Solving the Skill Challenge Problem – Ensuring Everyone Contributes

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 14, 2011

Has this ever happened to you? The DM sets the scene and you realize that the party is about to face a skill challenge. As the fifth or sixth player to act you only get to make one meaningful skill check before the party achieves overall success. It was a good encounter because during some of the low complexity skill challenge you don’t even get to act before the party achieves their goal.

What makes this situation an even bigger problem is that most players try to use their best skill even though in many cases it makes more sense (from a story perspective) for them not to. They know that they’re only going to get one or two shots at making a meaningful contribution to the skill challenge, and they don’t want to be the guy who flubs the check and wracks up a failure.

The Dungeon’s Master team has come up with a way to ensure that every player gets to contribute during a skill challenge and that every player feel comfortable using the skills that make the most sense to complete the objective and not just the one or two skills that they happen to be strongest in. Here’s what we’ve come up with.

To make things clearer, we’re going to use a really basic skill challenge as an example to help illustrate our methodology. Let’s say that your skill challenge is for a low heroic adventure and involves a chase through the busy city streets. Even at low levels this is going to be a pretty simple skill challenge. This should not be more than a complexity 1 or complexity 2 skill challenge (four or six successes before three failures respectively).

Normally, how you determine the order will have a big impact on who gets to participate. In some cases the first characters to act will complete the skill challenge’s objective before the final few players get to act. But this shouldn’t mean that they didn’t help achieve success in this skill challenge. As with combat, I assume that during a skill challenge everyone pulls their weight and tries to help out in some way.

In order to resolve any problems regarding some players acting and other not acting, we have to look at how the players will achieve success during this skill challenge. Although the PCs are all trying to accomplish the same objective they may choose to go about it differently.

Once order is determined each player, in turn, describes two or three actions that they feel will help towards achieving success. I leave it to the player to determine which skills corresponding to the actions they’ve described. Each check has to use a different skill and ideally they will rely on different attributes, as the scene dictates. This encourages more creativity and use of a broader cross-section of their skill set.

Combat heavy characters will likely go straight for the physical skills to accomplish one check. I would expect things like Acrobatics to dodge between bystanders, Athletics to jump over carts or other obstacles and Endurance to keep up the sprint.

Spellcasting characters would conversely go for actions that rely on their knowledge-based skill first. They could use History to remember the layout of the city, Streetwise to get a better lay of the land or even Perception to spot shortcuts or obstacles that may cause problems.

By asking the player to make skill checks from both avenues they’re likely to have a couple of skill checks that they can’t fail and a couple of skill checks that they’ll only accomplish with a really good roll.

Before anyone rolls any checks, everyone has to describe what they’re doing to contribute to this skill challenge. This ensures that everyone gets to participate. It also makes more sense to have each player describe the family of skills that their character is going to employ to accomplish the goal. Asking each player to pick one thing, roll the check, and then move on is often just a silly way to run this skill challenge. Doing things this way keeps things moving and adds excitement.

After everyone has described their actions go back around the table and have each player roll the corresponding skills. If all of their checks were successful then they earn one success towards the overall skill challenge, even though they made multiple successful rolls. If they fail one or more of their checks then the DM will roll randomly to determine which skill check is the one that counts towards the overall success or failure. If the PC failed all of his skill checks then of course he incurs one failure.

Once the players realize that every single check won’t be held against them they’re more likely to do things that make sense for the situation at hand rather than just look for their skill with the highest number. So in the example described above, the Fighter will likely make his Athletics and Endurance checks no problem, but his History check is going to require a really good roll to get a success. However, even if he fails it he’s still got a 2 out of 3 chance that his other successful checks will be the ones that contribute to the party’s overall success.

We tried this variation of the skill challenge mechanic over the past couple of weeks at our own game and it’s worked remarkably well. Almost every player at the table chose to use at least one skill that they were not exceptionally strong in, yet they did so anyway because it made perfect sense for the PCs to use that skill given the circumstances. Even the PCs that failed those checks didn’t worry too much because they were still able to rely on something they were super good at to achieve other successes.

I’ve learned that there isn’t just one way to run a successful skill challenge. Every skill challenge will be different depending on the people at the table. However, by encouraging everyone to participate you’re a lot more likely to have a positive experience. Using the method of storytelling described above has yielded good results at our gaming table. Each player gets to describe what their character is doing and then make multiple checks. It gives the role-players a chance to excel and the dice rollers a chance to make more checks during skill challenges.

I encourage you to try this new approach to running skill challenges and share your experiences with us. Tell us what worked and what didn’t? How would you make this variation better? Do you think this approach will work with all skill challenges or just those of smaller complexity (1 or 2)?

Related articles:

Looking for instant updates? Subscribe to the Dungeon’s Master feed!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jacob Dieffenbach February 14, 2011 at 11:06 am

I think it’s perfectly fine to let skill challenges focus on only one or two characters, and leave the others in the dust, so long as they’re low complexity skill challenges and so long as you make up for it later.

Last adventure I ran, I had a chase scene through Sharn where a deficient Acrobatics/Dexterity (it was raining and slippery) could lead to injury or death. Each combat encounter outside ended up using Streetwise since if you fell over a ledge, Streetwise was needed to find your way back up. Then there was some interrogation, a crime scene investigation, some brief library research, eventually a fight on a literal giant cog in the Cogs of Sharn, and a study of a strange magical pool.

Each challenge had only two party members it was focused on, who excelled at the requisite skills; but, if you’ll notice, it was almost always a different set of party members. Religion/Arcana to study the pool, just after the Acrobatics/Athletics cog balancing encounter, just after the History/Perception skill challenge in the library, and so on.

What this meant is that during any particular scene, there were characters who shined, and others who felt left out. But in the next scene, those left out characters would shine, and others would feel left out.

Nobody ever had a bad time at the table; the trick isn’t to make sure everyone is always special all the time (if everyone’s special, nobody is… if the Thief can participate in the ‘study the arcane/religious pool of magic’ skill challenge with the Warpriest and Mage, what’s the point in being a Warpriest or Mage?) but to make sure everyone is special SOMETIME.

It also helps that they were complexity 1; complexity 1 challenges have the virtue of being extremely short and to the point. With two PCs going at them, it’s two skill checks apiece, for a total of like 60 seconds of IRL time. Sure, you’re leaving out the Slayer who wants to somehow help with studying this pool which is way beyond his ken, but he got to be awesome the LAST skill challenge while the Mage had to, instead of running around on the cog, run around on catwalks and climb ladders and constantly be dashing across the map in order to keep up with the rotating players in the center; so the Slayer can suck it up that he’s not useful this time.

I rarely, if ever, run larger skill challenges; just like with traps, I’d rather just break them down into individual complexity 1 skill challenges and split the party into teams of 2 to deal with each skill challenge. Of course, I never _ASSIGN_ them jobs, in fact I rarely tell them it’s a skill challenge; it’s simply a task that needs completion, and they present the most logical skills, and the people without those logical skills don’t speak up, and each skill check result has either a logical positive result (progressively good information on the magic pool) or a logical failure (oops your experiments touched your skin to the pool, you take damage and might be infected with a wraith-causing disease).

And I think that, more than any other tricks we perform to make skill challenges jazzy, not telling players that they’re doing a skill challenge is the most important trick of all.

Don’t tell them that searching the library is a skill challenge; simply let every skill check in the library find a good book using indexes and bibliographies or bad information, and then after 4-7 skill checks tell the Warpriest and the Mage that they feel they’ve exhausted this library and have followed every loose thread in the bibliography network and found nothing but dead ends.

Or don’t tell them that the ride across the cog was a skill challenge; simply balance it so that after three failures, they’ve probably been tossed from the spinning cog into a pit of lava (or at least, over it and they have to climb to freedom), or that after four successes they’ve probably caught up to the villain.

It’s a strange phenomenon, when players are faced with an obstacle they are very creative and people with no good skills are perfectly willing to sit aside and watch with wide eyes as the Mages dismantle the magic trap or something, but when faced with a Skill Challenge of the same situation everyone snaps to and starts becoming extremely artificial and metagamey: “what’s the DM thinking? Is my skill on the list? What’s the DC–it’s probably too high for me, because my skill isn’t good in that area.”

I once ran my Tomb of Horrors conversion against two different parties. For one of them, I explained a series of doors that need to be bashed down as a skill challenge type deal; only the Fighter or other strong typed tried to push the doors open. To the other group, I just explained that the door was stick firmly, it had expanded from moisture and was jammed; everyone jumped up to have ideas, like dismantling the hinges or the Mage would use his magic to blast down the door while the Fighter pushed and so on.

Maybe it’s just in the description. Maybe some DMs are so focused on describing the mechanics of the skill challenge when that energy could be put into describing the SCENERY and the REASON why the skill challenge exists. If you could speak for a half minute about how the doors are stuck from being old and wet, or about how Strength checks and Thievery checks could get them open, which would you prefer to say? Or hear as a player?

So yeah. My advice to DMs?

Don’t tell anyone it’s a skill challenge. Spend that time just describing the situation. Exclude half the party with each challenge and let the others shine, but the next challenge flip who’s who around. Use staged success and failure so that everyone can remain interested and so that each skill check doesn’t feel like an artificial “Skill check: DC, success.” combo, it feels like an actual skill check. And, of course, use complexity 1 challenges, and keep them as short and sweet as possible so when you ARE excluding people, you don’t feel bad about it and they don’t get annoyed by it.

2 Ameron February 14, 2011 at 11:51 am

@Jacob Dieffenbach

Great comment. I agree that there are times when it’s perfectly acceptable for a skill challenge to focus on just a couple of characters. This is especially true if the party intentionally decides to split up or take radically different approaches to solving the problem.

Your example of multiple mini-challenges (complexity 1) that will eventually hit most of the skills allows everyone a chance to demonstrate how good they are with one or two very specific skills.

However, if the party is supposed to be working together on one bigger task or the entire party is in the same pickle then everyone is likely making multiple checks, even if they don’t all contribute to the overall successes. So in my chase example everyone will need to make an Acrobatics, Athletics, or Endurance check but that shouldn’t be the only skills required to overcome this skill challenge (otherwise it heavily favour the physically stronger PCs). I see the brainy PCs pointing out shortcuts or shouting out directions so that the party doesn’t get lost.

I also agree that the best skill challenges are the ones that the players don’t realize they’re participating in as skill challenges. Good DMs can pull this off effortlessly.

3 anarkeith February 14, 2011 at 6:05 pm

As Jacob says, giving players something to interact with seems critical to a quality skill challenge. I like to encourage my players to describe what they are doing. I encourage this by describing elements of the scene. NPCs to question, obstacles to climb, runes to decipher. Then I sit back and listen. Once they’ve formulated a plan of action, I’ll assign a skill to be checked, and base my narrative of the result on their roll.

Pretty much what the post describes, but ive found that nowadays I really have to work to get players to go beyond saying, “I got a 26 on dungeoneering. What do I find out?”

4 Camelot February 15, 2011 at 11:25 am

I run skill challenges without planning anything beforehand except the story. The DM starts by just telling the players the situation and letting them decide how they handle it. If one player isn’t doing anything, ask him or her what he or she is doing. Then the DM has to adapt to what the players do, calling for skill checks whenever it seems appropriate.

Keep track of successes, failures, and advantages used. When three failures pop up, have the PCs fail at whatever they’re currently trying to do. Don’t preplan a success cap until the PCs start using advantages (because you only get advantages in the higher complexity challenges). The DM should decide when an advantage should be used; for example, a PC makes a Hard DC, and the DM decides that it should count for two successes instead of one; or, a PC makes an Easy DC but not a Moderate, but the DM decides it should still count for a success. Then, whenever the players seem satisfied that they have reached their goal, determine the XP based off of the number of successes they have compared to the advantages they’ve used.

The only problem arises when you start spending advantages too early and the players reach their goal before they get 8 successes. What I’d do is improv a few final complications to get them those extra successes. I’ve tried out this form of skill challenge before, and it resulted in the best skill challenge experience I’ve had in 4e! Combine it with your ideas of letting every player have an equal opportunity to do things, and it would make for a seamless challenge.

5 Alton February 15, 2011 at 11:40 am

I am learning to adapt skill challenges on the fly also. I tend not to write one up. I like for my players to get creative on what they want to do. This accomplished 2 things for me.

1) Fun for the players
2) The players make up for my lack of imagination sometimes.

I like what the article talks about though one problem with this is that the chancess for success, mathematically speaking are a lot higher. Consequences of failure should be evident and failure does not necessarily mean a bad thing, just a hurdle to cross on the way to the completion of the adventure.

6 Sunyaku February 15, 2011 at 11:30 pm

I’m also trying to learn to run skill challenges more “on the fly”, though it fights my natural instincts as a planner. :-) I also like the idea of involving all players in a skills challenge, but it’s easy to forget that some knowledge-based characters expect to shine and lead the party when they are confronted with a skills challenge.

@Jacob Descriptions are definitely of great import when it comes to running a skills challenge that players don’t realize is a skills challenge. I need to work on this.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: