Skill Challenge Handbook
#1 of my Top Ten of 2017!!
This handbook clocks in at 79 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 3 pages of advertisements, leaving us with 71 pages of content, so let’s check this out!
This book was moved up in my reviewing-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
It is no secret that I never liked D&D 4th edition. I tried the game and I’m not trying to discredit it or its playstyle – it just wasn’t what I considered to be enjoyable and in contrast to PFRPG and 5e, it didn’t let me tell the stories I wanted to tell. That is not to say that I think it’s a bad system. I get why people like it and it has its definite merits. One such merit outshines, at least for me, pretty much all others, and that would be the concept of the skill challenge. In short, this represents a cooperative, dangerous endeavor undertaken by the group, based mostly on skill use – preventing a raft from going down the waterfalls, stopping a trap-room slowly filling with sand, chases – there is a vast plethora of different applications of the original system. However, at the same time, its implementation wasn’t always as smooth as it could have been…but that’s a topic for another rant.
Ultimately, skill challenges addressed an issue with skills that has been with us for quite a while, namely that, for such an integral component of the game, skills tend to…not be as fun as they should be. When 101 New Skill Uses hit sites back in the day, I was ecstatic. Similarly, the idea of rank-based Skill Unlocks was one I cherished and thankfully, more and more modules differentiate between degrees of success and failure when it comes to skills. All of these, however, do not necessarily change the structure in which skill-use works. To take perhaps one of the most maligned and disliked components of the game, namely traps: Mechanically, they’re usually 2 – 3 rolls: Perception to see them, Disable Device to disarm them. Or an attack roll by the trap. Or a saving throw. It took a while, and then publishers like Raging Swan Press etc. realized that this was not necessarily the most fun incarnation of such challenges and thus began crafting more interesting traps that involved the whole group. Similarly, whether via conversion (e.g. in the Zeitgeist AP) or even via the big dog Paizo, which has, by other names, used similar mechanics in chases and the like – a complex series of tasks that would be resolved, a series of tasks that does not hinge on just one roll, but multiples and that engages the whole group, as opposed to just one characters. You know, emphasizing the cooperative aspect that makes roleplaying awesome.
The downside and caveat that ultimately comes with these tasks would be that, at least right now, they have not had a proper engine to run on; their mechanics had to be clarified, which cost words…you get the idea. This is where this book comes in. The Skill Challenge Handbook’s goal, hence, would be to codify rules that allow you to set up any type of cooperative, non-combat task as a group-based endeavor.
The mechanics for this are interesting, to say the least: We begin with the so-called “Skill Challenge Cycle”, which behaves basically like a combat round: You roll initiative and retain it throughout; you get your turn and may even begin with a surprise cycle and you may be flat-footed until you act. Here’s the thing that sets it apart: While you can easily assign a cycle of 1 round and run a skill challenge even during a combat encounter, there is no requirement for doing the like: You can run skill challenges in pretty much any temporal interval you’d like: Want to depict a grueling, weeks- or even months-spanning overland trek/escape from a hostile army? Well, you can simply define the cycle as hours, days, months…or conversely have two brilliant strategists try to outthink one another in a manner of seconds! While the default cycle-lengths, called frequency, are defined tighter, as a whole, there is nothing keeping you from expanding these – the system retains its modularity.
Similarly, the spatial factor can diverge wildly – squares of movement, from the local to the global, are covered – in theory, you could play skill challenges with kingdom or settlement stats with a minimum of fuss! More important for most groups, however, would be that both targeting, riding and vehicles, all those dicey types of movement, are covered within the frame of this modular base that sits at the heart of this book.
A skill challenge has, obviously, per definitionem, an inherent chance of failing it, but the completion of the challenge may be just as modular – in fact, multiple parties, characters or otherwise active participants may have wildly different success conditions! Beating a skill challenge is called “Completion” and is achieved, ultimately, by making “progress.” Progress is made y using the applicable primary or secondary skills associated with the skill challenge – secondary skills decrease the die-size used to roll progress by one step. Wait, what? Yep, if you have a lot of ranks (based on hard ranks, thankfully!), Skill Focus or class skills used here, you’ll roll a larger die than those who have less expertise in the field, allowing you to actually become better in the way you succeed. And before all those munchkins start complaining: Your carefully minmaxed skills still yield bonus progress if you beat the DC by 5 or more. Oh, and 20s may become crits when confirmed, while 1s are always failures – akin to combat.
Speaking of which: The book takes class abilities, ability checks, feats and spells into account, covering and codifying in concise terms the way in which such abilities are used in the context of the skill challenge system. So, how does it work? Actions are defined as pertaining the cycle, differentiating between cycle and half-cycle actions – this allows for the easy integration of all action types of PFRPG easily and yes, swift/immediate actions are codified properly as well. Beyond these, there are some special actions: Aiding others, creating an advantage in a movement-based skill challenge…oh, and an important aspect: How do players or PCs know what they can do in a given challenge? A concise system for actually realizing how such a challenge works has been included: Relevant Knowledge versus a DC that scales with the CR of the skill challenge at hand.
The skill challenges as a base system can easily be modified by optional elements – from languages to skill bonuses, time pressure, backlash for failures, demerits (deteriorating benefits the longer it lasts) to failure tolerance – the modifications are all concisely defined and present perfectly defined key elements to customize the base system. These are further expanded with optional SQs that allow for critical fumbles, individual completion, limited completion or perhaps the challenge takes place in a magically imbued area – all of these frameworks are defined in the clear and precise manner we have come to expect from Everyman Gaming. Beyond these, an engine for obstacle creation for movement-based challenges can be found – including unavoidable or magical obstacles! Oh, and I should mention thresholds – with this system, you could create multi-step rituals the PCs must complete, with escalating and different conditions and tasks in each of the steps, separated by thresholds.
All of this sounds highly theoretical, but if you prefer examples, from babysitting to powering up runestones, making a meal for a dragon, cracking encoded spellbooks to gaining an audience with the king or staying the course in a brutal storm – the system’s applications are, without any hyperbole ENDLESS. But perhaps you’re a GM who does not like to bother with the nit and grit of math and all that stuff? Well, in that case, you’ll ADORE the massive, massive tables of sample skill DCs by CR, the progresses, obstacles etc. – basically, if you don’t want to bother with a variety of customizations, you can simply take one of these rows from the table and run them as is.
Okay, so this would be the base engine – it is titanic in its vast potential…and it becomes more awesome from here on out. You see, from here on out, we move to the subchapter that take a look at specific implementations (and modifications) of the system: The first of these would be the chase challenge, which includes rules for forced marches, tracking quarries and obfuscating trails. You’re the couriers, trying to warn the kingdom of the impending invasions, with killers and soldiers at your heels? There you go – here are the rules to depict your heart-pounding escape! Whether chased or chaser, the system works. The second system covers something I have been waiting for: Contests. From Poker to Chess to pretty much any athletic of other form of competition is covered: Grapple contests, momentum contests, those featuring nets/walls, competitive recollections and stochastic/strategy contests -all are concisely and precisely defined – subcategories and point-based completion…all included. The actions, from blocks to fake outs, catches, passes, pushing self etc. are provided. Want to play Fantasy Soccer or Football or Bloodbowl (yep, dogpiling rules…) or Quidditch in PFRPG? There you go – the rules are here! If you once again encounter the challenge of playing chess in-game, you won’t have to whip out the board and bore your players or resolve it as a banal series of roles – you can actually make it INTERSTING and EXCITING. The sample challenges include, fyi, baseball, chess, horseshoes, poker, rope-skipping (!!!) or trivia contests…the options are as infinite as our tradition as a species to make games. Heck, you could go meta and have your PFRPG-characters play a simplified RPG in-game…
Now, all of this is cool, but personally, I gravitate to complex plots – as such, influence challenges of e.g. diplomatic tasks during banquets, backroom dealings, courtly intrigues, hashing out deals with merchant consortiums – all of these and infinitely more can be realized with the chapter focusing on them, adding a vast array of playability to any intrigue scenario – I certainly know I’ll use the hell out of that in a certain, upcoming Taldan AP…and speaking of which: Verbal Duels tie in perfectly with the former, acting not only as a stand-alone chapter, but also as a kind of extension: From an influence to a verbal duel and back, you can stack these upon another in a variety of genius ways – since discovering a bias, seeding audiences and gaining edges are all provided, you can basically run a whole campaign focused on senates, hearings and the like if you so choose! Various strategies and the like can be found, with skills being assigned to tactics…and yes, before you’re asking, countering a tactic with the same tactic, repeating one over and over and the like all come with repercussions! And yes, this retains, obviously, full compatibility with Ultimate Intrigue.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to Everyman Gaming’s two-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. The full-color artworks throughout are full-color and well-made, provided by Brett Neufeld and Jacob Blackmon. The softcover print copy is nice, though it does not sport the name on the spine, which is a bit of a pity.
Alexander Augunas’ Skill Challenge Handbook is an extremely versatile…oh who am I kidding? Let me spell it out clearly:
THIS IS PERHAPS THE MOST IMPORTANT RULEBOOK I HAVE READ IN YEARS. Perhaps, it is even the most important 3pp-PFRPG book – period.
Are you playing Pathfinder? Do you want to do more than killing things? Then this is a MUST-HAVE PURCHASE. Scratch that, even if you just want to kill things, this’ll make the combats more exciting!
I am not kidding, nor engaging in the slightest kind of hyperbole when I’m saying that:
-This should have been Core. Seriously. If I had to choose one 3pp-book to add to PFRPG’s core-rules, this would be it.
-This book makes EVERY single PFRPG campaign better for using it.
-This is a MILESTONE and vastly improves the game.
-I have NEVER seen a supplement, regardless of rules system, enhance the number of stories I can tell to this extent.
The skill challenge handbook is, even among Alexander Augunas’ impressive cadre of amazing books, a shining example, a paragon of its kind. Didactically-concise, well-presented and easy to grasp, yet incredibly modular, the system presented herein unlocks innumerable, nay, infinite options to tell fantastic, engaging stories. Heck, I even used it for stuff it was never intended to do – like portraying conflicts between settlements! The system is so incredibly modular and versatile, it can literally depict anything in an exciting manner.
Nail-biting in-game chess-duels for the souls of fellow adventurers? Check! Backstabbing courtly intrigue? Check. Over the top fantasy bloodsports? Check. Venturing into the depths of the earth? Check. Scaling a giant beanstalk? Check. Flying a ship through the deathstar’s/SIN’s defenses? Check. Navigating the Eye of Abendengo? Check. Leading the Chain of Dogs through the desert? Check. Playing Quidditch? Check. Making traps that engage the whole group? Check. Diffusing a magical reactor? Check. Finishing a ritual to banish a demon lord while he tries to eat you? Check. Catching enemy spies? Check. Running down couriers? Check. Ben Hur-style chariot races/combats? Check. Doing the Cicero in Senate? Check. Going fantasy Ace Attorney? Check. Ride an Avalanche? Check. Scaling a Kaiju? Check. Riding the gigantic tsunami-wave of crystallized shards from the heavens? Check. Deciphering a grimoire before the THINGS get you and your comrades? Check. Negotiating with the cannibals about to eat you and yours? Check. Navigating the dragon’s hoard sans waking the wyrm? Check. Depicting guild warfare? Check.
…I could literally go on all day long and just add to this list.
I am not kidding when I’m saying that this is the single most important 3pp PFRPG-rule-book I know and own. I cannot stress enough how incredibly, incredibly inspiring this book is. The base engine is deceptively simple-looking and elegant and can be tweaked by even the most novice of GMs to deliver pure, unadulterated awesomeness. All those situations that some players sat out, all those high tension scenes that deflated by being reduced to a single, bland roll now extend to the whole group – and by virtue of the structure of the system, they engage all players and deliver the high tension of comparable scenes from other forms of media.
There is no other book out there that delivers a similar increase in quality and versatility for the game. If you are a GM, BUY THIS ASAP and never look back. If you’re a player, buy it as well. Keep a copy and gift one to your GM. No matter how good your GM is, chances are that your game will be better with this book in your life.
In fact, even if you do not play PFRPG and thus can’t sue the math aspects of the game, as long as you have actions you take in combat and some sort of skill system, you can use a big portion of this system with some modifications!
If the sequence of superlatives was no clear indication: This belongs on the shelves and HDs of literally EVERY PFRPG GM. No exception. This book is fantastic, a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that is supreme, no matter the scale you apply: If I had 10 stars, this would be 10 out of 10 and I’d complain about not being able to award it 11. This book is an apex-level toolkit of raw potential and excitement, 5 stars + seal of approval, is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017 (who am I kidding – this has a very high chance of getting the number 1-spot!) and also gets my designation as an EZG Essential, as one of the books I’d consider to be absolutely required reading.
Do yourself a favor and get this dazzling, resplendent gem of a book today.
You can get this phenomenal milestone here on OBS!