Skill Challenges and Rewarding XP

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 25, 2010

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.

Just Rewards

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?

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1 Anarkeith January 25, 2010 at 9:45 am

I wonder if a group that breaks a challenge and ends it early shouldn’t get more XP, rather than less. A monster that flees an encounter may be fought again (presumably for additional XP), where a skill challenge beaten by a party is a situation that may not arise again.

2 Jeffrey Petersen January 25, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Doesn’t awarding extra successes for completing the skill challenge more creatively just amount to the same thing as giving them full XP for the harder challenge that they finished quickly?

I am just wondering if the reason you are deciding the difficulty and experience after is for the purpose of deciding on-the-fly how to rate the challenge, or maybe to encourage the group to try to complete skill challenges with more creativity and role playing so that they get a more substantial reward.

I may be wrong, but it seems like they get just as much reward for simply taking the longer rout. This isn’t intended as a criticism, I’m simply trying to understand the motivation for your new method.

3 Neuroglyph January 25, 2010 at 3:25 pm

For my own Skill Challenges, I handle good role-playing and creativity differently than handing out bonus experience points.

I don’t award extra XP, because if someone comes up with a way to use a skill in a way I hadn’t thought of, but makes sense for the challenge, and they succeed in the skill check, they get a success. If they come up with a way to use a skill that kinda fits, I’ll allow them to roll a DC 10 assist to give a +2 to someone else’s skill check. If they role-play their skill really well, I give them a +2 bonus to making the skill roll.

Personally, I think XP flow pretty well in the current system that bonus XP’s aren’t needed too often. As you pointed out, defeating a skill challenge is as tough as killing a pack of monsters, and so I think that defeating the SC by either Skill Rolls or a combo of skill rolls and a challenge breaker should get the party the same exps.
.-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Review: Blackdirge’s Bargain Bestiaries – Baleful Bugs by Blackdirge Publishing =-.

4 Alvarlux January 25, 2010 at 11:28 pm

I agree with your idea of bonus points for exceptional use of skills, not sure if I’d rule it as the equivilent of bonus XP though.

In the above case where you no longer set complexity, I’d reverse the reward for your groups. If they were creative and interesting enough to challenge break in 8, I’d give them full XP reward. If they just did what they had to to win without doing much in the way of RP or outside the box thinking, I’d use diminishing returns. Ie it took them longer then it should have so they get reward for skill checks required – 4 or something. I realize of course this would require knowing how long it would take and thus a complexity set to it but you get my point.

Alternatively you can reward players for challenge breakers or good skill ideas by counting them as multiple successes. So if someone had a really awesome idea and pulls it off, that counts as a major win and 2 successes. Challenge breakers count as “omgwtf epic moment” and add whatever the remaining successes required to complete the skill challenge. As DM you still get to make the call on whether something is in fact a challenge breaker so this couldn’t be abused.

I might even go so far as to say if they had a crazy idea but didn’t make the roll, it gives them a +2 to their next roll (tangible reward for trying harder). In this way that combat lover in the group who neglects skills can think/roleplay his way to success. Everyone wins.

5 Ameron January 26, 2010 at 10:46 am

I agree that creativity should be rewarded, but a part of me feels that if the party overcame the objective more quickly than anticipated then perhaps the skill challenge wasn’t the correct complexity in the first place. I just don’t see this as a black and white issue. There are good arguments for and against.

@Jeffrey Petersen
By rewarding the PCs with additional success they will make out better in the long run with complexity 1 and 2 challenges. But when it comes to larger challenges and they come up with a Challenge Breaker I want to make sure that their ingenuity is appropriately rewarded.

I agree that if the PCs realize the complexity (and the XP rewards) will be greater if they participate more avidly that the game will be better and encounters a lot more exciting.

I welcome all feedback and criticism. My overall objective is to make D&D better and I find that these kinds of discussions are a great means to that end.

I too am a big fan of awarding in-game bonuses (usually +2) for good role-playing and creativity. My motivation for providing additional XP came from my most recent campaign. The PCs are very skill-focused and we do a lot of skill challenges (mostly lower complexity). In some cases they accomplish a lot and don’t seem to be adequately rewarded. It’s almost like fighting only one or two monsters at a time over and over again. I’ve tried to keep things interesting for the PCs by letting them know that there’s more XP up for grabs the more engaged they are during skill challenges.

Excellent suggestions. As I mentioned in the comment above, my idea of giving extra successes and then awarding XP based on the total successes accumulated works best for low complexity challenges. I’ll admit that my revised reward system can still use some tweaking for higher level complexity challenges. I think that if the PC can come up with a Challenge Breaker then that should have a tangible benefit in the form of XP.

6 David Dotson January 26, 2010 at 11:35 am

I like this system. I’ve always rewarded creativity and role playing above die rolls. Good stuff!

.-= David Dotson´s last blog ..You Must Gather Your Party Before Playing D&D =-.

7 Arcade January 27, 2010 at 9:35 am

I had to think about this one for a while. I agree with your original statement that skill challenges and combat rewards should be handled the same way. I think the only reason they’re handled differently is because generating combat encounters is much more understood and most of the tactical options are constrained, or at least foreseeable. (use these powers, use this terrain, etc.) Skill challenges are still on the learning curve for most DMs. (myself included) And they should technically be more free-form, allowing more creativity and game breaking situations. The desire to alter the XP method for skill challenges on the fly is higher for these reasons- because the skill challenge difiiculty is more often out of line with the DM’s expectations.

Personally, I don’t think it matters that much unless you find you are consistently finding your skill challenges becoming skill speed bumps. Just like combat encounters, sometimes they turn out harder or easier than you think. In general, they average out and you’ll learn how to find the sweet spot with time and practice. Good roleplaying and creative thinking should be encouraged and rewarded in both skill challenges and combat and the form of that reward is irrelevant- as long as it’s a reward. Players like it when their characters find something shiny- whether it be XP, magic items, gold, action points, an attack bonus or a mini candy bar thrown over the DM screen. It’s the recognition that they get which is usually worth more than the actual reward.

8 Ameron January 28, 2010 at 4:09 pm

@David Dotson
I’m glad you found this useful.

My group uses a lot of skill challenges (I’d suspect more than average) so I’ve had more opportunities to make changes on the fly. I agree that until DMs and players ramp up on the skill challenge learning curve they should probably stick to the rules as written in the DMG. My suggested changes are certainly not recommended for beginners. However, if you’ve tried skill challenges as presented in the book and you don’t think they’re working like you’d like them to; my changes to the reward system may be the answer you’re looking for.

I also agree that as we run more and more skill challenges they’ll end up being the correct complexity and the need to tweak the numbers and the XP will be less and less frequent.

Great feedback, thanks for the comment.

9 Pinkrose October 28, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Old thread, I know.
But I’m looking for some advice on Skill Challenges for smaller parties.
What’s the ratio?
Should it still be 3 failures?
If complexity 5 (12 successes) if equal to 5 monsters, should 8 successes be a Complexity 5 for 3 players?
That’s my thought.
4 Players
Complexity 5 – 10 Successes / 3 Failures
Complexity 4 – 8 Successes / 3 Failures
Complexity 3 – 7 Successes / 3 Failures
Complexity 2 – 5 Successes / 3 Failures
Complexity 1 – 4 Successes / 3 Failures

3 Players
Complexity 5 – 8 Successes / 3 Failures
Complexity 4 – 6 Successes / 3 Failures
Complexity 3 – 5 Successes / 3 Failures
Complexity 2 – 4 Successes / 3 Failures
Complexity 1 – 3 Successes / 3 Failures

How does that look?

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