Mad Skills – GGG Gives His Advice on Skill Challenges

Something that I loved the idea of when 4E first came out was the concept of Skill Challenges. The idea that characters trained in various skills would have a sort of “Combat” in which their skill rolls were their attacks and that they could earn XPs for overcoming them was and is something I loved.

It was a new mechanic, and, like all new mechanics, I needed time to wrap my head around exactly how I would use it in my campaigns. It felt a little clunky at first, but, after running a few skill challenges, I found exactly how they would fit into my gaming style. Now I can’t imagine running the game without throwing in the occasional skill challenge.

Since I often hear that DMs are struggling with this useful mechanic, I thought I would offer some advice, as well as share some recent skill challenges I’ve used in my campaign to show how versatile they can be.

I want to offer a note of thanks to the good folks over at the Thursday Knights Podcast. Their thoughtful and well-imagined uses of skills in intriguing ways helped inspire my own flare for them. I am indebted to them for sharing their creativity through their podcast – something I hope to do myself down the road.

Some of the Basics

When I’m designing a skill challenge, I find it helps to think of a few key elements. What is the goal? What is the price of failure? What do the players get if they succeed? Is this worth using a full skill challenge for, or could this just be a simple skill check?
Not every use of skills in the game needs to be a full-blown skill challenge. Something simple, like a journey from town A to town B could be as simple as an Endurance or Nature check from everyone to see how they’re doing when they arrive. A skill challenge should be something significant – an actual challenge with real consequences if the players fail.

It’s important not to hinge the story’s continuation on the failure or success of any given skill challenge. If the skill challenge is an information gathering trek around town, and the adventure can’t continue unless the players are successful, then that’s a poorly designed challenge. You should have things be more difficult if they fail, but not impossible.

The price of failure should be something that makes the player characters’ lives more difficult, but it shouldn’t be a total party killer. If they’re trying to sneak past an orc-occupied fort to get to the dungeon, maybe their failure means that they sneak past successfully…except for a far-patrol they encounter once they’re already past it. They don’t immediately have to fight every orc in the keep, but they have to have a fight and expend resources before they even make it to the dungeon, and then they have to wonder how long it will be til the keep realizes a patrol went missing and starts to look for them. Their lives are now more difficult, but the adventure can continue.

Success should be its own reward…but getting stuff is nice, too! I recently ran a protracted siege that was a combination of small skill challenges and combats. Every time the party failed a skill challenge, I added extra orcs to the next fight to make it tougher. When the party succeeded, however, the extra orcs were left aside, and they earned special Battle Points that let them claim various small advantages in later combats.

And one last bit of advice in this section – as a rule of thumb, lots of small skill challenges make an excellent substitute for one big one. And each one can give a different skillset a chance to shine. That way, if your PCs who have physical skills are dominating the scene, they can then step aside for the social skills folks in a small info-gathering scene in a town, or the knowledge-type folks when they’re in a library.

Presentation Is Key

When we first started playing 4E, I would say “Now, this is a skill challenge, and here’s how it works…” It was effective, but it blew us right out of RP and into mechanics. Now I’ll say something like “The party needs to find a path through the Trackless Desert. How will each of you contribute to the success of this endeavor?” Do my players know I mean we’ve begun a skill challenge? Yes they do. But this is a gentler way, and it keeps us in the story. It also focuses their thinking more towards “How can we get across this desert?” as opposed to “What skill do I want to use?”

I’ve played with GMs who put tokens in front of us as we succeeded or failed at skill challenges. While I think that helped get our gamer minds around it, it brought back the mechanics of the game to us and got us away from our role-playing. I keep track of such things behind the screen these days.

Creativity Should Always Be Encouraged

I’ll tell you a secret…I rarely ever write down anything for what I expect different skills to do in a skill challenge. One issue I have with store bought mods is that they really limit what can happen in a skill challenge to make it succeed…or at least, they do so as they’re written.

Here’s one place I really have to take my hat off to the Thursday Knights players – they’re incredibly creative in their use of skills during challenges. One thing they really taught me to love is the concept of drawing on one’s Power Source.

Every character class has a power source – Martial, Divine, Arcane, Shadow, and so on. I encourage the players in my campaign to use skills to draw on their Power Source, because that’s one of the things that makes adventurers extraordinary. The Warden in my campaign is fond of “listening to the land” by using his Nature skill. I let him use it as a source of information in certain circumstances. “You feel into the earth, and it murmurs to you of a sick feeling from off to the northeast. A feeling of unnatural decay…”

Why shouldn’t a cleric call on his God to aid him in a skill challenge? Why couldn’t a wizard use Arcana in the form of a prestidigitation cantrip to clear the haze in the air to aid in Perception checks? Could a rogue use Athletics to get the high ground to scout out a camp site? How about a psion using Insight to reflect picking up stray thoughts when trying to sense an ambush? I love creative, flavorful uses of skills that propel the story forward and make it more fun and interesting for everyone. As I’ve said in an earlier article, I like to say yes to my players.

Now, I don’t say yes to everything. Sometimes a player will suggest a use of a skill in a way that stretches credulity. Unless there was a logical way to explain it, I wouldn’t let someone use Perception to figure out if someone were lying – that’s what Insight is for. But I will often point that out, and someone else in the party might say, “Oh, I have a high Insight. Do you want me to try that for you?” This gives the player with Insight a chance to shine, and it gives the player who proposed it time to think of an alternative.

Other ways you can let the PCs be creative without letting them get away with murder is to make odd uses of skills be bonuses rather than successes. Did the wizard clear the air with prestidigitation? Well, you can make that a +2 to Perception checks vs. the player actually getting a success. And a Religion check from the cleric might negate a failure, rather than giving a success. Or you can use the Hard DC instead of the Easy DC. “Yes, you can try this, but it’s going to be quite difficult.”

Some Recent Challenges

I wanted to offer a few concepts I’ve used in my campaigns to show how skill challenges can be used in very unusual ways.

Recently, my players have gone to hunt Limba, a terrible feywild crocodile that embodies the horror halflings have of being preyed upon in the wild. After getting ready, they wanted to find the right place to fight him, because they knew he’d come looking for the halfling fighter in our group. I ran a skill challenge to build the perfect battlefield out of my various swamp oriented dungeon tiles. Every success gave them the chance to choose a feature I would need to represent on the battlefield. They succeeded, but, if they had hit three successes, I would’ve ended the challenge and built the rest of the battlefield myself, favoring Limba with my choices. My players loved the fully realized battle scene they found waiting for them the following session, full of the choices they’d made.

I mentioned my siege battle skill challenges above. While there’s nothing unexpected about the various challenges (diplomatic relations with the besiegers, rallying the troops, shoring up the defenses, questioning a prisoner, etc.) what I did was make numerous small challenges that were interspersed with combats, role-playing, and so on. This helped keep the feel of the protracted siege scene going.

I recently used a skill challenge to represent the attack of a creature in the PCs dreams. I told each of them “You’re having a vivid and uncomfortable dream. What’re you dreaming about?” Once they finished describing their dreams, I said, “Now, tell me how you try to overcome the obstacles in your dreams,” and asked them to make a skill check based on what they were doing. If they succeeded, the dream creature was repulsed. If they failed, the dream worsened into a nightmare and then began spilling over into the others’ dreams. If they had failed outright, they would’ve woken up, Surprised and Stunned (Save Ends). This would’ve given the creature time to get physically close to them as they shook off the grogginess.

Summing Up

I hope this has helped you see Skill Challenges in a new light. It can be a hard mechanic to grapple with at first, but, given some practice, it can be a very useful storytelling tool. With just a little work, you can make the players gleeful or fearful to pick up those skill dice, and you can make them love it either way.

Your Turn

Do you use skill challenges or some equivalent in your games? Do you particularly like them or hate them? Do you have any specific challenges you’re particularly proud of, or one you need advice on running? Let us all know.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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