Skill Challenges In A Vacuum

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on December 14, 2009

One of the fundamental design concepts behind skill challenges is that they provide a mechanic for large scale, out of combat encounters. Skill challenges were meant to assist in advancing the story. But the story doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The actions of the PCs should bring about reactions from NPCs or the environment they are in.

This is a problem with many of the skill challenges I’ve encountered, they don’t evolve. We’re guilty of it too, many of our skill challenges are static. Certain checks provide certain information, make enough successful checks and you can get on to the next combat encounter. In other words skill challenges feel like they’re tacked onto the game. I know I’ve participated in more than a few where I wondered what I should be doing next. This is because the skill challenge didn’t evolve. Nothing new happened.

Nothing changes between each successful check and nothing happens on a failure. Sure there might be the odd penalty or healing surge lost, but most skill challenges lack any sort of progression as you move through the challenge. There is no update from the major NPCs until the end of the challenge. At that point the DM will provide the PCs with some relevant information and the story progresses.

This does skill challenges a disservice, as it doesn’t use them to their full potential. It’s boring and it’s repetitive. Skill challenges have the ability to provide a great deal of role-playing and story-telling if used properly. They can also inject action, adventure and excitement into the story.

The skill challenge presented below is setup slightly different than our normal format. Rather than provide information based on specific checks, information is provided based on rounds completed. DMs are still encouraged to provide updates after each individual skill check, but the story will progress after each round.

This skill challenge makes the following assumptions:

  • The skill challenge is conducted in rounds, similar to combat. The story will update at the beginning of each round.
  • Successes are based on a majority of PCs succeeding in their individual skill checks. PCs are still able to assist, but this constitutes their action on that turn.
  • The skill challenge is complexity 5 (12 successes before 3 failures) and assumes that the PCs get up to 2 failures. Therefore 14 plot updates are provided. DMs can use them where needed or as appropriate.
  • Skills can be used as often as PCs want, but DMs are encouraged to vary the DC depending on circumstance.


The PCs are searching for a well known criminal. He is believed to have information that is vital to the party’s current quest. The PCs catch sight of the criminal in the market, upon being recognized he promptly turns tail and runs. The PCs must now pursue the criminal if they are to learn anything.

Round 1

  • The criminal leaves the market district running, heading east towards the temple district.

Round 2

  • As the criminal leaves the market district he upsets some carts and vendor stands as he tries to slow down any pursuit.

Round 3

  • A slop bucket is emptied from a second floor window. An Acrobatics check is required to avoid it, but this slows PC down. Getting hit by the slop bucket results in a -2 penalty if any social checks are required. DMs should tell the PC that they stink and are covered in refuse.

Round 4

  • The criminal enters the temple district and cuts across a funeral procession. The PCs can either barge through or cross respectively. DMs should be mindful of how any divine character will be perceived.

Round 5

  • The criminal enters a large graveyard. The PCs need to keep sight of him as he weaves through the tombstones. They also need to ensure they don’t fall into any open graves.

Round 6

  • The criminal rounds a corner and vanishes from sight. The PCs need to locate him again to continue pursuit.

Round 7

  • The city guard is notified of the PCs pursuit and calls for the party to halt and explain themselves. The PCs can either stop and fast-talk their way past the guards or continue pursuit with the guards chasing behind.

Round 8

  • The local thieves guild has seen one of their own being pursued. The PCs can either Intimidate the gang into backing down or engage them in combat. If the PCs opt for combat, use a human minion of the appropriate level. Use 3 waves of minions, with 6 NPCs each. If the city guard is pursuing the PCs they enter during the second round.

Round 9

  • Upon leaving the temple district, the criminal enters the red light district where he is well known. The women of the night who are on good terms with the criminal attempt to distract and slow down the PCs.

Round 10

  • The criminal is back in the market district and has just dodged between two passing carts. As he passes one he slashes out with his dagger freeing the horses that were pulling the cart and sending them into a panic.

Round 11

  • The carts in the previous round are carrying the alchemical substance Hagar’s Breath, a liquid that instantly freezes when it’s unleashed. Several barrels have broken free and exploded making for difficult terrain.

Round 12

  • A merchant attempts to sell the PCs some wares as they run passed. A passive Perception of 20 allows a PC to see a rare item at an exceptional price. Does the PC stop to haggle for the item or maintain pursuit?

Round 13

  • The criminal lashes out with his dagger attacking some women in the market. Do the PCs stop to heal them or continue pursuit?

Round 14

  • The criminal has backed himself into a corner and realizes he won’t get away. He draws his dagger and looks prepared to fight to the death. The PCs need to talk him into surrendering.


The PCs apprehend the criminal and learn the information that is vital to their quest.


The criminal gets away, but the PCs notice what building he slips into. Rumour has the location as the guild house, combat looks imminent if the PCs want the information they need.

The skill challenge above is fairly extreme in the various situations provided. DMs might want to either reduce the number of successes required or to allow two rounds to progress before any new information is provided.

One of the great things about running challenges in this format is it allows almost the entire skill list to be used by the PCs. Perhaps the only two skills that might not be used in this challenge are Arcana and Dungeoneering, though a creative PC could likely find a way to use them.

How have you varied the way skill challenges are used in your campaign?

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