Creating and Running Engaging Skill Challenges (Part 1)

by Bauxtehude (Liam Gallagher) on April 19, 2010

The best skill challenges pose a very open-ended problem to the party. Open-ended problems allow for a diversity of possible approaches as well as interpretations of the actual nature of the problem. The other great virtue of open-ended problems is that they have the unique ability to develop in any number of directions allowing for a multitude of possible resolutions. Good skill challenges allow the party to overcome the problem presented to them in their own way while forcing them to interact with increasing complications. These challenges allow the party to exercise their wide range of skills as they see fit and interact with the results that they generate. Perhaps an example is in order.

The Dungeon’s Master team welcomes Bauxtehude, our newest contributor and author of today’s post. We’ve written a lot of article on skill challenges and thought Bauxtehude’s take on the subject provides new and exciting insights.

Let’s compare two problems, an open ended-problem and a specific problem. We’ll call the open-ended problem Find the Map, and we’ll call the specific problem Open the Locked Vault. In both examples we’ll assume that the need for solving the problem has already been established. In Find the Map a diversity of options present themselves immediately; they range from tracking down someone who knows about the map, setting a price for the map, or just good-old-fashioned start looking. In this scenario the values of the party can come into conflict: one hero doesn’t think scouring the library is a good use of limited time, while another doesn’t think that extorting a contact they have made in a religious order is worth damaging their political relationship to find a map that might actually be lost.

In Open the Locked Vault the heroes have a straightforward problem to deal with. Do they pick the lock on the door or try to mash it in? While other conditions may exist, such as the need for total quite or a tight timeline, the presence of these factors leaves the initial problem essentially unchanged, the lock either needs to be picked or the door knocked down. A likely objection might be that Open the Locked Vault could include the party infiltrating the temple within which the vault is located while eliminating the guards silently, but such an objection merely concedes the initial point. In adding an objective such as infiltrate the temple, the original challenge is taken and rewritten as Infiltrate the Temple and Open the Locked Vault, which is a far more open-ended problem than Open the Locked Vault.

A good skill challenge needs to present the party with a number of possible developments and thus throw unforeseen obstacles in the path of the party. These obstacles force the party to reimagine their solution and make adaptive choices. In Find the Map the party has decided that despite the scholars confidence in his abilities, the cutthroat has won over the party with her claims that haste is needed… and so it’s off to the seminary and time to go threaten the pious at knifepoint. In the end they learn the whereabouts of the map (from a extremely disgruntled and bruised deacon) and so it’s time to loot the temple. However, the temple guards are on high alert thanks to forewarning from the aforementioned deacon who has learned his lesson about what happens when you deal with single-minded adventurers. Over at Open the Locked Vault the Rogue and the Fighter are trying to determine if one can pick a lock better than the other can bash a lock with a hammer.

So the obvious question still hovers above us. How do you create an engaging skill challenge? First you start with an open ended-problem. How open-ended does the problem need to be? That will largely depend on the pace you’re trying to set for your campaign. If you accidentally make the challenge too open-ended it could encompass the entire arc, from heroic tier right through to epic. Save the World is an example of a skill challenge that is too open ended. If you’re having problems figuring out if the problem that you’ve arrived at is open-ended enough all you need to do is attempt the widen the scope by one more level. If you expand the problem of Find the Map you might arrive at Attain Riches or Locate Horror from Beyond Space and Time, these goals are a little to broad, unless your party are the well known adventure groups the G8 or Delta Green.

Visit Dungeon’s Master tomorrow for Bauxtehude’s conclusion in Creating and Running Engaging Skill Challenges (Part 2). For additional resources on designing and running skill challenges, check out these articles.

The Skill Challenges tab at the top of the page provides easy access to all of our skill aides and skill challenges.

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1 Dungeon Newbie April 20, 2010 at 5:17 am

Good article, but what defines open-ended and specific problems/skill challenges? Let’s say I have a task to find a key. The quest giver provides the name and location of a NPC who can help, who then provides the name and location of the next NPC who can help, and so on. But, these NPCs do not talk easily. You must either complete a minor quest given by them or succeed in a hard skill challenge. At first glance, it looks specific, since the path is very linear, but there are different ways of getting each NPC to talk: complete quest, diplomacy check, intimidate check, and many others. So is it open-ended, specific, or is convincing each NPC to give you information seperate tasks by themselves? Bauxtehude is a good writer, though 😀

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2 Bauxtehude April 20, 2010 at 10:30 am

@Dungeon Newbie

What makes your example open ended is that there are a few ways that a party could go about finding the key because of the existance of this intermediary NPC. It’s open ended because the party has a chance to figure out how they’re going to deal with this person when they meet them, and then there’s the possability of the NPC being difficult or self serving. Adding well thought out NPC is almost always a great way to flesh out skill challenges because other people are always able to exceed your expectations.

If you wanted to make Find The Key a specific problem you would have the key lost in someone’s tickle trunk… “I roll to look in the trunk.”, “You find the key.”

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