So I did some scanning of the 4e DMG today. To be honest, I’m still not quite certain I “get” skill challenges. The basic idea is it is something like an extended skill test in most RPGs – a bunch of characters make a variety of skill tests. You can use different skills depending on the objective. For example, if you are trying to convince a baron to authorize a quest for your group (along with perhaps some donated resources) you could use skills like Diplomacy (“the king has concerns in thid matter”) or Bluff (“I am a cousin of the king”) or History (“recall your great-grandfather ran into a similar issue”). The idea is you need x number of successes before you get y failures. And I do get how to implement it. But I’ve never been quite able make that sort of thing seem interesting. When I tried it with my group there was a feeling of “let’s get back to the real stuff”. Similar to most extended skill tests in my experience – roll, roll, roll, roll, done. Yawn.

Now one could argue combat is like that. But combat is far more dynamic. Your foe is trying to hit back at you. You have resources, your foe has resources. Pelgrange Press’ soon-to-be-discontinued Dying Earth RPG, based upon the Jack Vance series, had its social combat system be identical to its physical combat system. I think that is the direction 4e should have gone in.

That’s not to say I think 4e is absolutely useless when it comes to a tradition dungeon delve. For instance, a reread of the section on traps was quite interesting. There were different Perception rolls/passive Perception tests to notice certain details. But noticing those details does not guarantee you see there is a trap. For instance a pit trap could be indicated by changes in the stonework of the floor. But that does not mean such changes are always indicative of a pit trap. Similarly no check is required to notice fungus, but an active Dungeoneering check is required to realize it will spew LSD as charactrers walk by.

This sort of system, implemented properly, might give some of that “man vs. the dungeon” atmosphere that I am aiming for. I’m looking for the dungeon to be another world, one quite hostile to surface-dwellers. I want a lot of traps. Dark tunnels with wandering monsters.

Of course that brings up the other issue, being able to handle encounters quickly. I’m not certain 4e can do that. If it can’t, does that mean the dungeon needs to change from what I’m envisioning? We play a 2-3 hour game every two weeks. Be awesome to play longer and with greater frequency, but we’re all in our thirties, a lot of us are married and/or have kids. Its what we can squeeze in. So realistically, I’d assume that the typical combat encounter is about 30 to 45 minutes, judging by past experience. Assuming a 2.5 hour session, that makes for a maximum of 3-5 combat encounters. That would assume all combat though – things like discussion, wandering, traps, etc. will probably take up a bit of time, as will side-table talk. So we’d be looking at 2-3 combat encounters. What we can attempt to do is add some non-combat encounters, probably environmental encounters with some puzzles, interaction, etc.

What I’ll probably do next is consider what this would be like with a less-detailed rules system.