Skill Challenge Next

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on July 26, 2011

I was done with skill challenges.

I don’t know how I got to this point. Perhaps it was my approach to them, trying to account for multiple options or not having a clear objective. Maybe I wasn’t introducing the skill challenge correctly, confusing my players. It’s possible that what I perceived as a skill challenge was better off handled with a few skill checks. It might even have been that I enjoy the tactical nature of 4e combat that I was willing to sacrifice one aspect of the game for the other. Finally, maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe it was my players who either found my challenges boring, lacking in direction, or they themselves desired more combat, less talk.

I’m not going to pretend to know the answers to my skill challenge troubles. What I do know is that this past week everything clicked.

I think what I was doing in the past was over-thinking things. What I decided to do this past week was to allow skill challenges to be slightly more organic. I’ll paint the scene briefly.

The party needed to enter a ruined city undetected. After a few bluff checks where the party posed as a local scavengers work crew the party found themselves in the basement of a ruined barracks. The work crew was to extract any usable wood, iron and supplies. The party suspected that a secret tunnel might exist in this basement that would take them into the palace.

Upon investigating the party discovered that the basement was partially collapsed. It also appeared that the scavengers the party was impersonating had the same idea. The collapsed basement has equipment and supplies to excavate the rubble.

At this point the skill challenge began. Now, removing rubble from a room might not sound like a very exciting skill challenge. Actually, it sounds down right boring. However, the party is surrounded by enemies and up against a time deadline. These two elements add a level of drama that justify a skill challenge.

Now at low levels this would be a very easy skill challenge. A successful Dungeoneering, Perception, Athletics and Endurance check would be all that is required. However, our party is in the high paragon tier. As a result I decided to make it a very complex challenge, requiring 12 successes before 3 failures. The challenge had the following tasks incorporated into it.

Moving The Rubble

No shock here. The players need to move the rubble and debris out of the way to make their way to where they believe the secret tunnel is. Some skills are a standout for this task. Athletics to physically pick up and move the rocks. Endurance to avoid tiring and to avoid injury while moving the rocks. Dungeoneering to ensure the rocks are moved in a safe manor to avoid an untimely collapse.

Simple, easy tasks. The drama exists in the tensions surrounding the challenge. Not being discovered by the enemy, working quickly, yet quietly. All of this raised the difficulty level of the skill checks.

The only aspect of the challenge that I advised the players I didn’t want to hear was everyone going around the table saying, “I use Athletics to move the rocks.” Wrong answer, there is much, much more to do in the challenge than just move rocks. As a DM I simply expect more of my players when they are at the high paragon level.

Make Order From Chaos

Yes, some initial work and supplies were left behind, but the scene is far from organized. Given the factors surrounding the skill challenge, time and nearby enemies, moving the rocks isn’t good enough. The party needs to move the rocks quickly and efficiently.

A Diplomacy or Intimidate check to get the party working together as a team. A Perception check to organize what supplies have been found. It doesn’t sound like much, but there is more to do than just move rocks.

I’ve Got Your Back

The players are surrounded by foes and working quickly. It makes sense that a preemptive Heal check might be made to offset a failed Endurance check or to provide a bonus for a character in need. The party is also surrounded by enemies, so a Stealth check followed up by Perception to determine of the enemy has grown wise to the parties deception might be in order.

Hiding The Evidence

The party has deceived those around them and are looking for a secret passage that the locals aren’t aware of. It might make sense that the party find a way cover their tracks. This allows for some Perception and Thievery checks to be performed to cause the excavation to collapse behind the players.

Putting It Together

Suddenly, a simple skill challenge to move some rocks became a complex and intriguing challenge. There are more than enough things to do to keep the entire party engaged in the challenge with a variety of objectives. When skills are reused, they are done so for a different purpose than the original check.

However, the greatest part of the skill challenge this past week was that the party failed. With 10 successes in the bank the party realized their third failure. The tunnel collapsed prematurely and the party attempted to dive through the narrow opening they had created.

I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again, failure is fun. Failure is a lot of fun! Instantly the players were scrambling to find a way to keep a bad situation from getting worse. A few failed Acrobatics checks later and 75% of the party had taken damage and lost a healing surge due to being partially caught in the collapse.

The best part is the party is on the other side of the rubble. They have no active light source and they don’t know if there is even a secret passage.

What I learned, or reminded myself of, was to give the players as many options as possible while still keeping the task that needed accomplished very focused. Make the DCs hard when necessary, but not to the point where players are afraid to use untrained skills.

Skill challenges work best when they are organic and encourage role playing. I didn’t want to know what skill my players were using, I wanted to know what action they were taking. The session was refreshing and one of the most enjoyable I’ve had in weeks.

Related reading:

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


1 Mike Katz July 26, 2011 at 9:58 am

I too have sorta given up on skill challenges and prefer to have players tell me what they are doing, and then coming up with an appropriate roll. What I do is when a skill check is warranted, is to determine (usually on the fly) some good and bad outcomes and issue those depending on quality of each check.

For instance, if the party is sneaking into a combat, a good roll might give them surprise advantage, or even reduce the number of bad guys. Depending on how bad that roll is, they might get surprised or have additional guards to deal with. If multiple skills are used, I just sum up all the effects. It might be extra or less treasure, xp, having to soothe angry NPCs, etc. It’s a lot easier than having to keep track of successes vs failures and having to figure out what skills can be used and how hard to make the check.

2 Dixon Trimline July 26, 2011 at 10:50 am

What a lovely skill challenge you put together. I could absolutely feel the tension of the circumstance, trying to dig out that basement while the bad guys lurked all around. Whoa, it makes my skin prickle. If I were running a character (wishes in one hand…), I could imagine dropping a little bluff or intimidate on anyone with prying eyes who got too close. Man, by kicking this challenge so wide open, you guarantee everyone in the party can grab a little bit of the action. And the failure… brilliant!

3 Mike Karkabe-Olson July 26, 2011 at 11:17 am

…I think what I was doing in the past was over-thinking things. What I decided to do this past week was to allow skill challenges to be slightly more organic. I’ll paint the scene briefly…

Exactly! This is a common problem that I think many people have with skill challenges: they over-plan and over-think them too much. A skill challenge works best, in my opinion, if you run them not as a formal skill challenge with a formal series of rolls that have been planned out in a rigid framework, but as rolls that ONLY result after the players describe some sort of action they are taking or words they are saying, etc (similar to the isolated skill check or skill checks you typically made in the past). The only difference is that you keep track of the successes and failures as you go along and need to describe, visually, results of each PC’s actions/rolls based on those rolls. For instance, in your example: if the player says I will begin moving the rocks. You say, “well, okay roll an athletics check to see how well you are doing.” First failure? Okay, describe to the player that he manages to remove a few rocks but runs into a huge boulder he can’t seem to move by brute force, then ask them “what do you do?” Perhaps another player says, “hey, let’s rig up a pulley device, will that help?” You say, “yes it will, but it will require a thievery check to create such a device”… etc., etc. In other words, move organically from one action the PCs make to another and make appropriate rolls for the appropriate skills along the way. Then, once they attain the appropriate number of successes, tell them they succeed (i.e. After straining for many minutes, first trying to remove and pull out the rocks on your own, then trying teamwork, then setting up a pulley device and having someone chanting “heave, ho,” you finally move the last of the rocks, and some dirt shifts down from above creating a hole wide enough for you to pass). Similarly, if they eventually attain a third failure (or however many failures you decide constitutes a challenge failure) describe the results. But, as you said, failure should still result in somehow moving the story forward, just in a different manner with added difficulties and tension (or battles) put in place.

4 iserith July 26, 2011 at 11:29 am

Sounds like a fun challenge. The key takeaway here and something I use for my skill challenges as well is to envision broad strategies to deal with the situation at hand and then assign “groups” of skills to that task, e.g. Moving the Rubble – Athletics, Dungeoneering, Endurance (though I would have used Stealth instead of Dungeoneering in this case and grouped Dungeoneering with Diplomacy and Intimidate). This allows all the PCs to engage in the activity on some level or another. If you’re too specific with a skill’s application, you end up with everyone making Athletics checks repeatedly until the tunnel collapses out of sheer boredom. I aim to use 7-8 skills in a given challenge (number of PCs + 2 as a rule of thumb) to keep it sufficiently broad. If you can’t reason how that number of skills could be used in a challenge, then don’t make it a skill challenge!

I probably would have reduced the complexity of the skill challenge to make sure it had less risk of feeling dragged out (though you may have a lot more PCs than my group). I also would have handed the players a handout describing the skill challenge as a guide, then went and made myself a drink while they came up with a strategy/story to tackle it (format below). This works really well. It ensures that the players are on the same page with you and provides them a framework on how to get it done. Make it clear that veering off “the plan” is perfectly acceptable – what you’re really doing is painting a picture for the PCs. If they have better ideas, they’re free to use them and you can assign a DC/skill on the spot.

Letting them see the DCs is also key. A fun DM trick is to drop the DC by a couple points on skills you know your PCs aren’t strong in – this encourages them to give untrained skills a shot. Otherwise, they may believe incorrectly that the DCs are far too high to attempt an untrained skill, even if it makes 100% sense to do so in the context of the narrative. Seeing the DCs also allows them to strategize on Aid Another and use of secondary skills. D&D players love strategy. Give them the tools they need to plan and they will really dive into your skill challenge with gusto.

# successes before # failures
Clear description of the challenge in context

Broad Strategy Title (DC): Description of what they’d be doing. 2-3 specific skills that apply.
Fail by 5 or more: A penalty for failing that isn’t too harsh, but appropriate (in addition to counting as a failure for the skill challenge)



Special: List any important considerations regarding skill use such as action cost or required successes in certain areas.

Victory and Defeat conditions I keep to myself. And as I mentioned in a previous comments elsewhere regarding skill challenges, failure really is fun. Succeeding is par for the course – the PCs are used to winning. They defeat monsters all day long, save the girl, and get the gold. Only when they fail does the story really get interesting, so make sure the results of a defeat in the skill challenge are sufficiently interesting to have made it worth making the attempt in the first place.

Good article, Wimwick. Welcome back to the Skill Challenge Fan Club.

5 barbiomalefico July 26, 2011 at 7:23 pm

I wrote a post on my blog related how wrong are the skills challenge few days ago. The whorst idea around a skill challenge is the suggestion to think to the goal to achieve. The goal is something related to the player and to the story around the adventure. A better way is to think about the problem and find how the players could bypass it and list the skills needed.

6 Wimwick July 26, 2011 at 9:27 pm

@ Everyone
Great feedback and thanks for joining the discussion. On further reflection the reason this challenge worked was the tension surrounding it, multiple ways to complete the objective and most importantly allowing the time for the challenge to happen.

@ Dixon Trimline
The failure was hands down the best part. We stopped for the night at that point and it’s left the game at a cliffhanger moment. I can’t wait to start things up again next week.

7 Kilsek July 27, 2011 at 12:47 am

See, now this, this was beautiful:

“I didn’t want to know what skill my players were using, I wanted to know what action they were taking.”

It’s hard to consistently achieve with a chain of skills or skill challenge, but when you do nail it, it’s awesome.

Ironically, one of my favorite and most immersive skill challenges (and I only rarely use them now) was also rubble-related – a meteor struck down into the Underdark, burying the party alive. They fought to escape the rubble and the poisonous air. Was a cool scene.

8 Dungeon Maestro July 27, 2011 at 8:20 am

High Paragon level and no light source. wow.
The “light” skill challenge has just been failed. I vote for TPK! =)

9 Rico August 8, 2011 at 2:57 am

I think the source of the problem with Skill Challenges is that the right way to run them is, according to WOTC, wrong. What do I mean by that? Skill Challenges were a new concept introduced in 4th edition. So, in order for DMs to learn how to run them (and players to learn what they’re supposed to do in them) the logical place to start is to see how WOTC presents them. That would be, if you will, the official or “right” way.

The problem is, when you look at Skill Challenges as they’re presented in WOTC published adventures, it’s obvious that the way WOTC envisions Skill Challenges to work is exactly what we find problematic with them. Here’s a typical example. This is from the Gates of Neverdeath adventure for D&D Game Day that I just ran yesterday. The PCs were hired by an NPC to guard her and the pouch that she carries at her side on their journey to Neverwinter. Upon arrival in Neverwinter, the party gets attacked and the NPC’s pouch is stolen. The party has to Find the Thief by completing a skill challenge. The skill challenge requires 4 successes before 3 failures. The primary skills are Arcana, Athletics, Diplomacy, Perception, Religion and Streetwise. Here is how a few of the checks are presented:

Diplomacy (DC 12): The character coaxes information from a soldier or a bystander, who saw a suspicious-looking character running away from the docks.

Intimidate (DC 19): The character roughly interrogates a bystander, acquiring details about the stranger who fled the scene and the route he took.

Streetwise (DC 12; requires a successful Diplomacy, Intimidate, or Perception check): The character knows some shortcuts through the streets of Neverwinter and is able to use that knowledge to gain on Tolivast.

Arcana or Religion (DC 19): The spoor of death lingers like a scent to those who know how to sense it. The heroes can follow it like a trail if someone succeeds on a check with either of these skills.

As someone else said, this is “roll play” instead of “role play.” It’s assumed that players will, upon learning what skills they need to use, simply roll the dice against the appropriate check, and the DM will give them the results. This puts all of the impetus on the DM, and totally eliminates any sort of role playing where the characters interact with NPCs, etc.

The solution to this is to turn each of those checks around and let the players say, for instance, “I ask one of the bystanders if he saw someone in red robes running away from the docks, and which way he went.” To which the DM tells them to make a Diplomacy check. Or “Since I’m from Neverwinter, I use my knowledge of the area to find a shortcut through the city to help us get to the graveyard faster.” To which the DM tells them to make a streetwise check.

That’s how I ran this skill check. I presented them with the task of finding the thief. I didn’t announce it as a skill challenge and tell them what skills to use, and how many successes they needed. I simply had the NPC implore them to quickly go find the thief and retrieve the stolen pouch. I reminded them of what exactly had transpired, what they knew and had seen already. Then I asked them, “What do you do?” And immediately they started right in to doing those things. I had to prompt them a little bit a couple of times, but nothing serious. The best thing was that one of the more experienced players told me afterwards that he didn’t even realize it was a skill challenge until almost the end when he noticed me keeping track of successes and failures.

So I thank all of you for helping me learn the “right” way to run a skill challenge as a role playing opportunity.

10 tattle September 3, 2011 at 1:38 am

Thanks to all the skill challenge examples. I do love running them but have always felt it forced and lacking RP from the players who know now to just choose from the list and roll. These suggestions on how to run that have completely blown my mind and my pencil is calling to me from the other room. Time go get writing! Thanks all!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: