In order to make skill challenges a little bit more interesting I like to try and build in a skill challenge backdoor. This is a very specific set of conditions which, if met, provide a significant advantage not normally available.
Introducing a backdoor to your skill challenge is like creating a combat encounter where the PCs have a particular resistance or the monster have a particular vulnerability. It won’t necessarily benefit the PCs during every combat, but when a monster deals cold damage to a PC with resist 5 cold it makes a noticeable difference. It also makes the encounter a lot more interesting. That PC gains an edge because of a choice he made somewhere along the line to pick up an item granting that specific resistance.
The easiest type of skill challenge backdoor usually stems from the PC’s race or class. This would include circumstances like a divine PC who interacts with others of his faith or a Dwarven PC who interacts with other Dwarves. In both cases PCs of any class or race can still complete the skill challenge, but by finding some common ground the challenge becomes easier.
I’ve also found that the skill challenge backdoor is a great opportunity to draw upon character backgrounds. Although PC backgrounds are an optional rule during the character creation process, I’ve seen very few players pass on this option. Usually they choose a background simply to gain +2 to a skill. Often little additional thought is give to their background choice. But this is where a creative DM can build a skill challenge backdoor that ties the PC’s backgrounds more directly to the challenge before them. Having a particular background isn’t required to successfully complete the objective, but it may give the PCs bonuses or present options not normally available to a typical PC.
Here are a few examples of a skill challenge backdoors.
Eberron Background: Child of Two Worlds
Forgotten Realms Background: Cormyr (Wheloon)
The PCs need to convince a retired prison guard to draw them a map of the lower levels of the tyrant-king’s dungeon. The guard happens to be a Shifter, an uncommon race in these parts. If one of the PCs is a Shifter he gains a +2 bonus on any checks made to gain the guards trust. If none of the PCs are Shifters then they’re no further behind and the skill challenge proceeds as normal.
You were born in Thrane but were raised in Aundair. Your party is in Flamekeep and needs assistance from a minor noble. You decide to reveal to him that you are from Thrane originally. You go so far as to imply that you’ve always felt homesick from Thrane and regret being away from your true home for so long (Bluff check +2). If you make the check you earn a success towards the overall objective and you can try to impress the noble with your knowledge of Thrane’s past (History check) or it’s affinity to the Church of the Silver Flame (Religion check).
While adventuring in Waterdeep you need to infiltrate the criminal element. To make your cover more believable you reveal that you’re from the prison city of Wheloon. By dropping the right names (History or Streetwise check) you’re able to build your street cred. Your words suddenly carry more weight with these criminals (+2 to Intimidate or Diplomacy checks).
I’m sure many DMs already apply the kind of bonuses I’ve described above (I know I do). But how many DMs intentionally build this kind of mechanic into their skill challenges consistently? Does the addition of a backdoor give the PCs an unnecessary edge? If you’ve used a skill challenge backdoor as a player or DM tell us how it worked out.