Everything you need to know about Skill Challenges but were afraid to ask

Skill Challenges are, without a doubt, one of my favourite additions brought by Fourth Edition to the D&D canon. It’s a little slice of indie-rpg storytelling goodness cunningly slipped inside our baseline role-playing game. They’re not a new innovation – I vaguely remember a Skill Challenge-like system in Pendragon and articles about chained skill checks in the Traveller Digest – but they bring something entirely new to the Dungeons & Dragons experience. At last Skills have a new importance beyond being “that thing Rogues do”.

But they are also the most difficult to understand mechanics in the game, due mainly (I suspect) to the poorly worded rules about them in the DMG. We’ve seen errata and many posts about them by bloggers, the game designers and forum posters alike but there are still many Players and GMs out there who don’t understand just how useful, glorious and brilliant Skill Challenges are.

People, this is for you.


“I’m sorry. The Warlord of Ultimate Evil is in a meeting. Do you have an appointment?”
(Alternatively: ““I sorry Mr. Gor. Drunken orgies are not a legitimate business deduction.” – CyberWere wins the no-prize!)

What is a Skill Challenge?
At the most basic, a Skill Challenge is a chained set of skill checks with a goal and a possibility of failure. But that’s like saying a person is just a bipedal mammal with the ability to communicate and opposable thumbs – they’re so much more than the bare definition implies.

Skill Challenges are a way to use the Skill system to drive the action forward. The Challenge sets an objective, and it’s up to the players to come up with a way of reaching that goal using the skills and abilities they gave their characters. It lets them prove that their Eladrin Wizard is a Master of the Obscure Arcane, that their hulking Barbarian really can climb that sheer cliff-face and their Rogue can crack the Sevenfold Lock of Doom. But – and here’s the important thing – all of these individual actions can be put together in a framework and it makes for one awesome mechanic.

If the challenge is to Penetrate the Impenetrable Fortress (a Complexity 2 challenge – it’s not that Impenetrable) then it will take five successes before three fails to achieve. The Eladrin Wizard’s research uncovered an obscure map which revealed a route through the Forest of Certain Death. The Barbarian makes it up the sheer cliff with the Rogue strapped to his back and the Rogue cracks the Sevenfold Lock. Two more successes and they’re in – a Stealth check for the rogue and a test of Strength for the Barbarian, perhaps.

But what if they fail? A single fluffed skill check is a minor setback and they’ll need to find an alternative path to the goal. If the Wizard’s research failed to uncover the safe path then they might try to make it through the Forest of Certain Death alive (a hard Endurance check and a combat encounter). If the Barbarian can’t climb the cliff with the Rogue on his back he might make it up on his own then haul the Rogue up with a rope (an undignified Strength check). If the Rogue fails to pick the Sevenfold Lock it’s resisted his attempts. If he fails badly, it triggers.

Sometimes there’s a price for failure, and that’s raw pain. Hey, adventuring is a tough life! In 4e terms, that means failure costs a Healing Surge. A flubbed Arcana check won’t cause more than a headache, but a fluffed Climb check with a Rogue on your back is gonna hurt both of you! Likewise, a fluffed attempt to pick the Sevenfold Lock might cost a Healing Surge from everyone in Close Blast range as needle-fine shards of bronze erupt out of the door. Nice.

Skill Challenges work under the Three Strikes rule. If the players fail three checks, it means that whatever they’re doing isn’t working, and they know it. It means they their attempts have come to nought and they are back at square one and need to rethink their strategy. They can (usually) try again, but they’ll need to come up with a different solution and think of new uses for their skills. Climbing the sheer cliff (an Athletics check) didn’t work, but maybe swimming through an underground river might (also an Athletics check), or the Eladrin Wizard could use his Arcana skill to fathom out more about that darned Sevenfold Lock.

Here’s a handful of hints and tips collected from my game group for player and GM alike. Hope it helps!

For the GM

1. Be Lazy. Don’t do the players’ work. Just set the challenge and the difficulty and let them work out how to solve it. Make suggestions and join in; make it a fun brainstorming session, not an frustrating exercise in “guess what the GM was thinking”.

2. The difficulty of the challenge decides how long it’s going to take to play through in real time. A complexity 1 challenge (4 successes before 3 fails) is a minor speed bump, while a complexity 5 challenge (12 before 3) might even form the basis for a couple of gaming sessions.

3. Make it clear what the challenge is, and what the players need to do to pass it. This could be as simple as saying “Right, you’ve got to get past the Guard Tower. 5 successes before 3 fails. What are you going to do?”

4. If they’ve clearly passed the challenge well before the difficulty suggests then reward them for passing the whole challenge and move on. Don’t keep a skill challenge going unnecessarily.

5. Remember that a combat could be a part of the skill challenge. If they win the battle, that counts as one success.

6. Alternatively, a skill challenge could be part of a combat! Getting across a rope bridge might sound easy, but try doing it when there’s a horde of Orcs on your tail……

7. Skill Challenges are worth XP – it counts as a number of monsters equal to its complexity (Complexity 1 = 1 monster, Complexity 2 = 2 monsters, etc). The DCs you choose for the skills decides the Level of the challenge. Page 42 of the DMG is your friend, guide and mentor.

8. Use Skill Challenges to drive the action forward. If the players need to get from A to B and feel like they’ve achieved something by getting to B, make the journey a Skill Challenge.

9. Skill Challenges can also be a zoom control. Use them to focus on a single important scene (persuading the King to grant you a Pardon for killing his Evil Advisor) or to cover a wide sweeping event (a war between nations). Despite what the DMG says, Skill Challenges don’t need to be played out round-by-round. While some actions will take mere moments (the rogue picking a lock), others might take hours, days or even months of game time. If the Skill Challenge is “How to Defeat the Lich King” then a single Arcana check might represent months of research, an Endurance check a trek across the Black Desert and a Thievery check the successful theft of the Lich’s Phylactery from the Deathless Tribesmen. Zoom control, again.

10. You can also nest Skill Challenges by putting one inside another. Perhaps getting past the Guard is a Complexity 2 Skill Challenge and passing that counts as one success toward the over-arching Steal the Golden Chalice challenge. Think about this too much and your brain will hurt – but it works!

11. They can be used to split the party – usually a strict no-no. One player could spend a whole day researching in a library (perhaps assisted by one or more other PCs using Aid Another – see below) while another group of PCs is trying to break into the villain’s hideout (using Athletics and Stealth, perhaps) at the same time; all you need is a means of communication between the two groups. The research team must race against time to find the correct spell/map/picture of the Evil Artefact while the strike team gets in position. Add one combat encounter (more if they fail their Stealth rolls) which counts as one Success if they survive. Let the research team conrol the bad guys during combat and you, oh wise and Lazy GM, can sit back and enjoy the game.

Above all – remember that Skill Challenges are a role-playing tool designed to let the players shine. So let’ em shine!

For the Player

1. Be your character and role-play the challenge. If your character is talkative, be talkative. If he’s more silent and physical, take a more direct approach. The Skill Challenge system exists to encourage role-playing. Think “what would my character do?” first, then translate that into game terms.

2. You have skills on your character sheet. Use them. There’s no such thing as a redundant skill in any challenge, only redundant thinking.

3. …. but don’t be limited by the skills list either. Maybe you can distract the guard by discussing the latest Gladiatorial Games (Charisma vs. Will), challenge him to wrestling (Str vs. Fort) or a nice game of chess (Int vs. Int). Your Ability Bonuses are like untrained skills that cover everything else the skills list doesn’t.

4. Failure is an option. Getting three failed checks means your characters have realized that wht they’re doing isn’t working. You’re right back where you started and need to find new uses for your skills and a different way forward. Good luck with that.

5. But don’t despair! Think about your wider environment. Maybe there’s a nearby source of wooden planks (always good for climbing over things) or a friendly merchant you can bribe. Or kidnap him and steal his clothes. Whatever. Remember that there’s always more that one way to skin a goblin (though using a sharp knife is probably best).

6. If you can, play to your strengths. If your best skill is Acrobatics then try to come up with a great way to use it. This might by tricky if the challenge has to do with trade negotiations (balancing on a beam high overhead to spy on the merchants, perhaps).

7. Aid Another is your friend. Use it to help others make the successes if you can’t. A DC10 skill check gives someone else a +2 bonus on their roll. Perhaps you’re standing menacingly in the background (Intimidate) while the Barbarian threatens the prisoner, urging them on in a race (Endurance), helping them research an obscure ritual (Arcana) or joining them in a prayer for deliverance (Religion).

8. If you do nothing, that counts as one failure. Don’t be That Guy! If you can, roll. If you don’t think can succeed, use Aid Another and help someone else roll.

9. Saying “I roll Streetwise. What do I find out?” is like saying “I hit him” in combat. It ain’t role-playing. Get into the spirit of things! “I’ll go check out the local taverns for information. Maybe someone has gossip about one of the Guards we can use to blackmail him.” is much, much better.

10. Above all, Skill Challenges are there to encourage teamwork and role-playing. They’re there to make the heroes shine. So shine on, little gamer!

Shine on.

7 Comments on “Everything you need to know about Skill Challenges but were afraid to ask”

  1. Skill Challenges are not anything new to me, even in D&D. I’ve chained tests of skills together since, well, since 2nd edition (where I used lots of ability checks). Of course, I didn’t have any codified structure, but the premise was the same.
    .-= Mad Brew´s last blog ..Pathfinder RPG Resources =-.

  2. An excellent primer. I really like the player’s tips. Most skill challenge work out there is done from the DMs perspective, so that is a nice addition. I think #s 8 &9 there are key – don’t do nothin’, be descriptive.

  3. Hells (all nine of them) to the Yes on your first point! Every single complaint from a DM I’ve seen about their own inability to run a skill challenge has revolved around the fact that they designed it as, “The skill challenge has obstacles X and Y which the players will defeat using methods W and Z,” which the players invariably do not do.

  4. I agree with Swordgleam, DM point 1 is probably the best advice, that and Player point 9.

    When I think back on it the only times skill challenges have worked for me was when I did not plan on having one at all. I chose a complexity, explained what the goal was and let the players have at it!

    For player point 9 this is how I think it could best be encouraged:

    First ask the player,”What is your character doing to overcome the challenge?”

    Their answer determines both the skill being used and the DC based on how difficult it is to accomplish what the player wants to do.

    Next ask,”Before you roll, role play it!”

    Depending not just on how well they role play, but also on how plausible it is that the actions will work you could either grant a bonus to the roll or penalize the roll.

    Hm, this is inspiring me to attempt skill challenges again in my games. I gave up on them after I tried writing a couple of planned skill challenges and fun wise both completely failed for me.
    .-= kaeosdad´s last blog ..Mysterious Alien Dice Revealed!!! =-.

  5. It almost feels like skill challenges mostly fail from all the rules being written.

    Some of the points you made about stretching out skill challenges I sort of disagree on. I can see SCs working in some ways but at a certain point it becomes something more akin to a quest.

    When you stretch out a skill challenge as you describe above in the Penetrate the Impenetrable Fortress SC the skill challenge framework sort of evolves into a different beast, it becomes a framework for a scenario or quest which I think is totally awesome but would likely need a different mindset. This sort of SC should be used as a framework for a player driven adventure! But how would you initiate such an adventure? Would the players be explicitly told, or would the dm just run the numbers behind the scene? I think if a SC is used in this manner it almost needs a new title just to make it easier to keep track of, I’d call it an ‘Adventure Quest’ as hokey as that name sounds, it’ sums it up nicely.

    So to explain it further an ‘Adventure Quest’ uses the same framework as an SC but rather than a skill being the focus of an action during a turn, the skill is instead the focus of an entire scene! A series of these scenes is not just an encounter but an entire adventure in itself. Does that make sense?
    .-= kaeosdad´s last blog ..Mysterious Alien Dice Revealed!!! =-.

  6. @Mad Brew Yep. They’re not a new concept, but for gamers who aren’t familiar with other role-playing games, it’s a new concept to them.

    @Thasmodious Thanks!

    @Swordgleam I think that mentality has come from seeing Skill Challenges in published adventures where the writer has (quite rightly) spelled out the Challenge in full. That’s left GMs with the impression that they have to do the same and work out every possible use for every possible skill ahead of time. You don’t.

    @kaeosdad Using Skill Challenges as an adventure framework is something that hit me when plaiyng Tiny Adventures on Facebook. That entire app is essentially Skill Challenges writ large and an excellent example of exactly what Challenges are, and what they can be.

    I’ve written (much) more about Tiny Adventures and Skill Challenges, here and here and Faceless Crimes is a fully worked example of a Skill Challenge-based adventure for Fantasy Noir. Hope that helps!

  7. Like so many others, I have been very hesitant to incorporate Skill Challenges into my game due to my lack of understanding how they work. So thanks for this great post. While some of these tips seem like common sense, others have really inspired me to give them a serious try. I’ll try anything to get my players to role-play more, rather than roll-play. Thanks again.
    .-= Rook´s last blog ..NPCs with Names: the Player’s Obsession =-.

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