I loved the concept of 4e skill challenges, but noticed it missed a crucial component when I used it. Namely player agency was minimal.
It always felt like it was attacking my weakest skill, even if I was playing a skill heavy character.
Worse, there were trap choices.
I literally called out that a roll on a particular skill was a bad choice before the gm said roll anyway and only confirmed my suspicion that the skill, which was listed in the book as an automatic failure.
I prefer to have fun when trying to do a task as a team and I believe my system reflects this.
The main purpose of the Skill Montage is to create a mechanic where you can perform complex tasks without G.M.s Fiat.
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard is how d20 experience was always based on killing things and wanted to create a means to earn experience and have fun while doing it.
It also allows for a collaborate experience. While everybody likes being the hero that saves the day, in a tabletop experience, it means that you have at least 3 other peoples in the shadow.
If everybody has a chance to shine, they will feel empowered.
It is also why there are ways to modify the rolls. I am a firm believer in agency that adds to player’s involvement.
Steps in Creating a Skill Montage
This is repeated for ease of reference:
1. Figure out the premise of the skill montage
2. Pick up to 3 skills to base it on: try to pick skills that the party has.
3. Pick alternative skills that can be used, but at a difficulty +5.
a. If the players make a satisfactory argument for a skill to be used, put it here.
4. Figure out the relevant DC of the main skills
5. Figure out the complexity
6. Figure out the cost of failure
7. Figure out any other factors
8. Go around the table and have actions declared
9. Roll dice in sequence until success or failure has been achieved.
Skill Montage Case Study: Bank Heist
1. Premise: setting up a Bank Heist.
2. Key Skills: Diplomacy (to gather info and to calm down anybody in the bank heist), Sabotage (for cracking the safe and disarming alarms), Use Vehicle (for the getaway).
3. Secondary Skills: Bluff, Gunplay, will fill in as players give feedback.
4. CR 12 encounter. It’s is well protected but it’s not Fort Knox. DC 22
5. Complexity: Based on Population: Difficult: there are about 20 people in the bank when it is hit.
6. Failure: not only do you not get the money, you get cornered by the local authority. A fight will begin.
7. Success: You get the cr 12 equivalent of medium treasure (9,000 GB) from the experience. You also get to roll on the Macguffin Treasure (See Dark Revelations - the Role Playing Game - Book of Adventure) to setup a future story hook.
So to sum up as a block
• When you want to rob a bank
DC: 22 (CR 12).
Complexity: Difficult (4 successes, 2 failures)
Base skill: Diplomacy (to gather info and to calm down anybody in the bank heist), Ride, Sabotage (for cracking the safe and disarming alarms), Use Vehicle (for the getaway).
Secondary Skills (+5 to DC): Bluff, Gunplay
Success: You get the CR 12 equivalent of medium treasure (9,000 GB) from the experience. You also get to roll on the Macguffin Treasure (See Rifts book of Adventure) to setup a future story hook.
• Not only do you not get the money, you get cornered by the local authority. A fight begins.
Now let’s meet our bank robbers:
The party consists of
Chrysfield - a Harlowe Channeler/sentinel with an avenging angel complex.
Orleans – A Medusa Combatant/Brute whom wields a mean whip
Skater Dan – A Halfling Adventurer/Transrider with an obsession with safety and children’s songs.
W. Bean – A Bogey Ritualist/Artillery Mage with the disposition of Joe Pesci and a magic carpet.
Our heroes setup a rough plan.
1. They will go into the bank, tell everybody to calm down
2. With the help of of W. Bean casting eroding touch, Skater Dan will crack the safe.
3. Chrysfield will then use her obscene diplomacy to get their hostages to load up their getaway ride.
4. They will then ride away on the magic carpet.
They successfully debated that ride (which is used with magic carpet) will be a primary skill and manipulation as a secondary skill.
Now the actual encounter
• Chyrsfield: 1st roll diplomacy (to calm down inhabitants): Skill +19, but rolled a 1, 1st failure. - Despite her normally soft words, she causes a panic in the bank. 1 failure.
• Orleans: responds with manipulation (to scare down inhabitants): Skill +15, rolled a 15, - succeeds and scares everybody to the ground. - 1 success, 1 failure.
• W. Bean: casts eroding touch (4th level spell) to assist with cracking safe. Skill +17, roll - doesn't add to successes or failure, but will add +4 to the next roll.
• Skater Dan: cracks safe - Skill +13 +4 (with spell); rolled a 15 - 33 - 2 successes, one failure.
• Chrysfield - diplomacy check- (to attempt to move bags quickly with help); 19, rolled 38 - they have help; 3 successes, 1 failure.
• W. Bean - ride away on magic carpet; +16 but rolled a 7, 21 - 2 failures - skill montage failed.
As a result, the money falls off the flying carpet and the encounter occurs.
NOTE: it's okay to shift the order as long as everybody goes on that round. a lot of it may change based on events.
One last thing:
I cannot stress enough that the bonuses we put in are guidelines to aid the GM. Simply put, we cannot figure out everything and some decisions will have to be made at the table.
Also, we cannot stress enough to allow a “give and take” when it comes to primary and secondary skills. If the player can justify the use of a skill for a scenario, pick one and let them roll. Nobody likes being the PC that has no way of succeeding because they don’t have the specific skill listed.