Running Memorable Skill Challenges (Part 2)

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on May 6, 2009

As we continue to explore how to run and design skill challenges we’ll look at the importance of creativity, the consequences of failing and new, advanced ideas for skill challenges. This builds on the basics of skill challenge design we covered yesterday in Running Memorable Skill Challenges (Part 1) including what is a skill challenge, how to introduce them and the basics of designing skill challenges.

Reward Creativity

Skill challenges are about creativity. They challenge the DM to think creatively when designing the challenge in order to give the PCs something new to experience. They also force PCs to look at their skill selection in new ways. The Fighter who is all thumbs in social encounters might consider training in Intimidate or even Diplomacy to increase his level of participation.

As a DM I reward creativity during skill challenges. A PC who explains exactly how he will accomplish a task in great detail will be awarded a bonus on his roll. Likewise, a player who simply states “I roll Diplomacy” may face a higher DC then I originally set. Imagine the Fighter who has no training in any social skills trying to find a way to impress a local noble. While in the audience hall the Fighter notices the discipline and quality of the noble’s personal guard. The Fighter uses his familiarity of these aspects to gain favour with the noble. The DM might award a substantial bonus to the Fighter’s roll for thinking creatively. I see two possible skill choices the Fighter could select in this situation: History, showing the Fighter’s knowledge of weaponry and warfare, or Diplomacy, as the Fighter is really trying to butter up the noble.

D&D is more than the sum of a d20 plus skill modifier. It’s about creativity, fantasy and flights of imagination. As a DM it’s your job to reward and encourage this behaviour.

Consequences of Failing a Roll

What happens when a PC makes a skill check and doesn’t meet the DC? In most cases a failure is recorded and the next PC in the initiative goes. But does that have to be it? Can failure be something spectacular or can it be devastating?

In many of the physical skill challenges that I create, I penalize a failed physical check (acrobatics, athletics or endurance) with the loss of a healing surge, either for that PC or for the party as a whole. Once the PCs realize this, each check with that skill becomes more critical. Especially if they know that a combat encounter awaits them at the end of the skill challenge.

In social skill challenges a failed check might result in a negative modifier for the next PC who makes a check. This increases the sense of anticipation with each check, leaving the PCs wondering what the outcome of the skill check will be.

Consequences of Failing a Skill Challenge

Failing a skill challenge should not mean the end of an adventure. An adventure should never be dependent on a skill challenge succeeding in order to continue. Rather, failure means the PCs will now need to succeed through alternate means. This can be difficult for DMs who spent time crafting a skill challenge, only to have the PCs fail and now a new way of continuing the story is required.

In an example presented yesterday, the PCs needed to convince the Duke to lend them 500gp to fund an expedition. Failing the challenge means the Duke will only provide half the gold the PCs needed, leaving them to pay the rest. In I Didn’t Do It, failing the challenge means a delay for the PCs as they are arrested. If they are on a time-sensitive mission this could cause complications. Failing the challenge now has a greater consequence than merely being inconvenienced.

As a DM, try to be creative about what failure means to the PCs. It might mean more work for you, but it can be very rewarding. In the example above the PCs might decide to break out of jail rather than wait until the morning when a magistrate will decide their fate. You now get to quickly create a jailbreak challenge or have a quick encounter with the guards as the PCs attempt to escape. Do they kill the guards? It will matter when they come back to town.

Advanced Skill Challenges

Many of the skill challenges in adventures and modules are very linear. That is, a certain amount of successes are required before failures. That’s it, end of story. This can get repetitive quickly and can be somewhat limiting. As you learn to craft skill challenges, the level of complexity in the skill challenges will also increase. Imagine a scenario where the PCs learn that the NPC they are dealing with loves to gamble? How do you as a DM handle things if they challenge the NPC to a game of dice? In Information Gamble, we considered just that question. The result was a sub-challenge embedded within the primary skill challenge. The sub-challenge isn’t necessary to complete the overall skill challenge, but it provides an interesting opportunity that the PCs can pursue.

Another concept we’ve been working on at Dungeon’s Master is the idea of a skill challenge tree. The success of a larger skill challenge is determined by the success or failure of several other smaller challenges. An example might be the recovery of an ancient magic item. Obtaining the item isn’t governed by the skill challenge, if the party makes it to the end of the dungeon the item is there. Imagine the skill challenge like the prongs of a fork. The handle of the fork is the over arching skill challenge and the prongs are smaller challenges. Within the prongs there might be other additional challenges. Success and failure in the smaller challenges would confer bonuses or penalties in subsequent challenges. The tree might look like this:

Obtain an ancient magic item

    1. Research location – Failure results in a -2 modifier on each role in the next challenge.
      • Convince a local academic to assist you – Success grants two successes in the research quest, failure has no additional consequence.
    2. Travel to location – Failure results in a random encounter, loss of healing surges or time wasted or lost.
    3. The lands surrounding the dungeon are ruled by a barbarian horde, you must convince them to let you pass – Failure means you must prove your worth in ritual combat.
    4. Opening the door to the dungeon – Failure alerts the inhabitants of the dungeon allowing a surprise round for the NPCs during the first combat encounter.
    5. Negotiating with divine beings – The dungeon was once a temple and failing in this aspect of the challenge lodges a curse on the PCs, they suffer a -1 modifier on all d20 rolls until the next extended rest.
    6. Arcane Wards – Failure means you have released an ancient being into the world.
    7. Betrayal by the barbarians – They want the magic item and you must sneak past them. Failure means the barbarians are aware of your passage and give chase.

      The challenge outlined above describes the quest of finding a magic item and lodges it in the structure of a skill challenge. To be successful at the overall quest the PCs must succeed in four of the seven challenges that make up the skill challenge tree.

      The mechanics that are provided in the DMG for skill challenges allow DMs to craft intricate and engaging encounters for PCs to navigate. I believe that skill challenges offer a new and interesting level of complexity to Dungeons & Dragons. Keep visiting Dungeon’s Master to see what we develop next. We update the skill challenges tab frequently with new additions to our skill challenge database.

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