February 2, 2010
A couple of stumbling blocks come with building encounters and skill challenges.
Encounters do not have to be level with the players. The 4E rules are superb for providing a GM with the means to give the players a balanced encounter. In the past (and with a lot of other game systems out there) it was hard to write an encounter and expect it to be balanced for the character level. Err too little one way and it’s too easy (and not a challenge) and err the other way and you have a TPK.
However, there are times when you might want to do just that, run an encounter outside the player character’s levels. An encounter below their level can be used to showcase how far the characters have progressed, especially if they are revisiting an area they have previously been.
Encounters of a higher level than the characters can be used to showcase an upcoming monster. Perhaps they can learn a weakness as they are forced to run away. Just make sure they have an out if it is an encounter they can not beat.
In a sandbox type of setting, the encounters are placed by location, not by level. There is an even chance to find a low, high, or same level encounter. There is no predicting where the players will go and what level encounter they will come across. There is definitely room for this type of campaign setting in 4E, where the impetus on what the characters encounter is on the players and not the DM.
If you are going to run an encounter of an inappropriate level it should be used sparingly, an exception to the norm. It can be used to highlight the prowess of the characters or the strength of an upcoming monster.
Not every non-combat encounter requires a skill challenge. One of the things 4E introduced into D&D was the skill challenge, a formalized way to make use of skills. It is an attempt to bring more meaning to skills and to provide a system for their use.
Sometimes running a skill challenge can slow down a game and ruin pacing. There are times when you need to avoid it. As an example; sneaking into an enemy’s castle can provide tension, but if the really exciting stuff happens inside, you want to move the players along. A simple die roll is all you need or even forgoing a die roll completely.
Just because 4E has provided a system for skill challenges does not mean it has to be used for every encounter.
Other ways to run things within the game, that the rules do not mention, are running puzzles as tests for the players and not a challenge encounter or die roll; using curses/disabilities that last more than one encounter.
Do not assume that because a way to do things is not mentioned in the rules that you are breaking the game if you do not follow them to the letter. The rules in 4E are there as guidelines for a basic encounter. These guidelines are there to help, not to put the GM or game into a narrow stricture. All too often it’s the GM putting himself into a straightjacket, not the system.