So I had the chance to play in a D&D game recently (as opposed to DMing it), and it was much better than the last time I tried out a new group (i.e. the worst D&D experience of my life). What was most interesting and entertaining, in fact, was when the DM played out a non-combat skill encounter entirely by the book.

Of course, I’ve ranted on about hating how D&D4e handles non-combat situations, trying to pare down and rule-ify everything until there’s no creativity left, but I don’t know. In this one instance, at least, it seemed to work, and I feel like I should do a little backpedaling.

I suspect it was largely because the situation we were in was absolutely perfect for the type of construction outlined in the PHB. We had lost an important item to some thieves and needed to infiltrate their hideout and steal it back. A classic heist caper.

We were told to formulate a solid plan before any rolling began, and we settled on a 3-man team: the thief, the distraction (me) and the getaway driver. And then we just went around the table in rounds, with the 3 of us getting turns to try and land “successes” and not roll “failures.” The PHB calls for a complex encounter like this one to get 8 successes before 4 failures are rolled. I still don’t like the complete monetization of what you need to do to succeed, but I guess it did add some tension when we got down to 3 failures, making the success of the final roll all the more intense.

The real trick to pulling it off, though, lied in the DMs masterful hand at taking what we were doing on each of our turns and advancing the action appropriately to make sure we arrived at some sort of satisfying conclusion by the end of it, success or failure. Basically, each person was given the situation they were in and tasked to find a way through it by relying on one of their skills. And the situation was such that even if someone rolled a failure, they weren’t taken out of the story, but instead future events just became more urgent, even if unrelated to the failure role, because we were by design closer to failure.

Shit, I don’t know if that made any sense. I had a good time and now need to reconsider my thoughts on the subject. Perhaps in certain situations, with the right players, proper skill encounters could work. It also helped that all the players participating knew how to advance the story, as well, and could come up with interesting and entertaining things to do on their turn while advancing the action. I also went back the next week and experienced a truly awful single-person skill encounter (probably just a bad idea to begin with) because the player didn’t really know what he was doing at all and just ran around in circles until he rolled enough failures to get himself killed. Oh well.