The skill challenge system in 4E was a really neat addition to Dungeons & Dragons. One of those things that made you say “why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” (Not that nobody had–I remember a similar concept all the way back in one of the West End games (TORG? Shatterzone?), and I’m sure it’s been done elsewhere.) And not just as relates to 4E; the basic structure of the system could be applied to almost any RPG that includes skill checks.

The problem is, the 4E system just doesn’t really work that well. Great concept, but the execution has struggled.

This is obvious not just because of a number of alternative skill challenge systems that have floated around the gamerverse, but also because of multiple revisions WotC have made to the system. Which accounts for the “again” in the title of this post–I haven’t written on this before, but plenty of other people have.

You’d think with all these different stabs at the issue, this nut would have been cracked by now–someone will have come up with a skill challenge system that fires on all cylinders. And maybe someone has, but I haven’t come across it yet.

While many ideas address the mechanical balance of the skill challenge concept, none have satisfied me by providing the tension, drama, and uncertainty of outcome you get from a combat encounter. None of them challenge the players to adopt a strategy, rethink on their feet, and make difficult–or even meaningful–decisions about what course to take or how to expend resources. For the most part, it’s simply a matter of trying to figure out the correct skills to use, or how to shoehorn in the skills your character is best at, with those decisions having little impact on how the scene unfolds. Lather, rinse, repeat. Until the end of the encounter, at which time you succeed or–or, well, usually, nothing happens. Because half the time failure doesn’t really matter.

(To compound it all, my main campaign is OGL, in which there’s a much larger disparity between skill-oriented and non-skill-oriented characters than there is in 4E. Under the WotC system and most alternatives, characters with few (or inappropriate) skills actually penalize the party. That’s not fun for anyone.)

Click through for a PDF

So here’s my stab at it. It’s a crude document; I apologize for unpolished terminology and a lack of examples. But it gets the job done–I’ve used this system in my own campaign a handful of times, and at least one of my players has taken it to his game. Results have all been good, but that’s too small a sample size to be meaningful. Tweaks are inevitable–maybe your comments will lead to some.

Have a look. Give it a try. Let me know if you have any thoughts. Maybe this nth iteration of the skill challenge will close the gap between a great concept and a great game experience.

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