I told myself that I would wait a while before I made another post that was critical of someone else’s ideas. Proper critique can be a tricky thing. You have to illuminate, not just complain. I just read this post over at Mike Shae’s Sly Flourish and I can’t help myself.
4e combat also gives a great deal of choice, some might even say too much choice, to each player. Unfortunately, players have few mechanical choices when it comes to skill challenges. They choose a skill, most often the highest one they have, come up with some story to try to support their choice, roll a die, and hope for the best. There’s little tactic, there’s little interaction between players.
Before getting to the meat of my disagreement, I have a knee-jerk kvetch about the phrase “too much choice.” This is mostly a grognard’s perspective. 4e does an excellent job of balancing meaningful tactical choices against systems complexity. (Who’s playing Essentials and why is an important discussion, but one for another day.) The developers could have gone the route of GURPS or Hero System, but instead chose to put a deliberate upper bound on how much a player is expected to manage.
Now, I will confess that I have run the weak sort of skill challenge Shea describes. More than once, in fact. Why? Because it’s stupid easy. Five minutes of checking character sheets and rolling dice and *bam*, you’re done. It’s lazy and forgettable, but sometimes it happens. Preparing for a skill challenge can be just as difficult as a combat encounter, sometimes more so. I often feel constrained by what skills the characters have or don’t have. Having such a small pool of options can also get repetitive. “Hey look, it’s a skill challenge in the outdoors. I wonder if it’s going to include Nature, Perception, Athletics and Endurance…”
I think my perspective on skill challenges was irrevocably corrupted by Stalker0’s Obsidian Skill Challenge system. He got his start trying to fix the bad math in the original version and ended up coming up with a system that is engaging, fair and simple to use. I wish that Wizards had incorporated more of his ideas in the revisions.
My biggest complaint with the “Skill Challenge Checklist” isn’t that it’s the most sterile approach I’ve ever seen to skill challenges. It’s that it solves neither problem. Players who want to have mechanical mastery don’t gain anything (if you think that sort of player can’t figure out the rules of the challenge, you’re sadly mistaken) and it flies directly in the face of the players that want mechanics to be more seamless and natural.