Combat in role-playing games generally works well. During combat scenes, everyone is engaged and contribute on an equal footing. Getting non-combat to that level of interest and involvement, however, is often difficult. Having read about and tried skill challenges in D&D 4th edition - an attempt to bring the flavour of combat to non-combat situations - I have been intrigued as to why skill challenges have failed to achieve anything remotely similar to D&D combat. They're not exciting and they're certainly not fun.
Combat works well because
- There is a clear and shared goal;
- Everyone is expected to contribute every round;
- There are often multiple paths to achieving the goal;
- Debate on tactics is a crucial element to achieving success;
Skill challenges, on the other hand, don't work well because
- Everyone contributes via atomised tasks (you roll for a knowledge check and I'll roll for the language check) - i.e., there are few shared tasks and the consequences of one task doesn't influence another;
- There is only one path to victory or each path is essentially equivalent (uses different skills) - i.e., there is little room for tactical discussion;
- The result is only either a success or fail (unlike surrender, retreat, defeat, victory or stand-off in combat encounters);
- Rolling a die is not, in-itself, fun;
We should allow "skill challenges" to emerge as we roleplay the scene. For example, in our first two sessions of RuneQuest, a failed perception check led to the horses being stolen. Generally poor tracking led to two of the horses being sold by the goblins. A failed stealth check led to ambush by sneaksy goblins in trees. Each check required debate and discussion. Also, if any of those skill checks had succeeded, the outcomes would have differed dramatically. Skill challenges can't do anything like this.
That said, it's a shame that combat gets so much attention in role-playing games. I'd like a non-combat system that dealt with social conflict simply and effectively. Maybe the duel of wits from Burning Wheel or the social conflict from Diaspora will fill the gap.