Running Memorable Skill Challenges (Part 1)

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on May 5, 2009

What is a skill challenge? These two words redefined encounters in Dungeons & Dragons. Since the release of 4e almost a year ago, skill challenges have been a thorn in the DM’s side, and a challenge for players to participate in. Much has been written about them in the blogosphere and this article certainly won’t be the last. The fundamental question I want to answer is “How to run and design skill challenges?”. The paradox here is that as I write this article I know I don’t have one solid answer. Rather, there are a myriad of ways to run skill challenges. All of them have merit, all of them have negatives and no one answer is right for all gaming groups. Further, what worked in the design of one challenge may fail in another.

What Are Skill Challenges?

At its essence, a skill challenge is a task that needs to be accomplished through the use of skills. Like combat, a skill challenge is considered an encounter and has a difficulty rating. It also provides a reward in the form of experience. The mechanics of skill challenges are simple: the PCs must earn x amount of successes before 3 failures. The amount of successes required is determined by the difficulty of the challenge. Here at Dungeon’s Master we offer a number of pre-made skill challenges for the DM to drop into his game with minimal effort.

How To Implement Skill Challenges

This is probably the part about skill challenges that gets the most debate. How does a DM effectively introduce and run a skill challenge? There is no one answer to this question, each gaming group will experience skill challenges differently and different skill challenges will require their own unique approach. There will be instances when the PCs will know they’ve entered into a skill challenge, because they have orchestrated the events to cause the challenge to occur. In other situations the PCs may be unaware that a skill challenge is occurring. Both situations are valid; however, they play out very differently.

Skill challenges with full disclosure are exactly that. The DM announces to the PCs that they have entered into a skill challenge. At this time the following is disclosed:

  • The amount of successes required to complete the skill challenge.
  • The task that must be accomplished. For example, convince the barbarian tribe to allow you to enter their lands or investigate the activities of a thieves guild.
  • The primary skills used in the challenge.

By providing full disclosure regarding the skill challenge, the DM has advised the PCs of what is required of them in order to succeed in the challenge. The PCs who are now aware of what needs to be accomplished can look at their skills and decide on an appropriate course of action for success.

Another way to handle skill challenges is to just allow them to start. No announcement is made that the challenge has begun and there is no talk of successes required or key skills. An example might be when the party needs to track down the key ingredients for a ritual. Without knowing they are participating in a skill challenge, the PCs are making Streetwise checks to hunt down rumours of the ingredient’s location. Perhaps Nature roles are being made to locate an herb in the nearby forest. Bluff or Diplomacy might be employed to haggle for the ingredient. While all of this is occurring, the DM is recording whether the roles granted successes or not. This method of handling skill challenges might result in the PCs making far more successful roles than necessary to complete the challenge and that’s ok.

The key factor to remember when introducing a skill challenge is to do it in a way that will maximize the fun for everyone. If every time you announce a skill challenge your players start to grumble, stop announcing them. Just have them start.

Skill Challenge Design

Designing a skill challenge can be as simple as deciding that the PCs must convince the Duke to lend them 500gp to fund an expedition. Failure means the Duke only provides half the required gold and the PCs must fund the rest. The players must now select the necessary skills to convince the Duke of their cause. Perhaps they try to bully or sweet talk him. They may choose to impress him with their knowledge or the promise of wealth. Either way the challenge is fairly loose and flexible in its design. The PCs are free to try whatever they feel might work. In an example like this the DM doesn’t pre-set which skills are appropriate, rather he allows the PCs to do as they wish to accomplish the task. This approach drastically reduces the amount of preparation required of the DM. However, DMs should be cautioned not to be caught totally unprepared as it might lead to a poor experience for the group.

Conversely, the DM may design a very elaborate skill challenge with specific checks that are required along the way. The Skill Challenge Kidnap and Ransom is an example of a challenge that has specific checks that are required to continue. It also has a scale of difficulty that the PCs can determine through their actions.

The DM can place further constraints on the PCs by stating that only one check of a particular skill will grant a success in a challenge. All subsequent checks with that skill are simply a non-event; they carry no weight one way or the other. This can be frustrating for the PCs for a number of reasons. If they are aware of this fact they may feel unduly restrained in what they can accomplish. If the PCs are not aware of this fact they may wonder when they will ever finish the challenge.

While limiting the amount of successes from a particular skill can constrain PCs, it also forces them to think creatively about the skills they do have. Further it might force a PC who isn’t trained in a skill to opt to make a check with it anyway.

A final thing to keep in mind when designing your skill challenge is that the PCs will think of something you hadn’t planned for. Remember to say yes and assign an appropriate DC to the check.

Tomorrow we’ll cover creativity, the consequences of failure and advanced skill challenges.

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