Skill Challenges On The Fly

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on February 11, 2010

What happens when your PCs make a choice that takes your adventure 180 degrees away from where you intended? Or when those same PCs kill the NPC who will provide the information they require to move onto the next step? Or when the PCs just aren’t picking up on the very obvious, to your mind, clues that you are leaving them? What do you do?

It’s very easy to meta-game and speak out of character, “I can’t believe you guys killed Fizzlebaum, he was going to lead you to the orcs lair! Now what will we do…” However, talking about the game in this manner breaks the flavour, ruins the moment and may cause some PCs to lash out at you. It’s equally as easy to railroad the PCs down the direction you need. “As you search Fizzlebaum’s corpse you find a tattered map that seems to lead to an ancient ruin.” The problem with railroading is it’s obvious and no one likes it.

So as the DM what do you do when your players have tossed all your planning on its head? How do you get things back on track? Enter the favourite mechanic of the Dungeon’s Master team, the skill challenge. The beauty of skill challenges is they are very fluid and easy to run on the fly. When well laid plans go south, get creative with your wayward PCs and steer them back on track in a way that looks like you planned it.

Naturally, running a skill challenge on the fly requires a great deal of creativity from you. There are a few elements that you will quickly need to brainstorm in order to move forward.


In what direction do you need to move the PCs? If a dead NPC was going to provide a clue, how can you provide that same information in a skill challenge format? You want to provide some clues that empower the PCs into making the decision they should have made all along. So you will need to be very clear, in your own mind, about what you need them to accomplish. In order to enhance the atmosphere of the game, provide an in-game description of the scene.

As the dust settles an eerie calm settles over the cavern. The carnage from the battle is laid out before you. The body of the town elder Fizzlebaum is badly mangled, his death clearly was the result of magic running rampant as you battled the Orcish shaman and his warriors. As you inspect the dead a glint of metal catches your eye, the shaman seems to be grasping onto something almost as if it will guide him home in the afterlife.

From this point it is very easy to have a perception check notice a bag of chalk on the shaman’s possession. After a series of other checks the PCs will be able to deduce that a larger lair exists and where it is located. Fizzlebaum must be avenged!


Your original plan may have been to have Fizzlebaum offer a reward for clearing the orcs out. With him dead that’s no longer an option, unless the PCs return his body to town and another NPC offers the quest. This is a valid option, but it’s easy and nowhere near as fun. Instead, insert a plot hook that will have the PCs seeking to avenge Fizzlebaum’s death. Perhaps a journal is found on his body, indicating something about a PCs back story. This might motivate the PC to seek revenge.

What Skills To Use

4e D&D has 17 skills and normal skill challenges don’t use every skill. Most skill challenges probably use about half the skills. In our instance above we can very easily eliminate bluff, diplomacy, intimidate and streetwise. Thievery and stealth probably aren’t needed either, that has us down to 11 out of 17 skills. A nice manageable number that allows you to think of creative responses to doll out to the PCs as they go about inspecting the scene of the battle.

Running The Challenge

Now that you have the framework for your challenge in your head get the PCs invested. Keep the conversation in game, provide them flavour tools to keep them interested. Once they start looking around provide the necessary ammunition to get them back on track.

Skill challenges provide a great way to increase the role playing and enjoyment factor of your games. Handled correctly they will enhance your game play. While there are a great many articles about skill challenges and how you can vary the complexity of them to weave very intricate story lines, this isn’t always necessary. If your goal is simply to put the PCs back on track with the campaign, try winging a skill challenge and see what happens. So long as you are open to trying something new and willing to role play the scenario out you should have great results.

What experiences have you had with running impromptu skill challenges? Did it work out as you envisioned or was it like rolling a natural one?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Big Dan February 11, 2010 at 11:04 am

I am a firm believer in the Game/ DungeonMaster’s best friend. The +2 and the -2. I also like having an “open style game world” and try to put more into my game than the basic stuff in the books. The design of the books is GREAT in GENERAL, but when you want nitty and/or gritty you have to establish house rules, or adapt things that work.

I’m as bad a rule BREAKER (err… stretcher >.> ) as I am rule enforcer. My level 5 Fighter dropped into a Regeneration stance, grabbed two grenades from a Hobgoblin Bombardier and slammed them together to impact on an ogres temples. I made the DM cry.

OTOH, I OFTEN have “random tests” pop up. At one point, when I ran a Star Wars game, NO ONE HAD TAKEN PILOT. Don’t ask me why. It was as much a surprise for me. So I had to load 6 humanoids into a cab with an irate cabby. AND they ended up starting a jinking firefight and pulled the vehicle into a factory. Cinematic and Dramatic? oh yes. A headache to figure out? ooooooh you betcha.

My solution was that I alternated rolls. One of the house rules I’m developing is “One PC per try” rotation. meaning I am sick of the Hunter, the Druid AND the mage who took Nature for fun rolling at the same time and then saying “hey he got a higher roll! We’ll use HIS!”, and jumping the gun. Now, I ask which one is going to do it, and once they DO it, only others can try for the next step (Insight is helpful in arranging who goes when ;) )

Alternate the Linear parts and the Open parts, and you should have no problems!

2 The Chatty DM February 11, 2010 at 1:33 pm

I tend to disagree, A skill challenge will not replace a railroad… it will, if managed by a skillful DM, hide it under a lair of cool action and roleplaying.

The secret to any skill challenges (and especially improvised ones) is that failure of the challenge can’t lead to the game stalling or preventing the PCs from getting crucial info to move forward.

A skill challenge is an action scene and/or a social conflict. If you want to make an investigative montage out of it… assume that by the end they know who the killer is… but winning the challenge prevents the next murder, losing it leads to an awful scene where the princess lies dying and her mother butchered on the altar of some dark god.

A skill challenge exists solely to but a barrier in the party’s way before the objective that it either chose to pursue or that it will stumble upon even if the challenge is failed.

The best impromtu challenges I played were the ones where each failure that the PCs incurred made their lives more difficult by introducing dire complications in their otherwise simple plans up to possibly failing the challenge completely and loosing all the benefit that winning the challenge would have gained them. Each success was also rewarded with a cool effect that was added to the result of getting closer to the SC’s goal.
.-= The Chatty DM´s last blog ..Let Me Tell You About My Campaign: Age of Awakening =-.

3 Arcade February 11, 2010 at 2:31 pm

After reading the article and before reading comments, my thoughts were the exact same as Chatty’s. This is only going to work if you have the investigation be easy enough to guaruntee there’s no failure. Which is OK. There’s nothing wrong with railroading players as long as they think they are the ones controlling the result. Illusion of choice is a powerful DM tool.

I think Chatty’s suggestion to alter the challenge to create complications is the way to go. The players go to the orc cave no matter what, but the question is whether they get there using the secret map of the compound Fizzlebaum’s brother had, or if they need to flee the city without half of their equipment because they’ve been accused of Fizzlebaum’s death and need to do prove their innocence.

4 Wimwick February 11, 2010 at 3:30 pm

@ Big Dan
I’m a fan of conditional modifiers during challenges as well. I think that creative role playing and use of skills during challenges should be rewarded. Your Star Wars scenario sounds like it was a lot of fun to run on the fly with a situation you hadn’t anticipated.

@ Chatty DM
You raise a good point about hiding railroading underneath some cool action and roleplaying. I think at the end of the day that’s really what most skill challenges are. For most skill challenge there is always a primary objective that the DM is hoping the party will accomplish. The skill challenge just dresses it up and encourages PCs to role play the situation. As you say whether they win or fail at the challenge they will still arrive at the goal, just from different actions.

I do agree that failures should have some form of consequence and that is the one area of the article that I didn’t address. One of the aspects of skill challenges that I love is that very small challenges have the opportunity to become large story altering events.

@ Arcade
I think you sum it up nicely “illusion of choice is a powerful DM tool.” The goal is to always make it appear like their is a choice. My intention in any skill challenge is never to assume success, failure is always an option and often an entertaining one. As I mentioned to Chatty it’s the one aspect of skill challenges that I didn’t cover with this scenario, but it will make for a good follow up piece.

5 anarkeith February 11, 2010 at 10:29 pm

In the initially described encounter, I’d read the objective as twofold: meet the NPC and get info about the quest. As described, it sounds like objective one was not met because the PCs were distracted by a fight, and failed to preserve the life of the NPC. So, it seems there should be a consequence to that failure. Likely the PCs will have to go back to town to find the info the NPC was going to provide. Getting back to town they find out that he told everyone he was “going to meet this party”. Hope the PCs can explain to the suspicious townsfolk how he got killed (Diplomacy, Bluff, etc.)?

If they succeed in convincing the townsfolk the NPC’s death was an accident or unavoidable, then they’ll get rewarded with the second objective: the info about the quest (and in particular, the fact that the orcs there are all afraid of burning to death, for example. Maybe a Dungeoneering or Arcana check is in order to see if they can rig up some pyrotechnics.)

If they don’t win the hearts and minds of the townsfolk they are met with accusations, “You’re just like those orcs up on Flamebait Hill! In fact, you’re probably in league with them, Fizzlebaum was always going on about how they were going to kill him!” So now the PCs have to prove their innocence by heading up to Flamebait Hill to deal with the orcs, without the knowledge of the orc’s phobia, and likely very little help from the townsfolk. (Time for a Nature check to figure out where Flamebait Hill is, and maybe a Perception check to track the orcs there.)
.-= anarkeith´s last blog ..Campaign Notes: Talking to your DM =-.

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