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)?
- Skill Challenge: Ditch the Tail
- Always Train Your Worst Skill
- Creating and Running Engaging Skill Challenges