Action: Failure

Action: Failure

FoxhuntingWhen it comes to skill challenges, failure is not an option.

“Of course,” you say. “No one wants to fail a skill challenge.” But this means something else entirely. Skill challenges are generally meant to represent situations or tasks which move the story forward—nonviolent encounters which carry just as much importance as those dealing with combat.

Combat challenges notwithstanding, a skill challenge is a great place to include the idea of partial victory. Consider the diplomacy skill challenge example from 4th Edition—as written, it allows for success or failure in convincing a lord to act or remain uninvolved. Reconsidering the results for partial victory might look more like this…

The Negotiation

The Duke bids you sit… “I’m told you have news.”

Successes/Failures (Duke’s Reaction)
0/3 (Disbelief; demands more proof)
1/3 (Belief; but provides no aid)
2/3 (Belief; provides some aid)
3/3 (Belief; provides more aid)
4/3 (Belief; full support)

This revises the skill challenge from a point of pass and fail where the duke either grants or denies assistance—a bottleneck which might limit the progress of the story—to a series of varying outcomes. This removes the focus on the outcome and places it back on the progress of the story. Far from removing the characters’ free will, while this process might partially define the outcome, it creates a sliding scale of victory and prevents a single point of failure capable of stalling an adventure.

The question remains, why utilize variable success? If there’s no risk, what incentive does a group have to strive, to experiment, or to innovate? Poor performance demands consequences, but there’s no reason the story should suffer. In situations requiring a real opportunity for loss, groups should be allowed to take up their dice and prove their mettle on the field of battle. Change the nature of the consequences of total failure to create other paths, one where the victory is harder won or more bittersweet, perhaps involving the loss of a familiar NPC. It’s important to avoid a situation where the players simply participate in a dice rolling exercise—the worst degeneration of a skill challenge.

So how do you create a skill challenge with variable success? First, consider the optimal final outcome: what would happen in a situation where the characters were completely successful—navigating the catacombs, convincing the lord mayor to help stop the giants, manipulating the mechanism to open the giant clockwork door? Then consider what level of complexity best represents the issue and how many degrees of success best suit the outcome—how long does it take to get free of the tunnels, what level of resources will the lord mayor commit, how far does the door open? A scaling level of consequences is possible—the collapsing passages or the effort of pushing open the door might cost escaping heroes a range of healing surges. The level of support from the lord mayor might change the level of the encounter or the composition of the enemy forces. Going back to the previous example, re-examine it with a sliding scale of encounter difficulty:

The Negotiation

The Duke bids you sit… “I’m told you have news.”

Successes/Failures (Duke’s Reaction) Result
0/3 (Disbelief; demands more proof) 2 encounters
1/3 (Belief; provides no aid) Lvl+4 encounter
2/3 (Belief; provides some aid) Lvl+3 encounter
3/3 (Belief; provides more aid) Lvl+2 encounter
4/3 (Belief; full support) Lvl+1 encounter

Now there are tangible results from all results—anywhere from total or partial success to failure—instead of all or nothing. The focus shifts from the outcome to the interaction, but this shift in focus can be further accentuated…

After defining those levels, break the challenge into scenes that build on each level of success, culminating in the final outcome. Using different scenes allows the introduction of different skills as the situation changes, encouraging players to remain involved and reconsider what best fits the new setting. With a brief, one sentence description, you can better improvise interaction with the environment and NPCs, creating a smaller story within the adventure. Continuing with the previous example, see how one might break each level into scenes with particular skills tied to the situations, using each skill success to propel the challenge forward to the next scene:

The Negotiation

The lord mayor reins in his mount, bidding you to ride alongside him.

“I’m told you have news. Explain what it is you need.”

Scene 1: Hunting on Horseback with the Lord Mayor

You plead your case while tracking elk in the lord mayor’s preserve.
Skills: Athletics, Bluff, Diplomacy, History, Nature, Perception, Stealth

Scene 2: Bringing the Kill Back to the Manor

You assist with the recovery and return of the elk, when the lord mayor is (nearly?) thrown from his mount.
Skills: Bluff, Diplomacy, Endurance, Heal, History, Perception (prevents being thrown)

Scene 3: Conversation in the Lord Mayor’s Parlor

By observing some of the lord mayor’s mementos and trophies while the adventurers plead their case, insights are revealed.
Skills: Arcana, Bluff, Diplomacy, History, Insight

Scene 4: Discussion over Dinner as the Lord Mayor’s Guests

Having earned a modicum of the lord’s trust and good nature, he invites you to remain and continue explaining your thoughts over a meal.
Skills: Bluff, Diplomacy, Endurance, History, Insight; speaking Elven here impresses the mayor and provides a +2 bonus to all checks by that character in this scene

Scene 5: Drinks in the Lord Mayor’s Study

After long conversations and a full day, you are presented with the opportunity to seal the deal, if only you can avoid a faux pas.
Skills: Bluff, Diplomacy, Endurance, History, Streetwise

And now the skill challenge becomes an abstract day spent with the lord mayor, explaining the situation while developing a relationship with him. It incorporates many non-verbal skills, keeping everyone engaged and ensuring an opportunity to participate. The transformation of the skill challenge is complete, by following the three steps:

  1. Determine the optimal outcome.
  2. Establish variable levels of success to reach the optimal outcome.
  3. Break the skill challenge into scenes, based on the variable levels and including a short description.

Splitting the skill challenge into scenes becomes much more logical and easy once the partial levels of success are defined, and in doing so, the whole challenge becomes much easier to run as a continuation of the story—progressing from start to finish. And in truth the answer is easy…

Failure is not an option.

18 thoughts on “Action: Failure”

  1. Very cool. I just finished writing an article ( how I liked the way 4th edition D&D allows for failures in skill challenges. When failure becomes acceptable and can actually further the plot in unexpected ways, it becomes a useful storytelling device.

    Your introduction here of partial failure in skill challenges opens up new ideas for me. Thanks!

  2. I’m always looking for ways to make skill challenges more of a role playing tool and less of a roll playing tool. Thank you and well done.

  3. This is a very interesting take, but it highlights something that is often overlooked in skill challenges and often in RPGs in general.

    Ultimately, the players do not see the options they didn’t take. It is all well and good to say the number of successes alters the number or difficulty of future encounters, but if they players don’t see it, it doesn’t matter.

    It is important, therefore, to somehow show how much better or worse things could have been. Show, in game, the dukes soldiers drawing off some of the troops so the party can engage the rest so that they know the encounter would have been harder without the soldiers.

    One example from my recent game involved a climbing/travelling skill challenge. The party failed and had to take a lower path that lead them directly into the heart of a nest of kruthiks. But they could also clearly see where they would have come in had they succeeded on the climbing/travelling bit and it would have put them in a superior tactical situation with boulders to push down on mobs of kruthik minions. Or they could have snuck through the lair with no trouble.

    The point is to always write a way to show the PCs how their success or failure affects the game or else you might as well not bother tracking successes and run any combat you want.

  4. Hmmm, I’m beginning to see what was mentioned on Know Direction that these skill challenges could be adapted and work for Pathfinder. I can see how I would do this in a Pathfinder game, although I would need to substitute other skills for what is not in PRPG.

  5. Yeah, it’s essentially an expansion of the complex skill check mechanic from 3E/OGL. Useful in some cases, and wildly popular for tinkering with.

    In actualy play, sometimes a bit of a dud, depending on your play group. Just like combat, it’s entirely possible to create a boring skill challenge.

  6. I think that can be true of any encounter, though. anytime you strip away the description and storytelling and go straight to the mechanics, you risk making the encounter a dud.


  7. I love Kobold Quarterly’s content in general, but as a DM for 4th edition this was the most useful article for me to date. The detailed look at the expanding process was fantastic and this actual skill challenge was liftable for my own campaign (“yoink”).

    Thanks and beautifully done!

  8. @Greg & Robby: Happy you enjoyed it– I’ve got a couple more I’m working on. Hopefully they’ll be as useful.

    @theAngryDM: I’m not sure how useful showcasing the “avoided” course of events is– certainly, I think you need to make the level of success evident in the resulting scenes, but I’m not sure exposing the other branches of the story tree is useful.

    @Kodyax: I agree, and skill challenges– along with minions and rituals (truthfully, incantations) are concepts I think 4E did an excellent job of bringing to the foreground. The execution may not always be there, but these things are part of the consciousness now, and that’s a good thing, IMO.

    @Bill: Happy you enjoyed it. You might also like the article I did a bit back on action points in skill challenges. The “skill challenges” tag in this article should find it fastest.


  9. The only downside I can see is that by failing the skill challenge, or doing less well the party ends up with a more difficult encounter, which could actually net them more xp in the end. For a Complexity 1 skill challenge, total failure would lead to a level +4 encounter which I believe would be more xp than succeeding and getting full xp but only a level +1 encounter.

  10. And frankly, they really should be getting xp for the skill challenge, itself (with partial xp for partial success), which should go a ways to alleviating such ‘failure rewards’.

  11. In the normal rules for skill challenges the failed skill challenge results in disadvantages for the characters and the adventure continues.

    For a skill challenge it is vital to describe.
    Describe the NPC, environment, …
    Describe the result of each skill check.

    Your idea of presenting scenes is tried and true.
    These scenes give in a natural way additional describable detail.

    @Rob & Tedronai: I am used to getting full XP for a successful skill challenge and 1/2 XP for a failed skill challenge. I also encountered failed skill challenges where the XP not gained in the skill challenge manifested in additional foes in the harder combat encounter (failing the scouting.) Such that the total XP from both was equal no matter the outcome of the skill challenge.

  12. I agree that you need to give some story explanation to the players so that they understand how their performance impacted a subsequent encounter. This is particularly important if you structure your skill challenge narrative in such a way that the party may not be sure whether a particular event was a total success or failure.

    I recommend giving a set amount of experience points for the skill challenge and subsequent encounter(s) combined. In this way if the skill challenge lets you get a level+1 encounter instead of level+4, the difference in those two amounts is the experience for success at the skill challenge.

    One question I have is whether you would expect all players to take an action in every scene. That would be the expectation of most folks in my group, but does yield a lot of results to parse and describe. We don’t have a lot of ‘aid another’ actions in my groups.

  13. @vermonter: my concern with only providing a level+1 encounter is overall challenge. Personally, if they fail the SC then I feel the group should be facing something nearly overwhelming, but with the possibility for success. A low level encounter tends to be a speed bump in my experience, and failure needs consequences– in this case we’re talking in the form of surges, powers, and consumables.

    I understand your idea of making the two encounters an equal combined total, or the concern that groups might fail simply to grab the additional xp, but I think a story reward should usually accompany success. That, combined with the RP benefits of success (in this case, the positive relationship, the fact that no NPCs die, the possible relationships established with those troops who assist the PCs) should outweigh the pure numerical benefit of a few more brutes on the battlemat… Perhaps that ought to be the subject of the next article. :)

    I don’t require everyone to participate, but I do solicit everyone to keep them involved– the choice to do nothing is still a choice, and sometimes it’s the best choice a character can make. I don’t think someone should be penalized for playing a particular character, especially if they’re savvy enough to realize when an action for the sake of acting is inappropriate. I’m not saying you suggest this, I have seen it happen many times, though and I think it’s the source of a lot of irritation players can have with SCs. Of course someone needs to act unless the group decides they would rather not participate, but then that’s also an active choice.

    @tedronai I’m not sure how I feel about xp for a failed SC, but yes, given we’re looking at partial success, then partial xp is probably a reasonable consideration. I think I probably considered the additional difficulty in the following combat the “partial” xp. ;) However if you look at the combined total slightly differently, then, yes partial xp makes sense. a big part of this comes down to how you structure you xp awards, if you use them.


  14. Ah, there’s always someone looking to piss in the pot. Welcome to the comments section Todd. Try to be less of a dick.

  15. Something that I was thinking of while reading through the multi-scened Skill Challenge is that you could almost make a flow chart of possibilities. A failure leads to a different scene than the success, but you still continue on a path that could lead to an overall success. You could simply make it take 2 more steps after the failure to get to where a success would have taken you straight to. The possibilities are mind-boggling and endless.
    You may completely dismiss this as you wish. I’ve always enjoyed multiple paths that someone could take to get to the same outcome.

  16. @Todd: Ah, delicious snark. I’d respond by saying, yes, I’m familiar with the concept of variable success in RPGs, but it’s not discussed within the rules that detail 4E skill challenges– in either the DMG or DMG2. Even some of the development blogs have talked about a linked series of complexity 1 SCs, rather than longer challenges with scenes. I think it adds a lot of utility, exposing the option to anyone who hasn’t been gaming for 10+ years, and I believe that’s worthwhile.

    @Jake: I agree, and in fact, that’s what I’ve used when designing similar challenges for other scenarios. The flowchart works well as a reference, but I find trying to pack all the descriptive text and options into the chart tends to make it too busy. You can use this to build a “rule of three” when dealing with clues– each clue or scene really contains three pointers: one to itself, two others which direct the characters to other scenes. This doesn’t work for all scenarios, but definitely adds a lot of flexibility to investigations.


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