Over the past few months, with my players’ great forbearance, I’ve been monkeying around with an alternate skill challenge resolution system for D&D4. My goal is to juice up the sense of suspense and emotional involvement at the gaming table during challenges. The system as written felt a tad subdued in play. I wanted to find something that would get the players to pay greater attention to each other’s action results. I’d know I was on the right track when players were standing up out of their seats during skill resolutions, and exclaiming excitedly on big successes and groaning in frustration when things went against them. As a further limitation, I ruled out the easy choice of stealing from my own previous stuff. Hence, no adapting the revised extended contest system for the still-pending revision of HeroQuest.
It’s not necessarily perfectly nailed down yet but it it’s close enough to write up. As a home brew rule for D&D it won’t find a home outside this blog.
Note: This system uses the originally published Target DCs, not the lowered numbers from the errata.
When a skill challenge begins, shuffle a standard deck of playing cards, with Jokers removed. The
object of the challenge is to assemble a better poker hand than that dealt by the DM. Your hand marks your progress; the DM’s, that of all of the forces arrayed against you in the challenge.
Deal three cards and set them out face up. This is the river, the pool of cards from which both players and DM can draw to assemble poker hands.
The DM then deals a number of cards representing the various forces working against the PCs. The standard number is 3. For a somewhat harder challenge, the DM deals 4. For an extremely hard challenge, draw 5.
The players then, in turn, propose skill checks, narrating what they’re trying to do. By default they make these checks against a Medium DC. They may modify the DC by specifying before the roll that they want to try against either an Easy or a Hard DC.
On a success versus the default Medium difficulty, the DM deals a card and adds it to the PC hand. On a failure, the DM adds a card to the opposition hand.
If the player has selected the Hard difficulty and succeeds, he may choose to reject the first card drawn, which is then discarded in favor of a second draw. On a failure, the DM adds a card to the opposition hand.
If the player has selected the Easy difficulty and succeeds, the DM deals a card and adds it to the PC hand. On a failure, the DM adds a card to the opposition hand; the first card may be rejected and discarded in favor of a second draw.
When the player gains a card, the DM narrates the successful result of the skill attempt. When the opposition gains a card, the DM narrates the skill attempt’s unsuccessful result.
Both the DM’s and PCs’ hands can contain any number of cards. All dealt cards remain face up at all times.
The challenge unfolds in rounds, with each player contributing one skill attempt per round. (Currently there are either 1 or 2 rounds, and players may decide to end at the conclusion of the first. This may grant too big an advantage to them, though.)
When the specified number of rounds concludes, the players and DM assemble the best possible poker hand from all of their dealt cards, plus the river. If the players have the better hand, they achieve the goal as framed at the beginning of the skill challenge. If the DM has the better hand, they fail.
As I continue to refine this it seems to add uncertainty, drama and a visual focus of attention to the skill challenge process. Challenges now seem to have more punch than before. Further refinements will doubtless occur.