Tuesday, September 06, 2011

[Rethinking 4e -- Freeform D&D] Diceless Skill Challenges

I recently visited one of my favorite gaming blogs Playing D&D with NSFW -- that's not the actual name of the site, and the site is surprisingly safe for work given its name -- and entered into a discussion with Zak who runs the site.

To make things brief, Zak reviewed The Slaying Stone, one of the modules for the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons that has come out in the past year or so.  Of the modules recently released by Wizards, The Slaying Stone has received some fairly positive reviews for the way it gives more freedom than many modern modules.  The module isn't as linear as many of Wizards, or Paizo's, offerings and is a nice move toward more open settings -- especially considering how linear most 3rd edition and 4th edition modules have been.  

While others may have been happy with the "open-ended" nature of the module, Zak was very critical.  Most of his points are valid, but most also apply to any written module.  Then again, Zak wants DMs to be more DIY than many are/can be.  His vision is that players be given freeform and interactive gaming experiences from their DMs, a vision that combines art and game in a way that would make Greg Stafford proud.  To put it another way, DMs are people with imaginations and not computers that are limited by the programmed choices they are given and they should act that way.

I get it.  I even agree...to a point.  Share that attitude in the Savage Worlds community and you'll get some support, but you'll also get blank stares from the working/gradschool attending/ fathers who make up a good part of that community.  They'll tell you that professional modules are a boon to their gaming livelihoods.  

I was fine with all of Zak's criticism of the module, until he wrote the following quote, "Because it [The Slaying Stone] demonstrates even with an author with the best will in the world making a conscious effort not to write a railroad the basic requirements of new D&D push published modules in the more-sucking direction."

In essence, Zak is stating that 4e's mechanics require that the game's adventures must follow certain rules.  That  is complete and utter balderdash, and this series of Rethinking 4e posts -- however slowly they come out -- is dedicated to eliminating that assumption.   [Edited after great clarifying exchange with Zak over on his blog -- additions are in italics below.]

Zak is criticizing WotC's module writing guidelines here as articulated on page 31 of The Slaying Stone, but there are those who would point to pages 189 and 202 of the Essential Dungeon Master's Book or pages 57 and 104 of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide and argue that the phenomenon is endemic of the entire edition of the game.  They would argue that the rules of 4e make all adventures predictable and identical.  If it takes 8 - 10 encounters to gain a level and those encounters are all based on experience point "budgets," DMs are hindered.

Those who take Zak's criticism of module writing and extend it to how the game "must be played" are taking things too far.  

As Zak writes in his piece:

"Type IV DMs can run whatever adventures they want (just like everybody else) but if they want to get them published they have a ton of hurdles to jump."

His criticism is limited to writing for published modules, and rightly so.  WotC wants their modules written to the Rules as Written, and those are written with "safety wheels." 

Zak, and those who agree with him, Those who take the argument further than Zak are mistaking all of the "safety wheels" of 4e for the actual rules of the game.  You see, 4e has safety wheels all over the place.  From the way powers are written to the Essentials approach to the use of clearly articulated cards that instruct players how "powers" work, the game is set up for any DM to be able to walk into a random room of 5 people and to get them all playing the game within 10 minutes.  This is any random room.  No one other than the DM will need any gaming experience, or to have read any of the rules.  With its "safety wheels" 4e is quite simply one of the two easiest role playing games to teach ever written.

Rethinking 4e is about getting beyond these "safety wheels" and straight to the rules.  When you do that, a couple of amazing things happen.  First, levels almost completely disappear from the game.  I'll post on that in a later post, but suffice to say that since the danger level of the game is static throughout the level scaling that levels are now fluff.  Second, the game is extremely simple and free form.  Players may "want" to roll for skill challenges, but they don't have to.  Third, this game is easy and elegant.  It is elegant in a way that Fudge or FATE or Burning Wheel are elegant.  Fourth, it is ideal for creating storytelling games where "role playing" overpowers "roll playing," though it certainly allows for the latter as well.  

So...let's get to the "safety wheel" I want to address in this post...Skills and Skill Challenges.  Skill Challenges are one of the hardest things for people to grasp in the 4e system.  So much of the game seems centered on structured play that when you get to the Skills and Skill Challenges section where it essentially tells GMs to force players to create narrative that many people react in shock.  Skill Challenges almost seem out of place.  They belong in games like Burning Wheel, Mage the Ascension, and My Life with Master not in a "combat" game like 4e.  Players get so caught up in looking at 4e as a descendant of 3e/3.x that they forget that it is also a descendant of every role playing game ever written.  D&D has influenced every other role playing game, but many other rpgs have influenced 4e.  

Nowhere is that more apparent than the Skill Challenge, where players are asked to present ideas to solve a problem by using their skills.  Any player may use any Skill -- whether they are trained or not.  There are only small limitations on how skills may be used if untrained, only a couple of the skills have uses that can only be done by those trained in the skill.  For example, you can only "detect magic" and see the forces of magic flow through the world if you are Trained in Arcana.  But you can still use Arcana to cast a malevolent ritual if you are untrained.  You are less likely to succeed, but you can still try.  

The problem is that every Skill Challenge presents a list of sample Skills that can be used and Sample Difficulty Classes for those attempts.  They also provide information about what succeeding at those attempts mean.  Some read these as the "only" things that can be done that matter...that would be wrong.  That would be playing the game like a computer.  You are a DM, reward creativity.  Make stuff up.  It's okay.  Let the players use Skills in creative ways.  Look at the Skill Challenge to see what can be done and if a player finds another way of doing it, let them try.  

In fact...I recommend trying it without dice at all.  

Huh?  What?!  No dice, but that cannot be done!

Yes.  Yes it can. 

You see, there are two kinds of people in 4e, trained and untrained.  Anyone can attempt any action, but trained people are much better at things related to their skill.  

How much better?

In 4e players are expected to have a 65% chance of succeeding at an "Easy" Skill Challenge of their level.  What "of their level" means is up to the DM, but amounts to 1st level characters can hide from normal guards and 30th level characters can possibly hide from powerful arcanists with means of detecting infiltrators.  Low level characters can long jump 7 feet and Epic characters are straight out of Wuxia.  

By the way, that's any character -- trained or untrained -- who has a 65% chance of succeeding on an Easy challenge.  What about trained characters?  If they have a good statistic in the area, say Strength for Athletics checks, then they succeed 100% of the time.  A "natural 1" is meaningless on a Skill Check.    The difficulty of an "Easy" check at 1st level is 8.  You need to roll an 8 or better on a twenty-sided die, after modifiers.  A trained individual adds 5 to their roll, so only needs a 3 or better.  That means they only need to have a 14 in the related statistic to be able to succeed on an "Easy" task 100% of the time.  

A "Moderate" check requires a 12 or better, which means it is designed for a person with an 18 or higher in the related statistic to have a 65% chance to succeed (an 18 in a statistic adds +4 to rolls).  A trained person with no stat has a 70% chance and with an 18 has a 90% chance of success.  All of this is without help from friends, or the right equipment, or any number of other things that could alter the number.

A "Hard" check requires a 19 or better to succeed.  This means that an average person has a 10% chance of success, a high stat person has a 30% chance of success (15 or better for the 18 statistic).  A person who is trained, and has a high stat, has a 55% chance of success.  If that person has a +2 bonus from background or race, very likely given that "Hard" checks are supposed to be for those who are the best at what they do, then they have a 65% chance of success.

Though I provided the difficulty numbers for 1st level, it doesn't matter if the test is higher.  Why?  Because the difficulty increases scale with the assumed improvements of the characters as they go up in level.  In other words, levels don't matter for skill checks.

All that matters is the difficulty you want to set.  Is the test something that everyone in the group is capable of doing (Easy), something only the physically/mentally capable or trained are capable of doing easily (Moderate), or something that only the best of the best can do when conditions are right and their approach is good (Hard).  And in that description comes a hint as to how you can do Skill Challenges without rolling dice -- unless someone happens to want to know who does something "better" when they have equal ability.

If you want to run a diceless skill challenge.  First decide on the difficulties of doing certain actions.  Is finding the clue/jumping the chasm Easy, Moderate, or Hard based on the above criteria?  

Once you know that, have the players describe what they are doing as they use the ability and use that description in the place of the die roll.  The more difficult the task is for a particular individual, the more specific and elaborate they must be about how they are achieving their goal.  The low stat and untrained player can describe how his or her character is meticulously examining a crime scene, using their real world experience as a mystery novelist to aid them, and you can use that in the place of the roll.  That is, if you want the game to be about "player skill" rather than "character ability."  If you want to balance the two, you allow reasonable but within character explanations.  An unintelligent character isn't likely to examine a scene like a forensic investigator, so how would that character succeed at a "Hard" action?  They likely wouldn't, that's what training is for -- trained versus untrained.  If they happen to come up with a wild and creative way of achieving the task, then let them succeed but it is more likely that they follow the instructions of a skilled individual and "aid" that character.

Here are some guidelines for adjudicating Skill Challenges without dice, based on the difficulty and the stats/training of those attempting to use a skill.

DifficultyLow Stat & UntrainedHigh Stat or TrainedHigh Stat & Trained
EasyModerate DetailAny PlausibleAutomatic
ModerateHighly DetailedModerate DetailAny Plausible
HardImprobableHighly DetailedModerate Detail

Looking at the chart above, the DM could set the difficulty and allow the players to describe their actions and adjudicate success based on the solutions offered by the players.  Given that the players are, at some level, supposedly role playing the character on their sheet (meaning that a low intelligence character shouldn't act like a super genius), any offerings should be made within the context of the character's implied limitations.  

Taking the character's "persona" into account, the DM could adjudicate the investigation of a room by asking the players to explain what they are doing as they look for clues.  Let's say one character lacks training or Wisdom, one is a Wise Cleric, and the other is a high Wisdom Thief with training in Perception.  The players should describe their attempt in ways that are appropriate to their "persona," but if the check is easy and the non-Wise character give a moderately detailed description of what they are attempting you can reward that character with a clue that could "easily" be found.  The same goes for the other characters.

Key here is to make sure that the players are portraying their characters, and to reward them if they do.  If the low stat and untrained character has a player describe in wonderful and hilarious detail how they accomplish a task that is nigh-impossible, you can let them succeed.  The player will be happy, and the group will be entertained.  If it is a wonderful description, that doesn't quite fit with even an "improbable" description, then use this as a chance to have the character fail "spectacularly."  Don't punish good role play, but don't necessarily give success either.  The character might fail in an interesting way, a way that requires a High Stat & Trained character to provide a wonderfully detailed description of how they help the other character. 

This is a chance to really make the game far more free form, and it fits well within the rules.  Remember, all things being equal and routine a character has a 65% chance of performing a challenge of equal level so long as they have the right kind of character for the job.  You could even get rid of "stat values" if you wanted and replace them with descriptors and it would work easily.

But that is a discussion for another time.
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