One aspect of skill challenges that doesn’t get a lot of mention is the reward that comes from achieving the objective. Since skill challenges are supposed to be as difficult and rewarding as fighting monsters, the expectation is to be rewarded with XP just like you would for a combat encounter. But in many cases the amount of XP awarded for a successful skill challenge shouldn’t be that cut and dry. There are situations when two parties might earn a different amount of XP for successfully completing the same skill challenge. I’ve reviewed the skill challenge reward system and have some suggestions for improvement.
Rewards By The Book
According to the DMG, a complexity 1 skill challenge should yield as much XP as defeating 1 monster of the same level; a complexity 2 skill challenge should yield as much XP as defeating 2 monsters of the same level, an so on. For a DM creating a skill challenge from scratch, this is a good way to conceptualize how significant your skill challenge really is.
For example if the PCs are level 11, then according to the DMG fighting and defeating 1 typical monster should net the PCs about 600 XP. Overcoming a complexity 1 skill challenges should result in about the same 600 XP reward.
If the PCs in the example above get into a fight with 1 typical, standard monster (worth 600 XP) and the monster runs away before the PCs can kill it, should they still earn the full 600 XP? Of course they should. Earning full XP does not hinge on killing everything. They just have to defeat the monster. If the monster flees then the PCs have defeated it. Encounter over, 600 XP earned.
Now let’s look at a typical complexity 1 skill challenge. Normally the PCs must achieve 4 successes before 3 failures in order to get the 600 XP. But what if they accomplish the objective before they achieve 4 successes? Do they still get the full 600 XP?
Mike Mearls touches on this in his article from Dungeon #174, Ruling Skill Challenges: Stat Blocks for Roleplaying (DDI subscription required). In it he discusses The Challenge Breaker. This is “…any player action that, if successful, would logically end the challenge immediately.”
The way I see it, this should be treated in the same way you’d handle a monster that flees combat. The PCs did their part, and through creativity, luck or both they achieved the end result more quickly than anticipated.
However, as I’ve been throwing more and more, higher level skill challenges at my PCs I’ve toyed with handling this a little bit differently.
Pay for Play: Rewards Based on Effort
Let’s say the level 11 PCs are participating in a complexity 5 skill challenge. They need to achieve 12 successes before 3 failures. It’s a tough scenario, about the same as fighting 5 monsters. They can potentially earn 3,000 XP (600 XP x 5). But this XP is based on 12 successes. What if they come up with a Challenge Breaker and accomplish the objective after only 8 successes? They overcome the problem in such a way that there is really no reason to keep making checks. Do they still get the full 3,000 XP?
If this had only been a complexity 3 skill challenge the PCs would only have needed 8 successes. And in that case they’d earn 1,800 XP (600 XP x 3).
Should XP be based on the number of success required to overcome the objective or the difficulty of the objective itself? What if another party wasn’t as ingenious as the first and they actually needed to make 12 successful checks to accomplish the objective? Nobody would argue that they should earn the full 3,000 XP. But because another group discovered a shortcut or workaround they earn less XP? That doesn’t seem right.
I’ve been thinking about how to handle this for a while now and I’ve come up with a resolution that’s worked really well in my games. I no longer set a complexity at the beginning of a skill challenge. I set up a scenario and let the players make their checks. Once they overcome the objective I count how many checks they needed to complete the skill challenge and reward XP accordingly.
So going back to the example above, a level 11 party that overcame the skill challenge after making 8 successful checks earns 1,800 XP which is standard for a complexity 3 skill challenge (8 successes before 3 failures). If another party required 12 successful checks to overcome the same objective they would earn more XP, in this case 3,000 XP.
In order to get the most out of this kind of reward system I’ve had to make a few adjustments. Under certain circumstances I reward the party with additional successes. That way they get additional XP if they do something truly remarkable or come up with a really creative idea. Here are a few situations that I’ve counted as additional successes.
- Exceptional role-playing.
- Going above and beyond to encourage other to participate.
- Discovering a solution I hadn’t considered.
- Coming up with a really cool idea and then actually making the check.
By rewarding the PCs with additional successes they end up earning additional XP for really getting in to it.
So in the situation described above where the PCs managed to overcome the skill challenge with only 8 successes, I’d have likely tacked on a few extra successes along the way (for creativity and good role-playing) bringing them up to 11 or 12 successes in the end. They’d get the full 3,000 XP they rightfully earned, but they did it a little bit differently than a typical party might have.
By using the revised reward system I’ve suggested PCs are able to earn additional XP through creativity and good role-playing. A complexity 1 skill challenge may only require 4 successes, but it’s very possibly that the PC will earn a couple of additional successes from the DM along the way. So in this situation they’d earn XP for a complexity 2 skill challenge (6 successes) even though it was designed as a complexity 1 skill challenge (4 successes). In situations where they come up with a Challenge Breaker and complete the objective in fewer successes they may earn less XP than originally intended, but they will move on more quickly and like complete another entire encounter by the end of the session.
What do you think? Should skill challenges have fixed difficulties? Should the PCs only get XP based on the number of successful checks they make during a skill challenge? What do you think of my alternative method for rewarding PCs during skill challenges? Would you use it as a DM? What do players think of the reward system for skill challenges? Do you see my suggestions as improvements?