Running Proper Skill Challenges

Skill challenges are one of the strangest types of encounters in 4e and I do not think I have found a way to run them often that makes me happy.  Over the levels we have played I have vastly improved them from their base theme to something much more useful.

Increase the difficulty
Add 5 to all difficulties for skill checks.

In a recent D&D article the developers admitted that the DCs for skill checks where just way too low.  For example according to the July Update a level 8 moderate skill check should be about DC 14.  Let’s do some math to see just how hard that is.

Given: Moderate History Check is DC 14
Given: Character is level 8 and therefore gains a +4 bonus to the check (half level)
Assume: Character is not using intellect as a dump stat.  At level 8, a character can be expect to have an intellect of 2-5, averaging +3.
Assume: Character is trained in history.  Otherwise in a skill challenge they are not likely to try to use it.  +5
In order to meet or beat DC 14 the character rolls d20+4+3+5 or d20+12. The character needs only roll a 2 to succeed and therefore has a 95% chance of success.

That’s moderate? Sure, if they don’t have history trained their success drops to 70% but that is still most of the time. To put these DCs in line with what they should be we can simply add 5 to the DC. a 70% average success rate in a trained skill makes sense. It is up to 85% if it is happens to be your primary stat too. If you aren’t trained and it is a secondary stat (+2 we’ll say) your success rate is still around 40%. With +5 the difficulties come out right where they should be.

Avoid Telling them they are in a Skill Challenge

Limit Repetitive Checks
The shortest path between two points is the beaten road. When a player realizes they are in a skill challenge they will try to find the easiest path to defeat it. Attempting to track down kidnappers in the forest? Nature checks! Trying to cure poison? Nature check! Identifying a magical staff? Nature check! If you are running a skill challenge limit the number of success a player can get by saying “I want to do _____ again.” If you don’t then it isn’t a challenge.

Don’t Define the Skills
You can’t limit the abilities that the players can use. If you force them to only use bluff, diplomacy, and streetwise in the challenge and none of them are charisma based then they are doomed to failure. Don’t even bother defining what skills the players can use and instead let them define how to do it. This works especially well when you limit repetitive usage as they need to find unique ways to solve the problem. Allow them to propose how they would use the skill. For example when attempting to track where the goblins had taken their prisoners one of my players said “I want to use my endurance skill in an attempt to figure out which path would be the easiest for marching or how far they could have traveled given the condition of the slaves.” Brilliant! Endurance would definitely not have been a normal skill to use for a tracking skill challenge.

Keep It Short
Skill challenges don’t get the adrenaline pumping or require much actual thinking.  Long skill challenges tend to drag on as the players exhaust the abilities that they can use.  Try to keep them short and you should probably never go over complexity 3 (8 successes). If you’re going to run a longer skill challenge you’ll have to mix things up.

Mix It Up
One of my favorite ways to run skill challenges is to mix non-skill challenges in them. I’ll toss my players a physical or mental puzzle to solve which can earn them a success. I’ll throw a combat encounter which they must finish quickly or take a failure. The idea is to break the skill challenge into smaller more digestible bits.

Add Complications
While the goal needs to be clear, the path should not be straightforward. If you’re in an a diplomatic encounter perhaps those whom you are talking with are lying or if you’re trying to track down the bandits the players can be forced to make a choice. A time limit is very useful, such as a locking mechanism that gets more complicated the longer it is open. Any sort of complication can make your skill challenge more interesting.

Michael McElrath

3 Responses to “Running Proper Skill Challenges

  • Wuzzard
    9 years ago

    How do you hide the fact from the players that they are in a skill challenge? It seems to me that if after the first suggested skill check by the player succeeds, and nothing yet happens as a consequence the players will either be bewildered or figure out that they should try something else too, and once they’ve done that they will realize they are in a skill challenge.

    Skill challenges have never gone well for my group. No one at the table cares for them as they seem too contrived. We gave up and just reverted to old-school simple skill checks having immediate observable impact (or not.)

  • There needs to be an obvious goal for the skill challenge and they should immediately see the results of their attempt, whether towards or bad. When I put them in a skill challenge I try to make it obvious what they need to do while keeping the mechanic mostly behind the scene. I want my characters to focus on the roleplaying aspect rather than the mechanics.

    As an example in one encounter I made it clear that it was necessary for an NPC to focus and maintain a portal to keep it from lashing out and dealing damage to everyone. During the portal event I had cause it, at one point, to lash out and knock that NPC unconscious. The players immediately jumped to action, two of them attempting to keep the portal under control while the other two helped revive the NPC. One of the players, a druid, attempted to bolster the strength of the trees that served as the frame for the portal. He failed the check, unfortunately, and I described the bark being ripped from the trees and said he could almost feel their agony.

    With tending to the NPC, I with every success I had her regain consciousness, awareness, etc until she was able to take over handling the portal.

  • Wuzzard
    9 years ago

    Maybe we are talking about the same thing, and I’m just not seeing the equivalent in the formal description of skill challenges, or the example challenges are simply too far removed from gritty reality of the roleplay and always seemed focused on large spans of time instead of the immediate (like convincing the guard to let you pass.)

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