Skill Checks vs. Skill Challenges

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on August 24, 2010

“I know you guys write a lot about skill challenges at Dungeon’s Master. What I’m wondering is, what is the difference between a series of skill checks and a skill challenge? If I fail a skill check I’ve failed, but the skill challenge allows the party to make multiple mistakes and still succeed. It seems to me that the individual skill check is the tougher scenario, so why do we have skill challenges?”

An excellent question recently raised by one of our readers. I’ve played far too many scenarios where I’ve asked myself the questions “How does this skill check or skill challenge add value to the campaign? How is the story being advanced?” In short, things just seemed tacked on. I’ve also played too many adventures that had a series of skill checks required, but no skill challenge attached. It’s left me questioning the point of these skill checks? Could the eventual goal be reached another way?

Both individual skill checks and skill challenges have a place in the game. Both contribute to the action and storytelling of the game, but they do so in very different ways.

Skill Checks

Skill checks generally belong in combat encounters and the occasional out of combat check. Why? Because anything beyond the odd check should be a skill challenge. Individual skill checks should be used to do or learn something cool in a one-off situation. In other words they reinforce the rule of cool. Why run around a pile of debris when you can do an acrobatic stunt and jump to clear it? Which is cooler? Which is more fun? The stunt is for sure and it requires a one-off skill check. If you succeed, awesome and if you fail everyone will ridicule you for weeks, but no one will say you shouldn’t have gone for it.

Occasionally a skill check is required outside of combat. An example is a character who would like to purchase a rare potion while the party is in a small settlement. A Streetwise check might be called for to determine if the potion can be found. This adds an element of chance to acquiring the item, rather than the DM simple ruling no because the settlement is too small.

What shouldn’t be happening is a series of haphazard skill checks that advance the plot. This is a called a skill challenge and it is more than just a series of skill checks.

Skill Challenges

One of the common mistakes made with implementing skill challenges is treating them like a series of skill checks. This is not what a skill challenge is. A skill challenge is a set of mechanics and rules that rely on skills to drive the narrative of the adventure forward and encourage role-playing.

In my mind there are two options to move the plot of an adventure forward. The first is a simple narrative. In this instance the DM simply describes or reads what happens. The PCs are passive participants who suck up the information given and then make a decision at the end. Such as accepting the quest or entering the dungeon. With a skill challenge the DM opens up the narrative and allows the PCs to actively participate in the experience. This is accomplished when the PCs respond to stimuli provided by the DM, and the outcome of the responses are governed by the requisite skills the PCs have at their disposal.

One of the problems with the skill challenge mechanic as it exists is the complexity or difficulty conditions. Each encounter has a difficulty level that affects the challenge in several ways. First is the length of the skill challenge, the lower the complexity the shorter the challenge. Second, is how many successful skill checks are required before the skill challenge is completed.

The problem with this mechanic is that it is artificial. What if the party has completed the objective, or think that they have completed it, but only needed 8 successes to do so instead of the planned 12? Or what if after 12 successes the DM doesn’t feel that the party has really accomplished the goal?

Let’s look at an example, the party is in an underground cavern and discovers a river. There just happens to be a raft nearby that the party can use to navigate and travel down the river. So begins our skill challenge, which requires 8 successes before the party has 3 failures. Along the way the river splits and the party must avoid going down the fast flowing channel that leads to a large waterfall. Let’s look at some of the checks that might be needed:

  • Athletics to get moving.
  • Dungeoneering to become familiar with the cavern.
  • Perception to notice the waterfall.
  • Acrobatics to push the raft away from the waterfall.
  • Athletics to take the raft the remainder of the way down the river.

Assuming none of those checks fail that’s only 5 checks, not 8. So does the DM insist on a few more checks to round things out or does he call the challenge a success and move on?

The key is the narrative. If the DM simply asks for checks to get the raft down river everyone is going to walk away from the challenge bored. If the DM asks the players to describe their actions and provides narrative description as things change then the PCs get a sense of accomplishment at the end. This approach allows the DM to insert drama and a potential sense of dread in the players. It also allows the DM to prompt for the next set of appropriate actions. This allows the DM to draw out the challenge to the pre-determined difficulty level. It’s still contrived, but the illusion of participation is maintained. The level of immersion the players have experienced is increased and now everyone really wants to know what’s at the end of the river, instead of just waiting for the next combat encounter.

So what’s the difference between a skill check and a skill challenge? Everything. Skill challenges drive the story forward and engage the players in the process. A skill check represents a specific action, at a specific point of time, but it doesn’t contribute to the advancement of the story. Instead it serves to fill a function or to add drama to everyday actions.

To read more on the application of skill challenges and how to hand the mechanics they represent be sure to read the following articles:

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anarkeith August 24, 2010 at 10:03 am

I’m still trying to convince a few of my players that skill challenges let them take the narrative reins. This past weekend in a simple pursuit challenge, the PCs had used perception to determine that the NPC had entered a stand of trees. Then one player described how he’d use insight to guess where the NPC was going next. He failed miserably. As the DM I got a surprise in that the NPC wasn’t really in the trees, but rather he was hiding in the rocks across the way. A bluff check caused the NPC to reveal his hiding place, and he was caught a few checks later.

As the DM, the action was as much a surprise to me as to the players, which made it more real for all of us. I encourage my players to tell me what they see and do, and then we decide the appropriate check.

2 Brian Engard August 24, 2010 at 12:31 pm

“. . . anything beyond the odd check should be a skill challenge.”

I’m not sure I agree with this premise. To me, the distinction is more along these lines:

If you’re looking at a single action that has distinct and discrete consequences (e.g., trying to convince a guard to accept a bribe, trying to discern what made the tracks in the ground, trying to unlock a locked door, etc.), then you’re looking at an individual skill check.

If you’re looking at an entire, cohesive scene during which a series of checks will be made, all of which have the potential to contribute to the outcome of the scene (e.g., sneaking through a castle to get to the throne room, tracking a beast through the wilderness to its lair, trying to disable a complex and deadly trap, etc.), then you want a skill challenge.

In both cases, you’re using the dramatic importance of what’s being attempted inform your decision. A single skill check has the advantage of being simple and quick, and if the thing is being attempted has a fairly low level of dramatic importance, it’s going to work just fine. Turning something into a skill challenge implies a much bigger consequence for failure or success, and lends a scene greater dramatic weight.

I think that, if you use the “skill challenge as the default out-of-combat use for skills” method, you’re going to wind up over-using skill challenges and bogging down the game. Even something like an investigative scene can be handled with a series of individual checks rather than a skill challenge, if the stakes are fairly low. Often, I’ll simply attach a skill and a DC to a particular piece of information, do that several times for a scene, and award experience if the party does a good job role-playing the scene. In such a case, each check has a clear consequence for failure (not getting the information, or getting false information), and any consequences that come as a result are naturally-occurring, and so don’t need to be reinforced by artificial means like a skill challenge.

3 Wimwick August 24, 2010 at 9:11 pm

@ Anarkeith
I think that sharing the narrative is one of the biggest changes that 4e introduced. It can be very difficult for players to accept this. Players like being spoon fed and skill challenges are counter intuitive to that. Just keep plugging away at it and they’ll get the hint eventually.

@ Brian Engard
Thanks for your comments and for adding to the discussion. You make a great point that the stakes of the situation should dictate whether a skill challenge is required or not. One of the reasons players might not enjoy skill challenges is because they’ve run through too many low stakes challenges.

Again great comments and I enjoyed the article you wrote in response to this one.

4 GreenDM March 14, 2012 at 1:37 am

This is awesome! I’m glad I bumped into this cuz it really explains a lot to me. I’m also thankful this isn’t one of the dozen links I clicked beforehand where it was just people arguing about non-combat encounters in dnd. Thanks very much.

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