The Skill Challenge Backdoor

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 27, 2010

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.

  • Common Race

  • 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.

  • Eberron Background: Child of Two Worlds

  • 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).

  • Forgotten Realms Background: Cormyr (Wheloon)

  • 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.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anarkeith January 27, 2010 at 11:30 am

One of the DMs I play with usually has an element in both his combat and non-combat encounters that is either essential or makes it easier. This makes for entertaining combats, and in his games we’re always on the lookout for stuff we can use or abuse.

2 Jason January 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm

But how many DMs intentionally build this kind of mechanic into their skill challenges consistently?

I do, now. This is one of those simple, elegant, and awesome DM tricks that gets about a million-to-one return. The players will enjoy this kind of trick immensely, not only because it helps the party achieve their goals but because it has the added benefit of being a miniature “spotlight” on the PC who gets the bonus.

You could do the same thing with a combat-embedded skill challenge by placing obstacles in places that PCs with Acrobatics or Athletics can only get to, runes or traps that use symbols only Religion or Arcana can deal with, etc.

3 Philo Pharynx January 27, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Great post! It’s one that helps cement the characters into the issues of the world. I can also see modidifers based on reputations. As characters get more powerful and more famous, this can open some doors for them.

4 Ameron January 28, 2010 at 10:01 am

@Anarkeith
I’ve found that if the PCs know or suspect that there’s a backdoor they’re more likely to be creative while they try to figure out what it is. That in turn usually makes things a lot more exciting.

@Jason
It sounds like you’ve discovered the benefits of the backdoor. You’re right, it costs the DM nothing to add it but the role-playing rewards are “a million-to-one.” In my group everyone wants to be in the spotlight so they race to see who can find the backdoor and use it first.

@Philo Pharynx
I think reputation is one of those intangibles that DMs and PCs too often overlook. We ran a three-part serious on reputation a while back. Check it out.

5 Sorain January 28, 2010 at 3:16 pm

A particulurly manipulative trick pulled by a fellow player in one social challange I was working in amused me. His Eladrin Wizard decided (with a subsequent bluff check) to ‘reveal’ to the bugbear guards that he was a Drow. (By using predistitgation to turn his skin the right color, his hair white, leaving his purple eyes alone.) that alone got him a double sucess (when he succeded) and a +2 on bluff’s. Got to commend him for his vaguely worded but shadowy sounding “We are here on the goddess’s business. Impede us, and you are standing against the goddess herself. I might be required to report to my superiors that your kind did not yeald to authority.” He was refrencing Sehaine (who they were working for) and the king of a local city-state (who they were working with). Of course, the bugbear drew an entierly diffrent set of conclusions. :)

Things like that are the most fun player made backdoors. But the general idea of backdoors is something I belive applys to nearly any challange.

I love having players come up with additional arguments to present, but sometimes they just dont know the world well enough to do it. Knowladge skills get them that info whenever I can think of something. (The naboring kingdom is rumored to employ necromancers) (Argument that a delve of evil dwarves would not only want to employ tireless undead labor, but that they might find onix to sell to said kingdom for their necromancy programs. worth 2 trys each for a sucess)

Naturally there is a time for ignoring clever tricks and just getting on with things. Such as when you really need that door open before the black dragon whos prize horde element you just… borrowed, is on its way.

6 Ameron February 2, 2010 at 11:25 am

@Sorain
Thanks for the great (and extremely detailed) comment. :)

I have a PC with a Hat of Disguise who tries this kind of thing all the time. He too has a high Bluff and is often more successful than not. Most DMs let me get away with a lot since they didn’t expect that particular course of action (the whole “say yes” thing and all).

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