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Your Skill Challenge is S#!^

Let’s talk skill challenges. I used to be a fan. For the short time I ran 4e, I loved them. I don’t anymore. It’s not so much the structured approach to resolving conflict. It’s not the way they tie in with the game’s story/event based elements. It’s the shitty DMs.

Some background: skill challenges are based on the concept of a leveled skill system. 2e introduced proficiencies. They were based solely on stats (with a constant modified depending on how difficult the skill is to learn/employ). 3e went from proficiencies to skills and gave points to spend on improving them (awarded every level). 4e replaced points with a flat level-based modifier and a flat bonus for being “skilled” or “trained”. 5e… well, I’m not really sure. I think it’s the same as 4e? Whatever, doesn’t matter, because we’re talking about skill challenges.

4e gave us the concept of a skill challenge which is a structured approach to resolving a conflict through the use of skills (as opposed to hitting it with your axe). But all of this is dependent on the concept of a skill roll (and, to a lesser degree, training in a skill) as a necessary means to achieve a win-condition in the game. No skill sysyem, no need for skill challenge rules.

But this is where I have a real problem: in a skill challenge, the DM defines the win. Which is the opposite of how games should work. When the DM defines the win, the game needs to play out according to that requirement. Players don’t want to scale the wall or talk to the guards? F^@# you, you can’t get into the castle. Only two can get over the wall? Sorry, you needed to get everyone over. You suck, no reward for you, start over.

And I know the despondent cries of opposition will proclaim: “That’s not how it works! If the players think of something clever, the DM just assigns a skill, a difficulty and a result, and adds the success/failure to the running total.” Well fuck you, voices from the internet æther, because you’re looking at it from the wrong angle. The problem isn’t whether or not the DM is capable of responding to something unexpected. It’s the fact that the DM defined the win for the players.

Players define the win. Look, when swords are drawn and initiative is rolled, what’s the win-condition? It’s whatever the players want it to be. The monster might fight to the death;  it might run away; it might be willing to parlay; it might take some food and wander off. But in no case should the situation be dictated by the DM such that only a few outcomes can count as a win. The players decide how to engage a monster and how to go about getting what they want. And the rules are designed to encourage certain behaviors, such that, more often than not, a win occurs when the players kill the monster and take its treasure (and earn XP). Want to encourage different behaviors for a different kind of game? Create a reward structure that supports your concept. But don’t define the win for the players.

Just… just stop. Let the players decide what their goals are. Let them choose what a win looks like and let them decide how to go about getting it. You, as the DM, need to worry about defining the rules that govern your world. “Skill challenge” resolution will happen naturally.

F^@# Your Tricks

Monsters tricks. A sure sign that your DM is a d!@#. This is why your D&D sucks s#!^: because you’re sitting behind a screen, hiding your dice, giggling like a school girl about how much smarter you are than the players. “Hehe, the rogue forgot to say he was performing some obscure task for no reason, time to pull out a monster that I totally made up just for this moment and that no one in the entire world has ever thought of before, so there’s no chance that the player would know to use that particular detection technique, but I’m so clever, aren’t I?”

And before we get into the, “That’s not what he meant,” arguments, let’s consider the word “trick:”

  1. noun a cunning or skillful act or scheme intended to deceive or outwit someone.
  2. noun a peculiar or characteristic habit or mannerism.

Yes, I realize that one of those works against me, but that’s the fun I get to have: I’m making the point and if you want to understand it, you have to listen first.

The first definition is the problem and it’s likely the most common understanding of the word. I have nothing to back up that claim, of course, except my personal experience. Be that as it may, this much is obvious: a monster trick, as -C points out, was “[a] creature that had a specific vulnerability removed…” (He also provides a short list, summarized from one of the original versions of D&D.) In other words, it was a means for the DM to f^@# with the players.

The game we play is purely fictional. We are not our characters; we do not see through their eyes; we do not hear or smell or feel their world; we can only barely begin to get the faintest glimmer of what it is like to live their lives. And each of us will have a different impression of that fantasy, even though it is shared session after session with our friends and family. To help us come together, to assist and coordinate and delay the inevitable no-he-didn’t-yes-he-did fights – through all of this – the DM is the lynchpin. He is our connection to this phantasmal world. His words, mannerisms and behaviors are all that we have that brings this world to life.

So what do we do when the DM lies to us? Because that’s what a monster trick is – it’s a lie and it’s served to us in the steaming warmth of the DM’s s#!^^% embrace. When the DM presents several fights and parlays with a green dragon, all of them sharing the same qualities and characteristics, then during the final encounter, springs something new with no warning at all… that is the example of a monster trick – a “cunning … scheme intended to … outwit” – that we should all reject with thrown books and dice.

“But what about the second definition?” Yes, pitiful voice inside my head, that is why I included it above. There is a way to change the monsters or the scenarios or the dungeons of our games, to present something new and interesting, to spice up our worlds without f^@#ing the players in the a$$. In this case, the trick is not a deception, but the recognition that the encounter’s peculiar mannerisms, which we should be familiar with, have changed. For that to work, however, we need two things: 1) a prior familiarity with the encounter (or input from the DM about things our characters should know) and 2) information from the DM that points to the difference(s).

Here’s an example: the adventurers are indeed familiar with a wing of dragons, a mated pair of greens and their recently hatched offspring. (For this example, the mates are relatively young and the offspring very recent, so that the party can track them back to the parents’ lair.) The players dispatch the young, locate the mother and deal with her, and start on to finding the father. When they finally corner him, however, they notice a few things amiss. His coloration is distinctly different (with lots of dark purple and black among his scales). His breathing is ragged, as though he’s winded from something. The immediate area smells faintly of sour plums. And when the dragon readies his breath attack during the fight, it takes him a full round as he gasps and coughs up a bit of black bile.

What, pray tell, the f^@# is going on here? For our purposes, it doesn’t matter, because the players should be well alerted that something is amiss. So here’s the trick: this monster is not a deception, but it is different from the standard characteristics of its kind.

That’s how you employ the monster trick.


A few years back, I had other posts on this site. I took them down on purpose. That’s my prerogative, as it’s my blog and all that jazz. The decision wasn’t based on anything so much as my desire to start fresh. See, I’ve changed my mind on gaming, since last I wrote anything here, and I feel that those previous posts no longer accurately reflect my position. There are some things that remain constant and I will address those topics again, starting with this one: f^@# point-buy systems.

I wrote before about AD&D (2nd) and an option to create your own classes. It’s listed in the DMG. Basically, you address each skill/ability as a unique talent that a character might possess. That talent has a cost assigned to it. As you add abilities to your “new” class, the cost goes up. This total, then, is multiplied against a static value for each level of experience (at some incremental ratio, like 400 for level 1, 800 for level 2, 1600 for level 3, etc.). Thus a class with many powerful abilities might have a high total modifier and characters in that class take longer to go up levels.

“That’s not a point-buy system.” Correct, disembodied voice inside my head, it is not. A point-buy system gives a set number of points to the player who can construct a unique character by purchasing abilities. The player might even take limitations or flaws that give back points; regardless, the goal is to spend all available points and use future points to buy new (or to upgrade old) abilities.

Take note: there are three critical differences between the AD&D custom class system and a standard point-buy system –

  1. A point-buy system puts the points (and the decision) in the hands of the player.
  2. A point-buy system provides a clear limit by assigning a starting pool of points.
  3. A point-buy system is usually associated with a point-based advancement system.

This is why I like the AD&D custom class system: it doesn’t do those things.

Point-buy systems place too much into the hands of the player. I don’t mean to say that player agency is bad, or that players shouldn’t be able to make choices about their characters, or anything else that you might misunderstand about that statement. I mean simply this: stop letting your players waste their time on character creation. That is bulls#!^. They should be wasting their time playing the f^@#!#& game.

So yes, I use a custom class methodology for designing my game. But the classes are set. I have the option of changing them and I welcome input from the players concerning which classes should change, why they should change, and whether there’s a need for a new class (presumably to address a gap in the game world). But I retain the right to veto stupid decisions.

Why Your D&D Sucks S#!^

It’s true. I know, it’s hard to accept, but you have no f^@%!#@ clue what you’re doing.

You started playing years ago when it was fresh and new, and the world was filled with an endless potential. All those adventures; all those dragons to destroy, those dungeons to delve. But you grew older and your game didn’t grow with you. The “official” rules are the same recycled tripe they were in the ’80s. And you know it. You know deep inside that you’re still playing a child’s game. You know that the glassy-eyed stare from your players signals the heat-death of your hobby. And you have no f^@%!#@ idea how to fix it.

Maybe you’re new to the hobby. The publisher has made an industry out of packaging their s#!^ with pretty artwork and fancy marketing schemes that leverage the opinions of the hobbyist (by gathering the most vocal and oft repeated fallacies from the internet), and so you could be a newcomer. You’re not familiar with the older games but you are familiar with the forum discussions, with online articles and social media gaming groups. You’ve encountered the arguments, you’ve analyzed the math and you can’t understand why the game is written the way it is. I mean, clearly, after 30 years of design and development, surely the authors would have figured out how to solve all these problems. Surely they’d be able to offer better advice on how to build a world or a fantasy city or a rational weather system…

But they can’t. So it doesn’t matter. That’s how you deal with it. Clearly, these things are not important because the powers-that-be have deigned to not include them in the Rules As Written. Clearly it’s better to nit-pick over the small details and rehash the same concepts again and again until our brains bleed through our pores.

Or maybe your D&D sucks s#!^ because you’re thinking about the wrong thing. You’re focused on the small details. You’re arguing over the definition of hit points or what it means to be a PC vs. an NPC. You think you’re talking about game balance or fantasy economics or the best way to structure the skill rules, when you’re really talking about how to manage people or how to address a complicated topic in a systematic manner (like treasure tables or random encounters).

That’s the rub, isn’t it? It’s not that the skill system isn’t worth discussing. It’s that when you think you’re talking about skills, you’re really talking about s#!^^% players who hog the spotlight and you’re a s#!^^% DM who can’t manage the s#!^^% players and keep them from behaving like little s#!^s during your game.

That’s okay. There are others like you out there. I’m one of them. And I’m here to help you through it.


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