Inside Out Skill Challenge

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 5, 2010

When you look at the latest issues of Dungeon magazine or read through any LFR adventure, skill challenges are always presented in the same way. After a brief description of the high-level objective you’re presented with a laundry list of skills and then a brief description of what happens when these skills are used successfully. This presentation is ok, especially for a new DM trying to better understand the tasks that can be accomplished by using these skills. But what if we turned the skill challenge inside out? Instead of revolving the skill challenge around the list of skills, have the skill challenge revolve around the goals.

To better illustrate where I’m going with this idea I’ll use an existing skill challenge and turn it inside out for purposes of example. I’ve chose to use the skill challenge “X” Marks the Spot (one of the very first skill challenges we published at Dungeon’s Master) as our example. The objective presented in this skill challenge is to decipher a map and find the treasure before anyone else. It’s presented in the traditional layout where we listed a whole bunch of skills and possible ways in which to use them towards success. Using the new inside out approach, here’s how we might present it now.

The overall objective remains the same: decipher the map and find the treasure. But instead of just listing a bunch of skills we’ll create objectives or tasks required to accomplishing the overall goal. The tasks should never just be “make a skill check.” Explain to the players that you want them to come up with a means to complete the task and not just a way to use their skills. Let them figure out which tasks they need to accomplish in order to complete the skill challenge. However, be sure to provide clear direction if they’re struggling.

Task 1 – Examine the Map

What good is a secret treasure map if you don’t keep it a secret? If the PCs choose to study the map themselves, without any outside help, then they’ll need to learn what they can about it simply by looking it over and using their own knowledge-base.

The most likely ways to complete this task is to rely on what you can see (Perception), what you know of the area it depicts (History), recognizable landmarks on the map (Nature) and even see if there might be magical writing (Arcana). Anyone suspicious of the maps authenticity might look for signs of forgery or adjustments to the original drawings (Perception and Thievery).

These are not the only skills that you can used to accomplish the task, but these are probably the most common ones. The whole idea is that by clearly defining the task you don’t force any PC to use any one skill. The players need to be imaginative and figure out how to accomplish the task. Sure there are likely to be some skills that are obvious, but this leaves plenty of room for the players to be creative.

For task 1 I’d reveal some clue to authenticate the map after two to four successful checks. The key here is to let the role-playing drive the skill challenge. If the players do something after one or two checks that clearly has them accomplishing the task then move on.

Task 2 – Get Help Examining the Map

Sometimes it makes sense to get some outside assistance. The PCs might want to confirm their findings or they might not have found anything useful on their own. In this case, there are still plenty of options, but now the task is to get help.

The PCs might already know of someone who can help (History), they might need to ask around to find someone suitable (Streetwise), and then once they’ve got a name they’ll still need to convince this person to help (Diplomacy, Bluff or Intimidate).

With the task identified there are different ways to accomplish it. Let the players use the approach they think best for their characters. By leaving the methods open you allow many different possible skills to come into play. You also let the role-playing lead the skill challenge rather than let the skills lead the skill challenge.

Task 3 – Travel to the Destination

This is certainly one of the simpler tasks in this skill challenge. The PCs simply need to get from point A to point B. You can make this task as easy or complicated as you feel is appropriate. You may want to skip this task entirely if it’s not going to add anything meaningful to the story or present an interesting role-playing opportunity. I’d recommend letting the PCs decide this for you. If they want to take steps to leave town quietly and not arouse suspicion (Stealth) then let them. If they’d prefer to go for speed and just push on, then that works too (Endurance).

Task 4 – Find the Treasure

The difficulty of this task is dependent upon how successful the PCs were in the preceding tasks. If they rocked the skill challenge until now then they should have no difficulty finding the treasure after a bit of searching (Perception and Nature). If they flubbed a couple of important skill checks then this is a great time to introduce potential combat to the skill challenge.

Assume that there is at least one other interested party out looking for the treasure. They might have overheard the PCs asking around for an expert, they might have recognized a PC who made no effort to hide his identity, or they might have just followed the PCs when they left town. Be imaginative, but make sure the reason makes sense. The preparedness of the enemies should be directly related to the success or failure of key skill checks. They might just be in the same area already, they might be getting ready to ambush the PCs or they might fight only if they’re discovered. Alternatively, the PCs might have misread the map and are not as close to their destination as they believe.

At first glance it may seem like these tasks are themselves mini skill challenges with the larger skill challenges. These tasks should merely be a smaller steps towards accomplishing the overall goal and not really strong enough to be a skill challenge on its own. Remember that skill challenges provide the PCs with XP. Look at the tasks above and ask yourself if you think accomplishing any one of them on their own is worth XP. If you find that your tasks are XP-worthy then perhaps they should be broken out and made their own skill challenge.

Setting the DCs

By turning the skill challenge inside out it becomes more difficult to set DCs ahead of time. The advantage to the traditional setup for skill challenges is that the laundry list of skills is usually accompanied with set DCs. If you succeed at a moderate DC with skill X then the PC learns the following piece of information or accomplishes the first in a series of required tasks. By making the skill challenges more fluid the DM has to be more open and flexible with the DCs.

Use the role-playing to help you set the DCs. If the players provide really detailed examples of how and why they want to use a particular skill, and it makes sense, then the DC should be easier. If they simply say “I use this skill” and roll then the DC should be a little bit more difficult. Keep in mind that there are obviously going to be some tasks that are incredibly easy or incredibly difficult simply by the nature of the check. For the really tough ones the role-playing should provide bonuses (probably just a +1 or +2) but the PCs should still need a decent roll to get that success.

When setting the DCs during skill challenge remember that most checks should fall into the moderate range. Try to throw in a few easy and hard checks, but in the end the goal should be attainable. If more than half of the required checks are hard then the party is at a huge disadvantage right off the bat and that should rarely be the case.

By turning the skill challenge inside out you don’t focus as much on a predetermined list of skills. You let the PCs complete the tasks that will in turn lead to completing the overall skill challenge (successfully or not) through role-playing. Taking this approach is likely to foster more creativity and move players away for the mechanics and number crunching during skill challenges. They may still try to use their best skills to complete the some objectives, but if they’re more focused on the tasks (as they should be) then they should understand that Athletics may not be the right skill to use during every single skill challenge.

Over the next few weeks we’ll provide some new skill challenges using this inside out approach. Well also be revisiting some of the skill challenges from our archives. By using the inside out approach we’ll try to improve them and make them more versatile for your campaign regardless of what level it’s at.

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1 Brian Engard October 5, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I like this approach quite a bit, as it’s pretty similar to how I end up running skill challenges in practice. Note that the skill challenge in the Red Box is presented in a similar way; could this signify a shift in WotC’s approach to the subject?

2 OnlineDM October 5, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Yep, this is pretty much how I run all of my skill challenges. “Here’s the obstacle: How do you want to overcome it?” You get some great responses when you allow it to be open-ended like that, and you can still provide guidance of what might work if the players are stumped.

I absolutely loathe it when a DM says, “This is a skill challenge, requiring 6 successes before 3 failures. Primary skills are…” Ugh – that’s never been fun, in my experience.

3 Ameron October 13, 2010 at 4:05 pm

@Brian Engard
This is very much how I (try to) run skill challenges at my table too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wizards is moving things more in this direction. As I was writing the article I kept thinking that this should seem like new news to anyone (hopefully).

I find that at my home game I can run them like this, but when I’m playing LFR it always seems to come down to the mechanics. As much as I like playing in the public games no one seems to take it as seriously as they would a home game and everything suffers because of it. At least once every LFR session I hear “what skill can I use” during a skill challenge. And this is at Paragon tier!

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