Maybe I’m slow on the re-absorption of old ideas, but I’m just now coming back around to the idea of the Combat Skill Challenge. Basically, the idea is that Combat itself is just a subsystem designed to add more depth to an area that players are the most interested in — giving characters an area in which to diversify.

Rather than going into more background as to when, where, and why I came up with the idea (at least two years ago, the Brilliant Gameologist forums, and to design a better roleplaying game), I’m going to talk about the idea itself, and how to make it work. First, we have the primary skill. In Fourth Edition, that means Athletics.

Why Athletics? Well, let me put it this way: while there are thieves, priests, and mages in the game, combat is what the warrior does. The warrior who is trained in using various weapons to make monsters dead. While other skills come into play (Stealth for surprise, Acrobatics for maneuvers) combat starts with overpowering the enemy.

Everything else is there to spice things up, but a Combat Challenge begins and ends with overpowering your opponent with force. Sometimes your thief will get the drop on an enemy, and sometimes they’ll crumble. Other times they’ll shrug it off, or they were expecting an ambush and prepared. Surprise doesn’t work all the time.

Now admittedly, Athletics won’t always be the way to go, but the times it isn’t will be the exception, not the rule. Your typical opponent will be mortal, be they men or monsters. They will bleed, and you will be able to kill them. (Unless you befriend them instead!) You’ll have good reason to worry when the Athletics skill isn’t enough.

So, like any of the other Challenges I’ve described, be they negotiations for faction expansion (build roads, build walls, establish settlements, expand settlements, etc), Combat has an opening, a middle game, and an endgame, with pretty much all the same mechanics. I’ll give you a quick outline for how and when to use skills.

Combat Challenge
Complexity: varies
Primary Skill: Athletics

Failures (all phases)
When you incur a close failure (you miss the target number by less than five) with a primary or secondary skill, you may spend a healing surge to achieve “partial success,” which negates the failure and grants a +2 bonus to the next roll made in the challenge.

Each failure incurred during the Challenge, whether missing the target number by five or more, or not turning a close failure into a partial success, costs the party a number of healing surges equal to the number of participating players.

Individual phases (especially the first one) may have additional effects for successes and failures.

Phase 1 — Opening (min. 1, max. 3 checks)
Each Combat Challenge requires a minimum of one check made during the Opening, which can either be Athletics, or any relevant secondary skill.

Secondary Skills
Insight (one) — Determine relative strength and effective leadership of opponents, assign priority targets.

Perception (one) — Spot the enemy before they notice you, move into an ideal position before combat breaks out.

Stealth (one) — Surprise the enemy by launching an attack before they’re able to respond, create an effective ambush.

Relevant Knowledge check (one) — Theoretical knowledge will only aid the party so much, and practical application during combat is difficult, no matter how much intelligence is available.

Each success gained during the Opening grants your party a cumulative +2 bonus to all rolls made during the third phase.

When you incur a failure during the Opening and either choose not to turn it into a partial success, or otherwise cannot, your party suffers a cumulative -1 penalty to all rolls made during the second phase.

Phase 2 — Middle Game (min. 1, max. 10 checks)
Each failure incurred during phase 1 of the Challenge imposes a cumulative -1 penalty to all rolls made during the Middle Game.

Secondary Skill(s)
Acrobatics (two) — Maneuver into an advantageous position using superior mobility, outflank enemy or regain the element of surprise.

Phase 3 — Endgame (max. 3 checks)
Each success gained during phase 1 of the Challenge grants a cumulative +2 bonus to all rolls made during the Endgame.

Secondary Skills
Endurance (one) — Draw on reserves of energy to outlast the enemy, endure countless attacks until foes exhaust themselves.

Heal (one) — Perform relevant first aid to mitigate injury, provide emergency care to keep critical ally on their feet and in the fight.

Relevant Charisma check (one) — Cow opponent with an awesome display of force, convince them of the futility of their efforts.