkeys. They are just like everyone else.
The problem here is on the author. Thinking of skill challenges that require the use of many skills is hard.
The Skill Challenge in an encounter
First off, let me tell you that not ALL of them are bad. Some make perfect sense and can really help the party, the adventure or the story. Those I am talking about here are those where a PC or three could attempt to do something while the rest of the party is fighting a monster. And as is the case in 99% of those encounters, killing the monster negates the need for the skill challenge. With rogues being the biggest damage dealers in the game, sending him/her to stop a trap is just a waste of time.
This type of thing I became aware some time ago when I wrote "The Sands of Time" for WotC back in June of ‘08. I had an encounter where the PCs were getting beat up to all hell by a trap AND attacked by monsters. The trap was just tearing the PCs to pieces and the monsters did keep them busy. I had a disable skill challenge which I thought was pretty nifty. When I ran the encounter, the PCs did argue that it was stupid for their rogue to spend her entire encounter trying to disable the trap. While perfectly valid, my encounter was flawed simply because it did not make any sense to them. I did argue (as I am wont to do), but they were right.
Another example, during this past weekend’s SPEC1-4 Ice Queen’s Crossing by Shawn Merwin, there was 1 example of such a bad challenge. The fight had a bunch of mooks moving forward and one blaster staying back and firing bolts of something at us (he had decent damage). Behind him there was a statue that fired blasts of energy (doing minor damage and possibly dazing us). Now we could’ve 1- killed the guy or 2- entered a skill challenge against the statue. Let’s sit back and examine this. We can beat up a guy with all of our abilities or split our resources and try to disarm a statue. On a failed check vs. statue something bad happens. On a failed attack, nothing happens. If I take out the guy, the statue is neutralized. Let’s see... touching the statue sound pretty stupid to me. It’s good to have the possibility in there but really there is no need to do so. Realistically, how many parties did he expect would spend time deactivating the statue while some guy attacks them?
This one is a more insidious and harder to figure out. While the author appears to be the one at fault, he is trying to provide option to the PCs in the encounter. Is the DM at fault? Not really, because he presents the encounter as written and if the PCs/NPCs do not play with the environment, then he should not force the environment on the PCs. Then the players must be at fault! Again, the players react to what is most threatening and when there are opponents moving on the field, they naturally focus on them.
There you have it... the most insidious of all skill challenge: the one that sucks and that is no one’s fault! Or maybe is that a little of everyone’s fault?